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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Art of Letters

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The uncanniest thing about email is that whilst it allows us to connect instantly with others across the world, it also makes us into split, fragmented personalities. It all starts with the email address, in which a user is required to assume a new identity, one that sometimes marks their individual dispositions (flirtwithme001, physicsguru999), is occasionally ambiguous (is lovebeatles247 a music fan or an entomologist?) but which more often than not is a numerical hybrid of their usual name which ascribes some inscrutable rank to a person: Joe.bloggs.19, john_doe77. Are there really 18 other Bloggs in the world, average Joe's who were more alert to the advent of the web such that they signed up to email before you did? In the lottery of life, is it good or bad that John has been offered number 77 by some automated algorithm? Finally, there is the affiliation to the email provider. In the real world, my identity is not overtly, publically determined by the company I choose to bank with, or the shop I get my groceries from. With my email address, however, my relationship to Google or Microsoft or AOL is bound to my online identity, tied together by the winding hieroglypic of the @ symbol. Every time I mention my name, I unwittingly promote the corporation.

But, like a dog's collar tag, once assumed an email epithet cannot be shaken off without a struggle. Because choosing and remembering a different one in each circumstance would be impossible, you find yourself signing in to various websites with the same identity. In reality, I can don my academic persona and try to be eloquent when talking to my PhD supervisor, but I like watching football precisely because I am not required to shout encouragement in well-constructed sentences. Online, however, my many voices merge to a single URL, or "sign-in" name. You, reader of The Pequod, may call me Ishmael. But you will also call me so on a football chat forum, an academic blog, and a virtual book group. Whether you will be able to identify my different personalities simply through the tone of my typing is doubtful.

Having said that technology makes each of us schizophrenic even as it connects us to other people, when technology fails it also leaves us more alienated from others than before. Recently, for example, I sold a book via Amazon sellers (again, you may call me Ishmael here), but being away from home at the time I had to issue a refund to the buyer; I also sent an apologetic personal email. I was shocked when, a week later, I received an email demanding to know where the goods were. I explained about the refund, suggested that this would appear on the customer's bank statement next month, and thought and heard nothing more of it. Then, a few days ago, another message arrived, threatening to start complaint proceedings for the non-arrival of the item. Horrified, I replied again, attaching screenshots of my earlier correspondence. I suggested that the customer might like to check through their spam folder to check their software had not incorrectly filtered out my first email. Thus far, I have had no reply, and the effect is thoroughly disconcerting - for I have no way of knowing whether this final email has arrived, let alone been read or understood. Somewhere, sitting on the lines and webs that bind and separate us, may be some sort of digital demon, intercepting our email despatches en route and locking us into a surreality where we misperceive each other. From my customer's point of view, if the emails are not getting through she has every reason to suspect me of being a conman. From my point of view, I have done nothing wrong and my customer's emails are scandellous, even agressive. I don't even know my customer's real name, to look in an address book or find an alternative address: Shirls_038 could be anyone, and thus points to no one. No phone number, no postal address. When eerie disconnects like this arise, you realise how powerless you are when the spirits that surround technology haunt it in times of breakdown. In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

By contrast, although something also haunts the physical letter, it is a ghost with a human face. There is that strangely intangible sense of affection embedded in an artefact that has received the human touch; this is what Walter Benjamin described as "the aura of the original" in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production," an essay that seems more prescient with every development of digitisation. In the case of the original letter, I know that someone handled, creased, wrote, licked and sealed this envelope I now hold in my hand. Thought of in this way, is it not odd that opening an envelope requires me to touch the spit of a possible stranger? In what other circumstance is this acceptable rather than repellent? There is only one, and this makes the letter like a subtle kiss, connecting me to the person who sent it in sensual ways.

As Lacan - in one of his more lucid moments - punned, a letter always arrives at its destination. Unlike my email to my customer, shouting into the vacuum of cyberspace, a letter must arrive somewhere, even if that somewhere is a rainy gutter or the dusty corner of a sorting office. Even if it does not reach the one for whom it was destined, it has nevertheless arrived where it stops - perhaps where it was always fated to stop.

