Listening to Anonymous Confessions in an Art Gallery
Patrick Neal, August 24, 2017

A little over a year ago, the artists Gideon Jacobs and Gregor Hochmuth came up with a project wherein they would record and collect people’s confessions. They posted a phone number online that spread by word of mouth and ended up receiving hundreds of entries. The project, titled Confession, is ongoing and straightforward: By pressing one, a caller can leave a confession; by pressing two, they can listen in on someone else’s. The only condition is that two people must be on the line at the same time. The confession lasts as long as both remain, and neither can communicate with the other.

The project was conceived without an end date or physical structure and thus far has existed privately among its participants. Now, for the first time, at Deli Gallery in Long Island City, anyone is allowed to eavesdrop on what’s been said. The exhibition simply consists of eight rotary phones resting on small shelves that line a wall and the project’s phone number, (917) 809-7319, plastered in the background. Jacobs and Hochmuth have curated a selection of some of the most compelling confessions, and each station contains an entire set. By clicking the phone hooks, visitors can cycle through the calls.

In the gallery, it’s easy to lose track of time, absorbed in listening to confessions that range from heartbreaking to uplifting to chilling; more than once I caught myself wincing or laughing out loud. Most of the stories I heard were voiced by young women, seemingly from all over small-town America (based on their accents and the locales they described). As they talked, I could sometimes hear ambient noise in the background or indicators of the time of day, and I envisioned scenes like a dark bedroom in the middle of the night with a flickering, low-lit TV screen. There were moments when I yearned to help the person on the other end by offering advice, and others when the confessors beckoned back, wishing they could hear breathing or other signs of life. Sometimes, the otherwise silent presence of the original listener became apparent, as they hung up on a confessor just as the story was getting good, leaving visitors in the gallery to wonder about the outcome.

Taking in the stream of voices (I listened to about 25 stories), a number of themes came up, most prominently lying, self-mutilation, mental illness, and unrequited love. During my several hours at Deli, I heard, among others: a confident woman explain how she cheated her way through high school, college, and graduate school; a desperate woman married to a man with Asperger syndrome and no sense of empathy (he reacted to the death of her grandmother with a pat on the head, then returned to playing video games); a girl lamenting how she was supposed to be Miss Teen California, but her family couldn’t afford the flight to or lodging at the event; a Christian schoolgirl torn apart by nascent lesbian yearnings, who had recently seen a beautiful Victoria’s Secret model and feared her “relationship with Jesus weakened.”

Looking at Confession from different angles, I can’t help but take note of the two sides of the show: the cool exterior, including the remote technology, advance publicity, and even the savvy art crowd consuming it, versus the warm inner guts of the piece, voiced by the anonymous humans spilling their secrets. In an age of “alternative facts,” it can be difficult to parse truth from fiction, and the distancing methods of the project leave me to wonder: Could the confessors really be actors? Is the audience being played, culpable in some way for its own prurient interests and voyeurism? I’m not sure it matters entirely in either case; after you pick up a phone and experience the humanity of the colorful characters — with their distinct intonations, emotional states, and vulnerabilities — the piece truly lights up.

Confession continues at Deli Gallery (10-16 46th Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through September 3.

Listening to Anonymous Confessions in an Art Gallery