This text was originally written in Spring 2005 as an introduction to the book WORLD ARTISTAMPS by John Held Jr., that is currently still looking for a publisher (after a rather adventurous story).
Mail art (and r'n'r) saved my life. I was a shy and introverted dreamer relegated to the outer fringes of the cultural landscape, when creative correspondence gave me access to the work and friendship of hundreds of rather extraordinary men and women. It also provided me with the confidence necessary to develop my own limited skills, and with a flexible platform from which to spring my rants to a unique (one-to-one) audience: a planetary soapbox. Anything that has the power to save someone’s life can’t be easily dismissed as a frivolous and transient worldwide parlor-game. Postal art may certainly be mindlessly funny at times, even dead-boringly repetitive on a bad day, but it is surely not ephemeral. It has been with me for the past thirty years, and the fire still burns.
Since my early twenties, when I discovered the existence of the international postal art network through the publications of the guru of self-historicization Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (such a sweet old man, I was soon invited to explore his labyrinthine archive in Brescia), hardly a working day has passed without a handful of mailings leaving and/or entering my house. I do not dare to calculate how much money I have dissipated on postage stamps, stationery, photocopies and all the rest. Like many others, when I first discovered the seemingly boundless possibilities of art at a distance and the exhilaratingly rewarding sensation of an immediate feedback, I instantly became a total mail art addict. But while most people enter the network and leave after a few years, my obsession stuck. I had found my life’s main path, the perfect medium to match my quirky tastes and temperament. So through the years I have become a sort of authority (and test case) for the pathologies pertaining to a serious dependence on all things postal. I am not alone.
It is not easy to explain the postal art fever to someone who has never been infected. If you are a hardcore mail artist, the habit manifests itself from early morning, when you wake up and eagerly wait for the (post)man to deliver your daily dose of correspondence. When he is late, you become nervous, your hands start to sweat. You repeatedly check your empty mailbox, not unlike those who access their e-mail 20 times a day. And when finally the mail arrives, opening each envelope, particularly those from contacts held in high esteem, sparks off a rush of adrenaline. This sensation is highly addictive, even though you may become blasé and increasingly selective toward the cheap photocopies of junk mail art. Your metabolism synchronizes with the delivery schedule, and the almost daily trip to the post office becomes a devotional ceremony akin to going to church.
Communication might be a virus, indeed. You start with a small list of contacts and you keep adding more and more, “collecting” addresses from all over the world (as though they could really bother about postal art in Rwanda). Of course, the more you mail out the more stuff you get in return, so it soon becomes a big paper snake biting its tail. When your address starts getting around, you also receive letters out of the blue, and things tend to get out of hand. At a certain point, your pile of unanswered mail becomes so dreadfully huge that seeing the bottom of it gives you a paradisiacal high, similar to reaching the top of a mountain (but the next day will bring you yet more mail…). You periodically try to reduce the flux, but in the end you just have to learn to live with it, and so does your postman.
Unusual side effects become evident. For instance, you are not able to feel alone anymore. Invisible spiritual threads connect you with hundreds of individuals around the globe. It is an endless mental dialogue, like receiving telepathic transmissions and continually elaborating the data that will flow back into your replies. A spooky eternal séance. If you are a famous media figure, you just shut yourself in a bodyguarded ivory tower and maintain your mental health by keeping the hordes of fans at a distance. A mail artist acts just in the opposite way. His/her mind (and house) is open 24 hours a day to a process of extended communication, where all the characters of a utopian play are horizontally linked, giving life to an almost palpable sense of global community. This is not without its downside, such as drunken art travellers ringing your bell in the middle of the night, but the gratifications may be sublime. Every good thing has its price. The warm interactive process of the networking dialogue (which takes place on different levels: verbal, visual, physical, conceptual, mythological…) cannot be remotely compared to the occasional feedback that a published writer gets from faceless readers.
