Saturday, August 21, 2010

Arhus at the Centre of the World: reflections on Mail-art and William Louis Sorensen, Simon Anderson

The art of WLS is interactive, portable, and open to interpretation or manipulation by its recipients, and so offers a model of the art of the period. Beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, WLS created a body of artworks which both relied on the international postal system for distribution, and which used language to organize the work. These elements synchronize with broader trends in experimental art, particularly with conceptual art, with art through the post, or Mail-art, and with visual poetry. This was a time when the modalities of correspondence art began to spread worldwide, when numerous international connections formed and grew, and when some of the tenets and practices of the ‘eternal network’ [a phrase coined by Robert Filliou] were developed. The subsequent three decades saw these uses of the mail become a complex and multi-faceted medium of art. Mail-art is perhaps too recent a phenomenon to be understood historically, but there is growing agreement that art using the mail constituted a vital part of the experimental, conceptual, post-pop art world, one that linked a novel assembly of pertinent and on-going issues for artists such as WLS, in creative and amusing ways.

Correspondence art blossomed in the nineteen-sixties as part of the more general development of conceptual art. The art of concepts, attached as it is to language, was bound, sooner or later, to investigate and use an international postal system founded to transmit written and printed material. Artists as varied as Carl Andre, On Kawara, or Gilbert and George informed their audience of progress in works which could not be exhibited in conventional ways. These ranged from pattern poetry to an itinerary documented, to the construction of a persona. Some realized that there was a step beyond the simple act of sending fellow artists samples of work through the mail, into the creation of active networks.

Visual poetry is one name among many used to describe a parallel development which focuses on the structures, rather than the meaning of language. Again, a wide range of artists, from Eugen Gomringer to Isidore Isou dissected syntax and inverted, invented, re-invented language, both speech and writing, for a variety of reasons: personal, aesthetic or political – perhaps all three. As with Mail-art, this expanded poetry re-emerged early in the nineteen-sixties, and taking advantage of easy and cheap reprographics, became widely disseminated through the nineteen-seventies. Perhaps WLS may not think of himself as a poet, yet his I’ll seduce you all my life combines a nod towards nineteen-eighties-style self-disclosure, an elegant, if rather unstable exercise in verticality, and also exhibits an array of poetic devices including rhyme and rhythm, to say nothing of the alphabet.

These barely discrete worlds of Mail-art and language experiment are and have been connected through individuals and ideas. Any attempts to categorize must provide context for comprehension, rather than items on an agenda, therefore some basic history is required. There are many and various sub-divisions within the world of mail art; too many to be pertinent here. I will not address the iconography of rubberstamps or artistamps, nor will I enlarge on the arrests of so-called subversives, or the legal adventures of pranksters and provocateurs. Likewise I cannot offer a survey of visual or sound poetry. I am forced to bypass the multiple issues raised by the term ‘concrete’ and the aesthetics of the photocopy or the tape-recording. I shall instead focus on certain exhibitions to which WLS contributed, and some examples of his mailed and text pieces. Although his work may not follow the aggressive collage aesthetic of much later correspondence art, the avenues that led him to use the mail, and a number of issues his projects and comments raise, offer glimpses into the development of contemporary conceptual art.

There is general agreement about the beginnings of Mail-art, which comes at the price of precision. Certainly since the organization of official, national postal services, there have been those who used them imaginatively, but Mail-art is a mainly western phenomena, infected with the irony of the avant-garde. Marcel Duchamp’s LHOOQ was attached to a postcard, Kurt Schwitters made use of postage stamps, Bern Porter claims he began in November, 1914, but none of these can be identified as the first Mail-art. A nod is given to FT Marinetti, and the dadas embody the right spirit; surrealists collaborated at a distance on marvelous projects and the College of ‘Pataphysics built a network around a ludic concept; but accurate history demands stricter definitions than Mail-art currently allows.

