PostSecret as Social Practice Artwork: The Case for Radical Vulnerability


December 11, 2016

Artist Frank Warren launched PostSecret in 2004 as a social practice art project using the simple medium of the postcard as an avenue for both artistic expression and anonymous confession. “PostSecret was conceived as an art project, and began with a batch of 3,000 custom-made cards which Warren distributed by leaving them in art galleries and in library books, and by handing them out at subway stations. While the original stock of cards was exhausted in three weeks, Warren continued to receive handmade cards at the mailing address. Six years later he continues to receive cards in the mail every week. He has amassed a collection of over 150,000 cards,” (Poletti, 25). While the project started in the urban and surrounding suburban environment of Washington, DC, the project quickly spread nationally and then globally with people creating their own postcards instead of using one provided by Warren. “The secrets, he stipulated…, had to be true and had to have never been divulged to anyone,” (Noy, 188). Along with the mailing address, these are the only instructions Warren provided. Warren conceived the concept for the project, initiated the first 3,000 postcards, and continues to be the recipient of the postcards, but has no control over the content of the cards themselves. He does, however, exercise curatorial power by scanning selections from the postcards received and posting them on PostSecret.com. “Warren controls the digitized postcards featured on the site, but cannot predict the discourse that stems from his selection,” (Motter, “Public Pedagogy via PostSecret,” 46-47). Once posted online, regular online followers of PostSecret have considerable autonomy in shaping the meaning of each postcard’s content as well as the discussion of any underlying issues embedded in each postcard’s confession. It is these underlying social issues and the open, anonymous dialogue about them that makes PostSecret a unique, ongoing social practice art project. From this perspective, PostSecret as socially engaged art “can be distinguished from others by the degree to which they provoke reflection on the contingent systems that support the management of life,” (Jackson, 29). The contingent systems employed in PostSecret revolve around affect and empathy. As Warren explained in a 2008 interview: “I get about 1,000 [secrets] a week, and from that I select 20. I’m selecting secrets that really have a ring of authenticity to them, that express any human feeling, whether it’s humor, fear, sexuality, a shocking secret… Once I have that selection I arrange them in a way where I try to tell a story, or I compose a song. I’m thinking of trying to hit all the notes and get a nice rhythm, and really taking people emotionally someplace different than where they were when they started [reading],” (Noy, 188).

            From the beginning, Frank Warren has been transparent about his intentions for PostSecret being the building of community through dialogue and understanding between people with different life experiences, but who all share the common trait of human vulnerability. This echoes Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of how progress is made in contemporary society: “We no longer try to make progress thanks to conflict and clashes, but by discovering new assemblages, possible relations between distinct units, and by building alliances between different partners,” (Bourriaud, 166). The alliance Warren seeks to build via PostSecret is one that normalizes confession as a human action, regardless of how taboo the secrets confessed. “The importance of the affective power of the project, which does not seek to document or even narrate the diversity of secrets held by the community it creates, but rather aims to provide a structure of feeling around secrets and confession that normalizes the importance of the act of confession in the formation of subjects,” (Poletti, 35). However, there are limitations in this quest for confession normalization and community building. By maintaining anonymity between postcard creator and postcard viewer, the dialogue can only go to a certain level. “By encouraging the submission of unspoken secrets, anonymity may reinforce suppression, exhibiting disembodied, silent confessions. Borders are therefore not resisted but contained within the postcard, establishing social distance between different groups, this is missing in PostSecret; the disembodied artists are never given the opportunity to engage in critical discussions about their work,” (MacAulay et. al., 97). This continued maintenance of anonymity is one of the primary areas of criticism Warren receives. His intentions, though, rely on anonymity to keep the project going, provide an authentic forum for dialogue, and maintain PostSecret’s status as a social practice artwork as opposed to a project where Warren himself exerts more control. “Warren, through the mechanisms of PostSecret, argues that the way to overcome the alienation associated with stigmas of many kinds is not through realigning power relationships but through the strategy of radical vulnerability. This is because, as Warren implies, humans are made to belong, and vulnerability (secret revealing) is a vital means to fulfill that need,” (Wood & Ward, 599).

