THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 14 (pages 74-79)
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).