Click here to access Mail Art Archives Introduction

Click here to access Dead White Mail

(mis)reading mail art

part four
Paradox and Promise: The Options of Mail Art

Matt Ferranto

To a limited extent this dearth of sustained analysis and serious inquiry has caused concern, even among mail artists. Ben Vautier, reflecting the disenchantment felt by many mail artists who were active correspondents in the 1960s and ‘70s, contends that "mail art has become a small system for obtaining artistic works for free. It is nothing other than a swindle." Guy Schraenen maintains that the egalitarian, populist stance of the mail art circuit has doomed it to irrelevance. "Too many people used the system for personal reasons without artistic significance," he says, and the result has been a moribund art form. "Mail art’s popular success was achieved at the cost of abandoning any theoretical rigor," writes Stewart Home, who also criticizes the movement’s popularity with what he called the "lumpenintelligentsia" of North America and Western Europe. In his "Open Letter to the Network," Mark Bloch offers a rambling critique of mail artists’ relations with the existing gallery system, attempting to distinguish "the differences…between mail art and certified ‘art’." While calling on mail artists to "ask the difficult questions" and "digress from the backslapping that is so prevalent in mail art," Bloch’s proposals are limited to an exhortation to "pursue a more rigorous dialogue than exists right now." Bloch asserts that "if we concentrate on content rather than appearance, but at the same time use the tools available to us, we can have our cake and eat it too." Many of Bloch’s themes were foreshadowed by Ken Friedman’s earlier essay "Freedom, Excellence, and Choice," first published in 1975. One of the most consistent critics of mail art, Friedman notes that he became persona non grata in the mail art network following the essay’s publication in FILE magazine and its subsequent distribution in pamphlet form. Friedman’s essay delivers a diatribe against the proliferation of "kwik-collage…printed in the thousands and (sent) out with little care or concern." Since the early 1970s, notes Friedman, the mail art network has grown increasingly "self-centered and internalized;" most mail artists have "little knowledge of the history of mail art." This lack of internal critique, he suggests, has led mail artists to describe their network as an art form. Rather than pose new theoretical approaches to mail art as a medium, however, his main concerns focus on issues of quality and application. Unhappy with hastily conceived projects and poorly crafted objects, he complained that "I know that many people know damn well they are not GIVING THEIR BEST." Strident as Friedman’s criticisms were, neither he nor other critics have proposed significant new approaches or re-readings of the medium.

Some critics have suggested that mail art could become a more topical medium if the established networks were applied to more pragmatic ends. "Networks are interesting for what they can do," says Friedman, "for what they can achieve." His criticism does not imply that the mail art network cannot be used to more profound ends. Indeed, networking practice has political implications, and one of its greatest promises has been its potential to mobilize large numbers of people. For Anna Banana and others in the West, developing a network was itself a political act. Extensive mail art networks developed in Eastern Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s as responses to repressive Communist regimes, and they often functioned as a means for political dissidents to communicate with one another. Geza Perneczky describes the work of a Russian group known as INCONNU or "unknown," referring to a bureaucratic postal stamp placed on undeliverable mail. Members would send dissident political tracts to others in their group by addressing their letters to a nonexistent location and using the intended recipient’s return address. The Polish mail artist Pawel Petasz, who founded the assembling magazine Commonpress in 1978, hailed mail art as a way "to create art that challenged or circumvented the restrictive ideology of and regulations of the Polish peoples’ art scene." Laszlo Beke, the co-editor of East Europe in International Network, notes that "the striking quality of Eastern European mail art is due to the fact that this art was produced under direct confrontation with dictatorship."

Cold War-era Eastern Europe is not the only place where mail art has been shaped by pressing political concerns. Because of its subversive, anti-authoritarian stance, mail art has united politically minded artists in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, most recently for instance in Latin America. One of the more prolific of these politically minded mail artists, Clemente Padin sees mail art as "an instrument of change and transformation" in his own country. A poet, graphic artist, and art critic from Uruguay, Padin is another exponent of mail art’s "second wave," coming to the medium as a mean of exploring visual poetry. His Creative Post-Card Festival of 1974 was the first documented mail art exhibition in Latin America, and he edited the mail art magazines OVUM (fig. 30) and OVUM 10 from 1969 to 1975. The objective behind his numerous stamps and postcards, such as Uruguay, 1975 (fig. 31) is to "denounce the inhuman and brutal repression of the fascist government." After attempting to organize a Counter-Biennal in front of the Latin American section of the X Biennal of Paris in 1977, Padin and fellow artist Jorge Caraballo were imprisoned by the Uruguayan government on charges of disrupting "the morale and reputation of the army." Their incarceration elicited widespread concern among mail artists, and numerous exhibitions were organized on their behalf (fig. 32).