The postal network soon becomes your extended family. You cheer for marriages and births, and you mourn when bad news reach your mailbox. Mail art is a very organic and pragmatic activity. All the heady theories about the integration of art and life that have been proposed ad nauseam since the historical avant-gardes of the early 20th century, but remained in most cases on a purely speculative level, are finally and simply put into daily practice. So much so that “art” somehow becomes an inappropriate word and “artist” an outdated and slippery term. In the post-Duchampian (and post-Debordian, post-Beuysian) realm of correspondence activities, many feel much more comfortable referring to themselves as “networkers”, cultural workers operating in a network structure. Art smacks of bourgeois elitism, of inflated ego, of Romantic individualism, of money transactions, of serious and dusty museum vaults - all completely at odds with the collectivist, humble, playful and disrespectful nature of the correspondence exchange. Networkers may still call themselves “(mail) artists” but this name is more than often (more or less unconsciously) a joke, a prank, a provocation or a practical simplification. Pinned to a wall, a postcard is only a dead butterfly.
A networker is a new kind of cultural operator who developed in the second half of the 20th century, employing specific tools (not only the mail, but also fax, radio, video, Internet, cell phones, etc.) and with his or her own distinctive strategies of intervention: a sort of “cultural animator”; a meta-author who creates contexts for collective expression rather than traditional “works”; a media collagist, recycling the glossy one-way messages of the mass media and turning them into meaningful parodies transmitted through a self-supporting two-way circuit. The numbing saturation of the senses induced by corporate “entertainment culture” is mocked and reduced to a more human scale: verticality and hype are replaced by horizontality and complicity, passive fruition becomes active interaction. The mail art network, a totally spontaneous, independent and open community, proved that a direct, planetary and peaceful cooperation is indeed possible, overcoming all the differences of language, culture, religion, social status and political orientation. Networking is an ethical and relational paradigm whose value as a social experiment can’t be overestimated, applicable not just to art but to every field of human expression (science, economy, ecology, etc.). Naturally, since I am a mail-obsessed psychopath, all this might well be just wishful thinking. John Held, Jr., mail art’s James Boswell and a true gentleman networker - he presented a white lily to my wife when he first visited my archive - kindly asked me to write a preface for his new study on artist postage stamps. I junked a few academic attempts. I seem to be able to write only letters and postscripts these days.
Scholars and veteran members are still arguing over the assignment of Fluxus membership to this or that marginal figure of the group. Unlike Dada or Fluxus, mail art is not a movement or a collective with a limited number of members, but a medium or a cultural strategy (hats off to Ulises Carrión, who first introduced this concept) open to an unlimited number of players. An open web for free interactions and free exchanges outside the boundaries of the art market, as simple and radical as that. The unwritten no-rules of mail art projects (no entry fee, no jury, no censorship, no selection, no profit, no returns, free documentation to all the participants) turn the tables of traditional art exhibitions and of what is generally considered “art”. Creativity in postal art is the expression of collective thinking: anybody can join the net and bring his/her contribution, feedback inspires new ideas. Ill-intentioned individuals may also enter the circuit, but “negative” forces are usually isolated and ignored by the collective body. At the turn of the millennium, a mysterious saboteur circulated for months a large number of invites to fake mail art projects, with the intention of generating chaos. The network peacefully withstood the attacks, until the agent provocateur got tired of causing troubles and desisted. Mail art defeated its various Unabombers, and even resisted the anthrax scare.
It is maybe a small proof of the ultimate goodness of the human spirit the fact that all the key words that emerged from the networking milieu are positive ones: inclusiveness, cooperation, solidarity, tolerance, flexibility, generosity. Mail art is a multilingual community with no dogmatic rules and no fixed ideologies, international and inter-generational, democratic and wackily imaginative, interactive and hypertextual before the personal computer was even invented. It took half a century and the advent of the Internet before art critics started to acknowledge and discuss the specific qualities of this new and revolutionary cultural strategy (see Craig J. Saper’s Networked Art, University of Minnesota Press 2001, and At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet edited by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark, Leonardo Books, 2005). Obscure and neglected postal heroes should not worry; it is simply impossible to sweep under the carpet 50 years of frenzied activities, wild projects and astonishing publications.
