Time and the Mail Art Network
essay by Karl Young

Correspondence Art (Mail Art): Term applied to art sent through the post rather than displayed or sold through conventional commercial channels, encompassing a variety of media including postcards, books, images made on photocopying machines or with rubber stamps, postage stamps designed by artists, concrete poetry and other art forms generally considered marginal.
- John Held, Jr. The Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1996.

Precedents for mail art are easy enough to find. More than half of the New Testament of the Christian Bible consists of letters circulated throughout an international network to propagate a participatory order. A major factor in the organization of the American Revolution came from the Committees of Correspondence. Newspapers originated in correspondences regarding current events. The letters of HÚlo´se and Abelard take their place in a long string of letters that make correspondence an art form, and many letter writers have included poems and graphics for as long as there have been people who kept in touch with each other over distances by signs or marks. Outside what we generally consider "literacy," the quipus of the Andean civilizations, letters and books made of knotted colored string, and used to carry messages to and from the far corners of the Inca Empire, may seem more avant guardish to us today than they would have in their native environment. As with most arts, the qualities that separate mail art from its precedents and parallels may seem elusive upon close structural examination, but none the less we can distinguish mail art from other forms of artful or inclusive message sending by context and a sense of the style of participants more easily than by any purely formal properties.

During the first half of the 20th Century, several artists and writers, including Duchamp, Schwitters, and the Italian Futurists created art using the mails. During the Great Depression and the World War that followed, this small scale activity seemed to come to a halt. Oddly or serendipitously, the development of an expanded international postal system prepared the way for something else. So did the Cold War.

By the 1950s, any number of artists and writers availed themselves of the postal services to circulate their work, at times incorporating the mailing process into the work itself. Wallace Berman, for instance, mailed assemblages and other art-objects unwrapped to see what the postal system would do to them. In the Soviet Union and its colonies, the Samizdat network began to cohere as a distribution system for censored work. Similar networks began to form in right-wing military dictatorships and in the more insidiously repressive atmosphere of the "free world." These networks remained relatively small and, of necessity, closely guarded by participants.

Most mail artists credit Ray Johnson as the first major instigator of mail art as an expansive phenomenon. An alumnus of Black Mountain College, Johnson's early work foreshadowed and perhaps influenced that of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others. As marvelous as much of his early work was, it didn't satisfy him. His pop iconography and droll collages needed to escape easel painting and interact with the social and artistic environments from which they drew their basic elements. Johnson strikes many as an enigmatic character, remaining aloof, inscrutable, seeming to do everything he could not simply to torpedo his career as an artist, but to create something like an "anti-career." This may have been a type of performance art for him. Johnson took the union of word and image as a given. He often found this union as integral parts of standard icons, such as the circle and name in the Lucky Strike cigarette logo. Many of the instalments in his large Lucky Strike series used the words in the name in different ways. Outside the works that formed the precursor of Pop Art, he integrated layer on layer of hand-drawn and printed texts and icons. He disliked the idea of selling art, and his correspondents claimed that works by Johnson couldn't be bought, only received. He avoided consistency in sales as in all else. When selling work, he demanded a strict protocol from the purchaser. This usually included such rituals as meeting him at a predesignated spot on the New Jersey Turnpike, where he showed the work offered in a precise sequence. If the potential purchaser distured the sequence, he usually packed up his kit, got into his car, and drove away without completing the sale. In some instances, he made work for specific buyers as long as they didn't commission it. When the work was complete, he instructed an agent to offer it to the intended recipient. If the recipient declined to buy it, the work could no longer be sold. In such instances, the choice of recipients followed something like a program of pop celebrities. We should probably see these projects as performance art rather than genuine attempts at sales, in which the non-sale became the object of the performance. At a time when "happenings" were fashionable, Johnson called his exhibitions, many of which he canceled at the last minute, "nothings." Some people speak of him sabotaging his career. Actually, what he seems to have been doing is staging a non-career as a work of art. Needless to say, the cogent nature of the works that critics and buyers might catch a glimpse of set the stage for this nullification of a career. Mark Bloch, an artist with strong affinities to Johnson, began going to the kind of social events the reclusive Johnson avoided, passing himself off as Johnson. When Johnson found out about this, he was delighted and started arranging appearances for Bloch to make as his impersonator. Andy Warhol comes across as an impersonator of Johnson throughout his career. However, the two seemed to share an odd synchronicty. On the day when Valerie Solanis shot Warhol, three men mugged Johnson at knife-point. Even in this, Johnson connects with the world at large, while Warhol simply takes part in a bit of courtly intrigue.