In the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, the mail as a medium was enlivened by members of the group defined by Pierre Restany as Nouveau Realistes. Signatories to the manifesto included Arman, and Daniel Spoerri, both of whom used the post and its accoutrements; postcards, postage stamps, rubberstamps etc. as constituents of their art. More memorable, perhaps, was fellow signatory Yves Klein, who used a miniature blue monochrome instead of an official stamp on invitations to his 1959 Parisian exhibition ‘La Vide’.

The most famous individual originator of Mail-art in the late twentieth century was Ray Johnson, whose ‘New York Correspondance School’ [sic] provided not only a hilarious model for many subsequent pseudo-institutions, but also showed how active and autonomous a postal network can be: how the mail can become a generative medium. Johnson’s ever widening correspondence circle began as a small coterie of friends and acquaintances from the hippest fringes of art, business or bohemia, whom he linked and stayed connected with through the post. His art for the mail is quite indistinguishable from his wider output, which varied in form from artists’ books to constructions he called ‘moticos’. Dealing with media stars, minor personalities – he initiated numerous faux fan clubs – and including bizarre news items or local gossip, he would mail collages, typed notes, drawings, sometimes asking that the recipient add to the piece and return it, or alternatively send it on to a third person in the chain. Occasionally he would name a yet different person as the sender, with address, to further feed the network. His name, his humor, his methods dominated areas of the correspondence world up to his suicide in 1995.

Ray Johnson’s associations in the New York art world of the very early ‘sixties included several founder members of the international, intermedia collaboration named Fluxus. These artists had a fundamental impact on Mail-art, although the relationship is far from simple to characterize. Mail-artists need have no connection to Fluxus – and WLS puts himself in this category – but probably Mail-art exists, as such, because of Fluxus. Artists such as George Brecht and Yoko Ono took an imaginative approach to the mail, and the group promoted its use in a number of ways; first, the structure and formation of Fluxus was shaped by correspondence; second, individuals and subsets within Fluxus produced and published Mail-art projects. At times, Fluxus existed only through an elaborate – albeit largely imaginary – mail-order catalogue system, and furthermore the earliest impulses of Fluxus as a group – that of collecting and anthologizing individual and themed activities among experimental artists is an essential element of conceptual art as a whole, and of Mail-art in particular. More prosaically, mailing-lists were an economic life-line for small publishing ventures such as Fluxus and its more scholarly counterpart, Dick Higgins’ ‘Something Else Press’. These lists quickly mutated from business subscription or information tools into creative resources for exhibitions, projects and centers such as in Canada’s “Image Bank”.

WLS received his initiation to art through the mail via one of Fluxus’ early and original practitioners, Ben Vautier. A prolific artist, Ben was included in numerous Fluxus publications, individually and as part of topical sets. One of these was a ‘FluxPost Kit’ with postage stamps, rubberstamps, and postcards by Robert Watts, Ken Friedman and Jim Riddle, including the most quoted and venerable example of Mail-art, ‘The Postman’s Choice’, in which a postcard has been doubled, and bears title, plus space for stamps and an address on both sides. By making the back into the front – and vice versa – Ben’s minimalist gesture illuminated the enormous mechanics of the international postal network but then left it up to some human appendage of the system to decide which addressee gets the card. And the lucky recipient is so by the grace of some miraculous life – intelligence, even – in the system: the sender’s contribution was complete at drop-off.

