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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 31, No. 2, Jun 2008

Inviting Mail Artists

by Mark Bloch

Champe Smith, an artist and printmaker in New York City who works in letterpress and collage, decided it would be a good idea to host a mail art show at the Center for Book Arts. Her idea was quite interesting, actually. She chose the name “Mapping Correspondence” and it is a good concept and the show she put together does justice to it. Her vision was to invite people to participate and then track the spreading of the information and the types of collaborative efforts that would result in the creation of the work. In this context one thinks of diagramming a process and there is, indeed, a schematic in the catalog. But to me, there are two unnecessary limitations to her exhibition:

No, the very nicely designed catalog by someone named André Lee does indeed sport a cover with many complex intersecting lines over a map of the world. But therein lay another self-imposed limitation: the lines are super-imposed over the world. They do not connect dots on the map. It appears to be just an intriguing design element that does lure one into the concept, but it proves to be a let down when one realizes that it does not address real relationships between points on a map for which data surely exists.

There were many mail artists on Champe’s chart: VEC Rod Summers, Vittore Baroni, Gen Ken Montgomery, Anna Banana, Carol Stetser were names I recognized on the diagram. Luckily there was also an historical section to the show, and there I recognized more familiar names: Artpool, Robin Crozier, Pawel Petasz, Cavellini, Davi Det Hompson, Buster Cleveland, Clemente Padin and others. A contribution by the late David Cole who collaborated on a book with Marilyn Rosenberg luckily found its way into the show.

But what of Smith’s effort to open the field of mail art to newcomers? An interesting essay she contributed to the catalog includes fifteen paragraphs describing in great detail, the interactions and contributions of those that populate her schematic diagram of invited participants, preceding four paragraphs about mail art history that acknowledge the past. All in all the show was well done–no better or worse than any other mail art show I have seen. Perhaps a show with a historical section need not have been collaged together like every other mail art show I have ever seen. Let’s face it, kids, there is just not enough space to show mail art. When you open it up to the universe, or even when you don’t, as in this show, there are too many entries to give each one ample space to flaunt its wares. But had there been enough room, I still do not fault her for opening up the network to newbies. However, some new work from more experienced mail artists might have given the show more network credibility and more of an international flavor.

The show hung on the walls within and around the periphery of a small cordoned-off space. A computer with a conceptual Ebay- related piece by my friend who goes by the name Robert The was situated but did not seem to be working on the west wall of the gallery area. The rest of the art was inside showcases layed out in 3 rows that contained current art as well as the historical section. It moved toward the South wall where the history lesson concluded with some Ray Johnson’s and Albert Fine’s that hung from up high, reminders that Ray and Albert were both friends of Richard Minsky who founded the Center for Book Arts decades ago on Bleecker Street. The mail art show felt cramped and packed to the point of exploding. But this was much bigger, however, than Minsky’s original space on Bleecker so I was grateful that there was enough room for a mail art exhibition at all. I wondered how many people had made the trek here. The show got some decent press.

One piece that caught my eye by a newcomer was a big stack of letters numbered one to one hundred. I was a little disappointed to see that inside they contained pages from Wikipedia defining each of those numbers. To me, the pile of one hundred envelopes was intriguing. But the 100 letters inside covering the same ground was not. But I like the way it looked at first glance and applaud the effort.

Nearby, since Ken Montgomery is the king of lamination, his wall of art sandwiched between layers of plexiglass kind of “sealed the deal” of earning my approval. Ken like the aforementioned Robert The is a person I know from around New York who is not necessarily one of the mail art network people. Nevertheless, it was good to see his work in this show. Champe had managed to reach some talented people and mail art was better for it.

“Mail art is not dead, it is just under transformation,” said Dragonfly Dream, a mail art friend who came to town with her husband Edgard just to see the show. Dragonfly seems like a newcomer to mail art but she has been at it for a good decade now. Time flies but I still look to her as a relative rookie, I guess. “Mail art is still alive and kicking, and for me mail art is a constantly changing, shifting and free flying effort.” When I asked her why she still did it she said ” fun, connection and friendship,” then asked, “Whatever happened to ‘guilt free’?” I asked what she got from mail art that the Internet doesn’t offer and she answered, “With the internet, mail art has morphed into different directions and rules.”

That night, last Friday, in association with “Mapping Correspondence,” there was a Panel discussion called “An Authentik and Historikal Panel on the Phenomenon of Mail Art,” named after the article David Zack wrote about correspondence art in Art in America in the early 70s and that happened to be under glass in the historical section of the show. This happened to be a Friday the Thirteenth so as I walked into the crowded room, I felt the founder of the New York Correspondence School Ray Johnson’s spirit hanging over the proceedings like a rubber necking crowd gleefully staring but unable to get out the words, “Don’t Jump!” Johnson committed suicide by the numbers in January 1995 and mail art has never been the same. That also happens to be around the time the Internet kicked into high gear and people finally stopped asking me what exactly I meant by the word “e-mail”. Neither Ray’s death or the rise of the Internet helped an art form that travels by post, occasionally carried in sacks by men and women wearing short pants. Some day describing mail art will require a lot of explaining and when we do we will trace the endgame back to a time when the physical distribution of information ceased to be a necessity around 1995.

