Sunday, June 29, 2008
An article about mail-Art archives I wrote back in the 90-ies. It dealt with how people then were building up their mail-art archives. Nowadays we are 20 years further. Some mail-artists have donated (or sold) their collections to archives, but some collections have vanished. It always is an interesting topic. Maybe should explore this a bit more in the near future.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Over the years I have kept a database with all the addresses of mail-artists that contributed to the TAM-Tubberstamp Archive. The list grew over the decades and contains also the historic addresses. I printed the list every month and send old versions into the network. Some versions I kept in the TAM-Archive and above you find three old versions. The 1996-version was 50 pages thick....
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
June 10, 2008
We are pleased to welcome five major figures in the Mail Art movement to speak about this unique and vital art form at a panel discussion on Friday, June 13, 2008, at 6:30pm.
The panel discussion is entitled: "An Authentik and Historikal Panel on the Phenomenon of Mail Art," and will focus on the origins of this art form and how it continues to be a critical and subversive medium in a society where modes of communication are undergoing rapid upheavals.
Panelists will include:
John Held, Jr. (Moderator) has been involved with Mail Art since 1975. He has written extensively on Mail Art and is viewed as a leading historian of the art form. He has had dozens of solo and group exhibitions in America and Europe, has appeared in multiple Performance Art pieces, has guest-curated and lectured widely, and has direct connections and long-term collaborative partnerships with many major figures in Mail Art.
A.A. Bronson is an artist whose work has spanned multiple genres and various modern media. He is currently Executive Director of Printed Matter, an organization in New York that is dedicated to the cultivation and dispersal of the artist’s book. He was also a founding member of General Idea, an artist collective from Canada.
John Evans has collaborated with almost every major Mail Arts figure of the last thirty years. His involvement with the movement began in the mid-1960s, and he continues to show in New York and in Europe. Evans uses the tool of collage and the philosophy of inclusion to express his personal sense of irony, humor and shifting aesthetic and socio-political ideas.
Barbara Moore is an art historian, writer, and former rare-book dealer specializing in avant-garde art of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. She was first editor at Dick Higgins's seminal Something Else Press. Since then she has written essays on and curated exhibitions of artist's books, multiples, and alternative media. She curated the first Fluxus exhibition in New York.
Martha Wilson is the Founding Director of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc., an artist’s center in New York which since its inception in 1976 has presented and preserved temporal art: artists’ books and other multiples produced internationally after 1960; temporary installations; and performance art. Trained in English literature, Ms. Wilson was teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design when she became fascinated by the art field in which text and image intersect.
William S. Wilson is a historian, art critic, and novelist. He has written extensively on Mail Art and is regarded as an authority on Ray Johnson, a major figure in the New York artistic community. He received his PhD in English Literature from Yale in 1961.
BEYOND MAIL ART
The conceptual similarity of Mail Art (MA) to aspects of Dada and Fluxus has led certain members of the MA Network to take up and develop ideas that had made appearances within the framework of these earlier movements. (1) It would be fruitless to try and make an inventory of all such historical developments, the sheer volume of material passing through the MA Network makes this an impossibility. Instead, I propose to look at two specific examples: first, multiple names and second, agitation against art as a bourgeois paradigm.
Multiple name concepts - the idea that a single name should be used by a group of individuals, several magazines or music groups - did not play a starring role in the history of Dada. But Hausmann, Grosz, Baader, Herzfelde and Herzfelde's 'Christ & Co. Ltd' achieved more than footnote status in the standard histories of the Berlin avant-garde. Hausmann recollects the founding of this society in "Courier Dada"(Paris 1958): "I took Baader to the fields of Sudende (where Jung then lived), and said to him: 'All this is yours if you do as 1 tell you. The Bishop of Brunswick has failed to recognize you as Jesus Christ, and you have retaliated by defiling the altar in his church. This is no compensation. From today, you will be President of The Christ Society, Ltd, and recruit members. You must convince everyone that he too can be Christ, if he wants to, on payment of fifty marks to your society. Members of our society will no longer be subject to temporal authority and will automatically be unfit for military service. You will wear a purple robe and we shall organise an Echternach procession in the Potsdamer Platz. I shall previously have submerged Berlin in biblical texts. All the poster columns will bear the words "He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword".'"
