Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Toynbee Tile Mystery

Philadelphia's blogosphere of architectural propaganda is constantly asking you to look up. But as you're walking home from work, heading to the gym, or looking for that sexy mouse costume, take a look down at the street.

You may not see much more than black gum dots and cigarette butts, at least now. But twenty years ago, even ten, you may have seen something much more cryptic:

IN Kubrick's 2001

I've noticed these little tiles for years, but I always assumed they were a fading art project lingering from the 80s or 90s. Some are larger than a license plate, some smaller than a Post-it, most have been driven into the asphalt beyond recognition. 

While hundreds still dot the streets of Philadelphia, the phenomenon is global, with more than 500 spanning the Northeast and Midwest United States and into several South American counties. 

But what are they? An art installation that continues to inspire copycats in places like Salt Lake City and San Francisco, even the United Kingdom? Or the prophetic ramblings of one madman bent on spreading his message? 

Jon Foy's 2011 documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles sets out to answer the questions behind these little linoleum plaques, and three sleuths featured in the award winning film came as close to anyone has to unwrapping the mysterious tar around these little things.

Without spoiling the movie, it's safe to say that these tiles are far more interesting, bizarre, and macabre than you may realize. 'Tis the season. What began in the 1980s, perhaps with an idea ingrained in one man's head as far back as the late 60s, involves Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a little known David Mamet play, and the all encompassing fear of our own mortality.

Suffice it to say they are either the work of a self-taught genius or a certifiable lunatic, quite possibly both.  

If you want to see one, Steve Weinik, one of the sleuths featured in the film, has provided a map of more than 500 global locations thought to be original.

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