The art mystery we'll give you $10 to solve

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The Chicago Reader receives dozens and dozens of pieces of mail every day. The vast majority of them are PR, with a few periodicals, letters to the editor, and notes from home (hi Mom!) sprinkled in; nothing too exciting. But yesterday an editor received a peculiar envelope with no return address that has some of us trying to wrap our heads around a bona fide mystery—a $10 art mystery, as it's been called, although it could be called the $1,000 art mystery.

The contents fof the mystery envelope
  • Andrea Bauer
  • The contents of the mystery package. The name of an editor has been removed from the large envelope.
Inside the envelope was another envelope that says "for you" on the front and "follow your Narrative Urge!" on the back; inside of that was a $10 bill, a small block of text on a strip of paper next to the number "65," and a note with a message book-ended with little hearts that says, in pretty handwriting, "Thanks for opening the envelope. The money is real. We are all parts of each others' stories. Let's create one together. Please join the project! Use the hints. Find me." Instead of a signature, the letter is signed with a "haiku clue" that hints at "a site to see." It reads:
robotic cranes dance
in singapore. in taiwan
appears tornadoes!

It was tagged with a scribble that was evidently a tiny tornado. That was it.

What was going on, we wondered. What project? Who's Whose (oops!) stories? Why just give away $10? Easing past the thought that this was a trap laid by some kind of modern-day Devil in the White City, we figured we were holding a kind of puzzle or conspiracy—we didn't know which.

As about an hour on the Internet revealed, the $10 art mystery turns out to be a really sophisticated and as-yet-unfinished narrative fiction experiment that hasn't quite made it out of the underground. We'd still love to figure out the mystery, and since we're obliged not to take the $10 bills due to our editor scolding us "ethics," we'll give you the $10 if you can figure out Chicago's part in the story.

The mystery originated in Atlanta in April, where our sister paper, Creative Loafing, received a package almost identical to ours, its lack of context raising some eyebrows there as well. (Theirs was clue number 14; ours is 65.) Soon a handful of newspapers and individuals in Atlanta were blogging about the notes they received inside books, in bathroom stalls, addressed to them at their unlisted work address. All the letters hinted at some weird stuff.

One clue was the phrase "Henri Rechatin Oct. 5, 1996," which led us detectives to this awesome video:

It should be noted that the daredevil was balancing on top of a hotel that's 10 stories high.

The narrative arc that appears to include our clue is believed to refer to this seriously cool art project...

Creative Loafings UFO, on message #14
  • Debbie Michaud
  • Creative Loafing's UFO, on message #14

...and the subject of this news report, whose bad grammar explains the confused subject in the haiku. Both the cranes and the tornado are 10 stories tall.

And another was a picture (at right) of a UFO that said "sited by Horace Burgess above the Biltmore House: UFO RSNQHDR (NOT LOW)," a code that was later translated as TEN STORIES (each letter in the clue comes directly before or after the corresponding solution letters in the alphabet). The Biltmore House is 10 stories tall as well.

Even crazier than all of these uncanny allusions to 10 stories is the fact that someone identified one of the fragments posted online as being from their own college term paper. (I can't remember where, so no link. Sorry!) (UPDATE: It was in the comments field of this post.) As it turned out, the numbered fragments were mostly from local writers—with some exceptions, like #10, which comes from a Leonard Cohen song. People figure there are—or will be—100 (10 x 10) letters out there, each with its own story fragment. It was clear that someone spent hours and hours and more than $1,000 on this project.

People in Atlanta were basically like, this is some Dan Brown shit. There was some talk of breaking the code and conspiracies. A crowd-sourced attempt to bring all the stories together was put online. The Creative Loafing editor who was the first to post about the letter traveled to the Biltmore House in midtown Atlanta, convinced that a link with Gone with the Wind was at the heart of the mystery, and came tantalizingly close to resolution (or some serial killer's apartment)—but came up empty.

But the mystery mailer was watching. When Creative Loafing tried tracking her down, the people who were personally sent the Atlanta letters discovered a message in their Facebook accounts from the Narrative Urge Facebook page, which is how the mystery started to clear itself up, if only a little. The experiment's creator (who identifies as a female on the page) writes that the letters are part of an art project called 10 Stories High meant to raise awareness of the value of stories and build a community around one story or set of 10 stories (it's still not clear how the fragments add up). She posted a pseudo-explanation for her 60 or so friends and allowed herself to be interviewed anonymously by Scoutmob, an iPhone app based in Atlanta. A few of the people who'd been friended wrote in to the page to explain how much they appreciated their letter, including one former Illini and 217 reporter now working at Paste magazine.

The thing is, both the explanation and the Facebook page itself read more like a coherent story than the fragments do, and an intriguing one at that (go read it from the start!). So what's up with the story itself? It's been chopped up and scattered through the mail, most of it almost definitely lost forever. Even more beguiling: who's dropping a grand on an altruistic mailing project?

Moreover, the project is growing. On Friday, Narrative Urge posted this: "Hello Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and ... Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Let's see if anybody shouts back." (The writer added "Oh, and Minneapolis," meaning—of course—10 new cities are involved.) We got our letter on Monday, and we're willing to bet there are batches more landing in Chicago as we speak, although we could be wrong. It would be great to see what the complete story reads like, and it's been cool seeing all the other paranoid responses to this mystery letter from the maybe stalker. And that's the point that Narrative Urge is trying to make. It's not "get rich or die trying," it's "get stories or money trying." How cool is that?

So in (maybe futile) anticipation of the project blooming in Chicago, we've posted our fragment is below. If you or someone you know receives a letter, write your fragment in the comments. If you recognize it, let us know! My theory is that it's a piece of dialogue, possibly from a movie with "10" in the title. Commenters helped at Creative Loafing solve a little of the mystery, so maybe we can patch this story up. And even if we don't, maybe you've got a story you want to share yourself. Oh, and if you can solve the mystery on your own, we'll give you that $10 bill we've got pinned to our bulletin board.

65. More than this, she wants us to make something together, with others involved, the world. We talk; we're still talking. I've started, am open, am ready.


UPDATE: Well, our quote's not from Bellow's Herzog, though our intrepid reader Seth Lavin was pretty sure he had it. Michael Miner actually ran out and checked with the bookstore next door. Now that's reporting.

Further afield, Laurie Hertzel writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the fragment she received: "56. She asks you how your day was and you have to pause, take a second, because her face has something in it, looking at your face — like it's a real face wondering how your day really was, and not just an extra-friendly coffee girl chatting up the customers." Apparently, it's a quote from a teen novel by Terra Elan McVoy, who happens to be the )Program Director of the Decatur Book Festival, though there's no mention of her in that capacity on the DBF site...

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