Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Introducing Mail Art: A Karen Elliot Interview with Crackerjack Kid and Honoria

Hubener: Karen Elliot is the founder of Plagiarism and the 1990-1993 Art Strike. Crackerjack Kid has been active in mail art since 1978 and is the editor of Eternal Network, an illustrated mail art anthology scheduled for publication in 1993 by University of Calgary Press. Honoria, a.k.a. Mail Art Kisses for Peace, Touriste, and Fake Picabia Sister, hails from Austin, Texas where she is the MailArt editor of ND Magazine. All three artists are active networkers who use both the international postal system and electronic mail links to distribute information, concepts, and sometimes a surprise wrapped in an enigma.

Karen Elliot (hereafter KE): Well, Crackerjack Kid, they say you compare mail art to Crackerjack candy--that you like putting a surprise in everybody's mailbox. Who have you surprised lately, and who in turn surprises you most often?

Crackerjack Kid (hereafter CJK): I could say that nothing in mail art surprises me anymore, but it does. D. Peepol of Akron, Ohio once mailed a lunch bag of black, sooty, perfumed dust and while I was opening it, the contents spilled over my lap onto the furniture and floor. A small tag remained in the sack with the startling announcement: "These are the last mortal remains of my dear aunty Sarah." Shmuel in Brattleboro, Vermont is only an hour down the road from me and yet s/he regularly sends add-on objects like driftwood, pistachios, walnuts, cryptic coded postcards, and most recently, a 3-D paper monoplane which arrived in an official plastic USPS "body bag." Among the most unusal items I've mailed are navel stamps and a sourdough bread baguette I carved into a phallus. I stuffed it into an oversized Crackerjack box for the John Bennett and Cathy Mehrl mail art marriage show.

(H) One of the weirdest pieces of mail I received was a pop-up hand made splatter-painted paper sea skate from Kevin in Atlanta. Somehow our correspondance evolved into sending each other fish. It became pretty challenging after the first dozen or so fish images. He even sent me some cut out ads for efficiency apartments. I sent him a photo of dried out, ugly as sin, cat-fish heads hanging on a Texas barbed wire fence. I found a souvenir of Florid, a wooden paddle in the shape of a fish, the toy kind with a rubber band and ball attached. I haven't sent it to him yet because our corresponding fishing hole gradually dried up. I still send him a bait fish every now and then and when he's in the mood (maybe now, after artstrike) he'll get a reel and flop some more fish on the postal scales. Another long term correspondent in Indiana sends naive brightly colored drawings on envelopes with each letter. One of them was called mother bar-b-ques the cat. These don't have the verbal shock value of Cracker's examples but if you saw them you'd agree on their dramatic weirdness levels. But let me tell you about the most relaxing piece of mail I ever received. It was from a correspondent in Oregon, a liscenced massage therapist. He suggested flirtatiously that he and I engage in a mail fantasy. I told him I was a prude but would have a fantasy as long as it wasn't a sex fantasy. I told him I could use a licensed massage fantasy. He wrote back asking what scent of oil I wanted and what music. I answered rose with a hint of citrus and that Mozart clarinet thing and he sent me a full body massage description in anatomical detail ending with a secret for turning on the parasympathetic nervous system and a $5 off coupon.

(CJK) Both Honoria and I could go on forever about wacky mail because the sacred and profane are so commonplace in the mail art mailstream. There aren't any rules guiding what can and can't be sent. Short of mail fraud, mailing bombs, drugs, or dirt from Canada, most everything gets posted. There was a mail art show in California with a conceptual theme titled, "Test the Post Office." Objects mailed included an addressed water filled balloon. Someone sent a fifteen feet long garden hose with over a hundred one cent stamps on the hose surface. A sly mail artist tested the honesty of the postal system by laminating and addressing a ten dollar bill; it arrived safely for the show in Los Angeles.

(KE) You're planning on opening mail art here in this studio loft in SoHo. So am I right to assume you're having a "mail art opening?"

(H) Oh, most definitely! The public will open the mail that's accumulated at this address over the past three months. We decided to let the public take the unopened mail art off the walls and replace it with their own offerings. There are tables all over the studio with materials for making mail art. Our show, is just one of several dozen other mail art shows and projects which simulateously carry on every month. You can get the newest mail art show listings by writing to Ashley Parker Owens (73358 N. Damen, Chicago, IL 60645). Her "Global Mail" is a newsletter of international mail art events that's published three times yearly in January, May, and September. There are numerous other trade zines, bulletins, and mainstream magazines which regularly post mail art show listings, but I'm most impressed by the sheer volume of projects and shows in her publication. By the way, PMC readers can reach CrackerJack Kid via email (see list at end of interview). He also edits a mail art zine entitled Netshaker. Annual subscription is $12.00 payable by check or money order at PO Box 978, Hanover, NH 03755.

