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Interview with Frank Warren, by Omar Khan, July 2007

KHAN: You know about that famous New Yorker cartoon with the dog at a computer.  The caption reads, "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."  With so many outlets for people to anonymously divulge their secrets, why postcards?  Did you experiment with other mediums?

WARREN: I didn’t. Postcards have played a role in a lot of my art.  For me, I just have this connection to them.  They're very special, and I love the way that this project was able to link this very old technology of communication, the postcard, with the very most popular, the blog.  I should say the very most current.

KHAN: What about putting them online?  Was that your idea from the beginning?

WARREN: Well, the first thing I did is I had an art exhibit with the postcards, and when the art exhibit closed, I thought that would be the end of the project.  But even though I had stopped passing out these blank postcards, people began hand-making their own homemade postcards and they started coming from all over the world.  I wanted to keep sharing them with people, so when the art exhibit closed, I started the website.  I get enough cards to share a large number every Sunday on the website, postsecret.com.

KHAN: Do you think it's important that people use a postcard?

WARREN: There are a lot of websites where you can go and just text in what your secret is.  I think using a postcard makes it different in a number of ways.  One way is that even though it sounds easy, it takes a lot of effort to go get a postcard, pick it out, choose the words you want to use to express your secret, find your artwork, go to the post office, stamp it -- I think it really limits the people who participate to those who are passionate about sharing a secret, are really driven to it.

In some cases, you can see how much time and effort was invested into these artifacts.  They almost become sacraments, they have this fervor, almost spiritual element to them.  I like the idea that when somebody shares a secret on a postcard, they're almost in a sense exorcising their secret.  They're giving it kind of a body, a place outside themselves. They're facing it on the postcard, and then they get a chance to physically let it go, release it to a stranger.

I think that can also be a starting point to a very interesting story about how a person is able to deal with one of their secrets through art in a way that it becomes a first step on this longer journey to facing the part of themselves they might have been hiding from.

KHAN: So if you had a website where you could sketch over some stock photos, that would be too easy and wouldn't have the same effect for the creator or the reader.

WARREN: Yeah, I had plenty of offers from people suggesting that they could create software where people could have the ability to make their postcards online and just post them in digital form, straight from their own computer.  I've always rejected that idea because I think there is something special about the postcard format.

It's wonderful having the documents that can be part of traveling art exhibitions, books.  For me, I think of the project as more than just a hot website.  I think of it as a collection of secrets that has a life and a journey of its own.

KHAN: It seems that using postcards puts some constraint on the kinds of secrets that can be well-expressed.  Do they need to have a compelling visual story?  Do you think that some abstract secrets just can't be doctored into a postcard?

WARREN: I think that the postcard format creates limitations, but also wonderful opportunities.  I focus on the opportunities it presents.  Let me give you an example.  This sounds like a limitation, but it's actually a great opportunity.

A postcard is usually six inches by four inches.  It's a very finite amount of space to express your secret on it.  Because of that, you really have to choose your words carefully.  You can't waste any words.  Each word has to really pull something out of your heart that exposes what you're trying to share.

I really think, in every case, each one of those postcards in its own way is incomplete.  It's imperfect.  Because of that, it allows you, the viewer, to draw upon your own experiences, your own values, your own hopes and desires and fears to interpret the secret you're reading in a way that makes sense to you, to complete the story in a way that doesn't just show you something more about somebody you haven't met on the planet, but can also expose something about yourself or invite you to discover something new in yourself by projecting on somebody else's postcard.

KHAN: I have a postsecret here.  It's a picture of a baby's face smiling, and over the top it's written, "For the first time since I was a baby, I'm finally happy.  I'm 28."

That touched me on many levels: the blissful happiness of the baby's face, along with the writer’s happiness. But of course, I felt sad that they're 28 and only happy now.  I really resonated with that postcard, so I understand what you're saying about projecting onto the postcard.

WARREN: Yeah, it's such a great postcard to cite as an example, because you have so few words, you have such a powerful emotion, and you have this huge conflict, like you're suggesting.  I think the best postcards are the ones that make you kind of snicker and feel bad at the same time.

