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(mis)reading mail art

part two
Moticos and Mail Art: A History

Matt Ferranto

The egalitarian ethos and self-conscious anarchism of mail art may be traced to the medium’s origins in the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s. Several artists associated with Fluxus established the open aesthetic and populist profile of mail art as it emerged in the early 1970s. This populism remains the focus of the mail art exhibition, and the realization of mail art as a democratic art form has been one of the movement’s chief attributes. Starting in the early 1970s, when mail art was often discussed as a particularly vibrant branch of counter-culture art, the internal guidelines that still govern the medium were developed and codified. Since that time, mail artists have come to define themselves as working within a parallel arts institution, a curious doppelganger of the official art world that they claim to oppose. While mail art allows for unique approaches to dynamism and flux, its egalitarian aspect remains the focus of mail art theory and practice.

An amorphous and ideologically disparate collective, Fluxus itself remains the source of many conflicting claims regarding its intent and legacy. "Fluxus is more important as an idea and a potential for social change than as a specific group of people or a collection of objects," notes Ken Friedman, one of the group’s most prolific historians and theorists. George Maciunas, the group’s principal architect and organizer, stressed both dynamism and social action in a 1963 manifesto (fig. 6). Here, the dictionary definition of flux as an "act of flowing, a continuous moving on or passing by," is pasted next to hand-written exhortations to "fuse the cadres of cultural, social, and political revolutionaries into united front and action."

Growing out of an assortment of performances, presentations, and events developed by a group of artists working in New York City, the Fluxus movement has always been non-hierarchical. Planned originally as a magazine, then as a sponsoring group to advocate and show new artistic developments, the Fluxus movement encompassed a wide range of activities during the early 1960s. The original group centered on figures like George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Henry Flynt, and Yoko Ono, and the early movement facilitated concerts and presentations in the United States and in Europe that derived from what Maciunas referred to as a "neodada" esthetic. Owen Smith characterizes these early roots of Fluxus as "a form of experimentation most directly concerned with a post-Cagean interest in concretism and action music." The specific ideological and cultural agenda behind such events, however, has remained less clear. While many of the artists in the Fluxus circle were concerned with the political and social implications of their work, several others, including George Brecht and Robert Watts, had no real interest in political activism. Thus, Fluxus activities ranged from the initial European Festum Fluxforums to proposals for social reform and public housing, from Maciunas’ Fluxshop to games of stilt soccer. Reflecting the larger political and social movements that influenced so many artists in the 1960s, Fluxus artists principally saw themselves as adherents of an alternative attitude toward art making, culture, and life. It was these ideas that shaped the early mail art network as it grew out of Fluxus.

One of the most resonant aspects of the Fluxus movement was the original aim to distribute art outside the existing gallery system. As Smith notes, "the aim of Fluxus throughout the mid- and later 1960s was not only to publish interesting things being done but to create new systems for their distribution." This objective was prevalent throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, leading to such diverse solutions as land art projects in remote desert venues and ephemeral performances. Taking a more entrepreneurial approach, Maciunas set up Fluxus Mail-order Warehouses in the U.S., Europe, and Japan as a means of realizing this goal. Through these sites, all sorts of Fluxus projects, including medicines, menus, clothing, flags, signs, rocks, medals, and cans were sold at typically low cost; a 1965 Fluxshop catalogue advertises numerous "Fluxkits" by George Brecht, Robert Watts, and Ben Vautier that sold for five dollars or less. Just as the many Fluxus artists undertook the creation of works with little or no apparent commercial or institutional value, Fluxus itself "represented for many artists…an egalitarian alternative to the then-current art scene." As Nam June Paik argues, Maciunas’ Fluxshops extend Marxist ideas to include distribution. "George Maciunas’ Genius (sic)," he says, "is the early detection of this post-Marxist situation and he tried to seize not only the production’s medium but also the DIStrIBUTION SYSTEM of the art world."