(KE) But where are the people you invited? Aren't mail art shows supposed to be public events--places where mail artists can have a "coming out" and expose their secret, intimate, hidden mailstream corresponDANCES!

(CJK) Well Karen, I like how you accented Dances because that's just what mail artists do, they DANCE to an off-beat, underground chant called "Gift Exchange." Someone once said mail art was Christmas in the mailbox everyday of the year, but we're here to let the public cut in on the dance. Our show in part recalls the first mail art exhibition, The New York Correspondance School Show" curated in 1970 by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum. That show incorporated the work of 106 people, all individuals who had mailed art to Ray Johnson. The irony was that Johnson's work wasn't present because he asked his correspondents to submit their work to him instead. We've invited everybody in New York City to this show who has the last name Elliot, or Johnson--in honor of you and especially Ray Johnson who is the father of mail art. Of course anybody else is welcome to send mail art too.

(KE) Holy Akademagorrod! Didn't Ray Johnson do that once--I mean, call everybody named Ray Johnson in the NYC phonebook to a New York Correspondance School Party?

(H) Not exactly Karen, but Ray Johnson did have a "Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper Club." There were two Michael Coopers who knew each other, and there was a third Michael Cooper that Johnson knew. Johnson arranged to have all the Coopers meet each other. Johnson has arranged a lot of meetings. His mail art goes back to the mid-forties and quite a few people in the art and non-art world have had at least a mailing or two, fragmentary riddles that add to his mythic legend.

(KE) What does he mail?

(CJK) Cartoon characters like his bunny head, correspondence, mailings from previous works, and multilayered collages. Ray Johnson is a pun shaper who finds words within words and he's a master of wit who often mixes images with texts. But the best way to experience Ray Johnson is to interact with him by dropping something in his mailbox. His address is 44 West 7 Street, Locust Valley, New York 11560.

(H) Also, a lot of pictures of Ray Johnson are sent throughout the network with invitations to intervene upon them. I received Ray Johnson's high school picture once from Italy. I cut it in half and put it in two TV sets and sent it back. How many Ray Johnson bath tubs are there? That's a very popular project. You usually add yourself to the zeroxed pile of networkers taking a bath with Ray Johnson. One imagines the rubberstamp pad ink dissolving off the artists making a colorful bathtub ring.

(CJK) Ray Johnson is also notorious for his institutional inventions. In the 1973 "Death Announcements" section of The New York Times, Johnson announced the demise of his New York Correspondence School, which was shortly thereafter reborn as Buddha University. Numerous Johnson inspired Fan Clubs grew under the rubric of the NYCS. I mentioned the Michael Cooper Club, but there was also the Shelley Duvall Fan Club, Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, the Blue Eyes Club and it's Japanese equivalent, "the Brue Eyes Crub." Johnson's network of mail art contacts has expanded in recent years to include phone calls which range from informative to mysterious. Ray called me one evening two months ago to say that the first New York Correspondence School meeting took place in a Manhattan Quaker Meeting House. I was telling Ray how spirited mail artists interested me, mail art that shakes, rattles, quakes, and rolls--artists who I'm fond of calling "netshakers." Johnson said his meeting at the Quaker House was just a meeting of friends, but he hoped that the people whould go into religious convulsions and do Quaker shaking.

(KE) I understand Johnson's importance to mail art, but is there an association between Ray Johnson and the selection of this space for your mail art show?

(CJK) Yes, in an oblique way I chose the NYC location over the Emily Harvey Gallery and Jean Depuy loft because this is where Fluxus master George Maciunas lived for awhile. Maciunas and Ray Johnson knew one another. From 1960-61 Maciunas ran AG Gallery at 925 Madison Avenue, a performance space not far from where we are now. It's been said that SoHo started due to Maciunas's establishment of the first SoHo cooperative building at 80 Wooster Street. Johnson performed a "Nothing" at Maciunas's AG Gallery just before it closed in July 1961. Maciunas is credited as one of the founding members of Fluxus.

(KE) What's Fluxus?

