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That Just Gave Me Goosebumps! The Artistry Behind an Immersive, Emotional Encounter with Banned Books

Nick and Patricia chat about creating an experiential art installation that transported conference-goers into a world of forbidden literature and reveal how you can be part of efforts this year

Caricature of Nicholas Sufrinko

By Nicholas Sufrinko

illustration of Patricia Natalie

By Patricia Natalie, MA

June 6, 2023

Nick: Hey Patricia. So, we created a thing.

Patricia: We did. It was at our conference last year in Miami.

Nick: Yeah, an installation. What was it called again?

Patricia: The Machine of the Forgotten and Remembered Passages. It was a tongue twister for sure, but we had our fair share of practice saying it as we introduced it to the attendees.

Nick: And so many people there were!

For those who didn’t attend our conference, we created the Machine for #HealthyTeen22. In it, conference-goers were invited to see what books were banned in schools across the U.S. during the last year and tailor, with string, a unique banned book passage of their very own.

Maybe you can paint a picture of what going through the Machine was like?

Patricia: Of course! On the outside, it was a black tent the size of those you’d find at a farmer’s market. When you walked inside, you could barely see anything but these fluorescent strings that glow in the dark. You see about 20 different phrases on the walls that we pulled from the most banned books in America.

Inside, we hand you a string. As you walk around, you “string together” your own passage.

PHOTO CREDIT: Patricia Natalie

Nick: Yeah, you loop your string through zip-tie hooks to choose a phrase. So someone might start by stringing together “The goal was b a l a n c e.” and “The whole truth…” before choosing a verb.

Patricia: Right, and we gave out little envelopes so you could take your passage home.

Nick: Yeah, I think people really appreciated that. With the envelopes, they also could see from what books their passage originated from.

Patricia: What do you think people appreciated most about the Machine?

Nick: What I can tell you is that the introvert in me really appreciated the format. So much of conferences are extrovert-centered, with all the meet-and-greets and large group discussions. For me, it was nice to be with my own thoughts and reflect.

Patricia: Gosh, I agree! It was such a different and unique experience in comparison other conference events. Some other conferences have installations as well, but what was special about this one was that reflective aspect.

Nick: For sure. It was nice to work with something tactile for once. Not only to build it, but to have conference-goers create something with their hands, too.

Patricia: It was such a creative outlet. I didn’t know how versatile zip ties could be!

Nick: Hah! Speaking of versatility, we made a lot of changes on the fly. What did you find must challenging?

Patricia: Building it! It was our first-ever installation, and a lot of our planning and imagination happened virtually. So when Milagros and I got to the hotel on Sunday, it was our first time seeing and touching all the materials we had bought. Those pegboards…. I had no idea they were 100 pounds each!

Nick: It didn’t help that I missed my flight! But by the time I arrived, you seemed to have a good system going…

Patricia: We had you in our thoughts! Mac came to the rescue and helped. We spent a lot of time Sunday prototyping, making it work with the materials we had. We ran into challenges, but were very resourceful at using whatever we could find around the hotel.

Nick: When Milagros, Genevieve and I went to South by Southwest sometime in the “before times”, we saw a lot of installations. We just knew we had to bring one to #HealthyTeen. There was even one installation there that used string in a similar way, which I have come to find is fairly common. Do you remember how the idea changed over time?

Patricia: When Mac came to us with a suggestion of using banned books in some way, we knew banned books could be really good content to play with.

Nick: Yeah, that was a game-changer. Mila, Genevieve and I had been thinking about corpora, or large bodies of text, a lot with another project. We’ve been mulling a bunch of ideas for a while, thinking about how phrases are constructed, and for a while even considered a supersized installation of refrigerator magnet poetry, but for articulating desires and boundaries. Banned books allowed us to combine aspects of many different ideas in a super meaningful way.

Patricia: I also remember how the phrases evolved. You, Mila and I sat for hours discussing if we should use prepositions, verbs, direct objects, etc. And we entered all of them into a spreadsheet and Mila did some sort of magic that made all the permutations of the phrases work.

Nick: It was a team effort for sure! We all brought different strengths to the Machine.

Patricia: What surprised you the most about the Machine?

Nick: To be completely honest, I was half expecting people to be like “eh, cool experience, bro…” I was totally prepared for it.

Patricia: Haha!

Nick: What I wasn’t expecting was how meaningful it was for people, and even how emotional some people got. I think one person even recalled how decades ago her mom and aunts and maybe grandmother would sneak banned books to her.

Patricia: That just gave me goosebumps! I saw some people tear up too—I wasn’t expecting that either. The ambient music and limiting how many people could be inside the tent at one time made for an introspective experience.

Nick: For last year especially, our first in-person conference in years, having an introspective moment was so needed.

And the music? That was a last-minute addition. Thank you for thinking of it! It’s the little things that can add SO MUCH!

Patricia: My playlist “Deep Focus” never fails me.

Nick: Yeah, definitely one of the better Healthy Teen Network staffer playlists. (Ahem, Sam.)

Patricia: What I remember is people taking their time to choose their phrases and coming out of the tent looking in deep thought. They would look at their phrase over and over again and share it with whoever they came with.

We also set up a little reading nook outside of the tent, with all the banned books, if people wanted to just sit and read.

Nick: Yeah, I think the Machine added quite a bit to the #HealthyTeen22 experience (especially for us introverts!). As designers, we often set out to create experiences, often ones that delight. The Machine was a little different. We were creating an experience for sure, but I am not sure people felt delight.

Patricia: It probably wasn’t joy, and it wasn’t necessarily about taking action either. With the Machine I think there was a bit of sadness, actually. I remember feeling sad when I did it myself. And catharsis, too.

Some phrases related so much to the past, so being able to look back and see where we are now—that was something.

Nick: There was a certain tension there, a certain longing, something even…solemn?

Patricia: It takes courage to look into the deepest parts of yourself, and it also takes imagination to see how those parts, good and bad, can really connect.

Nick: Yeah, it reminds me how important constructing stories are—for ourselves, for our relationships, for our communities. What should people expert this year?

Patricia: We’re still in the thick of it, but I think people can expect a similar immersive experience. We’ll be in the Pacific Northwest in 2023, so we are interested in doing something related to nature.

Nick: And this year, we’re inviting others to craft similar experiences—installations that provoke discovery, connection, or reflection around our 2023, Taking Care and Taking Action. This year, we’ll be in Portland, Oregon, October 2–4.

We’re accepting ideas for consideration until June 15, 2023. Come make magic with us!


This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nicholas Sufrinko is a Creative Direction and Product Design Manager at Healthy Teen Network and is the brand and creative lead behind many of our projects. You can often find him hiking, biking, or stargazing. Read more about Nick.

Patricia is a curious learner who loves to ask questions and find patterns. If you look closer, you might see a literal light bulb above Patricia’s head when she sees a connection or realizes something in her research. Patricia loves using those insights to co-create changes big or small that make the world a better place. Having grown up in three different countries, Patricia sees the world differently and always makes time for travel. In her free time, Patricia can be found browsing offbeat Airbnbs or walking her sweet, black cat on a leash (yepit’s one of Patricia’s proudest accomplishments). Read more about Patricia.