CHAPTER 4 RECONSIDERING MAILART - CONGRESSES.
By 1980, mailart had been in existence for 25 years and most of the well known participants in Johnson's original NYCS had dropped-out of the network. Maciunas had died in 1978 and with him the energy of Fluxus as a movement faded. Photocopying had become widely available in the West and mailart had extended to most corners of the globe. This chapter looks at mailartists reconsidering their objectives in the 1980s and early 1990s in the light of the availability of cheap methods of reproducing artwork; the implications of the exponential rise in the number of participants and the shift from mailart to 'networking' as a concept with the resultant need to make decisions as to how to respond to the increased amount of mailart received.
4.2.The Effect of Photocopying on Mailart.
Johnson's reported decision to 'kill-off' the NYCS coincided with the considerable rise in the number of people practising mailart and could therefore imply that he felt that mailart had grown beyond his control and direct influence and that he might have preferred the idea of an elitist clique of cultural luminaries rather than a policy of networking being open to all-comers.1 This is a complex issue, particularly given Johnson's enjoyment of contradiction. Although Johnson's networking usually contained a personal reference to the recipient, he used photocopies to disseminate his orchestrations through the network from the 1970s and had previously used Offset Printing to reproduce his work before the availability of photocopying. Whilst Johnson 1used photocopying without compromising his networking activities, this method of producing work raised serious issues for a number of other mailartists, and was even held to be responsible for some mailartists ceasing to network.
"By the middle seventies, most of the big names in the artworld who had participated in Johnson's New York Correspondance School became dropouts due to the slapdash nature of the medium." 2
This asserts that all those who dropped-out, did so for the same reason which seems highly unlikely. Whilst it is true that there was a shift in the nature of mailings from the hand produced images in the late 1950s and 1960s to the use of the photocopier, and sometimes resultant impersonal communications that some of them had begun to become by the mid 1970s, there are however other factors to take into consideration. Firstly, some of these "big names" - Held Jr. means those who had achieved a high profile in galleries and journals - were not big at the time and it is likely that the pressures of them becoming 'successful' artists led to them neglecting and abandoning the network in favour of income generating work. It is also conceivable that they had perhaps used mailart as a means of networking with others and having achieved their aims, no longer felt that they had a use for mailart. Secondly, mailartists as a whole have and always have had a complete spectrum of ways of working which would have enabled those people to continue to work with selected individuals, dropping those networkers whom they perceived to be simply producing photocopied work rather than something that was personal and hand produced. The insistence on hand produced material reflected what was perhaps a ludite attitude to the considerable potential of the emerging new technology of the 1970s and 1980s. Thirdly, there is probably a mean average time that most networkers maintain a commitment to the network and that for many of the people who had participated since the 1950s and 1960s, "by the middle seventies", they had tired of mailart. Significantly, most of the early mailartists were tending to use mailart to explore concepts of the postal system rather than networking and their parting with the network, to the extent that they had participated in it, coincided with the shift away from conceptual art and their moving-on to other ways of expressing themselves that was more relevant to their individual development and to their developing relationship with the art world. However, a small number of artists with high international profiles continue to work in mailart, notably Christo.3 For most, though, there is a dichotomy between the time consuming and financially non-productive pursuit of mailart and the commitment to the income generating systems that mailart rejects. Time spent on mailart will not only produce no income but might also be seen by the art establishment as an indication of not being a serious artist/business person. To do both requires the ability to serve two masters simultaneously, on the one hand capitalist materialist commodification and on the other hand interchange for its own sake with no end-product. For most people, having embraced the former, the latter seems to have no relevance.
Although the assertion of Held Jr., (above) is open to criticism, he goes on to say that the exeunt of well known artists from the network was the beginning of the fusing of artists and non-artists in the network, indeed as he so rightly points out, an ambition long held among the avant-garde but only achieved in mailart and, to a lesser extent, by Fluxus. Whilst Johnson had included non-artists in the NYCS, they had been orchestrated by him and as I have demonstrated, critical writing of the NYCS tended only to comment on Johnson, seeing him as the controller. Mailart in the 1980s heralded a shift from the production by artists of artworks, to the concept of networking that I go on to discuss.
