A giant white speech balloon is tethered at the foot of the grand limestone steps of the St. Louis Central Library. Passersby pause, some thinking of comic strips, some of texts. One guy misses the little tail pointing out at the bottom of the bubble and reads it as a giant eyeball.
Which makes sense, too.
People are meant to walk inside this Truth Booth, perch on a sculpted white stool in front of a video camera, announce, “The truth is,” and talk for two minutes. I watch one person after another venture inside, some tentative, others with a bit of swagger. Which one will be able to articulate something truly universal, something anyone could live by? The college student from Denmark? The theater guy on his bike? The guy who shows up with a German shepherd at his side and a dachshund in his arms and figures they are part of his truth, prompting the artist to come flying up the steps.
“Do your dogs chew on stuff?” he asks. “I mean, it could burst the bubble.”
Chuckling, I go inside the Beaux-Arts library and chat with two guards who are watching from the window. One says she wishes she could speak her truth, but her break is too short. The other says he does not need to go: “I live my truth.”
When I come outside again, I notice that there is a row of orange hazard cones behind the bubble. Truth can be dangerous. Out front, a young woman from India frowns, mentally preparing her remarks. I interrupt, ask what crossed her mind first.
“I think when someone says truth, I automatically think of lies, or, like, anti-truth,” she says slowly. “As a kid, you always hear ‘Tell the truth.’ In the age of digital media and fake news and not trusting the what you read on the internet, I thought about how important seeking truth is, as cliché as that sounds.”
And that made me think of Oxford Dictionaries’s 2016 International Word of the Year, “post-truth”: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Today is a good corrective for the despair that word induces. Sitting on the cold steps, for example, a volunteer is googling the etymology of truth. “From Old English: faithfulness, constancy,” she calls out.
“In Afghanistan, the Urdu word for truth is haqeeqat,” artist Jim Ricks, shepherd of the bubble, tells her. “It means reality. In English, truth doesn’t necessarily mean reality. But in the poorest countries of the world, truth always means your reality. The police are corrupt. The roads are crumbling. It’s not an abstract concept.”
With luxury, truth drifts into abstraction, takes on nuances experts can parse for days. It is discretionary. It can be sought.
It can also splinter.
People have told the Truth Booth that the truth is “I loved a lot.” “I overheard my parents saying they did not want to live anymore.” “That is an amount we cannot pay.” “Forgiveness equals freedom.” “The truth is that I obey. The truth is that I need.” And, so many times, “There is no one truth.”
“People think my mind is going to be blown by that,” Ricks says dryly. “We’ve heard it hundreds of times; it’s become a joke for us.”
Ricks is part of CAUSE COLLECTIVE, a team of artists, designers, and ethnographers who collaborate around the world. When he excuses himself to check on the booth, I pull out my phone, curious about the collective. Up comes a Bible teaching program by Focus on the Family—not what I had in mind. That would be received truth, dictated truth. I look harder and find the right site. The collective’s first project floated helium balloons above flying bombs and missiles in Palestine. They said, in Hebrew and Arabic, “The truth is: I see you” and “The truth is: I love you.” But that felt too dictatorial to them, so now they are In Search of the Truth—in St. Louis; in New York; in Mexico City; in front of the ruins of the Bamiyan Bhuddas that were blown up by the Taliban; in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, during a matchmaking festival. “Nobody there was interested in the truth!” Ricks recalls with a grin. “They wanted to drink, spin a few tales, and meet somebody nice.” In other places, though, the quest is intense. Even here, on a quiet Saturday. The guy with the dogs had just been strolling by when he saw the Truth Booth, but what he wound up saying, with a vehemence that made the dachshund stir in his arms, was, “The truth is knowing your meaning in life. ’Cause you can’t dictate that on social media.”
I ask Ricks if he has seen patterns, heard answers that went so deep he will never forget them. Is the collective inching closer to the universal truths that religions have been seeking (and maybe sometimes finding, or pretending to find) for centuries? How does he think about the search for truth?
“I think it’s individual,” Ricks says. “That’s kind of the point.”
I fight the urge to sigh. Yeah, cultural relativism; yeah, we all have our own very specific experiences and constraints; yeah, nobody’s private truth should dictate anyone else’s. But for God’s sake, is there not something we can agree on? Some universal scrap of wisdom we can stitch into our lives?
He sees the disappointment in my eyes. “When people are speaking from the heart, you can tell,” he remarks. “That is what is becoming my truth: truthfulness. Not trying to define a concept, which is quite boring.” He squints up at the bubble, a slight smile on his narrow, bearded face. “The point is that through individual truths, you can reach a greater, more objective truth. You get to it through the individual.”
But it stays bigger than any one of us.