One of my favorites is one that says, "I steal small things from my friends to keep memories of how much I love them."  It's so desperate but heartwarming and humorous all at the same time.  It's poetry.

KHAN: Now, like you said, you have the blog, the website, three books containing many postsecrets, you have gallery showings around the world.  Each of these mediums is different and affords different interactions.

For instance, I own the first book.  For me, it's a coffee table book, but eventually, it became too haunting for me to keep on my table so I had to put it on my bookshelf.  My friends didn't understand why I put it away until I lent it to them, and then when some returned it and they understood exactly how I felt.  Now, for me, I go back to the book and look at it, but it's hard to have it right there. 

WARREN:

First, let me say that I think you're really going to like the next book.  It comes out October 8, and it's called A Lifetime of Secrets.  I think it's even more haunting than the first one in a number of ways.

And you've touched upon another point.  It’s the idea that in these different venues or mediums, the secrets are a little bit different.  For example, when you go to the website, what I try to really share is the idea that the secrets are current.  They're living.  There's an immediacy to them that when you see the secret on the website, you know somebody's dealing with that as you read it.

Then in the books as I'm picking secrets out and putting them together, I kind of see myself as a movie editor, taking these slices from people's lives, each snapshot, and arranging them into this cohesive narrative that tells a story that is haunting and humorous, but also hopeful.

In the art exhibits, I like the idea of showing the actual postcards, showing their tangibility.  In fact, one of the things I emphasize at museums and galleries is showing both sides of a single postcard, because again, that adds something else to the experience that you don't find on the website or in the book.  So in thinking of the project as a collection of secrets, it allows me to share them in different ways that emphasize different parts of what makes them so special.

KHAN: You mentioned A Lifetime of Secrets, your new book. How does it differ from the previous books?

WARREN: Oh, it's wonderful.  It's going to be as long as the first book, which is different than the second and third book.  And it's going to have secrets from people as young as 8 and as old as 80.  It has the secrets arranged in loose chronological order, so you get full story art of a lifetime.  By seeing how all of us progress with our secrets, it allows you, I think, to understand not just other people better but understand yourself, and maybe not only how your secrets are today but how they've changed over time.

KHAN: The project started in November of 2004.  How have the themes and the styles of the PostSecrets changed since then?

WARREN: I think early on, there was more breadth in the project.  I've always tried to emphasize showing all human emotion, but early on, there was almost more reach.  I think what happens is even though I really try and focus on showing all these different kinds of secrets, whatever I select for the website every week acts as a model.  So I kind of have this silent, implicit conversation with members of the PostSecret community where they see the postcards for the week and it either inspires them to create something similar or just follow that same track when they create their postcard.

I think that's good and bad, you know?  It's good because I never wanted the project to be about, for example, pornography or criminal activity, and I don't get a lot of secrets about that because those secrets don’t really resonate with me like some others do.  So even though I've tried to keep the project as broad to get a high variety of secrets as possible, I think just by the very nature of one person selecting the postcards it becomes subject to my sensibility and my values.  I think that's good and bad.

KHAN: During this time you’ve received tens of thousands of PostSecrets.  You're now a master of secrets.  That must be a huge burden.  How do you feel about it?

WARREN: It can be difficult sometimes.  Sometimes people will tell you that when they share a burden, some secret, with somebody, they feel like they can walk away from that transaction a little bit lighter, like their burden has been lifted.  But I think, too, if you listen to too many secrets, you can walk away a little bit heavier.

All the secrets are submitted anonymously, so in a sense I'm kind of trapped, not knowing how to help.  But I do a lot of work with 1-800-SUICIDE, which is a national suicide prevention hotline, and I have the 1-800-SUICIDE number on the website and some resources there.  So I channel my energy that way to help out some of the more desperate secrets I receive.

KHAN: Are you thinking about other upcoming projects to take some themes from PostSecret and display them in a different way?

WARREN: I'm not thinking about too many more books, because I don't want to create too many.  I like the way the body of the books is forming right now.  But I do have one idea where I'd like to create a smaller format book that has spiritual-related secrets, maybe secret beliefs, and that one would be the catalogue for an art exhibition that I'm coming out with at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s going to be on spiritual outsider art, which I'm really excited about.

 
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