“Our mailman is privy to intimate details about our day-to-day struggles and triumphs—but anonymously, discreetly so.”
Every day, the U.S. Postal Service navigates our neighborhoods and enters our personal territory, connecting each home to a larger and time-honored system of physical information delivery. Postal carriers perform a quiet role in our communities, viewing the settled terrain in a particular way. They see our houses and yards, observe interactions between neighbors, and get to know our comings and goings. In spite of the government’s infiltration of online communications, the postal carrier is still an accepted, if not appreciated, character in our daily routine. E-mail, cell phones, and social media now allow messages to be sent instantaneously, yet the USPS perseveres in delivering our cards, invitations, and announcements through time and space, right to our front doors. Not even the digital era stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
General Delivery explores physical and digital forms of communication through an interactive gamelike scenario of sending and delivering messages. At a private writing desk, visitors create handwritten notes to send to a specific location within the gallery. Though digital images of the writings are uploaded to the “cloud,” the correspondence reaches its physical destination only when delivered by another player who inhabits the role of a carrier. These characters don a uniform and set out in search of delivery points throughout the exhibition. Technology embedded within the costume activates a projection of these communications in the space, making the message visible only when a carrier is present to reveal it. The unseen system that conveys our words, whether they are mundane or profound, is more than dropping a letter through a slot or pushing the send button: it is an essential service ritual, a daily delivery dance, that connects everyone to everyone, wherever they may be.
Programming: Kurt Froehlich
Garment design: Carly Schön
Empowered by your uniform to activate …
Emily Stover calls herself an “accidental artist.” An architect by training, in recent years she has gravitated toward collaborative social practice, exploring the intersections of design and community-building. Her creative interest tends toward play with our personal relationship to the spaces we inhabit—the ways we imbue familiar places, specific rooms, and centers of activity with personal memory, meaning, and affect simply through the activity of dwelling in them over time.
Stover is fascinated by the shifting boundaries of personal space, how occupation and time spent in a given area might alter one’s sense of ownership. That’s where her interest in her neighborhood postman began: “He’s a person behind the scenes, but intimately connected to our neighborhood,” she says. “In a real sense, he’s as familiar with the homes that make up his route as the residents who live in them. And by walking its sidewalks every day, the same way, he sees the neighborhood as a whole and inhabits it in a way no one else quite does.” For a postman, a particular route acts as both workplace and occupation. The postal carrier is a key component of the social connective tissue that ties each home to the outside world. Our mailman is privy to intimate details about our day-to-day struggles and triumphs—but anonymously, discreetly so.
With General Delivery, Stover wants to give viewers a chance to see what it’s like to play the postman’s role in The Soap Factory. The physical presence of the project is minimal. Along one wall is a line of handsome gray, hooded cloaks on hooks. A lovely old writing desk sits nearby, enveloped by a Brazil-like enclosure of cubbies containing scattered bits of paper. On the desk are some pens, and inside the cubbies all around you are stacks of postcards, awaiting your handwritten messages.
The postcards at the desk are divided into five categories according to spatial zones in the gallery building. Each zone’s designated postcard offers a thematically appropriate set of writing prompts. For example: write a letter for the Office, and you might pen a message to your younger self, or to your boss or coworker. Compose a message for the Toilet, and you could address your own waste. You have the option of writing similarly tailored missives for the delivery zones Front Door, Neighbors, and the Underground (i.e., The Soap Factory basement).
Finish your postcard, and submit it for delivery by way of a drop slot located at the desk. Insertion of your postcard into the slot prompts a whir of purposeful-sounding audio, signaling the message’s transformation from analog form into digital bits and bytes. A camera tucked inside the drop box captures an image of the postcard, then translates those pixels into code, which is sent to the Internet cloud. There it is sorted by zone and put in the virtual hopper, where it awaits distribution to various delivery stations unobtrusively tucked throughout The Soap Factory.
Grab a cloak, put it on, and pull up the hood, and you become the anonymous postman, empowered by your uniform to activate, and read, randomly selected audience-submitted messages.
Stover says, “I am interested in the postman as a neighborhood connector, and in the tension between a physical and digital delivery of information.” But General Delivery isn’t primarily about modes of distributing messages. The heart of the project is harder for Stover to pin down, but she believes it’s somehow entangled with her ongoing fascination about how closely people identify with their built environments, how much of our own stories—our very sense of self—we encode in the structures we inhabit. There’s an intimacy between person and place, and through the playful interactions of General Delivery Stover tries to articulate the textures of this relationship. “I see The Soap Factory, in this context, as a complicated spatial representation of us, of our lives—who we are, how we live, what associations and meaning we make from the places we move through on a regular basis.”
By gathering people around temporary transformations of public space, I create opportunities for social interaction and alternative explorations of our shared landscape. We may search out new experiences, but we are often unaware of meaningful possibilities that already surround us. A walk on the same path may appear unchanged if we pay no attention to the subtle differences that breathe life into a seemingly inert environment. A slight shift in perspective can turn a stroll into an adventure and ordinary encounters into theater.
I use elements of design, technology, and performance to construct sensory and collaborative experiences in public space, exposing the power of our everyday surroundings and social systems. Though these spatial interventions are varied (including a mobile sauna on a frozen lake, a structure for making and sharing filled dumplings in the Wisconsin farmlands, and a gong in a parking garage), each strives to create a sense of wonder and communion with and within the environment. I want to inspire individual moments of curiosity that multiply and eventually overrun inattentiveness. These new connections and understandings, though physically intangible, can become the source material for larger and more concrete changes to our structures for living.
b. 1977, Urbana, Illinois
lives in St. Paul
mentor: Abinadi Meza
Emily Stover is a designer and public artist who works with temporary architecture and experiential art. In addition to a Masters of Landscape Architecture, she has recently completed projects at the Bakken Museum, the Art Shanty Project, and the Walker Art Center. She has also participated in the Ten Chances artist residency and is a current City Art Collaboratory Fellow through Public Art Saint Paul. She has upcoming shows at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Minneapolis and Practice Gallery in Philadelphia, and is currently collaborating on a series of mobile kitchens for the central corridor in Saint Paul.