Many mailartists expressed the concern that the use of photocopiers devalued what they saw as being important about mailart, namely the unique hand-produced, personal work made for a specific individual. In 1984, a USA. mailartist, Carlo Pittore wrote an article entitled, 'The N-Tity' in which he warns that, as he sees it, machines can only destroy us of our N-Tity:
'All of us are being sucked into a whirlpool of continued technological advance which is inevitably robbing us of individuality, will and humanity.' 4
Concern expressed at the danger to individuality fails to take into account debates surrounding issues of individuality discussed by critics such as Rosalind Krauss and argued through the work of Sherrie Levine.5 Levine, arguing that the notion of originality is false, states "A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture."6 More important to mailart however is the democratic affect of the rapid development of technology in bringing photocopying, colour copying and computer technology to all. The latter has been most important in allowing even cheaper and more readily available production of a very high quality of fliers with sophisticated graphics. This is an essential element in the democratisation of mailart in that it became possible for anybody to reproduce artwork, enabling a much wider range of networkers to participate with dignity and confidence in what could have previously been perceived as a means of communication reserved for those privileged to have received an education in art and design. Now that computers have thrust professional looking documents at us from all quarters, there is no longer an issue at stake of the distinctions between Graphic and Fine Art because both practices use each other's techniques. High quality graphics have taken over for many networkers, allowing the relatively easy production of artiststamps and printed ephemera by anyone with access to Desktop Publishing. Computer art as an end in itself, has of course also been adopted by some networkers and many computer art projects have been generated.
Pittore warns that mailartists,'...package everything in a standardised manner, for storage and retrieval, and this certainly must rob us of our breath.'7 in writing of storage and retrieval, he alludes to documentation and archiving which have become very much a part of networking for a number of mailartists. Pittore is suggesting that networkers tend to produce work that is dictated by photocopying - for example work on A4 sheets of paper - rather than the wealth of three dimensional work that was often produced in the 1960s. The reference to standardisation however is not appropriate to mailart, not only because of the diverse ways in which networkers still work, but also because of the predominance of MAPs that always have the opportunity to stipulate size and / or medium to prevent precisely that which worries Pittore. It is interesting to note that Pittore is still practising mailart in spite of his expressed concerns.
Although mailart became known to a greatly increased number of people in the early 1970s, its continuation and survival was - paradoxically given the pessimism expressed by some networkers - largely due to photocopying. The improvements in photomechanical reproduction presented a ready, cheap and easy to use technique, ideally suited to the dissemination of information that had become so important with the start in 1972 of MAPs with their fliers and documentation as discussed in the previous chapter.
In the late 1990s, travel and communication has become faster and cheaper than ever before, with vast data banks of cultural history, accessible in libraries; interlibrary loans; off-air television and radio; video; CD Rom and now the Internet. The inevitable result of this availability has been eclecticism and no longer the insistence and reliance on the highly personal and hand-crafted objects that epitomised the early phase of mailart. By the 1980s, the urge to test the parameters of systems had been lost with the social and political conservative backlash. Although there is little evidence of faith in the possibility of overturning establishment systems now, this could be said to have been replaced by the need for more global personal contact. Mailart since the beginning of the 1980s has centred on the accent changing from that placed in the 1960s and 1970s on the importance of conceptual mailartworks, to the 1980s importance of communicating with others, on a global scale. However, the shift away from the accent on art was for many networkers a crisis which needed addressing.
Although some networkers had met each other from the very beginnings of mailart, both informally and through Johnson's 'Meetings', there was no central organisation of meetings until 1985. Johnson's 'Meetings' had been very much New York based and had no agenda of furthering mailart, rather they were an adjunct to the rest of his creative work, almost in the form of performances.
