JennyLC Chowdhury
Email Paintings
Re: smell and dvd



Email message exchanges are momentary, digital and private. How is the meaning of a message exchange altered when the medium upon which it presented is permanent, analog and public?

My Mother writes emails that are simultaneously mundane, strange and funny. This October, she sent me one titled "smell and dvd" which tickled me so much that I wanted to preserve it.

It read:

subject   smell and dvd

Did you find the dvd?  Stephanie asked Elvia about it and she said that she didn't throw anything away, just what already was in the garbage? Did they fix your wall?  Do you still smell the smell ? You didn't answer my phone
call.  Mom

I knew that simply saving the email in my inbox would not yield the same type of correspondence preservation that storing a handwritten letter in a shoe box would. Once I've archived an email, I'll probably never read it more than once again. It gets stored amongst thousand of other emails or deleted, basically evaporating into cyberspace. Meanwhile, I save letters and postcards that come to me via the postal service no matter how banal the text contained within them might be. I may only re-read them once every 5 years or so, but the physical and deliberate act of opening and returning letters to their envelopes and placing them in a storage box carves a nook for them in my memory.

I wanted to save my mother's email in the same way. Early on in my email "career" I printed out emails that I found interesting or funny and tucked them away with my handwritten letters. However, that was back in 1996 when at most, I received three emails a day. Now that I receive over 30 emails a day, the few that i want to hold on to seem more rare and, thus, more significant. The act of simply printing out my favorite emails on paper no longer seems enough.

In thinking about email preservation, I began thinking about the characteristics that define email as we commonly accept it. This gave rise to the following thoughts and questions:

Email message exchanges are momentary, digital and private. Preserving an email challenges these notions. What happens if the messages are made permanent, analog and public? In other words, how is the meaning of an email altered when the medium upon which it appears is changed from computer screen to something else? Would it still be email? After some initial thought, Marshall Mcluhan's famous statement "The medium the message" came to mind and I wondered if email be considered art if it appeared on a canvas.

To investigate my questions, I decided to present the text of my mother's email on a stretched 24" x 30" canvas. This had the effect of making my mom's email permanent, analog and public - again, three characteristics that are contrary to email. Additionally, I printed out my response to my mother's email and her response to mine. The resulting dialogue triptych forces its viewers to re-examine today's most prevalent mode of communication.


Text of the emails:

The text of emails may be viewed bellow by rolling over the thumbnails:

Original email from Mom

My response

Mom's response


Design Decisions:

White space - I framed a large amount of white space when i stretched these canvases. I chose to do this to represent the vacancy that is common in email. Unlike an essay or a novel, there is no requisite number of words in an email. And often they arrive with more space than words. The space of an email becomes part of its content.

Typos and grammatical errors - Much to my mother's dismay, I chose to leave the typos and grammatical errors that we both made. These types of "mistakes" are inherent in email communication with people to whom I am close. We don't bother proofreading or using spellcheck because we don't worry that the recipient of the email will judge us based on errors. In a sense, the mistakes reflect the closeness of our relationship.

Canvas - There are a variety of mediums that I could have chosen to simply make the text of my emails permanent, analog and public. I chose stretched canvas because it instantly elevates email from mundane to revered.

Font - I chose Arial because it is one of the most commonly used email fonts.


More photos from the ITP 2006 Fall show:

Thanks to:

Nancy Hechinger
Lisa Strausfeld
Chris Paretti
Sai Sriskandarajah

More info:

Please feel free to contact me:

jenny Chowdhury