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FOUND Magazine Looks for Home Field Advantage

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 11, 2011 9:40PM

2011_11_11_FOUND.JPG Yesterday we spoke with Nick Prueher of the Found Footage Festival about his chances in tonight's battle of found media. Today we turn to his opponent, who must be considered the home team, Davy Rothbart of FOUND magazine.

FOUND magazine sprang from an aha moment Michgan native and former Bulls ticket scalper Rothbart experienced when discovering a note mistakenly left on the windshield of his car in Logan Square. Finding other notes and letters provided an intimate glimpse into others' experience, he assembled them into a zine. Ten years later, the found object connoisseur and the magazine's co-creator Jason Bitner have turned this simple idea into a massive community art project which fuels a magazine, radio segments and live performance tours which take some of the most evocative notes directly to audiences around the country.

We talked to Rothbart about why found notes can have so much power, his project's Chicago origins, why he'll come out on top of tonight's battle, and more.

CHICAGOIST: There's got to be a difference between finding things for the magazine and reading things aloud in front of an audience. When you see something, how do you know it's going to be good for a performance?

DAVEY ROTHBART: Sometimes I don't. Sometimes it just takes reading something a bunch of times before I even know what the funny parts of them are. A lot of times it has to do with framing it in the right way, how I explain the find beforehand. When people send us finds, they often have some funny thoughts about why it was created or what it means, and I sometimes try to share some of those. You might share a find and then say something afterwards that is funny or unlocks some mystery. So it usually happens through trial and error, and I usually improvise something that gets a response, and I keep saying that stuff.

I try and read them with the energy and emotion they were written with. I try and inhabit the mind of the person who wrote the note. The more committed I am to the actual intention of the note, the more of an impact it has. It's why I draw a distinction between laughing at the notes and the person who made them, or laughing with them. If I'm inhabiting the person who actually wrote it, as funny as it might seem it's deadly serious to that person. It's important to be respectful and recognize that someone was really struggling enough to put it down on paper. I'm both reading it in the voice of the person who wrote it, and I'm also reacting to it as myself recognizing aspects of myself in the note.

C: When you read a novel, you don't imagine yourself writing the novel, but when you read someone's grocery list, or a note passed in class, we've all written those and we can immediately put ourselves right there.

DR: That's exactly it. When I laugh at some found love note, it's usually because I recognize myself in it. I've written the same pitiful love note a hundred times myself. You're laughing at yourself, or at the human condition.

C: Does that empathetic response ever lead you to the point where you can't bear to publish something?

DR: If I have that strong a reaction, it's usually an indicator that I need to publish it. Some of them are really raw, just really private and intimate, and they are the most revealing and the most relateable. We're really careful about changing all of the names, phone numbers and identifying information--the last thing I'd want to do is put somebody in an embarrassing situation--but we do print some really personal stuff.

Some notes make you almost want to cry because they're so sad, or there's something upsetting or eerie or disturbing or bizarre. But it's real. You can almost feel the other person that wrote it, in their handwriting. You're transported to the moment when they wrote that note. It can be pretty powerful.

C: This time you're joining forces on the tour with the Found Footage Festival.

I kept hearing about these found footage festival guys, but in all the years we've been touring and they've been touring, I had never seen their show until a few months ago in Madison we happened to do a show at the same venue. I loved what they did. It was kind of the same tone: humor, but respect towards the people who had created these videos. We thought it would be fun to try and do something together. The magazine is a great place to share found notes and letters, and these intimate glimpses into other people's lives, but everyone's been giving found videos over the years and we didn't really know the best way to share those. I'm really glad there are guys who are doing it.

2011_11_11_Found_Note.jpg C: You were really ahead of the curve in terms of mining this ephemera, and you've been doing this for almost ten years. Do you notice a more receptivity to this now than when you started?

DR: So much has changed. Reality TV still was new-ish. And now there is such a fatigue of reality TV that people now are even more drawn to this stuff. My mom says FOUND magazine is "Like reality TV, but real." All that stuff is so orchestrated and this can feel so real and raw.

