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Ding! Compliment Machine gives pedestrians artful praise

July 28, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A woman pushing a stroller across the street in the 92-degree heat is met with aggressive honks from hurried drivers. One of her sandals is chafing her heel and her baby has spit his pacifier onto the pavement.

But things are just about to look up.

A 5-foot-high red-and-white-striped box dings as she walks by, and a disembodied voice says: "You have changed for the better."

At first, the look on her face is bewilderment. Then, slowly, it changes to a smile.

The box, known as the Compliment Machine, is part of SiteProjects DC, a collection of outdoor exhibits by 16 artists along six blocks of 14th Street Northwest. Of all the installations, the machine has been the biggest success -- and has garnered attention for its creator.

"It's really weird," said Tom Greaves, the 46-year-old Capitol Hill artist who has been featured in newspapers across the country and television broadcasts around the world. "Sometimes my wife and I just look at each other and start cracking up. I might go to New York next week to be on the 'Today' show."

Greaves came up with the idea for the piece a few years ago, but never found the right occasion to build it. When the Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran, a nonprofit organization promoting contemporary art, put out a call for artists to participate in SiteProjects DC, Greaves adapted his idea for the street.

Inside the wooden box (the stripes are an homage to the District of Columbia flag) is an iPod Nano with 100 recorded compliments that play at random. The iPod, hooked up to a car battery for power, is removed at night so it won't get stolen. Rows of small ventilation holes on the side of the box help prevent overheating.

Greaves recorded the compliments in a flat, unaffected tone and allowed varying amounts of dead air after the recordings so that passersby wouldn't know when to expect the next compliment.

"You are awesome," the machine says, following up quickly with, "You are a great driver." (That one was lost on a confused man riding his bike past an adjacent construction site.)

"People are drawn to your positive energy."

"You have a nice voice."

Greaves and his wife, Lisa, who helped him come up with 100 nice things to say, tried to keep the compliments philosophical and less about physical characteristics.

"On the one hand, I think there's a lot of gratuitous praise and awards and trophies heaped upon people for barely showing up," Greaves said. "On the other side of that coin is the real human need for assurance and reassurance and to be complimented."

Residents and shopkeepers in the Logan Circle neighborhood say the Compliment Machine -- which spoke its first words July 15 and utters its last ones today -- has brightened the area and increased foot traffic to their stores.

"It makes for lots of conversation," said Candida Mannozzi, whose store, Candida's World of Books, is in the building next to the Compliment Machine. "There's more noise out there, and it's good, happy noise."

Not all the compliments have to be true, but they tend to stop people in their tracks.

"One man came in and said that the machine told him he smelled good," Mannozzi said, laughing. "He said, 'I know I don't, because I just finished jogging.' "

Jenna Glass, 22, made a point to pass by the Compliment Machine on her way to lunch Thursday. She was enjoying all of the exhibits, she said, but this might have been her favorite.

"I think it's a real commentary on our gold-star system and the idea that we all want one," she said, admitting that she had been looking for the Compliment Machine since she read about it. "I think it's really great to have it out here on the street."

And what about her compliment? "I missed it because of the construction going on, but I'm sure I'll get another one," she said.

At that point the machine chimed in: "You are on a constant quest for knowledge."

Glass laughed. "I can accept that."

Not everyone will be sorry to see the Compliment Machine go, however. Mannozzi said a city worker who was cleaning graffiti from nearby metal signs had an altercation with the installation.

"She was having a slightly heated conversation with it, cursing at it in Spanish," Mannozzi said. "But it just kept right on complimenting her."

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