(CJK) Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, George Maciunas and a small group of artists started a new "tendency" or intermedia perception--George Maciunas named it Fluxus. Fluxus implies "the state of being in flux, of movement, ephemerality, playfulness, and experimentalism. This fluxattitude resulted in numerous publications, feasts, and Fluxfests. One of those performances occured here when Maciunas married Billie Hutching on February 25, 1978. Wedding guests and the "wedding train," performed Flux Cabaret.

(KE) So Maciunas and Johnson were both Fluxus artists?

(CJK) Yes, although if Maciunas were alive today, I doubt he or Johnson would agree on any close interconnection through their work. Neither Mail Art or Fluxus are movements as much as they are tendencies. Maciunas, unlike Johnson or most of the Fluxus artists, had an anarchistic, utopian vision whereas Johnson's mail was actually correspondence art, an intimate, personal exchange between an individual or small group of people. It was the American Fluxus artist Ken Friedman who took mail art out of the personal realm and into the international paradigm in which Fluxus artists were engaged. Friedman's 1973 Omaha Flow Systems established the mail art ethic for shows like this one we're having. Friedman brought his Fluxus background to mail art in the pursuit of open, democratic, interactive exhibitions which encouraged viewers to participate. Interaction with audiences has always been a Fluxus characteristic.

(KE) Let's return to mail art shows for a minute. What shows have you entered, Honoria?

(H) My favorite mailart activity is entering mail art shows by submitting small pieces of art at the request of another networker in response to their chosen theme. I ended up painting hundreds of postcard sized figures and skeletons in response to the shadow project(s) commemorating the people vaporized by the WWII atomic explosion on Hiroshima. I put some of them on a black poncho and wore them to a Day of the Dead celebration in Austin and danced to cojunto music. You never know where mailart will go or send you. I used to work in an isolated and local competitive market (fine) art environment. Now I feel the flow of art & ideas in and out of my studio room is part of a huge global art studio where we get together to gossip, philosophize, show each other new unfinished work, and communicate fresh ideas. The mailartist to mailartist communication uses all kinds of shortcuts that artist-to-general public, or even informed art historically astute public will not get. Our jargon, in-jokes and creative playfulness are as slippery as freshly licked glue on the back of a 50 cent stamp about to be placed on a recycled envelope bound for Japan. For instance, everyone I know outside the network thinks plagiarism is a naughty deceit. Within the network Plagiarism is an art movement. In fact, there have been festivals of plagiarism. Recycling other artists images is a basic concept in mail art.

(CJK) Appropriation, sorting, and shuffling written texts is also a very corresponDANCE kind of improvisational jazz you'll find in the mail art network. Indeed, name sharing and detourning strategies began surfacing in mail art back in the early 1970s. Dadaism, Nouveau Realisme, Futurism, COBRA, Fluxus, and Situationalism have all played varied influential roles in the mail art mailstream.

(H) Now Karen, just between us girls, I want to know if you've been catching this drift? I've noticed a renewed interest in the actions and representations of women in the network. Jennifer Huebert (POB 395, Rifton, NY 12471) just collected mail from women networkers who attended congresses in 1992. I'm looking forward to reading other people's views. In a huge network full of pseudonyms and correspondents who don't speak each others languages I think it's odd, but fun, to examine the yin/yang aspect of it all. One networker is named manwoman.

(CJK) Yeh, I know ManWoman! S/he's a Canadian Pop Artist, a musician, poet, and a shaman who has an on-going project to restore the sacred, mystical significance of the ancient swastika--before it was denigrated by National Socialism. S/he believes in dreams and can analyze their symbolic significance. When I told ManWoman that Cathyjack and I were trying to have a child, S/he sent me a fertility chant which, low and behold, WORKED within a week after I received it in the mail. That makes ManWoman more than just a charming individual--S/he's a very kind, gentle soul, a sage. There's a certain charismatic aura and mystery in meeting such people through the mail--pseudonyms like ManWoman and Michael VooDoo help to create an unpredictable, unusual postal pantheon.

(H) I have deduced from my correspondence that some mail artists perceive Honoriartist as a male. Maybe it's due to my fertile imagination (although to my knowlegdge my mail has never been responsible for a pregnancy) plus my connections and art collaborations with transvestites. Then there's all this collaborating going on between many artists. However, in the process of the historification of mailart someone will get interested in who is actually who and what sex they are. I am quite content 2 be both or more.

(KE) I can certainly understand reasons for creating fictive monikers, but judging by both of your comments it seems that fact is often stranger than fiction in mail art netland. Now, on to a final question or two. Readers of PMC have seen sporadic Networker Congress and Telenetlink Congress listings in their electronic forum throughout 1992. You (C.J. Kid) and Reed Altemus have called attention to yourselves as facilitators of these congress events. What's this congress biz all about?

