Some really fantastic postcards have been piling up on my desk over the last few days. We've got a great group of artists this time around!
The Board of Directors' votes have been tallied, and a decision has been made. We had a really strong set of entries this season, and I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to submit an entry. Below is the list of participants chosen for the Fall 2012 exchange.
I love receiving Cat Lynch's postcards because they are painstakingly painted, unique objects. They are special as if they were selected and made just for me (or so I'd like to believe). The watercolor paper arrives folded but never torn with a handwritten note on the back. I think about these cards frequently and quizzed Cat on her process.
JR: You are in the minority of Postcard Collective participants who make unique objects en masse. Some of the things I think about when I look at your two submissions, 32 and 30 new paintings of 30 old things, are: your medium of watercolor on paper (I would consider it too valuable a commodity to send unexposed in the mail) and the concept of painting reproductions of paper on paper whether it be paintings of postcards or partial envelopes. Can you discuss your relationship with materials?
CL: My reason to make 30 paintings was simply that it was how I worked before the Postcard Collective. When I was accepted into my first exchange, I looked through exchanges from the past and noticed that a large number of participants were photographers who made photographs- from there it seemed to make sense that as painter, I’d make paintings. And if I was going to make 30 anyway, why not 30 that were different? (I should also mention I enjoy pointless challenges, endurance tests and bets with myself.)
As I was making them I found other reasons to keep painting. I love how immediate and unforgiving watercolor is- the moment the brush touches paper a mark’s made that’s fairly permanent. When I used to paint with oils I’d get stuck in feedback loops, going over the same section over and over trying to get it perfect, but with watercolor I’m forced to accept whatever happens. Along that same train of thought, I also love how vulnerable and human watercolors look. Sending something that feels so fragile unexposed in the mail is a bit scary, but in the fun, low-risk sort of scary that I enjoy. Postcards in general are pretty exposed items- your message is open and has the possibility of being touched and read by several anonymous people. After the initial gut-drop of dropping the cards in a big, dirty mailbox, I rather like the idea of these small, highly personal things being passed from person to person.
It’s funny that you mention that both 3o New paintings and 32 are reproductions of paper on paper- I somehow managed to miss this super obvious fact! I started out both thinking of them primarily as collections that had been meticulously assembled and then abandoned. A collector and documenter myself, I felt sad for Margaret Ann Tilly and the anonymous envelope-clipper, and wanted to add importance to their objects- a sort of final commemoration. The only way I knew how to do so was to paint them, since to draw or paint an object I have to look at it intimately and for an extended time- intimacy and time which is then reflected in the marks made on the paper (hopefully).
JR: You are a process based artist (that's an understatement!). How long does it take to paint 30 different postcards? Do you finish one before beginning another? I envision an assembly line of sorts. Anything else you would like to reveal about the production of these?
CL: Yes, if there’s one word I think is accurate to describe my art and my practice, it’s definitely process! My brain runs on kinetic energy- the more I’m moving the more I’m thinking. Process also gives me time and space to find layers of meaning in my work. Back when I used to fancy myself a Painter with a Capital Oil Painting P, I really struggled with making work that meant anything to me- I felt I to come up with an image first and make the painting second, which was really hard for me. (Painters who do this are, I’m pretty sure, wizards.)
The process is somewhat of an assembly line; The production usually begins with an idea that’s either way too boring or way too convoluted. To get past either problem, I start by cutting the paper down to size. It’s usually during this rote activity that I accidentally stumble upon another, more exciting story to add to the original idea. If it’s exciting enough, or simple enough, I start working on the cards individually, finishing the front of one before starting another. Addressing and writing the back are assembly line-like steps that I save for whenever I get stuck or need another rote activity. (With 32, for example, the idea for the text on the back of the cards came while writing out the return addresses).
I usually finish the last postcard a day or two before they’re done. This is in part because painting takes so long, and in part because I work full time, am a chronic overcommiter (In addition to working on the postcards, I usually have one or two other major projects in the works.) and an easily distracted research junkie- (Wikipedia’s link system is best and worst thing to happen to my art practice.. )
JR: I've been very curious about the origin of the tweet written on the back of my 32 entry: "RT@KrisHumphries if this tweet gets 1000 RTs I'll leak the sextape. iDisprespectHoez 27 Jan." Did all the postcards have different text? If so, what else did you include? Your inclusion of a tweet on the back of a postcard with a scrap of an envelope painted on the front references dueling methods (and eras) of communication. I'm curious to know more about that.
