The Art of Gratuitous Praise
Compliment Machine Gives Passersby Pats on the Back

By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Feeling blue? Unloved? As if nobody appreciates you? Maybe no one can see your inner wonderfulness. Or maybe you deserve to be forsaken. Maybe you are unloved because you're such a jerk, simply unlovable. Maybe you're a victim of the old maxim: "If you can't say anything nice . . . "

So when walking along 14th Street NW, you might be surprised to hear a chime followed by a reassuring voice:

"You help create a brighter future."

The avuncular voice calls out from a bright red-and-white-striped box perched on a platform of bricks, with a speaker at eye level and a grid of ventilation holes in the side. A small sign explains, "The Compliment Machine." The striking colors, stark lines and sharp corners lend the appearance of some strange installation of the municipality, perhaps from the Bureau of Self-Esteem or the Ministry of Happiness.

Ding! "People are drawn to your positive energy."

Is it true? It must be. The Compliment Machine looks as though it knows what it's talking about. Maybe it's a kinder, gentler cousin of Big Brother?

Ding! "You don't hate the player or the game."

Actually, the city has nothing to do with this. The Compliment Machine was conceived by Tom Greaves, 46, a visual artist who lives on Capitol Hill. It's part of SitesProject D.C., an exhibit by the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran, which features a collection of public art along 14th Street NW between P and V streets.

"It's a response to how on kids' soccer teams . . . win or lose, everyone gets a trophy," Greaves explains. Not soccer, specifically, but the saccharine culture in which everyone is special and unique, nobody can be criticized and everyone gets an award.

Some people can't stand that culture, others heartily embrace it, but if you're looking for a normative judgment from the creator of the Compliment Machine, you are looking in the wrong place. The machine is his entire comment.

The mellow, jeans-clad Greaves will only say that perhaps the nature of the comment is in the, well, ear of the beholder. As with an unearned trophy, Greaves says, "People can believe it or not."

Will they believe it? If everyone gets the trophy, if everyone receives the compliment, does it really mean anything?

On the other hand:

Ding! "You are always there when needed."

The machine calls to Tom Minter, 50, a resident of Q Street, who walks past the corner regularly. "It really makes you feel good," says Minter, a playwright. "If I'm having a really bad moment while I'm walking down this street, and it penetrates the fog, it's a good thing."

Ding! "Your eyes are beautiful."

The machine calls to a heavily muscled man in a snug black T-shirt, who pauses for just a moment to frown at the machine before heading on his way.

The Compliment Machine knows as much about its subjects as a fortune cookie knows about its eater. There's no science to it. Greaves simply read a hundred compliments in his most neutral voice -- like the recordings telling people to watch for the end of the moving sidewalk in an airport -- and put them on an iPod Nano. The Nano is inside the machine, plugged into a speaker and powered by a car battery (Greaves removes the iPod at night so it doesn't get stolen). The compliments play at random, and every night Greaves changes the compliments a bit, adding some and removing others. The machine operates from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day through July 27.

Between compliments is a gap of silence lasting several seconds to several minutes, to heighten the anticipation. Greaves picked up the idea at the Pompidou Center in Paris, where he observed a dummy with a bell hanging by its head; every few minutes, the dummy would lurch forward and bash his head against the bell.

Initially, Greaves thought of making some of the compliments subversive, but had a change of heart. "Why not make it completely positive? Everyone deserves to have a compliment paid to them."

And so the Compliment Machine has kind words for even the blackest of hearts. "Maybe if the compliment doesn't apply to them, they'll want to change that," says Greaves. Like a horoscope, there is the potential that the compliment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the machine says "You leave things better than you find them," then maybe, just maybe, the recipient will be inspired to improve one little thing.

But it's hard to catch a break in this world. When Greaves went to install the machine earlier this month, he was across the street from a crew of construction workers.

"You are a wonderf--" BUZZZZUZZZZ! A circular saw loudly interrupted the machine -- unintentional commentary, perhaps?

How difficult it is in this modern age to hear those rare words of praise over all the chaos of our lives.


Or perhaps it's just the reality of public art on a bustling street in a gentrifying neighborhood in a busy city. In response to the noise, Greaves ratcheted up the volume of the machine so that, after a long day or week or month or year, a person pausing at the corner could hear:

Ding! "You're a star in the face of the sky."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company