Mail Gaze

Mail Gaze


It was inconspicuous, yet it was unavoidable. It was a patchwork column of cardboard boxes stacked in the narrow hallway of my apartment building. The “bricks”—tenants’ mail—composing the column varied in size, but were assembled to compensate for each other. The largest package—the most cubic—formed the base, and the most eccentric, flat, long box crowned the midsection, giving the column a Doric profile. The shaft was remarkably symmetrical, the seams between boxes very precise. It stood at a height of about six feet, and was perhaps two and half feet wide and deep. I observed the column sometime after 10PM, as I walked through the hall. Whenever next I stepped into the hallway, a couple hours later, it had been disassembled.

The Column was easy to dismiss, given its environment and its apparent ethic of assembly, which communicated no artistic intent. But the very dismissal of The Column as an art object opens a window into its interrogation as such (or perhaps as an anthropological artifact). Four aspects, in particular, demand discussion: its authorship, aesthetic theory and materials, and platform. Peculiarities in these elements of form demand a second thought, however. Concerning authorship, one may well assume that the anonymous creator took the role of vandal or prankster, and not of artist, in building The Column. One may even assume “alcohol was involved,” as is said to imply that inebriation itself is the author of the act in question. Perhaps this is true: It is almost preposterous to suppose that a single tenant (even in the East Village), in a moment of sudden inspiration, stooped to collect the building’s mail, and to order it into an avant-garde monument; it is even more incredible that someone may have planned the installation over time. A scene of drunken shenanigans between two or three young professionals comes to mind more readily. The Column was not built to convey a profound message, but to call attention to itself. It was a prank, not a sculpture. This does not mean The Column was not art, only that, as a prank, it may be considered performance art.

The recipe for a prank is a mixture of forgiven discomfort, expensive joviality, and ironical cleverness. One pranks another by doing him an impermanent wrong, then either rectifying it or seeking forgiveness in laughter. A degree of intimacy must be assumed to justify this process: The prankster must know that whomever he pranks will forgive him, and must know the pranked person well enough to recognize proper boundaries. The less intimate the prankster is with the recipient (or victim), the less extreme the prank must be. It is generally considered inappropriate for a stranger to prank someone unless this stranger has a camera to establish universal intimacy by including them in the art (letting them in on the joke). A prank is of as much quality as irony regarding the recipient’s identity or expectations. Spiders may be used to prank an arachnophobe; sugar may be replaced with salt to prank someone baking a cake. Intimate discomfort, humor, irony: These are the ground rules of the art.

The mail column can therefore be seen partly as an expression of its authors’ relationships with their audience, the recipients of the prank. These recipients were any tenants (like me) who happened to see The Column. A space that belonged in part to them was being intentionally imposed upon by the actions of others. Boxes usually relegated to the corner of the hall were now obstinately stacked in its middle. Dually implicated were those tenants whose mail supported the structure. Their own private property was manipulated to antagonize them while also being displayed before their neighbors. Their ownership and privacy—regarding both their mail, and the building at large—were challenged, but in an impermanent, unharmful way. No property was destroyed or stolen; no compromising personal details were shared. The Column also played and preyed on the social contract between neighbors, bringing into question the intimacy shared amongst people who live apart in the same building.

The author’s anonymity poses the question of intimacy as one that is almost compromising. Most pranks are anonymously performed, but claimed after their performance to provide intimacy as a comfort to the recipient, and to include them in the humor. The Column, however, remains anonymous, unclaimed. The effect is eerie: The author asserts through this chimera of property and names (some or none of which may belong to the author) an intimacy that is untraceable, invasive, subject to manipulation. Even more startlingly, The Column stands as proof that anyone in the building can exploit this strange intimacy, which is a product of proximity and not social relation.

Diagram of two columns, with markings separating each section.
Diagram of round and cornered Doric columns, marking the capital (1), astragal (2), shaft (3), and base (4). (Image from Column & Post: “Product Overview”)

The aesthetics of the piece require very careful analysis. Considering the mode of authorship, The Column must be addressed strictly for what it is and how it is seen, not for what it was intended to be (it will be assumed that only the very basic aesthetic components are intentional at all). To assess The Column for commentary on “support networks,” “social foundations,” or any other buzzwords or poetical constructions borders on pedantry. And though Freud tries to crawl into every bed, he does not live in my building—the artist’s subconscious will not be discussed.

The Column is maybe the second-simplest architectural feature, after a wall. A more complex sculpture mimicking Stonehenge, the Empire State Building, or the Temple of Kukulcan would have been more physically intriguing. The Doric column is only barely distinct from a rectangular prism. It does not invite one to question its shape as content. However, it is immediately recognizable, and garners some reaction from its audience. I knew when I saw The Column that it was a column, that it was meant to be a column, and that it was not serving the function of a column. Its true function was to reorganize the boxes obstructively into view, consideration, and personal space. The piece’s columnitude was an effective vehicle for presenting other, more important aesthetic features.