By 1985, two Swiss networkers, Hans Rudi Fricker and Gnther Ruch had come to the conclusion that there was a need for mailartists to take stock and consider the future direction of mailart. They decided that rather than simply conducting debates through the mail, it would be much better for participants to meet-up in order to discuss mailart. Their idea of a congress was to encourage networkers to increase the level of their communication and furtherance of mailart by meeting each other and holding conferences to discuss aspects of networking. Fricker and Ruch's initial ambition for world-wide meetings of mailartists, had been a meeting in Switzerland for a 'Centralised correspon-dance' (referring to Johnson's 'Correspondance') but comments from networkers suggested the impracticability of this proposal, not least because of the impecunious situation of many networkers and it was agreed that a congress would be deemed to be held "wherever two or more mail artists meet to discuss networking concerns."8 An International Mailart Congress was born which overcame problems of distance and finance. Localised congresses, with a common agenda, disseminating their findings through the network being a much more practical solution than one centralised conference. The first Congress took place between 1st June and 1st October 1986 and involved 25 countries, 80 meetings and more than 500 participants.9 Whilst the diversity of participants meant that no conclusions could be drawn from the debates, the number of people involved indicates a considerable success in terms of the willingness of mailartists to meet in order to debate mailart. The Congress was, however, greeted by some as being against the spirit of mailart, which is by definition, 'A distance Concept.' Although Congress is a move beyond the activity of postal exchange, it does rely totally on the initial postal network contacts and the ready-made vehicle in the form of the network for dissemination of the planned meeting dates and locations. Congresses were urged to report the conclusions of their discussions to the two Swiss organisers and these reports were written-up by Ruch and subsequently printed and disseminated through the network.10
By 1992, Fricker and Peter Kaufmann, another Swiss mailartist, felt that there was a need for a further Congress, not simply to re-evaluate mailart but particularly to stress the importance of mailartists, whenever possible, consolidating their network relationships by meeting each other, in order to produce further understanding between peoples. Encouragement was given to delegates to debate International Network Culture and its future. Specifically, the change in the nature of mailart and the change in emphasis was debated, with particular reference to a broader approach to both networkers and the nature of the communication. This move was clearly signalling a) that mailart didn't have to be art based and b) that the communication didn't have to be by mail. The terms 'network' and 'networker' thus became more appropriate than mailart and mailartist.11 It is clear that there is not and cannot be a definitive network as such and the terms are used in the knowledge that - except by coincidence - no two mailartists will be in contact with precisely the same people so the word refers to the notion of all the participants in mailart at any one given time - this being impossible to document.
The 1992 Congress, entitled 'The Decentralised World-Wide Networker Congress' consisted of 180 meetings in over 24 countries through, USA.; Uruguay; Japan; Australia; Africa and Europe.12 As with the 1986 Congress, Fricker and Kaufmann co-ordinated and publicised the Congresses through the network and published the received reports of the meetings. As might be expected from mailartists, (one might even suggest, hoped) just as with the 1986 Congress, there was no consensus of opinion at all, with no conclusions to be drawn except the reaffirming of the health, importance and value of networking and the fact that so many networkers had met-up in so many places, enriching the lives of the participants, thus furthering the ideals of mailart of bringing about a greater understanding between peoples.
Whilst not all networkers have been in a position to become involved in Congress, there have been those also who have not wanted to, those for whom the great attraction of networking was communication at whatever level of intimacy at a safe distance.13
Fricker not only believed that mailartists should meet-up specifically for the Congress but also that they should look upon meeting each other as being important, independent of Congress. Fricker coined the word 'Tourism' in 1985, to describe his notion of developing mailart - beyond simply postal communication - to include networkers visiting each other.14 Networking had become more important than mailart: an acknowledged shift to the exchange being of primary importance. This was a time when people had begun to travel further afield for both their holidays and business and by the end of the decade was to include visiting Eastern Europe.