CT: Well, originally the idea for 32 came from the contradiction implied by the number and the Postcard Collective- With the rise of the internet, the postal system is barely staying afloat, however it’s the internet that makes initiating a wide reaching exchange like the Postcard Collective possible. My initial thought was to take something interior (the envelop lining) and make it very visible, and to take something normally considered public (the internet, twitter, etc) and make it all about secrets and privacy.
The quotes on the back of the cards (and yes, all of them were different. I didn’t even think about recording all of them before sending them off, alas) are all tweets found by searching for various synonyms of the word ‘reveal’ (I believe yours was found while searching ‘leak’). I tried to chose tweets that not only used the word, but were also about revealing something one wouldn’t normally reveal in public (offline).
I think outlets like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc, are fascinating- Especially Twitter, which seems like its sole purpose is to exist as a public platform for private thoughts. I’m pretty slow when it comes to technology, and was intrigued by how many tweets were extremely personal and confessional. In my research I found a surprising number of twitterfeeds entirely devoted to anonymous secret-posting. It’s like there’s something hardwired into our brains that needs to confess to someone, anyonee0 like Midas’s brother and the lake. Even as a fairly private person, I kind of understand the appeal of an anonymous confessor.
My decision to handwrite the tweets was inspired by the constantly evolving nature of social media- everything’s constantly changing and almost always time stamped. Even the time stamp changes- a tweet that was posted ‘a minute ago’ is only more minutes away from being posted ‘an hour ago- It’s only after days, in some cases, that an objective date is given to the data. A part of me thought it would be funny to take something so fluid and high tech and put it into a fixed format (A good deal of my art is meant to make myself laugh.)
JR: Both of your submissions exist online and the blog entry is integral to understanding them as a whole. Can you talk about the online presence/history/documentation of these (which is highly contemporary) versus the handmade nature and nostalgic subject matter which references the past? This is one of the things that fascinates me most about your postcards is this juxtaposition of time and materials.
CL: Originally, with the 30 New Pictures… I decided to make all the cards available because if I knew I was receiving one of thirty items, I’d want to know what the others were- Like one of those mystery prizes- ‘which one will I get?’ I see the postcards, especially 30 New Pictures as part of a complete story- I wanted the recipients of each card to feel that their card was entirely their own (each had a personal message related to something I thought we might have in common) but also to be able to see how their card fit into the overall story. The internet is a marvelous tool to make that happen.
At the same time, it’s also a bit of a tease- you can see the front of the cards, but not the back (each postcard has a personal message.). Also, you can see each front, but knowing they’re paintings, you know looking at them in person is different than seeing them digitally- like looking up masterpieces on Google Images – I’ve looked up Eva Hesse’s sculptures online hundreds of times, but I’ve never gotten misty-eyed staring at my monitor or thought ‘Yup. Don’t need to see that in person now. This isn’t meant to say that seeing a Cat Lynch postcard is the same experience as seeing an Eva Hesse sculpture, but I do think that art that exists first as a physical object is meant to be seen in bodily person. But like I said, initially? Mystery prize box.
JR: Can you drop a hint as to what we will see next in May?
CL: The method’s are fairly similar- watercolor drawing, 30 different pieces. With this next exchange, however I wanted to incorporate more of my writing and tell a more personal story- hidden under layers of process and metaphor of course. This time, rather than documenting a stranger’s abandoned, physical collection, I’m documenting my own personal, somewhat intangible and ongoing collection. Readers of my blog, or of the Oxford English Dictionary will recognize a few elements.
[All studio images are courtesy of Cat Lynch.]
I received this postcard from Amelia Morris today. Two questions come to mind: 1) How on Earth did this happen? 2) How did it find its way into my mailbox?
The latter loses a bit of its mystery when one considers it was one of 28 postcards in my mailbox at the time. Apparently I should check it more.
