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?