A Medium, Not a Movement
There is no “official” definition or manifesto of mail art - or postal art, correspondence art and other less familiar terms used with slightly different shades of meaning - because there is no single founder or center of origin for the network, there is no hierarchy or leader. Mail art (who introduced the name? who cares?) is a collective mythopoetic creation, a heterogeneous structure without head or tail, and therefore uncatchable and indestructible. Many different experiences in the field of creative correspondence have been documented long before the term mail art came into use. Numerous postal works have been created by the Futurists, the Dadaists and the Surrealists, but also by unacknowledged outsiders and pioneers like Michael V. Hitrovo and Karl Schwesig. Mail art is many things to many people. It circulates a very wide spectrum of materials (not only visual works, but also poetry, novels, audiocassettes, magazines, etc.), ranging from the merely decorative to the deeply conceptual. Like any truly open medium, the creative postal web has been embraced by different kinds of individuals operating at various levels, from school children involved by their teachers to hobbyists mainly interested in trading bizarre artifacts to authors consciously trying to push the envelope of contemporary art researches. Mail art is lowbrow and amateurish grassroot activities, countercultural avant-garde experiments and “high art” theories and practices all rolled into one. No wonder the critics were confused and would not touch it with a long stick for such a long time! To complicate things even further, the creative use of correspondence is by no means limited to the extended community that recognizes itself in the ethos of the Eternal Network, as first envisaged by Robert Filliou in the late sixties. Periodically, the concept of “art by mail” is rediscovered by different circuits of people or by individuals, sometimes with surprising results. (See the ingenious novelty book Postal Séance: a Scientific Investigation into the Possibility of a Postlife Postal Existence by illustrator Henrik Drescher, Chronicle Books, 2004).
Despite its illustrious progenitors and terminological indeterminateness, the mail art phenomenon can be historically framed, very roughly, as pertaining to the second half of the 20th century, and may be considered largely superseded today by the relational art activities fueled by the Internet that it helped inspire. A very natural and logical shift has been taking place in the last 10 to 15 years, as postage rates kept rising and the number of local post offices dwindled, while computers and 24-hour on-line access became more widespread and economical. The main point behind using the postal system for creative purposes was that it permitted one to communicate (potentially) with the whole planet at the price of a postage stamp. Now that the same thing can be done cheaply through e-mail, new generations of networkers are simply adopting the most functional and inexpensive tool at their disposal. Mail art sloughs off its skin as its founding concepts are transferred to new media (though it is not possible to e-mail edible postcards or smelling objects!), but the network remains “eternal”.
It is often easy to dismiss postal art on the basis of an aesthetic critique of a single piece of mailing, but this does not take into account the complex nature of networking. A single mailing is just a fragment of a process or performance in progress, a page of a diary, a phrase extrapolated from a logical narrative, a small piece of the puzzle. In mail art, the “work” is not represented by the individual postcard or letter, but by the whole process of interactions between the sender and his/her contact(s). A mail artist’s job is to conceive ever-new guidelines to put in motion original collaborative micro-systems and unprecedented joint projects. A complete mail art show, a collection of contributions from dozens or hundreds of individuals cooperating around a given theme or concept, is possibly more akin to a “finished piece”: the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. But mail art is a process not a product, so the mail artifact is not a commodity but a vehicle of communication, and the gain is not monetary but spiritual and logistical (you make friends, you exchange experiences, you enrich your knowledge). There is always the danger (or possibility) of superficial networking, the “collector’s syndrome” that consists just in the amassing of project after project with 400-artists-from-30-nations, but that is already a dilution of the one-to-one principle. Many networkers do not care about collecting what they receive and prefer to recycle most of it in their correspondence. Direct, intimate dialogue is the monad around which the networking philosophy is built.