If I had a pristine photograph of Tim Walker's "Circa 1978" I would be content. Unfortunately, two tears inhabit the bottom and the post office's magenta scan runs through the left side. That's the beauty of a postcard though - never quite knowing how it will arrive. Despite it's imperfect condition, I remain enamored with this small landscape. I was really pleased Tim agreed to answer some questions, putting to rest some of the ambiguity that I wanted to resolve from the moment it appeared in my post office box eight months ago.
Jacinda Russell: You've sent one of the most compelling postcards throughout my brief participation in the Postcard Collective. It is one of my favorites because of the mysterious location. I can read so much into it but if you don't mind, I'd love to hear the story behind its creation.
Tim Walker: Let me first say that I feel the most successful platform for visual images in my mind is the middle ground between maker and viewer. This middle ground is an area where each viewer brings something from his or her experience to the viewing of the image. It’s not meant to be strictly ambiguous, but it’s not didactic either. So I appreciate the “reading into” observation.
As for it’s creation, what I will say that as someone who makes images using a camera it soon became clear to me that ideas of location and narrative are not inherent in images. I’m not sure if this idea is something that is a priori for most, but for me it was a meaningful epiphany.
A long time ago I read a review of the movie Brazil. The review took great lengths to describe how Brazil was a state of mind. I like the idea that an image or a piece of artwork can have literal trappings, but represent a state of mind.
JR: "Circa 1978" is written in a large font and "perhaps" runs up and down the far left side. The latter is so inconspicuous that it might not be noticeable with the post office barcode printed alongside of it. What does "Circa 1978" have to do with the photograph and why "perhaps..." thirty-three years later?
TW: I’m fascinated by how slippery memory is. How our memory exists for own purposes and not in any way to aid “Truth”. I’m also fascinated for some reason by those years in the ’70s. For some reason they represent a time that is real history to me as opposed to thinking about historical events in other eras like the ’60’s or WWII, where they seem less like history and more like a movie, perhaps because of my own proximity to that time period.
“Circa 1978” is certainly a nod to these feelings of history and memory. “Perhaps…” is the wink to the slippery value of both, and to the idea of a state of mind.
JR: It's an escapist image of a blurry sea with some running along the horizon. I'm reminded of Gerhard Richter paintings or Uta Barthe photographs. Did you have any influences when making this piece?
TW: That’s an interesting observation. I remember seeing a Ute Barthe show in the ‘90s and was very struck by the blurry images, but I’m sure I would say a direct influence. Gerhard Richter however, I would say yes. His 100 Pictures book is a favorite of mine. I have been spending time recently looking at Richter’s books, especially his Baader-Meinhof book.
JR: You live in Tucson. I lived in Tucson. I loved the desert but spent a great deal of time turning the land into the sea on the distant horizon. It's a place that screams of an ocean that once was. What's your relationship to the desert and does it have anything to do with this image?
TW: I didn’t grow up in the desert. I grew up in Minnesota, a land ripe with lakes and water. I always joked that water wasn’t my natural habitat, but now as I’ve lived in the desert for a while I’ve been rethinking that. I share your pull to the horizon. I lived on the Pacific Ocean for a spell and was completely fascinated by the completeness of the horizon. The horizon is definitely a key element of that image for me.
JR: Is this postcard an anomaly in your oeuvre? What are you working on right now?
TW: I wouldn’t say that it is an anomaly in the sense that it pokes at the ideas of history and memory as mentioned above, but I would say that it is different in the sense that it is less representational that most of my images are.
Disclaimer: I met Amelia Morris 4.5 years ago when she walked into my office, introduced herself, and shook my hand. I own two of her photographs and currently am vying for a copy of the faux-tattoo print though a trade is not set in stone. Amelia knows all the best restaurants to frequent off the beaten path in Indianapolis and can whip up the best cupcakes on command. When I presented Camden with the concept of doing interviews for this blog, she was one of the first people that came to mind. She'll be famous someday. Just wait and see.
Jacinda Russell: Self-portraiture is an important aspect in your work. Can you describe its role in the three images you've submitted for the Collective?
Amelia Morris: When I first started submitting postcards to the Collective, I thought it might be a good way to experiment with something new or branch out from my usual modes of working. However, I’ve discovered that old habits die hard, and so far have continued to utilize self-portraiture. In the future, I might try to wean myself off the self-portraiture by photographing my cats in funny costumes but include a glimpse of my foot in the corner of the frame…wait…32 cat costumes! I’m so ready for the next exchange! But in all seriousness, I feel most drawn to personal subject matter, both in my own and others’ work. If I’m feeling introspective, it makes sense to use my physical self (or a surrogate in the form of a significant object or photograph) in the image. It’s most autobiographical that way.
