A flawed archive

I put some pictures of part of my collection of found playing cards up on Instagram, a couple of weeks ago. The layout and pictures were inspired by Graeme Miller’s installation of found cards in Cornelia Parker’s exhibition Found at the Foundling Museum[i]. After I posted the pictures I realized that there was a mistake in the layout as I had substituted a 3 of hearts for a 3 of diamonds. Around the same time a friend made a comment to the effect that the inclusion of a found box was an aesthetic or conceptual error. (Maybe you were right Andy). So. In order to correct these mistakes here are new versions of the photographs. Various substitutions have taken place between these pictures and the Instagram ones and between the photographs of fronts and backs.



Because I spent some time going through the cards one otherwise directionless Saturday morning I thought I should record some of my ‘findings’ related to the collection. Here they are:

Since whenever it was I started this collection I have found 296 individual or small groups of playing cards. There are two complete packs that are not part of this total. I have found 61 hearts, 64 spades, 69 diamonds, 76 clubs and 26 jokers. I have only found one 5 of diamonds which means that I only have one complete ‘pack’ of various found cards. Apart from jokers, the card I have picked up most often is the jack of diamonds…there are 10 of these. I have found 28 jacks, 28 kings, 25 queens and 25 aces. I have only found 13 5s. I am pretty sure that I found cards in: London, Edinburgh, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Venice, Palermo and Taipei but I don’t know which ones or where else they might have come from.[ii]

Thinking about Miller’s display I was reminded, not just of my own collection, but also of something I had read some years ago – a Situationist strategy enacted in Glasgow involving dérives and found playing cards. But I could remember no more than that so I put the thought aside.

This week, browsing in my not usual local charity shop I came across a copy of a book: ‘8 Metaphors (because the moving image is not a book)’[iii]. I bought the book as its 8 authors and 16 contributors looked interesting and because the publishers (Lux) used to be situated about 100 yards from where I was standing. Leafing through the book later I noticed a conversation between 2 filmmakers, Stina Wirfelt and Deborah Stratman. Wirfelt’s opening gambit is: ‘I’m republishing ‘The Joker’ text I sent to you.’ This rang a bell and, misguidedly, I went online to find this text with no success. On a second look I realised that ‘The Joker’ had been republished in the book I was looking at. Furthermore, the text had been scanned from Stewart Home’s anthology ‘Mind Invaders’[iv]. This was the Situationist strategy that I had half-remembered and I had clearly read it in Home’s book. ‘The Joker’ is credited to ‘Workshop for a Non-linear Architecture’ but no individual author is named. It describes the accident of finding two consecutive cards on consecutive days (the 3 and 4 of diamonds…notably not the 5 of diamonds the card I have only found one of) and the discussion in the Mitre pub in Glasgow that lead to the idea of a game of Urban Poker played across cities and over time. Here is an outline of the rules:

‘Two or more drift teams, containing between one and half a dozen navigators, would begin at a given point in time to search for found playing cards. The cards would naturally have to be the genuine ‘unsolicited object’ (in Breton’s sense of the word), although dishonesty in regard of such matters would be left, as is only natural, to the subjective nature of the individual(s) concerned. Initially each team would seek five cards, a number of which would be burned, or in other words discarded. Once this agreed number had then be refound, the hand would be brought to a close and publicly declared, e.g. Full House, Pair, Ace High, etc., the winning team being the one with the best hand.’[v]

Miller in the label for his playing card collection at the Foundling Museum says: ‘It is hard to avoid the notion that they [the playing cards] convey fateful meaning, yet it is impossible to work out what that meaning is’. ‘The Joker’ makes an explicit reference to walking. These two strands are brought together in this passage from the essay Drifting; Some Journeys Followed by Dominic Paterson in ‘8 Metaphors’:

‘When he was writing his ‘Reveries of the Solitary Walker’ Jean Jacques Rousseau made a note on the back of a playing card: ‘My whole life has been little else than a long reverie divided into chapters by my daily walks’[vi]

Up on the first floor of the Museum there is an old display case showing some of the tokens left between 1741 and 1760 by the mothers of ‘foundling’ children at the hospital. These tokens were intended as a means of identifying the children at some later date. Here is one:


I thought that the cards I have collected dated from the early 1980s to the present but another friend pointed out that I was doing ‘this kind of thing’ in Dundee in the 70s. So this assemblage of found artefacts is the least useful kind of archive. The objects in the archive have no recorded dates or locations. Of course, this could all be part of a game I have been playing, without knowledge, for 40 years.

Dominic Paterson ends his essay with an account of Ralph Romney’s problematic contribution to the Situationist journal in the form of a psychogeographic study of Venice. (Problematic because its late delivery was the cause of his expulsion from the group). Here is Romney recalling the project:

‘And the thing that struck me most was that when people go to San Marco, they are encouraged to look at the mosaics above their heads. In my case, maybe because I have a slightly hunched back or for whatever reason, I look at the ground.’[vii]



[i] Miller’s installation is called ‘Picked hand’.‘Found’ at The Foundling Museum, London. 27th May – 4th September 2016.

[ii] My notes. 23rd July 2016.

[iii] ‘8 Metaphors (because the moving image is not a book)’. Luke Fowler, Laura Gannon, Duncan Marquiss, Laure Prouvost, Grace Schwindt, Samuel Stevens, Stina Wirsfelt, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. Edited by Isla Leaver-Yap. Lux, London, 2011.

[iv] ‘Mind Invaders’ Edited by Stewart Home. Serpent’s Tail, London,1997.

[v] Quoted in ‘8 Metaphors’. Unpaginated section. ‘Previously issued as a privately circulated pamphlet’.

[vi] Ibid. P 140.

[vii] Quoted in ibid. P 144. (From Romney’s book ‘The Consul’.)