(CJK) 1992 was the year of the World-Wide Decentralized Networker Congress, otherwise known as METANET, or NC92. The Networker Congresses were first proposed by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Fricker in "Mail Art: A Process of Detachment," a text presented in March 1990 for my book Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology (to be published in Dec. 1993 by University of Calgary Press). In early 1991 Fricker met with fellow Swiss artist Peter W. Kaufmann and together they drafted an invitational flyer entitled, Decentralized World-Wide Networker Congress 1992. The congress call went out to anybody, "Wherever two or more artists/networkers meet in the course of 1992, there a congress will take place." The Networker Congresses, like the Mail Art Congresses of 1986, grew into a huge forum of 180 congresses in over twenty countries.

(KE) Sounds like an enormous project. How was it organized?

(CJK) H.R. Fricker and Peter W. Kaufmann sought active, creative input from networker artists on six continents. American artists Lloyd Dunn, Steve Perkins, John Held Jr., Mark Corroto, and I joined Fricker and Kaufmann early (summer 1991) in the development of the NC92 concept and served as active "netlink facilitators." Final drafts of the Networker Congress invitations included netlink contacts from Africa, South America, North America, Asia, Europe and Australia.

(KE) Is it fair to assume that the networker artist has grown out of the mail art phenomenon?

(CJK) I think so. The Networker Congresses were based on the acknowledgment that a new form of artist, the networker, was emerging from international network cultures of the alternative press, mail art community, telematic artists, flyposter artists, cyberpunks, cassette bands, rubberstampers and stamp artists. The year-long collective work by networkers of NC92 represents the first major effort among artists to cross-over and introduce diverse underground networks to each other. Until this moment countless marginal networks, often operating in parallel directions, were unaware of one another. Mail artists that network have a sense of what intermedia and interactivity involve--it's a consciousness which branches outward. One could say that mail art's evolution was based upon intermedia--the mailstream merging of zines, artist stamps, rubberstamping, correspondence, sound sculpting with audio cassettes, visual poetry, and artists' books. Communication concepts have been the medium and message that mail artists use to bind together these divergent forms of expression. Today, forms like stamp art have become genres unto their own, with proscribed criteria often veering towards normative art standards more than the spirit of a process. I read somewhere in Lund Art Press that the most successful intermedia forms eventually cease to be intermedia. These creative forms evolve into the qualitative characteristics of techniques and styles and will finally become established media with names, histories and contexts of their own. Indeed, the rarity of mail may come to pass with the continued escalation of postal rates. This may encourage more qualitative standards within the mail art network.

(KE) Well Cracker--Can I call you Cracker? (Crackerjack nods his head)--what's wrong with qualitative standards?

(CJK) Hey Karen, didn't you know that when you're really good they call you crackerjack? Really though, for me, the thrill of the process is being inventive, taking yourself somewhere you haven't been before. It can certainly go stale if you don't know when to let go, when to hold back from too much mail. Burnout in mail art is rampant. I'm not a statistician, but to get a focus on what my mail art activities involve each year, I set about tallying all my in-out going mail for 1992. It revealed some startling figures to me. Not including hundreds of email message, I've sent out over 1,150 mail art works and have received 1,250 pieces in return. These figures state that I usually answer most of the mail that I receive. It also shows that with all of my international mailings, I spend, on the average, about $1.20 postage on each item of mail art I send. That makes for an expensive passion! I might want to cut back. I might want to reconsider the investment of my time and energy, or I might decide to conserve the time, energy, and money for those I feel return the same intensity, joy, and playfulness of dialogue. The bottom line is that there are personal criteria for entering and leaving mail art. You definitely receive what you are willing to give and you quickly find out what your threshold for tolerance is.

(KE) Let's return to the networker congress concept. What kinds of congresses were there in 1992?

(H) I was invited to a place I'd never heard of called Villorba, Italy by a long time correspondent, Ruggero Maggi, who sent me some wonderful kisses when I did my kiss show. I went to congress with the Italians and wow, am I glad I did. Long philosophical talks on the lawn of the beautiful Villa Fanna, videos of many networkers, performances, poetry, hours of exchanging, making, sending artworks, food, wine, joy, laughter, howling at the moon, walking barefoot in mudpuddles.... Well, you can just imagine it took the wind right out of my mid-life crisis. This congress was dedicated to the great mail artist A. G. Cavellini and they just made his archive into a museum. We just don't have time to get into Cavellini and the philosophy of "don't make Art make PR" and self-historification etc..