Whether these exhibitions brought about Padin’s eventual release in 1979 is unclear. Since then, he has engaged in several projects that attempt to mobilize the mail art network on an even broader international arena. For instance, his 1998 Accion Urgente (AU) call, planned in conjunction with Hans Braumüller, Fernando García Delgado, Tartarugo, and César Reglero, was predicated on preventing the British government from granting political immunity to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The project was also inspired by the expulsion of Professor Humberto Nilo Saavedra from his chair at the University of Chile after he organized a mail art call for an exhibition "Freedom for the Education of the Arts." The AU call attracted some 500 contributions over two months, many pointedly political such as the Immunity? Justice! artist stamp sent by the Shopping Trolley Gallery in Britain (fig. 33).

However, it remains difficult to determine the political efficacy of Padin’s Accion Urgente projects. Despite their declaration of victory in the Pinochet case, the effect of AU on the deliberations of the British and Spanish legal assemblies who debated Pinochet’s eventual fate remains questionable. Furthermore, the case of Humberto Nilo in Chile remains unchanged. Following the British House of Lords’ decision to not grant Pinochet immunity, Padin introduced a new AU project, "Stop Bombing Yugoslavia," in April of 1999. Although this campaign also received a wide response, its ultimate effect on the decision-making process of NATO is, again, doubtful. Moreover, in keeping with mail art’s subversive posturing and low artistic profile, the "Stop Bombing Yugoslavia" campaign passed largely unremarked by political commentators and the media.

Although its effectiveness in achieving political change remains questionable, mustering the mail art network for greater ends proposes a radical re-evaluation of artistic practice; above all it suggests a conception of the avant-garde as a coarticulation of aesthetics and politics. In practice this approach resembles the letter-writing campaigns frequently orchestrated by local political action committees, though these are usually focused on specific, local issues, where the opinions of a few hundred individuals might sway a vote. One example in which correspondence is used as an international political tool is Amnesty International’s Freedom Writers network. Here individuals are sent form letters regarding the specific cases of prisoners or "disappeared" persons and are urged to send copies of the letters to key officials who might influence their cases. While Padin’s AU projects mirror the international scale of Amnesty International’s campaigns, the latter are directed to the plights of obscure individuals and are facilitated by a sizable international bureaucracy that oversees writing, printing, distribution, and face-to-face lobbying on the chosen cases. Without such an administrative apparatus to bring attention to their politicized networks, mail artists’ campaigns remain inconspicuous at best. Moreover, implementing a global strategy requires remarkable affinities among the far-flung members of the mail art network; it necessitates sympathy between, for instance, Igor Bartolech of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and Bugpost of Seattle. Additionally, it presupposes that a few hundred individuals, a very large number for a mail art exhibition, will have a tangible effect on international political decisions. Although such attempts to marshal the mail art network for international political action suggests provocative opportunities to engage artists, it has remained all but impossible to execute effectively and consistently.

While mail artists’ ability to effect political change remains remote, their engagement in such socially responsive actions nonetheless acts to raise awareness among the individual participants. Indeed, mail art is often discussed as a sort of virus that surreptitiously passes through the host of the international postal system to work against the larger forces that support this bureaucracy. Such was the case, for instance, with Art Strike, a project organized by the English novelist and mail artist Stewart Home from 1990-1993. Beginning in 1985, Home began using Smile magazine to urge artists to engage in a worldwide work stoppage for three years. Just as Jean-Marc Poinsot wrote of the practice of mail art itself effecting a symbolic refusal of capitalist exchange, Home’s project was not intended to effect a mass closure of galleries and museums. Instead, he sought "to raise issues that are of pertinence to mail artists and point to ways international networking can be used to give voice to radical social perspectives." His Art Strike, of course, was preceded by numerous activist projects initiated by artists throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Indeed, the British artist Gustav Metzger had initially called for a similar art strike to run between 1977 and 1980, but his idea failed to generate much interest. Events that did rally artists tended to be more short-lived. These include the New York Art Strike Against War, Repression, and Racism of May 22, 1970, as well as the more recent "Day Without Art" where museums and galleries have been closed as a means of raising the public’s awareness of the AIDS epidemic. Home admitted from the start that the purpose of Art Strike was not to effect the closure of galleries and museums, but to encourage "critical debate around the concept of art." While disavowing the Strike as a mail art project, Home noted that most of the individuals involved in propagating it had close ties to the mail art network. Using this network allowed Home to rally support for his plan, and the idea stimulated international debate both among mail artists and in the mainstream press.