Articles published in mailart Zines and self published papers by networkers gave considerable encouragement to networkers to meet-up face-to-face instead of just through the mail. This was perceived by some as a pressure - as Bates had expressed - with the implication that it is easy to indulge in distant relationships and that the important and valuable thing to do was to cement those relationships through meeting. There was an implication that not visiting networkers was laziness. A number of mailartists began to tour and visit networkers in other countries on a regular basis, notably networkers from the wealthy countries, Japan and the USA. In some cases, that of Held Jr., for example, combining visits with giving lectures on mailart has been a method of funding their travelling.15 Whilst certain mailartists from the West have been able to spend a considerable amount of time travelling to meet their fellow networkers all over the world, financial and other constraints make this a privilege of the lucky few. For many people, even postal networking is not financially possible. The removal of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent ending of the control of the USSR over Eastern Europe, did not automatically mean that East Europeans were able to sustain participation in mailart, given the exorbitant rises in postal costs in some countries. Estonia is a case in point where one time prolific mailartist Made Balbat was obliged in 1992 to choose between food and stamps.16 The simple fact of inequality in financial circumstances will always prevent mailart becoming a letter of introduction to people to stay with for any but a minority of networkers. Whilst it is not essential that mailartists further their relationships with each other by meeting, it can only be perceived as a positive move in developing and strengthening relationships between people of different cultures, although the possibility of meeting resulting in a severing of even the postal relationship must be accepted.
In some instances the travelling has had specific purposes, and three projects are important in their demonstration of the potential of mailart networking to reach beyond the mail and to take-up concerns of world importance. The first was The International Shadow Project which was begun in 1982 by P.A.N.D. (Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament) of USA. to remember the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and to bring the consequences of nuclear war to the attention of the public at large. Mailart is an ideal vehicle for political protest and action, given the fact that it has a ready-made international network in place that can be harnessed for any purpose. The mailart network was used to disseminate the proposed project and resulted in the work simultaneously occurring in many North American and European cities.17 The action, which is now an annual event, takes place in the early morning of August the 6th (Hiroshima day) and consists of shadows being drawn in numerous public places (Plate 29). The lack of any text - simply shadows - reproducing the images that were all that remained of the people who were close to the epicentre of the bomb in Hiroshima, have provoked extensive media coverage and debate, both in art journals and newspapers.18 This common cause has brought together people from countries as far apart as USA (Held Jr.,) Italy (Ruggero Maggi) - both of whom have travelled to Japan for the action - and Japanese networkers. In this work, the efficiency of the network to organise action on an international scale without dictatorial demands is clearly evident.
Furthermore , the issues effecting peoples native to their country, for example Aborigines in Australia and Native Americans in USA have been addressed through mailart. In 1990, Dennis Banks, a Native American peace activist who had played a leading role in the 1973 battle of Wounded Knee on the Rosebud Indian Reserve in South Dakota, furthered the concept of networking through his project the 'Net Run'. This run was organised in conjunction with Japanese mailartists Shozo Shimamoto, Mayumi Handa and Ryosuke Cohen who collaborated with networkers in the different countries on the journey on performances and mailart shows. The 'Sacred Run' (Net Run) was a combination of performance, Tourism and politics, specifically a run for peace and health. Some of the participants travelled the entire distance, in relay, partly running and partly in the accompanying van, while others joined for part of the way. Banks 'ran' from London to Helsinki with Cohen, Shimamoto and Handa. Cohen and Shimamoto are particularly energetic tourists, Shimamoto being a sometime active member of the 1950s Gutai movement who having shaved his head uses it as a canvas for networker's creativity whether live in his Tourism or in networked photocopy 'add-ons'.19 The Run was accompanied by the work, of the seventy networkers that they met along the way, through the decorating of both Shimamoto's head and the van in which the Japanese travelled. The 8,000 km journey began symbolically on August the 6th (Hiroshima Day) and ended on September 5th., having begun in London and travelled through Paris August 8th; Kortrijk August 14th; Brussels August 15th; Cologne August 17th; Frankfurt August 18th; Kleinassen August 19th; Minden August 20th; Berlin August 21st; Wroclaw August 25th; Warsaw August 27th; Leningrad August 30th; Helsinki August 31st; Forsa September 2nd; Lapland September 3rd; Helsinki September 5th; finishing in Osaka September 6th. 1990. Net Run allowed networkers to meet each other directly, but more importantly, to draw the attention of the public to the message of peace and love. Banks explained the purpose of the run at every stopping point and mailartists met each other as well as the general public. This then is another example of how mailart has the ability to harness people across geographical divides, in a common purpose that is beyond that of networking mailart itself.