Mail art has been choking and wheezing along ever since. Now the remaining New York audience for it, including many newcomers, was assembled on the far side of the mail art exhibition, in a downtown direction from the front door of the Center for Book Arts, jammed together between metal tables and drawers full of art materials to discuss this artform, media or whatever it is, that, despite its anachronistic nature, still attracts enthusiastic new adherents every week. In fact, entire countries still seem to come on board the mail art scene in waves. So it would appear that mail art, in spite of its electronic cyber-cousin the World Wide Web, is far from over and perhaps it could even use a panel discussion to get a handle on its current status.

I must admit I was a little skeptical that such a discussion was in order. The last time there were panels on mail art, it was the February 1984 Artists Talk on Art series that were the culmination of a local scandal revolving around the Franklin Furnace’s infamous mail art exhibition where a critic was confronted and the proceedings were recorded quite dramatically in letters and mail art publications as well as the Village Voice and Art Forum.

Now in the age of the Internet, Champe Smith had unapologetically invited non-mail artists to participate. Was this interesting, unimportant or a scandal? I had not heard about the show from its inception (spoken like a true “mail art” veteran, as if I am entitled) and felt very excluded when I finally did, only a couple of weeks prior. And despite being included in the historical section, I had even been uninformed of the opening of the show and could not understand why I was not asked to participate, let alone attend. Twenty years ago this type of exclusion was the reason for the Franklin Furnace uproar and the expulsion of a critic. Now in a different time, the rules have changed. That alone could be the subject of a panel discussion but alas, it was never mentioned.

Instead the evening turned out to be an entertaining, if not disjointed and superficial, skimming of the surface of the rich topic of correspondence art networking. Those that attended with no prior knowledge were treated to an overview that was probably of great interest. For others, including me, what was striking was an interesting division between two ways of looking at this peculiar subset of the art world: a chasm between today’s “Mail art” and yesterday’s “Correspondence art.”

The event was held on a muggy evening in a cramped studio where books are constructed and classes are taught. The speakers, including audience members, passed a single microphone back and forth. The panelists were jammed together with A.A. Bronson and William “Picasso” Gaglione sort of stuck on the ends where the heads of the table would be. The audience was crammed together, too, with heads craning between the many people unceasingly making still and moving images with their cell phones as if Princess Diana or Puff Daddy had come to discuss the history of rubber stamps.

In the above-mentioned dichotomy I perceived, the moderator John Held turned out to be the only one representing “mail art” in its present form rather than steering the conversation in a coherent manner. To his credit, had he not spoken, one might have thought that this was a discussion of a movement that only existed in the past, like Mannerism or Art Nouveau. In fact, there was not time for anyone to say much of anything about “mail art” or “correspondence art.” It all went by rather quickly without much focus, rhyme or reason.

Held turned to Johnson’s archivist Bill Wilson to start things off. Wilson correctly pointed out that it is easy to get him started talking about Ray but difficult to get him to stop. In case there were any doubters present, he proved his theory to be true. Wilson did manage to correctly emphasize that Ray called correspondence an activity not an art and that he did not consider himself the father of anything, including mail art. Wilson even distributed a previously written article about the Futurists as evidence of correspondence art’s correct patriarchal roots. Speaking of roots, Bill’s mother was May Wilson whose mail art might have been an interesting topic. Instead, Bill managed to work in that Ray used two potential remedies–Christian Science and psychotherapy– to “correct” the homosexuality that he perceived as a malaise at the time.

After conveying that intimate detail, Bill said at one point, “What Ray was doing had nothing to do with fame, money or power, it was about intimacy. You can’t put a price on that.”

Next came John Evans. John used to make fun of the art world but now its not mail art that has been very good to him but “the art world.” It is interesting what a difference a few years of having gallery representation can do. He spoke about how it all started meeting Ray at a party on a roof and now, 45 years later, he is selling collages for 3000 dollars that he made twenty years ago and living off them and so he is rightfully thankful for that. The crowd, including this writer, was moved by this statement of Evans’ much-deserved transformation. You could hear a gasp of collective empathy. Evans also mentioned that his daughter was in a collage show with him recently and so it had all come full circle and become a generational thing. Bill Wilson took the mike back and reminded us that this type of art is indeed generational, reminding us of his own mother again.

Photo credit: Edgard Rivera

Next Barbara Moore mentioned no specific Fluxus links to mail art but said she might later. Gratefully, she never did. One assumes she was thinking of specific milestones like Ben Vautier’s Postman’s Choice and Robert Watts’stamps. These have been covered ad infinitum so it was probably wise for Moore to skip such specifics in lieu of fresher points of view.

