CHAPTER 5 AN EVALUATION OF MAILART IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE 1990s.
In this final chapter, I identify mailart as it exists in the second half of the 1990s and consider its critical position in relationship to other networks and manifestations of art. Having established the importance of mailart - as a practice - I have considered its future, particularly in the light of the potential of the various forms of electronic mail that already exist as another form of exchange within mailart networking.
5.2. Identifying Mailart in the Second Half of the 1990s.
As a strategy for redefining mailart, I examine the situations in which it could not exist and consider what is fundamental to its continuation. It is impossible to practice mailart alone unlike painting for example, albeit that it can be argued that paintings are incomplete without an audience. Whilst it could be assumed that mailart could be produced pending the possibility of it being posted, mailart is not the production of work to send, but the interaction between two people within the mailart network.1 Mailart therefore requires a specifically targeted recipient or the network as a whole.2 This understanding needs clarification. I have argued that mailart exists as a system of exchange and will now identify how that system operates. A reasonable expectation on the part of a new mailart networker is that having sent something to someone s/he will receive a reply from that person. Often more specifically they expect that having sent a response to a MAP they will receive a reply and documentation. The likelihood is that they will receive both, but not in the way in which letter writing to friends, relatives or business letter writing is conducted, that is to say on a one-to-one reciprocal process, whereby the initiator waits for a response before taking further action. Whilst inevitably there is expectation, mailart is primarily a network that is 'played' by the participants and in this respect it has not changed since Johnson's early orchestrations. Mailart does not operate in a process of reciprocity, rather mailart is putting energy into sending mailart to people who operate within the network and receiving mailart in return, though not necessarily from the same people on a reciprocal basis. The important understanding here is that what constitutes a mailartist has changed: whereas in the late 1950s, it was being part of the NYCS that defined a mailartist and in the late 1960s and 1970s, exploring the postal system identified a mailartist, in the late 1990s it is the deliberate and knowing participation within the mailart network, regardless of what that sending is, that constitutes mailart. This is in no way to decry or deny the value of one-to-one mailart, but to identify that one-to-one relationships are a function of the network, not the fundamental principle. Therefore to identify and discuss an individual item of mailart has no validity in terms of understanding mailart, because mailart is the totality of exchanges through the network. Although the whole is made-up of elements, they are precisely that, analogous to individual pixels being considered to be artworks rather than, or as well as, the entire picture. The individual elements have no value or meaning in themselves, they only acquire meaning and therefore value, when viewed as part of the whole (network).
A tranche of mailart could for example be: A in England, sending an envelope to B in Japan, that had been recycled, having been received from W in Belgium, with the addition of rubberstamps by A and an artistamp received from X in France. This envelope might contain an Add-to and Pass-on that had been received from Y in Canada and worked on by Z in Brazil as well as A, having been originally generated by B. A, might also include his/her own Add-to and Pass-on booklet with a request to send it on to C in Australia and the inclusion of a flier for a MAP generated by D in Estonia. This hypothetical sending, consists of; an A4 envelope containing one A4 sheet of paper (the Add-to and Pass-on sheet), one A6 six page booklet (the Add-to and Pass-on booklet) and one A6 sheet of paper (the flier). This tranche would involve eight people from eight different countries for the minimum postal rate. In terms of networking, this exchange would have to be deemed a success in terms of the number of people involved but would be subject to the way in which B responded to it as to whether it was entirely successful. If B is inspired by the flier and sends something to D and having worked on the Add-to and Pass-on booklet, sends it on to C, and sends something to Y and Z to thank them for their contribution to the Add-to and Pass-on sheet, as well as replying to A, and maybe recycling the envelope, the transaction could be said to have had maximum effect at that stage. Although my hypothetical illustration is of an exchange through the mail, it is no longer essential to use the mail to interact through the network (practice mailart), this can be (and is) carried-out through all other communications mediums for example, electronic mail (which I discuss below).
The nomenclature Mailart, firmly situates the activity within an art practice framework and differs from the other postal based networks that I have given as examples in that it neither limits itself to any one agenda nor relates to fashion (as for example with Post-Punk Zine and music networks which are both limiting - by their own definitions - and strongly related to fashion). Mailart does not preclude the participation of people from other networks, so that, for example, someone working in a music network may stumble on mailart unknowingly and may find that they have a place in it, perhaps passing-on the more visually based things received. A participant in mailart would probably contribute to MAPs, zines and assembling zines, Add-tos and Pass-ons, in other words work collaboratively as well as producing his or her own work. Although much of the work may be visual, it is more likely to be produced by collage and/or rubberstamps rather than the traditional skills of drawing and painting and need not be visual at all, with a text based response being totally acceptable. The use of text in mailart however may simply be a letter or hand written message, with no acknowledgement of either Concrete Poetry or Fine Art Image & Text work and therefore not in any sense perceived by the generator as Fine Art.
Mailart in the late 1990's, therefore, is exchange within the mailart network that has historically grown-out of 'mailart.' The network is tangibly indefinable and cannot be seen as a series of defined, overlapping networks that individuals are working within. Whilst each networker will have his/her own address list, this is not the extent of their individual networking activity because of the tendency of recipients to pass-on anything received and so constantly increase the number of participants in the individual's network. The notion of discreet networks could only hold good for any one frozen moment and serve no meaningful purpose, it is more accurate to consider that there is one total, constantly changing network of participants, within which each individual is operating.
Having identified mailart, it is important to evaluate it. As I have argued, mailart can only be considered in terms of the network as a whole - rather than considering individual mailart works - and this can only be accomplished by considering the concept.
5.3. A Comparison of Art and Mailart in the Second Half of the 1990s.
In order to evaluate mailart, it is necessary to make a comparison with art as it exists outside the mailart network in terms of expectations, intentions and destinations.