Ben Vautier has the dubious distinction of having been described by the notoriously fickle George Maciunas as a ‘100% Fluxman’, yet despite this, he has never ceased his active involvement in publishing and performing outside the Fluxus remit, with fellow artists based in the south of France. Typical of such was the ‘Festival of Non Art, Anti Art, Truth Art – How to Change Art and Mankind’, which, from a base in Monte Carlo, took place ‘everywhere in the world from the 1st to the 15th June, 1969’. This festival sought to highlight artistic activities that valued ‘ideas and attitudes more than physical or commercial esthetic objects’, and although the festival was avowedly non-political, being more of a search for new ideas, participants were encouraged to organize manifestations at their own responsibility, in their local regions, and to invite further participation from others. Fluxus was invited, along with a wide array of artists which included Walter de Maria and Marcel Duchamp. Posters were put up in Arhus as part of Vautier’s universal effort for change, the contact to WLS being Eric Andersen, who, like Ben, had been part of Fluxus since its formative first tour. To examine and re-examine perceptions of the world has been a constant thrust of WLS’ ideas, sometimes expressed both bluntly and gradually, with a sharpness amid the blur – as in his typographically manipulated poster of 1981; “To change a reality is the reality”.

WLS participated in postal communication through a growth period. Until the mid-nineteen-sixties, there were reckoned to be less than a hundred artists using the post-office as medium, whereas by 1995, Italian artist Vittore Baroni claimed to have corresponded with at least three thousand people, out of a pool, he suggested, of up to 20,000 Mail-artists. The International Post Office facilitated this by its own progress - and its ability to apparently permeate political barriers. Mail delivery continued to automate through this period and spread to a point where one might mail almost anything, almost anywhere. Challenging postal regulations became the theme of several international exhibitions, but the large scale adoption of a global system had at least two greater effects on the development of the art: it forfeited a simple hierarchical system of taste and distinction, and it celebrated provinciality. The mail equalized everyone into participants, and geographically everywhere had a similar mail service; deliveries being pretty much as reliable in Firenze as Manhattan. In the realms of Mail-art, the centre is difficult to pin down and really less important than the sector exhibiting the greatest activity, where the network is hottest. It is perhaps no accident that historically the most active sectors have been provincial or from states and nations perceived as being on the margins of cultural advance. The machinery of the post office ensured the connection between Wroclaw, Calgary or Liverpool. Monte Alban is as far as Monte Carlo – which in turn is as far as the local Post Office: Arhus might be the centre of the world.

One project in which WLS participated exemplifies some of these shifts in Mail-art from semi-private communication to quasi-public art events. Ken Friedman – onetime director of Fluxus West – said his ‘Omaha Flow System’ was an attempt to regenerate of public interest in the arts, as well as being a pleasurable experiment involving many on an individual basis. As part of his exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, Friedman encouraged exchange between artists and between artist and public: the gallery became a staging post for a myriad of creative communications, involving several thousand correspondents. Omaha Flow, and similar experiments, such as “An International Cyclopedia of Plans and Occurrences”, to which WLS also contributed, added new dimensions to Mail-art by extending the dialogue into the public sphere, and by generating massive mailing lists which themselves acted as springboards for further outreach.

The energy and optimism generated by such exchanges must soon diminish. By 1979, WLS began to express frustrations with his involvement with Mail-art. “SO WHAT?”, he wrote, in his text “8 Points on meeting through correspondence”; complaining of “contributions from the same persons from the same sort of material, including that of your own”, and in his dissatisfaction he was not alone. Ken Friedman, in his attempt to give shape to the history of Mail-art, admits his own irritation with what he felt was an explosion of self-serving ‘junk’ mail after the network became popular. Believing, as they did, that mail-art constituted genuine communication between individuals, many on the circuit found the limitations of cheap reprographics and the physical restrictions of the postal system led at some point to ennui. Uniformity meant conformity, and such a situation was anathema to many correspondence artists, who valued conceptual difference, geographical distance, and the freedom of content, as much as the aesthetics of the stamped envelope. WLS had also realized that the universe of Mail-art had been unable to extend beyond – if as far as – the modernist culture it sprang from. There have been few, if any, Mail-artists in Africa or the Middle East, and although the geopolitics of the time allowed Warsaw Pact countries to be represented, there was little communication with the then USSR. It was also becoming apparent that the much vaunted democracy of Mail-art as a movement, with its credo of ‘no jury, no returns, no fee’ did not protect the eternal network from ‘more or less traditional exhibitions’.

