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(mis)reading mail art

part one
A Medium or a Movement?

Matt Ferranto

Is mail art all that remains of Dada? Is it an international network that "transforms information into energy and energy into a fluid matrix or web that cements together isolated ‘spaces’ occupied by private individuals throughout the planet?" Is it a strain of decorative correspondence dependent on the nostalgic value of paper and the quaintness of material delivery systems? Is it "the most important art movement in the world?" Or is it a few thousand white males engaged in a closed circuit of ephemeral self-promotion?

Although such questions are often raised in conjunction with mail art, self-identified mail artists are frequently at a loss when asked to define or describe their art, and many hold contradictory opinions on the subject. Some take a conceptual view of mail art. Chuck Welch, a prolific mail artist known as "The Crackerjack Kid" and editor of Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology, contends that "information, communication aesthetics, and cultural motivation determine whether an artwork or artist fit within the complex Mail Art and Networking movements." Conversely, others like Kornelia Röder, the co-editor of East Europe in International Network, posit the movement in political terms. "Mail art does not mean the personal correspondence between two persons," writes, Röder, but rather is "the communication with art to projects arranged concretely which are often motivated by the socio-political context." Guy Bleus, a mail artist, theorist, and collector whose Administration Centre 42.292 is regarded widely as the most complete archive of mail art in the world, calls mail art "an ‘encounter-place’ for artists of different social classes, different cultures, different ages, different ideologies." Even the medium’s roots are in question. Today most historians and mail artists in the West link mail art with the early Fluxus movement. However, this correlation has drawn sharp criticism from many Eastern European mail artists. "Before it becomes flattened into an international phenomenon," writes Laszlo Beke, "it is necessary to undertake an investigative analysis of Eastern European mail art as separate and detached from Fluxus." Nevertheless, in spite of such ranging opinions, very few mail artists discuss their work in its most basic terms, that is identifying and critically analyzing it as part of a communication process that engenders a set of specific formal qualities.

The mail art network is rife with such inherent tensions. Such attitudes are so prevalent among mail artists that dissenters have been quickly beaten down or ostracized. In a 1984 "Artists Talk on Art" panel discussion in New York City debate quickly degenerated into insults, jeers, and shouted accusations; the scheduled topic, "International Mail Art: The New Cultural Strategy," was never addressed. The "mail art melée," as the Village Voice later described it, was touched off by curator Ronnie Cohen’s decision to exclude works submitted to the exhibition "Mail Art Then and Now" held at the Franklin Furnace. In an open letter to the mail art community that was intended to respond(ing) to Cohen’s "curatorial censorship," Carlo Pittore noted that the idea of "no rejections is synonymous with mail art…(and is) perhaps the most unique and appealing feature of this universal movement." Exhibiting all materials, wrote Pittore, is a "sacrosanct mail art concept," and crucial to the democratic principles on which he and many other mail artists believe the medium to be based.

Pittore’s focus on institutional codes and open exhibition procedures is typical of how most self-identified mail artists understand the medium. Since it first emerged as a form of idiosyncratic new media art in the early 1970s, mail art has grown into a self-consciously "alternative" art subculture comprising thousands of documented exhibitions, numerous publications, and museum-like collections or "archives" of correspondence and related materials. This rather complicated system depends, as Pittore indicated, on the suspension of critical judgment or curatorial editing. Collective postings between its participants are frequently identified as part of "The Network," and mail art practice itself has become largely synonymous with "networking." As John Held notes, although "postal-based artists may disagree if they are really mail artists or correspondence artists, they all concur that they are part of an international network of artists." For most mail artists, the mail is a convenient means to establish interaction and communication. The much-discussed "open aesthetic" of mail art, meanwhile, has also encouraged mail artists to define their art in contrast to the perceived elitism of commercial galleries and major arts institutions.