JR: Writing or drawing on skin is a common motif on your postcards. Curious people might want to know the story behind the faux-tattoo. Is there anything else you'd like to reveal about it other than it giving you more street-cred?
AM: Ohhhhh, where to begin? My father and his family are British, and since my early teens I’ve thought about applying for dual citizenship as a way to try to preserve my roots back in England. As wonderful as I think it would be to have citizenship in two countries (or as my boyfriend says, to have a place to flee to if things get too crazy here), I’ve heard horror stories about people being stranded abroad due to silly clerical errors compounded by the fact that they belong to two places. This has lead to a fear of commitment concerning the whole issue, and I haven’t moved forward in exploring my options.
About a year ago, I was immersed in a project about that side of my family that brought these feelings back to the surface. One day, I stumbled across a photo of a Victorian-age tattooed lady, complete with a chest piece featuring a crossed American and British flag. It seemed to sum up perfectly what I wanted myself, even with the extreme commitment of having it permanently displayed on flesh. I asked a friend in Muncie, IN working as a tattoo artist to produce a faux-tattoo for me, so that for at least an afternoon, I could appear to be as self-assured as the woman in the photo. The tattoo made it into this image, which is now part of a working series about my post-undergrad blues.
The night before the “Faux-Tattoo” postcard photo, I tried to scrub the marker off my chest with a little soap and a washcloth, but didn’t make much progress. In the morning, I couldn’t help but enjoy the bruise-like quality of the faux-tattoo, and decided it needed to be documented for posterity. The intensity of the collaborative process was really different from how I usually work, so I thought image leant itself well to the theme of “newness.” The text on the front of the postcard is meant to be both silly and self-deprecating. While in Muncie, I met up with some friends at a great local bar, and it being the height of summer, had the faux-tattoo on display under a low-cut tank top. As someone who avoids drawing attention to herself, I couldn’t tell if I looked absolutely ridiculous or slightly hip. The faux-tattoo may have fooled a few folks from a distance, but my bad-assness faded upon closer inspection.
And in case anyone wants to know, a paste of baking soda and castile soap makes an effective faux-tattoo/permanent marker remover.
JR: I view "Remember" and "Try to forget" as a diptych that followed one another three months later in the mail. In addition to having the most fascinating handwriting of anyone I've met, I am really drawn to your use of text. "Remember" is faint when it should look permanent. "Try to forget" is written in thick, block-like letters when I expect it to be washed away. Can you tell me more about your process in using text both on your body and underneath the photograph?
AM: I’m not sure how my interest in text got started. Phrases tend to get stuck in my head, and when they make their way into my work, it’s usually in a confessional context. Though the image should be able to say what I want it to say on its own, text seems to push things a little closer to the territory of a cryptic diary entry, and I think it adds to the narrative of the piece (…and since I’ve failed too many times when it comes to keeping a diary, perhaps it’s good to express these feelings in this way).
I remember a conversation in school about using a piece’s title card to present a creative title or back story for the image. We decided that if the text was so important, it should be inseparable from the finished image so that the viewer would be forced to acknowledge it. I’ve experimented with both incorporating text into the finished image (perhaps most successfully here and with further examples to be found here) and outside the frame as a caption. When I do this, sometimes I feel too Duane Michals-y, but the separation of text from the image feels best with what I’m working on now. And I think I’ll stick with utilizing my handwriting (few things can be as personal and telling as someone’s handwriting, you know…), unless I suddenly find myself enchanted with the idea of anonymity.
The “Remember” and “Try to Forget” postcards are my first experiments with using text on my body for the purpose of an image (though now that I write this, I seem to half remember a shot from Photo II where I drew something like a broken heart on my chest....yikes). “Remember” was originally inspired by a conversation with a friend about how our reliance on gadgets has hindered our once basic abilities to remember things like phone numbers, birthdays, or even when to take a pill. When I’m in danger of forgetting something urgent, I write whatever it is on the back of my hand for safe keeping (seeing it every time I look down really makes a difference).
