By Simon Clark
In January 2007 I took part in a group art exhibition at the Museo de la Ciudad in Quito, Ecuador. I was one of five Europeans selected to present work alongside five Ecuadorian artists. On completing this project I took the opportunity to travel around Ecuador for a while. After being robbed at gunpoint, becoming seriously ill on top of a frozen volcano, and then getting trapped inside a recompression chamber due to a power cut at the local hospital, I finally found some peace on the Galápagos Islands.
During my tour of the Galápagos I visited an island called Floreana. In previous centuries, Floreana provided safe anchorage and a plentiful food supply for the buccaneers and whalers who roamed the Pacific. Seafarers frequenting the island would often leave their letters and correspondence in a barrel lying on the beach. Subsequent travelers would then sort through the barrel, and deliver any items that were addressed to their next port of call. In this way an informal, free postal service was established and the stretch of beach became known as Post Office Bay.
To this day an old barrel mounted on a pole still functions as a makeshift letterbox for the island. It is situated on a sandy track that leads up from the beach, sitting amid a collection of driftwood and debris that has been personalized by passing travelers over the years. Tourists are now invited to place a postcard without a stamp into the barrel, in the hope that a future visitor will one day pick it up and deliver it on to its intended destination.
On hearing this story I was initially skeptical; it just seemed like a novel way of selling postcards to impressionable tourists. But I was gradually charmed by the idea of a free but incredibly slow postal service that runs on an economy of goodwill between strangers. So when I arrived at Post Office Bay I sorted through hundreds of postcards, some of which had been in the barrel for years, and found twenty-two addressed to locations spread out across the British Isles.
As soon as the postcards were in my care, I imagined hand-delivering each one of them in person. I was drawn to the ridiculous yet romantic impracticality of this idea – an absurdly literal pledge of fidelity to an antiquated tradition. I understood the burgeoning plan as an anachronistic celebration of a mode of correspondence rendered obsolete by digital communication. Set against a prevailing context of instant messaging and emails, I would be responsible for taking each postcard on a long and arduous physical journey to its intended recipient. But rather than treat this as a purely nostalgic endeavor, I hoped that my interpersonal and site-specific trip might mobilize some critical reflections on the disembodied nonplace-ness of contemporary connectivity.
The postcards themselves seemed to be brimming with potential – imbued with the prospect of an adventure that I was yet to have. I also perceived an affective poignancy in the humble, handwritten messages; they ossified a moment of absence between the sender and the recipient, and the slowly fading salutations spoke to the fact that all human relationships are subject to entropy and the passing of time.
After I returned from the Galápagos, two and a half years passed before I was in a position to action my plan. In the summer of 2009, I set out on a journey to personally hand-deliver each postcard to its destination. I traveled by train and bicycle for almost three weeks, staying at little B+Bs and cheap hotels along the way.
The addresses written on the back of each postcard plotted the coordinates of my journey. So even though I was delivering the postcards, it felt like the postcards were delivering me to the various addresses they bore. Starting from London, I went down to Dorset, through Dartmoor to Exmoor, up into Gloucestershire and then across to Wales. From there I took the ferry to Dublin and made my way over to the west coast of Northern Ireland. The next stop was Belfast, and then Glasgow via the ferry into Stranraer. After Stirling, the northernmost point of my trip, I slowly made my way south, taking in Northumbria National Park, Middlesbrough, Thirsk, Peterborough, Cambridge and East Anglia along the way. The addresses I visited ranged from Victorian terraces and suburban new builds to bucolic country cottages and sprawling private estates.
The first three recipients were not at home when I turned up at their houses, so I left a brief letter explaining how the postcard had arrived there. However, as I cycled off at the end of that first day, I felt a sense of anticlimax. As soon as I had delivered the postcards it was as if the revered status I had afforded them suddenly evaporated. They returned to being touristy tat, with garish and over-saturated images on one side, and banal platitudes scrawled on the reverse. I remember one recipient in particular looking at the postcard quite awkwardly, as if he could not quite tally its inherent tackiness with the weighty significance I had bestowed upon it.