Thirdly and the most extraordinary example of Tourism, because of the time taken and distance travelled, was no more than visiting networkers in other countries, but in so doing was a demonstration of two people acting as a conduit between individuals.20 German networkers Peter Kstermann and Angela Phler, beginning in 1990, travelled 100,000 kilometers dressed as nineteenth century Postal Deliverers, visiting networkers and hand delivering 200 kilos of mailart between 350 mailartists. Kstermann and Phler documented each of the 4000 single pieces of mail that they delivered with a registration system using postage stamps (artistamps) and rubberstamp frankings which were designed and made with other networkers visited on the tour in an imitation of postal service validation of deliveries (Plate 30). This process was formalised under the banner, 'Net Mail' with Phler and Kstermann even changing their names to Peter and Angela Netmail.
Net Mail coincided with The Decentralised World-Wide Networker Congress in 1992, allowing Kstermann and Phler to join congresses with networkers at 170 meetings, having crossed 50 country borders. The Net Mail project took place over two years, beginning in Switzerland and travelling through Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. As well as meeting other networkers, Kstermann and Phler held exhibitions; gave slide shows on the history of mailart; performances; rubberstamp workshops and media interviews.
As an extension of mailart, these tours must be seen to be a very direct way of effecting others with artwork, as opposed to the traditional formal exhibition, even if they largely only met other networkers, nevertheless, travelling and meeting people face to face must bring about an even greater understanding between peoples than can be achieved by traditional mailart. Of particular importance was the brave visit by Kstermann and Phler to Serbia and Croatia during the Yugoslavian war, where they were able, simply by their presence, to demonstrate to ex-Yugoslavian networkers that they cared about what was happening to them. Yugoslavian mailartists had been critical of networkers unwillingness to respond to invitations to join them in their congresses.
These examples of Tourism, demonstrate the breadth of the nature of the changes that had undergone mailart and the reasons for the adoption of the word 'networking' in preference to 'mailart.'
4.5. Politics and Mailart.
Mailart has not concerned itself with politics per se but because of the varied interests of its participants, has been used by networkers to propound theories. These issues therefore, although not issues of mailart must be explored in order to give an overview of mailart's post Fluxus networking practice that opened-up beyond an interest in the process of the mail.
Mailart not only stretches across boundaries of geography and culture but also of class. Whilst 'Class War' is not a mailart issue, it is flown as a banner, most notably by some British, Finnish and Italian networkers. In Finland and to a large extent in Italy, this comes mainly from young disaffected males producing Fanzines and often playing in Neo-Punk bands. To a degree there has become an overlap of the mailart network with a similar one related to music - both exchanging of tapes and publishing fanzines - these are frequently associated with 'Anarchy' and 'Class War'. These overlaps have largely come about due to mailart chain letters being passed to participants in music networks. Mailart however, is separate from other networks in that it does not subscribe to a defined political ideal or age range, nor to an interest in a defined style of music. Where the networks of mailart and music have overlapped, some people working with music have worked in mailart, but rarely the other way round. Stewart Home, an English networker, has been the main proponent, in mailart, of 'Class War' as well as other politically motivated concepts, that I go on to discuss;- Neoism, Plagiarism, and The Art Strike (of these, Neoism has been most visible in mailart). Home's activity stretches across Punk (my term) novel writing, music, art and critical writing but they are all connected by his belief in a radical schism with everything that he considers to be the establishment, including Punk, which he sees as being the product of bored art school trained middle classes.21 As with British networker Stefan Szczelkun, with whom he has worked, Home's credo is positively in favour of what he refers to as a 'working class' art, demonstrated in his slogan, "Demolish Serious Culture" which he acknowledges that he plagiarised from the Fluxus artist Henry Flynt and saw as being both the creation and the preserve of the middle classes. Home sees art as being essentially a product of and for the Bourgeoisie:
"...rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society and which leads to an 'irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs'. This process posits 'the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated.'"22
'Class War' therefore existed as a desire on the part of its proponents to position themselves, and their work, as distinct from what they describe as the Bourgeoisie. The slogan, 'Class War' was used, among other things for badges, made by London mailartist, Mark Pawson. Whilst 'Class War' as I have said does not stand alone in mailart, it has underpinned the work of Home in fronting and adopting certain networking movements.
