DIY Utopia and Every Issue Imaginable
By Peter van der Meijden
Was Mail Art a political phenomenon? Its openness invites the use of the word “democratic”, but doing so conflates its many meanings. If Mail Art is political, it is not because it interferes in the existing political landscape, but because it redefines the terms of politics. American scholar Craig Saper, in his book Networked Art, distinguishes between democracy as a political system and the type of democratic practice that flourished in the arts of the 1960s and beyond. While the former restricts the choices for the single voter (which party or candidate? For or against the proposal?), the latter is designed to maximize the number of choices on offer. While the former is judged by the percentage of the population it manages to involve, the latter limits the number of participants to those who are willing to involve themselves actively.1 “Democracy”, at the hands of the Mail Art Community, is something completely different from democracy as it is commonly understood.
Mail Art derives its “democratic” outlook from two sources. One is French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s idea of the “Eternal Network”, also mentioned by two of the other contributors to this catalogue. Within the Eternal Network, everybody and everything is equal: no hierarchies and competition here, just a “fête permanante”, a permanent party. The other source is the alternative postal infrastructure that was created during the late 1960s and 1970s by people such as Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov of Image Bank (Canada) and Fluxus associate Ken Friedman (USA). It consists of address lists that were freely distributed and that made it possible for artists to get into contact with like-minded colleagues in other countries and continents. With Filliou’s conceptual framework to back it up, the infrastructure created Mail Art as a community that functions by its own rules, quite apart from those that govern the rest of the world. If it engages in political action and/or makes moral judgements at all, it does so on the basis of a Do-It-Yourself ethic that is typical of the times. It is powered by a firm belief that something is good if you do it yourself, on the basis of your own convictions.
But Mail Art is political and ethical in a different sense. Because it is generated by the single artist on the basis of his/her own views, beliefs and preferences it also reflects all of these individuals’ convictions. If Mail Art as such is powered by a DIY ethic that places it in opposition to the world of established politics, the single contributions reflect each and every view it was possible to have during the 1970s. Surprisingly little Mail Art is purely or explicitly political. When Italian Mail Artist Vittore Baroni featured the face of Karl Marx in one of his collages, he pasted it over with the words “use it” and “utopia”. His American colleague CabVolt (Cabaret Voltaire, Steven Hitchcock), always quick to refer to Marx and Communism, issued a booklet consisting of fragments of the Hammer and Sickle, combined in various ways, which he called “Broken Promises”. Ecart, the famous gallery and bookshop in Geneva, Switzerland, invited to an exhibition of material documenting the work of John Cage and Fluxus under the title “We Are Here – This Is Not Fiction, Utopia” – all of this during the same year, 1978. Mail Art was utopian, but it was acutely aware of everyday reality as well.
And mixed in with the grand ideas and the small asides, one always finds art as a third ingredient. When Belgian Mail artist Johan van Geluwe writes M.A.O., it stands for “Multinational Art Office”. A.R.T. stands for “Art Recycling Terminal” and C.I.A. for “Contemporary International A.R.T.”. Art is everywhere. It feeds off the clash between East, West and the supposed neutrality of art. It emerges, to paraphrase the old Surrealist favourite Isidore Ducasse, in the chance meeting between Chairman Mao, the American Central Intelligence Agency and the ivory tower.
Van Geluwe dubbed his practice “art recycling” and his work space a “terminal”. He operated under the name Museum of Museums and stamped his mailings “Curator’s Cabinet”. In Mail Art, art is never quite art and the artist never quite an artist. It assumes countless different forms, from correspondence between individuals to collaborative projects – exhibitions, magazines, tape compilations – initiated by one artist but fleshed out by others. As a result, it is no longer clear whether it is the individual piece or the framework surrounding it that is the work. This changes the role of the artist as well. Instead of a lone genius who issues artworks from his/her studio as finished objects, the artist becomes a kind of curator or enabler, engaging the help of others to realize his/her intentions. Van Geluwe’s Museum of Museums is a practice that gives space to, and is dependent upon, other practices. His studio is a terminal because some of the material that continually circulates through the network ends up there. The nature of Mail Art as circulated material makes it natural for Mail artists to call themselves curators and archivists and the material that accumulates around them, museums and archives. Thanks to Mail Art’s flatness, the producer and the keeper, the art and the infrastructure exist on the same level. The organiser is as much of an author as the artist, the infrastructure is as much of an artefact as the single object.
