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How a Small-Town Art Installation Became an Unlikely TikTok Sensation

Blockbuster stubs, notes made by children, photographs of loved ones, a coupon: the preservation of the everyday always brings with it an emotional connection. That much was made clear last week when an artwork making use of these very objects became the subject of a viral TikTok, accruing hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of gushing comments.

The TikTok is simple as the camera slowly pans across the installation while Agape by Nicholas Britell plays in the background. The gentle, romantic brass instrumental from “If Beale Street Could Talk” sets the perfect mood for appreciating this sentimental collection of human ephemera. Some simple text flashes, letting us know who the artist is and how long the installation will be on view at a small library in Rhode Island.

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A white woman in a pastel

The maker of the small-town installation seen in this TikTok is Ali Beaudette, who has been working in libraries since she was 15 years old. While still in high school, a colleague of hers, who was about to retire, gave her a precious collection. For 20 years, this colleague accrued ticket stubs, photos, playing cards, and more that people had left behind in their library books, presumably as bookmarks.

Beaudette kept this collection and added to it herself as she worked in six different libraries in New England since then. In 2017, once she was enrolled at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she made an installation out of the various collected scraps from this quirky collection of scrap material. The resulting work, Bookmark: A Collection of Items, sat in storage until this month, when the installation was exhibited at the small library she currently in Greenville, Rhode Island, where Beaudette works.

Beaudette’s colleague, who had started making TikToks to generate interest in the library, filmed a short video about Beaudette’s work. These videos, posted to a TikTok account run by the YA division of the Greenville Public Library, and they don’t usually get more than a couple hundred views. But last week, one such post took off, bringing in more than 160,000 likes and 1,600 comments. (Like many of the most popular TikToks, it also soon gained a following on other social media, too.)


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♬ Agape – Nicholas Britell

Beaudette is puzzled by the response. “I’ve been trying to figure it why people responded so strongly to it,” she said. “On a really human level, I think people are very drawn to the tiny details of strangers lives, especially in this weird time where we have so much distance from each other.”

Beaudette’s work is an almost archeological record of sentimentality, small moments lost to time. It’s reminiscent of recent works by artists who document everyday detritus—including Tom Kiefer, who collected rosaries left behind by ICE detainees while he worked at a border facility as a janitor—and also reminds one of the old Southern folk practice of making memory jugs, in which objects like photos, toys, spoons, and bottle caps are stuck to old pitchers with cement. These pieces all have the miraculous effect of making us achingly aware of lives lived by complete strangers.

In this way, TikTok and social media function somewhat similarly. While there’s a host of problems and annoyances on these platforms, the best moments often come when we get just a glimpse into another person’s life and passions, and maybe even find an artwork that was tucked away in a public library somewhere in the process.

“I’m not the only one who keeps these objects,” Beaudette said. “I saw so many comments from library workers who said, ‘Oh, we do this too.’ It makes sense. I mean, you never know what is important to someone, what they’ll come back for.”

A detail from Ali Beaudette's installation

Ali Beaudette, Bookmark: A Collection of Items (detail), 2017
Ali Beaudette

A detail from Ali Beaudette's installation

Ali Beaudette, Bookmark: A Collection of Items (detail), 2017
Ali Beaudette

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