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(mis)reading mail art

part three
Anna Banana and Guy Bleus: Studies in Networking

Matt Ferranto

Two of the most important and active mail artists to emerge after New York Correspondance School exhibition were Anna Banana and Guy Bleus. Together, they reflect the newly international character of the medium as it spread from New York to Canada and Europe. Like many mail artists, their work addresses issues that transcend the mailed object itself; though motivated by different aesthetic concerns, both remain linked in their focus on developing a communication network informed by democratic principles and open aesthetics.

A prolific correspondent, as well as a performer, writer, and publisher, Anna Banana was one of the first artists to emerge in what she calls the medium’s "second wave" of the early 1970s. While many of her projects, including the Encyclopedia Bananica, Banana Rag, and VILE magazine, serve as forums for recognizing and cultivating alternative lifestyles, she, like many of this newer wave of mail artists, has based her activity on the development and evolution of the mail art network.

Banana’s work took shape in the early 1970s and was largely molded by the ideas and values that permeated the alternative movements of that period. Born Anna Long, the artist re-christened herself Anna Banana and emerged as an assertive partisan of the counter-culture. She initially gained a high profile in her native Canada as a vocal exponent of unconventional lifestyles. In writings such as "The Transformation of Anna Long of Gordon’s Beach, BC," a profile that appeared in the Canadian mass-market magazine Macleans, Banana adopted a first-person narrative about dropping out of the "straight life."

If Banana described an alternative lifestyle that was adopted by many early mail art participants, she embraced not only mail art, but also the larger idea of a correspondence network. Like many contemporary artists, she mailed collages, wrote samples of concrete and visual poetry, and created corporate identities and alter egos among a circle of friends and associates throughout the early 1960s. Moreover, like so many of these early mail artists, she had no knowledge of Ray Johnson’s Correspondance School. Following Johnson’s visit to the University of British Columbia in 1969, however, Banana and several others, including Ed Varney and Chuck Stake, turned their attention to the formation of a correspondence network. Her first effort, the Banana Rag of 1971 (fig. 17) was modestly designed as "an attempt to communicate better with the public." A hand-drawn, quickly printed newsletter, Banana Rag had mixed objectives. It related anecdotes of Banana’s daily life, ranging from descriptions of a business venture selling painted rocks to a report of her activities distributing literature on the ecological threat of nuclear testing in Antarctica. After initially distributing Banana Rag on the streets of Victoria, the artist began mailing it to her friends. Banana’s circle of activity was soon expanded by Gary Lee-Nova, himself active with the Image Bank collective in Vancouver. After receiving Banana Rag, Lee-Nova sent Banana a working copy of the Image Bank request list, a vast accumulation of names, addresses, and short collaborative project descriptions that would soon become the primary source and inspiration for the regular lists that were later published in FILE magazine. Using Banana Rag as the basis for mass mailings to the new Image Bank request lists, the self-designated "Town Fool of Victoria" quickly developed an art-based correspondence with Ray Johnson, members of the NYCS, General Idea, among others. Within a year, she recalls, her list of regular correspondents numbered over a hundred, and she found herself at the forefront of an emerging correspondence network.

Playing upon her moniker, many of Banana’s correspondence and performance projects revolved around the humorous potential of the banana. For example, as the artist increasingly received mailed art, objects and information related to banana themes, she created her own "Master of Bananology" certificates (fig. 18). Sent to each correspondent in her ever-growing network of mail art contacts, she issued the certificate courtesy of the "Royal Order of Banana." This quasi-official document doubled as a networking tool and propagated a self-created myth that had already begun with the Banana Rag. Accumulated information on bananas is still being compiled into her idiosyncratic opus Encyclopedia Bananica, which is to include sections on "Bananas and The Law," "Tricks and Unusual Uses," and "Proof Positive that Germany is Going Bananas."

Like many of the artists involved in this second wave of mail art, however, Banana’s interest in the movement hinged on the belief that mailed art could unify a greater correspondence network. She attempted to address a larger community of mail artists even more directly in her next publication, VILE magazine, which Banana co-edited with her then-husband Bill Gaglione from 1974 to 1983 (Fig. 19). Seeing the mail art network as the communicative organ within a larger alternative culture whose common interests extended to left-wing politics, creators intended to bring artists together. Initially the magazine was conceived as a response to FILE magazine’s editorial disdain for the new direction that mail art was taking. Numerous new mail artists began using photocopy machines to distribute pieces to every person listed in the Image Directory, and FILE’s editors were quick to denounce what they labeled "quick kopy krap." By 1973, Robert Cumming, a regular contributor to the magazine, wrote that, "I get stuff every day that makes it barely out of the envelope and into the trash it’s so terrible." Banana agrees that many new mail artists were producing "junk mail," but she continued cultivating a correspondence network because "I believe the process of communication and exchange is important, regardless of the aesthetics and skills of the sender." Just as the members of General Idea initially described FILE as a "networking publication," VILE was designed to promote communication and fellowship. In an introductory editorial, Banana noted that VILE was based on artists "using the printed medium for their own designs and purposes (and) creating an international consciousness/circle of contacts…around the world."

