“Wish You Were Here”
A wanderer chooses a postcard based on its printed image then scrawls a personal message on the flip side, before buying a stamp, licking it into place then mailing it to a significant other who is usually not somewhere else, that is to say, the person addressed on the postcard is probably in their regular status quo location. Somewhere less exotic than the one writing it.
Written on location from some faraway place, the postcard — with its national stamp and dated postal seal — is irrefutable proof of having been there, somewhere, anywhere but home.
Out with the old — In with the new
Inspiration is the key instigator for the Did You Get My Postcard? Project. The week before submitting our research-creation project proposal, Dave received two postcards in the mail. He’s been receiving postcards from others for decades and sending himself postcards for nearly as long. Ritual dictates that older postcards relinquish their semi-public showcase on the fridge door to newly received postcards, and vanquished to a shoebox archive. The content if the shoebox, the Media Research Lab’s requirement to “make stuff” and the arrival of the two postcards set this Project in motion.
Traditional definitions that constitute the archives “have been public, often governmentally funded, institutional collections” (Wilson 2009). Dave’s postcard collection is private, unofficial, individual, and until now entirely inaccessible. Wilson refers them as unofficial “stashes”. Although Dave’s stash of nearly three decades of postcards has no significant historical value comparable to the dust-ridden stash of “the entire Blackfeet tribal archives from the 1950s” that Wilson uncovered in the garage of the son of a key 1950s Blackfeet leader, the postcard collection has personal, historical, geographic and autobiographical potential that Dave wanted to explore.
The shoebox collection was first sorted into a series of categories that feature two of Dave’s longer trips:Europe Trip 1985-86, East Asia Trip 1990-91, and postcards Dave has received from around the world: Postcards from Around the Globe. Sunset Postcards was added as a category, while reading that the sunset postcard genre became trivialized and overly sentimental, a cliché of self-parody by its over-representation on picture postcards around the world (Lofgren 1999 pp79-81). A small selection of postcards were found amid the collection that revealed a different use for the postcard. These were about Postcard Politics, created as an epistolary protest tool for public dissent aimed directly at parliamentarians, senators or corporate executives. The postcards in each category were then put in chronological order from the date when it was either postmarked or dated by its author. Although a fan of archives, Dave decided to add a living component to the Project by creating new postcards that exist nowhere else than here as ephemeral digital representations of the epistolary practice: Postcards from Montréal. To get create a visual representation of the geographic extend of his collection, to determine where on earth the postcards were initially mailed from, Dave decided to geo-tag each postcard on the Project website and add it to Google Maps.
Immediacy, Intimacy & the Time / Space Compendium
After its invention in 1865 (Milne 2003) or 1889 (Lofgren 1999), the postcard was in its time considered a ‘new media’ for epistolary communication that heralded the end of the letter. Like most new media since, the postcard ended up complementing rather than replacing its predecessor, considering that people still write letters and, as pointed out by The Postcard Crossing Project, people still like to send and receive postcards. Its addition as a tool for correspondence challenged traditional values and protocols relating to the perceived intimacy and privacy allowed in letter writing. If letter-writing was to disappear, then what of the discretion that remains sealed in envelopes? What subjects are too private to include in a postcard that might be read by the people who assure its transit? Esther Milne reviewed a selection of 140 postcards sent by Australian soldier William Robert Fuller, to his sister, Elsie, between February 1916 and August 1918 while stationed overseas. In the postcards’ imagery and text, Milne finds privacy that is “performed and imagined rather than existing as a real, empirical condition.” Despite the wartime censors that Fuller was aware of, he “found ways to construct [his] correspondence as private and intimate.”
Early postcards were often inscribed with how-to instructions to be sure the first-time user of the new media understood the process. “This space may be used for communication” distinguished the flip-side of the photo postcard into the modern standard equal part division: the right half for the address and stamp and the left half for communication (Lofgren 1999). A postcard’s limited space for text made truncated language on this new media that created brief expressions of “I am here… and you’re not”, “wish you were here” or “thinking of you from afar” that epitomize the postcard. Micro-blogging today has created its own variety of new media shorthand, like LOL, WTF, among others efficiently use the 140 character space limitTwitter.
This archive of Dave’s semi-private postcards fractures the public-private dichotomy by rendering them accessible for public display and consultation. Ethically, he decided to remove censor details on the postcards, like family names, street numbers, and other revealing information that may reveal private information about the postcards’ senders or recipients. But how does one remediate intimacy and reframe the postcards into something that is greater than its visual representation? The answer to this questions (or actually the question itself) emerged during the Project’s creative process during the research.
