Published as part of the Colleex Open Formats, July 28, 2017
Letters, but also postcards, are central forms of material culture that provide an (often historical) window into the everyday life of people and places, of relations and reflections, realities and visions. Letter correspondences are by now recognized as crucial forms of knowledge production that provide ‘indexes’ for comprehending people’s works, thoughts and lives, such as the exchange between Arendt and Heidegger. In the 1960s and 70s, Mail or Post art artists rethought letters, postcards and packages as participatory, democratizing interventions into art: everyone can create and send art to everyone. In recent years, artists, writers and designers have reinvented the meaning, mode and impact particularly of postcards, as in the case of the PostSecret or the Dear Data project (see below).
While in their heydays in the early 20th century, postcards served as prime information source, say, of a visited town or country, and in times of emails, skype and whatsapp, I muse – without romanticizing – what meaning postcards/letters may have regained. As Emerson, Fretz & Shaw (2011) point out in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, members’ terms are significant because they convey different meanings of the same thing: among inmates and staff at a cottage for delinquent girls, “buzzes” are illegally smuggled letters, but they are also “love letters” or for guards a form of gang relation in need of regulation.
In this experimental project, postcards become part of doing and rethinking ethnography. Similar to Cerwonka and Malkki, who reconfigure fieldwork email exchanges into a book (2007), I pose what postcards can do as ethnographic tool: What is their role as mode of communication, research dissemination, formation of relationships, fieldwork reflection, material artefact, knowledge infrastructure, and/or fieldnotes?
I invite ethnographers, artists, researchers and related experimentalists to write postcards to a friend, colleague, student, etc. All is allowed. Be creative! Here a few ideas:
- Write to a friend, colleague, student, or fellow Colleex member and start a colleex-ship (perhaps you find inspiration in the Dear data project).
- Start a conversation with a fellow currently in the field, writing an ethnography, preparing for fieldwork, etc. It could but doesn’t need to be a ‘confessional’ exercise, things you would not want to be in your fieldnotes (perhaps you find inspiration in the PostSecret project. Postcard authors would be anonymized/blacked out).
- Write postcards to yourself, perhaps you are currently moving a lot between home, work, research site, etc.
- Use postcards as fieldnote or sketch ‘book,’ an ethnographic art project, a way of conveying one’s research content (perhaps you find inspiration in this traveling exhibition).
- You are of course also invited to send postcards to me (see below).
- Letters are also encouraged, if your hand-writing is large, there is more content you want to share, etc.
Collect your postcards until May 15th 2018, and send scans, photos or the actual postcards to: firstname.lastname@example.org or to:
Reflection on the process
At the end of March 2018, write a short reflection (max. 700 words) on your experiment, what the postcard(s) did for you, what worked, also what didn’t and why, what could be improved, etc. The postcards and your reflections will be posted on the Colleex. The tentative goal is to present this project at the EASA meeting in August 2018, or a related conference/workshop.
If you have any questions, do contact me, and feel free to share this little experiment/exercise with other colleagues, your students and those interested. Thanks a lot for taking part, and I look forward to your postcards!
Cerwonka, A., & Malkki, L. H. (2007). Improvising Theory: process and temporality in ethnographic fieldwork. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Image credit: Mascha Gugganig.