Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology

  • • Is it possible to communicate material properties and senses across long distances?
  • • How do exchange and sharing play a part in the understanding of material properties?
  • • How can artistic work help us understand material culture?

In April, a collaborative Skype workshop, The First Encounter, was held between members of the School of Material and Visual Culture, Massey University in New Zealand, and UCL Anthropology  in London.  During the workshop, we presented a year’s worth of work on material properties conducted by working with various heritage artifacts made of different materials.  The intention was to discover if, and how, we could think about the evasive cultural topic of what properties are, and whether we could use the stimulus of having to communicate across the breadth of the globe to find new ways of thinking about and representing them.
One of the pieces of work arrived in London from Mattijs Siljee, who had built a mechanical postcard in Massey and sent it to UCL.  It arrived as a flat wooden object, with a brass interior, about the dimensions of a postcard.  When we unfolded it and drew out the lever at the side, a mechanism in the postcard drew us an image on the spot.  At first, this was only visible to a couple of people.  As we passed it around, the image of an arrow piercing a heart shape was evident to everyone.
Subverting the digitally-mediated Skype meeting, the mechanical postcard worked to make the material object animate.  It blurred the distinctions between the intentions of the author and the question of whether we had written the message ourselves, or whether Mattijs had.  Rather, the postcard itself seemed to have acted itself.  It was not just a neutral and passive conduit of information, blurring into the background and attempting invisibility and social camouflage  like Skype software.  It flaunted its agency.  However, the postcard placed us under a sense of obligation to somehow respond to the surprising, complicated and engaging artifact, which evidenced so much intellectual work.
The power in the postcard was partly intentional.  It was intended as a response to work presented by UCL student researchers on the properties of a decorated spear thrower in UCL’s collection, whose capacity to both fascinate and launch violence is evident.  The image of an arrow-pierced heart combined violence with love, and also seemed to represent a forceful bodily intermingling of object and person.  It followed the journey from the Southern hemisphere which the spear thrower had made, some decades ago, and reboundingly emphasised its emotive humanity.
The mechanical postcard was donated by Mattijs to the ethnographic collection located in the basement heart of UCL anthropology, and has taken up residence alongside many artefacts from across the world where, perhaps, its energy may be stored.
At present, UCL anthropology remains contemplating an adequate response to the gift of the postcard.

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