Aspects of Mail-Art

    Mail-art first appeared as an organized and conscious artistic movement in the late 50s and early 60s, almost simultaneously in various parts of the globe. However, its roots are to be found in some avant-garde movements decades earlier - in the mail actions of the Dadaists and the Futurists, for instance, starting in the 1910s. But in those early days there was nothing in the nature of a movement yet - only individual, solitary examples of artistic expression by way of mail. In the history of modern art, three basic sources are taken to have been crucial to the creation of mail-art as we know it today: The New York Correspondence School, founded by the American artist Ray Johnson, whose activity consisted in sending his own collages to a certain circle of friends and artists (about one hundred in all), to which he received artistic replies; the French movement of Nouveau Realisme, in which Yves Klein and Ben Vautier caused "mail scandals," and the international movement called Fluxus, which was engaged during the sixties in examining the availability of mail as a medium, as well as in paraphrasing its devices (postal stamps, seals, postcards, etc.). In addition, there was the activity of the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai, which started sending out its publication under the same title into the world as early as 1955.
    In the 70s, mail-art was characterized by an already developed network of communication between artists around the world; specialized mail-art magazines came into existence, and some of the big galleries organized mail-art exhibitions. Exhibits arrived from exotic countries of Latin America and Eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia too, in Belgrade, Ljubjana, Novi Sad and Zagreb individuals or groups engaged actively in this important world movement. In that period several international mail-art exhibitions were held in Yugoslavia (the first major exhibition was held in Belgrade in January 1972, in the Students Culture Centre; it was a section of mail parcels from the Seventh Youth Biennial in Paris), and there were also a number of publications in the field.
    In the 80s, the most conspicuous change and new quality of mail-art has been the large number of participants. Today its "network" is believed to include about 10,000 creative artists on all continents. Every year several hundred mail-art exhibitions are held round the world. Numerous publications, magazines, catalogues, books and fanzines circulate in the world through the channels of postal communication. Connections between artists have become more numerous; personal contacts are on the increase mail-art meetings which take place all over the world ("tourism" according to H. R. Fricker). In 1986 the first mail-art congress is to be held; a rather decentralized one, which is intended to be in progress all summer long in different countries. The artists' messages and statements of these meetings are to be published in the congress-book all participants shall receive.

Circumstances of Occurrence

    The appearance of mail-art in the history of art is to be viewed primarily in connection with the world boom in communication systems (telephone, radio, more rapid surface, sea, and air mail traffic, and starting with the 60s, television, satellites, computers, lasers), which was reflected in terms of artistic creativity. Circumstances were thus created for the appearance of an essentially new form of artistic expression - the art of communication, which comes into existence by mutual interaction and exchange between creative personalities at distant points of the globe in the field of the visual arts, the arts of sound, movement and of written words. In the new communication era the artist is no longer self-sufficient as before, enclosed in his microcosm; instead, he is now a citizen of the world, open to all cultures, traditions and individualities in interaction. He engages in creative work while maintaining continuous connections and exchange with hundreds, even thousands of artists all over the world, by sending his creations and receiving theirs. Thus his art becomes a part of the global network of artistic communication (the mail-art network), which represents, we may say, a single work of art, one pulsing spiritual creation - a new phenomenon encompassing the whole planet. Here communication has become the primary component of a new art, which has also been, historically speaking, the best response to the problems of human alienation everywhere in the past few decades. It is precisely because of its affirmative effects in overcoming interpersonal, social, and ideological, racial and political conflicts that mail-art is probably one of the most important world movements in the arts today. (Other valuable characteristics of the movement are discussed in the sections which follow).

Why the Post Office?