The artist can usually be said to be working towards a destination for his/her work, that is to say that if it is not a commission, there will be hopes of a sale, whether private or to a gallery. The situation changes slightly if the artist does not produce work that is easy to display in a domestic situation. If an installation or performance is produced, the work will usually be available for any member of the public to view. In the case of an installation the viewing is followed by the work being dismantled and then destroyed or retained by the creator, except in the unusual situation of it being purchased by a museum or collector with large storage and or exhibition space. The work may have been the subject of a grant or commission for production of the work and will be documented, either to provide evidence of past work in applications for future commissions and/or as saleable by-products. By comparison the producer of mailart knows that his/her work has no potential to generate financial income and may be destroyed or recycled by the initial or subsequent recipient. In other words, the artist produces work for commodification of the tangible product whereas the mailartist produces it in the hope of making some kind of connection with another individually targeted person or the 'entire' network. However, although there is no direct identifiable financial gain for the producer of mailart, there are other benefits to be considered, not least of which is the 'five finger exercise' aspect of mailart practice. The transitory nature and sheer quantity of mailart - that the average networker receives - prompts an immediate rather than ponderous response - but nevertheless an appropriate one - and therefore becomes a mental exercise, sharpening-up the aesthetic responses that can feed other practice, whether of art or otherwise. In the case of both the artist and the mailartist, there is the same potential for rewards in terms of the personal firsthand experience of creativity, and also the hope of communicating that creativity to another person.
Whilst any individual item or element of the received mailart 'work' may be appreciated by the recipient in the same way as a work of art, that situation is incidental to the more important one of the benefits to be gained by a continuing and developing mailart exchange. With the sale of a painting for example, it is safe to assume that the owner will put it on his/her wall or give it as a present to a third party who will put it on his/her wall. In some cases, the work will be stored in a bank vault for safe keeping. These situations are clear statements of approval, signalled by the financial reward of the sale and the conspicuous display or precious bank vault storing. The reasons for the transaction taking place however are complex and may well not signify approval of the artistic merit but simply a recognition of the anticipated investment value and/or status conferred upon the purchaser by the conspicuous ownership of the work of a particular artist who is valued in a certain way at a certain time. From the point of view of the purchaser, durability of materials, appeal and above all of financial value is important in order that the investment is protected, with the hope that the work will pay dividends as both a financial and a cultural status investment - rather than begin to decay in any sense of the word. The work also confers status on the owner (and even the viewer) in terms of their perceived intellect and status in understanding the work, their financial status to be able to afford to own the work and/or the social savoir faire to visit an exhibition or a museum. In contrast, the individual mailart work is intrinsically transient in that to isolate it from the network is to destroy it. The recipient - being also a mailartist - must recycle the work or by archiving it, confine it to the status of a relic that is out of context. There is neither financial investment nor cultural status to be gained from mailart, the value of mailart is in the total experience of networking rather than the charms or financial value of any individual piece of work that may be removed from its context of the exchange.3 For many artists, the intention, the purpose of making work is to share their ideas with their viewers, however, unlike with mailart, this is not essential and unless it is work for a commission, is not directed at a specific individual and involves no equality of response (if any). Even if the artist receives feedback, for instance at a Private View, the exchange of ideas will usually take place with the work as the reason for the debate, rather than being the carrier of the debate itself. This is to say that the purpose of mailart is to convey a sense of a position in the world, related to other fellow human beings, unlike an artist's one person show, which will be viewed in the context of the artist's oeuvre. The presence of the artist also creates unequal status between him/her and the viewer who will engage the artist in debate centred around his/her work, as opposed to the equal status of sender and receiver in mailart, in that both are equal practitioners, playing equal roles: there is no hierarchical artist and viewer situation. The reciprocal mailart relationship - with one to one feedback - also gives the mailartist a clearer understanding of how his/her work is received, than is possible for the artist for whom evaluation is frequently confused with marketability. Feedback in networking is not a prerequisite - not least because evaluation is not part of networking - but is - if in no other way - evident from the quality of the response. In other words, if a recipient does not relate to what they have received, they will be unlikely to send anything in return that is of any great interest or importance to them. Mailart places value on the quality of the relationship between networkers and the greater understanding of human nature (mediated by the mailart), rather than placing value on the material object/s that is/are exchanged.
There is no intermediary between the mailart that the networker sends and its receipt by the fellow networker, save that of the evident vagaries of the postal system. The envelope and recipient's desk become equivalents of the art gallery and literally the physical support for the work. The method of approaching the work is not mediated, directed or controlled in any way by a third party. It is important to establish that, with no gallery presentation, - I have argued that the exhibiting of MAPs is not mailart - there is neither imagined, received or directed social status, nor barrier, to the viewing of the work. The artist produces work for a known, or at least predicted, coterie of cogniscenti, or even simply for him/herself. The networker knows precisely to whom s/he is sending the work (unless it is deliberately to an unknown person, in which case s/he sends in the knowledge that it is to a fellow networker - I examine this possibility below). The sender expects that the sending will remain with the recipient, unless destroyed, or the recipient will forward it in the belief that the new recipient will appreciate it.
For the mailartist, the postal system can be seen to be analogous to the canvas and stretcher of the painter. This is to say that neither have any meaning or message in themselves, but both are essential to the production of the work. The envelope and its contents can be seen as an equivalent of an installation, both having several elements that make-up the total work and both being a kind of assemblage as I have described in my hypothetical sending at the start of this chapter. It should also be observed that the 'gallery' for mailart is not just the recipient's desk and or subsequent MAP exhibition/s but the journey that the sending takes from sender to receiver and therefore all the handlers between: that is the postal worker emptying the post box; the postal sorter at the dispatch end; the postal sorter at the receiving end and the deliverer (who may be the same person). In the case of the artist's postcard, all these postal workers have the opportunity to view the entire work and in the case of the work contained within an envelope or package, they will view any information, messages and decoration on the envelope and the deliverer will have a sense of the quantity and geographical spread of the individual recipient's mail. The exception to this is the HM Customs and Excise officer who so often experiences the entire (mailart) contents of packages entering Britain - particularly from Holland - in execution of his/her job, gaining a gratuitous experience of receiving, opening and possibly enjoying a mailart sending. The mailart sender, however, has no guarantee that the work will even arrive, (be seen by anyone in the network, as opposed to postal workers). Whilst it is to be expected, at least in the West, that the mailartwork will arrive at its intended destination, the only way of knowing that it has arrived is by the recipient sending notification of its arrival to the sender. In this event, the sender cannot be certain that it has arrived in the intended state (without damage or accidental markings) but unlike the installation maker, the mailartist cannot, and has no wish to, maintain control over the appearance and viewing of his/her work. Nevertheless, it is only in exceptional cases that the mailartist consciously works with the potential vagaries of the postal journey and process,4 the usual situation is to work with an acceptance of the outcome. This highlights that in relinquishing control over his/her work, the mailartist signals the importance of participation over all other considerations.