The idea re-emerged, in a very modified form, more than fifty years after Hausmann made his suggestions to Baader. In the mid-seventies, the British correspondence project Blitzinformation (Stefan Kukowski and Adam Czamowski) circulated a leaflet on 'Klaos Oldanburgshi':
"Since the discovery that Oslo Kalundburg, the radio station, is an anagram of Klaos Oldanburg (sic), it has become one of BLITZINFORMATION's foremost projects to change everyone's name to Klaos Oldanburg. WE THEREFORE INVITE YOU TO BECOME KLAOS OLDANBURG. The advantages of such an action are too numerous to go into here. IF YOU WISH TO BECOME PART OF THIS INTERNATIONAL PROJECT, PLEASE FILL IN THE FORM BELOW ... Please note: SIMPLE KLAOS OLDANBURGSHIP IS ENTIRELY FREE (+ S.A.E.) FILL IN FORM."
Those who filled in the form were given a number of descent to use with the name - i.e. Klaos Oldanburg XXI (prev. Derek Hart). The use of numbers and indication of a previous name weakens the concept if it is viewed as a means of attacking traditional beliefs about identity.
However, both the term multiple names - and their use for political subversion - didn't occur until a group of anarcho-art punks from the London suburbs launched a 'movement' called the Generation Positive in October 1982, with a call for all rock bands to use the name White Colours. In February 1984 the movement launched its magazine Smile, and by the second issue (April '84) were calling for all magazines to use this name. In the fifth issue (October '84) the term multiple names was coined as a description of the concept and launched in a manifesto entitled "The Generation Positive Presents The Multiple Name Aesthetic".
In 1977, a multiple name concept had emerged among a group of mail artists gathered around what was known as the PORTLAND ACADEMY (Oregon, USA). At the centre of this group were the founder of the Academy, Dr. Al 'Blaster' Ackerman and his drinking buddy David 'Oz' Zack. In the Autumn of 1977 Zack announced his plan for an 'open pop-star' called Monty Cantsin. The idea was that anyone could use the name for a concert and that if enough people did so, Cantsin would become famous - and then unknown performers could take on the identity and be guaranteed an audience. Through the haze of alcohol and dope that permeated the Academy, Zack won converts to his plan to democratise the star system. The first person to perform under the Monty Cantsin banner was the latvian acoustic punk Maris Kundzin. After Kundzin had done a few concerts as Cantsin, the idea caught on and while the Academy continued to exist many of those associated with it used the name for performances. Zack and Kundzin mailed post cards to cultural workers around the world inviting them to become Monty Cantsin; Ackerman kept the 'Fourteen Secret Masters of the World' (his prioritised contacts in the MA Network) in touch with what was going on.
As more people got involved, the project took off. It is now impossible to say who contributed what. Indeed, to attempt to do so would be misleading, since - despite Zack taking credit for making up the Cantsin name - the development of the idea was practically, theoretically and organisationally collective. By the summer of 1978 the concept of ISM was added to that of Cantsin. ISM stood for an incorporation of all the previous movements (isms) of the avant-garde. However, fluxus seem to have been the influence that predominated. In the excitement generated by these projects, songs were written, concerts performed, exhibitions held, with no attempt to document what was going on.