The equation of mail art with small-scale opposition to larger social and political forms has been applied to the mailed objects themselves. Mail artists have long engaged in so-called "monkey wrenching" pranks intended to test the legal limits of postal regulations. These actions also engage the individual clerks who oversee the passage of mail through the system, increasing their role as active collaborators. Ken Friedman notes that many NYCS participants "took pride and even a perverse pleasure in sending one another the most outlandish and possibly unmailable objects…they could conceive." The challenge, he says, was in "persuading postal clerks to accept the items as falling within regulations." Friedman, for instance, based one of his own projects on a series of cumbersome chairs, the smaller ones mailed whole and the larger ones disassembled and posted part by part.

While many mail artists post heavy, unwieldy objects such as rocks or incredibly delicate items such as leaves, others have engaged in more felonious actions. Two of the most prolific of these artists are Michael Herndanez de Luna and Michael Thompson, both Chicago-based artists who have run aground of federal authorities for their consistent use of unofficial, highly satirical stamps as official postage. Beginning in the early 1990s, the pair have used offset printers, color photocopiers, and perforating machines to compose stamp sheets that bear a remarkable resemblance to the imagery and appearance of official stamps issued by the United States Postal Service. In some way their work recalls the work of American trompe l’oeil painters like William Harnett in the nineteenth century who ran afoul of the Federal government for his highly illusionistic and accurate renderings of stamps and currency. The subjects chosen by de Luna and Hernandez, however, are more quixotic, lampooning current events, historical figures, and political foibles. These include Ford’s Theater (fig. 34), which depicts the assassination of President Lincoln, and National Group Sex Day (fig.35), which pictures several couples in an orgy. Moreover, these contemporary artists, unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, actively challenge official bureaucratic structures in their art. They consider their works complete only when they have passed through the postal system attached to envelopes that they regularly send to one another at various addresses across the world (fig. 36). The artists describe their work as a set of pranks that hinges on the performance of anonymous postal employees. Their stamps are often rejected by sorting machines, confronting individual postal workers with the choice of hand canceling these letters or removing them from the mail stream. "This is what becomes theater," says de Luna. "At the moment the machine stops, the postal worker is in power over the envelope. Where’s he gonna go?" Both have emphasized that their attempts to post satirical stamps featuring the gangster Al Capone or the disgraced Illinois senator Dan Rostenkowski are not a serious attempt to defraud the government out a few dollars’ worth of postage. Rather, the works are predicated using the official postal system as a conduit for a form of social and political satire. Even so, both have attracted the official scrutiny of United States Postal Inspectors, who visited their studios, examined their works, and then delivered cease and desist letters to them by registered mail.

Whether anxiously political or gregariously social, these artists use the postal service to transmit objects that challenge both established concepts of art and larger bureaucratic systems. Perhaps significantly, neither Thompson nor de Luna participates in the activities of the mail art network, and mail artists only rarely acknowledge their work themselves. Indeed, for most mail artists, the idea of the network itself remains the defining feature of their movement. However, this concept, at once rigid and exclusionary, is itself also becoming obsolete. While mail artists’ networking has paralleled or even presaged larger communicative movements, the innovative idea of using the post to form a network is growing more obsolete. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s the medium was frequently discussed as anticipating a global electronic communication system that used "linked computers." Today, however, the linked computers of the Internet are a reality for many mail artists. Dozens of mail artists, including Guy Bleus and Anna Banana, operate Web sites that display their work and invite participation in mail art exhibitions. Moreover, Padin’s works can be found on numerous sites, and he made extensive use of email and the Internet to organize and publicize his AU projects. Mail artists, of course, have long defined their medium as a means for connecting a broad-based movement of like-minded people. Recently, however, this function has begun to be supplanted, and even improved, by such electronic means as email and the World-Wide Web. The extensive utilization of electronic messaging throughout industrialized nations in general and among mail artists in particular, however, implies a concurrent reinvestigation of the mailed object itself. If networking can now be accomplished more speedily and efficiently with the Internet, what is to become of mail art?

