In Transit

The handwritten letter is a tangible product inextricably associated with nostalgic value. It is associated with a former age when the black mirror did not permeate the texture of our everyday lives. The act of writing a letter involves multiple bodies- that of the writer, the postman, the addressee and any other potential reader at a later time. An inland letter is a fond memory, where the writer had to navigate a designated space for writing. The paper is peculiarly shaped and can be folded into an envelope before posting. Oftentimes, writers would run out of space. So, following the end of the empty space, their words would spill over on the margins, enveloping existing sentences, and sometimes outside on the back of the envelope. The visual of this second-hand memory evokes in me a sense of abundance, where feelings are literally bursting at the seams of the paper slate.

Video: Annette Jacob

5 gms | 70 gsm | 1000 x 1000 Incidents by Actant Sangeeta Rana intends to create a ripple effect by bringing back into function the intimate act of writing inland letters. Literally referring in its title to the permissible dimensions of the letter as specified by the government-operated postal service in India, the project looks at the materiality of the letter, the hands through which it is exchanged and the chain of emotions its content evokes. The letters are dropped in a postbox installed on the premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, from which a dedicated postman collects them at 3:30 pm every day for dispersion. The letters are made public (with permission), thereby, making them accessible to readers other than the intended bodies. The content generates reactions, often resulting in more writers taking up letters to post through borrowed inspiration. The addressees in the letters vary from romantic subjects such as a beloved, a lost parent or one’s own younger self, a teacher to whom one hadn’t expressed their appreciation in time to ones addressed to historical figures and institutions; cumulatively, they span an expansive temporal scope. The letters retain a personal trace of the writer (and bearer) through the language and penmanship. The inland letters encouraged and displayed as part of this project are in multiple languages and, through reproductions of emoticons and doodles, also accommodate linguistic codes of a generation not acquainted with the concept otherwise.

Above: Letters dropped into the postbox for correspondence scanned and displayed on the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan premises | Credit: Sangeeta Rana

In the art of correspondence, the trajectory of the word in consecutively identifiable (and poetic) arrangements is what enables comprehension and lends the letter its quality of appreciation. So even the haphazard spillage makes sense. What happens to the word when it is uprooted from its anchor and placed in an alien setting? Does it adapt to its new environment or repel in abhorrence of the new context?

Actant Renuka Rajiv also creates a ripple effect through the transmission of the word via postal exchange through her project, Postal Modernism 2.0. Based in Bangalore, they ship a parcel containing a series of words (cut-pasted against black chart paper) to friends and acquaintances in Delhi. These acquaintances, who take on the role of ‘Ground Actants’, place the text in different corners of the premise, generally in locations that evade easy scrutiny. Then they send back clues about the locations to Renuka through drawings/sketches on postcards, who is meant to use them to find the text on the premise when they are in Delhi for de-installation later in the year. This project involves multiple players and embodies a sense of process and flexibility of interpretation. One of the Ground Actants, Jennifer Kishan, says that the absence of obligation gave her the liberty to exercise agency in choosing the locations for specific clusters of text: “I thought, for instance, that a small slip saying ‘no man’ belonged in the women’s bathroom!”

Above: Deconstructed text on a glass-pane as part of Postal Modernism 2.0 | Credit: the author

The text is found on library walls, glass panes, fire extinguishers, banisters, iron pipes and such other site-specific locations. The text may engage the reader’s attention or simply act as a passing vision in the periphery. Renuka doesn’t expect the text to establish meaningful relationships with the reader every time. Instead, what interests her is the cumulative presence of the text (as parcels are scheduled to flow into Delhi in increasing numbers over the next few months) and the ways in which it could pervade the landscape of the said institutions. Lacking hierarchy of intention, the project enables contradiction, ambiguity and inter-referentiality between text and non-text.

Above: Ground Actant Anand Shenoy’s clues about the locations of the text for Renuka

Sharing a peculiar resonance, the two projects navigate the written word through the interconnections established between bodies in transit. While Sangeeta hopes for the letters to take the shape of an additive installation, Renuka’s project focuses its lens the other way, where the attention is concentrated in small pockets and the handwritten word is displaced by an idiosyncratic arrangement of floating text. The epistolary form of communication is tethered to a tradition of privacy, which has mutated with time and dispersed into a conversation amongst plural bodies. Renuka’s project deconstructs the form by communicating through de-contextualized text with no specific, intended body of reader in mind. While the inland letters issue from intention and follow a route out of the premises, Renuka’s idiosyncratic letters and illustrations progressively occupy corners of the physical structures of the institutions, simultaneously evading and attracting attention in their contextual oddity.

Both projects follow additive trajectories, enabling a plethora of micro-incidents to take place via accidents, glances and postal stamps, going back and forth in time to see how words communicate when not spoken. People wrote letters every day for a while as long as a postman arrived on the premises to collect them for dispersal to designated addresses. Words, affect and non-textual expressions fermented across the paper carriers as each one carried the dilemma of an absent presence. Words also found corners in departure from their assigned context, occupying the peripheries of human vision. The text floats either way.

Cover Image: Postal Modernism 2.0 | Credit: Annette Jacob

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