Around the time I was thinking about making this first postcard, I was trying to come to terms with the project about my Grandmother’s home and belongings. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that no matter how hard I try, my memories will lose their edge. I’ll be stuck with a reminder for something that’s no longer there. It’s funny that you can have a set idea of what you want an image to look like, but when you’re working on it, it just doesn’t feel right. I took several shots of my hand with remember, but until I took a short break and washed my hands, I realized that the faded reminder was exactly what I needed.
When I signed up for the next exchange, I didn’t set out to make my second postcard a sequel to the first. However, after hearing some disturbing news and not being able to set myself free from it, I realized that making a photo about it could offer some kind of catharsis. Thinking about the delicate manner of the first postcard, I knew that the text would have to feel drastically different, almost violent. I think I wielded a magic marker like a machete for that one. Unfortunately, I haven’t really forgotten anything.
JR: Your postcards work well as straight images sent through the mail. Is this your ideal way of viewing them?
AM: I've been thinking about this question a lot lately because I'd like to share the "Faux-Tattoo" image beyond the context of the Postcard Collective. I haven't worked in a small scale like this for some time, and though I like it, I'm not opposed to seeing the images in what has become my usual size, about 10x14 inches. I wrote the message on the back of both the "Try to Forget" and "Faux-Tattoo" postcards off the top of my head, but now I'm not sure I'd feel the same about the image without its accompanying text. The message on the back of the card helps complete the narrative by adding further meaning to the front. Aye aye aye. I'll have to figure out some kind of resolution.
JR: What is the most memorable comment made about the title of your website thanksandsorryphotos.com?
AM: Oh, I get good-hearted laughs from some, perplexed looks from others, but always a slow reading aloud just to make sure they’re reading it correctly. After reading the name, someone once said, “Oh! I can tell we’re going to be great friends!” Maybe I should have stuck with something still self-deprecating but a little more to the point like “ameliaoccasionallytakesphotos.com.”
I have been the fortunate recipient of James Luckett's postcards for years and have always been drawn to their mysterious content. At one point in our lives we each had a post office box that contained the same numbers but in a different order. His was easy to remember because of this and I tried to drop one in the mail in response semi-regularly though mine were nowhere near as profound. The card I remember most prior to James joining the Postcard Collective referred to a request for me to continue to use twitter, comparing the experience to the night sky. I kept that card on my refrigerator for weeks until I received his first entry for the Collective.
Jacinda Russell: I would love to know more about your process particularly with your decisions in materials. In the five postcards I have received, two feel like they are on single weight paper, one on double weight and the other two commercially printed. Do you have a preference? Were certain cards meant to be original photographs and others not?
James Luckett: Nothing too complex. I’m simply trying, with my limited range of skills, to craft the best postcard that I can. The very first card, the double weight you refer to, was my attempt to make a passable entry. It consisted of a single-weight gelatin silver print spray mounted to cardstock and then trimmed. While it made a pleasurable object, it unfortunately over time was susceptible to warpage and separation. A pretty awkward mess. During that first exchange I saw a few others were using digitally produced commercial type solutions, and since I don’t have access to an inkjet printer and following the labor put into that first card, I figured this could be a welcome process. The next two cards were done this way, organized in Photoshop and printed by cardstore.com. I really like how they turned out and have used the service many times since then for other purposes, however the downside is the expense – about a buck a card. That fact led me back to my darkroom and to contact printing negatives on single weight paper and mailing them out as is. I’ve been collecting outdated gelatin silver printing paper for a few years and so I have a lot of it on hand. So far this has been the most satisfying solution to the problem – lending a fragile feeling and unique sense to each card - and this will likely be how I make the majority of cards for future exchanges. However, the next card, for the November 2011 exchange, in deference of the theme of “Newness”, will be a something completely different. There won’t even be a picture.
JR: How important is anonymity with this project? Curious people want to know who David, Jim and John are (two Davids or the same David)? Only two (Craig and Bee) reference a website and gives this anonymous face an identity but the rest are ambiguous. Do you send them the same postcards (as nonmembers of the collective or at least this is what I presume)?