            Anonymity is also important to the form and function of PostSecret as a social practice art project, particularly with regard to the consumption-centric capitalist reality of contemporary society. “Abstract systems of exploitation and domination are obviously human creations, brought into being and refined through the redirection or co-optation of creativity. The only forms of creativity that authority can deal with, or wishes to deal with, are those which the spectacle can co-opt. But what people do officially is nothing compared with what they do in secret. Creativity is usually evoked apropos of works of art, but what are works of art alongside the creative energy displayed by each individual a thousand times a day? Alongside seething unsatisfied desires, daydreams in search of a foothold in reality, feelings at once confused and luminously clear, ideas and actions presaging nameless upheavals? All this energy, of course, is relegated to anonymity and deprived of adequate means of expression, imprisoned by survival and obliged to find outlets by sacrificing its qualitative riches and conforming to the spectacle's categories,” (Vaneigem, 167). PostSecret provides such an artistic outlet for such secrets. In fact, the anonymity maintained through the project presents a subversive model for how to resist the spectacle through the experiences of everyday life. This is not to say that the project has no limitations, however. “The form of the postcard, and Warren’s instructions to ‘be brief’ and ‘creative,’ should not be underestimated in terms of their power to shape the form and content of the secrets he wishes to receive. As ‘America’s most trusted stranger,’ Warren has created a form of confessional autobiography which, through the establishment of considerable formal limits, leads its author-contributors to particular kinds of confession,” (Poletti, 33). Indeed, the formal limitations of the postcard ensure the secrets revealed will be somewhat superficial, providing content with extremely limited context. “Where are the connections between the cards? They cannot be seen because they are visually and metaphorically separated by the borders imposed by the form—the postcard. As a reading audience, our expectations of postcards are that they ought to be brief and lighthearted, something quickly produced and consumed. This makes it difficult for audiences to be moved to action by the postcards,” (MacAulay et. al., 95). But, going back to the intentions of Frank Warren, it is not clear that “moving an audience to action” is necessary for PostSecret to be considered a success. The brevity of the content in the postcards can create an opportunity for audience accessibility, interpreting the postcards through the lens of a removed, individual experience. “Many postcards contain dramatic fragments of an incident, event, or reversal. Because of the relatively small space on the postcard, many authors communicate with elliptical and therefore ambiguous dramas. The postcards require that the viewers use their imaginations to reconstruct a less ambiguous and more clearly defined drama from the fragmented and ambiguous one presented,” (Wood & Ward, 587). Since gallery exhibitions are only one method Warren uses to disseminate the content of the postcards, it should be noted the diverse ways in which audience and community are created through PostSecret. It is true that there have been many gallery exhibitions and books created with reproductions of the postcards, but most of the PostSecret audience is actually engaged through the internet, via PostSecret.com. “What is collapsing before our very eyes is quite simply the pseudo-aristocratic conception of how artworks should be displayed, which was bound up with the feeling of having acquired a territory. We can, in other words, no longer regard contemporary works as a space we have to walk through,” (Bourriaud, 160). It is the very technologies Warren uses that provides a refreshing approach to contemporary art display. In using the more traditional gallery exhibition method alongside books and the internet, audiences are engaged in a multitude of ways. The form extends from the postcards themselves to the divergent forms of display. “What PostSecret exemplifies in its use of the technologies of the postal system, Web 2.0, and book publishing is the extent to which the confessional form and confessional activity work to produce and structure affects of connection and reciprocity that unify a public not through an identification with the content of the narrative, or with the form of subjectivity the text presupposes, but through the formal organization of feeling that encountering certain types of texts produces,” (Poletti, 29). These different forms of display, therefore, provide an interesting view of how art producers and art viewers, through anonymity, build a community around deep-seated social issues regardless of how content is visually consumed. “Existing in a digitally mediated environment, PostSecret plays a role in changing the fundamental way humans interact about stigma by inviting people to share their stigmatic experience from the offline world in a nonreal reality that promotes (but not necessarily guarantees) the alleviation of alienation—all the while hoping that it finds its way back into one’s real reality,” (Wood & Ward, 599). While the gallery exhibitions and published books provide a certain amount of opportunity for community building through the shared human experience of alienation, it is PostSecret.com that feels most appropriate and successful in providing a reciprocal experience between artist and viewer.