As part of his rejection of the mainstream art world, Johnson began sending the shreds of his early work through the mail. He also revisioned the exquisite corpse game as the "add to and return" or "add to and pass on" practices that became mainstays of mail art. As he worked through the mails, Johnson became more fascinated with the numbers of correspondents this process could involve. His projects during the 1950s included hundreds of participants. This network grew larger and spread around the world in succeeding decades. Johnson made efforts to efface himself, and to remove art from any kind of valuation as to quality or content or economics or career-building. Perhaps Mark Bloch's comments on Johnson as Taoist sage coexisting with Johnson the oppositionalist come closest to the mark. However his work gets evaluated, it seems important in this context to note that its range foreshadowed most of what went on in the network, particularly the combination of text and graphics, the range of pop icons and arcane historical references, and the patterns of free association taking precedence over any other form of logic.

In the mid-50s, Fluxists entered into Johnson's network, and outside Fluxus, mail art began to find a few avid practitioners in Europe, Latin America, and Japan. The network was growing and one of its primary features was that it was out of anybody's control. Johnson himself became something of a cult figure, and others in the network became prominent in it, but the movement never produced a boss or regnant cabbal. Many mail artists adamantly rejected any kind of worship or canonization of individuals, and many advocated complete anonymity. Some took on new names as a means of self-effacement or as a means of using their mail art names as part of what they had to say or out of a sense of whimsy or humor or provocation. In some parts of the world, mail art pseudonymns had more to do with self-preservation and avoidance of police harassment.

During the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, the basic practice of mail art consisted in people making art and sending it to others in the network. The mail art name assumed by Chuck Welsh describes an essential aspect of the genre. He called himself The Cracker Jack Kid after the fun of looking for the prize in the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack. In the mail art milieu, the prizes became the art that arrived in the mail, never on any precise schedule, but always sure to arrive sooner or later - more often for those who extended the network farthest. In this stage, virtually all mail art was personal, carrying a sense of the artist's hand, and avoiding the impersonality of art as seen in galleries or reproduced in books. This remained a basic pattern throughout the succeeding decades. As the 60s moved on, photocopiers became readily available, and many mail artists availed themselves of these tools to make multiples and to document projects. Some mail artists felt this was perverse, since artists no longer had to make one-of-a-kind pieces to send. Similar reservations arose during succeeding years with the advent of other technologies.

By the 1970s, mail art became socially and politically engaged at various levels and to various degrees. Some saw it as a form of counter-culture, a rejection of all conventions, social and artistic, that cut as deeply to the root as any act of rebellion could manage. Some saw parallels between the growing network's exchanges and community building as related to such phenomena as The Whole Earth Catalogue. It implied that a body of skilled workers existed outside mainstream society and political control, simply needing access to tools and links to other like-minded outsiders to build a new social order. If the art didn't take part in the creation of an alternate society, it could still function as a form of subversion or protest.

Others didn't care about socio-political discourse or action. In fact, many were as tired of this kind of engagement as they were of elitist notions of art. They were tired of art that perpetually harped on the sad, slow music of humanity with all its responsibilities and angst and sought something that liberated the spirit and allowed for play. They didn't want an art that had lost its sense of humor and its sense of fun. Others simply wanted to contact people without the hindrances, protocols, status games, pecking orders, and aesthetic preconceptions of art in the mainstream. With expanding resources in art and literary history, and with greater ability to watch the way reputations grew or were stifled by irrelevant forces, this was a time when artists learned more deeply than ever to distrust external authority. The carefree nature of much of the work produced with this attitude could reach through endless possibilities outside what had previously been considered art materials or art concerns. How much can you get out of a simple rubber stamp set or the deluge of images that came from pop magazines and television? As people in the network demonstrated, these resources proved as rich and viable as those ignored by the precincts of the mainstream art world.

