Stamps were originally a receipt ticket affixed to envelopes to prove prepayment of postal services. Over time, stamps were increasingly elaborately printed to deter counterfeiting. They were essentially facilitators of social and business conversation but, apart from rare or misprinted issues, they were an almost invisible part of the communication process. They also facilitated long distance and international communication before the era of electric and electronic communication.
Letters were concrete records of information transfer, business matters, and intimate and personal sentiments. They were collected and kept both as records and for sentimental reasons. In many ways, they were also a form of entertainment. Some of the earliest novels were presented as an exchange of fictional letters. It is natural that people also collected the envelopes the letters came in and the stamps that adorned them. Postal authorities began to issue more decorative stamps (commemoratives), as well as definitive issues, to feed the collecting impulse.
Eventually the telegraph and the telephone were developed to speed up communication. The mail continued to be important because it was guaranteed to reach the person it was addressed to and it contained an actual physical record of the communication. Objects could also be sent via the mail.
In our own era, the advent of the fax machine and e-mail, as well as the increasing price of postage, have begun to substantially erode the use of mail. Increasingly, the mail is used for bills and official documents though the advent of couriers has undercut even that function. As well, most mail is now franked with postage meters and post offices are targeting collectors who buy stamps but don’t use them for postal services.
As a technology fades in general usefulness, it increases in price and is often appropriated by artists and craftspeople. Stamps are a good example. As artists began to take advantage of the post as a potential art medium (Mail Art), their attention turned to the creation of stamps. Stamps created by artists were first recognized as a distinct art medium by Jas. W. Felter in his ground breaking exhibition, Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images, at Simon Fraser University in 1974. At that time, he was able to identify 41 artists and artist groups who had produced stamps and stamp images. This exhibition travelled for nearly 10 years and brought artist made stamps to the attention of hundreds of artists around the world.
Michael Bidner, a Canadian artist and stamp collector, saw the exhibition and decided to catalogue stamps created by artists. He called them “artistamps”. By the time of his death in 1988, the phenomenon had exploded and he had identified hundreds of producers and thousands of artistamps. His project, which had seemed finite at the beginning, turned into a huge impossible task. His catalogue and collection were donated to Artpool when no Canadian museum would accept it. By 1988, artists were exchanging artistamps and arranging exhibitions of artistamps around the world. Most of these artists were part of a fluid and ever changing network, the Mail Art Network, which in its open and continuously expanding nature, used the postal system to facilitate communication, dialogue and art exchange in much the same way that people now use the networking capabilities of the internet.
Although artistamps were used on envelopes in addition to (and sometimes without) official postage stamps, most artistamps were printed as sheets of stamps just like the post offices printed their stamps. They were perforated so the individual stamps could be torn from the sheet and used. Bidner tried to catalogue every individual artistamp but he would have simplified his task if he had simply catalogued whole sheets. He was stuck in the mindset of a stamp collector and failed to see the sheets as a print medium as well as separate artistamps.
In fact, artists usually produced sheets of artistamps with every stamp containing a different image. Some sheets, called “anthology sheets” were essentially publications with every image by a different artist. Artists lacked the sophisticated equipment used by postal authorities to produce sheets with every image the same, the anthology sheet was a natural extension of artist’s ability to take advantage of disadvantage.
Some artists, such as Donald Evans, made drawings and paintings at stamp size and used these original artworks as stamps. However, most definitions of “artistamps” require that they be printed as editions, contain the name of the issuing authority, and be perforated. Artists used numerous print mediums – etching, lithography, silkscreen, offset, xerography, ink jet and laser – and they used various methods of perforations including slit perfs, sewing machines, punches, and round hole perforating machines which best duplicated the look of actual stamps. Round hole perforating machines were sometimes found in the back of old print shops, they had been used to produce tear off tickets, pads and coupons but have been replaced by faster slit perforating machines. Round hole perforating machines are another technology which is no longer commercially viable and is now used by artists.
Artists who acquired these rare machines generally shared them with other artistamp producers as the number of makers expanded. Felter produced a series of catalogues with the names and addresses of artistamp creators which had to be continually updated. In Seattle, a hot bed of artistamp makers with access to at least three round hole perforators, Bugpost produced larger and larger and larger catalogues of artistamp sheets (the last of which was the 1995 4th Edition of The Standard Artist Stamp Catalogue) until he was overwhelmed by the sheer volume.
In the late 80s, artists began to use the computer as an image making and manipulating tool. The computer allowed artistamp creators to make sheets of stamps with every image the same just as the post offices had been doing for over a century. At the same time, national postal authorities were creating sheets of stamps with several different images in order to sell more stamps to collectors. Artists also began to be interested in creating their own pseudo countries as issuing authorities since stamps are one of the basic and intrinsic earmarks of nationality. I think that this, along with the creation of an ever expanding communication network which predated and anticipated the internet, is one of the most profound aspects of Mail Art and artistamps. The creation of fictional countries is the highest expression of individualism, it asserts the right of the individual to govern themselves and to act independently in relation to the rest of the world (even if only in fiction) with the same authority as a nation. Artistamps often reflect this stance, utilizing political and social imagery to underscore unique and individual viewpoints.
In 1990, Anna Banana, from Vancouver, created Artistamp News. This was the first periodical devoted entirely to this new medium. She presented articles and essays on artistamps and listed sheets she had received in the mail. She also included artist’s addresses to facilitate trades and communication. After 8 issues, I took it over and produced 3 more issues until the sheer volume of work and expense defeated me. Several books on artistamps have appeared as well, most notably Artpool’s World Art Post 84 in 1984, Bernd Lobach’s International Artist’s Postage Stamps Exhibition catalogue in 1985, Timbres d’artistes from the Musee de la Poste in 1994, Vittore Baroni’s Arte Postale in 1997, Jas. W. Felter’s Artistamps/Francobolli d’Artista in 2000, and Michael Hernandez de Luna’s Axis of Evil: Perforated Praeter Naturam in 2004.
Official postage stamps are designed by artists in the service of national interests and as official receipts for postage; like money, they have a specific value totally unrelated to their design. Artistamps have no “real” value but they are important artifacts and as such have a value that transcends and subverts price. While some artists do sell their artistamps, their real value is the quality of the vision and ideas that they present as they slide through the international postal system to land in the mailboxes of other artists in the network.
Ed Varney, 2007