While Monty Cantsin didn't put numbers after his name, it was not unusual for a legal name to be placed in brackets beneath the 'open pop-star' identity (for an example of this see the printed matter which accompanies the 1978 Monty Cantsin EP on Syphon Records). Through the interventions of Blitzinformation and Zack, we can see multiple names beginning to take on the form they would assume during the eighties In a letter to the author, dated 7/5/87, the Italian mail artist Vittore Baroni explained the genesis of his own multiple name project:
"... My Lt. Murnau project (1980-1984) was an attempt to study how ... musical myths are built... today, all these cult-underground bands, how far you can push an Image without a Sound. I started with spreading a lot of leaflets and announcements using the image of film-maker W.F. Murnau in his army uniform and the name Lieutenant Murnau that I found mysterious and evocative enough. I did the first cassette for VEC- Holland "Meet Lt. Murnau" just mixing, breaking, manipulating all the Beatles and Residents records. The idea is that Lt. Murnau uses existing music without having to use instruments or compose notes. Then I tried to confuse ... the audience having Murnau cassettes and records released in different countries by different people: Jacques Juin in Germany ... the 7" EP "Janus Head", with Grafike Airlines in Belgium the cassette package "The Lt. Murnau Maxi-single" (C30). Then there were several more cassettes, contributions to compilations, graphic works in magazines, etc ... A lot of texts etc are enclosed with the various packages ... I also did a concert-performance as Lt. Murnau, with mask, cutting and playing different records + crucifying a Beatles record etc. And I did in 1980 a programme ... "La Testa di Giano" for national Radio One in Italy, using Murnau materials. I printed and circulated hundreds of life-size cardboard masks of Lt. Murnau, that people could wear. Anybody could do Murnau music and become Lt. Murnau, and a few people did it. At the concert I distributed masks to the audience and then filmed them ... as they "become" Lt. Murnau as well. The main problem I found is that very few people were interested in working for a project that they felt belonged to myself, even if I tried to keep it mysterious in its origins. So in the end I always did 99% of the work, even if Jacques Juin did a lot of Murnau work in 1980 -81 and a few others contributed nice work (Michael Vanherwegen, Roger Radio, among others). The whole project was focussed on a very limited area, that of underground music, so it did not have the more varied overtones of the Monty Cantsin philosophy. Yet, I think the problems are the same ... The fact is that to participate you had to really work collectively, and this is something few in the art circles like to do without having their name in big letters ... "
During the 80's, Baroni was not the only person to initiate a multiple name project: by 1985 the names 'Karen Eliot', 'Mario Rossi' and 'Bob Jones' had also been put forward for multiple use. They were seen as means of subverting the star-system and questioning bourgeois notions of identity.(2) Two distinct camps emerged about how they should be used. One faction insisted that there should be a complete identification with the name used, while the other asserted that this would lead to the names being over identified with specific individuals, and so there should be a clear separation between personal identity and use of the concept. This argument has yet to be resolved and has led to hostilities between individuals 'sharing' a multiple identity.
If multiple names are an assault on art by inference, via their attack on the star system which sustains the notion of genius, there are other more direct attacks being made on art from within the MA Network. Tony Lowes's "Give Up Art/Save The Starving" campaign represents the more extreme wing of this tendency:
"Seeing and creating an image are the same activity. Those who create art are also creating the starving. Our world is a collective illusion. It is a great irony that the myth of the artist celebrates suffering, while it is those who have never heard of art, those enduring famine and drought and endemic diseases, who are the true poor and wretched of our world. And in this perversion of once a religious quest, today's artists deny that they are more than labourers, deny art itself, and so move to close off to man the light inside him.
"Art is now defined by a self-perpetuating elite to be marketed as an international commodity, a safe investment for the rich who have everything. But to call one man an artist is to deny another the equal gift of vision; - and to deny all men equality is to enforce inequality, repression, and famine.
"Everything that is learned is alien. Our histories are built on the heritage left by men who learned only to replace one concept with another. We strive to grasp what we do not know when our problems will be solved not by new information, but by the understanding of what man already knows. It is time to re-examine the nature of thought. Fictions occupy our minds and art has become a product because we believe ourselves and our world to be impervious to fundamental change. So we escape into art. It is our ability to transform this world, to control our consciousness, that withers on the vine.
"We need to control our own minds, to behave as if the revolution has already taken place. Paint all the paintings black and celebrate the dead art. We have been living at a masqued ball: what we think of as our identity is a schooled set of notions, preconceptions that are imprisoning us in history. From our own belief in our own identity flows ceaseless misery - our isolation, our alienation, and our belief that another man's life is more interesting that our own.
"It is only through valuing all the world equally that any of us will find liberation. An end to history is our rightful demand. To continue to produce art is to addict ourselves to our own repression. The refusal to create is the only alternative left to those who wish to change the world. Give up art. Save the starving,"
From his farmhouse in Eire, Lowes (born New York, 1944) mails out manifestoes, badges, stickers, and balloons bearing his slogans. They receive a mixed reaction in the MA Network, some people agree with him, others see his work as a joke, a few get upset. This reaction cannot be dissimilar to the way in which Richard Hulsenbeck's attacks on art were received by his Dadaist colleagues. Mail artists, like the dadaists and fluxists before them, are divided over the status of their work. Some see what they do as art, others don't. From a materialist perspective, mail art is not art because it is not commoditised by the bourgeoisie. On the whole, it remains outside the social process that gives an activity the status of art. It is possible that the activity might be elevated to the status of art at a future date, but even if this were to happen, only a very limited number of mail art products would actually be granted such a standing. And such an elevation in status seems unlikely while mail art continues to be practised.