(CJK) Among the scores of other congress themes were John Held Jr.'s Fax Congress, Jennifer Huber's Woman's Congress, Miekel And & Liz Was's Dreamtime Village Corroboree, my own Netshaker Harmonic Divergence, Rea Nikonova and Serge Segay's Vacuum Congress, Bill Gaglione's Rubberstamp Congress, Mike Dyar's Joseph Beuys Seance, Guy Bleus's Antwerp Zoo Congress, and O.Jason & Calum Selkirk's Seizing the Media Congress. There were also numerous, on-going networker projects including Peter Kustermann and Angela Pahler's global tour as "netmailmen performers." Throughout 1992 Kustermann and Pahler travelled, congressed, lectured, recorded a diary, and hand-delivered mail person-to-person. Italian mail artist Vittore Baroni helped create and record a networker congress anthem, Let's Network Together, and American mail artist Mark Corroto produced Face of the Congress networker congress zine.

(KE) So how do you think all these NC92 congresses worked? Did they succeed or fail?

(CJK) I think they were remarkable! Most of the organizers of NC92 congresses have been active international mail artists. They have emerged from the networker year of activities with a deeper awareness of intermedia involvement in global network communities, and a realization that "I am a mail artist, sometimes." While many mail artists visited friends in the flesh, others, unable to travel, "meta-networker spirit to spirit" in the NC92 Telenetlink Congress, a homebased telecommunication project conducted with networkers using personal computers and modems. Serbian and Croat mail artists established networker peace congresses, one such congress taking place in a village where a battle raged around them.

(KE) Our on-line readers would probably like to know what your Telenetlink Congress was about. Can you briefly state your objective?

(CJK) My objectives were to introduce and eventually netlink the international telematic community with the mail art mailstream. I began forming an email list of telecommunication artists which I compiled from responses to my numerous NC92 Telenetlink postings on internet, BBS', electronic journals, and Usenet Newsgroups. I began Telenetlink in June 1991 by participating in Artur Matuck's global telecommunication project Reflux Network Project. There I served as an active netlink between the telematic community on one hand, and the mail art network's Decentralized World-Wide Networker Congress, 1992. Where these two projects intersected there were informal on-line congresses in which the role of the networker was discussed. Conceptual on-line projects such as the Spirit Netlink Performance drew in crowds of participants at the Reflux Network Project link in the Sao Paulo Bienale.

(KE) Haven't mail artists and telematic artists interacted through collaborative projects using mail and e-mail?

(CJK) It comes as no surprise that pioneering telematic artists like Fred Truck, Judy Malloy, and Carl Loeffler were once quite active in mail art's early years, but efforts to combine both mail art and telematic forms were never fully approached. My Telenetlink project was the first home-based effort to interconnect the telematic and mail art worlds. By netlinking both parallel network worlds, I found many common tendencies; internationalism, interest in intermedia concepts, respect for cultural diversity, humor, ephemerality, emphasis upon process art rather artifact, humor, global spirituality unencumbered by religious dogma, utopian idealism, experimentalism, and interest in resolution of the art/life dichotomy. Prior to Telenetlink there were mail artists such as Mark Block (U.S.), Ruud Janssen (The Netherlands), and Charles Francois (Belgium), whose efforts were aimed at introducing mail art through their own private Bulletin Board Services, but netlinking mail art and the telematic community through mainframes on internet hadn't been explored. Fewer than four dozen mail artists are actively using computers to explore communicative art concepts, but that number is rapidly changing now that computer technology is more affordable. Still, some mail artists view their form as more intimate, tactile, expressive, and communicative than telecommunication art. Other mail artists regard computers with mistrust, suspicion, even fear. Likewise, I have heard telecommunication artists view mail art as a primitive, slow, outmoded, form of expression. I prefer to think of telematic art and mail art as useful tools for creative communication. It's not a matter of one form being superior to another. I think the time is right for mail artists and telematic artists to get acquainted--to netshake--to telenetlink worlds. Here's a list of telecommunication artists who use mail art and email as intermedia forms. I think this is the best way Honoria, Karen Elliot, and I can help PMC readers learn about mail art--to experience the direct contact.

(KE) Well, I think that's a good way to come full circle in this discussion. To know mail art and telematic art is to experience it. Thanks Honoria and Crackerjack for opening up some possibilities to interconnect network communities.
Copyright © 1992 Honoria

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thanks for the interview!


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