Mailartists themselves have vigorously and vociferously resisted the use of 'Isms' so prevalent in modernist art history. 'Isms' has been the subject of much comment through the network including Ryosuke Cohen's stickers 'NO ISM' (Plate 31). The dislike of 'Isms' on the part of networkers has not prevented the establishment of 'Isms' which have operated through the network: chief amongst these being Neoism and its offshoot, Plagiarism. Both these highly politicised 'movements' were launched and promoted through the network, using it to gather adherents and publicise the beliefs internationally. This usage of the mailart network can be seen to be non-networking (and therefore not mailart per se) as the non-interactive conceptual use of the mail system by artists already discussed. Whilst it is undeniable that these movements could be said to have been set-up for reasons of self-promotion, Neoism and Plagiarism both played the network through MAPs and the general eliciting of responses to and development of the idea, therefore citing themselves clearly within mailart practise.
Neoism, a deliberately nonsensical title is an open movement with deliberately contradictory multi-theories. It is anti-elitist and gives the participator complete artistic freedom to do whatevers/he wishes, with the one proviso that s\he must adopt the name Monty Cantsin or Karen Elliott23 and refer to him or herself as a Neoist. This then stands not for an artistic style, medium or subject matter, but requires the participant to forsake the egotism of authorship and therefore ownership. Neoism could be said to be a fusing of the principles of Fluxus and mailart but Neoists are also free to add to the mythical history and tradition of the movement as well as literally adding to it by their production of artwork - something that Maciunas would never have countenanced, let alone encouraged. The term Neoism, a pastiche of art movements, implies a looking back to an 'Ism' without any specifics. Neoism defied any possible interpretation as to what it stood for and as such belongs to the debate that took place around a redefining of art history.
An identified early proponent of Neoism was Istvan Kantor (b.1949) a Hungarian networker from Budapest who moved to Montreal, Canada in 1977 and in 1979 adopted the name Monty Cantsin, having met David Zack a Los Angeles networker who had proposed the idea of Neoism. The Neoist work of Kantor / Cantsin extends beyond mailart, including art and anti-art activities; graffiti; video installations; rituals and musical performances as well as the publication of the journal The Neo. For Kantor / Cantsin, the need to shock and outrage is central to his creativity and to that end his most extreme action, which took place in August 1988, consisted of his throwing six phials of his own blood onto a wall space between two paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and reading out a prepared statement protesting against gentrification of New York's Lower East Side.24 Since 1979, Kantor / Cantsin had been selling his blood as an art object in an attempt to finance his Neoist works.25This anarchic work takes on an extra significance since the identification of AIDS and the dangers surrounding human blood. Building on the idea of the New York loft artists who in the sixties and seventies held loft exhibitions, the Neoists, in 1980, adopted the idea, calling them Apartment Festivals. The first 'International Neoist Apartment Festival' (APT) took place in Montreal in 1980, and at least sixty four APTs have taken place since that date in North America and Europe.26 Neoism had an anarchic appeal to networkers and the banner was taken up and used by many mailartists for a period of time in the late 1980s, continuing into the 1990s.27
Home established the name 'Karen Eliot' as an open context in the summer of 1985, developing it initially into what he called the Neoist Alliance of which Plagiarism was an offshoot. The first Plagiarist manifestation was in January 1988 in London with a 'Festival of Plagiarism' devised and organised by Home in order to focus on what he referred to as the redundancy of serious culture, acknowledging and wishing to consolidate the work begun by Fluxus. Home claimed that Plagiarism (and multiple names) challenge western notions of identity and therefore property and ownership, an anti-capitalist revolutionary tool, considering it to be a positive creative technique. Home proposed an end to originality (for him, the false individualism of consumer society) as an important aspect of creativity and his theories centred on an encouragement to photocopy the work of other artists as a statement against capitalism, private property and the commodification of Fine Art.28 This was extended to music with a National Home Taping Day. Although there is a strong tradition of artists paying tribute to others by reworking existing artworks, it is quite different to the notion of copying as an appropriation and as an end in itself. Nevertheless, in reality because of imperfections of photocopying, images are almost always different to that that is being plagiarised: even if the photocopy were perfect, each new presentation of the work brings new meaning, given that it is presented in a new context. This concept is equally applicable to visual art and to zines where the reorganisation of texts into new relationships with others permits and prompts re-evaluation.