Mail art tended to galvanize around themes. Individual artists could make themes a sort of personal signature. Anna Banana, for instance, could focus her work on bananas. This included publication of a lively, amusing, and useful zine for many years, not only exploring her banana themes but also providing lists of addresses and events in which people could participate. Aside from the personal value of such themes for individuals who explored them intensely, they provided a constant stimulus for other people, including invitations to consider the theme and to join in related projects. If you haven't thought much about bananas or any other theme, why not see what you can make of them? Themes could act as gestalt breakers, or at least loosen up some of the tightly wound springs in the arts of the time. Different practitioners naturally took different approaches to what might seem whimsical. The constant stylistic shifts, from casual to meticulous, made along theme lines turned mail and exhibitions into loose collages, where differences in method and tone created dynamic juxtapositions, whether seen together on a wall or in the random sequence governed by the rate of receipt through the postal system.

As mail art grew, its participants put different spins on it, used it for different purposes, saw it in different ways, and merged it with other art forms. Unlike the art sent through the mails in the first half of the century, mail art took on an aggressively populist, inclusive, and antihieratic cast.

By the mid 1970s, mail art had taken on a few basic rules: it should depend as much on interchanges between practitioners as anything else. Although it should allow maximum creativity on the part of each participant, it should not be simply the expression of one individual. Mail art should not be sold or have any commercial or career value. When distributed in clusters through the mail or mounted as shows, it should not be subjected to any process of selection whatsoever, not based on quality, content, or any other criteria. Whoever received it was obliged to pass it on or to exhibit it without judgment of any sort. Anyone who wished to participate should be free to do so. Participants must share their lists of mailing addresses and extend them as fully as possible.

Turned into dogma, some of these simple rules could become as draconian as those against which they arose. The call for anonymity, for instance, becomes liberatory only if it's voluntary. When anonymity results from curators effacing names or feeling too lazy to make them known, it becomes an act of bad faith. Where anonymity arises as a means of avoiding persecution by police, the need to publish addresses defeats one of its purposes. Prohibition on sale of all work created by an individual or group could become stifling, and in some instances could limit the amount of mail an artist could send. For those posting as many as 500 pieces during an average week, mail art could become expensive. Art made to circulate forever without coming to some sort of resting place becomes a Flying Dutchman, a form of damnation. The total exclusion of galleries and other institutions makes it difficult to mount shows. But a broad-based movement dedicated to pluralism, with no external authority controlling it, will inevitably bring in a wide variety of attitudes and needs. Given the group nature of the network, it's not difficult to assume that members would seek to moderate problems. Different currents and tendencies which at times contradicted each other flourished together in the network, and resolved some of these problems, though not always without squabbles among participants.

Basic mail art involved individuals sitting in rooms making art to send through the mail. That's all. Although many practitioners continued to work contentedly this way for decades, many others wanted and needed more. The most dynamic form of resolving problems grew up quickly in the form of MAPs, Mail Art Projects. A MAP could consist of invitations to send work to an exhibition. The first exhibitions were held in practitioners' homes, and this continued to morph into other MAPs. In some parts of the world, mail art shows mounted in people's homes stayed up until the police shut them down. Mail art came of age with performance art, and the two movements continually interacted with each other. One of the tendencies in performance art worked towards audience participation, and this naturally formed a bond with the inclusiveness of mail art. Meetings of mail artists, whether in artist's homes or in the congresses that flourished in the 1980s, as often as not included performance pieces, and performances often took place as part of mail art exhibitions. At times, the artistic content of projects could be minimal to non-existent, the patterns of interaction becoming the work of art.