            Initially, the audience of Frank Warren’s project was limited to those who received his invitation within the Washington, DC area. Through his selected modes of dissemination, however, the audience has grown organically. “Participants were encouraged to ‘let the postcard be your canvas,’ and were invited to ‘see a secret’ by visiting the project website, a blog where scans of recently received cards were uploaded weekly,” (Poletti, 25). Warren’s audience has grown, thanks to the broad availability of the internet, to those who self-select into the project. The boundary between artist and viewer is extremely blurred due to the maintenance of anonymity not only with the artists sending postcards, but also those reacting to posted postcards on PostSecret.com. “The status of the viewer alternates between that of a passive consumer, and that of a witness, an associate, a client, a guest, a co-producer, and a protagonist,” (Bourriaud, 168). Indeed, artists are likely also viewers and viewers may also be motivated to become collaborating artists in the project. This is exactly the community Warren sought to create at the outset of the project. Producers become consumers while consumers become producers. “While Frank Warren takes on the role of curator (and collaborator), he is most certainly not the creator/producer/encoder of the messages and the artwork. The success and artistic merit of PostSecret depend very much on an audience that browses the website, buys the books, and visits the traveling exhibit,” (MacAulay et. al., 92). This organically grown community exists both because of the anonymity ensured and the shared human need for telling and reading secrets confessed. “Members of the intimate public of PostSecret ‘hear’ each other’s confessions, and confess themselves, to gain access to an experience of belonging and to confirm their emotional literacy in the keeping of secrets,” (Poletti, 26-27).

