Going Postal

Mail art brings a whole world of creative expression to your door

 

By Chris Dodge, Utne Reader

 

My name is Chris and I am a mail artist. Though I've been on the wagon

for years now, my past still haunts me. This week's unsolicited mail

included a handmade postcard from Naples, a packet of Japanese

grapefruit-flavored "shower candy" from a co-editor of the zine Sugar

Needle, and a request from a German librarian "working privately on rats

and mice in culture" to send, well, pictures of rats and mice.

 

According to some, mail art can be traced to Dada-influenced artist Ray

Johnson, who used the post for creative exchange during the '60s. I'm

skeptical. Although this official view is often repeated in books and art

journals, it overlooks the fact that people have been making mail art for

almost as long as they have been sending letters. Prisoners decorate

outgoing envelopes with drawings; children affix stickers on letters to

aunts and uncles. There's something aesthetically pleasing both in

adorning the commonplace and in overturning convention.

 

My adventures began, innocently enough, with the Winter 1987 issue of

Whole Earth Review, where I found several articles on mail art, zines,

photocopier art, and "cassette culture" that captivated my imagination:

Send away and get cool mail? I wrote to someone named Woman Ray at an

address barely legible in the reproduction of a postcard on the

magazine's back cover. Then the magic began. Woman Ray replied, with a

note in a personalized "Dodge-o-Gram" envelope, emblazoned with

rubber-stamped images. Ray also sent lists of names and

addresses--labeled "Brain Cell 52 and Brain Cell 61"--of others to whom I

might write. They hailed from places as remote as China, Romania, and

Uruguay, but most were from North America, Western Europe, and Japan.

Many of the names seemed to be straight from a '70s science fiction

novel: Dogfish, Musicmaster, Leavenworth Jackson, Cracker Jack Kid. I

chose John Held Jr. and took the plunge.

 

Good choice. A librarian then working in the art department of the Dallas

Public Library, Held was compiling a massive mail art bibliography,

putting him at the center of a large international movement of artists,

rebels, and flakes who spurned the art industry's galleries, juried

shows, and cash-for-art economics by using the world's postal services as

a medium. Here was a network--more aptly, countless interlinked

networks--of people mailing each other manifestos, collages, treasure

chests, Band-Aid boxes, posters, unwrapped stones, 10th- generation

photocopies, and (sometimes, fortuitously) precious ephemeral works of

art.

 

Thanks to my new pen pal, I quickly picked up the protocols and

techniques of the mail art world, not to mention its informal rules.

"Mail art and money don't mix" these artists often said, but even this

basic standard could be bent if not flouted. Why shouldn't Anna Banana

charge for her full-color, gummed, perforated, commemorative artist's

stamps? Another thing I learned was that not only did many mail artists

use pseudonyms, but the concept also could be turned around, with

multiple people sometimes appropriating a shared alias such as Karen

Eliot or Monty Cantsin. In fact, anyone can be "Chris Dodge."

 

A certain pluck, if not downright hubris, goes with the mail art game.

With my partner, Jan DeSirey, as enabler, I declared myself a mail artist

and ordered return address labels for DeSirey Dodge Peace Post. Thus

identified, I felt obliged to organize a mail art show. I sent out flyers

requesting physical representations of artists' head sizes and soon

received several dozen responses ranging from half a centimeter ("Can you

measure a nail head?") to a roll of paper 105 feet long, marked with a

line of green ink to depict "King Kong's head size!" Common mail art

etiquette for such projects boiled down to a simple dictum: "No

rejections, no returns, documentation to all." In fact, I did send

everyone a list of participants' names and addresses, along with a

description of what they sent me; but then I bent the no-return rule

slightly and mailed them someone else's entry.

 

At first this was fun: the give and take, a certain private excitement in

anticipating mail from strangers in distant places, holding in my hand a

physical something affixed with foreign postage stamps, wondering what it

might contain . . . and then to open it and to reply. For Cracker Jack

Kid I made a plaster cast of my navel, which he used to make personal

paper belly buttons, perforated like stamps.

