Communicating through letters / Talking through screens

Almost all sizable gatherings now occur over Video Conferencing. The platforms (Teams, Zoom, Slack…) blend into the invisible infrastructure of social life. It no longer even feels strange for me to have 2 simultaneous meetings going on on different devices or tabs. I feel a bit like Hermione in the Harry Potter books – able to avoid timetable clashes because she was given a special time travelling clock which really turned her into a secretive nervous wreck.

Recently, the viral success of Handforth Parish Council’s disastrous Zoom meeting illustrates a common frustration with the medium. Microphones never muted at the right time, unflattering camera angles, awkward silences. It’s something we all just accept as the inevitable result of attempting to recreate ‘community’ in a time of social shutdown.

But what happens when you discuss other forms of community-building communication over Video Conferencing?

This was the joy of attending (sigh) yet another online gathering. Curator Eliel Jones and artist Jesse Darling discussed the Queer Correspondence Mail Art project through a classic Video Conference event. Queer Correspondence ran for 6 months during 2020. By mailing the carefully considered words of artists to participants who signed up, it created a community linked by artwork. The whole idea of the project was to highlight communication as a gift between people. 800 people scattered all over the globe became part of the same imagined (yet tangible) community through the post.

Listening in to Jones and Darling speak, I was conscious of my position as part of a voyeuristic, tab-jumping audience. In witnessing their intimate conversation – taking place in the private space of their bedrooms – I felt uncomfortably as if I was intruding on something too human to be made available to the invisible, anonymous audience. The speakers knew they were reduced to 2 context-less and spied upon bodies yet nevertheless they decided to show themselves openly. 

Their discussion made me appreciate the extent to which performing to a sinister Video Conference audience alters the sorts of messages we seek to broadcast and therefore the communities we form. 

In contrast to being the anonymous onlooker to a screened performance, I appreciated for the first time how the letter enables a showcasing of human vulnerability. In the act of sitting down to write to an audience with a tangible address, there is a certainty that whatever feeling there was behind your message – it will not get lost in the pixels and time lags. It’s lovely to sit down and think about the person you are writing. Taking the time to write a letter to a friend triggers a loss of self consciousness and a relaxation of the fear of being misunderstood.

Queer Correspondence showed me how things might be otherwise. In our disconnected times, mass video calls and messages disrupted by autocorrect are the not only ways to form communal relationships. Rather, the letter emerged during that video conference as a more honest, truthful way of communicating. Maybe it’s because the cost of words mailed by post means that one must really think about why a particular relationship matters and what it is that one misses about that person and wants them to feel in receiving the message. Or maybe it’s because of the value we ascribe to the handwritten word which somehow feels more sincere and heartfelt than a flood of pinging messages in standardised font.  

But whatever it is, letter writing allows for human vulnerability and emotion not to get lost in the medium or format of communication. Human, handwritten words, the mystery hidden inside an envelope, the transformation of an archaic system like the post – all combine to make Queer Correspondence a beautiful work of artful community building linking disparate bodies tangibly through space. The initiative shows we all need to think carefully about how the platforms we rely on so heavily for interaction influence the sorts of communities and group feelings which are able to emerge.  Even in today’s internet there is surely a place for the slow, intimate letter in the formation of very 21st C group solidarities.

Link to Queer Correspondence:

https://www.cellprojects.org/queer-correspondence