            The invitation Frank Warren extends to the public through PostSecret is the opportunity to feel belonging in a community that acknowledges the power of confession. In a way, this subverts the capitalist focus on normativity by exposing the actual normal as far from what is socially acceptable as normal. “Capitalism only supports certain kinds of groups, the nuclear family for example, or ‘the people I know at my job,’ because such groups are already self-alienated & hooked into the Work/Consume/Die structure,” (Bey, 20). Warren’s project seeks to create an alternative community through the embrace of vulnerability. “Ordinary individuals are given the opportunity to be artists who communicate their deepest, darkest secrets to an unknown audience,” (MacAulay et. al., 91). The invitation to individuals to opt into this community is the feeling of legitimation free from the judgment feared for disclosing their confession. “Often, there is a vast universe of people caught somewhere in the middle, without community, searching in vain for some sort of legitimation somewhere, anywhere,” (Thompson, “Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century,” 92). From Warren’s perspective, PostSecret provides this community. “Ordinary people, the marginalized creators of the postcards, are granted legitimacy and a voice in a gallery as artists. The anonymity of the artists inspires an esoteric reading, as the audience must learn about the context of the exhibit before being truly able to engage with the texts,” (MacAulay et. al., 92). It is true that the project’s overall context must be understood before viewers can actively understand the content of the postcard, but in a way this is an intentional tool for audience (or community) building. Those turned off by this overall context or those unwilling or unable to engage with the motivations implicit in confession will not opt-in to the PostSecret community, which is no loss to the project. Only those who appreciate and are willing and able to empathize with the motivations implicit in confession will opt-in to the community of secret disclosure. “As compared with discredited physical or tribal stigmas, it is relatively easier for those with discreditable and character stigmas to pass. Passing, though, rather than a viable solution, to the alienation, only compounds it with, at the very least, increased levels of self-estrangement. Unwilling or unable to be honest with someone in the offline world about the secret and thus alleviate self-estrangement, the secret keeper decides to express the secret on a postcard and mail it to Frank Warren,” (Wood & Ward, 585). Oddly enough, it is this very feeling of self-estrangement (and the pursuit of relief from this feeling) that creates the supporting community of PostSecret. Those who decide not to opt-in are likely unable to rationalize the reason for confession because they themselves are unwilling to see beyond social norms. “If you are seen, you will be perceived as wrong, illegal, immoral—different. The Spectacle’s main sources of creative energy are all in prison. If you’re not a nuclear family or a guided tour of the Republican Party, then why are you meeting every Monday evening? To do drugs? Illicit sex? Income tax evasion? Satanism?” (Bey, 23). Indeed, if one ascribes to the societal norm of not having anything to confess, the PostSecret community will remain in their minds as abnormal, inappropriate, and incomprehensible. “One of the reasons that PostSecret has been so successful in creating an intimate public around the possession and sharing of secrets is that it ingeniously uses the anonymity afforded by the postal system to authenticate the secrets. The holders of the secrets have made and shared them in such a way that anonymity is protected, but the texts they have produced are powerfully connected to some body through the materiality of the postcard,” (Poletti, 31-32). In a way, this detached bodily contact of some anonymous artist and the postcard constitutes an invitation to viewers. These postcards aren’t some manifestation of Warren’s subjective position, but represent a fragment of the lived experience of some anonymous person. That person is not only anonymous to the viewer, but is also anonymous to Frank Warren. “Connections between global strangers, sparked by individuals’ intimate revelations, are highly unlikely in public space, where anonymity is difficult to achieve. In virtual space, personal identifiers are limited or nonexistent. Thus, individuals may reduce personal attacks and judgment by anonymously confessing,” (Motter, “Public Pedagogy via PostSecret,” 44). When viewers understand, through the PostSecret.com web environment, that this project seeks to provide a space where individuals can anonymously confess without judgment, viewers will see that as an invitation to confess their own secrets either through the web environment in response to someone else’s secret or by sending their own postcard to Frank Warren. While this invitation is open and broadens more and more as the audience expands, the decision to participate in the project remain with each anonymous individual. “Individuals’ reasons for participating in PostSecret may range from: hopes of liberation, social interactions, community formation, identity discovery, or socio-cultural change,” (Motter, “PostSecret: Disrupting Gender Stereotypes,” 806).

            The ongoing opting-in and participation of anonymous individuals in the PostSecret project is a testament to its open-endedness. Rather than dictating a right and wrong, Frank Warren has instead allowed his open invitation to not only be the appeal of PostSecret but is in fact the art itself. “As publics become increasingly aware of the hit-and-run style of not only artists, but other industries of spectacle—such as advertising, film, and television—they develop a suspicion of those ‘helping them.’ As with many long-term efforts, the longer the project, the more the artist or artists must behave like organizational structures in order to operate efficiently, and combat fatigue and overextension,” (Thompson, “Living as Form,” 32). While Warren’s project seeks to “help” build a community for people who can empathize and support each other through the shared human need of confessing, he makes no promises to “help” specific individuals with the issues espoused in their secrets. Now that PostSecret has endured for 12 years, it is clear that, so far, it has successfully combatted fatigue and overextension simply through its simple design of providing a platform where anonymous collaborators make the community what they want it to be. “The process of reading a secret as opposed to being the recipient of one privately divulged reinforces the audiences’ simultaneous position as witnesses and voyeurs of this spectacle. Anonymity also becomes problematic in that the lack of intervention leaves both the artists and audience disengaged from collective action,” (MacAulay et. al., 92). While PostSecret has been heavily criticized for exposing secrets, but providing no direct relief from the underlying structural issues creating the need for secrecy, direct action to help specific individuals, if that had been the intent, would have been unsustainable. Some may see this as exploitative or failing to deliver on an unspoken promise of alleviation from a situation, but Warren never designed the project to do more than what it has done for more than a decade. Indeed, PostSecret is a social practice artwork that hands over a significant amount of decision making authority to the anonymous collaborators. “These artists produce relational space-times, interhuman experiences that try to shake off the constraints of the ideology of mass communication; they are in a sense spaces where we can elaborate alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality,” (Bourriaud, 166). PostSecret is such a space of sociability and constructed conviviality. “Viewers, like postcard authors, can claim their membership in the online community, and therefore in humanity, to the extent that they give and receive unconditional acceptance. That is, they must engage in PostSecret’s conversations. To engage in a conversation, then, is to remedy alienation by affirming their belonging with nonjudgmentalism and identification. PostSecret encourages viewers to engage in conversations that are imaginative, associative, and vicarious,” (Wood & Ward, 586).

