Mail Art and Networking
by Stephen Perkins
About the only aspect of mail art that one can
state with any degree of certainty is that it is entirely dependent
upon the international postal system for its existence. More
broadly speaking it's roots are in the opposition to the establishment
art world of the 1960's, and as such, it adopted much of this
ethos of resistance, coupled with the expanded concepts of art
and artmaking circulating at this time.
However, what was
sent through this system and the manner in which it acted as
a catalyst for innumerable and varied projects defies categorization
in any traditional terms. Quite self-consciously set-up to operate
outside of the artworld establishment and thereby circumventing
the commodification inherent in that system, it has to a large
extent succeeded in this important respect. How this has been
achieved was to take the money out of the artmaking paradigm,
and to replace it with a paradigm based upon reciprocity and
One other important
element in the construction of this new paradigm was the attempt
at collapsing the dichotomy between art and life, and subsequently
between artist and non-artist. This aspect of all-inclusiveness
encouraged an interrogation of the arena of 'social space,' and
did much to maintain the vitality of mail art, allowing it to
expand, particularly in its early period 1970-75. (1)
Ray Johnson's correspondence
activities, formally associated with his New York Correspondence
School (NYCS) in 1962 until its demise in 1973, have arguably
been one of the more influential factors in the spread of mail
art activity and the exponential growth of this network from
the late 60s through the 70s. Lending credence to this activity,
popularizing it further, and providing an impetus for further
exhibitions, was the exhibition of the NYCS at the Whitney Museum
in 1970, organized by Ray Johnson and Marcia Tucker.
The period at the
end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s marks an important point
in the development of mail art from a private form of communication
between groups such as Fluxus, the French New Realists, the NYCS
and other assorted groupings into a more public and open network
of correspondents. One very influential and significant means
by which this expansion occurred was through the publication
of international address lists collated from varied sources.
In 1972, Ken Friedman in conjunction with Image Bank in Canada,
and others, published a list containing over 1400 names and addresses.
Other published lists of this period would include Klaus Groh's
International Artists Cooperation Information Sheet (Germany,
1971-78), and Giancarlo Politi's yearly Art Diary, which listed
international information on individuals and institutions.
Another means by
which the mail art network expanded was directly related to the
increasing number of mail art shows organized during this decade.
The catalogues and documentation for these shows, which included
participants' names and addresses, were another way in which
contact was promoted. (2)
Parallel to the
expansion of the mail art network, the early 70s also saw the
beginnings of a number of artists' publications growing out of
the emerging mail art network (as distinct from artists' publications
arising out of tangential artists' groupings.) In these early
publications there is a convergence of work by artists who's
concerns overlapped with those of the mail art network, but who
were nevertheless rooted in parallel concerns (Fluxus would be
a good example).
An early example
of a magazine where this convergence took place, and which metamorphosed
with the mail art network was the New York Correspondence School
Weekly Breeder. Started by Ken Friedman from Fluxus West, it
was originally a single-sheet weekly publication that was intended
as a means of maintaining contact with other artists. Friedman
passed the editorship to Stu Horn in Philadelphia for a couple
of months, and then in turn it was passed onto the Bay Area Dadaists
(Bill Gaglione & Tom Mancusi) in San Francisco who published
it until 1974.
In the last issue
of the New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder the Bay
Area Dadaists stated that it represented, "...the realization
of the modern dadazine and was influential in inspiring the current
'zine scene..." (3,4). The introduction of the word 'zine,'
(although not the first time it was used in the early 70s), expresses
a particular attitude in regard to the magazines that would be
produced from this period onwards. Michael Crane summarizes the
characteristics of the zine scene in the 70s:
Hundreds of 'zines have appeared in the last
decade, some more long-lasting or influential than others. In
them, verbal and visual elements are fused, associated, or juxtaposed
through collage, postcards, and rubber stamps. Concrete or visual
poetries abound; words replace, displace, or fragmentize images
in most works. Unlike dada or futurism, most mail art does not
spring from literary concerns. Like dada or futurism, however,
political concerns are voiced in geographic areas of the world
where the socio-political climates are the most volatile. Cliches,
humor, and puns, whether friendly, frivolous, or satirical appear
in 'zines, coinciding with traditions in artmaking begun in the
earlier part of this century. Ambiguity, self-reference, contradiction,
and loose or personal associations also earmark these publications.
Some include all types of work, while theme 'zines have a common
format or idea. Most 'zines do not appear to be serious works
but this is often the point. Others are designed and produced
to resemble commercial magazines. (5)
What becomes evident from Crane's description
of zines in the 70s, is that they can be characterized as much
by their irreverence and eclecticism as they can be by their
Although I have
been using the term 'network' in reference to the 'mail art network'
up to this point, it should be noted that it was really only
during this early part of the 1970s when a flurry of mail art
inspired publications started appearing that the participants
became aware that they were indeed part of a 'network.' (6,7)
This realization of a geographically decentralized network was
in great part due to these publications themselves, for not only
did they put people in contact with each other (the inclusion
of contributors addresses also promoting this contact), but they
also acted as the bridges that fostered communication, interaction
and facilitated the dissemination of artworks and announcements
for projects between these disparate groupings of national and
One, among a handful
of magazines during the early 70s that played a seminal role
in the mail art network was File magazine (1972-1989), initiated
principally by A.A. Bronson in Canada and founded as a parody
of Life magazine, it was, in Anna Banana's opinion:
...the most influential of the Mail Art 'Zines,
in that it popularized the whole process by publishing and widely
distributing an extended Image Bank Request List, along with
news and photos of artists from "the eternal network."