Consider it a Zen activity. To write hundreds of addresses, to glue thousands of stamps, to hand-assemble numberless mail art publications, to repeat for hours a series of small gestures with minimal variations (draw, cut, staple, fold, perforate, rubber stamp, etc.) becomes a sort of ritual, a dance, a form of meditation, an exercise that opens new channels for inner enlightenment, just as Gurdjieff asked his disciples to perform daily boring tasks such as the (useless) re-mowing of a field. You learn by doing it, and you develop specific skills. How to make quick decisions, for example. You always have a pile of invites to projects and exhibitions, the deadlines are approaching but you can only count on a few daily odd moments, robbed from your regular job and the family chores. So you build up an ability to create a satisfying work in answer to a precise request in just a few minutes. It is like a compression of energy released in a very short time. Or like the ancient Oriental Master who, after a long spiritual training, executes his perfect calligraphic drawing in a handful of seconds.
The letter exchange used to be held in high esteem - the epistolary novel was a genre in itself in the 18th and 19th centuries - but today “snail” mail is used mainly for bills, mail scams and junk advertisements. A nuisance, just like spam e-mail, rather than a sign of aristocracy. To receive a lot of personal mail used to denote how much people cared for you. Now it is more a cause of embarrassment: Who is this weirdo attracting so much rubbish? It is the end of an era. Cell phones and sms messages rule, and the letter has become an old-fashioned form of communication. It is like still preferring to hear vinyl records instead of CDs or mp3s. Mail art is finally put into perspective, historified and (willy-nilly) collected, even if not all the networkers are happy at being (albeit partially) integrated into the art system.
Today mail art continues to be practiced daily by thousands of individuals in many parts of the world, with hundreds of projects and exhibitions organized every year in the most varied situations, from inside a shopping trolley to the walls of eminent galleries and museums. But certain tricks (like testing the limits of the postal system by mailing all sorts of weird objects, writing return-to-sender letters to dead celebrities, using artist’s stamps as real stamps, etc.) can only be repeated a certain number of times before they become redundant. The continuing underground status of mail art does not justify anymore the ignorance of a rich networking tradition. Although to compile a directory of all the mail artists in activity would be a Herculean endeavour doomed to certain failure, there is a sense of definite evolution in the history of postal art. Certain concepts, like the ever-popular “theme shows”, seem to have fully exhausted their function. With all my love and passion for envelopes and stamps, I see the end of a cycle quickly approaching. But now that networking has entered under society’s skin, everything is ready to proceed to the next level of the game.
Postal Myths and Legends
In my function as a rock music journalist, I was always attracted by the work of cult bands and outsider musicians, fascinated by the fact that so many inspiring masterpieces could be known by so few listeners. Mail art would have been a remarkable phenomenon even if it had consisted only of grassroots activities, just as rock'n'roll would have been a world-shaking force even without its Chuck Berrys and Elvis Presleys (rockin' with Dick Dale or The Collins Kids is no less fun). Luckily, it is not so, and among the folds of the network’s multicolored coat many unsung heroes have erected their headquarters. In many cases, this happened just because these authors enjoyed the free and easygoing process of creative correspondence much more than the pressures and the intrigues of the art market.
Of course we should be glad that Ray Johnson came up with the concept of using the mail (together with the phone, the meetings, the nothings, the moticos, etc.), because he was the Brian Wilson, the eccentric genius behind the growth of the wide mail art tree. (And such a fine-tuned mind, such an exquisite collagist, never a small detail out of place!) Johnson was a blessing for mail art: with his monumental symphony of witty and lyrical “correspondances” he provided a tangible proof of the validity of the postal medium as a tool for ambitious art concepts. As Andy Kaufman transformed comedy into performance art, Ray had the gift of generating fully unexpected and enlighteningly new (postal) “situations”, turning every small act of his life - and even his death - into a beautiful and multi-leveled art performance. At the same time, Johnson has also become an albatross around mail art’s neck, since the whole medium is much too often identified with just his seminal work and his “parental” role (something he always dealt with uneasily, being such a unique and idiosyncratic personality). The New York Correspondance School is of a primary importance, but it is only a branch of the big tree.
