by Michael Lumb
It is perhaps ironical that mail-art attracts shy individuals who by definition tend to be aware of the network of people, from all walks of life and not necessarily artists, who communicate their creativity through the postal system. Thanks initially to the printing of Michael Leigh's listing of current mail art projects in the journal Artists' Newsletter since 1989 the network has become more accessible to a greater number of people in Britain.
My own involvement with mail-art predates my knowledge of the network by some eight years. In 1980 I looked to the postal system as another vehicle for conceptual ideas and sent my first piece to a friend living in France. Entitled 'Nothing to declare' it grew out of the frustration that I had encountered when trying to get permission to take one cubic foot of English soil through the customs to exchange for one cubic foot of French soil. 'Nothing to declare' was the inscription inside the nine envelopes sent and 'Artwork' was the enscription on the customs docket. A tenth envelope was the return to me of the nine.
In 1981 I made my first attempt at "Pass the Parcel, Package Tours." which was an idea based on playing the children's game in reverse, i.e. that the package that I sent would be added to and sent on to another artist, to travel the world and ultimately to return to me. I chose an artist at random and received no response, similarly the following year I tried again with another artist, who like the first was evidently not a mail-artist.
The same year, whilst trying to while away the time invigilating an exam, I occupied my mind with the question of how many ways it would be possible to stamp a second class letter in terms of different denominations of stamps, I soon realized that it was not a job for my level of mental arithmetic and subsequently worked out that the answer was 275. This was to become the score for my second mail art project whereby I ran through the permutations, at the rate of one per day for 275 days, sending the stamps on identical envelopes with a rubber stamped address to a friend in Devon. For me this work was important in several ways that I was later to realize are the constituent parts of mailart's public. Firstly I found that my local post office initially expected me to take the equivalent value of stamps in a different denomination and so it became necessary to explain the project to the post-mistress who soon became as fascinated as was I by my weekly purchase and the aesthetic appearance of the subsequent envelopes. This work must also have been noticed by the postman who emptied my local box and by the delivering postman at the other end, however over the entire 275 days he (the delivering postman) steadfastly chose to refrain from making any reference to the work to the recipients. Lastly of course the Work was enjoyed by the recipient and his family. Further, the work mounted on 40 mount boards each of one week's worth of envelopes made an impressive and incidentally visually minimal work in a subsequent exhibition.
Later that year, I produced a whimsical work entitled 'Artwork for customs' whereby with the help of the postmistress I selected a different small and lightweight child's toy each week and enclosed it in an A5 envelope with the inscription 'Artwork for customs' on the docket. These envelopes were sent to my friend in France and latterly returned to me in their entirety by mail (perhaps to my disappointment unopened by customs) to be exhibited as a work in the traditions of Dada and Fluxus.
It wasn't until 1986 that I began writing to Pawel Petasz in Poland, prompted by an old friend who unbeknown to me had been working through the network for several years. He suggested that I exchange my artist's books for his in order to build-up my collection for teaching purposes. The correspondence with Petasz lead to my 'East/West Dialogue' with him about the perceived nature of freedom. From the content of his recycled letters I realized that he wrote to other people but still had not tumbled to the notion of a network. I was however entranced by the visual beauty of his letters and fascinated by the searching correspondence with an artist from the Eastern Block.
In 1988 I was sent a piece of mail-art by a lecturer in another institution who had been prompted by an ex-student of mine and it became evident to me that a network existed. Thanks to the generosity of Robin Crozier (q.v.) I received a long list of networkers and decided to give my 'Pass a parcel' idea another try but this time not trusting to fate and looking to the law of averages for success, I sent out 100 packages (envelopes made from photocopies, on blue cartridge paper, of a page of my passport). I changed the title of the project to 'Is freedom' reflecting both the correspondence with Pawel Petasz and the intended journeys of the packages. The deliberate omission of the question mark left the participants free to make a statement or pose a question. I asked the recipients to inform me when they had received the package and to tell me to whom they had sent it, and to add to or alter it in some way. It was intended that each package should travel for a year by which time it was to be returned to me. In practice this only happened to a small number of them but the project generated an enormous body of work, reaching 185 networkers in 38 countries. At the end of the project the entire work was documented from a computer analysis of all the destinations. The ensuing two aroused considerable interest, not least to me, I was hooked.
Mail-art has many attraction and the nature of these must vary from person to person. However it must be that the appeal of receiving something in the post is universal, as John Held Jr said (lecture on mail-art on 28-11-92 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), "I am a mail-art junkie, I'm miserable if I don't get any mail". For me it awakens childhood memories of both stamp collecting and the pleasures of 'Post Office Set' with the attendant excitement of its paraphernalia. The pleasure of using a rubber-stamp must relate to some sort of playing at being in a position of authority that clearly remains in adulthood for some of us. Similarly, the tension surrounding the completion of sets of things is also an exciting element. The thrill of receiving anything from a foreign country was not abandoned with childhood, but then neither were the aforementioned pleasures of stamps - both rubber and postage. The complexities and delights of mail-art are manifold and need to be dealt with one at a time in some depth.