As the name suggests, VILE reveled in objectionable, often scatological humor. Like FILE, it parodied LIFE magazine’s cover layout, although VILE’s imagery ranged from a naked man with an erection hanging from a noose in a doorway to a grimacing Monty Cazazza shoving a heart toward the viewer while blood dripped down his bare torso. As Banana says, VILE was meant to "look like LIFE but on close examination would reveal its true nature: subtle put-downs of the mass culture with nasty, Dada, ‘up-yours’ type messages." VILE underscored its counter-cultural stance by detourning numerous mainstream advertisements from LIFE magazine. In one, for instance, a small poem about Adolf Hitler is pasted into the copy for "Eye-Gene" eyedrops (fig. 20); another features a pornographic scene involving two women and a man wearing infant clothing dropped into an ad for "Tolipent" denture cleaner (fig. 21). The erotic potential of the banana, as organ, appendage, or some combination thereof, was a common theme. Valerie Oisteanu’s drawing of a banana/dildo in use on a male rectum (fig. 22) typified the magazine’s attempts to play with banana imagery and challenge the limits of printed propriety. However, the magazine also served as a forum for dialogue within the mail art network. Much of the magazine’s content was based on visual and verbal contributions from its readers, including reproductions of pieces of mail art, illustrated letters to the editor, received postcards, as well as articles written by correspondents.

The 1978 "Fe-Mail Art" issue of VILE underscored Banana’s goal of fostering community through correspondence art. Edited by Gaglione and composed of mail art works created exclusively by women, the issue included photographs, rubberstamps, project invites, and newsletters by numerous artists, including Martha Wilson, Alison Knowles, and Yoko Ono. "Women have embraced mail-art because it is a medium through which it is easy to assert oneself," wrote Banana in the introduction. "It also gives me a sense of community on an international level, fostering the idea that peaceful co-existence, caring and concern for people of other nationalities is possible."

Over time, the demands and pressures of maintaining an international mail art network have led Banana, like many other mail artists, to shift her artistic focus. "In the beginning it was great fun to get lots of new contacts," she says, "but there seems to come a turning point…when that response becomes a burden rather than a joy." After ceasing the publication of VILE, Banana has increasingly turned her attention to artist stamps. Beginning with her "Banana Post" stamps, images that pictured strangely archaic sexual fetish gear in the 1970s (fig. 23), the medium has been crucial to her work. As her career developed, her stamps have grown increasingly sophisticated in technique and imagery. Her 1993 stamp sheet Zer’s More Horse’s Asses in Zee World Zan Zere is Horses (fig. 24) features close up images of zebra posteriors rendered in abrupt combinations of saturated color, transforming an audacious image into a bold, decorative pattern. In 1990 her personal newsletter Banana Rag was transformed into Artistamp News, and after more than twenty years of prolific network activity, she has largely abandoned her efforts to maintain "across the board contact with mail artists everywhere." Currently, she produces custom-made stamps through her Banana International Art Post. In addition to founding this company, she also conducts private workshops on mail art history and artist stamp production.

Typical of many mail artists, Banana consistently explored and expanded the idea of a mail art network over the investigation of the mailed object. For Banana, mail art represented an extension of the burgeoning 1970s counter-culture. Striving for alternative approaches toward social cohesion, she recognized the medium as a means of building a unified, even politicized, international network. While she still stresses the "sense of community" engendered through postal correspondence in her workshops, she has noted how difficult it is to sustain such activity. "Vittore Baroni, Guy Bleus, and…myself all started out attempting to contact EVERYONE in the network," she notes, but today only "Bleus appears to be continuing to attempt to be there for everyone. I wonder how long he will last at it."

Like Anna Banana, Guy Bleus was part of the second wave of mail artists whose art took shape in the 1970s, and both Banana and Bleus have based their work on extending the network as a global, democratic phenomenon. Where Banana’s work has revolved around publications imbued with a counter-cultural, neo-Dada spirit, however, Bleus has focused on archiving processes and curatorial projects in a practice that he refers to as administration.

A native of Belgium, Guy Bleus recalls that "the smell of stamp pad ink is part of my first memories." His involvement in mail art began in 1968, when he collaborated with a group of young Belgian poets and artists to produce the journal Subterranean. As editor, Bleus convinced the Academy of Art of Gent to publish its second and final volume, the first of many institutional forums for his work. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Bleus has written numerous texts concerning mail art history and theory while producing installations, performances, and mail art exhibitions in museums and galleries. Largely based in Europe, the venues for these shows have ranged from the Gall-Roman Museum in Tongeren to the Postal Museum in Brussels.

