Mail Art as a Means of Political Pressure: An Introduction
By John Held, Jr.
Following the lead of Ray Johnson, the American artist who helped pave the way for an international network of artists expressing themselves through the postal system, Mail Artists in North America viewed the activity as a whimsical art-for-art-sake exercise evoking the spirit of Dada. But North American Mail Art also cloaked more serious issues, such as the decentralization, democratization and decommodification of art based on earlier artistic concerns expressed by Marcel Duchamp.
In Western Europe, Fluxus activity and the rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, gave rise to Mail Art as an intellectual pursuit. Hervé Fischer, Jean-Marc Poinsot, Ulises Carrion, Romano Peli, and Klaus Groh were among the first to write critically about Mail Art, promoting the theoretical and distributional innovations of the field.
Japan and South Korea were also home to active Asian Mail Art practitioners. Ray Johnson had established contact with the Gutai art group as early as 1957, his work appearing in Gutai magazine, resulting in the group’s appropriation of traditional holiday greeting cards into internationally distributed Mail Art. Founding Gutai member Shozo Shimamoto directed AU (Artists’ Union and/or Art Unidentified) after his Gutai years, encouraging artistic fellowship in the face of geographical distancing.
What all participants in this emerging correspondence circle had in common was a desire to reach out to the wider world to share art and ideas, forming a community of cultural workers that superseded national boundaries, linguistic limitations, social and political divides. In this, they were guided by the concept of an Eternal Network propagated by Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, in which continuous communication between artists occurred despite limitations imposed on them by external forces.
In Eastern Europe and South America, then under the yoke of repressive governments, Mail Art took a very different turn. External pressures for these artists were all too pervasive. With their travel restricted, artists of Eastern Europe and South America, reached out to their colleagues in Western Europe, North America and Asia through the postal system, whose international treaties guaranteed the safe passage of art and ideas. But these rights were never completely assured.
Polish artist Pawel Petasz overcame this by sewing his letters shut to avoid tampering and censorship by governmental authorities. Mail Art exhibitions in Hungary and Brazil, were subjected to government shutdown. Chilean Mail Artist Guillermo Deisler was forced to flee a Fascist government for safer harbor. Argentinian Mail Artist Edgardo Antonio Vigo suffered the intolerable situation of having his son Palomo seized from his home, never to return.
But the most glaring example of government repression impacting on the free expression of art and ideas, occurred in Uruguay, when artists Clemente Padin and Jorge Caraballo were imprisoned for their postal activities. Padin’s “crime” was the production of a pseudo postage stamp denouncing the dictatorial regime for the suppression of human rights, which led to his imprisonment from August 1977 to November 1979. Fellow artist Jorge Caraballo was also detained, but released shortly after his arrest and conviction.
Padin has written that, “I was imprisoned (by) the Uruguayan dictatorship the 25th August, 1977 for my opposition to the military government. An edition of rubber stamps and false mail-stamp denouncing the suppression of human rights and the death, torture and disappearance of many people opposite to the regime led (to) my incarceration and the sentence (of) four years for ‘transgression that hurt the moral and reputation of the army’… But an intense and supported mobilization of hundreds and hundreds of artists in the whole world freed me after only two years and three months!”1
San Francisco poet, Geoffrey Cook and French visual poet Julian Blaine spearheaded the international effort to gain their freedom, encouraging Mail Artists to write their governments, and win the support of influential individuals to intercede on the release of the artists. Through their efforts both the American and French governments intervened diplomatically through the Uruguayan military, eventually securing the release of both Mail Artists.
Geoffrey Cook has written, “What did we accomplish? We did what we could, and it may have convinced the Uruguayan government that whatever they did to the artists would not be done in the dark. We may have convinced them that negative actions would be counterproductive to their own goals. The project has shown us that structures exist within the art world through which we can effect change and influence larger forces. The project represents a small cry in a collapsing universe.”2
The release of Padin and Caraballo due to a letter writing campaign by Mail Artists, impressed upon the international cultural community that art was not merely a futile exercise, decoration, or a career path, but a weapon that could be used in the face of societal injustices with life and death implications. Conditions in Eastern Europe and South America have changed since that time, but the Eternal Network stands ready to coalesce in matters of conscience, if and when necessary.
1.“Clemente Padin,” in Ruud Janssen, Mail Interviews: Part 2, TAM Publications, Breda, The Netherlands, 2008. Page 149-150.
2.Geoffrey Cook, “The Padin/Caraballo Project,” in Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet, Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity, Contemporary Art Press, San Francisco, California, 1984. Page 369.