Articles

One Artist’s Plan to Save the US Postal Service

by Jillian Steinhauer on April 17, 2014

Sign-up materials for Jennie Ottinger's "Postal Mortem" (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sign-up materials for Jennie Ottinger’s “Postal Mortem” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The United States Postal Service is in crisis: hemorrhaging money, searching for ways to fix the situation and being blocked by Congress, inching towards privatization. What can any of us do about? Not much, except send more mail.

That’s the idea behind artist Jennie Ottinger’s new project, called, cleverly, “Postal Mortem.” For it, Ottinger is starting an “Twitter-ish/Instagram-esque feed,” but the old-fashioned way, through the mail. Subscribers will receive postcards once or twice a week for the duration of the project. The cards will feature images on the front, drawn by Ottinger, and something like a tweet or photo caption on the back — words about the post office and “the wonders of mail,” Ottinger told Hyperallergic.

“I have many letters that my parents wrote to my grandparents. They are my most precious possessions,” Ottinger explained over email. “Would they have kept them if they were emails? Maybe but probably not. Also, having actual letters allows me to see the character of their handwriting and the stationary, which adds to the information I have about two people I didn’t know as an adult.” She continued:

Holding something that someone long ago held is a visceral experience. I think many of us feel a sense of awe when we look at letters between historical figures and see the idiosyncrasies of their handwriting. That feeling would not be the same if it could have been typed by anyone. There’s something about an email that implies that it is dashed off in the midst of working or something. Letters have a feeling that someone had to take time out of their day and keep you in mind long enough to complete a several step process.

A postcard from Jennie Ottinger's "Postal Mortem." The caption on the back reads: "We pay our bills the old fashioned way. We mail them." (click to enlarge)

A postcard from Jennie Ottinger’s “Postal Mortem.” The caption on the back reads: “We pay our bills the old fashioned way. We mail them.” (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

But Ottinger is driven by more than just nostalgia. She wants to save the USPS — even if she knows it’s impossible — out of a kind of civic pride. “I love getting mail, of course, but I also love the post office as an institution,” she said. “I love special things that are available for everyone. Like the library. I don’t know if I can describe the feeling I get when I think about how we get these wonderful things just because we are residents.” This idea of the post office as a public service, versus a business, is actually at the heart of the present battle over how best preserve it.

As Ottinger points out, though the medium that has largely replaced snail mail, email, may seem like a public service — perhaps even a better one, because it’s free — it is in fact run by private companies and “not free at all — computer, account that is not scanned for keywords for marketing purposes. Also, it might not cost money but there is the cost of your information and privacy when you sign up for anything online — something we don’t have to think about when sending a letter through the post.” Well, maybe. There have been some alarmist reports about the USPS wanting to mine users’ data in much the same way tech companies do, but for now, mail remains highly protected.

“Postal Mortem” will include not only the postcards, but also periodic “junk” mailings — flyers and Penny Saver–type ads created by Ottinger to promote USPS services and products. She’s also planning to hold a pledge drive at Mills College Art Museum to help raise funds for the project, an event that will feature art collective the Wonderment Consortium as MCs and stations with such mail-centric activities as writing angry letters to Congressman Darrell Issa, who wants to dismantle the USPS. And Ottinger encourages those who sign up for the core of the project, the postcard feed, to write and send their own cards back to her, thus putting even more mail through the system.

Front and back of one of Ottinger's planned postcards (image courtesy the artist)

Front and back of one of Ottinger’s planned postcards (image courtesy the artist)

For all the charm and optimism of the project, Ottinger remains a realist. “I like [the postal service] as a problem to address as an art project because it is revealing the absurdity of the venture to think that mailing stuff for a few months will affect such a huge operation,” she explained.

It’s true, of course: we won’t save the post office or solve its monumental problems just by mailing a couple hundred postcards. But for a few months, we will receive mail the old-fashioned way, and the pleasure will be so sweet.

Jennie Ottinger’s “Postal Mortem” will launch on or around May 1. A subscription costs $25 in check, credit card, or postage stamps. Those interested in signing up should send their address to the artist through her website, or write to her at 1777 Yosemite Ave, #90, San Francisco, CA 94124.

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