Is Mail Art?
by Ken Miller
(originally printed in Free Press Death Ship #3)
When I tell people I'm a mail artist, I'm invariably asked that question. I always have trouble explaining exactly what it is, just as I would have trouble explaining what "art" is. Mail or Correspondence Art, though, is a bit easier to nail down because, by definition, it must be sent through the mail. Getting past that, and looking past some obvious exceptions such as internet art and art which is hand-delivered, in essence Mail Art is noncommercial art created by an artist and sent directly to the audience. The advantage for the artist is that there is no marketplace or dealer to compromise the vision, and the advantage for the audience is that the art is free and usually specifically tailored for them personally. Given that, mail art takes a few primary forms (but keep in mind, these are by no means the only forms):
1- Decorated Postcards or envelopes. This is the simplest and cheapest form of mail art, and perhaps one that most people have done from time to time on their own. This is likely the oldest form of mail art, possibly almost as old as postal communication itself. Usual forms of decoration include rubber stamps, collage, painting, and block prints.
2- Add and Pass. This form was created in the 1950s by artist Ray Johnson, and over time became something of a creative chain letter. Ray would create a drawing or collage of some sort, send it to a person which instructions to modify it in some way and pass it along to a specified third party, which he used as a vehicle for introducing people to each other. These days, "Add and Pass" pieces are open ended, encouraging the recipient to add to, photocopy and pass on, and also to send a copy to the others who have modified the sheet so they could see how it has changed. The results are wildly different as each generation passes from person to person, often with people cutting the entire piece up and making whole new sheets from it. Unfortunately this form also annoys some mail artists who find photocopy art to be boring and unoriginal.
3- Strange Objects. I've got to admit that it's a bit of a thrill to get something really strange in the mail, often simply stamped and mailed without an envelope. People have sent me giant cardboard postcards, aluminum cans, large pieces of engraved plastic, smelly clothes (worn while working at a fish cannery), and a paper doll. It's kind of fun to take something odd down to the post office and see their reaction when you try to mail it without a box or envelope.
4- Mail Art Exhibits. People circulate small advertisements for mail art exhibits, which can range from a show at the Whitney Museum, to a show in the library of a small Italian town, to a bunch of pieces of art attached to a British shopping cart. In countries where the government will actually fund art that is interesting, non-commercial and challenging, these mail art shows will occasionally send out slick color catalog "documentation" of all the art received, but more often than not, you get a photocopied list of all the participants.
5- Fake Postage Stamps or Money. Some mail artists specialize in producing their own postage stamps, which are miniature works of art (though not used in lieu of real postage), as well as artistically modified or imaginary banknotes. The Fluxus Bucks project combines fake bills with the "Add and Pass" concept for quite interesting results.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what mail art is, we need to understand the mail art network. The network grew out of what was originally Ray Johnson's mailing list, also known as the "New York Correspondence School," a pun on both correspondence art schools and the "schools" of art like the "Abstract Impressionist School." Through the years this group expanded and changed, old timers dropped out or passed away, new people joined, and eventually Ray stopped being the hub through which everything passed… there was no central focus, nobody "ran" the network. It simply existed through individual artists around the world as a chain of artistic communication. Much like the zine network, each artist creates his or her own vision of mail art, sending it to others who in turn send out their own vision. At its finest, it never ceases to astonish with beauty and wit, and it's only as expensive as the postage you need to use to mail things. Unfortunately the road to mail art bliss (much like zine bliss) is often a long and difficult one, which requires a serious time commitment as well as a lot of trial and error. There are plenty of people who won't like what you do, or won't tolerate mistakes a newcomer would make, not out of meanness but simply because there is often way too much mail to answer and not enough time. Many would-be mail artists quit after only a year or two, much like many first-time zinesters, but those who can stick with it will find it incredibly rewarding.
Unlike the zine world, there is less of a language barrier in mail art, and I have corresponded for years with people who can't write a word of English, though my most rewarding mail comes from people who like to write letters. There are pockets of mail artists in every country, but especially in developed countries like Italy, England, Argentina, Spain, France, The Netherlands and Japan. I've received mail from Albania, Cuba, Ghana, South Africa, China and Chile. I've visited mail artists in countries around the world, and have a long list of people I'd like to meet after exchanging mail with them.
Mail art is different for each person who does it, but the result is the same: a free communication of art and ideas, without the constraints of the gallery-dealer-museum systems or popular trends. Mail art is based on ideas rather than money, which is as pure as art can get.
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