Futel Phones: Free Calling For All is Reshaping the Vehicle For Reaching Out
Last weekend, our editor and I went out for a little adventure to locate all the “Futel” phones in Portland. What we found, were payphones acting as radio towers, broadcasting analog potential across the city.
Each Futel phone sits in front of a house and is almost invisible to the unconcerned eye. The first Futel phone booth we approached was on 23rd and Taylor. We punched the buttons of this antiquated device with wonder, only to find that besides pressing 1 for free domestic calling, an entire world of bizarre and mystical interactivity laid beyond each key. Stunned, we explored all of the different ways we could travel the winding roads within the world of Futel. By dialing 3 for the directory, you are given the option to call the Mayor, the “Druid of Sisyphus Gardens” (still unknown), the Apology line (a voicemail confessional that began in New York in the 1980’s), Willamette Valley Dream Survey, and more. I called the Mayor and the Druid, but didn’t want to slow down to make an apology. Finally, I selected the option to call a payphone at random. The phone rang over and over, and I awaited anxiously for someone to happen upon my phantom call. I stayed on this phone for over a half an hour, exploring all its secrets. Finally, I connected to Futel’s collective voicemail box, where anyone can record and listen to each others messages. I left a voicemail about an upcoming show happening at my house, and sang a short song for someone to stumble upon. Resting the clunky handset between my ear and shoulder, I remembered the strangeness of telephone communication. The depth of its intimacy. How it brings us across towns and countries. How important it is to have, to cherish, and how necessary it is to daily life.
Karl Anderson and Elijah St. Clair started Futel just to see what might happen. In 2014, they placed the first phone in the front yard of a house on 13th and Clinton. Soon, the fact that cellular devices are inaccessible to a large portion of city residents, transformed this experiment from novelty to necessity. “At first it was like a joke, we said, ‘maybe one day we’ll get 10 payphones in Portland’ and then people were using them so much we said, ‘Oh man let’s get 10 payphones in Portland!’” Karl said.
By collaborating with residents in various Portland neighborhoods, Futel has been able to plant free calling booths using a special Wifi modem to connect anyone to anyone. There are now seven Futel phones in Portland all on the East side of the river. Three sit in South East, and three in North/Northeast. One is stationed at the encampment “Right 2 Dream Too” near the Moda Center. There is a phone at the Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington, and another in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In the Portland area in 2018, Futel logged just under 13,000 outgoing calls, contrasting only 9,000 calls logged in 2016..
Futel aligns itself with the ideals of a “third space.” Like parks, libraries and churches, Futel is among the few spaces one can enter without payment.
“It is a public community space. An interface that you interact with to talk to others. People walk up to it, use it, and then leave, but it’s still part of their toolset. It’s public. It has physical parameters and is rooted in a space” Karl adds.
When discussing his inspirations for designing and continuing Futel, Karl shared his appreciation for the shared history of working class computer hackers and payphones. His history with salvage and scrappy art projects are completely intertwined with the creation of Futel.
“I find dealing with trash and salvage, things that are not necessarily or obviously practical, is what makes it fun. That’s where I get inspiration from.” he added, “I’m always interested in the idea of low-brow, not even necessarily DIY but unskilled art”.
Futel is able to get occasional grants from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to install their phones. RACC also funded the Black Life Experiential Research Group’s artist in residency program which culminated into HERE//Humboldt, an interactive installation at PCC’s Paragon Art Gallery. This month long gallery exhibition utilized a Futel phone to create the Black Life Telephone Service, which prompted black users to share their family histories onto a growing voicemail box collection.
I asked Karl to reflect on how he imagines those who see the phones less as a public utility and more of a novelty item or art installation would interact with Futel: “Art with interesting or modern media will try to dazzle you and get all your senses and be immersive and try to get you to feel it it in many ways, but I like constraint. I really like that the interface is very simple. It’s part of the accessibility. It would be great to have a TTY relay service for people who can’t hear, but in any case the fact is that it’s just the microphone, the earpiece and the key pad. That’s your interface. This might be a novelty for younger people who never have interacted with it like that, but in any case it still is an interface that has its constraints.”
Karl says that Futel is always looking for operators. It is hard to have volunteer staff available at all hours of the night.
“The motto is ‘an operator is sometimes standing by’. We’re always looking for more operators. If you want to be an operator dial 0 from any Futel phone. You have to read the operator handbook and promise to uphold the ideals of Futel.”
I ask Karl what the the ideals of Futel are.
“Oh I don’t know I’m just making that all up..” he jokes, “the biggest thing is being able to help someone out if they need help. Usually people just need numbers looked up. It has to be fun. All these operators are volunteers and they shouldn’t have to take abuse from anyone, but they do have to deal with people who might be having a really hard time. You have to be able to be kind and helpful to people even if they are not nice. People have to believe in it and enjoy doing it, because it is kind of a crazy project and no one is getting paid.”
This project is practical and in many ways a collaboration of social workers. It may be a ‘crazy project’, but there is no question that it is helping many people have access to telephones.
“What can I say, every art project and every tool is relevant for some amount of time until it’s not relevant anymore, every communications tool is too. Maybe there is some cyclical nature to it though. I could see a future were either we’re nuked by North Korea after Trump starts a war with them or I don’t know… an oil train turns over a mile from here and the cell towers fall down and they aren’t usable anymore and people want to communicate for some reason. [Futel] might not be so retro in the future. It might be a very useful item for years to come.”