            This is not to say there isn’t real danger posed in participation in the PostSecret project. “Without context the audience cannot fully understand these situations: what structural reasons could have accounted for this abuse? Racism, poverty, sexism? When looking at rape narratives in the postcards, the viewers are so distracted with the shock of also reading the postcards as incest narratives that they might not see rape and incest as thematic social problems. These narratives are framed as personal problems, not social narratives. Readers may after all be so moved by the pathos of the exhibit that they may not take into account the larger social issues that would inspire social attention toward matters of violence against women, for example,” (MacAulay et. al., 97). It is true that one could read PostSecret as an oversimplification of extremely complex structural social issues. “Without a self-organizing sense of how to make sure we are operating in equitable fashion, we can easily slide into producing the problems we are supposedly trying to solve,” (Thompson, “Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century,” 125). Is the community created by a shared sense of radical vulnerability a net gain vis-à-vis the potential damage this oversimplification can cause? “Potential for major social transformation is curtailed by an exhibition that fails to engage with or address the larger sociological problems (homophobia, sexism, racism) that cultivate these secrets in the first place. This is partly due to an exhibition that locates both social problems and solutions in fragmented confessional texts,” (MacAulay et. al., 91). Without the interactive online experience provided by PostSecret.com, it would be difficult to argue that the sum of pros outweigh the cons. If, for instance, the project was only exhibited in art galleries and books, the oversimplification of these deep-seated social issues would be easily read as harmful and appropriately discredited. However, the online presence, its movement of art to the masses, and its creation of a self-selecting community cannot be underestimated or dismissed so easily. “Art does not transcend our day to day preoccupations; it brings us face to face with reality through the singularity of a relationship with the world, through a fiction,” (Bourriaud, 168). This collapsing of art, reality, and an individual’s relationship to the world is created through the very fiction PostSecret is criticized for. Without identities attached to confessional postcards or online responses, the line between fact and imaginative fiction is blurred so much that only the experience of shared vulnerability, affect, and empathy matters. “Warren cannot confirm all secrets are true, but believes that the postcards should be interpreted as works of art where the categories of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ are undetermined and not of particular importance,” (Motter, “The PostSecret Project,” 343). And even beyond the benefit of creating a forum where disparate human beings can relate to each other, even if only through maintained anonymity, educators, sociologists, and others have found immense benefit in PostSecret’s model. For instance, an unintended outcome from Warren’s project has been in the education world as a way of analyzing and better understanding biases and how those relate to bigger social issues. Shiri Noy explains some of the outcomes from using PostSecret in the classroom as “Students were forced to acknowledge their own biases and stereotypes in a concrete way, as a direct response to the secrets. In doing so, students questioned their assumptions about the writers’ biographies—their intentions, feelings, emotions, and how these relate to their presumed gender, race, and class,” (Noy, 192). The secrets confessed and the community of embracing radical vulnerability contained within Frank Warren’s PostSecret are effective not as a political campaign to change particular policies, but instead as a much simpler way for humans to relate to one another. “Overcoming the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ might require the belief that alienation is something that binds humanity together,” (Wood & Ward, 599).

 

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