A Password Art Show: Finding meaning in these soon-extinct cultural artifacts

A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, or an inside joke with ourselves — passwords are tchotchkes of our inner lives.

Two at guests at Boxcar Gallery’s “Backstories in Code” show discuss a password-inspired work of art. The painting depicts artist Hayley Francis’ painting of her first password, the number she had to memorize to get allotted school lunch: 536951. Backstories in Code” asked artists to create original work inspired by actual passwords.

Few people would dare call passwords an interesting topic to read about. But three years ago, I happened upon a story in the New York Times Magazine on the very topic that — very unexpectedly—amused, informed, and moved me. In it, real people not only revealed their passwords, they told the stories that shaped them.

The story is is called “The Secret Life of Passwords,” and it follows reporter Ian Urbina’s personal project of asking friends and family to tell him their passwords, as well as musings on passwords from Urbina himself.

“A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, an ode to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — there was something captivating, inspiring even, in these tchotchkes of our inner lives.”

By all logic, Urbina’s project should have failed. Telling someone your password basically goes against instinct and all advice ever.

Perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t. A number of individuals took the leap of faith to give Urbina not only passwords that they are never supposed to reveal, but also the emotional secret inside that makes these codes personal.

This view of passwords as cultural artifacts fascinates me. When imbued with meaning, the passwords almost seem a kind of unwitting folk art (and maybe even sympathetic magic?) of the early digital age.

Like icebergs, passwords themselves are deceptive at their surface. It is only until you plunge into the water below that its true nature begins to become clear.
“When I was single my passwords, like my life, all revolved around me. After I was married and had children, my family began to figure into my passwords as well. Often, I used husband’s name: jonjon. We are currently in the process of divorce. The locks of hair belong to my children and myself. The specs of hair barely there are my husband’s. Blank space is for future passwords and people.” –Rachel Favero

And to be honest, I wanted to read more. So much so, that after Ian Urbina released a second set of password stories, we worked with him and artist Harrison Freeman to illustrate some of the stories in a follow-up piece for Intel on Medium. Again, we were mesmerized at the depth of humanity that can hide in a simple string of characters.

This year, we decided to take it further. Working with the Jake Bjunter of the Utah-based Boxcar Galleries and Studios we devised Backstories in Code: The Password Art Show, and made an open invitation for artists to create, and submit, original works of art inspired by their passwords, and the stories behind them.

“When I was 18 years old I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders as I tried to decide: Was I a bad person who did good things (or) was I a good person who did bad things? My password “imagoodbadboy” reflected this struggle. After a couple months of deliberation I decided that I was a good person who did bad things. This painting reflects my dual nature.” iamagoodbadboy, by Havoc Hendricks. (center)

After releasing a call for submissions, nearly two dozen local artists sent us work that floored us. Their work is are funny, poignant, and at times downright tragic. Everything you’d want from a piece of art, right?

Enjoy these passwords, stories, and images from Backstories in Code: The Password Art Show.

Nearly 200 people attended the Password Art Show event.
In addition to the art, we planned Moth-style storytelling and musical performances throughout the evening.
“Starting into my sophomore year of college, I began to feel my emotions were darker and more deliberating than normal. hen my doctor diagnosed me with depression, I felt a weight lift off me. I chose “Depression22” for my initial password. I wanted to confront my illness so I could take the steps to conquer it.” — Depression22, by Elizabeth D. Young (Middle Left)