JL: From the very beginning it was important to me that every card I make for the Collective be addressed to a specific person and that the card should function first and foremost as correspondence. All my life I’ve written letters and mailed postcards and so the editions I make for the Postcard Collective’s exchanges are a way to acknowledge and honor the importance of ongoing and long-term dialogues with people in my life. Anonymity doesn’t matter as much as reifying the idea that each card represents a real communication that is occurring outside the exchange between the Collective’s artists – that each card does indeed, at least to someone, function as a postcard traditionally should. To this end the first card in every edition is sent to the person the text on the back is addressed to. The second card in the edition is then mailed to The Postcard Collective for the archive and then the remainder of the edition is sent to the exchange participants.
There are antecedents that inspire this way of working. The first is Fluxus and their dissolving of the wall between art and life, and in particular Joseph Beuys life-long endeavor to imbue everyday objects with a confluence of cultural, historical and personal meaning, particularly in his crafting of multiples. Another, stronger influence for me is a book by the poet Richard Hugo titled 31 Letters and 13 Dreams– a series of intimate letters addressed to friends and colleagues interspersed with descriptions of nighttime visions, all written in the form of poems. There are a great many aspects of this book I admire and admittedly I’ve mined them all. I’ve always sought ways to merge the personal with the public and The Postcard Collective has provided a welcome opportunity to explore this desire.
JR: I love the autobiographical quality of the written content. Your indirect references to Marcel Duchamp after visiting Philadelphia connect your visit with a particular place. Others are more poetic, as in the reference to the "Phaedrus Incident." Are all the stories the same on each postcard? Are they fact or fiction? Which story was the most difficult to tell?
JL: I’ve never been very good at making things up; likely why I’m a photographer rather than a painter and so it follows: the messages on the cards are true – though I feel the texts generally function more evocatively than concretely. I like puns and alliteration and I defer to words that might resonate, despite the implied context, a multitude of incongruities. The first postcard concerns the aesthetics of Duchamp’s Etant donnés, and in homage to his mischievous methods really goes overboard with double entendres and the like and I even managed a backward allusion to Nude Descending a Staircase. This is my most playful card and I’m afraid the succeeding posts have been increasingly maudlin. Somewhere along the way the messages became less concerned with aesthetics and increasingly more personal and psychological. The most difficult card to make is always the last one. That might sound odd, given the effect some of the more confessional type cards might’ve had on those who’ve received them. Shocking with revelation and/or garnering sympathy through narrative is an age old survival trick of the wounded. While I feel they’ve been successful, I also realize the revelatory nature of melancholy is a much easier effect to put-on and pull-off. It’s more difficult to elicit affections with other methods. With the next card, in an attempt to get back to aesthetic issues, I’ll be doing something completely different. Though really, when I think about it, aesthetics is just another way of talking about the personal, but in safe sounding abstract terms.
JR: With the exception of the photographs taken at the Great Serpent Mound (Min. Northern Moonset and Max. Southern Moonset), all of the images reference the temporal nature of a once living subject: a dead bird, decaying sunflowers, an old wasp nest, and a deformed vegetable. There are ties to your series Practicalities but in some ways, they are less abstract than many of the photographs in that series. Do you see a direct connection or do you consider the images something altogether separate?
JL: I liken Practicalities to x-rays – as if one were looking through the surface of the print to see the underlying semiotic structures of the images. There’s the idealized snapshot, the perfect portrait, an absolute grotesque, the seminal surreal, a resurgent sublime. These images aren’t meant to relate so clearly to the real world as they do to the world of photography. They function something like a typology of photographic use and are intended to be liked, to hit the viewer’s sweet spot. Does the project accomplish all that? I don’t know – just that’s how I think of them. It’s a series of images I’ll be adding to for a long while. Practicalities is by no means finished or complete.
In the meantime other work goes on. As I get older I seem to be less interested in understanding, in having to know just what it is I’m doing. There is what I think, and then there is what I feel and that open-endedness is increasingly enough. The camera is becoming more a tool of discretion rather than of exploitation. A process less about transformation and rather more transmutative in character; less about making the world right for me and more about making me right with the world. I’ve no idea where this new relation to the medium is heading and yet I’m not all that concerned. My practice is becoming less circumspect and a lot more fun. Cameras don’t worry too much. I’m trying to learn from them.
