Letters 2004-2006: Dazed Digital

Jerome Anthony writes for Dazed Digital:

Back in December 2005 the artist Martin John Callanan signed, stamped and posted 268 letters to political leaders across the globe. They weren’t Christmas cards. After addressing each leader by his or her full official title, Callanan explained his motives for contact with a single line: “I respect your authority”. Over the subsequent months the state-approved responses trickled in.

“I Respect Your Authority” is just one of a series of letters Callanan has sent out since 2004. In essence, he targets niche demographics – head honchos of countries, governments, scientific bodies and religions. The letters he sends are deceptive. Never more than six words long, they can appear overly-simplistic, not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are attempts at the profound. They have the air of a bedroom terrorist behind them, a huffy teenager thumbing his nose at The Man without daring to flip the bird. But don’t be fooled. The words have been carefully gauged to draw illuminating responses from people who work deep within power structures, and they hit their marks.

The starkness of the correspondence seems to unsettle many recipients. “When Will It End?” proves a bewildering question for many of the world’s prominent religious leaders; “I Respect Your Authority” is superbly goading – a sentiment of such unlikely wording that only ambiguity can nestle in its spaces. It raises hackles as well as suspicions and prompts glacial politeness from those who think they’ve cottoned on.

It’s an appealing mix of the serious and the mischievous – “I Respect Your Authority” is so close to a Cartman catchphrase – but you’re drawn further in as the considered responses start to form an aesthetic of officialdom, and typeface, ink, format and signature all work to betray the addressee’s true appetite for ego and self-importance.