People have always responded to it in a similar way, but it was this newer thing. Other projects that have arisen in the past ten years, like our friend Frank Warren, who does PostSecret. There bas been a rise in appreciation of looking into the lives of strangers. Maybe at the very beginning, it was unlike anything they'd ever seen, but now they a little bit more of a frame, a bit more of a context.

Even documentary films: there have always been great documentary films, but there has been this renaissance because people are taking an interest in the lives of ordinary people. And all the web videos, where people are speaking into the webcam, and personal response videos on YouTube. I feel like all that is more of this personal thing where people can bare themselves. Blogs, too.

C: I wonder with the wider awareness of you and your project, do you get more things that set off your bullshit detector? Like "this is not a found note, this is fabrication?"

DR: The only rule we have for FOUND magazine is that it has to really be found. Most of our readers respect that. There's been a handful of times where something seems made up or a little too good to be true, it didn't quite fly. But once you start looking for this stuff, truth is far, far stranger than fiction. You find stuff that is far weirder and more beautiful than anything you could really make up.

C: One of the enabling factors for a project like yours does seem to be technology. Maybe fifty years ago people would have been interested in the same sorts of things, but there weren't photocopiers to do zines, or the Internet to make blogs, or YouTube with trivial bandwidth with cameras on everybody's phone to make videos...

DR: When we launched FOUND magazine, we were doing a release party at the Hothouse, in the South Loop. That's still there, right?

C: :(

DR: Oh. Well, just because it was hard to find, I asked Jason Bitner to make a web page for directions so that people could find it. He said, "Why don't we throw up a few finds on here?" and I said "Why not?" It was amazing how word got around. I mean people could pass around the magazine, but this was around the world, you know? It blew my mind at time because I was so new to the web. It's old hat to everyone now but it does enable us because FOUND is a community art project and it allows for that kind of collaboration.

Like this guy in India got in touch with us. He really liked FOUND and wanted to develop an iPhone app. I'm kind of old school about technology but I recognize that this is the next thing. People can just take a picture with their phone and can share them that way.

C: Being all over the world, do you notice any surprising hotbeds of found object submissions?

DR: It's pretty broadly distributed. We probably get the most finds from places where people know a lot about us, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, New York, D.C. A lot of the time, it has to do with the tours we do. We'll travel all over the country, and we'll do a show in Wichita with one or two hundred people there, and I will start to see a lot of finds from Wichita. Part of the reason we do the tours is because it is a community art project, and it only exists if people are participating. It's our way to inspire people to do that.

I do enjoy seeing things come in from the weirdest corners of the country. Like, how did some High School kid in a tiny town in Arkansas learn about FOUND? I love that stuff. We get finds from Asia or Africa. A lot of times it's like a Peace Corps volunteer took a couple issues with them to Senegal or whatever and left them behind, and a year later at the cafe where they used to hang out someone finds it.

C: You're ambitious in what you do, especially with the tours, and you're willing to do the whole road warrior thing, and that seems to pay off.

DR: It's fun. When I was living in Chicago, all my friends were musicians. All my roommates. I'd see them work so hard on something they were proud of, and then they would pile into a van with a hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and just go around the country for a few months and share their music and have fun adventures. I was just like "I want to do that!" So it's kind of my version of the same thing.

C: When you're making out yours grocery list are you ever self-aware like, "someone could find this one day..."

DR: One time I opened up this envelope that had sent to us and I remember I just froze. I was like "What the hell?" It was my own handwriting, instantly recognizable. It was familiar to me but I couldn't quite place it. Basically someone had found this napkin I had written on in Boston and e sent it into us. I

C: Crazy!

DR: think they knew it was mind because they had found it at the venue where we had done a show. I probably dropped it when I went onstage or something, just a little note to myself or something. It was pretty funny.

C: I asked Nick (Nick Prueher of the Found Footage Festival) why Vegas should put their money on films rather than notes. So if you've got any trash talk, or why we should bet on you in the battle royale?

DR: Well Chicago is the birthplace of FOUND magazine. The first issue was created at a Kinko's on Clybourn. We expect our hometown crowd to rally and carry us to victory.

The Found Footage Festival vs. FOUND Magazine extravaganza takes place tonight at 8 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Tickets are $13 (with one dollar benefiting the local non-profit Intonation Music Workshop) and are available online.