In a constantly expanding network, the sender often despatches mailart to a name and address that is new to him/her, so that s/he has little or no knowledge as to whether the sending will be appreciated at all, except as I have said that s/he believes that the recipient is a mailartist and therefore can be presumed to be operating within that known context. Similarly the recipient has little control over what s/he receives. By comparison, it is self evident that the purchaser (or recipient) of a painting will have acquired it because they value it in some way, and therefore wish to preserve it. The recipient of the mailart sending does not approach the tangible 'work' in the same way and has choices as to what to do with the received mailart. Occasionally, a part of the received work may be framed and hung on the wall, aping the traditional response to a work of art, but this is to ignore the fact that it is not a work of art, but a fragment of mailart and as such, usually not intended to be hung. In any event, the mailart sending exists in its entirety, that is to say that it is not intended that just as I have argued that individuals items should not be discussed, similarly it is not intended that the contents of the sending will be separated from each other or from their status as mail-transmitted art. This would be akin to exhibiting a single stone from a Richard Long stone circle installation, although in both cases it could be said to be giving it the elevated status of a relic, in the case of the Long, it would have the added status of being 'A Richard Long', whereas in mailart the name of the sender has no status. The possible exception to this is Ray Johnson, but it is not possible to be certain whether on the one hand this is because Johnson has some status as result of his 1950s proto Pop Art work and creation of the NYCS or on the other hand would be worthless because it is 'only a piece of Johnson's mailart'. In the latter case, it would bring into question whether this was a question of uniqueness (in that Johnson produced a considerable quantity of mailart over his forty years networking - quantity resulting in devaluing -) or whether it was simply a comment on the perceived worthlessness of mailart, regardless of who generated it. Although the sender assumes that the received work will not be framed, but will be appreciated as an element in the total concept of the mailart network, s/he sends in the knowledge that even if the work is received, it might well be thrown away (deliberately or accidentally) by the recipient who does not appreciate it at all and perhaps considers it to be unsolicited or even believes that destruction of the work emphasises the importance of the communication over the tangible evidence (record) of that communication. The mailartist produces and sends his/her work in the knowledge of this possibility, and in the realisation of the possibility of the work being recycled. With the awareness of these possibilities, it follows that the mailartist operates from a basis of different motives to those of the artist who can safely predict that his/her work will be preserved.
What is common to both artist and mailartist is the wish to produce something. Beyond that point, it is not safe to make assumptions of similarities. In the case of the mailartist, as I have stated, the work might not even be visual beyond its physical presence, that is to say that it might be a written message and in any case is not necessarily perceived by either the producer or the receiver as art and this is the important shift that I have identified, from mailart of the 1970s to networking in the 1990s. In both cases the need to produce, results in an end product, but for the mailartist that product is only an element in the artwork (that is the network) and is used to mediate in a relationship within the network, rather than to stand alone as a piece of artwork. Mailart produced by the networker has only this purpose: the mailart product is the relationship, not an envelope and/or its contents. While, for the artist, the production of the work may in itself satisfy all his/her needs and there may not be a need to share the work with others, by definition, the mailartist needs to communicate: it might be argued that this should also be the aim of the artist but there is no compunction on him/her to do so.
The intentions and results of the activities of the artist and mailartist are therefore radically different, with the two operating from different motives and with different end products. I have argued that in mailart there is no tangible end product and that it is the participation that is important (and therefore the participation that is the artwork). It follows that to most artists, mailart cannot be considered to be art, not least because there is no tangible end product, nevertheless there is a debate as to the definition of art.
5.4. Is Mailart Art?
"Fortunately, everything is still not wholly categorized in terms of buying and selling... We posses more than a tradesman morality... One likes to assert that they [art objects] are the product of the collective mind as much as of individual mind."5
Although mailart may not be perceived as art by many artists, there are theorists - for instance Marcel Mauss, quoted above - from whose writings it can be seen that they would categorise mailart as art. Mailart, having no end product and being a network, fits in with Marcel Mauss' description of art as the product of society. Although both would acknowledge mailart as art, Mauss' perception of art is somewhat different from the theories of Joseph Beuys who saw art and society as being synonymous.
Although Beuys did not write specifically about mailart, he was a prominent participant in Fluxus and also at one time practised mailart, but more important - to understanding mailart in terms of art - are the theories that he propounded in the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst in the late 1990s, Beuys theories are an inherited set of concepts, they remain applicable in the recognition that art is something more than a tangible product, as I will argue. For Beuys, art - specifically he used the word 'sculpture'- is a metaphor for society and vice versa: "He / she is the creator of the SOCIAL SCULPTURE, and it is on human scale."6 - in effect focusing on inherent creativity and the value laden comparisons of for example, business (perceived as not being creative) and art (perceived as being creative). Beuys claimed that each person is "a creative being."
"Every man is a plastic artist ... A total work of art is only possible in the context of the whole society ... The isolated concept of art [education] must be done away with, and the artistic element must be embodied in every subject, ..."7
Caroline Tisdall sees Beuys intention as a widening of the concept of art in which "The whole process of living itself is the creative act ... thinking, talking, performing, teaching - and above all living, which all of us do - can be seen as a process of moulding or sculpting: Social Sculpture."8 Beuys theory - by dismissing the privileging of certain individuals being artists - fits well with mailart networking, as does the denial of art as the only creative activity. This sits unhappily within the art history canon because it denies the necessity for something visible, the situation that mailart has reached of the artwork being the network, instead of a visible product. Mailart networking therefore, as a whole - whilst having little in common with art - following Beuys, can clearly be categorised as art, although Beuys - by including everything as art - denies any meaning to the word in that it ceases to describe a category separate from any other. Mauss by comparison, retains the category 'art' as distinct from other activities but broadens its meaning and the base on which it is produced, permitting mailart to be included.