At first sight this makes Lowes's propaganda efforts within the MA Network appear misdirected. But if his campaign is viewed as an attack on individualised creativity ('that unique place inside us where we possess art'), his work effectively addresses those in the network most given to such tendencies. He is using a language which is accessible to those who might not be artists, but perceive themselves as such. Lowes's activities highlight the contradictions of mail art. Obviously, those who coined the term did so because they identified their activities as being art based. Starting from an idealist perspective they presumably concluded that real art (universal human expression?) should not be sold but must be given as a Gift. As the network developed, a second group of individuals with a materialist perspective were attracted to it. This second group participated precisely because they saw MA as a support system within which they could engage in cultural exchange free of the essentialist conceptions of gallery art. Such individuals can use the network while ignoring its name. What confuses the issue is that Lowes uses the mail art network as a distribution system for an idealist attack on art. Reappearing here are all the contradictions of anti-art, unresolved since Pere Ubu made his stage debut.
From The Assault On Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War by Stewart Home (original edition Aporia Press/Unpopular Books, London 1988, new edition AK Press 1991).
1. Since the origin of their network in the sixties, most mail artists have viewed mail art as a direct development from dada and fluxus, and thus have always exhibited a deep interest in these previous movements. For examples of this see "Correspondence Art" edited by Michael Crane & Mary Stofflet (Contemporary Arts Press, San Francisco 1984); in particular see "Thoughts On Dada" & "Mail Art & Dada" both by Klaus Groh.
2. Most critics of multiple names have, to date, taken the claims made for them over literally. For example, Waldemar Jyroczech in "Re.Distribution" (included in "Plagiarism: art as commodity and strategies for its negation" edited by Stewart Home, Aporia Press, London 1987) has the following to say: "No one nowadays need rely on, say, the use of multiple names 'to create a situation for which on one in particular is responsible'. The very existence of the law implies a generalised absence of responsibility, one reinforced in the realm of 'the arts' by the 'death of the author' (cf. Barthes) and the 'liquidation of originality' (cf. Warhol). Indeed part of the problem is that this state of affairs seems to belong to the past, to an accepted but not understood history; a plagiaristic repetition of the issues will tend to result in the erection of a facade of ahistoricity; a kind of fetishisation."
Jyroczech assumes that those who "rely on ... the use of multiple names 'to create a situation for which no one in particular is responsible' " are unaware that such a situation already exists. I would suggest that those involved in such activities are aware of this fact and use the conscious creation of similar situations to bring this state of affairs to the attention of those who do not wish to perceive it. If Jyroczech understood such intentions, he would see that what is in dispute is his assertion that such problems 'belong to ... an accepted but not understood history.
From "The Assault On Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War by Stewart Home (original edition Aporia Press/Unpopular Books, London 1988, new edition AK Press 1991).
During the sixties, while many cultural workers were moving away from the
production of art objects towards violent political agitation, others were moving into the realms of non-art. Fluxus is the best known and most typical example of this trend. From the liberating climate created by the fluxworkers' assault on the dominant culture, mail art was able to develop. Indeed, the mail art network counts many fluxus members among its earliest participants. Although Ray Johnson (born 1927), considered by many as the founding father of mail art, never joined fluxus, his work is aesthetically close to that of the fluxus group. Indeed, Johnson often exchanged work and ideas with the guiding lights of the fluxus movement. Some of the correspondence he sent Dick Higgins was eventually published as a book, "The Paper Snake" (1965), by Higgins's Something Else Press.
Johnson's work consists primarily of letters, often with the addition of doodles, drawings and rubber stamped messages. The work is lightweight and humorous; rather than being sold as a commodity it is usually mailed to friends and acquaintances. Although much of Johnson's work is given away, this hasn't prevented it attaining a market value. The late Andy Warhol was quoted as saying he would pay ten dollars for anything by Johnson (presumably meaning his letters, since Johnson is also known in the straight art world as a moderately successful pop artist).
In the early sixties Johnson adopted the name "The New York Correspondence School" (NYCS) as an umbrella term for his mailings. He'd already spent some years building up a list of people with whom he could exchange letters and other oddities. This network, with Johnson at its centre, was the NYCS. The name was a parody of other more formal organisations. In 1973, the New York Times received a 'dead letter' from Johnson, which killed off the NYCS. However there was an 'instant rebirth and metamorphosis' as the Buddha University.