As the movement progressed, practitioners found ways to accommodate gallery and institutional venues. The most important means of avoiding compromise came from the criteria that works shown could not be sold, nor could they be mounted with work meant for sale. This made it seem initially difficult for galleries whose proprietors had to pay rent, maintenance, salaries, etc. For gallery proprietors with extended vision, the "no sale" rule could pay off indirectly by generating attention for shows held in the same building, or by bringing attention to the gallery that would at other times sell work outside the network. Artists may not have been able to sell their work at mail art shows, but nothing prevented them from doing so in non-mail art venues. In some instances, networkers themselves ran galleries, such as Jurgen Olbrich's Kunstraum in Kassel, Germany, and Carlo Pittore's Galleria Del'Occhio in New York City. These galleries also hosted conventional shows, at times including the work of mail artists when they were not working in mail art mode. Institutional venues have at times angered purists, but most mail artists have simply let these absolutists rage alone in their corners. As long as the institution observes the basic "No judges, no rejects, no fees required of the artist, no sales of work exhibited, no work returned, documentation to all participants" rules, there should be no problem with the venue. Some argue that mail art is a process rather than a finished product, and that any kind of show goes against the spirit of ongoing collaboration. In shows that I've curated, I've tried to make sure that there were writing and drawing materials and envelopes available to viewers so they could continue the process as they saw fit. Perhaps most importantly, exhibitions introduced people to the network, keeping it from being hermetically sealed. It seems appropriate that post offices have provided the most frequent venues for mail art shows. From a participatory point of view, even if the curator doesn't provide materials, what's to stop viewers from availing themselves of the resources of the building in which they find themselves? At times, mail artists effectively banded together when someone violated the spirit of an important principle of the art. A major example of this came in February 1984, when Dr. Ronnie Cohen edited a mail art show at New York's Franklin Furnace, clearly violating the "no censorship, no rejections, no returns" principle. Pressure from the mail art community forced Cohen to step down as curator, and forced her out of panel discussions and other curatorial positions. As much as this became a symbolic victory for mail artists around the world, there have been other instances where mail artists have taken less drastic action to counter similar infringements on the art. Problems arising from the sale of mail art archives continue, however, and there seems no complete solution for this. Some mail artists carry grudges, but as of the turn of the millennium, this problem area seems to find partial solutions through the nature of the archivists.

The late 1970s through the beginning of the 1990s saw the widest expansion of mail art activities. This included a large-scale burgeoning of the network throughout the world. From the hundreds of participants in networks twenty years earlier, MAPs could now include thousands. Performance art grew stronger, as did political engagement. This period saw the emergence of congresses of mail artists, and radical rethinking of the nature of the movement. In August, 1977, Uruguayan mail artists Clemente Padin and Jorge Carabaillo were imprisoned for their art work against the military dictatorship of their country. U.S. mail artist Geoffrey Cooke mounted a letter writing campaign among mail artists to secure their release. After two years, they were paroled as a result of the campaign. This was not done simply through letter writing, but also required the skilled diplomacy of Dick Higgins in negotiating with the Uruguayan government. Still, Higgins could have done little without the letter writing campaign. This campaign clearly demonstrated that mail art networks could bring about tangible results.

The intensification of the nuclear arms race during the 1980s brought about grass roots responses from people around the world. The mail art network played an important role in this upwelling of protest via Shadows Projects. Most effective among these were the performance pieces in which people went around their cities in the early morning hours of each August 6, the date of the bombing of Hiroshima, drawing or painting outlines around each other on buildings, sidewalks, etc. The image of the shadow comes from the way people near the epicenter of nuclear blasts were vaporized, leaving only faint "shadows" on nearby objects, which were outlined later by survivors. Ruggero Maggi and John Held, Jr. became indefatigable in propagating Shadows Projects, and joined them with performance pieces. Held had himself shadowed so often (over 150 times) that he wore a skin diver's wetsuit in performances to keep from being harmed by the paint. Probably the most important of these MAPs took place in Hiroshima in 1988. This was a thoroughly international program, organized by Mayumi Handa and Shozo Shimamoto in Japan, Maggi in Italy, Serge Sergay and Rea Nikanova in the USSR, Held and Gerard Barbot in the U.S. I was active in setting up Shadows Projects from 1989 to 1995. As perhaps the most wide-spread new art form of the Cold War era, it seemed appropriate that these projects should go to the root of the War itself. On August 6, Hiroshima Day, 1990, native American activist Dennis Banks, who had played a major role in demonstrations at Wounded Knee in 1973, began a "sacred run for peace" between London and Leningrad. Ryosuke Cohen, Shozo Shimamoto, and Mayumi Handa were among the mail artists who accompanied Banks on his run. At some points along the route, members of the mail art network organized mailings and provided Banks with housing and other amenities. Some members of the network supported the run indirectly. In Estonia, for example, Ilmar Kruusamae and John Held, Jr. coordinated a Shadows Project with Banks's run.

