Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Across Vanishing Borders: Mail Art and the Internet, John Held, Jr.

The first essay I wrote on Mail Art was for Richard Kostelanetz's, A Critical (Ninth) Assembling (New York, 1979). Information Science and the Art of Communication, attempted to apply the lessons of information theory to the visual and written arts. I was concerned with "the distortion of the artwork when subjected to distribution channels. In a world networked by mass communications, this concern has social as well as artistic implications."

My bible at the time was Abraham Moles', Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (University of Illinois Press, 1966). Moles was dealing with such concepts as originality ("If a given message or event is certain, it teaches the receptor nothing and cannot modify his behavior. An unexpected event has by definition a zero probability; hence it substantially modifies the behavior of the receptor.") and redundancy ("Redundancy furnishes a guarantee against errors in transmission, since it permits the receptor to reconstruct the message even if some of its elements are lacking...").

From my isolation in Upstate New York, rarely in contact with others interested in the contemporary arts, I began to reach out through Mail Art to others in similar circumstances. An interest in rubber stamps was my entry into this international network, and I, as well as others in the field, used them as beacons alerting others to our presence.

The redundancy of the rubber stamp conveyed a world of information through repeated impressions. Used in the same manner as a corporate logo, the receptor could instantly determine the origin of the message. Establishing a signal, the sender could then manipulate the imparted information in unexpected and mysterious ways. This mixing of redundancy and originality, firmly placed Mail Art in a Post Modernist context.

Originality was achieved not by unfettered experimentation, but by establishing rigorous formats that could be subverted by poetry. My first encounter with this was the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, originating from Milan, Italy. Mohammed would send out blank letterheads, to which his correspondents would respond by varied visual means, attach a list of twelve names and addresses and return to the Center. Mohammed would then color photocopy the results, assign a unit number, and distribute to the twelve unwitting recipients, as well as the originating artist. Each year a record of these transactions was published, listing senders and receivers. One could see the ripples of the network, and with whom the various participants interacted. Above it all, Mohammed acted as puppet master, regulating the flow of organizational mystery.

The most effective Mail Art is conducted in similar fashion. A format is established and adhered to. Within this redundant channel, the unexpected is allowed to unfold. For over a decade, Japanese Mail Artist Ryosuke Cohen has been sending out units of his Brain Cell project, now numbering some five-hundred. Each unit contains forty to fifty correspondents, whose images have been gathered onto a collective sheet. This swirl of images, colored by the process of goccho printing, is an image bank of networking material. Though they are in fact, limited prints, the product is subservient to the process by which it was created.

Attached to the Brain Cell unit is a list of names and addresses of the participants, allowing for further interaction. "Although the Berlin Wall is no longer," Cohen wrote in 1997, "there are many kinds of nations in the world which have their own histories and cultures, different religions have different lifestyles, foods and customs. It is necessary for artists and others to recognize the differences in each other's personalities by distributing their work amongst one another."

Examples of redundant formats are numerous in Mail Art. buZ blurr's Caustic Jelly Post artist postage stamps (artistamps) are created by stenciling the negatives of Polaroid portraits of his correspondents. Some fifty stampsheets have been produced in this format. Yugoslavian artist Dobrica Kamperelic has issued over one-hundred numbers of his zine, Open World, created by collating information received from correspondents. Another Mail Art periodical, Commonpress, was compiled by a different editor on a different theme each issue, after receiving authorization from its' founder, the Polish artist Pawel Petasz.

Artist Postage Stamps have been extremely popular in Mail Art because of the infinite variety extended by a singular format. Creating their own mythology, Mail Artists have deconstructed the postage stamp to reflect their own interests, be it personal or political.

My own personal mythology was woven with others creating a tableau of global interaction. Reaching across international borders, relating with others in such far-flung venues as Uruguay, Romania and Estonia, was a liberating experience irrevocably changing my life. Through personal correspondence, relationships were initiated. Participation in Mail Art exhibitions extended this network, viewing correspondents in new arenas, transforming the personal into the public.

Perhaps the foremost theoretician of the field, the late Ulises Carrion, expressed similar ideas in his essay, Personal Worlds or Cultural Strategies? "Mail Art shifts the focus from what is traditionally called 'art' to the wider concept of 'culture.' And this shift is what makes Mail Art truly contemporary. In opposition to 'personal worlds,' Mail Art emphasizes cultural strategies."

Carrion saw no distinction between the use of the mail and other media in the creation of those cultural strategies. "The Post Office provides the artist with a distribution network but it doesn't define the work. The Post Office is not an essential element of the work and it could be replaced by other transportation systems...At first sight, compared to telephones or televisions, the Postal System seems rather slow, unsafe, complicated, awkward, inefficient, uncontrollable. But these imperfections leave space for play, for invention, for surprise, those qualities that mail artists have been exploiting for quite a number of years now."

Fluxus artist Robert Filliou had described an "Eternal Network," in the Sixties, envisioning a coterie of artists desiring a free exchange of art and ideas. The introduction of FAX and computer communication technologies in the eighties gained immediate acceptance by the Mail Art community, who were not fixated on the Post Office, as Carrion stated, but on the aesthetics of communication and its distribution.

In an introductory essay, Networking the Nineties, written for my book, Mail Art: an Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1991), I stated that, "It seems that there are several directions in which mail artists are taking the new technology. Computer works are being sent through the postal system, networks are being established by modems, information is being stored for fast retrieval and updating, and discs are being created as art objects." The essay concluded that, "the nineties will be a time of new ideas, of continuing debate on issues vital to the network and of increased experimentation with emerging communication technologies."

These were conclusions easily reached in the infancy of a new communications medium; an era of unlimited potential with new developments appearing at regular intervals. Today's communication landscape is vastly changed from the time Networking the Nineties appeared, providing vast new areas of exploration. The fact that networking was used as a term to describe the decade, only proves how in advance of its time Mail Art was. Before the .com generation, Mail Artists were paving the information highway, reaching across vanishing borders to establish contact with like-minded individuals through indirect communication.

How does one present him/herself to the world? What are the ethics of indirect interpersonal communication? What are the possibilities available through international cooperation? Are there positive results meeting in real time with formerly anonymous correspondents? These were some of the questions Mail Artists debated in such real and virtual venues as the Mail Art Congresses of 1986 and the Networker Congresses of 1992.

The Web has established itself as a dominant communitive force. Be it used for commerce or culture, it shares similarities with Mail Art, especially with such rigorous projects as the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication and Brain Cell, cited earlier. Both have addresses formatted for instant recognition, A formatted style is created that lends itself to variety. Links are established with participants that extend the range of the channel.

Instantaneous communication via computer has certain undeniable advantages over the postal system. But art via the mail still possesses certain preferential characteristics. The shared touch of the paper, the varied textures of presentation, the duration one waits for a reply, all add to the mystery of postal correspondence. But both computer and Mail Art contact can be deceiving. Mediated relationships are ghostly shadows of socialization, demanding to be tested in reality to become meaningful. It is too easy to hide behind a communication channel and misrepresent oneself.

My Mail Art activities were never to escape from reality, but to extend the limits of my own physicality. To write a friend in Argentina, Yugoslavia or Japan, was to reach out and explore people and places I never thought I could visit. I was wrong. My continued involvement in the medium brought me to all these places and tested relationships that were first established through the post.

Like Mail Art, on-line communication is a beginning, not an end in itself. Computers are tools with which we begin the process of personal interaction. Communication by Post and on the Internet melds otherwise isolated individuals, linking them in the creation of new possibilities through redundancy and originality.

San Francisco, 1999.

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