It was more effective than any other of the small publications
individuals were putting out, because it was a full size magazine,
with space to give news of the activities of many persons active
in the Mail Art scene. (8)
In later years General Idea, as the editors of
File came to be known, would describe the founding of File as,
"...a networking publication...," and further in this
article (referring to issues after Fall 1975 when they discontinued
listing artists addresses and image requests, thereby effectively
breaking with the mail art network), they say, "But instead
of servicing and addressing our peers in the Eternal Network
we came to be talking demographics." (9) With its glossy
covers, efficient distribution and relatively large printing
runs from between 3000-5000, File did much to popularize the
mail art network, such that by 1973 many of the first generation
mail artists quit the network in disgust at what they perceived
to be the low quality of the work that subsequently inundated
their mail boxes.
One of the specific
criticisms leveled at the network by those who quit during this
period was the appearance of a large volume of work which made
use of xerography ("quick-kopy krap" (10)). Ideally
suited because of its accessibility and affordability, to mailing
multiple copies to a host of destinations, these early years
between 1970-73 sees xerography become an integral part of the
network. This is also reflected in the larger number of mail
art publications that would rely on xerography for the production
of small, economical and quickly assembled publications.
While the early
years of the 1970s saw a steady rise in the number of publications,
the figures rise dramatically from 1975 onwards. This expansion
can be seen as the direct result of the consolidation of the
network through the role played by the publications from this
early period, coupled with the growing number of assembling magazines
and the steady rise in the number of mail art exhibitions. All
these artists' publications were in varying degrees connected
to the network and published work acquired from this source,
or listed projects and publications emanating from the network.
For the moment
general descriptions will have to suffice for the large variety
of publications, and the following labels are derived from their
predominant concerns: a) many mail artists started their own
personal movements, organizations, or fictitious companies and
published magazines that reflected and promoted these concerns;
b) specific issues of publications that were concerned with a
particular theme; c) neo-dada publications; d) intermedia publications;
e) conceptually oriented publications; f) performance and live
art publications; g) publications that were primarily concerned
with disseminating information about network projects and shows;
h) graphics and collage publications; i) concrete, visual and
language poetry publications; j) rubber stamp publications: k)
The following points
summarize the different roles that these publications played
in this period:
- They were vital in creating national and international links
between disparate groupings of individual artists.
- They contributed to a large degree in the expansion and consolidation
of the network, particularly in the early years during 1970-75.
- They facilitated the transmission of new and expanded ideas
about art and artmaking, leading to an increased awareness of
the social role that art and the artist played within what had
become a mass mediated culture.
- They provided a crucial framework in creating and sustaining
an independent and underground network of like-minded participants.
1. Geza Perneczky expands upon these ideas
in his book A Háló, Budapest: Torony, 1991, in
his English summary section, titled, "On The Verge of Conceptual
Art." "The decline of conceptual art has led the neo-avantgarde
endeavors either into a dead end or into Joseph Beuys' utopia
that "all men are artists." The emergence of the latter
concept marked the turning point when the utopias of art ceased
to heed the perspectives of time and point ahead towards the
future (as was the case with so-called "modern art"),
and became focused on space, more specifically social space.
Consequently, mass culture gained added importance..."
2. From 1970-74 the average number of mail art shows is four
per year, from 1975-80 the average is up to 34. These figures
taken from: Michael, Crane & Stofflet, Mary (eds.), Correspondence
Art, San Francisco: Contemporary Arts Press, 1984.
3. Pindell, Howardena. "Alternative Space: Artists' Periodicals."
The Print Collectors Newsletter, Vol. VIII (4):96-121, Sept-Oct.
1977. NB: I am unclear as to whether the Bay Area Dadaists are
suggesting here that the word 'dadazine' become a specific title
for dada-inspired zines or more generally a descriptive title
for zines published within this milieu. Either way it should
be noted that self-promotion was often an important part of the
working aesthetic of artists during this period, and that Bill
Gaglione tirelessly promoted dada in his many projects and often
referred to himself as 'Dadaland.'
4. Bill Gaglione quoted in, Crane et al.. Correspondence Art,
in an editorial in his later magazine called Dadazine says, "The
aim of Dadazine is to publish the art and artists of the neo-avant
garde; Dada, Correspondence Art, Fluxus, Concretism, Lettrism,
Conceptual Art, Bruitism, Simultaneous Poetry, Happenings/Events,
Punk Art, etc..." (p. 493).
5. Ref. 2, p. 314.
6. These publications played a very important part in inspiring
mail artists to realize that they were part of a larger 'network,'
however they were not the sole agents in creating this awareness;
two early and significant mail art shows, and two high-profile
articles were important influences during the early 70s.
7. The actual concept of a 'network' originated in 1968(?) from
the French poet Robert Filliou who developed the idea of an 'Eternal
Network' (fr. Fete Permanente), in which, "...the artist
must realize also that he is part of a wider network, la Fete
Permanente going on around him all the time in all parts of the
world." Quoted from: Held, John. Mail Art: An Annotated
Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ, & London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
8. Banana, Anna. About Vile. Vancouver: Banana Productions, 1983.
9. Held, John. Mail
Art: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ, & London:
Scarecrow Press, 1991. Ref. 2062.
10. Banana, Anna. "Mail Art Canada." Correspondence
Art. Michael Crane & Mary Stofflet, eds. San Francisco: Contemporary
Art Press, 1984. p. 250.
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