Using tools and topics resonant with bureaucratic administration, Bleus strives for social cohesion while mirroring and ultimately critiquing existing institutions. "The task of mail art," according to Bleus, "is to bring dysinformation into information systems." Seeking to "ridicule the position of the twentieth century bureaucrat," Bleus began his career by producing counterfeits and parodies of official licenses and certificates, such as identity stamps from the planet Mars (fig. 25). Many of his later works are full of confused, "obscure codes, ciphers, symbols, abbreviations." Some of his work extends beyond mail art, carrying these themes to other sites, including his own body. In his 1981 performance How to Fight the Madness of Bureaucracy at the End of the Twentieth Century (fig. 26), for instance, he stamped large numbers on his body with a custom-made rubber stamp until the individual digits became illegible in a dense tangle of overlapping signs. In 1979, moreover, Bleus officially catalogued himself at the Benelux Trademark Office, The Hague, as number 42.292; "I am registered," he says, "therefore I am."

Bleus’ interest in mail art’s democratic potential, as well as his fascination with bureaucratic parody and communicative structures, are best expressed in his 1978 inauguration of what he calls the Administration Centre. Bleus has taken on the guise of an official institution, with the Administration Centre serving as the source for his own mail art imagery. His numerous "mail art administration" rubber stamps (fig. 27, 28), which are central to the conception and decoration of his own correspondence art, masquerade as official stamps issued by governmental agencies and refer to the bureaucratic aspects of his networking processes.

However, for Bleus, the simple act of mailing and receiving objects is not enough. The Administration Centre functions as more than a bureaucratic façade that gives shape to his mail art imagery--it is also an attempt to give the movement a more lasting presence by emulating the museum. To him, "the durability of communication-works does not matter. Their effect is in the moment." The Administration Centre remains one of the world’s largest mail art archives, comprising original works by more than 5,000 artists from over sixty countries. Calling the Centre "a virtual framework enclosing an artistic chaos," Bleus maintains its democratic spirit by treating every artist with the same care. Filing their work in a vast system of boxes and envelopes, he has created a meticulously organized yet egalitarian institution. Yet, the project itself is paradoxical. The import of mail art is, Bleus acknowledges, "in the moment . . . communication is more important than the works of art." Although he views the objects as transitory communicative items, the Administration Centre is based on a traditional approach to conservation. "From this point of view," Bleus agrees, "communication archives are a contradiction." He refers to his project, therefore, as "a living archive" and "a poetical catacomb…in memory of the unknown artist."

In addition to preservation and classification, Bleus sees the organization of mail art projects as an administrative transaction that leads to political empowerment. Such operations, he says, "ask for the interaction of administration and art." In the last two decades, Bleus has organized several dozen mail art projects. The wide, democratic scope of his exhibitions, he says, allows for a unique means of collective expression and "confronts opposite kinds of concepts with one another." Arranged according to the standard guidelines of mail art exhibitions, these are international projects with hundreds of contributors. In his 1981-83 Mail Art Atlas, Bleus asked artists to send him a personalized map of their nation. Comprising 459 participants from 48 countries, it folds into a pocket-sized booklet. More recently, 350 artists took part in his 1998 Bureaus 1,001 Desks for an Open Administration (fig. 29). After receiving a photograph of the semi-circular desk belonging to the mayor of Wellen, Belgium, participants were invited to alter the image and return it to Bleus. Using this image to reveal the hidden spaces where political decisions are made reflects the essence of democratic politics, for what Bleus calls an "open administration." As Bleus notes, "a fair constitutional world is only possible when everybody is permanently informed and involved in the political activities." He collected and reproduced each on a CD-ROM document. Though issued under the auspices of The Administration Centre, such projects are frequently displayed in small European museums; Bureaus, for instance, was shown at Centrum Beeldende Kunst in Gronigen, the Netherlands.

Bleus’ many theoretical writings on mail art extend his concerns beyond mere parody and address his ultimate commitment to the egalitarian ethos of the medium. Bleus’ self-published tracts, which range from the lengthy "Exploring Mail Art" to the succinct "Introduction about Art & Exchange," investigate the social, economic, and aesthetic interplay of mail art practice in short, aphoristic paragraphs. He calls mail art "an art-synergism, a series of combined art-actions which are greater in total effect than the sum of their individual effects." Recognizing the relation between money and democracy, he opposes developments like mail-art tourism. "I can send a letter to Japan, Brazil, or Australia for a few dollars or even less," he says, "but I can’t visit [the well-known mail artists] Cohen, Duch, or Tane without an expensive travel ticket."

The aesthetic sensibilities of Anna Banana and Guy Bleus diverge, yet their respective careers have focused on realizing an international network through correspondence. The mailed object remains a means of establishing communication; it serves a social, transitory function in substantiating interpersonal relations. While Bleus values individual artifacts, for him they represent network activity rather than sources for conceptual and aesthetic investigation. Like many of the mail artists who emerged in the early 1970s, he and Banana have both seen mail art as a means toward achieving an alternative, counter-cultural organization. It is a view that has continued to dominate mail art theory and practice. Indeed, the privileging of an open network, of avoiding aesthetic judgments, stems from this egalitarian perspective. At the same time, however, the formal considerations of postal exchange have been neglected. A dialogue regarding the creation of objects whose visual characteristics are integral to their social function remains taboo among mail artists.

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