While mail artists hold diverse, even antagonistic opinions about their art, they almost uniformly acknowledge the importance of the networking concept. The conception of this network as expressing a populist, or so-called "democratic," communicative process is a recurrent theme struck by mail artists, and it remains the source for frequent claims to the medium’s revolutionary stance and art historical importance. "Mail art…(is) based on principles of free exchange and international access to all people, regardless of nationality, race, or creed," says Chuck Welch, who also calls it "a democratic based forum existing outside traditional art systems." Or, as Mark Bloch notes, "librarians and housewives and kids are just as valid (mail art) participants as traditional ‘artists.’" By extension this populist credo has developed into an almost militant embrace of an "open aesthetic" in which all works and all actors are regarded as equals. "Anyone can participate in mail art from children on up," notes John Held, Jr., author of Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography, "it democratizes art. Everyone can participate despite location. It decentralizes art. Everyone can participate no matter what the level of skillfulness. It dematerializes art." To some, this populism includes broader associations. Thomas McEvilley suggests that mail art often functions as an "egalitarian metaphor of the postal system…the mail, of course, rejects nothing that is dropped in the mail box." For others it represents a goal to be incorporated into their larger art practices. Guy Bleus, for instance, incorporates this democratic ideal into his visionary archive and on-going art project, the Administration Centre. Part of his work includes a correspondence art archive; for Bleus every piece of mail, whatever its physical characteristics, "is meaningful in the socio-cultural context of the mail-art circuit."

Mail art has been heralded as a populist hybrid of art and social phenomenon since its initial emergence in the early 1970s. Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, Thomas Albright, then described it as "working to restore art as a form of social or personal, even intimate, communication. In the process, it is attacking or subverting the roots by which "art" has been traditionally defined. The democratic ideas that gave rise to the movement’s popularity, adds Kornelia Röder, resulted in works that "eschew evaluation under conventional criteria and even repudiate it in programmatic terms." In the social unrest and skepticism of the time, moreover, artists were becoming increasingly aware of their role in the commercial well being of Western market economies. Mail art, like conceptual art and performance, offered a significant alternative to the artist’s traditional relation to collectors and dealers. "Abandoning the old concept of the unique object, the ‘luxury product’ for individual use," wrote Pierre Restany in 1967, "the artist is in the process of inventing a new language of communication." In mail art, artists and non-artists were joined in a larger discourse, an aesthetic interaction that involved "process, communication, and an evolving mass consciousness." Situating themselves in opposition to conventional values that revolve around the profit-nexus of capitalism, mail artists expressed a dissatisfaction with aesthetic, political, and social options that was common among the artists and students who made up much of the New Left of the late 1960s.

In fact, mail artists have long distinguished themselves from mainstream culture. Positioning themselves as an avant-garde coterie, many mail artists even pride themselves on the movement’s anti-authoritarian stance. This resistance to established authority remains a crucial link between Western and Eastern European mail artists before the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As Kornelia Röder argues, "independence from the art market…was what made mail art become interesting for the West. For the East, mail art in its program demonstrated democracy in practice which had been missing in everyday life." Indeed, mail art responds in many ways to the oppositional program laid out by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. Proposing a democratic approach to artistic practice, Benjamin advocated a socially responsive art form based on the use of modern technology and stressed the need for a potentially critical, even subversive, component in the conditions of production and reception. While Benjamin referred to photomontage and film in his writings, his ideas are easily applicable to mail art as well. Mail art, of course, depends on the wide accessibility and relatively inexpensive cost of sending mail through the international postal system. Along with such social amenities as public sanitation, urban transportation, and professional police forces, the post office as we know it is a unique product of the industrial revolution and remains one of the characteristic features of the modern industrial state. Mail art uses this technologically sophisticated system that had been established and maintained by governments in both the East and the West. However, it also subtly critiques it at the same time. While mail art in the East has been associated with overt political criticism, Western mail art, as a form that developed at least in part as a means to resist easy commodification by galleries and dealers, implies a radical reevaluation of the social and economic role of the artist.

Mail art in the West, while remaining outside the gallery system, has not consistently galvanized a coherent and significant examination of such issues. John Held links mail art with "other avant-garde, underground, marginal, or counter-culture genres," including the small-press literary scene and the cassette music underground. He notes, however, that their attraction to the medium is less often related to sustained political commitment than with what he calls "an irreverent attitude towards mainstream culture." Indeed, just as they have done with the art establishment so mail artists have consistently drawn an "us and them" distinction between the network and mainstream culture. Both stances have placed mail artists in a difficult position. On the one hand, mail artists believe that their work "has been undervalued by the mainstream art institutions for the past thirty years." Consequently, criticisms of mail art are often assumed "to have come from the camp of elite art." However, mail artists also eagerly embraces this marginal status. Above all, practitioners welcome what Peter Horobin, a mail artist closely associated with the Neoist and Art Strike movements of the early 1990s, calls "something alternative to mainstream ideology."

Mail artists often locate their anti-aesthetics and politics of dissent in the legacy of Dada. Like mail art, Dada artists resisted definition and easy comprehension; in his 1924 "Lecture on Dada," Tristan Tzara referred to the movement by turns as "immobility," "nothing," "simplicity," and "a tomato." In addition, Dada works were not produced with the traditional art market in mind. Yet mail artists often invoke the word "Dada" without partaking in the sort of utterly unprecedented and blisteringly critical stance that characterized the work of Hugo Ball or Arthur Craven. Dada works, like the collages of Hannah Höch, were described by Walter Benjamin as events that "hit the spectator like a bullet." In contrast, mail artists tend to summon Dada references as a short cut to art historic authority but fail to invent forms or situations that suggest similar anarchic innovation. For instance, Ed Varney’s 1985"Dada Post" postcards (fig. 1) portray appliances like a calculator, television set, or camera in place of a head on a suited torso. The late Buster Cleveland’s "Busterpost 84" (fig. 2) stamps depicted Chairman Mao, some with labels that read "Dada" and others with labels reading "Not Dada." Rod Summers carried out a 1978 project under the pseudonym Professor Marquis Dadactic, M.A. (fig. 3); the project consisted of an edition of 50 postcards with faint, wrinkled circles in the center. Each card, the text declared, had been "used as saucers for a mug of tea." The Canadian mail artist Chuck Stake produced postcards representing the world of "Canadada Mail Art" (fig. 4). Here cows and other barnyard animals were dissected with dashed lines, the corresponding spaces labeled with artists’ names. Rubberstamped references to Dada remain ubiquitous on the envelopes and stamp sheets that circulate among mail artists. "Dada is just a four-letter word," reads one. Another proclaims that "Dada is High on the Hog." The 1976 "International Double Issue" edition of VILE magazine, a mail art publication edited and produced by Anna Banana and Bill Gaglione, featured a large photograph of Gaglione’s bare chest shaved to spell out the letters DADA from neck to navel (fig. 5). Mark Bloch maintained this problematic sense of historical lineage in a 1985 interview on WNYC. "It’s all Dada," said Bloch. "Dada lives through mail art."

While the oppositional spirit of Dada is only tangentially evoked in the works that mail artists produce, it is much more apparent in their antagonistic relation to larger economic systems. Mail art distinguishes itself economically because it is given away, not sold. In this way, mail artists differentiate themselves from the prevalent systems of art production and exchange. Because mail art has been conceived not as a commodity but rather as a gift, specific objects are often directed to particular persons. This form of exchange is intended to undermine contemporary ideas of artistic distribution and reception. "Mail artists don’t distribute their work via official galleries," notes Guy Bleus, "but via the ‘alternative’ planetary Network…it is a primitive structure of direct and free barter of art without our classic medium of art-exchange, the fetish ‘money.’" Its early practitioners and theorists conceived of mail art as "the enemy of the gallery system…the whole point was avoidance of selectively curated or juried exhibitions, and with them of taste, hierarchy, competition, fetishism, commodification, reification." In Networking Currents, Chuck Welch has titled an entire chapter "Money and Mail Art Don’t Mix." Here he draws a distinction between what he calls the "marketplace mentality" of the "High Art" gallery circuit and that of mail art. The latter, he asserts, is "the only contemporary international art movement which values social and spiritual bonding through gift exchange." It was this radical economic gesture that informed Jean-Marc Poinsot’s organization of a mail art section in the seventh Biennal of Paris in 1971. "By mailing collages, theoretical texts, and objects to various addresses without asking for remuneration, the artists concerned have upset the laws of the marketplace," wrote Poinsot in the accompanying catalogue. "As the art market becomes more and more integrated in the general capitalist system of exchange," Poinsot continued, "this sort of activity remains outside the system and partially undermines it, since it affirms the viability of a system opposed to the dominant system in our world." Mail art, of course, has separated itself from the economic theories that dominate the marketplace. Poinsot, however, recognized that the activity does maintain a metaphorical value. In mail art, artists "can be engaged in economic and political problems…on a symbolic level."