The creative gift is inside everyone, you just have to reach for it: this is a constant subtext of mail art activities. And yet, we are not all created equal. (Just ask Antonio Salieri!) Furthermore, the “democratic” attitude of mail art should take into account the fact that not all humans have a chance, a propensity or a desire to become artists. Many have much more urgent problems to solve, many really could not care less. So the fact that certain authors stand out as influential figures should not be perceived as a contradiction of the mail art egalitarian ethic. Each (sub)culture has its own designated visionaries. Fringe cultural figures have always been misunderstood and overlooked, but some of them have left lasting traces of their passage. Just think of Maciunas or Johnson as modern shamans, like so many other “hidden masters” (Harry Smith and Joseph Cornell, Robert-Jasper Grootveld and Pinot Gallizio…). It is not a hierarchization; three-chord wonders and avant-garde symphonists are equally valid, just different. And you cannot correspond with all the active mail artists anyway - there are just too many. So each networker is forced to “select” a certain number of correspondents, creating a personal sub-network and a personal “postal reality”: it is a voyage into your own self as well as into the collective self.
Mail art does not have “bosses”; there is no Breton or Debord who can expel you from the group at any given moment (though Johnson had a tongue-in-cheek way of “dropping” people from his list of correspondents), but the history of the network is filled with appearances of remarkable figures, playing a semi-ironical role of postal (urban) legends: from David Zack to GAC, from Al “Blaster” Ackerman to Clemente Padin, from Pawel Petasz to Robin Crozier, from Ulises Carrión to Michael Bidner, from Guy Bleus to Günther Ruch, from Peter Küstermann to H.R. Fricker, and so on. These networkers assume almost mythic proportions, especially when they hide and duplicate their identities behind a curtain of pseudonyms and corporate pen-names, a practice that owes as much to Duchamp’s travesty as Rrose Selavy as it does to the custom of alternative identities (re)introduced by punk rock: Anna Banana, Daddaland, Ace Space, Dr. and Lady Brute, Image Bank, Genesis P-Orridge, Carlo Pittore, Rod Summers’ VEC, Cracker Jack Kid, etc.
The mail art milieu also developed its own pantheon of serious or parodic “isms” (Neoism, Plagiarism, Impossibilism, Spiegelmism, Verticalism, Tourism…) and even its own alternative systems of communication and exchange (like Carrión’s Erratic Art Mail International System, Plinio Mesciulam’s “centre of restricted communication”, Mohammed or Küstermann’s Personal Net Mail Delivery). The next stage after the adoption of fake identities was the creation of “multiple names” and collective identities, as in the case of the “open pop star” Monty Cantsin or of the media blitzer Luther Blissett. Through the Blissett fictional myth, many networkers made headlines in Italy during the 1990s with a series of pranks designed to expose the vulnerability of the mass media and to reveal how easy it is to manipulate facts and propagate dangerous lies. The historical novel Q, signed by Blissett, became an international bestseller, and the group of writers behind it, under the name Wu Ming, proceeded to elaborate innovative experiments in collective writing, collaborating with their readers through their Web site and newsgroup. This literary application of the concept of networking is a brilliant example of the potentially unlimited uses of and developments within this cultural strategy.
The most persistent mistake in approaching a discussion of mail art is the tendency to isolate it from the wider socio-cultural turmoil of its time. In reality, the postal network never existed in a vacuum. Behind each postcard or postage stamp lies the often rich and intricate history of authors who passed through different experiences and learning stages. The courses and classmates at Black Mountain College were important for Ray Johnson, just as the Monte Capanno collective experiment in Italy has been formative for David Zack and his students. We are always the product of the culture that preceded us. From the very beginning, mail art was the natural offspring of the interaction and cross-breeding of various experiments in audience participation (street theater, performance, happenings) and of art trends seeking an enlarged aesthetization of everyday life (Lettrism, Situationism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry, Body Art, graffiti, etc.), as well as of the alternative circuits and manifestations of a flowering counter-cultural tradition (Beats, Provos, Hippies, underground cinema and comix, independent video, etc.).