An important characteristic of socially and politically oriented MAPs is that they usually stay outside of ideologies and concentrate on issues that have no party lines or affiliations. Individual mail artists may adhere to one doctrine or another, but avoid proselytizing them in MAPs. Projects against nuclear weapons, racism, spouse and child abuse, in support or sympathy with famine victims, people infected with AIDS, people held in prisons for crimes of conscience do not collectively advocate an ideologically based response or solution, but rather solutions that address the problem instead of using it as propaganda for something else. This marks a healthy advance over much of the activist art throughout the 20th Century, during which much issue-oriented art acted as veiled agit prop for a political position, exploiting whomever may be involved to advance an ideology rather than alleviate a problem. As there was a strong tendency to avoid artistic "isms" in mail art, so too was there a strong tendency to avoid their political counterparts, concentrating on human needs and desires as opposed to dogmas.

As a Cold War genre, some forms of mail art have held a symbiotic relationship to politics. Most networkers see a marked decline or corruption of the expansive form of mail art, as it appears in shows and in widely spread networking, after the mid 1990s. As Joel Lipman puts it, "mail art ended when the Berlin Wall came down." The Cold War environment contributed to the movement on many levels. At times participation could become dangerous. In more blatant police states, the dangers seem obvious enough. In "free" countries such as the U.S., France, and England, mail artists frequently found their mail scrutinized. Some people in the network deliberately tried to provoke authorities, and some sent messages to them in packages that they designed to look suspicious. Many claim that agencies such as the FBI were watching their homes. Whether this was true or not doesn't matter in the context of the movement. The practitioners perceived it so, and this helped create a sense of solidarity between them and other artists, including those with whom they had aesthetic and political differences. Giving them a common enemy, the sense of being watched gave them the creative stimulus that oppression creates often enough.

There seem to be other related dynamics at work that complicate this view. Cold War tensions become difficult to explain to younger people who have never experienced them. They even fade quickly in the minds of many people affected by them. After the fall of the Soviet Empire and the compromises that seemed to make China a place where the worst of two worlds pushed everything else out, an odd sort of ennui seemed to spread through the world. For the most part, mail artists saw neither competing system as adequate, but, curiously, when the two demonstrated their failure, it seemed more difficult to focus attention on any type of opposition. A big damper on mail art came from wider awareness of what the world was like. Theoretically, this was an art open to everyone, yet many people throughout the world cannot afford paper or postage. This became particularly clear to me in discussing mail art with a teacher in East Africa. I offered to send money and international postage coupons so that his students could join the network. He responded that this was generous of me, but how long would I continue doing so, and what would the students and their friends and family do after I stopped? Well, there I was, another Bwana offering trinkets without seeing the larger picture. For many networkers, the sense that the art wasn't as egalitarian as they had believed took much of the idealism and optimism out of the process, leaving it as yet another activity for a privileged elite.

During the late 1980s - early 1990s, some exquisite book art from Cuba circulated through the network. Among other salient features of these books was the ability of the artists to make something positive out of severely limited resources. I haven't seen any books of this sort in recent years, though some flashier and less inventive book art has come from Cuba during that time. There may be a paradigm in this, though I'm not sure what it is. It could be that the network has become sluggish in getting things around, or that the Cuban artists no longer produce the kind of work they did under harsher conditions, or that the artists no longer get the kind of external interest and support they had during the Cold War.

Some networkers see the rise of e-mail and the world wide web as detrimental to the art. E-mail definitely takes three major components out of mail art. First, e-mail arrives randomly throughout the day and night, and thus the patterns of anticipating the daily mail delivery dissipate. Second, they eliminate an important group of participants, the postal carriers. Given the emphasis on making the envelope or package part of the art, mail deliverers become part of the network. The range of their responses could be large. Some might ooh and ahh over the envelopes, and even ask where they could get envelopes like that. Some could growlingly ask why you got all this junk. Some could be surprised by post marks. Comments such as "I've never carried a letter from China before - I wasn't sure we could do that!" or "I've always wanted to go to Switzerland!" or "I was born in Argentina!" became good openers for conversation, initiated not by the recipient but by the postal carrier's response to the envelope itself. Finally, at least for people of my generation, e-mail can seem less personal than letters on paper. Perhaps e-mail will find ways of replacing these benefits, though it doesn't seem likely. Still, MAPs continue via e-mail, and the web is an ideal place to exhibit work. It can reach anyone in the world who has an internet connection without the restrictions of judges or juries and often without censors. And it does so without charge. A few mail artists, perhaps most notably Texas-based Honoria, have devised means of extending the art in directions appropriate to the new medium. But so far, such exploration has been small. This may change. Or it may not. I generally don't like the custom of naming tendencies as "post" this or that, taking Jackson Mac Low's "I ain't post nothin"' as a more or less definitive statement. Still, if there is a "post mail art," I'd be thoroughly amused at the appropriateness of the pun.