It is easy to dismiss because it seems so commonplace. After recognizing The Column for its shape and constitution, there is little left on the surface to consider. It is already a familiar object, one that earns little more contemplation than the individual boxes scattered on the floor. As common as their shapes may be in the world, however, this column and its constituent boxes were both out of place. The Column, as aforementioned, was useless in a hallway where it didn’t touch the ceiling, but very effective in drawing attention to itself. Tall and physically imposing, it blocked one’s way in the hall, and monopolized his field of view, demanding reflection.

The boxes provide uniformity of shape despite the Schrodinger-esque shapelessness of their contents. One box may contain a book, another a candle, another a pair of tongs. Yet all of these objects, though very differently shaped, will project themselves through their respective boxes, and present as rectangular prisms. On a very basic level, the boxes and their uniformity hide and obscure the diversity of their contents. This is done for the sake of convenience in shipping, and the sake of privacy in delivery. Still, a deeper look at this uniformity reveals that the boxes not only hide and protect their contents just as walls hide and protect the residents of a building, but also equate the contents to each other to form a network. Items that are incongruous—a book, a candle, tongs—are obfuscated to form one very rigid structure: a column.

A stone ziggurat rises by concentric square platforms from the Earth.
Even as columns come, the Doric column is perhaps the least interesting architectural feature one could emulate. A more extravagant structure, like the Temple of Kukulkan, would be a more provocative allocation of cardboard. (Image by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons)

The Column is composed of found materials: mail that is physically foreign to the apartment building, but conceptually native to the mail area in the hallway. Each package has an identity contingent on ownership, and this identity exists in varying degrees of individuality. All are labelled with the same address. Each is labelled with a unique apartment number, but this number accords to one shared system (a number and a letter to numerate floor and identify door). On each package is typed the name of its recipient. This name, of course, differs between most packages because most belong to different people. This identity may be the most unique because it refers directly to an individual person. However, there are many other numbers and codes printed on each box that provide it with more identity. These codes cannot be read by the average person, and so remain an anonymous component of the boxes’ identities.

If translated, some information might read like a cross between a travel log and immigration documentation, establishing human and transactional links across space and time. This is all information about a recipient to which he lacks literate or ready access. He has no control over its proliferation, and no idea how it might be used (and by whom). Out of logistic necessity, a commercial alter ego who exists simultaneously in multiple places and times is created and designed to suit the transactions in which one participates. Different from dropping digital breadcrumbs with credit card purchases or browsing history, this shipped existence is lived for a person by his purchases (and the occasional personal package mailed by a friend).

The boxes’ identities are inharmonious, their combination absurd. Their individual content does not meld into a cohesive composition. Only their shapes are compatible, but lend themselves to haphazard assembly and not deliberate orchestration. Yet, it is this discord of form and content, and this conflict of identity that make the boxes so interesting to engage. If a person located his own package in The Column, he would be faced with a certain dilemma. To claim his stake in the environment of which his own property is part, he would have to dismantle that environment in one of two ways: He could simply pull his own box out, and let the structure crumble, exposing his neighbors’ property to damage, or he could take the time and care to move others’ packages aside. The second option is certainly more courteous, and more socially acceptable, but still requires not only that one take more time to uncover this piece of himself—his property—but also that he take responsibility for others’. Seeking individuality within The Column entails a deconstruction that is exacting in a similar manner to the deconstruction of any social fabric. It demands that one set himself apart from those to whom he relates, and also that he take on a brief intimacy with their identities (to acquaint himself with what he is not).

Like an apartment, a box is private, personal, sensitive; it stores its content within walls, behind an address. As a package, it has only the functions of identity, security, and portability. As long as it arrives at the right place, without internal damage, it has completed its task. It will not be integrated into its recipient’s life. In fact, the ownership ascribed to the purchases one makes is rarely offered at all to the packaging in which the goods arrive. Most disown their boxes after the boxes are emptied, discarding the cardboard and shedding their printed identities forever. The box’s content, whatever it may be, joins with its owner and takes on the identity of its use. The box acts not only as a barrier to its content, but also as a transient form of the content itself. In this sense, it is more like a hallway than a room.

The hallway, a space designed to facilitate the simplest transport of people and objects between other spaces, is not a space for presentation. This is especially true of the hallway in my building: It is cramped and unevenly lit by one bright yellow light; the bare white walls have been scuffed grey; the orange tiles of the floor are cracked and dirty. The ambience ushers one through and away without inviting any dallying to ponder an art object. If anything, the hallway is a somewhat hostile environment. Lingering there for any reason edges one toward anxiety, as if the walls threaten to crush him or meander elsewhere, losing him forever. It is no wonder so many scenes in horror films take place in hallways. They are settings of placelessness and vulnerability—hardly qualities a curator would seek to cultivate in a gallery.

The alienating effect of the hallway stems from its design as a negative space between positive spaces of function and social performance. One experiences very distinct, recognizable existences in different rooms: In the kitchen, I cook and eat; in the living room, I relax and socialize; in the bathroom, I shower and shave; in the bedroom, I sleep and dress. Of course, there are exceptions and additions to these actions, as well as commonality between rooms (one may eat in the living room, or dress in the bathroom, for example), but undoubtedly, the rooms serve particular functions—that is why they have different names. It is certainly possible, but extremely uncommon for hygiene to be practiced in the living room as it is in the bathroom; similarly, it is extraordinary to socialize in the bathroom. Spaces are designed to facilitate such distinctions. This is why we have interior walls—there is no real need for a bathroom to be separated from the living room, but it is accepted that the functions of both rooms are incompatible enough to warrant division. The hallway is characterized more by space and walls than any other room because its function is to divide and intermediate. Barely a room itself, the hallway serves as a membrane between rooms of more active function. The emptier it is, the more effective.

Just as walls divide rooms by utility, social codes divide them by performance. Rooms provide context for identity, and tint that identity with their own characteristics. In the kitchen one becomes a cook and a consumer of food; in the bedroom one becomes asleep, and, of course, many become lovers. Breaking these soft social molds is adventurous but possible. A host who invites his guests to dine with him in his bedroom may be considered “bohemian” to the wonderment or chagrin of his company. People who take the role of lovers in the kitchen may find a thrill or discomfiture in crossing that boundary. The hallway, however, seems to vaporize identity in the same way other rooms impart it. Furnishings classify a room and invite one to engage with its purpose (a room may become a living room when one adds a couch), but a hallway has no unique furnishings because its task is to remove a person from itself. It does not invite; it ushers. The identity of the room itself is transience, and so the occupant’s identity becomes one determined to disappear. Further alienation stems from the hallway’s capacity to decide. A person has no choice over where a hallway can take him; he can only choose where it does take him out of a certain set of options.

Horror movies often play on these anxieties. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) provides one of the most recognizable examples in a scene where a young boy, Danny, rides his tricycle down the halls of the Overlook Hotel. He stops when confronted by apparitions of two young, murdered girls. They do nothing to him but call to him and stand at the very end of the hall, far away but still blocking his path. Momentarily, they transform into their own bloody corpses, but disappear soon after, leaving Danny unharmed, but not unscarred.

The scene is unsettling for a number of reasons, even besides its depicted violence, and the perversion of feminine innocence common to horror films. Immediately, the girls impose themselves upon the hallway, and upon Danny. They stand abreast, occupying the hall and making themselves seen, a seemingly neutral, passive position, but one that, in the hallway, confronts Danny and establishes an imbalance of power. When the girls speak, they address Danny by name, claiming an intimacy that is not earned or mutual, reinforcing their power over him. They speak in an eerie monotone, taking on no personality. Danny remains speechless, blank-faced, and dazed. He is unable to move because he is locked out of the rooms, and cannot turn his back to the girls or move forward, toward them. He is lost, unable to materialize a presence of his own; he cannot even scream. Giving in to the hallway’s social limbo (where the girls are both dead and alive), Danny covers his eyes, dissociating himself from the events in the hall.

The hallway provides an apt platform for The Column, a piece that imposed itself upon my and my neighbors’ bodies by blocking the hallway and cutting off light with its tall silhouette, and imposed itself upon our identities by addressing us by name and apartment number. To get to my apartment, I was forced to squeeze past The Column. Maybe because I didn’t want to knock it over or invade my neighbors’ property, I didn’t let myself touch it. For whatever reason, I was unwilling to impose myself on the thing, unwilling to project any identity whatsoever. The Column confronted me, but I did not confront it, concerned as I was with returning to a room, and returning to myself. Someone must have confronted The Column, eventually, because when I next entered the hall, it had been dismantled, returned to an unsorted pile of boxes on the floor in front of the battery of small mailboxes where our letters are stashed.

A young boy on a tricycle encounters young twin girls at the end of a narrow hotel hallway.
From Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980): Danny is forced to confront two fears when he is stupefied by the over-intimacy of his encounter with what appear to be ghosts, in what certainly is a hallway.

In social spaces such as apartments, we are aware of our neighbors’ presence, but we do not know most of them in ways that let us identify them as people. We know them as the echoes decaying in the stairwell, the underwear abandoned on the floor of the laundry room, the bass frequency bleeding through our ceiling, the packages piling up in the hall. Just as we are semi-aware through these occurrences, of the people who share our living space, so are we of the people with whom we share our greater social networks. We recognize that our breakfast cereal, our cellphones, our media, our mail all make their ways to us by the work of human beings, but we rarely if ever interact with these people, and technology has allowed us to even further remove ourselves from their presence. Our current community is built, like The Column, invisibly, behind our backs, connecting us in ways we don’t perceive. What we do perceive is content without its packaging, discreetly produced and highly consumable. These products seem to shape our identities without a trace, and so alienate us from our social origins. We learn to compartmentalize elements of our lives into different packages, drawing no connections, erasing the concept of a general environment. In turn, we become creatures only momentarily defined by the spaces we occupy. We are what we open.

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