JR: Will the typewriter make any more appearances?
JL: Indeed. While answering these questions I’ve been working on the card for the November 2011 exchange and was at an impasse about how to formalize my concept. This very question about the typewriter struck at just the right time, figuring these machines to be the very thing I need to get out and through. I’ve this recent sense that the bottleneck to communication in the photographic process is the photograph. It’s this thing that has to stand between me and you and the notion that any meaningful signal can be conveyed through anemic modalities of visual tones increasingly feels like a bad bet. So I’m going to see how far I can get with words alone. Words and the hammering of clacking type.
This is the first interview in an ongoing series of Postcard Collective Members and their projects all displayed prominently on my refrigerator.
From Chris Toalson's artist statement: "In September 1969, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a study titled IEEE Recommended Practice for Speech Quality Measurements. Due to the increasing variety of speech transmission systems being utilized at the time, communication engineers found a need for standardizing their approach to measuring speech quality. This study included a list of phonetically balanced and homogenously structured sentences to be used as control speech material. Still utilized today, they have become known as the Harvard Sentences. These postcards reinterpret one of those ten sentence lists from 1965. Amidst a culture obsessed with tweets, text messages, and status updates, communication via postcard seems archaic at best. The sentences themselves evoke nostalgic feelings for a simpler bygone era, and at times seem propagandistic. I’m interested in merging the notion of postcard as a form of communication and the laborious process of artistic creation, while pointing to the era that these sentences present."
Jacinda Russell: Can you talk about the inception of this project? If I remember right, you heard a story about the Harvard Sentences during your commute to Ball State. I hope I'm not making that up because there's something fitting about hearing them on the radio. Have you worked with text based projects in the past?
Chris Toalson: That’s correct. Last fall, I was driving home from teaching and heard a short piece on NPR. I think it was on ‘All Things Considered’, and for some reason a spark went off. I instantly had a project idea. My initial thought had to do with this concern for sound quality when to me it seemed so unimportant because of how common texting had become. Maybe it was also because I was trying to think of my next postcard idea at the time, but I think I was also looking at a variety of different artists who have explored language.
I’ve been thinking about text projects for a few years. My first explorations were a couple woodcut pieces that I was working on in grad school related to my True West series. I probably have more ideas related to text based projects than actual completed artworks.
JR: Why woodcuts? What are some of the pros and cons of using this process?
CT: Printmaking has been a much more experimental process for me. In comparison to my photographic work, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to get. When I started printmaking, I was making a lot of woodcuts and for this series, and I wanted a cleaner look so I started exploring linoleum block printing. I sort of miss the woodcut aesthetic, but I’m really happy with how the Harvard Sentences are coming out. I’ve thought that these would also look really slick as screen prints, but I’m afraid they could look almost too slick. I want that error of the artist’s hand to be apparent. Which sort of ties in to the labor associated with carving each block. I spend a couple days just creating the printing block and making test prints, much longer than it would take to just send a tweet or text.
JR: You choose one sentence in a group of ten lists. If you were to break down one grouping, can you talk about why you chose "Kick the ball straight and follow through" for example. I chose that example because there is sense of autobiography in some of the others. You living in Montana for several years is apparent in "A rod is used to catch pink salmon" and "The source of the river is the clear spring." Does your personal history inadvertently play a role?
CT: So far, all of the sentences have been from one list, List #2 of 72. Maybe it does have to do with personal history, but this list definitely jumped out at me. There are actually so many great sentences among the 720 that I would love to use, I just don’t know if I have that much stamina. I’ve stuck with one list because I see the postcards existing as set of 10. From my research, I get the impression that these groupings of 10 sentences were really important to the initial study of speech quality measurement, so I want to stick to that.
JR: There are 72 lists. Where do you foresee this project going in the future?
CT: I would actually love to do some larger pieces that exist as single phrases rather than as a set like the 10 postcards. It would take on a different meaning, because I wouldn’t be distributing them through the postal system. I’m also interested in taking the sentences back into their original aural form, though I’ve never worked with sound.
JR: In your artist statement presented on the back of "Kick the ball straight and follow through," you mention "I'm interested in merging the notion of postcard as a form of communication and the laborious process of artistic creation, while pointing to the era that these sentences present." They certainly evoke nostalgia and I am still surprised to learn these lists were created in 1965. Your process and the word combinations comment of decades earlier. Do you have any thoughts about that?