Johnson was not the only aesthetic contact fluxus had with the mail system, the fluxworkers themselves used the postal system for aesthetic purposes. The fact that the movement was spread between North America, Japan and Europe, forced its members to use the mail to exchange scores and ideas. But fluxus turned necessity into advantage and were soon churning out rubber stamps and artist's stamp sheets with which to adorn their letters and envelopes. The artist's stamp sheets were gummed and perforated like ordinary postal stamps, but their use was entirely decorative. They couldn't be used in place of any official postal issue. Individual Fluxists also dreamed up methods of subverting the postal system and increasing the involvement of postal workers in their mailings. The best known example of this is the Ben Vautier postcard "The Postman's Choice" (1965). This was printed identically on both sides with lines ruled out for different addresses and space for a stamp. It was left to chance and the postal authorities to decide which of the two possible addresses it should be delivered to.
Throughout the sixties the number of cultural workers exchanging ideas and small oddities through the post - and to a lesser extent the number creating works that took their meaning from being mailed - increased. This trend was fueled by the growth of conceptual and performance art, the main public residues of which were documentation in the form of notes and photographs. Using the postal system, such works could be sent around the world at very low costs. By the early seventies various groups were publishing lists of contact addresses for people interested in exchanging such ideas and works. The best known of these lists were those compiled by Image Bank, International Artists Cooperation and Ken Friedman (the latter published the "International Contact List Of The Arts" in 1972). What had been a few hundred people mailing each other slightly crazy messages suddenly mushroomed into several thousand individuals engaged in a new cultural form. The mail art network was born.
As the network grew, so various sub-genres developed within it. However, it never created a unique style of its own. Most of those participating used the new 'hot medium' of xerox alongside old fashioned rubber stamps. Certificates were produced in great number, which, like the rubber stamps, were used to parody officialdom. Typical among these certificates is Anna Banana's "Master Of Bananology" award. Banana herself typifies the fun side of the mail art network. Much of what she does - and this varies from post card collages to events like the 'Banana Olympics' - is based on the humorous connotations of her assumed name. She has also produced vast quantities of printed matter, varying from the ephemeral "Banana Rag" to the more substantial "Vile", one of the network's better known magazines. However, although she has not lost her sense of humour, Banana's performance work has recently taken on a much more serious tone - she's ceased her well received recreations of futurist and dadaist theatre; her live work is now primarily concerned with the global ecology crisis.
While Banana's activities would be suitable as family entertainment, Pauline Smith's "Adolf Hitler Fan Club" resulted in police raids on her home.
In her 1983 CV, deposited in the Tate Gallery Library, Smith describes the reasons for her interest in Hitler and how she launched the 'Fan Club':
"The ADOLF HITLER FAN CLUB was intended to be an analogy for the week-kneed (sic) British Governments since 1945 and was stimulated by local Chelsea politics regarding landlords/tenants/development/tourism, in which I was interested in the early seventies. Of course, this was not the only factor involved but it was the most pressing. The country is a mess and nothing gets any better. What I feel about the current situation will take several years more to express through my art. For the immediate present I am preoccupied with Adolf Hitler's involvement in the occult, the mediumistic nature of his public speaking and the mystery of his charismatic appeal to the multitudes. He may have been a bad man but he knew very well that people do not live by bread alone - a fact our leaders seem to have forgotten, and probably forgotten precisely because Adolf Hitler thought so deeply about meeting a people's need for inspiration... Adolf Hitler remained the subject of my painting as he had been of my Mailart and I continue to paint about him because everything that has happened in this country since his death has been a reaction against him. He is the biggest influence on this country this century."
Because most of those participating in the mail art network held liberal to left views, Pauline Smith was not only tolerated but defended by many.
While much mail art was inconsequential, the network - or at least parts of it - has conducted numerous campaigns for the freeing of political prisoners, and several against nuclear weapons. The flip-side of this is that, since the early seventies, there has been a sub-genre of mail art concerned with extremism, sado-masochism and pornography. The work of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge has provided some of the best known examples of this. In 1976 P-Orridge was convicted of sending obscene collages thrown the post, and much of Fanni Tutti's cultural work has centred around her activities as a stripper and model.
