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(mis)reading mail art

(Mis)reading Mail Art

Matt Ferranto

In 1973, Thomas Albright described mail art as a "far-reaching, far-out, and potentially revolutionary avant-garde cultural ‘underground.’" Some twenty years later, Ken Friedman, one of the pioneers of mail art, called the medium "boring," and compared its participants to "small town gossips." For a medium that once promised a refreshing alternative to the machinations of the art world, mail art seems to have passed its day without ever reaching its full potential.

Much of the basis for this discrepancy lies with mail artists themselves. For them intellectual inquiry and scholarship is often deemed contrary to the essential spirit of the medium. As Ken Friedman notes, "mail artists often claim to seek broad public discourse (but they have) little tolerance for differences of opinion, style, or culture." Many mail artists react with hostility to probing inquiries. When asked about his intriguing approaches to collaboration, for instance, Rudi Rubberoid responded "What do you mean ‘why for’? . . . Why do I cut & send? Becoz my goat is pregnant, ok?" Though often reveling in pithy and self-righteous iconoclasm, mail artists evince a pronounced lack of critical distance from their work. Instead they have inaugurated a "separate and unequal" institution for themselves, creating an atmosphere in which outsiders are regarded with suspicion and critical thinkers often castigated as "academics." Conversely, mail artists frequently trumpet themselves as part of "the most important art movement in the world." In short, correspondence art has functioned more as a social phenomenon than a sustained and incisive aesthetic discourse. Above all, it remains an art form trapped at an impasse, requiring a reinvestigation of its history and an evaluation of its attributes and character.

Mail art came of age in the early 1970s along with other "new media" like performance, video, and earth art. All took shape amid a counter-cultural rhetoric that posited a desire to elude the existing gallery system. In some ways, mail art has succeeded where the other media have failed. Today "new media" work is regularly seen in major gallery and museum exhibitions. Most mail artists, however, remain safely outside dominant art institutions. Insisting that their work is a form of "anti-art," they deliberately ensconce themselves in an alternative ghetto that is intended to challenge the larger system of commercial galleries and museums. Yet the mail art network has grown to resemble nothing so much as the contemporary art world, complete with exhibitions and catalogues, publications and personalities. Rather than develop innovative institutional structures that respond to the unique aesthetic and conceptual challenges posed by the conjunction of "mail" and "art," its practitioners have settled for mimicking the current paradigm. Indeed, their very adoption of the term "mail art" denotes a desire for their work to be accepted within an extant social and historical context.

This problematic situation at once fosters and frustrates the future of mail art. It reflects an egalitarian ethos that permeates the mail art network, yet it also represents an art form that has become stagnant and repetitive. Indeed, mail art has changed but little since its first inception. Mail artists continue to host exhibitions based on the same open criteria and the same themes; mail art publications persist in printing articles that acclaim the revolutionary avant-garde spirit of what is often termed the "Eternal Network." Moreover, mail artists continue to view their medium as a wide-ranging populist movement when in fact it remains dominated by a small coterie. Perhaps most significantly, the actual objects that artists produce are seen as less important than the structure of interaction that results from their exchange. Mail art offers the possibility for group expression in material form. This separates it from other art forms and has become overlooked as mail artists have focused on developing a network. In rethinking the medium, it is crucial to recognize mail art in terms of its formal, tactile and temporal qualities and how these reflect a larger network, a larger dialogue.

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