    The need which arose in the 50s for closer communication between artists round the world and for a more rapid circulation of ideas pointed to the mail system as the naturally most suitable medium for such activities. The post office is economically and technically the most readily available and the most widespread means of human communication at a distance. Perfectly organized and widely spread, reaching all the way to the remotest parts of our planet, the postal network of services is still the most reliable means of exchange between people. With the exception of individual restrictions which the postal service imposes on its users (dimensions, weight of parcels, postal rates, almost anything can be sent by mail - starting with visual messages, all the way to phonic and kinetic ones, recorded on film or video tape. In the earliest phase in the history of mail-art, the most frequently conducted experiments were with the medium itself, whereby artists transformed or paraphrased the typical mailing devices: picture postcards, stamps, letters, parcels, telegrams. There was a good deal of "subversive" activity in regard to the institution of the post office as a symbol of a canonized repressive system which imposes its own rules of behavior. In these cases mail-art is engaged art, in favour of a free exchange of ideas and opposed to restrictive manipulation.
    In the later phases, in the 70s and 80s, the institution of the post office was increasingly accepted as a necessary evil, and the opportunities it offers for communication were used to the maximum. As it came to serve increasingly for the transmission of phonic messages, video cassettes, computer programs, performance art scenarios, the distribution of invitations and catalogues, its role as a medium of the art was relegated to the background, while the mail-art network and its participants became more and more prominent. Mail-art became increasingly an activity involving living people and their psychic lives. Perhaps the mail-art of today, which uses the postal network, should be seen as the embryo of a future art for which no technical devices are in existence as yet, and which will work by pure exchange of thought and energy, transmitted by means of some kind of waves, which will encompass the entire planet, a big wave sweeping over all those desirous of being included in the exchange.
    Thus the post office is not the decisive and sole medium of the art of communication, but only a necessary and temporary one. The works of mail-art should therefore be viewed in terms of exchange and interaction, establishing links between people in all countries, and not exclusively form the point of view of traditional aesthetics, as will be shown in the considerations which follow.

Means of Expression

    Mail-art is an artistic conglomerate, or a conglomerate of media in which picture, text, sound and gesture are employed on equal terms. The form of message, the method of execution, and the aesthetic categories are not of primary importance in this kind of creativity. The act of communication itself, i. e. the artist's behavior, is the creation. This uninhibited and multimedial nature of mail-art has resulted in an unusually wide range of techniques and materials used. Mail-art can be said to unite all forms of art known hitherto-form purely "postal" forms such as stickers, picture postcards, rubber stamps, envelopes, artist issued stamps, the use of telephone, telegrams -, all the way to sketches, paintings, engravings, photographs, photocopies, stencils, collages, art objects, sound and video cassettes, computers, etc. The dimensions of the works of mailart range from miniature to gigantic, adjusted to transport by mail. It seems that the regulations of postal traffic are the only firm criterion in the field of mail-art.
    In point of style, there is no dominant trend in mail-art. Thus the movement fits the modern theories of stylistic "nomadism" where anything is permitted, free and individual. Mail-art messages are articulated in many ways: as mixed media realist scenes with a textual commentary, short verbal messages which are visually enriched by ornaments of photographs, collages, paraphrases of familiar works of art, communications in the spirit of comics or cartoons, imitations of kitsch, erotic scenes, etc. The contact address is an almost obligatory component of a work of mail-art, introduced into the work itself in an imaginative way. The materials on which mail-art is performed vary from cardboard, plastic foil, plexiglass, metal, cloth, colored paper, to styrofoam, confetti, human hair, fingernail parings, objects in everyday use, printed matter, photographs, film strip, etc. They are produced by pasting, drawing or printing. Everything is aimed at surprise and a powerful experience at the moment of reception or opening of the parcel.

The Spirit of Democracy

    In addition to being a special artistic phenomenon, mail-art is also fundamentally a new cultural policy. Anybody can join the mail-art network, irrespective of generation, social class, ideology, race or nationality. The mail-art network is spreading daily, recruiting new members, embracing new ideas and forms of expression; it is considered by some to be the most far-reaching mass movement in art in the history of mankind. It is precisely the openness and democratic nature of mail-art which represents its greatest attractiveness, and the reward each participant is given is the joy of uninhibited creativity, the opportunities for presenting one's creations in a way independent of the will of gallery owners, the market, and institutions, to people everywhere. Individual artistic actions are eliciting responses, i.e. other people's works of art, which in turn incite further creativity. The artist is in constant dialogue with the world and feels a part of that world, a part of a global, planetary culture.
    Because it is open to everybody, mail-art may be thought to lead to a devaluation of artistic merit. However, compared to traditional art, the opposite is the case. There is a natural selection for quality in mail-art. Authors of poor ideas, with faulty execution, and a weak potential of creative energy radiating from their work do not find any response from other participants in the mail-art network. Their works remain unanswered, since in mail-art nobody is under any obligation of answering, and they will find themselves excluded from the network after some time (or rather, they will have excluded themselves). On the other hand, valuable works cause powerful and various reactions, which will encourage their authors to produce new and effective works. What happens in classical, established art, however, is that weak artists, supported by gallery owners and critics prosper undeservedly, while the true creators of modern art are often pushed aside. It is the latter who find opportunities in mail-art for unimpeded creative work and development.

                                                                   Andrej Tisma
(From: Andrej Tisma, Private Life: international Mail-Art Show,  Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, 1986)