There is very little critical writing on whether mailart can be categorised as art or not, although, Jean-Marc Poinsot's introductory essay in the 1971 Paris mailart show catalogue addresses the issue.9 It is important however to realise that this was written at a time when mailart was still exploring the postal system, rather than the networking of the late 1990s, and so the text has only certain relevance. Poinsot makes reference to Mauss, having identified mailart as "... a system of exchange ... outside of or parallel to traditional art circles ..."10 He poses the question: "whether our subject [mailart] is of artistic value" and answers it with "Mauss's definition of art as whatever a given group recognises as such."11 Poinsot is not addressing the question as to whether mailart is art or not - presumably this is taken as read - but looking at the quality of the work. In any event, the text is related to mailart of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and claims mailart as art because, "...it does not appear to us that the subject is open to controversy, for despite the multiplicity of ideologies and terminology, the social and cultural status of the artist is inherent in each of the various artists under consideration."12 This text was written when - as I have established - there was a considerable number of established artists who were exploring mailart, many of the participants in the Paris exhibition falling into this category. Poinsot's text therefore, whilst firmly placing mailart as art, was written at a time when mailart had a different agenda to the networking of the late 1990s and could gain credibility on the strength of the reputations of the participants. Mailart fits into the category 'art' as argued by Mauss, Poinsot and Beuys but it is to the theories of Beuys that mailart belongs, albeit that categorisation of mailart is of purely academic interest and of no importance to the continuation of the mailart network.
The title of this thesis, 'Democratic Art as Social Sculpture' is clearly taken from Beuys' belief in art being a democratic activity, which mailart unquestionably is as I demonstrate and because of the broad geographical and cultural base on which it operates, mailart is also undoubtedly a social activity. Beuys' use of the word 'sculpture' fits very well with the 'art' in mailart being the network as opposed to a given mailart product. Mailart is not a static work of art and could be seen to be a forty-plus year old 'event', but this word, being situated firmly in the 1960s is not applicable. 'Sculpture' gives a solidity to the concept of networking, hence a Social Sculpture.
5.5. The Need for a Mailart Network.
The continuance of mailart for more than forty years proves a need in the participants, but as I have argued this need is in the context of different motives to those of the artist. Establishing what the need is will lead to a better understanding of mailart as a whole and thus to an evaluation of networking in the late 1990s.
From a negative point of view, the mailart network has established attitudes to art that draw the participants together in their wish to distance themselves from what is perceived to be commodification and false (financial) valuing of art. Inevitably, some artists will have turned to mailart because they have not been able to achieve the success that they had hoped for in terms of exhibitions. For these artists, mailart provides a vehicle for their creativity and the potential to feel aligned to a network of people in opposition to the system (gallery) that they see as having failed them. There are however, also networkers who pursue both art and mailart - generally managing to prevent either corrupting the other - demonstrating that it is possible to embrace both ideologies.
From a positive point of view, the pursuit of mailart, implies a recognition of the value of networking as a reason for and method of producing and distributing - and therefore sharing - work without providing any financial income. The motivation may be ideologically perceived as eschewing the placing of financial value on artistic production in conjunction with fashion and fame and concern at art targeting an audience of middle class art lovers to the exclusion of others. Whilst I have stated that mailart does not produce work to be sold, it is not so easy to prove that mailart is not the sole preserve of middle class art lovers, even with the aid of a survey. My Archive of Mail Artists survey (Appendix E) looks at the age range of networkers but although it shows that there are networkers under the age of 16, this is not evidence as to whether they are young art lovers, or the children of art lovers and therefore atypical. Similarly the fact that of 291 replies to the question on income source, under the age of retirement, 34 were unemployed and 22 had unskilled jobs (nearly 20% in total) gives no indication as to whether these respondents are either artists on Income Benefit or artists funding their work by doing a menial job. However, the overlap with other networks that I have discussed, notably the Post-Punk and Anarchy networks in conjunction with the presence of 'Classwar' within mailart, strongly suggests that the participants are not all middle class, gallery going, art lovers. Evidence in the form of widely differing approaches to responses suggests that there is a broad cultural range of networkers as well as the proven broad age range and broad geographical spread, providing a catholic experience for the participants (see Appendix E).
I have argued the importance of mailart to East European Networkers, pre 1989 and whilst it may be expected that the radical geopolitical changes since the late 1980s, particularly in Eastern Europe - resulting in easier travel between countries especially from East to West - would lessen the need on the part of the East Europeans for mailart, this is not the case. As I have identified, one of the most important aspects of mailart for East Europeans before 1989 was the possibility of finding-out from an individual in the West - rather than censored East European media information - what was happening in the West. This is no longer the problems that it was - particularly with satellite television - but with the borders being open and censorship not so stringent, there is now the real possibility for East Europeans to be a part of the West - rather than simply observers - thus giving East to West communication a very different emphasis. Learning about the West is no longer cause for envy and longing but can now be a prelude to firsthand experience. For an East European, practising mailart has lost its frisson of danger from the censors, but retains its importance as information exchange. For the Westerner, the situation is quite different, initially there was novelty value (because of unfamiliarity) in being able to communicate with someone from Eastern Europe, now it is possible to travel in Eastern Europe without much difficulty, creating further reason for wishing to understand East Europeans better. Historically there has been a contrast between the isolation of the individual in the Capitalist-Materialist West and the working together of the individuals in the East against the perceived common 'enemy' of Communism. This polarity is changing fast as Eastern Europe moves rapidly towards Capitalist-Materialism and isolationism spreads.13 As the East and the West become so similar that it becomes difficult to tell them apart - highlighted by the influx in Eastern Europe of satellite television and U.S.A. fast food outlets - there will be a new purpose for mailart between them. The mailartist - who, by devoting time, energy and money to (non-profit making) mailart demonstrates that s/he considers that there are things other than materialism that are important to him/her - will need to spread his/her net farther afield to find like-minded spirits.
As I have stated, the existence of mailart is proof of the need for it. This need can be summed-up as the wish to share experiences and understanding with sympathetic people beyond their immediate environment.