However, the positive aspects of Mail-art, which included ‘breaking the isolation of people/nations/ideas in art’, encouraged WLS to continue and even increase his postal activities. Some of his mailed work from this period seems to presume upon a familiarity with certain basic structures – arithmetic, say, or syntax - and gently undermines them, at the same time as they are exposed. A story “…almost too good to be told” reveals itself as a sequence of contexts given coherence “to a conclusion”. WLS chose structures which put viewers in a position to act, interact, decide, or at least acknowledge the possibility of decision, of the innumerable choices and decisions which we weave to construct our daily reality. Reading is made difficult all over again by devices within the system of language: ninety alphabets in two dense columns camouflage a sentence picked out in diacritical marks, to the effect that each letter’s position in the ninety-lettered sentence is decisive. Here, WLS arguably enters the realm of what has been called ‘eyear’ poetry, ‘typoetry’, visual poetry or language art, whose heritage includes Apollinaire, Italian Futurism, Raoul Hausmann and his friends; reawakening in the nineteen-sixties to include artists as diverse as Eugenio Miccini, Augusto da Campos, Emmett Williams; and still more recently Tom Phillips and Michael Gibbs, to pick a few from an enormous reservoir of artists. Although each has a different method and intent, most artist-poets in this field deconstruct and recombine elements of language – as a reminder that before the words are read, they are looked at. Writing is a visual art and speech is a sonic one: WLS has experimented with both, an early example being his 1968 sound poem; ‘Produce a sound that is placed before/after the letter…’, performed at the Museet i Molleparken in Arhus, and later distributed internationally by mail. Again, in a work designed for mailing, “IFTHEREISAPOSSIBILITY…”, the act of reading grinds to a halt by the absence of punctuation – the silent sentinel of syntax – and its replacement by uniformly spaced upper-case type. An almost impenetrable grid of letters forms a phalanx around his photograph, the block cantilevered on his mailing address. Aside from offering interaction, the text itself mentions life as performance and performance as product - once readers have learned this new art of reading.

Through several works, the visual impact of the texts competes with the ascribed meaning of the words for paramount significance. WLS contorted and distorted the rules of language – among other systems which include technology and science – and offered opportunity for further distortion, politely opening the door to deviance from the norm, or for what ever the system might generate. In a case such as the recent book T.O.W.C. [The One Way Correspondence], the presentation of the text in six languages in itself offers a neat paradox: its potential audience would appear to have grown sixfold, but those that are able to read the entire 1002 pages must be a fairly select group. As with the experience of Mail-art, widening the structure can bring unexpected results. Here again is one aspect of the close affiliation between experiments in language and conceptual art: the propositions of the latter tend to need language, yet WLS reveals language as just another proposition, juggling concepts of its own. Even ‘Project 14’, which used a computer to calculate 14 to the 14th power, and would seem not to need words, is still expressed through the language of mathematics.

Project 14 also offers an insight into idiosyncratic scientific interests long pursued by WLS: few artists were considering the computer in 1969. A number of his mail and conceptual pieces used the rules and modalities of science, and numerous experiments in sound and vision continued alongside his mailed work, including film and video proposals beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, and a telex project hosted by the Archive of experimental and marginal art in Lund, Sweden, in 1977. This label ‘marginal’ had been widely applied to Mail-art since it was promulgated in Herve Fischer’s 1974 book “Art and Marginal Communication”, where the term was meant to empower the activity of unknown Mail- and rubber-stamp artists. For WLS, according to the 1979 statement, his use of the postal system was contingent on its efficiency rather than any inherent political potential. The mail transferred information further and more affordably than any other medium, and while this was the case “it will have to do”. However, once the utility of the postal system was surpassed, WLS inevitably moved on to technologies more favorable to his conceptual art.

Simon Anderson 2006


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