Postcard Stories

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Richard von Sturmer and Gabriel White, 14 April 2019
Sitting Room Session
By Michael Hawksworth

“As a writer you want to keep images alive, or give them a new life”, Richard von Sturmer says by way of introduction to Postcard Stories, a charming performance accompanying his beautiful book, published this year by Titus, of the same name. He’s accompanied on stage (or more accurately, given the intimate appointments of Jamie McPhail’s Sitting Room, at the front) by musician Gabriel White.

The set up is simple: microphones, free-standing slide screen, projector, laptop, percussion, guitar, harmonium. As the images of the postcards, mostly culled from Richard’s own life-long collection, appear on screen, the audience is seduced into an errant and fanciful travelogue, mostly accompanied by the gently wheezing chords of Gabriel’s harmonium. Richard raises his arms and his eyebrows like a melodramatic Victorian conjuror, enjoining his viewers to believe his earnest expositions and sleights-of-hand as they connect together disparate postcard scenes under continuous narratives.

It’s the magic realist quality of the narration’s loose relationship to the postcards evident ‘facts’ that magnifies the magic realist qualities of the postcards themselves. Many of the scenes they show are so uncanny or so seemingly improbable, in colours so distractingly artificial, that the pictures slide easily into the realms of fiction at even the slightest descriptive touch. It’s enough to make one doubt whether these things ever really existed, even in a world perceived through the kaleidoscopic lenses of National Geographic – but the evidence is undeniable.

What stops the performance from being simply a kind of “post-truth” jibe, is its poetry and its music. Gabriel White’s singing of selected texts is lovely. The harmonium’s constantly modulating drones punctuated by drolly illustrative percussion creates a dreamy disquiet. The effect is similar to the lo-fi folk absurd-isms of Ivor Cutler, or the faux-documentary but still poignant eccentricities of Laurie Anderson. The latter’s first seminal performance work United States Parts 1 – 4 (1983) was over four hours in length, befitting its epic subject. I felt that an extended duration in Postcard Stories would have further underlined its meditative, hypnotic, travelogue qualities. Or maybe I just wanted more.  

Taken as a whole, Postcard Stories is a song to all those pasts hidden inside our present. These are the stories that fell between the stories we know, images of a lost world. Entirely through the so obvious artifice of their staging and framing, these postcards have come to feel like dead-letter invitations to yesterday’s futures and utopias. They are, says Richard, the story writer, the fabricator, the crafty guide, “dream windows”. The evidence is undeniable.

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