Instead she began by insisting that to her recollection, no one ever called it “mail art.” Moore, acknowledging her regard for Ray Johnson, pointed out that George Maciunas was the most precise person she had ever met and he used the mail not necessarily as an art form but because it was the most efficient way to get things done.

Responding to John Evans’ mention a few minutes earlier that he once saw Albert Fine yelling, swearing and ranting outside a supermarket, Barbara had patiently waited for her turn to speak and now made the point that A.M. Fine was a remarkable and brilliant musician. Bill Wilson then took back the mike and told the story of Albert dropping a big bunch of letters that he had been given by Ray to be franked with free postage at Juilliard. The envelopes went blowing across Central Park and that was the end of that mailing.

Martha Wilson (no relation to Bill or May) next took the mike to emphasize that mail art was part of a larger continuum, that there was no separation between mail art and anything else, adding that the democratic impulse in art had been around for decades. Martha said she felt funny sitting on the panel since, to her, there was no difference between mail art and anything else. She called mail art “an escape valve to keep from going nuts.” She then explained, “the term I would use is broadcast their ideas. We have to try to yell.” She did acknowledge that mail art never got credit for creating the “birth of interactivity” and therefore deserved credit for leading the way to the Internet.

Martha Wilson then surprised me when she spoke about Mail Art Then and Now. She seems to think this infamous 1984 Franklin Furnace mail art show was some kind of benchmark of her career at Franklin Furance. She held up the catalog. ”(Dr. Ronnie Cohen) tried to put a hierarchical structure on top of a network structure.” She implied that if you had not heard about that event, then you probably weren’t in New York at the time. I had never even heard her discuss it.

She next threw the conversation to A.A. Bronson when she said that as the creator of an alternative art space, she was very influenced by Art Metropole in Canada.

Bronson began by talking about his formative years in the world of underground newspapers. Eventually, because he felt part of no art world in Canada, “we realized we had to create our own.” Perhaps it was Bronson that most defiantly manifested the non-“mail art” point of view. Bronson did not agree with the assertion that the Decca Dance he helped organize in San Francisco in the 1970s was important to mail art, even as the moderator Held wanted to connect it to 1980s mail art Tourism. Bronson wouldn’t take the bait. Bronson said “No, the Decca Dance was not a mail art event” and, “We didn’t think the Decca Dance had anything to do with mail art.” When asked him about his fondness for the work of Robert Filliou, Bronson said “The Eternal Network was not a network of mail artists it was a network of artists. ” Bronson also explained Ray Johnson was never on the cover of File Magazine despite Held’s recollection that he was. Bronson did add that both Johnson and Filliou had charmed him and his two partners at General Idea. He recounted that Ray had visited them for a few days in Toronto, arriving with tape over his mouth and they never saw him without it. He “could only hope” Ray was eating during the visit when they weren’t around.

Held’s friend Bill Gaglione was introduced as a late addition to the panel but hardly said a word. He wore a hat and sunglasses and sat silently throughout the discussion. When asked about the Decca Dance and his take on it after Bronson refused to agree with Held on its importance, he passed, having nothing to say on the matter. He did manage to cite the mail art awards at the Decca Dance but Bronson explained that it was just one of the excuses they used for everyone to get an award.

Throughout the proceedings, Held did not seem able to articulate questions in the form of queries for the panelists to answer and so he answered many himself. Brief but awkward silences would follow.

When each of the panelists were done speaking only once, Held asked the audience if there were any questions. When he didn’t wait long enough for a response, he began talking. It was in these extended Q and A’s with himself Held was coming from one place while the rest of the panel was coming from somewhere else. Audience members eventually asked a few questions including Pistol Pete who was forced to apologize for wearing a tie. I am sorry I don’t remember much else.

I stood up at the end and told everyone my Panmag zine would be distributed after the event and that it mathematically proved that mail art “and this panel” does not exist. I also had a question that I wanted to ask A.A. Bronson but he had already left. I wanted to ask when did he first hear it called “mail art.” So I followed up with what I suppose I really wanted to know and still do which is—Did something happen at some point when it began to be called “mail art” where the activity as a whole became more important than each artist’s individual contribution? Was calling it “mail art” maybe some sort of paradigm leap for the activity into an important cultural phenomena rather than the achievement of a single individual?

Without an answer to my question, which was probably too complex for the last moment, Held told us it was 8 o’clock and the discussion was abruptly over.


Mapping Correspondence: Mail Art in the 21st Century
April 11, 2008 - June 28, 2008, Center for Book Arts, New York, NY
Organized by Champe Smith, Independent Curator and Artist

An Authentik and Historikal Panel on the Phenomenon of Mail Art Friday, June 13, 2008, at 6:30pm with A.A. Bronson (Executive Director of Printed Matter, Founding member of General Idea), John Evans (Began mail art 1964, Collagist), Barbara Moore (Fluxus Curator, art historian, writer, rare-book dealer, Editor of Something Else Press), Martha Wilson (Founding Director of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.) William S. Wilson (historian, art critic, and novelist, Ray Johnson archivist), John Held Jr. (Moderator).