The Project began to take on the “family resemblances” of the accumulating research that is crucial during research-creation as described in its multiple, but not necessarily separate forms, by Chapman & Sawchuk (forthcoming). Dave stumbled upon an audio postcard social media application (postcard.fm) that became a tool to distribute his new postcard creations with an audio prosthetic. but it also inspired him to add audio to each of the postcard remediations their own audio component. Intimacy would be added to postcards Dave sent by recording his voice rendition of the postcard’s text. The audio recordings for postcards sent to him from others, would have a digitalized voice using the text-to-speech function on his computer. Where his voice would add intimacy to portions of the collection, the digitalized voices would remove intimacy from others. Because the collection has postcards in French as well as in English, Dave sought out Acapela, an online text-to-speech application.
A postcard takes time to reach its final destination. It gets dropped into a local mailbox, sorted at a post office then loaded for local, regional, international distribution before the journey is reversed back to the local, into the hands of a mail carrier and slid through the recipient’s mail slot. The postcard is a personalized souvenir for the absent: a genuine and shared token of the somewhere else. Until recently, a traveller was hopeful the postal service would deliver their postcard in the recipient’s mailbox before their return. Now, high-speed jets and bullet trains often whisk holiday-makers to and from their destination in less than the time it takes for their postcard to navigate the global postal system.
The stamp and postal seal are key elements on a postcard that prove the authenticity of location and date. The new postcards added to the Postcards from Montréal creations would need to include these signifiers, in the design as a sign of authenticity that will distinguish them from other digital visual representations of travel.
Digital communication technology today allows the traveller to take a digital photograph with a mobile phone and email it to a social media account for shared immediacy (along with the plethora of other remediated content). Facebook posts are filled with travel photos without captions, absent of context and whose only link to the ‘elsewhere’ is the light captured onto a CMOS sensor. A digital travel photo could just as easily be pilfered from someone else’s Tumblr, Picasa, Flickr account and repost it as a representation of place that would have a similar digital relationship with the location and would serve equally well as a reminder of worldliness. “Postcarding is a cultural ritual” that has not been replaced by text messaging technology. In fact postcarding is most popular among people who are frequent SMS users (Ostman, 2004 P426).
An online archive was obviously the best way to provide access to the postcards, but which platform would serve the Project best and what hasn’t Dave used before. During class presentations of each of their first project prototypes, a classmate presented her project using the Tumblr blog social media application. Tumblr has a hermetic type environment whereby tumblrers blog and reblog other tumblrers’ posts onto their own blogs in what seems as an endless cycle of recycling and minimal discussion. although comments are possible, very few tumblrers seem to use the comment option. To learn how Tumblr works and to test the popularity of postcards within its social network, Dave initially decided to stay with Tumblr despite the realization that it had a very limited capacity for structural personalization.
He later changed his mind to avoid an archive crash (Hogan 2011) and a complete loss of the project’s content, and moved the project to WordPress, which has more malleable structural and creative possibilities as well as backup possibilities that will assure the project’s integrity and its long-term viability. After searching for ‘postcard’ as a keyword in Tumblr and following other Tumblrers whose content also included postcards, reblogging of the Project’s content began and others began following the Project’s posts.
The project continues here on WordPress as a growing and living archive of epistolary (and now audio) correspondence.
material used: postcards
hardware used: MacBook Pro, H2 Zoom recorder, iPhone camera,
software used: text-to-speech on Mac, Photoshop, Audacity, Fetch, Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud, Acapela Group text-to-speech interactive demo, postcard.fm, Google Maps
Chapman, Owen and Sawchuk, Kim (unpublished). Research-Creation: intervention, analysis and ‘family resemblances’ [DRAFT COPY]. Forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Communication, special issue on Media Arts Revisited.
Hogan, Mél. “Archiving the Crash/Crashing the Archive” Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond Youtube. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. 2011
Lofgren, Orvar (1999) On Holiday: A History of Vacationing. Berkely: University of California Press.
Milne, Esther (2003) “Email and Epistolary technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment,” in The Fibreculture Journal, Issue 2 (http://two.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-010-email-and-epistolary-technologies-presence-intimacy-disembodiment/).
Östman, Jan-Ola (2004) “The Postcard as media,” in Walter de Gruyter (ed.) Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse. Volume 24, Issue 3, Pages 423–442.
Wilson, Pamela (2009) “Stalking the Wild Evidence: Capturing Media History through Elusive and Ephemeral Archives”. In Staiger, J. & Hake, S. (Eds.) Convergence Media History. New York: Routledge, pp. 182-191.