One particular product of the Mail Art network is the assembling. “Assembling” is the title of a publication that was issued annually by American writer and critic Richard Kostelanetz between 1970 and 1982, but the term also denotes a particular practice: an artist invites others to submit an x number of copies of a work, which are then assembled and issued. These publications were cheap to produce and generated little or no profit. Polish Mail Artist Pavel Petasz even engaged the contributors to his magazine Commonpress as editors: “Commonpress is the periodical edited by common effort”, he wrote in the editorial of the first issue (December 1977). “Apart from providing materials for the particular edition (…), each of the participants is obliged once to collect materials, to edit and print as well as to distribute edition among other participants (…) at one’s own charge”. Mail Art redefined the terms of economics as well as those of politics. The most important thing is to get the work done, to minimize the cost instead of maximizing the profits. Some publications, such as Italian Plinio Mesciulam’s Mohammed, were even published for only a handful of hand-picked and individually named recipients. Mesciulam’s print runs were tiny, but his production, sometimes calculated to comprise 1.300 issues or over, was huge.
Another type of magazine is International Artist’s Cooperation (IAC), published from 1972 onwards by West German artist and scholar Klaus Groh. Unlike many other Mail Art publications, you had to subscribe to it, but for the modest price of $ 4 a year you got a leaflet full of information on current projects to contribute to. Publications such as IAC or American Judith Hoffberg’s Umbrella played a vital role in Mail Art’s global expansion. They made it possible for artists from all over the world to participate in the projects of others who they might never meet, but whose work and postal persona they were intimately acquainted with. Groh, for example, was an important link between the East and the West. In 1972, he published two books on experimental art in Eastern and Western Europe with DuMont in Cologne. If I had a mind…/Ich stelle mir vor… deals with conceptual tendencies in contemporary art on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa with Eastern Europe especially. Instead of focusing on Mail Art alone, they present work that falls into the categories of Conceptual Art, Land Art, Process Art and related forms. Groh’s point was that there was no real difference between avant-garde art produced in the East and the West. Mail Art’s strength was that it made work available that would otherwise have remained invisible to Western audiences.
While some of the work that originated in Poland, such as Petasz’, was specifically created to facilitate and contribute to Mail Art exchanges, other items that circulated in the Mail Art network function fully within the contemporary art context. Romuald and Anna Kutera circulated works of photographic conceptualism, Natalia LL pieces of “Consumer Art” that explore the intersection between gender and consumer imagery, Ewa Partum’s language-based conceptual works and works that address naturalized sexism and her husband Andrzej poetry and manifestoes. In a move that bears a striking resemblance to Western attitudes towards art while being entirely original at the same time, Partum’s text Incomprehension of art gives an artist a chance of new response” makes a case for the interpretation on the receiver’s conditions rather than the sender’s: “[A]rt suddenly found its place in [the ]hands of [the] addressee and became (…) an intimate medium of communication, f.e. in mail-art”, he wrote. To him, inserting a piece of artistic communication into the recipient’s private reality by means of an intimate postal exchange makes it possible for new and unexpected meanings to emerge – an apt way of describing the functioning of Mail Art, and one that bypasses the differences between East and West, just as Mail Art managed to operate freely across the political boundary between capitalism and actually existing socialism.