Another sexual extremist working within the mail art network during the seventies was Jerry Dreva (born 1945, Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Dreva is best known for his artist's book "Wanks For The Memories: The Seminal Work/Books of Jerry Dreva". Dreva created these books by masturbating until his semen stained the pages. The completed works were mailed to friends. As a result of these activities, Dreva has been dubbed 'the man who had a thousand orgasms for art' .
Dreva is also well known for his manipulation of the mass media. One of his earliest media escapades was "Les Petites Bonbons In Hollywood", created in collaboration with Bob Lambert, Chuck Bitz and others. The Bonbons went to all the right places and thus became a famous rock group without needing to bother about music. The Bonbons received coverage in People, Newsweek, Photographic Record and Record World, on the basis of wearing the right clothes and knowing the right people. Dreva became 'so fascinated with the power of the media to create and define' that he took a job on a Wisconsin paper to 'research the entire phenomenon'. As Dreva explains in a feature in "High Performance 9" (Spring 1980):
"Eventually I began to document my own life/art performances (many of them illegal) anonymously on the pages of the newspaper I worked for."
So, for example, Dreva would graffiti the outside of a Milwaukee High School - just before its Festival of Arts - with the slogans "Art Only Exists Beyond The Confines Of Accepted Behaviour" and "Death To Romance", and then in his role as a journalist caption a photo-story about the graffiti for the local press. He would then send copies of the story to his contacts in the mail art network.
In his "High Performance" feature, Dreva is quite clear about his intentions:
".....what I'm trying to do is point to a future when art will no longer exist as a category separate from life."
Dreva's lucidity is unusual among mail artists. Although most of them perceive Dada and Fluxus as their precursors, they are on the whole unaware of the critique of separation than runs as a common thread through these two, and all other, utopian currents. Mail art's popular success was achieved at the cost of abandoning any theoretical rigor. The mail art network continues to attract the involvement of a growing proportion of the lumpen-intelligentsia from all parts of the Americas and Europe, and participants in lesser numbers from Africa, Australia, Japan and South East Asia. These networkers are - on the whole - looking for an activity which will reinforce their perception of themselves as creative and tend not to be particularly critical about their pursuits.
The phenomenal growth of mail art is partially tied to the expansion of higher education during the fifties and sixties. For those who perceive it as "art" it serves as a simulacra and substitute for the rewards higher education promised but failed to deliver. Of the millions of students processed by the art schools, only a very few actually pursue a career as a practicing fine artist.
From a materialist perspective mail art is not art, despite the insistence of many of its practitioners. The democratic nature of the mail art network clearly situates it in opposition to the elitism of art (if art is defined as the culture of the ruling class).
The sheer numbers of people involved in mail art preclude the movement from being 'officially' recognised as a manifestation of high culture for at least as long as it continues to be practiced on such a wide scale. Most art movements (Pre- Raphaelites, Impressionists, Cubists &c.) would seem to number between five and fifty members; mail art by comparison numbers thousands. For a formal and organised art movement to number even a hundred members would pose a threat to its elite status - art critics would resist elevating such a mass of individuals to the pantheon of genius simply because such an elevation would bring the category 'genius' into question. Such numbers can only be dealt with by art critics under broader umbrella terms such as Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism.
As an open network the mail art system has enormous possibilities, but for these to be realised the majority of participants have to become fully conscious of the subversive current of which their mailings form an incoherent part.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Ray Johnson: The Present of Mail Art
by Ina Blom
“Mail Art has no history, only a present”. These words, written by Ray Johnson, initiator of the international mail art movement, provide a key to one of the most complex and idiosyncratic art projects of the 20th Century. A painter associated with the New York School of painting, Johnson had started it all the mid-1950’s, slowly building up a network of correspondents who would exchange objects and messages through the postal system. Initially it was Johnson himself sending out small collage-like works to a mailing list, urging people to keep them, to add to them, to change them, to send them to others, to return to sender. In time others joined in this activity, and in the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s the network grew way beyond the immediate reach and touch of Johnson’s own mailing activities. The initial network was named The New York Correspondance School (sic) – a spin or pun on the idea of artistic schools and the concomitant idea of art history as a succession of such schools. But then the quip about the history of Mail Art was itself a pun, of the most serious kind. Like so many other avant-garde artists (who left painting and behind) Johnson was eager to cut through the historicist temporality that informed modern art history and art production, with its logic of continual succession and supersession of artistic tradition. Cutting through this logic meant placing the production and thinking of art within the immanence of an eternal present, an uncontrollable present of events, not unlike the eternally present liveness of television – a technology and a communication medium which was just at that moment appropriated for artistic purposes.
But then mail art was seen as one of the new “communication arts”, a form of media aesthetics that evolved alongside video art as well as the new questioning of distribution and public access that informed much of the new performative and conceptual art practices: A collage-like work by Ray Johnson even claims to present a “history of video art”, however idiosyncratic. It is in this precise sense that mail art could be said to only have “a present” – a present of communicational events, of uncontrollable exchanges, of things arriving and departing at unforeseen times and places, thanks to the medium of postal system, which, just like television, could be seen to distribute “signals” across the boundaries of time and space. However, the second (punning) meaning of “present” – present meaning gift – was just as important to the logic of Johnson’s postal system. Mail art had no history, since – unlike a modernist art that seems to reside in an independent realm of ever-evolving formal development – it could be seen to place itself squarely in the realm of social exchanges, that is the realm whose entire principle of circulation and reciprocity is kept in check by the system of gifts. Anthropologists see this phenomenon at work, with different ritualistic expressions, in every known culture: the phenomenon of gift exchanges (whose rules are both uncannily similar to and emphatically different from trade and barter) is what ensures the existence of true collectivity. The association of mail art with the rules and ambiguities of gift giving is present in Ray Johnson’s reflections on his artistic practice from the late 1950’s onwards. It is then also what makes it possible to see his artistic practice as a significant contribution to the 1960’s emphasis on situational or relational art practices, practices designed to intervene in social reality, to question existing social form or to try to form new types of collectives or to rethink collectivity tout court. And the emphatic return to these artistic concerns in contemporary art is among the things that accounts for the actuality of Ray Johnson’s lifelong artwork.
But to engage with this actuality is also to be confronted with the question of what exactly Ray Johnson’s present(s) consisted of, what exactly one got when one received a mailing by Ray Johnson and what it meant to be a part of his collectivity of mailers. The answer is complicated, to say the least. In contrast to the social contract set up by the international mail art movement as it evolved on its own accord (a contract informed by ideals of infinite sharing, of non-competition, of giving without thoughts of return, while resting assured that giver’s receive etc.), Johnson at every twist and turn seems to undercut the social ties seemingly established by his practice of gift giving, in fact to continually question the very concepts of communication, communion and community that are associated with it. Hyper-conscious of the ambiguities of gift giving (the difficult power balance between giver and receiver, the difficult distinction between coercion and voluntary action, between ritual and spontaneity and between gift and mere exchange), Johnson exploited the corresponding ambiguities of the modern postal system – a system founded on the premise that messages always reach their destination, but whose rich mythology is shot through with the anxiety provoked by the idea of non-received, displaced, returned and refused messages. At every level – from the semantic techniques deployed in his writings, to his organization of visual material, to the idiosyncratic pragmatics of his mailing practice – Johnson evokes the same reality of associations promised and associations unmade, ruptured, dispersed. His presents are, in other words, full of nothing, and his non-historical present fundamentally undercut by absence: with Johnson there is never any guarantee of community, of the perfect social immanence of togetherness and understanding. Johnson reciprocates, but only through interruption. He organized meetings and assemblies (of the NYCS members), but these meetings were without content or purpose, as if mere gatherings of names on a mailing list. But then concept of nothing informed his artistic project in so many ways, from his mailings to performance-like activities to his rare exhibitions: it organized his very thinking on art and on the role of art and aesthetics in relation to that entity called the social. Through this means continually opened up of the question of sociality itself, the very meaning of notion of “the social”. At a time when so much artistic work is once again focused on “social action”, on all sorts of community-oriented practices, this questioning is of the highest relevance.
Ina Blom, January 2008
About Ina Blom
Ina Blom is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. She has written extensively on modern and contemporary art and is also active as an art critic.
Ina Blom curated the following exhibition:
2003 The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design Oslo ‘The Name of the Game’ (11 January-9 March, 2003), curator Ina Blom. The exhibition traveled to the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (April 2-18 May, 2003), Museum Het Domein Sittard (31 May-17 August, 2003)
[exhibition catalogue] Ina Blom (ed.), The Name of the Game. Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance / book edited and exhibition curated by Ina Blom (National Museum of Contemporary Art : Oslo 2003).