Not coincidentally, there was a strong resurgence of interest in mail art in the late 1970s, in conjunction with the do-it-yourself ethics of punk rock and with the subsequent rise of “indie” labels, as well as the zine explosion and the expansion of the “tape network” of the early1980s, of which mail art magazines and cassettes have been an integral part. Mail art developed therefore at the fertile intersection of radical art trends and adventurous socio-cultural experiments, finding inspiration in Brion Gysin’s and William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques as well as in Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, and making allies among the supporters of “copyleft” and open source tactics (as in the Plagiarist festivals and actions promoted by Stewart Home and others under the multiple name of Karen Eliot). Blissett agents and other networkers have been involved in the front line of international protests and demonstrations in favor of a creative de-globalization of the planet. The lasting popularity of the postal art net is also the result of the reverberations of its links with so many different (sub)cultural traditions and mythologies.
(Not) For Sale
Freedom from the necessity of producing saleable items renders mail art a unique medium. Once you have accepted the fact that you will never earn a living through the postal exchange, a wide range of interesting possibilities comes into focus. You can free yourself from the psychological barriers of the “finished product”, from the limits of “good taste” and “bad taste”, and from the need for any kind of approval (on the part of art critics, dealers or the general public). You can even decide to change your identity, gender or style every time you want. Anything goes. There is no competition and no rules to follow, so you make up your own rules as you go along. This total “openness” often shocks and repels the blinkered supporters of Art with a capital A, always ready to blabber about the lack of professionalism in postal circles. But mail art is intentionally marginal and unpretentious, its “poor” materials are usually found in the home environment and its fragile lo-fi status is implicitly antithetical to the large dimensions and preciousness of gallery art. Mail art is in the public domain, free for all and fully recycleable. But generalizations always hide part of the truth. I have met several networkers who acted like typical High Art snobs, and many academic authors who have conceived brilliant collectivistic projects (just think of Robert Delford Brown’s “action gluings” created through open workshops). Once again, mail art is an open medium and might contain everything and its contrary: angry young media terrorists and relaxed old pacifists, individuals interested in exploring new cultural routes and authors keen on simply distributing their latest creations.
The art establishment has had a few quick flirtations with mail art in the past five decades, but it usually missed the point, and, generally speaking, the indifference between networkers and art institutions has been massive and reciprocal. By chance or merit, mail art has been occasionally presented in important museums and galleries, including the most prestigious art Biennials (Paris, São Paulo, Venice), but it just seems to work much better in the mailbox. Public shows, unless really well-orchestrated with workshops, interactive concepts, hands-on approaches, etc., tend to become artificial and lifeless, missing the intimacy and collaborative aspect of true networking. You can have a world exhibition in your cupboard for the surprise and enjoyment of your friends and visitors, but mail art remains essentially a participatory experience, not a showcase for fixed images. Notwithstanding the occasional friction, there is no direct clash or opposition between mail art and gallery art; they are simply two different experiences. In fact, many mail artists conduct a “double life” in the professional art world, each finding his/her own reasonable way to reconcile the two things. (Ray Johnson, again, constitutes a role model with his witty transformation of each exhibition or artwork sale into a performance in itself.)
The networking process is not activated only from a safe distance. Mail artists do visit one another, and they also plan meetings and festivals: Not parades of stars - unless it is a parody, like the DeccaDance Hollywood convention of 1974 - but rather gatherings of friends, usually with a homely atmosphere (Neoist Apartment Festivals) or organized in the most unlikely circumstances (Decentralized Congresses, Incongruous Meetings, Obscure Actions). Mail art meetings are often the occasion of endless debates on the tricky and delicate subject of “mail art and money do (not) mix.” By definition, mail art is not for sale; it is for barter or simply a gift. In reality, most networkers have no problem selling the débris of their postal activity (magazines, postcards, stampsheets, etc.), but these are just “documents” of a continuing performance: The networking process cannot be bought, just lived. Mail art catalogs, assemblings and other self-publications were always intended for exchange and for sale to those not directly involved in the circuit. The most rare mail art titles have already become collector’s items, just like the publications of mainstream contemporary artists. (Notice how the two categories mingle in the catalogue Extra Art: A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera, 1960-1999, California College of Arts and Crafts/Smart Art Press 2001). There are some delightful incongruities at work here: You can find advertised at a high price on eBay or in art dealers’ lists some postal items that can still be obtained for free simply by writing to the respective authors, or by participating in the ongoing projects. (The Brain Cell collective sheets created by Ryosuke Cohen come to mind). This is just another impressive aspect of mail art: While it has started being historified and (inevitably) marketed, it still retains a “free edge” for those smart enough to understand its inner mechanics.