Nevertheless, once each recipient had a chance to process the story behind my journey, many offered me their hospitality. Tea and biscuits became an almost daily ritual for me, and I found myself slipping into a slightly more naïve and polite version of myself in order to navigate the weirdness of turning up unannounced at the recipients’ front doors. I noticed that the protocols of Britishness came to the fore in those situations – it opened up a common ground, allowing the recipient and I to maneuver more comfortably within what was essentially quite an unusual set of circumstances.
And in between these encounters, the physical element of the trip: Some moments on my bicycle were extremely grueling – the Devonshire hills in the blazing heat and the outskirts of Glasgow in the driving rain – while others were joyously breathtaking – pedaling through the Stirlingshire countryside and barreling down the high coastal roads towards Chesil Beach.
I met some fascinating people along the way: the ex-Olympian jockey who let me sleep in his horsebox alongside two shivering dogs when all the local rooms were full; the parish councillor whose chickens roamed freely through her house; the Glaswegian couple, lured to Middlesbrough over forty years ago to work at the huge factory looming just beyond their back garden, who proudly named their house after their Scottish clan; the friendly cheese farmer from Dorset who sent me on my way with packets of her award winning cheddar; the bemused employee of a retired Lord Lieutenant who received an innuendo-laden postcard from his boss; the ex-British soldier who, having served in Northern Ireland and now living in the South, was anxious to keep his military past a secret; the doctor’s secretary who was touched to receive a postcard from an ex-patient who had vowed to travel to the Galápagos as soon as he was well again.
And then there was the horse dealer with a sad smile and watery eyes who charmed me with stories over a bottle of wine. He was keen to make me laugh, and looked at me with an expectant smile every time he dropped a witticism into the conversation. I was happy to oblige his need for affirmation with warm laughs, but as we continued drinking he became increasingly morose, quietly berating himself over his personal tally of broken and estranged relationships.
Another recipient I met was an ecologist in Cambridge who had visited the Galápagos herself. We had a conversation about the uncomfortable fact that the postcards, while celebrating the rich diversity of life on the islands, are symptomatic of one of the main threats to their future – namely, non-sustainable tourism. The Ecuadorian government has embraced conservation efforts on the Galápagos, and the islands have recently been removed from The UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s list of endangered sites. However, Tim Badman, head of the World Heritage Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says that “threats from tourism, invasive species and overfishing are still factors and the situation in the Galápagos remains critical.”
Tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon on Floreana, and during the first half of the twentieth century the tiny island was only sporadically and sparsely inhabited. In his book The Galápagos Affair, John Treherne meticulously recounts the stories of some of the early settlers on Floreana, including two Germans – Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter – who voyaged there in 1929. Treherne claims that the couple were concerned about the prospect of living without dental care on the island, and so before leaving Germany they had all their teeth taken out and replaced with steel dentures. Influenced by the philosopher Nietzsche, Ritter hoped to eschew the traditional and mundane notions of morality that he believed neutered his political contemporaries. He yearned instead to live according to an uncompromised, self-determined ideal whereby he would brush up against calamity and confront the tribulations of survival away from the anodyne compromises of civil society.
Strauch and Ritter made Floreana their home, but other settlers soon ruined the sanctity of their isolated abode. Rumors and conspiracy theories now abound regarding the beguiling circumstances that led to a spate of unexplained disappearances and deaths on the island. In 1934 Ritter himself suffered a slow and agonizing demise after unwittingly eating a foul piece of meat, whereupon Strauch returned to Germany and wrote a book about her adventures on Floreana. Ritter claimed from his deathbed that Strauch deliberately sabotaged the meat, though she always maintained her innocence. Treherne claims that while Ritter held his own project in high regard, other visitors to the island perceived him rather differently. They reported that his settlement, far from being an independent and self-sustaining idyll, was in fact a squalid and ramshackle set up – badly built and dependent on imported produce. Furthermore, Ritter is portrayed not so much as an emancipated libertine but as a small-minded and sadistic pedant. Treherne suggests that Ritter’s ideal mode of living was never realized; he merely evoked an impression of it through the bombastic and exaggerated tales he told to any visitors who were prepared to listen.