5.6. The Importance of Mailart.
The first task in evaluating something must be to establish with regard to what and in what way it is to be assessed. I have established that mailart is not important in the context of Fine Art in the sense of exhibitable end products, and it is highly unlikely that the postal services would consider mailart to be important to them. The task, therefore, is to locate where the importance lies and to whom. I have stated that with mailart, both sender and receiver are the same person (in that they both are both senders and receivers) and therefore have equal importance and so it follows that mailart only directly affects the participants. Importantly, it can be argued that any effect on any one individual will in turn be passed-on by that individual to others, indirectly, beyond the immediate area of effect. This argument is the sociological defence of art in that, for example, Mark Rothko's work is perceived as being unapproachable by the majority of the public - it is only a small minority who enter galleries - and therefore only preaching to the converted. However, it is to be hoped that the cognoscenti will be moved by the experience of Rothko's work to do 'good works' for the disadvantaged members of the public. Thus, Rothko (indirectly) helps the disadvantaged.
Mailart - being the communication of identity through a low cost medium - provides the opportunity to feel, and be, a part of the world and helps transcend the feelings of isolation and alienation. It gives the knowledge - discovered and established - that you are not alone in your thoughts and beliefs and that despite cultural differences, similar emotional feelings are experienced all over the world. While the world is rapidly being shrunk by giant conglomerates giving an impression of corporate universality, mailart gives first hand accounts of other countries and cultures rather than the simulacrum that is readily available through electronics and the media. With such an enormous network, the chance of not finding like minds is extremely remote indeed. The practice of mailart being a creative act also satisfies inner impulses without significant compromise: it does not have to be time consuming or costly and the practitioner is free to create (and send) whatever s/he wishes. Mailart is a network of equality - provided that participants can afford a postage stamp - enabling participators to exchange work with people from all over the world with no fear of rejection (unlike with a juried exhibition) and no intermediary. Mailart by being open to anyone removes art from a position of privilege.
Although I have argued that exhibitions of mailart are not what they purport to be (no longer mailart), it is important to examine this method by which so many people experience mailart, and the value that it nevertheless has for the viewer. Although the visitor may not necessarily consider that what they are looking at is art (in the understanding of art that they are familiar with) and probably will not have been aware of mailart, the variety of media and approaches presented, creates an interest that the average art exhibition may well not provide for many people. In mailart, the range of work - on a given theme - in terms of variety of responses, media, technique, languages of text and especially the international breadth, instantly gives an opportunity for the viewer to escape from parochialism. A mailart exhibition could incidentally open-up the potential on the part of the viewer for a new understanding of art as a forum for debate rather than simply as decoration for the wall. Whilst the work (exhibition) has ceased to be mailart, it nevertheless signals the richness of response that can be elicited from the network and may encourage the viewer to consider the importance, and relevance to them of communicating with others in this way.
To the viewer who is unfamiliar with mailart - because it is frequently mundane in its form and media - the network could easily be seen to be elitist and self indulgently revelling in an extreme area of self expression. However, although inevitably that criticism could be levelled at some networkers, every pursuit includes time-wasters and producers of indifferent work. The difference with mailart is that there is no selection process before it is received. Most of all - the network not being owned or controlled by anyone - permits the networker dictates his/her own terms. Whilst it is undeniable that finance is always a governing factor, the networker is free from all other constraints except those of the postal system, however ingenuity often transcends the natural constraints of systems both financial and postal. With so many networkers at any one time and the temptation to try and reach as many as possible, it could well be imagined that the quality of the 'work' produced (albeit that this is a secondary product) and/or the quality of the communication would decline but as the quality of the response usually relates to the quality of the sending, there is a natural tendency for an escalation of quality rather than the opposite.
The method of producing mailart is another way in which mailart is an equaliser and therefore a further example of its importance. Mailart lends itself to a desktop or kitchen table activity using compartmentalised time and minimal resources of any sort. This relates both to debates about gender and the privilege of wealth as well as to Beuys' argument that everyone is an artist. The traditional problems of archetypal housewives/mothers trying to find time and space in which to work as artists at the same time as looking after children are no longer confined to women now that traditional roles - mother at home, father at work - are no longer the norm. Mailart provides a solution to the difficulty of being an artist at the same time as looking after a family as British artists Kate Walker and Sally Gollop recognised in 1975 by sending each other artworks through the post when Gollop was living in the Isle of Wight and Walker in London, both involved in domestic tasks. This exchange was soon extended to include other friends and the group became known as Feministo. As with mailart in general, the group-generated projects were ultimately exhibited.14 Although Feministo belongs to the 1970s, it nevertheless is helpful to understanding many of the strengths of mailart in the late 1990s. The idea of Feministo was based on being able to work in small fragments of time, often in a restricted space, perhaps on a kitchen table and maybe even with interruptions. Roziska Parker describes Feministo as being '...a life line for trapped women.'15 Whilst Feministo - operating through the post in 1975 - was not an original idea, what is of particular interest is the writing about it at that time because of the rationalisation of the significance of the 'Postal Event.' Significantly, there is no mention of mailart in the writing, possibly because of the date that it was written, when mailart was still associated with the male led NYCS (Johnson) and male led Fluxus (Maciunas). This is not to suggest a total rejection of men on the part of the group and its documentors but that these men - Johnson and Maciunas - very much perceived their work as being art and therefore situated in the problematic traditions of male dominated practice.16 Whilst this thesis is not about gender issues, the gender based praxis of Feministo clearly highlights the shift of mailart to networking, that I argue is the essential importance of mailart in the late 1990s. Parker argues that the 'Postal Event' "undermines ... the idea of the isolated genius ... by revealing the collective basis of inspiration ... art practice becomes a living process - more of a dialogue."17 This follows Mauss's assertion that art is "...the product of a collective mind..." Phil Goodall, describing the process of working that Feministo used, accurately describes the manner of working as a mailartist in the late 1990s:
"each person replies to the art-work she has received by making either an image / object that reflects something of her perspective on life, or that responds directly to the image she has received ... the strain of being creative is removed from the individual and begins to become a bit more collective."18
Goodall also refers to the 'postal event' "consciousness raising"19 through the method of working, highlighting the shift away from belief in the supremacy of the individual. Monica Ross writes "False standards, ethics and competition, combine to isolate all artists and to inhibit the development of meaningful communication"20 thus summarising the ideology of mailart practice in opposition to art in the late 1990s. Goodall comments in a similar way, "immediacy is important to many of us, making things to do with what is happening now"21 adding the view, relevant to mailart, that immediacy of response has its own importance and that communication and art is not only about deliberation, but at the same time, that is not to say that it cannot be a lifeline for spiritual needs. In the same writing Goodall goes on to question "is the postal event art? ... it seems irrelevant ... it's visual communication" This is precisely my view: to reiterate, whilst the NYCS and Fluxus mailart was art and subsequent conceptual mailart works were also art, the importance of mailart has always lain elsewhere and this is the essence of networking in the late 1990s, as discussed by the writers on Feministo. If mailart networking is important and Feministo was considered to be so important to the participating artists, it raises the question as to why Feministo has not continued. The answer must lie partly in the shifting domestic situation and career aspirations of the participants, particularly in the changing society in the 1980s but possibly more interestingly in that networking is a vehicle for confidence boosting, and that having achieved its aim, can be dispensed with by some people.
