View from a letter box

An artwork by Tim Knowles reveals the sights and sounds of a Royal Mail parcel's journey from London to the Outer Hebrides

Matilda Battersby
Wednesday 05 January 2011 17:41

What happens from the moment a letter flutters through the gaping mouth of a Post Box until it reaches the destination written on it? Artist Tim Knowles wanted to find out. He hid cameras in a parcel and recorded the sights and sounds of its journey from his London studio to the Scottish Hebrides.

Knowles’ parcel contained two cameras at opposite sides which could photograph its surroundings through tiny apertures. For the piece, entitled Post Box, Knowles was given special dispensation by Royal Mail to record his vision after a spate of problems with security during earlier attempts.

“While developing ideas for this piece, I tried to send a parcel with a similar set up to an exhibition in Italy but the parcel was stopped by FedEx,” Knowles said. “My phone number was on the box, so I ended up being on the phone to FedEx’s head of security for about 45 minutes explaining that it was an artwork, telling him just to open it up and that there was a switch that could turn it off.”

Quite understandably FedEx’s security services said ‘There’s no way we’re opening it’ having X-rayed it and found live electrical equipment inside. They put the package into another card-board parcel and send it back to Knowles, leaving him with a lot of pictures of the inside of a box.

Up until then Knowles’ project had been about getting the postal service to unwittingly create art. An earlier work, Spy Box, recorded a journey within the UK and had been successfully executed without the mail service’s knowledge or permission. But stumped by bureaucracy as his spy boxes were returned to sender, Knowles decided to approach Royal Mail for permission and was surprised by how keen they were to let him take up the challenge.

“What with the recent bombs in FedEx parcels, there was no way I could have sent my camera box through postal service without the provider’s permission. It’s illegal to send live electronics through Air Mail so it would have had to stay in England. Approaching Royal Mail meant the journey could extend to the extremities of the UK, the Outer Hebrides.”

Knowles’ 1st class parcel made the 902 mile journey from postcode E3 5QZ via foot, vans, trucks a Boeing 737-300, a small Shorts propeller Aircraft and a ferry to the Isle of Barra (postcode: HS9 5XW) in 20 hours and 22 minutes.

The parcel took over 20,000 photographs and recorded a continual audio track. One of the lovely things about watching the painstakingly compiled video and audio compilation of the parcel’s journey is the many changing accents and commentary from the workers as it makes its way.

“Lots of my work tries to reveal things that are hidden or not apparent. I had no idea, before doing this, what actually happens when you deliver a parcel to the Post Office. So it was wanting to understand, explore and reveal what happens when you do that which led me to create Post Box.”

While the images are a nice record of that parcel’s journey, it is the sounds it records which provide the human and most charming element of the piece: constant chatter, machines buzzing, people clattering around, barcode scanners beeping and the rustling of general busyness.

“One of the things I realised is that there are moments when the parcel sits very still. It isn’t constantly moving. It sits in area within a sorting office and waits for a truck or a plane. There’s one lovely point when it must have been beside door and you just hear this creaking noise like ‘eeeeeeee’ over again as people enter and exit.”

The fruit of Knowles’ labour will be revealed online on 13 January (although the URL is as yet a closely guarded secret) in a video compilation of the journey with audio of some of the best moments. An accompanying limited edition book of pictures will also be available, titled 'Post Box E3 5QZ – HS9 5XW.'

For an online preview of ‘Post Box’ click here or on the image above.

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