The Situationists had questioned plagiarism with the use of 'detournment', the integration of past artistic production in their work.29 More clearly, the appropriation work of artists in the 1980s such as Sherrie Levine particularly questions originality by highlighting the unacknowledged debt that contemporary artwork owes to the past. Plagiarism has taken the form of exhibitions; performances; films; videos; slide presentations; workshops; discussions and walks. Festivals since the first one in London, have taken place in San Francisco; Madison; Wisconsin and Glasgow.30 Although mailart shares a disapproval of elitism with Plagiarism, it is important to mailart only as a vehicle for Home to disseminate his ideas and publicise his activities and so a debate on the festival does not belong in this thesis. What remains in question is whether mailart, sharing the disapproval of elitism with Plagiarism, requires the theorising of Home, or whether, in spite of his beliefs, Home requires his theorising in order to construct his persona. Home claims ideology in terms of his hopes of changing the elitism of art, but it is highly questionable as to whether he is doing this, especially in comparison with the truly egalitarian mailart that he no longer indulges in to any great extent.
The work of Home that has received most publicity to date, was the declaration of 1990-1993 to be "The Years Without Art." Devising the 'Art Strike', was a natural follow-on from the Plagiarism festivals. 'The Art Strike' opened with a farewell speech at the I.C.A. in London in December 1989 and closed with a lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1993. In choosing these high profile and contrasting locations, Home can be argued to have appropriated the bastions of the establishment for subversive purposes. Home saw the Art Strike as a way to get people to consider why they produced art and for whom. Theoretically if nobody produces art for three years, the marketing system is severely affected, altering the status of art as commodity. The concept was first conceived by Home, in 1985, deliberately plagiarising the London based German artist, Gustav Metzger.31 Other precedents of art strikes exist, with the 1970 New York strike against war and the Polish strike against martial law.32 Home outlined his principals of the strike in his publication 'Art Strike Handbook', which was widely distributed through the network.33 This was a vital concept if he were to make his strike known to others, given the required artistic inactivity. Home called for a total withdrawal of all cultural activity but unlike Gustav Metzger in 1974, the strike for Home was centred around his interest in the need of the artist to produce work,
"What interests me is not the prospect of the artworld collapsing, but the challenge the cessation would make to my own - and any other artist's - identity". 34
Ironically however, during the Art Strike there was a coincidental sixty per cent drop in art sales and one in four of the West End galleries closed, no connection at all of course but a whimsical fact.
There was much debate about the 'Art Strike' in the network and it led to 'Art Strike' action committees being set up across the world, in particular in USA.35 In San Francisco there was a week long public discussion series with propaganda workshops and performances in early 1989, exploring the issues of the 'Art Strike', culminating in an orgy of art making. As well as forming committees, the Network appropriated the 'Art Strike' in many and diverse ways, for example, Mark Pawson's production of stickers and badges proclaiming 'The Years Without Art', naturally a self defeating activity given that the products could be argued to be art in themselves. Sometimes a contrary reaction was prompted as in Michael Leigh's 'Pretentious Drivel Strike' rubber stamps, stickers and badges, the latter also made by Pawson! Allegations were made by some in the network that the strike was largely Home's ego mania and lacked a convincing philosophical basis. In support of the Strike on the other hand, many publications, papers and works were produced world wide as well as debated in mailart zines and in the case of Chuck Welch an 'Art Strike Mantra, 1990-1993' audio cassette compilation of networkers' responses to the theme.
