A real page-turner: The results of the 1,000 Journals Project are revealed

Ten years ago, 1,000 blank journals were sent into the world to be filled by a succession of artistic strangers. Holly Williams celebrates a bold visual experiment
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The Independent Culture

It all started with a bit of graffiti on a toilet wall. But what began life as a rather personal project for graphic designer Brian Singer has become a global experiment, now in its 10th year.

The 1,000 Journals Project is a collaborative art endeavour, following the progress of a thousand blank books which were sent out into the world, to be written in and drawn on, doodled over and confided to, collaged or painted or sewn... The responses have certainly been varied.

Singer, who lives in San Francisco, explains that he got the idea for The 1,000 Journals Project while still at college.

"I noticed that the bathrooms in college, between the Reserve Officers Training Corps department and the art department, would have these arguments written on the wall, about sex and politics. I started photographing them, and then I went to other colleges to look at theirs too, and I wanted to make the photographs into a book. This evolved – I thought, wouldn't it be great if people could continue to add to them? So instead of photos it became journals that anyone can contribute to."

In 2000, Singer launched the first batch of 100 journals – classic hardback sketchbooks, with a special cover design, and instructions stamped on the front and back. The sketchbook finder was to add to the book, then pass it on, and to check in on the website so the journals' progress could be mapped. "Most were distributed kind of like a message in a bottle – I would leave them on park benches or in public bathrooms," says Singer.

His initial plan was to travel to cities around the world, and release 100 journals in each. But after Singer admitted to himself that this was "a pipe dream", he began to send out batches of 10 books to interested individuals who had found out about the project and got in touch.

"After about 200 had gone out, it became a free-for-all – I'd send one to anyone who asked for one. They've gone pretty much all over the world; we've tracked them to maybe 40 different countries."

While Singer accepts that many of the journals' journeys may have halted – with the sketchbooks winding up on bookshelves or forgotten at the bottom of a drawer – the person who completes the final page is supposed to send the journal back to San Francisco. And sure enough, there has been a trickle of homecoming sketchbooks.

The first to return was Journal 526. Although only five "sightings" of it were recorded on the website, its pages were full and it had travelled across 13 American states, as well as visiting Brazil and Ireland. Singer has now received some 33 journals back, and has held exhibitions of the pages – The 1,000 Journals Project is currently exhibiting at the Skirball Centre in LA – as well as producing a hardback book of the best bits.

The complete journals provide fascinating glimpses into the lives and minds of random strangers. "It ranges from really heartfelt personal diaries to beautiful artwork to someone drunk in a bar putting in life advice," says Singer.

"They've been used in a treasure hunt: there was one entry in pirate-style speech, and then the next entry was a photo of two guys in pirate hats running around St Louis, using the journal for clues. They've been hidden in remote caves, even used as personal ads; it's a very wide variety."