On the porch of a community arts space in Oakland stands a new phone booth built by local artist Jordan Stern. In it is an antique telephone that is not connected to anything, and a message: "Welcome to the Oakland wind telephone! A wind telephone is a magic device that allows you to call your dead loved ones. Just dial their numbers and say hi!" The installation is Stern's attempt at a cathartic response to the loss of his friend Nicole Renae Siegrist, a.k.a. Denalda Renae, who was one of the 36 people who died in Ghost Ship fire on December 2.
As the Chronicle's Leah Garchik explains, Stern was inspired directly by a "wind telephone" in a glass booth that was installed on a hillside outside the Japanese town of Otsuchi, which was featured in an episode of This American Life last fall. Otsuchi was one of the hardest hit places, in terms of fatalities, from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, with about 10 percent of its population of 16,000 missing after 30-foot waves destroyed the coastal community. Producer Miki Meek traveled to this now popular pilgrimage site and recorded some of the messages that grieving people delivered over the phone, or over the wind, to family members they had lost in an instant something that was especially powerful given both the emotional reserve of Japanese people, and the fact that most of these lost loved ones were never able to have a proper burial.
Otsuchi resident Itaru Sasaki actually installed his kaze no denwa, or "wind phone," in his garden in 2010, a year before the tsunami, as a way to help him process the death of a cousin. City Lab has photos of the Otsuchi phone booth, which still stands and still attracts mourners six years later, and as they explain, "The booth invites people to drop in to work out painful feelings in a comfortable space: sadness that can feel all-encompassing is, for a moment, confined to a specific shape and landscape. It’s a private way of wrestling with a tragedy that reshaped the whole community."
The Oakland wind telephone was dedicated in an early February ceremony at the arts space known as Oakland.Secret at 577 Fifth Street (between Jefferson and Clay), and Stern says the guest book so far has been signed "by a lot of people."