Partizaning Public Mailboxes

Artists: Partizaning Collective
Location: Various locations, Moscow, Russia
Year of completion: 2012
Researcher:
Leon Tan

Partizaning Public Mailboxes (PPM) is a self-commissioned artistic project focused on stimulating dialogue, collective thought, and action through the interface of publicly sited mailboxes. In 2012, the collective set up 15 mailboxes in outlying areas of Moscow, and each mailbox posed questions about local experiences of urban challenges and wishes for the future. The mailboxes were brightly painted and attached to posts in the community with zip-ties. The mailboxes posed prompts such as: “Write what is missing in your area and drop a message in the box. We will make a map of the problems and wishes, we will try to fulfill them or find someone who could do it better than we could.” By soliciting anonymous mail, PPM received many handwritten stories and hand-drawn images of local life and neighborhood difficulties.

Self-identified as a part of emerging DIY culture and the tactical urbanism movement, PPM was interested in stimulating social action, inspiring people to “reorganize their city from the bottom up” and analyze the processes involved in motivating and sustaining guerilla urban re-planning or “hacking.” The artists placed special emphasis on working with analogue rather than digital means with the mailboxes in order to reach different participants than those active in various digital cultures. They discovered that the mailboxes often attracted children and the elderly. This was seen as significant because “minorities like the elderly and kids or immigrants rarely get a voice but are the most important and vulnerable groups.”

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While the mailboxes themselves constituted an analogue approach, PPM’s website, http://eng.partizaning.org, documented the findings. Letters from the mailboxes were scanned, and photographs of the mailboxes showing their transformation through graffiti, stickers, and in some cases, damage, were uploaded. The website made the artistic research widely available. Most importantly for the artists, PPM activated social change from the bottom up by stimulating dialogues within different communities about shared problems. For example, in the district of Mitino, PPM was supported and promoted by municipal authorities who resolved local street problems—public lights and streets in disrepair or issues with illegal food vendors—as identified in the mailboxes.

As a placemaking initiative, PPM successfully engaged a variety of suburban communities in Moscow, facilitating the identification of site-specific problems and wishes, as well as humanizing the public spaces in the vicinity of the mailboxes. People felt free to write on the mailboxes, place stickers, and in various ways, to respond to the human need for expression. In an increasingly digitized world, PPM is commendable for reaching out to participants on the poor side of the so-called digital divide. It is particularly compelling in its vision of grassroots solutions to local problems, given the location of the project in the former Soviet Union, the birthplace of the modern command economy based on centralized top-down planning. Notably, in at least some instances, it led to direct improvements in the community through municipal authority engagement.

Progress Agency