'Come See Our Beautiful Ladies!' Collecting Women's Bodies on Postcards
In artist Angela Washko's new interactive project "All the Places You'll Go (Women as Place)," female bodies stand in for exotic locations from Thailand to Atlantic City. We talked to the artist about her massive collection of depressing postcards.
All images courtesy of Angela Washko
In All the Places You'll Go (Women as Place), artist Angela Washko demands the viewer consider, through a massive interactive collection of postcards from nearly every state in the US and from countries abroad, the limited ways women are depicted and used as regional commodities. Known for her interventional work in the realm of video games—most notably her performance of "Playing a Girl" and her site "The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft"—Washko's latest project takes the form of an interactive game, created using the platform Twine, in which the viewer can take a trip, or several, to see the bikini-clad women of California or the bikini-clad women of the Jersey Shore. There's also, of course, the bikini-clad women of Florida and the bikini-clad women of Hawaii.
I talked to Washko about her latest project and how the dying format of the postcard can shed light on how women are represented across time and place, and for whom.
BROADLY: I've been clicking through your game on and off for weeks. I still don't think I've made it through all the postcards! Can you talk about how the idea for this project started?
Angela Washko:It started in 2011. I was traveling a lot, and in every city I would go to I would look at the tourist shops. I would always be drawn to the postcards. I started noticing that, along with beautiful landscapes and landmarks, another category of cards was women as representations of destinations. Another thing was—I was making trips to Atlantic City a lot, and then I moved to California—I started realizing that a lot of very similar cards were in both places. These are places that are geographically on opposite coasts, and they're very different, but they were being represented in the same way.
Originally, as I was collecting these cards, I started to display them in installation format—on the wall, as a grid with didactic information about the cards, like where they're from and what year they were published.
It's funny to think that there would be the same image or archetype representing two different places. But it's true that most of the postcards are basically just like, "There are beautiful women here! Come!" I also didn't realize that you had actually gone to each location. A lot of the postcards seem vintage.
Well, after the first two years of collecting, I started to also take from estate sales, thrift stores, and flea markets. That's where a lot of the older-looking cards came from. It became interesting to me to look at how a lot of these representations evolved over time. I think that Florida is one of the most compelling cities to look at for that. Some of the cards from the 50s are really amazing—the ones with dolphin shows and water-skiing teams. Then contrasting those with the ones I got recently in Miami, which are distinctly not that.
There are barely any people of color in the entire collection. It seems like the only non-white women featured are done so when they are a regional "attraction."
That was one of the things that became really interesting to me, too. There are basically four categories of cards: One is the hypersexualized, "come see our beautiful women!" card that we talked about already. One is women who are being engulfed by the landscape—tiny woman, big landscape/big world, small lady. Another category is basically exoticized women. The postcards—especially the international cards—are clearly tailored to an American or Western travel audience. Those are probably the most offensive, if the metric is offensiveness. Then there are the cards that show women in some type of work environment.
Yeah, the cards are also all obviously from the perspective of the male gaze, to use that term, or catering to the point of view of the male tourist. It seems like the only men featured are in postcards that ask you to imagine yourself (the male self) in the location. One of my favorite cards, one from California, had a bunch of women flanking a man without a head, and in its place it said, "Your face here."
That's one of my favorites, too! That one really speaks to the whole series. I guess the essence of a postcard is always something like, "Wish you were here!" but that one is literally...
The format that you eventually decided on for the postcards is also cool in itself. There's a sort of fatigue inherent in the format of the game—clicking on the map, clicking through the postcards in a specific place, and going back to the map to choose a different place. I personally started thinking of it as labor, or maybe in terms of the "cost" of viewing these women. Why did you decide to format the piece as a Twine game?
Like I said, the installation started out as a huge grid on a wall, and I wanted the relationships between the cards and the similarities in the language that was created for this type of card to be evident. But one of the problems I had was that there were just so many cards. It just felt so crazy and overwhelming. That wasn't the experience I wanted people to have with each of them. I thought that Twine, where I had been looking at a lot of "choose your own adventure"–type narratives, was kind of a nice way to do it. By putting them in this travel format, where you're forced to look at one of them for a long time, makes people have the experience that I wanted them to have.
I had so many from certain places—there's over 70 from California—and I really liked the idea that someone would click on a state and get sort of trapped for a while. It gets really monotonous. In my collection process, seeing the way that these places want to present themselves through women became kind of disappointing over time. They're just not that surprising to me anymore, though I'm still compelled to collect them. That's another nice thing about the Twine game. I can build off of it and add cards. Since I published it at the end of December, there's already been 12 more cards added to it.
Do you have a favorite postcard?
I really like all the Florida cards, basically—there's one from Florida that's just a woman feeding a deer. And the Atlantic City cards. Those were the first I started collecting because I started finding all these cards that said, "Do AC." That phrase really stuck with me.
My least favorite cards are all of the fat-shaming ones. Those are very big in Florida, California, and New Jersey—all the beach places. I have to say, I considered removing them from the collection because they are so upsetting, but I also think that would be a disservice to the archive to not show the most fucked-up cards.
What time period are the fat-shaming cards from? Did you buy those on location or at a thrift store? I'm looking at the card that says "Chocolate milkshake, cherry pie, count the dimples in my thigh!" and I want to believe that it's not something I can still purchase. It also just looks really dated.
Those are all newer. That card is from Miami. I just got it when I was there in December. But I think the practice of buying, writing, and mailing postcards is dying, so there are a lot of stores that still carry cards from the 90s and early 2000s. There definitely used to be calendars like that. It's a very 90s thing.
What's your next project?
I'm working on a video game that will involve a series of conversations with some people who are pick-up artists using actual dialogue from books on pick-up art. Other people you encounter in the game will be employing similar language, but they're not pick-up artists. The object of the game is to figure out how you'll interact with those individuals as a woman in a potentially unsafe environment.
That's definitely sounds better than going to a bar and having to actually interact with them.