Mail Art

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The blazing heart of the anarchist in me subsides every day when the mail arrives.
Mike Mosher

Issue #74, December 2005


An artist's struggle may be bringing to consciousness that art activity which you do unconsciously, the work you regularly produce but do not treat seriously. To champion a Mail Art show at my university is to do exactly that. I do mail art almost unconsciously, vegetally. It seems like it doesn’t really count, like it’s meaningless...and for those reasons it has a unique and historical importance.

Mail Art History

A hundred years ago, the picture postcard flourished as a form of communication. It sported an image on one side, a scenic location from the site of the sender's travels, or a humorous cartoon or odd collage of photographs. Humorous cartoon postcards were the subject of a George Orwell essay in the 1930s. The reverse side of the postcard was (and remains) divided between the message to the recipient on the left hand side and the address and stamp on the right. The message, like the image, was visible for "all" (usually just the postal handlers and carrier) to see.

Ray Johnson Self-Portrait

Ray Johnson (1927-1995), an artist at the fringes of the Fluxus movement that included George Macunias and Yoko Ono, is often credited as the father of mail art with his New York Correspondence School (NYCS) project that began in 1962. In a tribute to Johnson, Chuck Welch (who wrote and recorded a folk ballad about him) writes "It was Fluxus and Ray Johnson's NYCS that birthed mail art, the largest international art community and movement in the history of art." In some early Mail Art projects, several living mail artists created a fictitious artist called Karen Elliott to whom many works were attributed (much like Marcel Duchamp's Rrose Sélavy).

Ken Friedman organized Mail Art projects in 1973. About that time young artists like Jim Shaw, plus students of Sonia Landy Sheridan’s Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago, began using the photocopier as an artmaking medium. The Halflife Network was a project organized by Des McLean and collaborators at Glassboro State in New Jersey in the 1980s used to ask participants to provide 160 copies of “electrocopy art” a work, which were distributed to all participants in a sturdy zip-loc plastic bag as “a copyart magazine”. It was sold at Printed Matter (NYC), Bookworks (Washington DC) and Art in Form (Seattle). It produced ten or more issues. Unfortunately for the collector, 1980s photocopies tend to stick together today. A similar project encased in a plastic folio were the matching spiral bound books containing Mail Art organized, edited and published by Claudia Pütz and Pips Dada Corporation of Köln, Germany “Gut/Bös” (Good/Evil) in 2004.

In diminishing the status of art as a valuable product, Mail Art is compatible with many who privilege art as idea or concept. Conceptual Art's investigation of creative territories outside of the gallery system, outside of the creation of artworks for which there is an already defined social space (in a gold frame above the couch, on a pedestal in the park or living room mantle-piece). Mail Art dovetails with Artist's Stamps, where artists create imagery that mimics the stamps used to send a letter or postcard. It also intersects with artist's creation and use of rubber stamps, which allow multiple prints (each slightly different due to casual movement of the hand) of a single image to be replicated. Mail Art is interested in the act of transmission and delivery, of a small--and even incidental and trivial--item. In that way it may be comparable to artists like Hans Haacke and Fred Wilson who deconstruct the Museum itself in their exhibitions, forcing viewers to question the class relations and racism behind its assumptions and holdings.

The endless reproducibility of the computer image is useful to this ethic. Yet many artists--including this essay's author, on occasion--prefer the stubbornly anachronistic processes of drawing or collaging by hand, finding peace and solace in its brief moment of noncommodified, slightly absurd, labor.

Mail, Internet, Politics

One should not be surprised to find that mail art has found connections and documentation on the Web. Today, Ray Johnson is celebrated on a Hungarian website. There is a glossary of words used in mail art and Networking at the site of Ruud Janssen who also runs the TAM Rubber Stamp Archive in Bredam, The Netherlands.

Mail Art might be considered one current that has influenced Internet-enabled artworks in turn. Bonnie Mitchell organized a collaborative ASCII text-based email art project about 1990. There is also a tendency within mail art movement to call it a Networker movement, prioritizing the email list-like meeting of people over space above the incidental and culturally-freighted artworks. Under the alias CrackerJack Kid Jack Welch created Netshaker On-Line in 1994 when he realized mail art was costing him over $1,600 a year on postage and printing (Welch also has two books on mail art: . Another early Internet Mail Art project, called Telenetlink, was organized in 1995. Under the name “CrackerJack Kid,” Welch published a 'zine called Netshaker and his books include Networking Currents (1986, self- published) and Eternal Network: a Mail Art Archive (1995, University of Calgary).