CT: You’re picking apart my research here! This is something I couldn’t figure out either. To me, the sentences feel much more reminiscent of a post-WW2 America, but they are dated 1965 in each bit of research I’ve come across. Maybe the sentences were created much earlier because in the 1969 IEEE study the Harvard Sentences are referred to as a ‘revised list’. I guess I’ll have to dig a little deeper if I really want to find out.
JR: Any chance "Open your book to the first page" will make a future appearance?
CT: I do like that sentence. It’s definitely a possibility. If I created an artist’s book of the series, that would be a great title. Do you know any good publishers who would be on board?
The very first postcards ever, of course, were the famous Columbian Exposition postcards from 1893 designed to attract visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair. But not until 1901, did the word 'postcard' show up on the back of a piece of paper. The front side of a postal card was the only side that was allowed to have any ink images or writing. The back was reserved exclusively for the address. Following progressive trends in other countries, the United States finally switched over to new and exciting rules: allowing private printing companies to make postcards, and allowing the back to be divided into two sections. The Golden Era was born. The cheapest and most effective way to stay in touch with your family was to send a postcard because it cost only a single penny. People were really excited. Millions were sold.
Eastman Kodak Company jumped on the bandwagon of the Golden Era. With the address now on the back, the front of a postcard could be used for large, beautiful photographs. They invented an affordable camera called the 'folding pocket camera' where people could make photo prints right onto the reverse side of pre-printed postcard backs. And the photographer carried a special metal tool with him which allowed you to write a message directly onto the freshly photographed image. Other camera companies flooded the market with their products as well and the Real Photo Postcard era began.
The publishing of pre-printed postcards during this time doubled every six months. By the end of the decade, European card publishers wanted a piece of the action and began opening offices in the United States. Germany was known for its excellent high-quality lithographed postcards. Writing a message by postcard had become such a frenzied and popular addiction, that by the end of 1907, approximately 677 million cards had mailed in one year. And the total population of the US was only 88 million at the time.
Death brings the first postcard frenzy to an end. World War I saw horrible epidemics of influenza. Printing postcards was certainly not a priority anymore and the market saw a rapid decline in the sale of German lithographs. Due to the ravaging financial effects of war, the import of low-quality printed postcards from England, and the invention of a very new technology called 'the telephone', the hobby quickly waned.
But miraculously, the photographic postcard continued to stay popular. Another new technology, the rotary drum printer, let publishers print thousands of cards with the same image. Thus, the roadside postcard rack was born! Tourist attractions boasted racks of cards with different photographs of the various scenes and political humor. People started collecting again, and they really liked the new hand-tinted photo postcards coming out of France and Belgium.
But death makes another appearance in postcard history again. These tinted photo postcards looked very realistic, and were as beautiful as they were deadly. The hand-tinting process was extremely labor intensive and involved hundreds of workers, mostly women. The women sat in rows while the postcards were passed down each row, assembly-line style. One color was assigned to one person. Each artist was responsible for a particular color. Since the cards were small and the artwork finely detailed, a woman would wet the tip of her brush with her lips as she worked for hours. The lead in the paint took its toll, and women were slowly poisoned until they became deathly ill and could work no more. Hand-tinted postcards were discontinued.
America's love of full color and bright images brought a new type of postcard, the color "Photochrome" (called Chrome or Modern Chromes). Photochrome postcards dominated the marketplace immediately after their launch by the Union Oil Company. Sold in the company's gas stations, they were easily produced, were of high photo quality and most importantly, were in true living color. Although production and sales slowed down during WWII, they made a quick comeback after the war and wiped out all competition. By 1945, they replaced both linen era postcards and all black & white postcards in roadside postcard racks.
Today, postcards are thriving. We thought that we could predict the third wave of death via another technological invention, the internet. Thankfully, e-cards pale in comparison to the texture and depth of real photography and real paper. Curiously, postcards have metamorphosed and exploded into many forms: event marketing tools, advertising pieces, club flyers, real estate notices, tourism souvenirs, and personal greetings from friends and families. And we artists have re-discovered the craftsmanship and creative fun of sending messages to each other.