The usual size of mailart work (A4 or smaller) is critical to understanding the way in which it is received/viewed by the receiver. The size of mailart relates it to reproductions of art because it can be argued that art is most often experienced in the home, library or book shop, rather than in a gallery, thus making it an armchair experience, as is mailart. Although still an armchair experience, the method of receiving information is rapidly changing with Virtual Reality galleries on CD Rom, Internet and the promise of VR itself in the future (I have addressed this issue in the subsequent section of this chapter). John Berger emphasises the confusion of reality and reproduction and the problems of uniqueness.22 Whilst most people in Western Europe have heard of the Mona Lisa and most of them know what the painting looks like, for the vast majority of them this awareness is from a photograph which may even have been cropped to fit a postcard. Their experience, view (literally) of art is at postcard or VDU size, format and resolution. This knowledge leaves the artist with two choices, either to continue working in whatever way s/he wishes - but in the knowledge that if s/he becomes well known, the work will mostly be seen in reproduction, or to work with reproductions as the medium, e.g. postcards or the Internet, the media of mailart.
An examination of the exchange that is mailart will throw further light on the value of mailart. Although the practice of mailart can be seen in terms of a complex system of gift exchanges, this is one that differs fundamentally from Marcel Mauss's view of gift exchange as 'Potlach' or institutionalised gift exchange whereby there is an accrued debt that gives social solidarity and can be paid-off, thereby terminating a relationship.23 Although the mailart network can be seen as the 'owner', the public distributor of the goods (the mailartwork) - in that whatever is sent is prey to the whim of the recipient to do whatever s/he likes with it including releasing it into the network once more - there is no perceived debt, unlike in 'Potlach,' not least because the mailartist is invisible, is simply an address, and therefore if s/he wishes to be so, anonymous. Similarly the 'Potlach' termination of a relationship because of paying-off a debt is not applicable, not just because there need be no perceived debt, but also because the relationship continues if there is sufficient incentive: in gift exchange terms, another transaction begins. it is important also to note that the nature of the gift, is not one that can easily be assessed, in that the value is measured in terms of the quality of the relationship itself, rather than the value of an object received. In mailart, there is no hierarchy of objects except in personal preference, given that it is not appropriate to evaluate the tangible product that is sent and received in mailart - because there is none that is to be valued - it is helpful to examine the way in which the informal system of exchange operates within the mailart network. The importance of the exchange is not the tangible and apparent gift, but something much more meaningful, if intangible. Exchange suggests that you value the gift that you will receive more than the one that you are giving, or that the gifts in themselves are unimportant and that it is the exchange itself which is valued. In gift exchange, there is a giver and receiver but in mailart the networker often sends to an unknown recipient in the belief that s/he exists, is still living at the given address and will receive and thus appreciate the gift. This principle can be extended to the more abstract notion of despatching something to an initial recipient with a request for her/him to send it on to persons unspecified (and therefore possibly unknown to the generator). This implies a belief in the importance of networking per se as opposed to being concerned about the importance of specific senders and receivers. Nevertheless, the sender must still dispatch something that is an indication of the kind of exchange relationship that s/he would like in return if s/he is to expect a suitable response. For the mailartist, the risk of working under false assumptions is an accepted gamble and sending to an unknown destination could be said to add a certain frisson to the sending. The sending will intrude into the life of the recipient, the mailart will be an uninvited guest, invading the privacy of the recipient. The decision then of the recipient to accept the gift (rather than return or destroy it) is essential if the exchange is to take place, and it is essential that the motivation for the acceptance is not based on perceived quality. This exchange of gifts therefore is a spiritual exchange, not one of financial or aesthetic equivalence. The old adage 'It's the thought that counts' being particularly applicable to mailart, although the degree of sensitivity of the thought will inevitably have an impact, in that some consideration of the perceived wishes, preferences, likes and dislikes of the recipient will be bound to impact on the degree to which the thought is appreciated. A key difference between the gallery exhibiting artist and the mailartist is that the mailartist, operating on the principle of exchanging gifts, sends (produces work) in roughly equal proportions to the amount that s/he receives. The artist by contrast has a one-way production, although the reciprocal for him/her is, hopefully, financial.