The 'Art Strike' also drew attention to the fact that not everyone is privileged enough to be able to consider themselves an artist or at the very least to be in a position in which their cessation of artwork would be noticed by anyone. This is not only an issue for individuals but also applicable to certain countries where there is no art market to be effected. This, by implication, raises questions about universality and the mailart network which I have addressed in the final chapter. Clearly there are major differences of socio-political experiences across the globe but this can be perceived as a strength of the network, in enabling a greater understanding of different situations with a perspective to acknowledge that many issues that may be perceived as being universal, are in fact parochial when seen from a global perspective. This is highlighted by reactions to the Art Strike, from networkers in other countries. For example, the response of Andrej Tisma, an (ex) Yugoslavian networker emphasises the difference between different cultures and its affect on perception of concepts.
"...but in Yugoslavia, the country where I am living and making art, an Art Strike would have no sense because:
1. There is no art market here yet.
2. Prices of artworks are so low that you don't sell at all. You make art for pleasure, philosophical and creative reasons.
3. We have only a few art critics and curators, and they have no power or influence upon artists.
4. You don't have to pay the galleries for having your own exhibition, but galleries pay you for that. Shows are not commercial at all, as alternative artists can exhibit in official gallery spaces.
5. The serious culture hardly exists here. It is repressed by the primitive peasant culture, so our aim is to develop and support culture here."36
What the debate of such issues in the network can do, is to alert artists in countries that have not yet acquired the trappings of art marketing in the West, to the problems that such apparently democratic systems can bring in terms of commodification of art.
Even if the Art Strike was a failure in ideological terms, it was nevertheless a networking success in that it generated considerable debate amongst mailartists.37 It also demonstrated the power of mailart to disseminate and discuss ideas world wide. A great deal of this debate took place at many of the 1992 mailart Congresses. The timing of the 1992 mailart Congress during the Art Strike, provided a ready subject for debate at many of the meetings. Whilst these issues have had enormous prominence in the network and have used the network to broadcast the beliefs, they are in no way central to the importance of mailart, but have been subject matter for mailart exchange and debate - by some networkers - for the duration of the interest that they engendered.
Since 1986, mailartists have entered into dialogue with each other as to their perception of what the practise should be, and although no conclusions have been drawn, the physical bringing together of mailartists, heralded a new era in mailart. For some networkers, mailart lost its appeal when photocopiers began to be used at the end of the 1970s and at the same time, large numbers of people began participating in mailart, signalling a shift from a potential defined group of people with similar interests, to a network of thousands of mailartists at any one time, selecting with whom they wish to exchange on the basis of mutual interests. The decision to hold Congresses, whilst not producing any decisions, strengthened the bonds between networkers, renewed enthusiasm for mailart and introduced the possibility of networkers travelling to meet each other rather than just communicating through the post. Whilst some mailartists have ceased to practice, there is a continuous and increasing flow of new networkers.
Congresses sowed the seeds of mailartists travelling to meet each other and enabled a broadening-out of mailart activities with, for example, USA and Italian networkers being able to travel to Hiroshima to join Japanese mailartists in the 'Shadow Project'. For some networkers, chiefly Stewart Home, the opening-up of the possible uses of mailart, enabled them to use it as a platform for the expression and dissemination of their political ideas. Whilst these political concepts have been widely publicised in the network, they have not, in any noticeable way, changed the face of mailart, rather mailart has been used as a vehicle for these ideas. This is not a problem for mailart as since the late 1970s, it has existed to be used as individuals choose. Mailart in the 1980s shifted from the largely conceptual influenced work of the 1960s and 1970s to an understanding of a much more open and fluid network of networks of people with varied interests.
The challenge for mailart at the end of the millennium is to survive as snail mail in spite of the exponential speed of the development of electronic mail and communications. It is also becoming increasingly important for mailart to define itself within an ever increasing number of networks and to reach out beyond the geographical areas so far reached. These issues are addressed, with an evaluation of mailart, in the final chapter.
1 V. Oisteanu, 'Illegal Mail Art (a poetic essay)', Franklin Furnace Flue, 4(3/4): 8, (Winter 1984)