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Answer on a postcard: footprints in time and space

M1 perec architectural review

All postcards, whether those of On Kawara, Georges Perec, soldiers from the front, or your beach holiday, are from the same place – from ‘away’

‘We’re staying at the Carlton. Getting ourselves a tan. Sublime meals. Terrible nights in the nightclubs. Back on the 11th.’ ‘We’re exploring the Quatre-Cantons. Lovely weather. The shorelines are superb. People friendly and open. Love and kisses.’ Georges Perec’s piece ‘Two Hundred and Forty-Three Postcards in Real Colour’, takes the form of 243 brief segments of text transcribed from the backs of imaginary postcards. We have all written postcards like this, we have all received postcards like this.

‘Kawara’s obsessive postcard sending can be seen as giving a deliberate attention to the colourless details of time and place, of routine and of the obvious’

Each of these examples begins with a locative clause (‘We are here’). It then describes something of what the authors are doing or have done in this place (‘we are doing/have done this’). It then makes a leap in one of two directions (both of which amount to the same thing in the end); it will move from their activities to some form of affection towards the person the card is to. Or it will predict the return home (or next spot on the journey). So ‘love and kisses’ or ‘back on the 11th’. These amount to the same thing temporally because they both make a leap from the writer, their current location in time and space, to the addressee (a leap in space) or the address (a leap in time and space). This temporal and spatial play takes place in every postcard presented by Perec. It also says (hopefully) that they will soon be home. The holiday will end. The writer will return to where he or she came from, he or she is thinking of the person they write to; they are thinking about home. ‘We’re crossing Ireland … Thinking about your sunburn!!!’ ‘We’re at the Hôtel Unterwald … Back on Sunday week.’ Perec’s collection makes an accurate play of the temporal leapfrog of the postcard. Each makes this triple jump of tense and space. The relationship between the near and the far is one that straddles a present and a future tense.

Unlike letters, postcards are from somewhere before they are from someone. Contrary to expectation, this ‘where’ is entirely irrelevant. All postcards are in fact from the same place. They are from ‘away’. This means that whatever else it says, the postcard is always saying the same thing. Although in this sense it is immaterial where the postcard is from, the writer will always reiterate the fact, even if the image on the reverse makes the announcement for them (which most will). What is being said, again and again, is this: this postcard in your hands, is from elsewhere. The postcard announces, we (the writers) are somewhere you (the reader) are not. It is a form of communication that carries this message regardless of what is actually written, it carries this message even if it is left blank.

Kawara postcard perec architectural review

Kawara postcard perec architectural review

Source: Collection of Keiji and Sawako Usami

The postcard is a footprint in time and space. Every day between 1968 and 1979, On Kawara sent two postcards, stamped with the time he got out of bed, rather than a sunny message from a holiday destination. A dying art form, the postcard has been replaced by the Instagram snap, sent to everyone, everywhere, immediately 

Perec’s piece was published just before the completion of the postcard projects of the Japanese artist On Kawara. The series, I Went, I Met and I Got Up, took the form of postcards and telegrams sent by the artist to friends over a number of years. The I Got Up series saw Kawara sending two postcards a day between 1968 and 1979, which detailed his location, the date, and the time he had woken up that morning. These postcards exaggerate Perec’s sense of the formulaic even further, each being formed by an adjustable rubber stamp and each bearing more identical texts. This heightened sense of the formula demonstrates a compulsive and desperate self-expression. 

Oddly prescient of the new telling permitted and encouraged by social digital media, the cards are at once intimate and starkly distant. They share the precise moment at which the sender’s day began, as well as his location, but do not tell anything else. The reader is left frustrated, curiosity piqued, appetite whetted, peering at the front and then back of the card like a detective left with only the most recalcitrant of clues. On the other hand, as Perec’s cards make clear, these postcards are representative of their form. ‘I’m here and not there’, is all that most postcards say. What Kawara’s cards miss out is the promise of imminent return – none of his cards suggest that the writer will ‘be back soon’. 