And when it stops where it the sender intended it to stop, finding its way to my breakfast table where it lies amidst a debris of cornflakes, having negotiated each of the four or five geographical stages (a country, a town, a street, a house, my name) there is something magical about its quiet, stoical purposiveness. In spite of all the opportunities for it to swerve away from its course, for it to trundle up the wrong motorway on a postal truck, to be diverted by a broken sorting-office conveyor belt, to be snatched from my postman's outstretched hand by a freak gust of wind, in spite of all these opportunities for escape, the letter reached me. And in helping it on its course, whole teams of people have been involved along the way, reading its address and pushing it into ever smaller geographies, funnelling it through countries and cities and streets to end in the narrow slit of my postbox. It has teleology in the very fibres of its paper.

Passing through physical space in this way, the simple fact of a letter, the fact of its arrival, is its own message, even before the envelope is opened and the words themselves read. This is why receiving a letter is almost always pleasurable, in a way email is not: the fact that it was destined for me makes me feel important, like a medieval king who knows he is smiled on by the stars. Someone wanted to reach me so badly, that he or she was prepared to put this flimsy rectangle of paper through the trauma of travel. And because it passes through physical space, as opposed to the encoded bit streams that flit through cyberspace, the surfaces of a letter can be read even without it being opened. I often wonder, when I write, whether someone in a sorting office has noticed how often my letters refer to a small street in Christchurch (home to my grandparents), or how I regularly receive envelopes stamped with the sorting code of parliament (responses to my Amnesty International campaigns). Flitting though it may be, as it passes the eyes of those in a sorting office, the surface of a letter is also a significant message for the person prepared to take note of it.

It is this fact that the medium of the letter is also a message about what might quaintly be called the "human touch" that makes it an apt space on which to create art. I am thinking here of the special form known as mail art or correspondence art, which is, according to the Dictionary of Art
art sent through the post rather than displayed or sold through conventional commercial channels, encompassing a variety of media including postcards, books, images made on photocopying machines or with rubber stamps, postage stamps designed by artists, concrete poetry and other art forms generally considered marginal.
The genre can be traced to Marcel Duchamp, with his postcard project "Rendezvous of 6 February, 1916." But given the contradictions of the cybernetic age, when information flows freely but in an ever less artful, ever more dehumanising way, mail art seems highly appropriate for it both defies the pace of cyberspace whilst enhancing and drawing attention to the sense of individuality intrinsic to a letter. (Having said that, I must now admit that my awareness of art post was first raised through this website, by a reader who sent me some [pictured below] in gratitude for my essay on memory.)


[Cascadia Artpost, Seattle, WA USA]

By virtue of its being produced on the surface of a letter addressed only to me, this is a unique work of art not only in terms of its form (for of course all artworks aim to be unique in this respect) but in terms of its audience which, contrary to the painting destined for the gallery or the modern installation, is potentially just one person, the addressee. Even though it can be photographed and displayed online, the nature of the letter as a physically communicative media ensures that more than most visual art, art post loses something by being reproduced, since the whole aesthetics relies on the spirit of destiny encoded in the fibres of a letter that arrives safely.

On the other hand, though I may be the only viewer who will understand that this is art rather than mere decoration, the fact that on its way to me the envelope will be seen by others can make it into a political space. If I pleasantly imagine that those in the sorting office note the fact that a letter has been sent to me when they read my address, more explicit statements can also be made on the periphery of an envelope. By choosing stamps that make a polemical statement, such as commemorating the Svalbard seed vault or the U.S. military's actions in Fallujah (as my mail artist did), an art post might have an impact on those who deliver it, if only by confusing as to which is the real and which the symbolic stamp and thus forcing someone to pause in their reading of the envelope.

As I was sent a set of stamps for my personal use, I was able yesterday to employ them on some correspondence at the post office. The counter clerk looked quizzically at the stamps - the "Remembering Falluja" set - as if to wonder whether this might be some unexpected conspiracy of a left-wing Post Office. Like some sort of Pynchonesque conspiracy from The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps if enough people take up art post, politics can be made to permeate the whole space of the postal system, information countering the entropy of war. Perhaps this may be fictitious speculation, but if, spookily, the nature of the letter is that it always arrives at its destination, if the letter fails to reach me there will always be the suspicion that some one else, their interest piqued, intercepted it en route. They are the alternative viewer of the art work or political message to whom the letter really wanted to display itself, in all its peacock colours.

And even if art post is a prosaic mode of art, we all understand that licking and pressing a postage stamp is peculiarly satisfying and can so sympathise with the nature of the artist who has decided to formalise this mundane delight. It is the sort of message that flirtwithme001 or physicsguru999 might make with their epithets - the difference being that the message can be changed at any point with a different choice of stamp in a way it cannot be once your online persona has been born into the second life of the web.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:45 am

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