Often inattentive to the symbolic and allusive qualities of the objects they post, mail artists have long rejected formal considerations of their works. The material qualities of mail art are excused or overlooked; instead, the exchange of items has been secondary to a larger set of social relations. Mark Bloch, for instance, maintains that "aesthetic concerns have never been what made mail art fascinating." In fact, the jettisoning of such criteria was crucial to the current shape and ethos of the mail art network. The critic Robert Fulford rather politely notes that "the things the (mail) artists send each other don’t seem especially impressive." Mail artists have long privileged process over product, but few have looked closely at the integral relations between the two. Indeed, much of the work that passes as mail art remains poorly reproduced photocopies. Looking beyond the mail art network as a means of de-materialized communication and an alternative institution, however, requires that mail artists consider their art as a dynamic operation involving both material and exchange. As Ulises Carrion writes, "the moment has come to declare that mail art has very little to do with mail and a lot to do with art."

Where mail artists have often focused their attention on the mailed object as a necessary communicative device, the transitory nature of postal exchange implies a set of unique formal qualities. Moving from person to person under the auspices of a bureaucratic entity, mailed objects gradually attain a "patina" of postal cancellations that describe their journey through time and space. Additionally, the objects’ physical progress and handling produces nicks and scars that add to their wear and tear. Over time, as Chuck Welch notes, "these original collaged surfaces resemble large palimpsests of artist postage stamps, rubber stamped images, cryptic messages, and slogans." As mailed objects accrete layer on layer of additions, both intended and unplanned, they again approach a Heteroglossic state, combining multiple models of verbal and visual address. What is especially interesting is how the anonymous, official language of the postal service, by way of cancellations and directional notations, serves to mediate these conversations. Moreover, a tension develops between those marks of mailing that are predetermined and circumscribed, for example legible addresses and postage stamps, and the random imprints that embody a process of reciprocal exchange, for instance postal letter coding. Approached in this way, mail art becomes a dynamic, interactive medium that renders both private and public models of contemporary social speech visible in a material object that shuttles back and forth over space and time.

Mail art works acquire their unique aggregates of indexical imprints as a direct result of their capacity to stimulate unique collaborative opportunities. Indeed, the medium of mail art problematizes several key issues in contemporary art, raising, for instance, larger questions related to collaboration, interactivity, and temporality. Many contemporary artists have found such ideas compelling as well. Galleries and museums now frequently feature work that is predicated on providing a physical and tactile, not only a visual, experience for viewers. Examples of this range from Lygia Clark’s architectural environments of sand and straw from the 1960s to Charles Long’s Bubble Gum Station of 1997. The dynamic, even restless activity of mail art also encompasses a unique approach to collaboration. While mail art involves the recipient as participant, however, its operations are at once intimate and public, involving sender, recipient, and an unknown host of anonymous, and usually unwitting, postal workers whose additions remain crucial to the realization of the work. As objects pass from one recipient to the next, and perhaps to another again, no single vision or voice takes precedence. Likewise, the object itself can embody an entire conversation. As Ryosuke Cohen, who has organized more than four hundred Brain Cell mail art projects since 1985, writes, "in mail art, the network expands as A to B, B to C, C to D, D to A, C to A, and so on… Not only that, you can put collage effect on the mail you receive and send it back, or you may be able to get other’s ideas into our own mail...In this way, the mail art pieces often change their appearance and concepts into unimagined way, which not any individual artist can create."

Although mail art often begins with "gift-giving," traditional models of exchange have always implied more than a one-way presentation. Mail art interchanges, too, offer the possibility of a more complex set of transactions. According to many mail artists, the medium’s system of free exchange corresponds to a lack of responsibility for the formal and conceptual qualities of their work. As Melanie Sage-Enkoff writes in the Art-Stamp Journal, "Mail Art…should give one the freedom to create and send whatever they feel is on their mind without feeling inferior or that their work is being compared by others receiving it." The complexity of shared meanings possible in mail art, however, depends on a structure of reciprocity. In embodying a conversation, roles of giver and receiver collapse with those of speaker and listener, and both constantly shift in conjunction with the work itself.