The uncertainty about some types of MAPs may continue to hover for some time, but others have changed little. Continuity seems strongest in two areas: visual poetry and correspondence art. For the former, the mail art network has literally been its life's blood for decades. In his definition of mail art, John Held, Jr. mentions "concrete poetry and other art forms generally considered marginal." Indeed, through three decades the history of visual poetry has been virtually synonymous with the mail art network. Distribution through the mails was essential during the time when Kaldron was the only reliable, international, widely-distributed, and pluralistic print venue for the art in the whole world. For many of the visual poets who have circulated their work primarily through the network, the network has never been much more than a distribution system, and it continues to act as such today. Work under this general term included the rigid, minimalist forms most often called "concrete," but its spectrum has never been rigid. Among those who think of themselves as visual poets, the network essentially defended the continuity of freer forms during the decades when the backlash against the minimalism that most readers overwhelmingly, and often rightly, dismissed as trivial and refused to look at. Aside from those who identified themselves as visual poets, others came to similar practices through other channels. In one of the most astute comments on mail art, Harry Polkinhorn identified some of the basic needs that called such work forth. Surveying the 1989 Shadows Project show he curated on the U.S.-Mexico border, he wrote: "Another locus of conflict and accommodation which a border environment manifests is of course language itself. Visual art does not transcend the level on which such problems occur but substitutes alternative sets of codes for the verbal. Interestingly, much of the work in the Shadows Project features both visual and verbal systems, as if to underscore a drive to overcome the loss of communication which takes place between cultures, languages, and media. In spite of these preconditions, these works speak bluntly: the message is one of the necessity for tolerance of difference if we are to survive." The emphasis on survival is essential in a MAP such as the Shadows Project. But the need to find multiple codes that can reach across boundaries and obstacles runs throughout mail art, and in some ways defines it. No matter how whimsical or comic or playful mail art became, that need to cross borders remained essential to the movement's purposes.

Early in the mail art movement, many practitioners began distinguishing correspondence art from mail art. Writers on the subject could engage in all sorts of definitions and distinctions, and, indeed, the differences between correspondence art and mail art remain blurry at best. You could see correspondence art as a type of MAP, or as a separate but compatible tendency, or as a network of a small number of people, often just two - or as what mail art was about in the first place. Long-term correspondences, without a large number of participants, had been part of the movement since the beginning. At present, when shows and other more public MAPs seem in sharp decline, this form of collaboration seems to be going as strong as ever. Some correspondence art remains indistinguishable from simple letter writing except in its attitudes and background. This was the case with some of Ray Johnson's correspondence. Other work involves delicate or unusual interaction between methods and ideas which expands practitioners' abilities and capacities and keeps them going through times when they would otherwise find themselves painted into corners.

From about 1971 until I got my first computer in 1983, I carried on a personal MAP. During that period I had my own printing presses, and typed virtually all the mail I sent to anyone, inside the network or out, on the backs of sheets of paper that I had printed. Sometimes this included work of my own or pages from whatever book I happened to be printing at the time. I tried to make sure that the print was fresh enough so that the recipeient could smell the ink as well as see the text or image. In printing, it's a good idea to save missprints and reuse them to establish register, set ink ratios, etc. This creates chance generated collages. After observing such pages for a while, it becomes natural to intentionally overprint some images to see what the results will be. I began making books of pages that had been collaged by chance or intention in the early 70s. As often as not in the mail art environment, individual pieces of correspondence and book art went hand in hand. I contributed some of the books to mail art shows, but kept them distinct from those I sold outside the network. In addition to making sides of correspondemnce art sheets, some effects and image types I discovered through the process gave me ideas for visual poems, book cover designs, etc.