It’s a Small, Small World!
Collecting mail art is so much more instructive and fun than collecting wine caps; it can keep you busy for a lifetime. And artist postage stamps (or artistamps, as they are better known to insiders) are the very epitome of correspondence art: the most popular, iconic, synthetic and effective symbols of the postal bureaucracy. Minumum size, maximum effect (miniskirts are fun, too). Rubber stamps and postcards are also widespread, but they never stirred up the same level of interest as artistamps, or the same number of specific exhibitions, projects and publications. Rubber stamp aficionados prefer to gather in small groups of carvers and creators of stamped “collages,” as seen on the pages of the successful Rubberstampmadness magazine: the genre tends to slip into the realm of cute decorations, an innocuous hobby rather than cutting-edge art. Postcards, on the other hand, benefited from such an extensive creative utilization, from the Art Nouveau era to Conceptual and Body Art, that networkers never felt the medium was totally their own. Artistamps (and the envelopes on which they are often pasted) may not represent the complete mail art experience, but they are nevertheless the most revered and treasured relics of the exchange process, compressing in thumbnail format (like magical sigils) the full variety of themes, ideas and techniques expressed by the network.
Easily produced in large quantities and usually affixed to letters and postcards next to the proper governmental stamps, artistamps - particularly when accompanied by appropriate cancellation marks - give off an air of officiality that confers credibility to the most absurd or iconoclastic messages. They are parodies of an existing bureaucracy, but may also represent a flight of the imagination into virtual lands and interplanetary dimensions. The alternative stamps may convey a manifestly political statement, as in the case of the NSK State (and Post Office) set up by the art/music group Irwin/Laibach in the former Yugoslavia, or propose a totally utopian agenda, as with the many stampsheets of imaginary countries issued in Italy for the Funtastical United Nations project.
Several novelty books by illustrators have been produced around the idea of fake postage stamps, but what they ultimately lack is a shared mythology behind the appealing images and witty messages. An artistamp produced for (Dogfish's) Tui-Tui Islands or (Alan Brignull's) Adanaland is charged with the fascinating lore of its exotic issuing country, built little by little over decades of networking practice through accurate philatelic essays, anthropological researches and the creation of maps, archival photos, flags, insignia and other pseudo-historical relics. It is much like German philatelist Wolfgang Baldus’ series of meticulously researched books on the “history and background stories of unusual stamps” (Independent State of Acre, Principality of Trinidad, etc.).
Artistamps have travelled a long route since the early Fluxus sheets, and it is particularly appropriate that the French Post Office recently commissioned an official 0.50 Euro stamp by Fluxus veteran Ben Vautier, who wrote in the small rectangle with his unmistakable handwriting the simple expression “un grand merci” (“a big thank you” but also “a great mercy”). Love and mercy are the secret we discover at the end of most initiation paths, even though it has always been right under our eyes, as in Edgar AllanPoe’s “Purloined letter”.
