Reading List

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Lost in translation

I picked this card up at a fair on Sunday. It's a treasure. 

How a card sent from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan, in 1916 ends up in London in 2011 goodness only knows. But here it is, at £8. 

Would be really grateful for an English translation? I've sent the feelers out on Facebook to a couple of Japanese friends so fingers crossed.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Thank you Debs, Postcardy and PFF!

I thought I'd share some good news with you this week - I managed to pass my masters degree at Goldsmiths.

As you might remember, after messing around with some post-it notes I wrote my dissertation on why old postcards are intriguing today. Here's an extract which gives a very big knuckle tap on the shoulder to the brilliant Postcard Friendship Friday, run each week by Beth in Oregon.

Thanks everyone for your support and, as you'll see below, special thanks to the PFF gang; your expertise was invaluable....

Tilted stamps

Two years ago I set up a website to explore the messages in my collection of postcards.  

The site was adopted by a group called Postcard Friendship Friday, hosted by Beth Niquette in Oregon, Ohio. The group is typical of the 'super-niches' that the internet allows us to develop in some part of our lives.  

Each week members post images of old cards they have found, explaining why the cards appeal and how they came across them. Tastes vary across the group, with each member specializing further within the category of postcards: 

“Bob of Holland” specializes in vintage postcards of European film stars; 

“Mr Cachet” a retired artist from Montana explores the history of the printed word; and

“Postcardy” a collector from Minnesota collects vintage comic postcards. 

The collectors leave postcard-sized messages on the comment boards for others to read. 

In June 2010 I wrote a post on a mesmerizing card sent to Miss L. Warden in London in 1904. Having taken scans of the ‘front’ and ‘back’, I presented a full anatomy of the card. 

On the ‘front’ the sender had annotated the image of The Exchange buildings in Liverpool, at the time a centre for trade in the city. He (or she?) used various signs and a key to direct the way the reader would approach the card: with a double-feathered arrow he showed where he worked and with a dotted cross highlighted “a broken down cotton speculator”. 

On the ‘back’ he drew a map of Britain, outlining the route of his rail trip from London, adding a reference to Hastings which presumably meant something to Miss Warden. 

The next day I checked the site’s comment board only to find my analysis had been exposed as incomplete. “Postcardy” and "Debs" had spotted a further detail which needed to be acknowledged in any deciphering of the card: 

I could not believe I had missed this aspect of postcards. I looked through my collection and found twenty or thirty examples of cards where the King’s head had been placed on an angle, or even stuck upside down. In one example, besides the address there was only a tilted stamp on the card. 

At the next fair, I found cards presenting a whole “Language of Stamps”.  

Yet again, for all its apparent familiarity the Golden Age postcard had reasserted its status as an endlessly foreign object.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Text, Image and Geoffrey Farmer

In October I went to the Istanbul Biennial - a big art exhibition in Turkey's largest city. Spread across two hangar-like buildings, you need stamina and plenty of chewy Turkish coffee to get through it all.

It is huge.

We spent five hours there. By the end, I felt kind of ill. Knackered. And somewhat empty of feeling.

I guess if art plays with your senses, it's not surprising you involuntarily shutdown after a while at these shows. You can only do justice to so many of the artists. You want to see them all. But can't give energy to every piece. I find I just want to be outside, away from everyone and everything, and even further away from artists' interpretations of the world.

But with time (thankfully!), the noise (and pain) disappear and you're left with the bits that moved you.

Geoffrey Farmer's collage sculpture Pale Fire Freedom Machine is the installation that has stayed clearest in my mind.

Consisting of two hundred or so magazine pictures of people, objects and buildings, Farmer had curated a flash of his mind. Or our minds.

Image credit: Raphael Goldchaim courtesy of Mousse Magazine

For me, the room suspended lingering, floating, media-ed images of a regular modern day. With photos fixed on small sticks and mounted on tiny blocks, the arrangement made visible unpredictable links we make when we let images settle. Naked figures next to a collection of chairs. Bomb clouds next to African masks. And despots alongside teapots, and the like.

What I loved, was the experience of walking around the 2D images... to inspect the text on the other side.

Did Farmer leave to chance what was on the reverse sides of the images? References to 9/11 on one photo suggested he didn't.

In fact the longer you stayed in the room, the more you felt obliged to tackle the text. Sometimes taken from an article related to the image, sometimes not. But always giving authenticity to the idea that the images had come from a magazine or newspaper you or I might have read. And always shifting your take of the image on the other side, and those around it.

As I work up ideas for publishing and installing something around postcard messages, Farmer's work is useful. As is, a piece written by Roland Barthes on the tensions between text and image; how one steers our reading of the other. If you're interested, I've tracked down an online copy here... The Rhetoric of the Image.

For sure, any installation would be worthless if it didn't make use of both sides of the cards. And seeing what Farmer pulled off, the challenge of displaying two-sided objects like the cards has become more an inspiration than a problem. Which I had seen it as for a long time.