The longest collaborative correspondence art project I've engaged in has been with Reid Wood, who also goes by the mail art name State of Being. Now in its ninth year, this MAP has at times included a number of other people for periods lasting as long as a year, and has intersected with other MAPs. In 2001, Scott Rouse happened on some of these pieces used in The 1998 Biennial in Mexico City and animated them. The MAP has gone into hibernation for periods of several months, and thus been able to take advantage of both regular stretches and of times when its schedules didn't constrict us while we were involved in other things. It began as something of a heresy - conducted originally by fax transmission, then moved on to transmission by e-mail attachments. For the most part, we have adopted the "alter-and-return" approach. At the end of one year, we made a composite of everything done during the last year by photocopying everything onto one page. The photocopy composite was almost completely black, with toner so heavily deposited on the paper that it crackled. For that year we slowly reduced the dense, black page to concluding pages with virtually nothing on them. During our first two years, we sent three exchanges of faxes at fifteen minute intervals every Tuesday night. This required quick improvisation. When we moved to e-mail, we worked at a slower pace. Some of the work we've done has found its way into shows, been used on book covers, and has had its share of other spin-offs. As with most MAPs, this one has had no end goal other than to see what we could do in the process. Reid is generally much better at this art form than I, and if there's any need to look for value beyond the process itself, the biggest advantage for me has been to watch him work.


One of the main characteristics of mail art was its tendency to eliminate a non-participatory audience. More than any art form of the century or the movements and genres since the middle ages, it tended to consist of communicants alone. Most of the world outside it ignored it and often had no idea that it was happening at all. Participants saw their art as egalitarian. Yet it's easy enough to see it as an inverse form of elitism. This kind of thinking becomes a dog chaing its tail without the posibility of resolution. Where it may become most serious is now, when the genre has disappeared or morphed into something else, and it is difficult to see or understand or even document. Many art for throughout the world have celebrated transcience. Mail art may have been one of the arts that did most to leave little or nothing behind it. Then again, it may not be over, and a century from now it may come across as the foundation of other art forms not yet within our ability to predict or understand. If its transcience might be construed as a failure, there still are elements to the genre that are hard to avoid by anyone who takes a serious look at it:

Aside from imediately cognate movements such as Fluxus, visual poetry, and performance art, mail art makes direct or indirect critiques and responses to art forms of the 20th Century. Dada-Surrealism vaunted the liberation of the subconscious. From the whimsical to the sinister, this kind of liberation moved more radically through the network than it did in the salons and cafes of Zurich and Paris - all the more so since practitioners took lack of restraint for granted, in a much less self-conscious and forced manner. Surrealists, like their comrades in other movements such as Italian Futurism, could whip themselves into frenzies at the thought of assaulting and destroying museums and galleries. Mail Art simply ignored and circumvented them. Early Mail Artists (particularly Ray Johnson) may have laid the foundation for Pop Art. Some might argue that Pop's process of extricating images from mass culture and subjecting them to the antisepsis of exhibition in consecrated venues constituted its major feat. On the simple level of personal taste, I prefer Johnson's Lucky StrikeĎ cigarette packs to Andy Warhol's Campbel'sĎ Soup cans, and the cartoons that followed the mail art lines of distribution seem more robust and significant than those of Lichtenstein. Mail Art's capacity to keep pop images close to their source and part of a more active set of interchanges than those of the mainstream art market may give it more depth than Pop Art. During Mail Art's maturity, factions of the inteligencia, following leads from semiotics, became obsessed with referentiality and the relation between signifier and signified - often seeing such relationships in political terms. Mail Art dealt with the nature of signs on a completely literal basis. The network explored, reoriented, and redefined signifier and signified through endless permuatations which did not become divorced from the conduct of life. During Mail Art's formative years, the existentialist theme of alienation occupied much of the inteligencia. Political activism in the arts emphasized the need to circumvent authoritarian control, the problems created by commercialism, and the need for universal relevance. In the mail art network, artists who found themselves alone or isolated or silenced didn't simply sit around picking their scabs: they created an environment for themselves that overcame the limitations decried elsewhere. You could see mail art responding to Sartre's much quoted (and misquoted) "L'enfer, c'est les autres" with Martin Buber's "All real living is meeting" - even if that meeting takes place through the mail, in a world where community no longer depends on location.


Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry