January 18, 2005

Correspondence and Art

by Nick Montfort · , 8:55 pm

In 1965, French artist Ben Vautier devised the provocative piece of mail art called “Postman’s Choice.” It was a postcard with lines on both sides, made to be addressed to two different destinations and then stamped on both sides. With no return address included, the letter carrier gets to choose who gets the postcard. While the postman may ring twice, he only gets to choose once, in this case. Of course, the postman might be clever enough, or the person sending the card might be such an obvious mail experimenter, that the postal system can take the third option.

Why hasn’t an email version of this project been devised? I have a few ideas about that…

Michael Lund wrote that “Postman’s Choice” was interesting conceptually but “lacks an interest in interchange and therefore remains outside mailart networking.” Although I’m not completely in tune with the aspects of interchange and network that characterize mail art – more good stuff on that at the Electronic Museum of Mail Art and the “Mail Art” entry in Wikipedia, or check out Lund’s thesis – I think Lund’s comment overlooks the important, unusual way in which “Postman’s Choice” did involve interchange: it exploited the bureaucracy and procedures of the postal system to force the participation of someone who otherwise would not make choices, who would not participate in determining the addressee of a mailing. It brought the system itself into the interchange in a new way.

So, why is there no “Mail Server’s Choice”? Someone could come up with one and prove me wrong, but I think it has to do with the fully automated nature of the email system. It’s the same reason there’s no “Calculator’s Choice” or “Digital Watch’s Choice.” It’s really not interesting – at least not in the same way – to invite an automaton or a completely automated system to make a decision for you in this way. We could get a die or a random number generating routine to do that for us if we liked; the challenge in developing “Postman’s Choice” was to figure out how to get a civil servant to make such a decision in the course of his or her job. Also, of course, email can be sent to any number of destinations at practically no cost, so the choice of delivery cannot be forced in the same way as with a postcard.

Here are some of the elements that I think make “Postman’s Choice” so interesting:

We might seek a similarly downtrodden, bureaucratic worker, and imagine “Sysadmin’s Choice” – Burn a single-disc FreeBSD minimal install CD and an Ubuntu install CD. File down the CDs and glue them together, back-to-back, so that they can be inserted into a drive either way. Place the CD in a sleeve and give it to the sysadmin while hurrying out of the building, saying “Install this in the PC in room 115 right away! It’s critical we have a new operating system on that machine within two hours. I’ll be off email and unreachable – just do whatever you need to make that machine boot up by the time I get back!”

If we’re looking for a project analogous to “Postman’s Choice,” this one would be flawed in several ways. The choice would not affect someone else’s communication, since the whole installation is contrived. The choice might not be considered harmless by the startled sysadmin, who is being personally intimidated into making it. And, of course, while “Postman’s Choice” can be implemented by anyone, “Sysadmin’s Choice” can’t be carried out by people who have even less institutional power than sysadmins, such as graduate students.

Perhaps closer to the original project is another one that is only slightly digital: “Librarian’s Choice.” Create a book that has two front covers, like Stephanie Strickland’s V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una or Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines or several other “double-ender” books that have been published, but set up with a spine that looks equally right either way, and so that the book is completely ambivalent about which side comes “first.” The librarian will have to choose which title to put first in the title field of the catalog, affecting the way that people can search for “titles beginning with…” If you can get the book into a circulating library rather than placed in a box in special collections, it will have to be marked one way or the other and consistently shelved that way, too. Of course, the material artifact that begins this whole process is very similar to the one in “Postman’s Choice,” so perhaps this isn’t an interesting analogy.

Maybe there’s another interesting one out there. Could there be an “Endian Choice”? Or some kind of “Poet and Perl Programmer’s Chocie”? Hmm, the correspondence isn’t coming to me…

Well … let me know if it comes to you instead.