Sending an unsolicited gift could imply a philanthropic gesture but the mailartist will be trying to tempt the recipient to reply, by the suggestion of attractive rewards to come. S/he will only send in the hope of receiving in return. This might be perceived to be an arrogant gesture in that the sender assumes that the recipient will want to receive something from that sender. For the receiver, there is a tension between the pleasure of receiving and the feeling of unworthiness with an attendant concern about the ability to respond in a suitable way. Whilst the concept of world-wide dissemination of an individual's work and ideas through the network can also be seen to be the arrogance of self advertisement (taken to extremes by Cavellini) it must be balanced by the timidity of the preference for distance communication and a rejection of the career building system of art marketing. In the unlikely event of the receiver being critical of the sender, the sender is able to console him/herself with the knowledge that the criticism comes from a 'distant', 'never met' person. If, on the other hand, positive response is received, the sender can bask in the glory of the knowledge that it comes from an international perspective. In this way, the mailartist can work in the confident knowledge that s/he cannot loose. The mailartist - by addressing a single individual - formalises the relationship, even though the recipient is not known to the sender. This relationship is quite different to a face to face one, even if photographs of the sender and receiver have been exchanged, the relationship is mediated by distance and imagination filling-in the missing bits of information about the sender; accent, intonation, warmth, timbre, pitch and even at times in the absence of photographs - given unfamiliarity with foreign names - gender. An avoidance of formalising a relationship can be achieved by employing Derrida's "pancarte", that is to say that by sending out something that will be seen by everybody, rather than an individual.24 Whilst the notion of a postcard with no destination - one sent into the ether - seems an impossibility, there is the precedent of Marcello Diotallevi's 'Lettre al mittente' in which envelopes were mailed with nonsensical, typographically imaginative addresses: unsurprisingly, having explored the ether (postal system) for a time, they were returned to Diotallevi, the sender (Plate 32). More likely though is the habit of sending many copies of an artwork to one person in the knowledge (expectation) that s/he will pass them on to persons unspecified (the ether). In this case though, the rewards are limited to the sense of belonging to the amorphous network as a whole rather than through a series of one to one relationships, although the opportunity will occur for these to follow if desired.
As mailart is without any formal contract or rules, any sense of obligation - in terms of reply - is taken as the decision of the recipient (and the recipient of the recipient's reply, ad infinitum). There is nothing to prevent a recipient totally ignoring a sending, particularly as such action would most likely be met with silence rather than accusatory indignation and given that all exchanges take place through the postal system, the sender will not know whether or not the work was received. As in any gift system, before responding, it is essential that the recipient-sender considers whether s/he will be escalating the expectations of the recipient to an extent that s/he is unable or unwilling to meet, whether from restrictions of inclination, time to produce the work or funds to dispatch it, as well as the ability to retain or dispose of the accumulating receipts.
Mailart at times also operates in formal ways, for the gathering or dissemination of information and as a pressure group on any subject and for any purpose. Whilst it is perfectly possible to research a subject without an established network, mailart does nevertheless give access to some thousands of people who understand the needs of artists and are ready and willing to supply others with material to help in their research. Most notably as a pressure group, following the "torture and incarceration for many years of the Uruguayan mail artists Jorge Caraballo and Clemente Padin;"25 Geoffrey Cook, a U.S.A. mailartist, initiated a project to get mailartists to,"write letters to their governments and the Uruguayan government to influence the decision makers, and ... to win the support of individuals, organisations, and governments to intercede on behalf of the artists."26 Plate 34 indicates the involvement of the United States Senate and the success of the campaign.
Mailartist is also harnessed as a support network for people in times of trouble, not least war and oppression, and those in such situations write of the importance to them of keeping in contact with people from outside the area of trouble. Mailart communications give them a sense of the caring of others beyond the situation and an opportunity to give first hand accounts of their experience which may be at variance with that promoted by the media. In this sense, they can feel that their voice is heard, that firsthand experience can be communicated to people beyond their own geographical situation.
By complete contrast, mailart can also operate at the apparently superficial level of 'play'. That is to say not necessarily on a deeply intellectual level, but simply in the sense of giving pleasure. This can be seen as therapy in the sense of 'executive toys' to calm the mind. The apparent division between serious work and play is not clear, chess for example being a game would be referred to as 'playing' but would not imply a lack of seriousness or intellect. In art, a number of Fluxus works were deliberately 'play' and anti-serious - some even using the word 'play' or 'game' in the title - as a serious critique of the art establishment.27 By starting the day with a smile - in response to receiving a joke in the mail - the day begins well. Games per se can be in the form of Add-to and Pass-ons, and as a means of self-development in a materialistic world can provide optimism and a hope for the future through the sheer joy of playing in the network. A barrier to the communication of play can of course be one of language, however English is universally used and when there is no language in common between two willing networkers, the potential of visual images can be exploited to the full. Fun can just as easily be had from visual as from written communication.
Ecologically, mailart is often very sound indeed with many networkers making the standard practice of recycling envelopes, in many cases to the original sender. Some make their own paper and many recycle all sorts of printed ephemera. For artistic as well as ecological reasons, a number of networkers reuse envelopes and in some cases letters, until it is no longer practical to do so. It could be argued that producing so much mail is ecologically unsound, however it uses less resources than traditional art media and has a higher chance of being a positive power for good in the world through its spreading of harmony. This perhaps rather ambitious aim is echoed by most of the networkers who have commented on the value of mailart in their writing, for example U.S.A. networker, Lon Spiegelman:
"I sincerely believe that mailart activity points to a political realisation which will have to come about if we are to survive on this planet. It typifies the finest points in each of the battling giants (capitalism and communism). Shows are truly a social effort, displaying a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its individually produced and free parts. It's a collage. Like Zabbla says, 'Art is a prison.' Mailart keeps one sane and alive and producing in a world that demands one's time performing mundane tasks in order to pay the bills." 28
Spiegelman sums-up what above all is the importance of mailart: keeping the participants healthy by allowing them, through distance relationships, to find their place in the world.
5.7. The Future of Mailart.
The disconcerting question that remains is whether mailart, by melding countries, contributes to the destruction of cultures, in effect mirroring the conquering of the world by Coca-Cola and McDonalds, thus producing a blandness through familiarity. This is an undeniable danger but one that is balanced by the positive potential for countering racial and cultural prejudice through familiarity and understanding, generated by one to one networking.
There are three key issues in the consideration of the future of mailart. The possibility of mailart involving money in its transactions signals a big danger; the development of electronic mail could change the appearance of mailart considerably and - possibly related to the development of electronic mail - the cost of snail mail, already a problem for some people could become prohibitive for the continuation of mailart.
The issue of the relationship of mailart to money has been raised, in particular in the 1990s, with networkers selling their zines and even curated exhibitions with sales and the potential for networkers with archives to sell them.29 This raises two issues, the inherent compromise of the integrity of the individual in selling mailart against all the established principles and, of rather more danger, the possibility that this would result in sales to public collections, leading to public exhibitions with inevitably critical writing and therefore commodification.