A large collection of artistamps can take your breath away, just like entering the Sistine Chapel, because so much food for thought and so many vivid images are concentrated in such a small space. It is a dazzling kaleidoscope, a roller-coaster ride through realistic and fantastical worlds, weird costumes and alien cultures, stinging satirical comments and inventive techniques of printing and perforation. Souvenirs from the most bizarre and far-away lands are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder as in the cutest of the classical Disneyland attractions. (“It’s a small world after all!” would make an appropriate postal anthem.) The artistamp tradition stands as an enduring and lively testimony to mail art’s achievements as an eclectic and versatile medium. Thankfully, a few archives and devoted collectors have prevented this cornucopia of amazing miniatures from being scattered and lost, thus disappearing forever from the cultural radar screen.
Healing Through Art
Maybe art is always a form of illness, a surplus of imagination that must find its release valve or else you go nuts. (Take Adolf Hitler; everything he did is probably the consequence of his rejection at school as an incompetent artist!) Art may seem also a superfluous and hedonistic game on a planet that can’t get rid of greed-fueled wars and genocides. Yet, the sparkle of poetry and beauty is still one of the few effective antidotes against hate and violence. These are troubled times, and since art has always been a reflection of its own era, the spectacle of cruelty is today often cynically turned into a radical-chic display. This is not mail art’s way, at least as perceived by my postage-clogged cerebral convolutions. Networking art is not about showing and exploiting, but about being and helping. An empathic experience; not a mirrored reflection of human madness, but the collective search for a remedy.
The builders of cathedrals and the painters of ancient sacred art were mostly anonymous, skilled artisans paid by the religious authorities to reflect in their work the dogmas of the holy scriptures. Artists have always been paid by kings and those in power to praise their clients and support their ideology. The myth of the artist as it is known today, and the institution of the museum as his “new church”, was created only in the 19th century, with specific commercial purposes in mind. Naturally the artists did not stop playing the jugglers for those in power after Duchamp and Beuys pointed out that everything can be art and everyone can be an artist. They still have to eat and pay their bills. But there is an irreversible tendency, in our alphabetized and Internetted world, toward an expansion and degradation of the art practice. There are more and more artists, on average less skilled than before, so the market is brought to the point of implosion. If we all become “prosumers” - part producers and part consumers of culture - the attention maybe will be focused again not on the (myth of the) author but on the work itself (is it useful or unnecessary?).
Networking art is, in a way, a return to the anonymous collective builders of cathedrals - only this time there is no munificent client, as it is all independent and self-financed, and therefore much more obscure and esoteric. Networkers resemble mad scientists locked up in their laboratories, trying to come up with an alchemical formula capable of saving the human race (or at least to make someone smile). Their utopian quest passes through the rediscovery of the lost spontaneity and rituality of the creative act. Real cultural gain is the fruit of a hard and sometimes painful but highly rewarding personal search, not of passive consumption.
Maybe I am totally wrong, and all this is just my own visionary assembling and subjective interpretation of a galaxy of unrelated broken pieces. Maybe I licked too many stamps and I have been terminally infected. The borders of Netland are so vague that you can never be sure if you are inside or outside of it. On the other hand, everything seems so easily within reach with the Internet, that you can now daily check the personal blogs of those mail artists who have the time and patience to document on-line everything they receive and send out. But as the Web is a formidable medium that needs specific tactics, it would be rather pointless to simply apply postal art methodologies to it. Net.art is another level of the game.
Call me old-fashioned and superseded, but I still love the tactile feeling of postcards and envelopes, and until the postman stops delivering mail to my front door, that will remain my favorite medium. I still answer each single piece of mail, feeling like a maniac in reverse. But for much too long I have plunged headfirst into the mail flux, organizing new projects without ever looking back, without even dusting my archives. I have grown old with a pair of scissors in my hands. Now I have 30 years of correspondence to be filed and put in order, to be rediscovered and contextualized. I am sure there is still a lot to be learned and enjoyed. Mail art needs obsessive scholars; there are books to be written and jewels to be retrieved. I hear voices coming from those cumbersome piles of cardboard boxes. The partnership between two authors gives life to a “third mind”, as Gysin and Burroughs pointed out, so just imagine what decades of protracted collaboration between thousands of individuals may have evoked. It is a notion that confuses, stuns, surprises and excites the mind. Just like this book.