Earlier this year, Tohono Chul in Tucson put out a call to artists asking for 4 inch by 6 inch postcards representing a real or imagined trip to Arizona. The cards were to be made in any kind of fiber art technique, and were to be sent unprotected through US mail.
The 174 submissions that poured in for “Wish You Were Here”, were quilted, felted, appliquéd, cross-stitched, needlepointed, among other fiber arts techniques I’d never encountered before. They featured bright blue sky and glittery nights, saguaro cacti, lizards sunrise and sunsets. They were all quite spectacular, and when I visited yesterday I had a hard time tearing myself away — even though I haven’t bought or sent a postcard in years and years.
It got me to thinking about postcards, which were, after all, the most immediate way for travelers to share their view with people who were elsewhere, before we could easily zap photos through thin air. Of course, many many millions of people still send postcards every year — but every year the number dwindles.
And yet, as I wandered beneath the postcards in “Wish You Were Here” — they were quaintly suspended on clothes lines – I wondered whether I was looking at evidence of a new and exciting postcard future.
Historically, postcards were never about self-expression, visual or verbal. They were intended as a cheap way to a non-confidential message. In the United States, the first postcards were issued in 1873 by the Postal Service in Springfield, Massachusetts. They were buff in color, brown in ink, and cost a penny, including postage, which along with the address, took up one whole side of the card. It took a couple of decades, but postcards become more than that. An image on the front, and a message on the back. You’d stand in front of a rack, selecting an image that came closest to either what you’d actually experienced or what you wanted your recipient to think you’d experienced on your journey.
Now that we can send images around the world while we’re seeing them, it seems to me that there’s no real point in using a post ard in that way anymore. Instead, we should send our postcards after we get home, once we’ve had a chance to reflect on the trip, the places we visited, and what it meant to us. Maybe we’d send a card with a picture from our own camera. Maybe we’d create a visual image in another medium. Or maybe we’d use only words. However it turned out, speed wouldn’t be the point, reflection would be. Ease wouldn’t be the strategy.
If post cards head in this direction, they’d mirror what’s happening with information, generally. It’s never been easier to record information and images. But it’s never been harder to figure out what it all means.