An alternative approach toward mail art exchange is suggested by the practice of one branch of the mail art community, correspondence "recyclers." These artists focus on the mailed object as the site of flux and flow, on a continual process of fragmentation, disintegration, and renewal. Above all, mail art recyclers emphasize in their work the materiality of communication. Indeed, the concept of recycling represents a return to Ray Johnson’s frequent use of "change and return" or "change and pass on" messaging on his mailings to the NYCS. With these directives Johnson’s correspondents were expected to keep his mailed objects in circulation rather than safeguarding and preserving them. Johnson’s instructions were often motivated by his desire to serve as what Moussa Domit referred to as a "mild mannered choreographer" for his School. Johnson’s activities, however, also imply the irrelevance of originality while opening up a innovative approach to collaboration, and it is these underlying ideas that mail art recyclers have begun to develop more fully.

Few mail artists today have continued Johnson’s original interest in the transmission and dispersion of mailed objects. One of the few active mail art "recyclers" today, Rudi Rubberoid of Bellingham, Washington uses the postal service to constantly circulate his own and others’ images. Similar to many mail artists, Rubberoid uses multiple monikers, including Wingo Fruitpunch and Billy Joe Ziploc. He turned to correspondence art after many years of negotiating the "serious" art world of galleries, dealers, and critics. Like many in the second wave of artists active after the early ‘70’s, Rubberoid found mail art "refreshing…due to its lack of expectations." However, his work embraces a complex set of strategies and goals. Constantly changing and re-posting items that others have sent him (fig. 37), Rubberoid has established an art practice that fully embraces the principles of motion and change that are implied but rarely embraced by mail artists. For him, it is imperative that "mail art should be kept in flux." Resembling randomly developing collages, Rubberoid’s envelopes densely accrete multiple images, including rubber stamps, stickers, and pasted papers that have been clipped from mailings of his many correspondences. Espousing an esthetic of mutation, many of these works re-use mailings that had been sent by other correspondents, combining and reassembling parts of disparate mailings. They are returned to the original senders transformed through Rubberoid’s whimsical clutter and augmented by the markings of anonymous postal workers.

In highlighting the object as the site of collaboration between individuals, mail artists like Rubberoid pose an innovative response to what Roland Barthes referred to as "the death of the author." In his 1977 essay, Barthes proposed that "the text is a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash…[it remains] a tissue of quotations from innumerable centers of culture. Furthermore, he suggests that an "ideal text…has no beginnings; it is reversible; we gain access to it through several entrances." Barthes pointed to Surrealist artists such as Masson and Breton as the first explorers of "several people writing together" in their "Exquisite Corpse" drawings of the 1920s. More recently, Barthes’ ideas have been central to discussions of the work of postmodern artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. In each of these cases the artists appropriated images from high art and mass culture to demonstrate the elusive and constructed character of truth.

Although challenging ideas of originality, the individual identities of Levine or Prince as artists were never disputed; correspondence art can be, however, truly collaborative. Mail art works that travel between several individuals often resemble anonymous urban graffiti sites, in which numerous voices shout for recognition. They offer a unique forum to explore the collaborative voice as expressed in a single object. Frequently, such works challenge traditional evaluations of artistic quality or skill. Although unwittingly, mail art’s "recycles" address the more fundamental questions that this art form raises. If, as Barthes says, art should be a "multi-dimensional space," that it should be "a tissue of quotations," then mail art provides an unusual opportunity for realizing that idea. Here we find many artists adding to a work that is constantly in progress, that is transformed as each artist adds imagery from multiple sources and transforms it, that becomes randomly altered as it travels through space and time. Mail art introduces the possibility, even the necessity, of the collective into the visual arts and even extends the idea of collaboration to a host of participants, witting and unwitting.

For more than twenty years, mail artists have consistently disregarded the mailed object as the site of critical investigation. The very idea of criticizing mail art objects, of analyzing their formal and conceptual qualities, of questioning their relation to the larger mail art network, remains loath to most mail artists. In overlooking the mailed object in favor of the construction of an allegedly populist institution, however, mail artists have missed a particularly rich and theoretically valuable aspect of the medium. Mail art, of course, encompasses a structure of interaction that occurs through the exchange of actual objects. While investigation of these mailed objects remains unimportant to most mail artists, they remain a crucial aspect of their practice. If mail art is to grow and develop in the coming decades, it remains imperative that mail artists look to their works as both communicative means and formal ends, as transitory conversations that defy traditional criteria yet demand rigorous appraisals from their makers.