From the very start, Fluxus artists engaged in practices that look forward to what later would be called mail art. Geographically dispersed across Europe, North America, and Asia, Fluxus members frequently communicated through postal exchanges of texts and tiny objects. "Fluxus was initially constituted through letters, between people like Paik, Brecht, or Watts," notes Simon Anderson, "and several Fluxus artists…continued to operate in correspondence networks well into the 1970s." Many early Fluxus objects contained overt references to postal systems. Robert Watts’ numerous stamp sheets, including his 1963 YAMFLUG/5POST5 (fig. 7), subverted government-issued postal stamps in both their imagery, which ranged from soft pornography to anonymous portraits, and in their occasional illegal use as postage. Following Watts, several other Fluxus artists designed and produced Fluxpost stamp sheets (fig. 8), and in 1966 the Fluxshop advertised a Fluxus Postal Kit (fig. 9), complete with post cards, postage stamps, and rubber "cancellation" stamps. In addition, Ben Vautier’s 1965 Postman’s Choice (fig. 10) post card emphasizes chance by focusing on the human element of postal communication with sly, deadpan humor.

Fluxus objects and activities anticipated the development of an international art network that was linked by postal exchange, but the origins of mail art also remain inextricably tied to the work of Ray Johnson and his circle of associates known as the New York Correspondance School. As Ken Friedman notes, Johnson and the NYCS gave mail art "its characteristic sensibility and presence." Clive Phillpot calls mail art a medium that Johnson "made his own," and argues that "until Ray Johnson developed it as a distinct verbal-visual activity…mail art was incidental and does not warrant separate treatment as a distinct form of art." Even after his 1995 suicide, other artists’ numerous visual and verbal references to Johnson have continued his presence in the movement.

Johnson’s postal innovations must be seen as an extension of both his hermetic personality and his attempts to interrogate the machinations of the contemporary art world. Graduating from the Black Mountain College and arriving in New York in the mid-1950s, Johnson was confronted by an art world dominated by the reigning New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters. He received early recognition for his collages, and a 1958 Art News article on Jasper Johns suggested that the artist could be understood in the light of such "better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow, and Ray Johnson." Johnson, however, rarely consented to show his work in galleries, and he instead became known as "New York’s most famous unknown artist." Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the artist developed the NYCS, a characteristic word play that collapsed the New York School with ubiquitous art-by-correspondence courses; the "Correspondance" school further emphasized the intertwining relationships, the "dance" of giver and receiver, that Johnson had created through the post.

Mailing works of art directly to his correspondents, Johnson eroded the convention of buying and selling, instead initiating "an ongoing practice based on gifts, or gift exchange." Johnson’s motives for initiating these transactions, of course, remain diffuse and complex. As he noted in a 1984 interview with Henry Martin, "it’s not at all a cliché when I say that I have a kind of natural generosity and that this was the real basis of the New York Correspondence School." Yet his gifts accomplished many other objectives as well. When delivered to John Weber or Richard Feigen, for instance, they could serve as a means of charming his way into the edges of the New York art establishment. Their value to such recipients was a complex factor of formal characteristics, including word play and humorous drawings, and the means by which their delivery initiated these individuals into a private, somewhat mysterious society. In addition, Johnson’s "gifts" often constituted idiosyncratic combinations of word and image that were not immediately intelligible to many beneficiaries. Christopher Andreae, upon receiving a postcard informing John Willenbecher that "Mr. Andreae is now a member of the New York Correspondence School," noted that "I am certain only of my own uncertainty…Maybe I’m expected to start sending enigmatic postcards to people myself." Indeed, Johnson’s mailings, while often keenly reflecting a sense of the recipient’s identity and interests, often projected a sense of responsibility as well.

In conjunction with his multiple approaches to the mailed object as a gift, Johnson recognized the postal system as an effective means of collaborating with numerous individuals. While most likely unaware of Bakhtin’s theories of Heteroglossia, which were not distributed in the West until the 1970s, Johnson’s Correspondance School nevertheless comprises a succinct, if peculiar and humorous, response to such ideas. The NYCS took a distinct step from the received notion of artworks as autonomous creations. Instead, its numerous mailings represented the interactions of numerous individuals and combined a wide range of rhetorical modes. It was Johnson who developed the idea of "change/return" or "change/send on" pieces. In works like Coilage (fig. 11) or Bill DeKooning’s Bicycle Seat (fig. 12), recipients were encouraged to transform the art that they had received, then send it on to another receiver or return the changed object to the original sender. In this way artists became collaborators working on joint projects through the mail, and the NYCS grew into what Ken Friedman describes as a "whirling vortex of mailings and events." Madcap verbal associations and distinctive draftsmanship shaped Johnson’s mailings, which he called "moticos.". Movie stars, art stars, and various friends and acquaintances frequently appear as variations of an emblematic bunny drawing (fig. 13) that served as a type of signature on many of his works.

