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International Mail Art Archives, 2000:
The Museum in the Mailbox

Matt Ferranto

Writing a history denotes a process of allowing some few to speak while many remain silent. The premise of mail art implies the opposite, that each voice is heard in relation to every other, and that meaning only resides in the dialogue between voices. Given the democratic ethos of the mail art network, mail art archivists propose a museum in which histories are discovered and written rather than dictated. Rather than their collections actinf as a text that releases what Roland Barthes calls "single theological meaning," a mail art museum can open up "a multi-dimensional space...a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture."

From its inception in Fluxus and Ray Johnson's New York Correspondance School in the early 1960s, mail art has been consistently conceived as an enemy of established art. Manyof the medium's most prolific practitioners have discussed mail art as a form of anti-art that must necessarily remain antagonistic to the museum. As Thomas McEvilley notes, mail art's growth in the 1970s was predicated on the "avoidance of selectively curated exhibitions, and with them of taste, hierarchy, fetishism, commodification, reification."

Nevertheless, mail art has found its way into museums, beginning in 1970 when Ray Johnson sent instructions to members of his Correspondance School to direct their mailings to the Whitney Museum in New York City. Later, Ken Friedman's monumental 1973 Omaha Flow Systems exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Nebraska was crucial to implementing the idea of the medium as democratic and inclusive, a concept that still permeates mail art. Developing a structure that integrates egalitarian ideals into the larger fabric of a museum collection remains a challenge to the medium's current archivists and curators.

In establishing sites specifically dedicated to the preservation and codification mail art, archivists must institute systems that promote inclusion and disavow hierarchies. Comprehensive mail art collections, like those at the Administration Centre or Art Nahpro, are frequently organized alphabetically or chronologically, with all items received fom a person or on a certain date filed in individual containers. Unlike the grandiose galleries and expansive spaces of most art museums, a mail art museum most often exists in a private residence, generally in a spare room, on a set of shelves, or even in an old shoebox. The larger ones frequently look like libraries or offces, with their collections catalogued in labeled folders or cases. While their curators might deposit all correspondence into the museum, public access is often limited. When visitors do arrive, they might walk through the kitchen to page through books or open envelopes, with the works' small size and quotidian source highlighting an intimate relation between viewer and object.

Mail art involves a multitude of lateral exchanges that inherently resists conventional art historical interpretation. Many mail artists maintain that the structures of communication are more important than mailed objects themselves, and others privilege the perpetual circulation of mailed art works over their preservation. Mail art archivists are frequently motivated by an allegiance to the historical value of their medium, and several of; them are presenting a reevaluation of the nature of art and the subsequent reading of cultural history. How might the means and methods of the art museum change? Today, some of the most ambitious and challenging responses can be found in the mailbox.

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