If you look at the ground as you walk, like I do, you’ve seen them: tiles embedded into the pavement with an inset message. “Toynbee Idea in Kubrick’s 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter”. Or some variation thereof. I’d seen the tiles several times before curiosity got the best of my and I googled it. Back then, the tiles were still one of Philly’s street art mysteries. While the locations of the tiles were carefully catalogued, no one knew who made them or what the message meant. I incorporated the tiles into my mental list of Philly’s many charms. But while I was content to wonder, others – specifically Philadelphia artist and musician Justin Duerr – were endlessly fascinated and took it upon themselves to crack the code of the Toynbee tiles.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is the documentary filmed by Jon Foy that follows the story of Duerr on the trail of the Toynbee Tiler. Except when he Googled it back in 1994, there were no results. Enter one of the many secondary layers of the film – an exploration of alternative communication. Obviously, the Tiler himself (have I given away too much??) has a message very near and dear that he has been trying to publicize for decades. But can we all agree that cutting out linoleum tiles and embedding them in pavement is not the most conventional method of communication?? Now it seems too easy to just hop on your social media site of choice and find a huge audience for whatever drivel you have to say, but it wasn’t too long ago that we had to get a little more creative. The search for the Toynbee tiler led Duerr, Foy, and their other Toynbee-Tile-obsessed friends Colin Smith and Steve Weinik, to clues in newspapers, short wave radio conventions, and broadcast television signal interceptions, and as the Internet grew and developed as a mass communication and information dissemination tool, they were able to connect and share valuable information with other enthusiasts.
But of course the most fascinating, and in some ways the most effective, form of communication in the film is the street art itself. There comes a moment in the natural wear and tear of pavement when the tiles break apart and float away, the words no longer legible. In a way, the tiles that were perhaps originally meant to be seen for the message instead of the artwork become a very slow performance art piece.
If you’re worried about Resurrect Dead blowing the cover off the mystery, you should be. It does. Duerr, Foy, and friends were as successful as they sought out to be. But knowing who the Toynbee Tiler is does not take the magic away completely. Instead, the story of the artist is as interesting as the (former) mystery of his art. While one layer of the tiles has been cut through, there are many more that were discovered.
Resurrect Dead is available on DVD TODAY!
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To read more about Justin Duerr and see photos of his work, check out this article on Side Arts.
Written by Carina Giamerese: Contributing Writer, Side Arts.