Mail Art

At about the same time as I joined the Brixton Artist's Collective I also began taking an active part in Mail Art.

"Mail art shows (grew) from five in 1971 to seventy five in 1979. By 1983, this number had exploded to one hundred and eighty-seven." (John Held Jr.1986)[1]

The 'International Postal Art Network' became a worldwide mass movement by the early to mid-eighties. Thousands of people from all over the world were sending each other artworks of all kinds through the post. You could ignore what you found dull and reply in kind to what you found exciting. Those who attempted to reply to everything faced an escalating torrent of art through their letterbox.

This worldwide net had inherited an elegant code about mailart projects, which quickly found a consensus with the majority of 'mailartists', if only on the basis of its self-evident utility. This code, which seems to have been developed by artists in the early 1970's[2], had two parts:

First, in stark contrast to the conventional art world, all work is accepted without fees and no work is returned.

Second, all participants should receive documentation, the minimum form of which was a list of participants. So apart from the pleasure of waking up to a doormat full of unpredictable artworks, you could occasionally be surprised by some lavish documentation featuring your own work.

With the code in place all that you needed to do was announce a theme and you could run your own show. For the many artists struggling with the double bind of poverty and obscurity this was an energising and even liberating process.

It was open access, everyone could participate, and there were no rejections. It could also be very cheap which meant that wealth was not a qualification.

Looking back the ultra democracy of the movement preceded and was probably a part of the great democratic uprisings in Eastern Europe. Not that many projects were overtly political but for people in the Eastern bloc countries such as Poland easy access to an international forum was a powerful antidote to a debilitating marginalisation and internal state censorship. I know of at least one mailartist who became part of the new democratic Polish government after 1989.

Effective democracy depends on an inclusive network of active communications. Ideas moved swiftly through the postal art network engaging hundreds in a matter of weeks. This international grass-root discourse may be considered one of its main strengths, whether as model practice or symbol.

I started doing mail art in 1984. One of my first correspondents had started a project which has continued unabated until the present. This is Ryosuke Cohen's 'Brain Cell'. To my mind it represents the highest ideals of the global network. Cohen had a technique, which was unknown in Europe, for printing A3 posters in multi-colours. The way it works is that you send him a rubber stamp (mail artists were great rubber stamp enthusiasts), or a logo, or a fragment of imagery. He takes this and reproduces it along with forty or fifty other images in a range of bright colours, along with stickers, rubber stamps and whatever gets sent to him. He has kept this up from 1984 to the present day producing many hundreds of posters which together comprise a remarkable image of the 'eternal network'. Each 'cell' of our 'global brain' is represented with each autonomous artist's chosen image.[3]

The IPAN was open to anyone who wanted to communicate in any form. Rather than ending up lost in the crowd it was amazing how quickly the process sifted out useful soul-mates. And this was perhaps the greatest achievement of the net - putting you in touch with people that you could have the most satisfying artistic discourse with. It seemed to do this very efficiently, probably better that a computer matchmaker... Many of the people I met through this media are now lifelong friends. Some have even moved into the area I live in. Most of them are not now doing mailart although they are still doing collective or network projects. The process seems to have a half-life. After a few years of frenetic activity the sound of the letterbox clattering can become more of a burden than a pleasure. It is easy to throw away junk mail but much harder to bin someone's precious artwork.

Although we often worked alone in our bed-sits or squats the projects and shows were in essence collective. Because most of the work was inevitably small in scale the effect of a show was very much a sum of its parts, a collectivist and often motley aesthetic. But aesthetics were just one aspect of this activity and as I have said the relations formed through the interactions were probably more compelling. In the late Eighties people started meeting in person. The De-centralised World Mail Art Congresses first met in 1986 chalking up 80 meetings in 25 countries with the participation of over 500 artists.

There was excitement about the potential of this full-on contact but its lasting result seemed to be an extension of friendship rather than the new art movement which some expected. In fact by the mid-nineties this interpersonal contact, which had its artistic dimension in an obsession with 'body prints', was overtaken by its antithesis: the highly disembodied and dematerialised Internet. Arguably no art movement as focused and sensuous as mailart has yet occurred on the Internet. Although the 'web' is similarly 'open access' the threshold cost of participation is much higher than the cost of a few stamps and still excludes many of the kinds of artists who flourished due in part to the low cost of mailart.

Mail art probably shaped destinies at least as much as most art colleges. The truly remarkable thing about mail art was not that artists were using the postal system, a practice which was popular from the 1960's if not before, but that a massive network of people were having a ludic discourse on an international scale without the mediation of the institutions and gate keepers which usually manage culture. [4] Mailart was highly anti-commodity as a process. No ownership was retained, you gave your art away, hoping to get worthwhile work in return. So, on an economic or aesthetic level it was not Art in the usual sense. It did however, realise important human needs to give and perhaps receive, to call and await a response.

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[1] Books sources include: John Held Jr. International Artists Cooperation: Mail Art Shows, 1979 - 1985. (Dallas Public Library, Texas, 1986) John Held Jr is one of the most active archivists of mail art. Also, Geza Perneczky's The Magazine Network: the trends of alternative art in the light of their periodicals, 1968 - 1988 (Edition Soft Geometry, Koln, 1993).

 

[2] 'Mail Art' a show by Jean-Marc Poinsot in Paris, 1971 & 'Fluxshoe' curated by David Mayor in England, 1972.

 

[3] 'BRAIN CELL', Ryosuke Cohen, 3-76-1-A-613, Yagumkitacho, Moriguchi City, Osaka 570, Japan.

 

[4] There are however collections of mail art in formal institutions. The National Art Library at the V&A Museum and the Tate Gallery Library both contain collections of mailart and related documentation.