Just as mail art’s opposition to the larger economy can function on a symbolic level, so too mailed objects take on both literal and metaphorical dimensions. As both Welch and Poinsot note, the act of mailing an object to a recipient constitutes a form of gift exchange. A gift, though serving as "the cement of social relationships," can indicate a range of motives, from altruism to egocentrism to social obligation. Marcel Mauss, in his landmark study Essai sur le don, first published in 1923, argued that expectations of return underlie every gift, and these constitute the basis of a shared culture. Still, Mauss saw the practice of gift giving as a moral corrective to a society increasingly predicated on purely economic transactions and considerations. In his reading of Mauss, Georges Bataille took a more ambivalent approach, noting that rank and honor are procured through the practice of giving. Of particular interest to Bataille was the tradition of potlatch among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. In this ceremony individual representatives of different clans dispose of precious objects like blankets or copper blazons. Strictly competitive, participants achieve social standing through extravagant expenditure. While mail artists have indeed operated outside the gallery system, their exchanges too involve more complex motives than simple altruism. Often, as suggested by Welch’s conjunction of mail art with spirituality, their rejection of capitalist exchange establishes a moral value for their work. This worth can supersede all other interest, even aesthetic considerations.

The early 1970s saw many claims for mail art as a revolutionary medium guided by a utopian vision; such assertions have remained central to mail artists’ conception of themselves and their work. John Held regularly refers to "the worldwide cooperation found in contemporary mail art networking," and the very term "networking" has come to stand for a host of mail art practices. This designation derives from a concept developed in 1965 by Fluxus members Robert Filliou and George Brecht. Advising artists to "refrain from their tiresome spirit of competition," they proposed that all artists must realize that "they are part of…the Fête Permanente, or the Eternal Network as we chose to translate it into English." In 1973, Filliou proposed that "the concept of the ‘avant-garde’ is obsolete…I suggest that considering each artist as part of an Eternal Network is a much more useful concept."

Filliou’s words inspired numerous interpretations, some identifying it with a spiritual collapse of art and life, others equating it with a fundamental reevaluation of artistic production. "The Eternal Network placed its stress on dialogue, even on the multilog, the process of group research and the community of discourse," says Ken Friedman. In contrast, "the art-world placed great stress on individual performance, on the notion of the master, on creating masterworks or masterpieces." This collective communication is often discussed in spiritual terms. "The language of the mail art network transcends the individual voices of its participants (and) forms the universal subconscious," says John P. Jacob. To him it represents a "communion of many voices, no two entirely alike, forming a strange yet delicate music." Chuck Welch has even linked Filliou’s "cosmic interconnectedness (and) spiritual vision" to an "ecumenical art activism…an aesthetic basis for interconnection, collaboration, and communication."

Conceptions of the Eternal Network as a cooperative group dialogue have antecedents in the Dialogic theories developed by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in the early 1920s. In particular, Friedman’s hypothesis of the multilog in mail art suggests that the material presence of language develops through a process of discussion and social interplay. Likewise, Bakhtin was interested in reciprocal modes of aesthetic activity and saw language as necessarily produced through the interaction of speaker and respondent. Bakhtin distinguished his idea of the dialogue from the monologue, which he attributed to the ruling classes’ efforts to control the form and content of communication. This opposition to the monologue is expressed most clearly in what Bakhtin called the Heteroglossia. Here the multiplicity of rhetorical modes and forms of speech are addressed to particular audiences and denote specific relationships. As mail artist Richard C. notes, mail art remains the only medium in which the artist can choose his or her audience and direct the work accordingly. Moreover, the mail art network developed in part from a grass-roots response to monolithic corporate and bureaucratic systems. Bakhtin saw the development of Heteroglossic forms as moving both language and social relations towards an inclusive multiplicity. His ideas anticipate Filliou’s Eternal Network, and many of its visual implications are realized in mail art.