Portrait desk perec architectural review

Portrait desk perec architectural review

Source: Jean-Claude Deutsch / Paris Match / Getty 

George Perec explored the formulaic in 243 postcards

The compulsive nature of Kawara’s telling is significant in the sense that the postcard from holiday comes from a specific experience of time. Kawara’s postcards are explicitly timed as well as spaced. We can wonder how closely the fate of the postcard predicts that of social media; the forms of limited text and image that are becoming ubiquitous ways to communicate will fluctuate in their fashions too. The postcard went from being a novelty, to a commonplace, to something attached firmly to ‘holiday’ messaging. If holiday messages are now everywhere, does it mean the experience of time of the holiday is slipping its leash? Can too many postcards streamline nostalgia, so that you feel it even before you’ve left home?

Kawara can be seen to be playing a Perecian game – by queering his (and his recipients’) relationship with the banal experience of waking up he allows for a new perspective on this everyday occurrence. Perec suggested some practical exercises in observation, instructing his readers, ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless’. Kawara’s obsessive postcard sending can be seen as giving a deliberate attention to the colourless details of time and place, of routine and of the obvious.

Stamp perec architectural review

Stamp perec architectural review

Perec immortalised on a stamp made in 2002

Reading this work leads in two directions: the first is towards questions about the experience of days, of waking and sleeping, of consciousness and unconsciousness. This experience – interminable, repeated, but also insistent and relentless – and Kawara’s strict and brief formula is expressed in such a way as to recall the postcards which announced nothing but survival, sent by soldiers from the trenches during the First World War. As historian Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, ‘If a man was too tired to transcribe the clichés of the conventional phlegmatic letter … he could always resort to the government-generated postcard, which required only enough energy to cross out the inappropriate sentences and to affix one’s signature to the card’. Thousands of these postcards were sent to relatives after battles, where soldiers would cross out everything except ‘I am quite well’, this informing their families that they were still alive. These postcards constituted the first widely used ‘form’: infinite replication and utter uniformity.

The second direction Kawara’s postcards lead is towards themes of memory, impermanence and the archive. It is impossible to look at his work without being reminded of Derrida’s Archive Fever, which examines material supplements to spontaneous memory as a way of reading the history and possible future of Freudian psychoanalysis. Reading Freud’s archive and archaeological work alongside that of Wilhelm Jensen, and Jensen’s archaeologist  Hanold, Derrida credits Freud with the desire to find – to exhume – a clue, a piece of evidence that will explain itself; an imprint that is instantaneously self-evident. ‘An imprint that is singular each time, an impression that is almost no longer an archive but almost confuses itself with the pressure of the footstep that leaves its still-living mark on a substrate, a surface, a place of origin. When the step is still one with the subjectile.’

‘Strangely his cards have more in common with the scratched graffiti found on walls, doors and desks than they do with the letter, novel or obituary’

Drawing the postcard together with the idiosyncratic step, a footmark that identifies the gait and weight of its maker, reveals the fantasy, not just of Freud (and of all archaeologists, historians and detectives), but also of all writers (not just of postcards). On the part of the psychoanalytic detective, this is the desire to explain the present through the clues and evidence of the past. On the part of the writer, it is the desire to survive the present (to live a little longer). Kawara’s cards play with both anachronistic desires offering clues masquerading as facts to the detective and creating an index-able archive of a lived life that is at once written and unwritten in a bid for immortality. Strangely his cards have more in common with the scratched graffiti found on walls, doors and desks than they do with the letter, novel or obituary. The former are always more emphatic in stating the current absence of the author rather than their one-time presence. ‘You missed me!’ The graffiti shouts, and perhaps, ‘I miss you!’ This is why I have described them as compulsive and desperate, in their effort they seem to reassert that which they wish to avoid, rather like Perec’s own declaration of deferral which admits – even while espousing – the impossibility of holding anything still.

Lead image: The banality and ubiquity of the postcard peaked in the 1960s, when new motorways and service stations were a regular feature 

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today