The clear dictum, 'money and mailart do not mix' is questioned by many, notably veteran Canadian networker Anna Banana.30 For her, standards of production in mailart, as epitomised by her professionally produced artistamps which she prints and perforates for others as well as for herself are of paramount importance (plate 35). Understandably she charges a fee for printing and perforating artistamps, but this could well be perceived as the same as paying photocopying bills. The difference in this case is that Banana is a mailartist as well as, in effect, a photocopy shop and whereas she could combine the two without compromising the integrity of mailart, she states that mailart has to involve expense, arguing that she needs to live.
It is with artistamps that marketing is most likely to make inroads in mailart, given the well established market for commercial stamps and the visual similarity of artistamps to the commercial product. The 1989 Seattle exhibition, referred to above, at which numbered and signed editions of stamps were for sale, gave full documentation of the works as though they were limited edition printmaking, thus very clearly signalling marketing which had already been announced by calling the exhibition a 'Bourse.' Since then, philatelists have begun to take an interest in artistamps and dealers have begun to produce catalogues and approach networkers with a view to buying their work.
As mailart has no end product, logically, it cannot be possible to commodify it, however it is perfectly possible to commodify the individual elements (artistamps; artists' postcards etc.) in the same way that no-doubt many mailartists have isolated pieces that they have received by framing them on their wall. The critical point is that the object is perceived as what it is (an artistamp; artist's postcard etc.) rather than mailart, which it clearly no longer is, once removed from its context. This becomes even clearer when considering that the word 'networking' has become a replacement word for 'mailart' and the impossibility of commodifying a postal network.
Nine years after Banana's call for the mixing of money and mailart, it still remains a rarity, with the vast majority of networkers believing that money and mailart must not mix, in order to prevent anyone being excluded from participation on financial grounds. To embrace money would be to embrace a capitalist tool that would associate mailart with an establishment from whom it wishes to distance itself and create the potential for value judgements to be made about the work sent - based on the perceived quality of the work - related to available finance for production. It is the latter concern that those who believe that it is important to mix money and mailart subscribe to because they see the 'quality' of the work related to the harnessing of expensive technology. Whilst this is completely understandable, to extend this argument to the belief in the necessity of spending money on, for example the production of a Zine, and therefore the need to recoup that investment by charging for it is to totally misunderstand the whole principles by which mailart has existed and perhaps more importantly to confuse creativity and 'quality'. It seems highly likely that the network having almost entirely rejected the mixing of money and mailart to date, will continue to do so.
If it is the sending and receiving that is of most importance in mailart, or the exchange, then Fax and E-mail must have equal status with Snail Mail. There are however reasons why they do not have equal status and therefore are unlikely to dominate. Although electronic mail is praised for its speed and efficiency, this is precisely its limitation in that it removes any sense of distance - even though in both Snail Mail and E-mail, the sender is absent - the relationship of distance and time are destroyed and with it the credence of the transaction that takes place, the awareness of that distance. The recipient might just as well be in the room next door: there would be no perceptible difference at all in the exchange. For the mailartist, the incidents of the ravages of postal systems, transport, handling and the elements all contribute to the proof of the journey that has taken place and the origin of the dispatch. It is this journey, the distance relationship (Poinsot's "distance concept") which is the attraction for the mailartist.
Further, electronic mail lacks the physical appeal of snail mail. Much of the aesthetic is missed and, most obviously, it misses any three dimensional qualities and all those of weight, texture and subtleties of appearance. More important though is the 'presence' through handling, of the sender, in the form of traces of smell, secretions and residues, that can be experienced by the recipient. Again, this is evidence, proof, a further signature, a mark left, like an animal leaving its scent. This is analogous to the response of the mid. 19th century public to the debate of the relative status's of the portrait photograph and the portrait painting, that still holds good for today. Whilst the painting had tradition, scale and proven durability, it was subject to interpretation, the work of the artist, whereas the photograph was the 'shadow of a loved one.' The photograph exists literally as the capturing of the 'shadow' of the sitter, falling on the plate. It has been 'touched' by the sitter and is therefore a part of them. It is clear that electronic mail intervenes and interprets (like the portrait painter), it is not a direct sending, therefore missing the potential for the 'touching' sender to 'touch' the recipient.
Mailart does have its limitations, primarily the fact that it is still not available to all. For example, because of the repression of art in Turkey, it wasn't until 1995 that the first mailart show was held and there may well be other countries that would still prevent mailart shows being held.31 In some respects, mailart can be seen as a model of westernisation and communications in the world. The network extends to North and South America, Europe, the far East and Australasia but has made very few inroads into Africa, India, China and the Middle East. It seems inevitable that the situation will change fairly rapidly in China with the fast changing political situation towards a Western Capitalist manufacturing economy. Funding is a further restraint and the cost of postage in some countries can actually prevent mailartists networking as I have discussed.
As to the future, the likelihood of the status of mailart changing seems remote, the lack of critical writing about it - significantly two years after the death of Johnson - indicates that it is problematic for and/or not interesting to the art historian. Apart from Ray Johnson's contribution - relating in part to proto Pop art - and the exploration of the postal system by Fluxus and conceptual artists, mailart remains publicly invisible and always anonymous. Whilst I have argued it as Democratic Art as Social Sculpture, accepting all who wish to participate - a Beuysian concept - it is unlikely to receive the acclaim that Beuys achieved because, unlike mailart, Beuys was always a producer of objects and therefore, in spite of his theories, remained and remains in the art historical eye.
I have argued that whilst the number of people communicating through electronic mailart will inevitably continue to grow, it will not replace snail mailart. The debate about the mixing of money and mailart will continue but will always remain an issue for a minority of participants. Mailart will carry on evolving as it has done over the last four decades and participants will come and go, but mailart will continue because it demonstrably performs a valuable role in the lives of the many participants in many countries of the world, keeping alive a belief in the importance of creativity and communication for its own sake, independent of critical response or financial gain. Mailart is the evidence of Mauss's "collective mind" and the reassurance that we posses more than a "tradesman morality".
1 I go on to argue that mailart can only be seen as one network.