For most mail artists, the network, remains an abstraction, an imaginative possibility. Writing in the Toronto Star, Robert Fulford described it as "a collage arranged over great distances and long periods of time. It comes together only in the heads of the senders and recipients." Guy Bleus explains it as a diffusion of systems. "There does not exist ‘one’ organized Network," writes Bleus, " but rather a system of overlapping circuits, or smaller networks. When someone is talking about ‘THE’ network, he is talking about all those (overlapping) circuits together." The act of posting material remains essential to realizing the communications that make up the network, but it is consistently seen as less important than the larger community formed by exchange of these mailed objects. As John Held contends, "the most important contribution of mail art has not been products which have been created, but in the structure of interaction which has evolved." What Held and many other mail artists have largely overlooked is the means by which mailed artworks themselves might reflect the dialogue of the Eternal Network. In distinguishing the communicative act from the means of accomplishing it, they disregard one of mail art’s most interesting possibilities.

Rather than linking their network’s form with the way it functions, mail artists have concentrated on the collapse of Filliou’s utopian, communicative spirituality and the open, democratic ethos of the mail art system. The "revolutionary aesthetic" of mail art, says Jacob, has allowed mail artists to hold themselves "aloof from the art world and the marketplace." Paradoxically, many of them equate their highly atomized subculture with a realization of Joseph Beuys’ proposal that "everyone is an artist." As Chuck Welch writes, "postal art, as a successor to the heretics of the past…has the potential to make everyone an artist, to give the power of creation back to the people." Yet this network largely parallels the traditional art world, defining itself through exhibitions, publications, and congresses, or face-to-face meetings. John Held, who documented 1,335 mail art shows between 1970 and 1985, equates this flourishing exhibition scene with "a revolution in art," because through the vehicle of the mail art show, "a previously fractured network was linked."

In attempting to establish the medium as a popular manifestation of an historic artistic avant-garde, mail artists have ignored an essential element of their art. Mail art involves a dialectic between the artifact and the communicative process. It encompasses the formal and tactile as much as the activity of giving and receiving. Indeed, the object itself remains crucial to realizing the whole activity. For all the rhetoric that focuses on mail art as a revolutionary artistic practice, this most crucial aspect of correspondence art remains persistently unexplored. While mail artists have largely understood mail art externally, as an egalitarian movement that mirrors conventional gallery activity, the medium’s internal implications remain more complicated. The international mail entails a vast accumulation of discrete items traversing a complex and remarkably efficient delivery system. This intricate aggregate of timetables, machinery, delivery routes, and postal employees itself constitutes a transitory space, a sort of no man’s land bracketed only by particular senders and receivers. In traveling from point to point, moreover, the mailed object is branded to facilitate its conveyance. Meanwhile, cancellation marks and postal codes fix the object in time. Mail art employs these aspects of the international postal service as both formal and communicative devices. Passage through the postal system gives these items their artistic significance. In their 1975 article "Mailart: A New form of Expression," Horatio Zabala and Edgardo Antonio Vigo offered a concise assessment of this art of the postal system. "The purpose of the mail is not simply to move the work but to condition it and form an integral part of it…the work must cover a distance as part of its structure." Or, as Ulises Carrion writes, "Mail art uses the mail as a support in the sense that nonmail arts use canvas, paper, iron, and wood as a support." Moreover, mail art allows practitioners unique opportunities to address questions of dialogue, authorship, and process. Just as the mail involves constant motion and modification, so mail art introduces the possibility of an art based on flux and change.

This reliance on the modern postal system connects mail art to larger post-industrial bureaucratic and economic systems. The bureaucratic efficiency of today’s postal system should be distinguished from the personal messengers employed by the wealthy prior to the Industrial Revolution. As an object in motion, mail art proceeds through the postal system and takes its form through an industrial service unique to the modern era. Once the object ceases its shuttling from person to person, it enters into the world of static art forms like painting and sculpture. The fact of its mailing may certainly add a visual or conceptual dimension to the work, but its removal from the postal stream relegates it at best to the status of art. Kasha Linville was one of the first critics to recognize this contradiction between artifact and process. When she reviewed the first New York Correspondance School exhibition at the Whitney Museum, she noted that "it seems a shame to catch such a living thing in flight, to pin it down." Indeed, while mail artists have created an alternative exhibition system to designate their mailings as art, they have ignored the aspect of flux and flow so crucial to creation of mail art itself.

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