Bonnie Mitchell organized a digital mural project at the 1997 International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA). The difficulty of transmitting large graphic files over modems running on average telephone lines often made postcard-sized images appropriate for such projects. Judith Donath of the MIT Media Lab researched Electric Postcards from 1994 to 1999. By the second half of the 1990s commercial ventures like E-Cards.com or postcards at The Pocket surfaced as well.

The production process of artwork can affect and alter both the content and the consciousness of the artist. In an essay that appeared in a mid-1970s catalog of the San Francisco Art Institute, critic Peter Plagens wrote that "every artist is a shopkeeper.” Although a writer can produce in the single room of a residence hotel--the Bukowskian ideal--that artist requires easels, paintboxes, shelves or racks for storing supplies and inventory. These mercantile accoutrements result in a certain political conservatism of artists. Mail Art's use of bricolage, found imagery, small-scale, quotidian use of office supplies like rubber stamps, minimizes the "factory" needs. This author produces mail art (sometimes small antiwar graphics or prematurely optimistic "Bless You, President Kerry" images) that would not work in paint, certainly not on the scale desired.

Miniaturization is both a compromise and a liberation. The limited size of the message space on a postcard encourages economy of expression, even terseness, though this author’s out-of-town relatives note how often he loquaciously defies it on his postcards sent them. The friends of Walter Benjamin marveled at how much of his tiny handwriting he could fit on a postcard, and Wired magazine recently noted a fad among Japanese high school students for miniaturized writing.

What is “quality” or “excellence” in Mail Art? To answer, one must look beyond the single work to the summary project (exhibition, publication or both). Perhaps it is how much work the artist is willing to do upon a single piece, or an edition. The counter aesthetic is the most decommodified art povera, bricolage of found materials, clip art or repurposed/appropriated line art from advertising. The individual mail art work can be appreciated for its graphic qualities like concision, coherence and legibility (when it includes the artist’s address or a written message). There is an advantage to recognizability like a logo or trademark--one reason for he popularity of artist’s stamps or rubber stamps--though some artists work to make each submission unique and different. Rubber stamps imply bureaucracy--the stamps that limit movement on passports, visas and identity cards--and are aestheticized and lampooned in mail art. One remembers the unobtained stamps that fatally kept Walter Benjamin from entering Spain.

Mail Art causes the artist to reflect upon how all art is mediated by distribution. For a Mail Art project, success equals participation, with variety and diversity that comes from global contributors. Less the individual piece than the assembly, much as a just society is less the individual than the rights of the polity. Yet this demands an aesthetic delicacy, perhaps even preciousness, to flavor the receiver’s experience. Someone once sent me an envelope full of mail art items that included hardcore pornography and it felt like an intrusion, a loud dirty joke.

My own interest in volatile, fugitive artwork may be from having seen the major works of my twenties--a half-dozen community murals in public sites in San Francisco--obliterated by the time I turned 33. Perhaps a habit of quick, thoughtless art without attachment is emotional self-protection from the pain of seeing major efforts destroyed. Or perhaps my interest in mail art comes from the promised bounty of "Art Too Cheap to Meter” in copious quantities. An added benefit: one doesn't deal with direct criticism when the audience is unknown. Sometimes art should be like a stray leaf on a puff of wind, blown into the lap of a surprised foreigner.

Ryosuke Cohen's Brain Cells

Since the 1980s a junior high school art teacher in Japan’s Osaka prefecture (I imagine it equivalent to a suburb of Chicago) has been a very important figure in Mail Art. He may be the world’s most important (and consistently productive) collaborative Mail Art printmaker. Born with the family name Koen, when someone pointed out it sounded like the Jewish name Cohen, he took it in honor of a people whom historic events have spread globally.

Brain Cell #624, July 31, 2005, had 56 contributors, with eighteen from the United States and one each from Switzerland, Austria, Brazil, Portugal, Israel, Uruguay. Ryosuke was the only participant from Japan. Each Brain Cell draws a wide range of participants. Stalwart Kurt Beaulieu of Canada draws buxom toad-faced women, while someone who always contributes what looks like a smiling boy captioned "eating toe jam" (eeuuww...) but may actually be derived from a photograph of Ray Johnson. Some artists provide printed, gummed stamps for Ryosuke to affix to each print. Some merely provide no imagery beyond their address sticker, affirming that this participation alone is conceptually sufficient as an artwork.