Scholars have sometimes attached Johnson’s insular NYCS to the larger Fluxus movement. "Half a dozen of the most active and charming participants in the NYCS were very active in Fluxus," recalls Ken Friedman, and at times Johnson himself "took part in various Fluxus publications and events." (fig. 14) The NYCS itself, however, remained necessarily parochial. Despite Ray Johnson’s status as an "eccentric…romantic avant-garde hero" for today’s mail artists, his own practice largely remained confined to a few hundred personal associates and New York art world insiders. Geza Perneczky, author of The Magazine Network, describes the NYCS as being "similar to a happening which had the post office as one key player but which basically hinged on the activity of Ray Johnson." Ken Friedman notes that Johnson’s school pointed "inward to a closed circle" and maintains that Johnson himself had little interest in the "transformative social potential and spiritual quality of Eternal Network."

Motivated by the "potential for social change," Fluxus artists helped the medium develop into the open, populist-minded medium that it represents today. By the late 1960s, several artists associated with the Fluxus group, including Robert Filliou, Dick Higgins, and Ken Friedman, were instrumental in parlaying mail art into a public phenomenon. Using his Something Else Press to publish a newsletter, Higgins developed a mouthpiece that "became the locus of a vast, resonating network of correspondents." Mail art was growing out of Johnson’s limited confines. Friedman calls Higgins’ newsletter "a significant moment in mail art…this was a public realization of the idea inchoate in the NYCS, never fully realized due to (its) highly private, personal context." While Maciunas had regularly published Fluxus mailing lists and membership lists, Friedman and Higgins began to publish extensive compilations of these lists annually, beginning in 1966. By 1972, these lists had grown include over 1,400 names and addresses. That same year, the list was published in cooperation with the Canadian artist-run organization Image Bank; it later became the core of FILE magazine’s artist directory. It was released in hundreds of copies, distributed free to artists, arts organizations, and publishers around the world. Friedman describes the project as "an act of social responsibility." As John Held notes, "Image Bank and General Idea…took mail art out of the hands of a limited few and brought it to the attention of a broad community of artists." To Friedman this had larger import; as he says, "back in the 1960s, it was possible to believe that art and the postal system could reshape the world."

When it emerged as a distinct art movement in the early 1970s, mail art was often heralded as an anti-establishment form that promised easy involvement in an inspired, offbeat, sexy avant-garde underground. Mail art was introduced to the general public in a 1970 Whitney Museum exhibition of Ray Johnson’s NYCS (fig. 15) and later appeared at the Paris Biennal of 1971. In 1973, David Zack characterized the phenomenon as "nut art" in a cover story in Art in America. "What had been a few hundred people mailing each other slightly crazy messages suddenly mushroomed into several thousand individuals engaged in a new cultural form," declares the novelist and mail artist Stewart Home. Most important to mail artists’ collective self-conception of the medium as the exponent of a popular avant-garde, however, was Thomas Albright’s two-part article in Rolling Stone. "The wide circulation of the trendy magazine shifted interest in this emerging art form from the isolated art world to a general population that was interested in social and political as well as artistic alternatives," notes John Held, Jr.

By the mid-1970s, however, the mail art movement had matured and was soon changing. Mail artists began to codify their medium and established internal institutional structures that mimic, in turn, the gallery and the museum. The exhibition assumed a central role in mail art culture, and the formulation of exhibition parameters continues to dominate discussions of mail art theory and aesthetics. The nature of the mailings also began to change. The new availability of quick, inexpensive xerographic printing machines, coupled with the circulation of thousands of names and addresses in such mail art-oriented publications as DOC(K)S in France, Arte Postale in Italy, and Posthype in the United States led many new mail artists to mass mail printed matter to as many individuals as possible. In a situation reminiscent of the potlatch that so fascinated Bataille, these artists engaged in a competition of giving that introduced rivalry and antagonism into the mail art network. Attempting to gain prestige by demonstrating their ability to absorb great expenditures, they also took a perverse approach towards the idea of gift exchange. Their work was marked, as Ken Friedman says, "by hundreds of projects and exhibitions termed ‘first’ and ‘first international,’ as artists unaware of history and community tried to become the leading figure in the network." Many experienced mail artists complained of an "explosion of junk mail and self-serving egotism." Others were distressed to discover that this broadening of the movement led to a perceived decline in the quality what were previously hand-made mailed objects. Artist Gary Lee-Nova grumbled that "I got a lot of garbage and threw out most of it…it was so shallow and poorly put together that I just couldn’t take it seriously." Even FILE magazine (fig. 16), whose regular publication of the Image Bank addresses and image request lists were crucial to mail art’s evolution as an underground art phenomenon, published letters and editorials denouncing the profusion of "quick-kopy krap." Paradoxically, as the movement developed according to its democratizing principles, many were unhappy with its new shape. Mail art has met mechanical reproduction, and a great number of mail artists were forced to admit their preference for what Benjamin referred to as "outmoded concepts (of) creativity and genius." Assessing this transformation, long-time participants like Anna Banana noted that it burned out many of the originators and "made mail art into something else."

In the early 1970s mail art acquired a more institutional character. A second wave of mail artists, centered in Canada, focused more on exhibitions of postal art and documents as a means of establishing a mail art subculture. Many mail artists were distressed over the art world’s neglect of the medium following its initial publicity. Consequently, they worked to implement a mail art network modeled on the prevailing gallery system. "Sensing that something important was happening," notes John Held, "and yet receiving little support from the art establishment, mail artists took it upon themselves to curate their own shows and thus ensure the growth of their preferred medium." With the rapid increase of government-sponsored non-profit gallery spaces, as well as government grants for magazines like the Toronto-based FILE, Canadian artists effected a steady codification of Johnson’s hermetic practice. Increasingly, mail art became defined not in terms of Filliou’s Eternal Network, of dialogues between artists that could grow into multilogs, but in terms of exhibitions and publications. The Vancouver-based collective Image Bank sponsored The First Image Bank Postcard Show in 1971. The exhibition included thousands of postcards and traveled to nine galleries across Canada during the next two years. Chuck Stake organized numerous exhibitions, including several versions of Junk Mail, and he also produced the magazine Images and Information. Most often these and other exhibitions were limited to a list of invited artists, but organizers gradually realized an open network by exhibiting all the work received.

The mail art exhibition structure, predicated on an open format, focused on mailed objects. It also became the site of mail artists’ claims to the medium’s popular success and historic import. The widely acknowledged source for the open format of mail art exhibitions lies in Ken Friedman’s groundbreaking 1973 exhibition Omaha Flow Systems. It was the first exhibition to use a large list, a democratic and all-inclusive guideline, and individual viewer participation. Many mail artists, including Michael Crane, regularly refer to it as " a direct forerunner of the mail art exhibition as it is known today." Friedman describes Omaha Flow Systems as an attempt to "open the mail art network to a broad public." Initially, thousands of invitations were mailed worldwide to artists inviting them to send work. The received works were installed at the Joslyn Museum and at various "orbital network participants," including Creighton University, Concordia Teachers College, and the Westroads Shopping Mall in Omaha. However, the exhibition was not intended only to exhibit these works, but to encourage an interactive exchange by which the audience became active participants. Accordingly, visitors to the exhibition were asked to "select a work from the wall and replace it with a work of their own creation." In an anecdote that typifies the exhibition, Harrison Taylor, the Joslyn Museum’s curator, recalls that Ken Friedman once suggested to a visitor that she bring a loaf of bread to exchange for a piece that she wanted. "She came back with a loaf of bread, placed it on the table, and darned if someone didn’t exchange their art for the bread. It was like that…the entire exhibition changed over three times." The social engagement of Omaha Flow Systems has been explored subsequently, by other artists working not within the mail art context but in acknowledged mainstream galleries and major museums, including Group Material, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

The strategy and scope of Omaha Flow Systems remains one of the most succinct and innovative realizations of an exchange system in an institutional setting. Still, it differs considerably from the recently established parameters of mail art exhibitions. In contrast to Omaha Flow Systems’ emphasis on dynamism and flux, the format of a contemporary mail art exhibition stresses inclusiveness and a suspension of curatorial judgment. The widely accepted operational guidelines of a mail art exhibition are predicated on "rejecting the exclusiveness and competitiveness of existing art world institutions." Stephen Perkins equates this adoption of a "parallel counter-institution" with a "utopian model of creativity." The guidelines for such shows have crystallized around an egalitarian ethos of no fees charged for submission, no jury or selection process for showing, the guaranteed exhibition of all works received and the promise of no works returned. Finally, some sort of documentation is ultimately sent to all participants. Typically, mail art exhibitions consist of a call from an organizing curator or artist, usually distributed through publications like Global Mail or Umbrella or in printed announcements sent through the mail or posted on the Internet. The organizer proposes a theme, from a single word or phrase, such as Sachie Yamashita’s request to "Please Send Me Circle," to a specific historic or cultural reference, like Reinhard Hammann’s "Hello Mr. Gutenberg," a mail art project to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the invention of moveable type." The works are collected by a given date and exhibited at sites that range from conventional art galleries, organizers’ living rooms, to an outdoor fence post. Documents, too, vary from photocopied lists of addresses to wall posters or may even include bound catalogues, complete with photographic reproductions and accompanying essays.

The mail art exhibition, however, has allowed this art movement, originally alternative and even somewhat anarchic in its associations, to grow closer to the institutions that it once sought to escape. Rather than "mail art", with its promise of flux and group authorship, the current exhibition format highlights "mailed art." Instead of emphasizing mail art as a procedural continuum, in which the hierarchical distinctions between artist and non-artist are obscured through collaboration and exchange, mail artists have come to see the postal exhibition as a form of internal validation and designation. Within the context of a mail art show, the artist-participants assume a privileged stature, and the art object retains its mythical, auratic status; only the means of qualification for exhibition have been "democratized." Several mail artists have argued against this institutional approach. "Let us make it clear," writes Edgardo-Antonio Vigo, "that mail art does not consist of mailing literary or fine works of art to an exhibition." Judith Hoffberg, longtime editor of Umbrella magazine, supports this view and worries that "mail art has become, since 1976, another form of exhibition in alternative spaces...mail art has developed a parallel system...another way of hanging up tired, uninventive images in the same vein as galleries and museums." Rather than evaluating the relationship between individual and collective artistic production or proposing a significant rereading of cultural history, the mail art exhibition has simply mirrored familiar art gallery procedures while reducing entry to the lowest common denominator.

Since the early 1970s, mail artists have increasingly defined the medium in terms of the egalitarian format of mail art exhibitions and publications. Over time, postal artists have ignored many conceptual and practical challenges posed by using the international postal system as an artistic support. Instead, this group has favored recognition and documentation of itself as an alternative art network. For instance, the 1986 Decentralized Mail Art Congress, developed by Gunther Rüch and H. R. Fricker, was predicated on mail artists talking to each other face to face about mail art. Rather than meeting at a single location, more than 70 smaller meetings took place throughout the year, and each group reported its dialogue back to the organizers, who then published the results. John Held calls it "one of the most important developments…in mail art." Yet the Congress, which resembled nothing so much as a professional conference, was yet another attempt to codify mail art in terms of existing institutional paradigms.

Mail artists have claimed their historic significance on the basis of an open aesthetic and broad, international communication. Nevertheless their parallel institution, has, as Greil Marcus asserts, effectively "excused itself from history." Removing themselves from the scope of art historical discourse, mail artists tend to resist both internal and external efforts at critical evaluation. "Whenever someone who is not a mail artist tries to write about mail art, it comes out as a strange story," says Rudd Janssen, and Ken Friedman notes several instances of scathing attacks on critics from within the mail art network. Characterizing the mail art network as "a small town culture writ large," Friedman notes that mail artists’ often self-righteous arguments about the importance of mail art reveal an insular coterie with "little understanding of history and culture." Also, the frequent claims of mail art as a democratic art form fail to take larger social and art historical movements into account. "We don’t ascribe any kind of great value to pen-pals," writes Friedman. "What would we think if a group of pen-pals claimed to be changing history, revolutionizing art and advancing human progress? Tourism? Networker conferences? The Scouts have been doing it for a century." While the international post allows for unique approaches to collaboration and group dialogue as expressed through the mailed object, most mail artists have left these areas unexplored, and their institutionalization of an open aesthetic reduces mail art to a self-contained ghetto. Today, most self-defined mail artists remain dedicated to using the postal service to create an alternative and largely self-congratulatory art system rather than producing aesthetic objects whose communicative histories are integral to their formal complexity.

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