While Eastern Europe experienced a period of relative quiet after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 (Solidarnosć, the Polish oppositional trade union, was not founded until 1980), most Latin American countries were governed by right-wing, often (part-) military governments. Operation Condor, started in 1968 and officially implemented in 1975, made sure that political dissidents who were captured in neighboring states, were returned to their home countries, often to “disappear”. Well-known Latin American Mail Artists who disappeared for a shorter or longer period were Guillermo Deisler (Chile), Paulo Bruscky (Brazil), Jesus Romeo Galdamez (El Salvador) and Clemente Padin and Jorge Caraballo (Uruguay). As John Held writes in his contribution to this catalogue, Argentinian Edgardo Antonio Vigo used the post and the Mail Art network to find his disappeared son Abel Luis “Palomo” Vigo Comas and American Geoffrey Cook to trace and free Padin and Caraballo. Especially Cook used the mail in a manner very similar to Amnesty International, inviting other networkers to bombard embassies and transnational political bodies with letters. Argentinian Horacio Zabala emigrated to Italy in 1976 and launched a Mail Art project called Today Art is a Prison which explored art at the meeting point of freedom and imprisonment. Brazilian Leonard Frank Duch initiated a project called Buracoarte (“Holeart”) because he experienced life under the military regime in his country as a big hole. He sent his contacts photographs of holes and asked them to fill them up. In Latin America, Mail Art was a political tool and a place of escape; a way of drawing attention to the local political climate and a way of finding respite amongst like-minded people elsewhere.
Duch’s highly personal work represents yet another guise under which the political appeared during the 1970s. Among the best remembered slogans of the time must be “the personal is political”. The phrase is the title of an essay by American feminist Carol Hanisch, published in 1970. It sums up an attitude towards the political that was extremely widespread, also in Mail Art. At one end of the spectrum, there is Peter Below, whose interest in eroticism caused him to devote the issue of Commonpress that he edited to the theme of “Eroticism and Art” “because this is the main theme of my work and I was interested in getting to know how other artists go along with it”. Somewhere in the middle one finds Dutch Cees Francke’s flirt with fan culture and fetishism in his recurrent references to singer Sandie Shaw (Sendie Show as the title of a show, Sandie’s Third Armpit as the title of a project…). Right at the other end one finds Australian Pat Larter, whose work revolves around her own body and sexuality. By no means a conventional beauty, Larter nevertheless showered the world with photographs of her naked body, often in sexually explicit poses. During the period of her engagement in Mail Art (1974-1988) her body naturally aged, but her wide and mischievous smile always remained the same. Also calling herself “Art Fool”, she is the carnivalesque counterpart of Ewa Partum, one of whose works shows her own face, half of which is artificially made older. Both artists were interest in making visible the low-grade, everyday politics that are at work on the very bodies of women around the globe, but they did so in very different ways. Together, they show what Mail Art can do: in its intimacy, it finds its way to every part of reality, from the most spectacular to the least remarkable, and in its acceptance of everyone who is willing to play it by the rules, it finds space to accommodate every medium and style.
Mail Art refused to subscribe to any plan for the salvation of mankind, but as the work of Cook proves, saving an individual was a different matter. Mail Art is utopian to the extent that it, as an enterprise brought about by the labour of many, represents a firm belief in the possibility to do things differently. Otherwise, it is first and foremost political because it gives individuals a chance to share their views with others. Perhaps statement 5 from Partum’s Manifestation of Insolent Art would be a good motto for an exhibition such as Keep Art Flat: “Towards the artist who is something more than a politician because he is not a politician”. Mail art helped the world move towards a situation where an individual is no longer non-political when he or she does not engage in politics. With Mail Art, politics is no longer a matter of parties and programmes. Politicians no longer define the issues at stake. Everyone is able to single something out as worthy of attention. From black or white, the world is changed to black and white and all the shades of grey in between – a situation that should not appear too alien to a contemporary reader, used to blogs, chats and messaging. Mail Art was as much conditioned by the network it created and was created by as today’s network society. The conflicts that dominated the 1970s may have disappeared, the Cold War first and foremost, but the type of communication that characterizes the Mail Art network is now omnipresent.
1.Craig J. Saper, Networked Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, p. xiii.