Ryosuke+Noriko Ryosuke creates stamps from the artwork sent him, and prints it with a multicolored stamp pad, like those Japanese prints, like Hiroshige’s, where two colors of ink at different ends of one roller were rolled upon a woodblock. Each numbered print is slightly different, requiring x number of hand movements to stamp or attach the contributions by x number of contributors. While each numbered Brain Cell is different, one notices a certain sameness in them, being made up of similarly-sized elements in similar colors. A sheet listing the addresses of all participants, grouped by country, accompanies the print. These addresses are employed by organizers of other mail art projects, to send out a call for contributions or an unsolicited piece of mail art.

I often I draw a cartoon as my Brain Cell submission. Sometimes they are antiwar, and in Fall 2004 I drew and sent the optimistic "Save Us President Kerry!" Other times I fabricate a collage incorporating found line art or photography. I always incorporate my address from an (often cut up) address sticker, though its inclusion as a part of the contributed image is not required by the Brain Cell project.

Ryosuke has traveled to California and around Europe in order to create Portraits of Mail Artists . During Golden Week 2002, a May holiday during which Japanese often travel great distances to multiple countries in Europe, Ryosuke and his wife Noriko drove from Osaka prefecture to Tokushima City to create a portrait of this essay’s author (then SVSU Exchange Faculty at Shikoku University), and for me to create Ryosuke's portrait in turn. This was part of Ryosuke ongoing series of portraits of Mail Artists, which he renders consistent by making use of a "pattern" effect. His method is both to draw a silhouette of the artist's head and shoulders in profile upon a ground of Brain Cell prints. Chrysanthe Mosher documented this process in photographs.

Civil Service

I would rather honor civil service than give in to the antigovernment tendency so pervasive in online culture. Wired magazine recently ran an op-ed against the US Postal Service, calling for its replacement by private companies. James Fallows wrote in September 2005 how the Internet hasn’t slowed the continued growth of the volume of mail sent through the US postal system, which has doubled since the 1980s (though ten per cent of this is credit card offers). That same month The Times reported that Prime Minister Koizumi hopes to privatize Japan's excellent postal system, which also offers banking services. When I hear "privatization" I know it means plundering, where selling off the commons. The effects of flooding in New Orleans following Hurrican Katrina and the minimal and inefficient rescue effort shows clearly and tragically the results of diminished government services. Except for places where it's hobbled by endemic national vices like racism, Americans make adequately-funded government work pretty well. Most regulators are honest, and bribes aren't necessary. The complaints against standing in line at the post office before Christmas or at the (surprisingly take-a-number-efficient in Bay City) Secretary of State's office to renew a car registration are from fidgety people who simply forgot to bring a book or magazine with them.

In 2006, Saginaw Valley State University will host a Mail Art Exhibition. The theme "Civil Service" celebrates the employees of the postal systems of all nations. They perform a terrific service, bringing physical communications from point A to point B, from person to person, from sender to recipient. I want to salute the post office staff at the west Bay City branch who expedite the confusing postcards I send to Ryosuke and other mail art organizers, and who bring beautiful, confusing, ugly and unexpected postal delights directly to my door. Let us celebrate the streetcleaners, bridgetenders, the water and sewer system staff, the bus drivers, librarians, tax collectors, inspectors and office staff issuing permits, firefighters, the police. May all contributions be tiny mirrors of good government. Some faculty expressed skepticism of the "Civil Service" theme, as if “service” would imply menials or class barriers. Instead I think of its celebration of their work. My view is sunlit with feelings for a Franciscan or spiritual aspect of non-exploitative labor as well. Perhaps one needs this to survive on a public university salary.

A cerebral metaphor to describe mail art is attractive to this artist as it is to Ryosuke Cohen. I like to think of the world’s postal system (and all mechanisms of international communication) as global syapses. In this rude and bitter time of piratical plunderers of the public purse, of privateers crying "privatization" to move services and public resources into their own hands; when our own federal government is mired in Patriot Act abuses and other rights limitations (plus the meatgrinder "War in Iraq to Keep from Pursuing Osama"), and our National Guard are mired overseas and kept from effectively responding to domestic crises like Hurricane Katrina, we should keep our sharp minds on remembering and lauding those aspects of government that are positive, healthy, truly peace-keeping and thus liberating. The blazing heart of the anarchist in me subsides every day when the mail arrives.

Mike Mosher is Associate Professor of Art/Communication Multimedia at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan 48710. With Acting Gallery Director Dave Littell, he is organizing the exhibition “Mail Art: Global Synapses, Brain Cells and Civil Service” in the University Gallery in March, 2006. Readers are invited to send postcard- or letter-sized works (no returns) to the “Civil Service” mail art project installed in the exhibition c/o Mosher, A-103 Art Department, at the above address.

Copyright © 2005 Mike Mosher, Drawing "Ryosuke + Noriko" © Mike Mosher 2002, 2005. All rights reserved.

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