This story fed my own ruminations as I set out on my first day of cycling. I wondered to what extent I was like Ritter: pragmatically enduring the experience so that I might recount a more idealized and romantic version of it at a later date. On day one, I perceived a malevolence lurking behind the facades of the pretty cottages in St. Albans, although this was just a projection of my own internal sense of foreboding. I was intimidated by the sprawling gulf that separated the idea of the journey from the daunting reality of being stuck on my bike for many hours each day.
From the moment I discovered the postcards, I had been treating the entire undertaking as a project of some description – as part of my existing art practice. However, I had not decided how to document the process or frame it as a piece of work. Despite this uncertainty, I knew that I did not want to produce some sort of anthropological narrative. I was wary of setting myself up as a detached storyteller, voyeuristically accumulating portraits of the postcard recipients without acknowledging my own subjective participation.
So in the absence of a better idea, I started taking selfies in front of all the road signs and railway stations featuring the names of the destinations I visited. In the build up to the trip, I had been poring over the addresses on the back of the postcards for so long that they had almost become a collection of sound poems – phonetic utterances, emptied of meaning. So I was quite thrilled to suddenly find these abstracted signifiers reified as concrete place names – as functional words ‘in situ’.
I also had a mini DV camera with me. When I arrived at a particularly scenic view, I would set up the camera precariously at the roadside, press record, cycle out of view, turn around and then cycle back towards the camera again. I particularly enjoyed the drama of my bike wheels rushing past the lens with only inches to spare, so I started deliberately swerving towards the camera in order to maximize this effect. Looking back at this footage, I am embarrassed and amused in equal measure to have forfeited a more orthodox documentary conceit in favor of a playful and boyish stunt. I also see myself simulating my own reality – augmenting my lived experience in service of the mediated spectacle.
This tension between the moment itself and its documentation – between experience and representation – became an overriding concern for me. I realized that I did not want to frame my travels as an illustration or recital of a fully resolved proposition. Instead of trying to give representational form to an abstracted and pre-existing idea, I started treating the journey as an open-ended and speculative piece of research. I abandoned my efforts to resolve the project conceptually, and began treating the trip itself as a playful and experimental mode of investigation. This realization allowed me to live out a more spontaneous and itinerant experience as I traveled from one destination to the next.
Irit Rogoff’s writing provides a retroactive theoretical context for these ideas. She challenges our propensity to understand cultural phenomena through pre-existing edifices of knowledge. To counter this pattern of reading culture, Rogoff sets up “criticality” as a participatory and immersive mode of discourse in which meaning “takes place in the present”, demanding a “living out the very conditions” that we are attempting to scrutinize. This mode of engagement sets us all up as “fellow sufferers” who experience “culture as a form of entanglements.” Rogoff’s notion of criticality invites us to recognize the extent to which we are “undone” by encounters that exceed our assumptions and existing accumulations of knowledge. (More of Rogoff’s writing here and here.)
In response to Rogoff’s ideas, I now recognize my postcard project as an evolving and open-ended experiment that is activated whenever it comes into contact with new audiences. It exists – incompletely – across a range of platforms: as an exhibit, a performance, a piece of writing, a collection of anecdotes and as a series of undocumented encounters. But in each of these iterations, a recurring observation emerges; an opportunistic discovery on a tiny island, over 6,000 miles away, ended up sending me on an intimate and immersive adventure through my own country. Each postcard, with its gaudy depiction of a distant archipelago, became a portal through which I was able to experience some of the complexities and contradictions of an altogether different set of islands – the British Isles.
Freewheeling down a narrow country lane, enjoying the hum of my tires as they chase along the hot tarmac. I’m distracted by a long and wretched moo coming from an adjacent field. A poor cow, only a few meters away, is having the bovine equivalent of an existential crisis – an abject breakdown particular to its own species that will forever escape human classifications of suffering.
I book myself into a picturesque B+B in a tiny village on the edge of Exmoor. The proprietors are Tina and Peter – a very polite, courteous and softly spoken couple who have worked in hospitality for many years. After checking in, I deliver a postcard to a recipient living in the same village. When I return later, I see Peter kneeling on top of the garage holding a television aerial, whilst Tina is leaning precariously out of an upstairs window. She checks the picture quality indoors, and then shouts out instructions to Peter. “NO, NO… YES, THAT’S IT. DON’T MOVE. NO, IT’S GONE AGAIN…” Tina doesn’t notice my approach, and only sees me when I am at the front door, right beneath the window. She immediately freezes and then appears to wilt, as if this little scene has shattered her veneer of gentle professionalism. She apologizes profusely while Peter, still oblivious to my presence, shouts, “Is that any better? Tina? TINA! How is it now? TINA! BLOODY HELL. TINA! TINA!” She explodes, “JUST WAIT!” before turning to face me again, her cheeks burning indignantly. “Now, is there anything I can get you?” she intones, still hanging out the window.
Later on in the evening, I eat in Tina and Peter’s restaurant. I am the only customer. Peter prepares the food while Tina waits on me. In the corner of the dining room there is a little glass-panelled door going through to the kitchen. I can see Tina hovering just beyond it, gauging when she should next come out to check on me. Every few minutes she emerges hesitantly and walks over, her footsteps filling the empty room. On each occasion she offers a formal enquiry into to my wellbeing, before retreating again to her little spot behind the door. I try my hardest to reassure her that everything is fine, but the awkward intimacy of this repetitive set piece is uniquely and exquisitely mortifying. We are both locked in a very British ritual – an endless dance of etiquette and politeness that is almost too excruciating to endure.
Brandy and a white toweling dressing gown. This isn’t really me; I’m just pretending.
The conversation is suddenly stilted; we are both a little self-conscious to have signposted a measure of interest in each other. We hit a silence, but she calmly and carefully fills it by announcing that, at the moment, she is looking for a lover rather than an intimate relationship. She then asks me what I want. Her gentle honesty is a revelation. To be addressed so frankly and openly, without any sense of pressure and obligation, is profoundly freeing. Everything catches up with me, and I start to weep. I try to laugh at myself – to explain my strange reaction – but the sobbing chokes me. She strokes my head stiffly, not quite knowing how to offer genuine comfort to a man she barely knows. After that night we never met up again.
I’m sitting in a pub, jotting down some reflections on my travels so far. I want to sample the legendary ‘Dublin craic’, but I’m feeling self-conscious and can’t quite bring myself to look up from my notebook. However, a young man soon approaches and asks what I’m writing. Within minutes I’m recounting my postcard story to his group of friends. They insist that I join them for the rest of the evening. It’s exhilarating at first, but I feel myself slipping out of view as the music gets louder. Later, I need to go to bed and be in a different day.
My mood is entangled with the hills. I can’t tell if I’m writing the landscape, or if it’s writing me. Either way, I feel terrible.
She’s expecting me. Her in-laws have told her that I will probably turn up at her door with a postcard; I did the same to them a few days earlier. I notice a little stain of milky vomit on the shoulder of her dark blue T-shirt. She doesn’t invite me in, and firmly refuses my request to take her picture. That’s absolutely fine, I say.
There’s a chicken perched on a wheelbarrow. I don’t appreciate it myself, but imagine that someone else might.
I can’t believe I just rang her mum by mistake. I didn’t realize immediately as they sound so similar on the phone. It’s dark down by the river. I’m away from the lights.
. Underwater swimming.
. Beautiful anemones with detachable suckers.
. The dog shoves its nose in my groin,
. then everything is fine.
. Cosmic Wolf