Artist Takes Term 'Snail Mail' Literally

Visual artist Paul Smith's new work is about old mail: Snail Mail, a "slow art" project that uses snails outfitted with chips to send e-mail messages — sometimes very...very...slowly.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Michael?

MIKE PESCA, host:

Yesh.

MARTIN: When was the last time you received a piece of real mail? Not a bill, not junk mail, not a wedding invitation?

PESCA: Well, thinking about it, I got a postcard from a friend from - he was visiting Africa so it's from Upper Volta. Of course, Upper Volta became - became Burkina Faso in 1984, so it was a while ago.

MARTIN: Oh, that is a while ago.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Are you serious? You're lying. That's not the last time. That was pulling my leg.

PESCA: I had it checked from my parents the other day...

MARTIN: OK.

PESCA: For buying my wife a wedding gift.

MARTIN: Oh, that's nice.

PESCA: Uh mmm.

MARTIN: I got a piece of real mail today. It was so exciting, truly. My college roommate sent me a postcard from Lake Tahoe, California. And she closes it - she send it to my work address - and she closed the postcard by saying give my regards to your parents, take care, by the way, is it OK to send mail to your workplace, if not, please email me your preferred snail mail address. Just kind of ironic. Email me your snail mail address. Snail mail. Everybody says it, it means the slow stuff that comes in your post box that nobody really pays attention to anymore. But what if snails really did deliver the mail? How much slower could it possibly be? This is a question - this is not theoretical. This is something that two British artists took very seriously. They actually have put together what they're calling an artistic piece. It's part of a slow art project designed by Paul Smith and Vicky Eisley(ph) of Bournemouth University. It's a project, it will officially launch at a showcase in L.A. in August. We are going to talk now with Paul Smith on the line now to explain to us how this whole thing works. Hey, Paul.

Mr. PAUL SMITH (Bournemouth University): Good morning. How are you?

MARTIN: Good morning. We're doing fine. So, walk me through this thing. You have real snails delivering the mail. This is all set up, the initial steps here. You have a website.

Mr. SMITH: That's correct.

MARTIN: A user can go to your website and you write an email within the confines of your site. Then you can hit send and then your email goes - goes where after that?

Mr. SMITH: Well, your email, as most emails do, travels at a speed of light, which is reasonably fast...

MARTIN: Yes it is.

Mr. SMITH: To our server. And then it kind of sits in the line with a whole load of other emails, and waits to get to the front of that line. And when it gets to the front it then has to wait for a snail. So we have...

MARTIN: A real snail.

Mr. SMITH: A real snail. We have a small glass tank with a small population of snails. And each snail has a small piece of circuitry and a tiny antenna on its shell. And when that snail passes by a reader it collects, or it's assigned an email, and then it wanders off and slimes around and eventually, hopefully, possibly, at sometime in the future it passes by another reader. And at that point your email gets forwarded. So for one brief moment in time your email exists in a physical space in this - it is move around a physical space before finally being forwarded, once again, at a speed of light.

MARTIN: There's a real element of chance though in this, right? I mean, there is nothing that will guarantee that the snail is actually ever going to pass near either of those sensors. So your email may just sit there for eternity.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I mean, at the moment we're kind of still setting things up, and we're still kind of getting used to how our snail is going to move around and - I mean, I'm not quite sure what sort of speed, what kind of performance will be working to. Yeah.

MARTIN: What's the average delivery time thus far?

Mr. SMITH: At the moment, we've only had a very few snails that have actually been sent. And the average - sort, delivery time is ranging between 4.6 days or - but the thing is, that's not really kind of taking into consideration, the length of the queue, or the queue or the line, the number of emails waiting to be - waiting to be picked up, which has kind of grown exponentially at the moment. So we're expecting that to soon kind of reach much greater sort of delays and possibly delays that might even extend beyond the range of a human life.

MARTIN: So why, Paul? What's the idea behind this? What made you think, yeah, snail mail?

Mr. SMITH: Well, we - we were asked to respond to RFID technology, which is a small kind of chips. They can be - kind of everywhere in the world. Often you find them on things in shops to stop from stealing them. And it's very small chips. And we're last to build a project that responded to that. And when we kind of look into the marketing - for the companies that are selling these chips, they were kind of really pushing how - anything you were trying to do, anything you were trying to do before using RFID technology you'll be able to a lot faster and a lot quicker afterwards. And we were kind of thinking that maybe the world's going fast enough as it and there's lots of people thinking of very clever ways of speeding things up. So maybe we could do something to - something for the other people. Something for the people that aren't so keen on speed.

MARTIN: But you're still using the technology, Paul. If you're really hard core about this, you would've - you would've had the persons' attach their handwritten letter to the snail shell, and then just set the snail free from the door and see if the snail could find its way to the recipient.

PESCA: He invented snail mail, he could do whatever he wants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Let's talk a little bit about these three snails. Austin, Cecile and Muriel. Where did you procure said snails?

Mr. SMITH: The snails have all been rescued from gardens using slug pellets. I'm not sure how you are in the States, but we're still allowed to use slug pellets...

MARTIN: I'm afraid I don't know what a slug pellet is.

Mr. SMITH: A slug pellet. A slug pellet. For people that have plants, and don't like their plants being eaten by snails they put down this little poison pellets that kills slugs in the snails...

MARTIN: Oh! So you rescue them from that...

Mr. SMITH: So all our snails have been rescued, so yeah. So they're now living out the rest of their lives in a snail sanctuary if you like.

MARTIN: Are they faster than you thought they would be?

Mr. SMITH: Ummm.

MARTIN: Or slower?

Mr. SMITH: They do move around quite quickly. However, they're very unpredictable and the range that we have - the range that we - that the readers have in order to be out to kind of pick up the chips on the snails is quite a small area. So we've kind of been thinking of ways of maybe kind of increasing this, through traffic, maybe painting kind of beer(ph) over the sensors to encourage the snails to move that way. It's been really weird because our idea was to set up a very slow mail service. And ever since then we've been trying to think of ways that we can speed it up, and the engineers have been working, and we have come up with kind of numerous ways that we can make the system more efficient. And there's kind of a conflict there in terms of what we're trying to achieve.

MARTIN: Well, everyone out there, you can experience the real snail mail for yourself. We're going to put a link to the real snail mail website on our site and pictures of some of these little snails. Paul Smith, one of the people behind this project, and Vicky Eisley is another co-creator of real snail mail. Hey, Paul, thanks very much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Happy snail mailing to you. Best of luck with the projects.

Mr. SMITH: That's right. OK.

MARTIN: Take care.

Mr. SMITH: Thanks.

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