 

My fever then rose another notch. Incoming mail multiplied. What started

harmlessly turned into a manic obsession. Looking back, I can see the

signs of mail art addiction:

 

· The highlight of each day is checking the mail.

 

· Postage costs rival grocery bills.

 

· You know your mail carrier's exact schedule, and you fret when delivery

is late.

 

· You've unwittingly memorized addresses of people in distant lands whom

you've never met.

 

Out of the glut of creative (and not so creative) expression, certain

patterns and forms of the mail art aesthetic became clear to me.

Sometimes mail art travels from one to many: personalized stickers,

badges, even balloons emblazoned with messages and sent out en masse into

the world. There's an obvious element of ego involved in some of these

cases, but just as often mail art may entail a two-person collaboration

or the serial participation of many. One day, a papier-mâché head

arrived, rubber-banded to our front door by the mail carrier. The

full-size representation of mail artist Shozo Shimamoto's shaved head was

divided up by markings into numbered sections, with instructions: "Add

art to a section and send along in the mail." Several days later, the

head was on its way.

 

What do postal workers think about all this? Mail art has been written

about in postal trade magazines in the amused tone one might use to

describe an eccentric relative. To acknowledge these partners in a

process that relies on them, I created and regularly used a rubber stamp

with the words SOLIDARITY WITH POSTAL WORKERS. A Belgian mail artist

known as Société Anonyme has also recognized their importance, organizing

and publishing photographic documentation of mail artists with their

mailboxes and mail carriers.

 

Sometimes mail art simply means sending original art to another person,

perhaps using the envelope or package itself as a medium. Occasionally,

mail artists send themselves. Germans Peter Küstermann and Angela Pähler

(now also known as Angela and Peter Netmail) traveled the globe in 1992,

hand-delivering nearly 4,000 items to about 350 mail artists worldwide.

To Daniel Daligand in Paris, "the network's leading Mickeymousologist,"

they delivered a Mickey Mouse-covered umbrella. They carried a kangaroo

bone from Tani in Australia to his Native American friend Rosy Gordon in

Dallas. During their visit to Minneapolis, they delivered over a dozen

pieces to me, and also stayed up late each night compiling graphic

journals that were later bound, color-copied, rubber-stamped, and

otherwise personalized and sent to those who had given them lodging.

 

While mail art is obviously a lot of fun, it can also be serious. I've

been especially moved by works with a political message, like Hans

Braumüller's "500 Years of Genocide and Colonialism." Participants

originally sent Braumüller multiple copies of their art--works on paper

ranging from photocopies to prints. He then compiled the pieces into

beautiful and powerful packets that he presented to all the

collaborators. Clemente Padin has done projects with Amnesty

International and was actually imprisoned in Uruguay for two years in the

late '70s for his anti-dictatorship artistic activities, including street

theater and mail art.

 

For several years I binged, counting the minutes until the mail carrier

would arrive. As time went on, however, I gained control of my habit,

choosing to save more time and creative energy for other pursuits.

Instead of answering each new communiqué with an original piece, I sent

out a mass-produced newsletter. And I responded to a call for a mail art

show only if the theme seemed particularly meaningful.

 

Even so, the wonderful allure of first class mail has never ceased. The

physical, tactile nature of an envelope, the tiny paper package covered

with idiosyncratic handwriting, cannot be replaced by e-mail. The things

about mail art that worked for me were the personal connections, finding

affinity with kindred spirits living far away. Mail art gained me

long-term friendships with people I've never met, before I'd heard of the

Internet. Now I'm a small link on the periphery of the network. I now see

myself more as a correspondence artist. I write letters--crisp pages of

typewritten sentence upon sentence--to a chosen few.

 

And the things about mail art that didn't work? There's apparently no way

to stop the steady trickle I continue to get, most from people I'll never

meet. But that's not a problem. I'm cured now: no returns.

 

Chris Dodge is the Utne Reader librarian.

 

Discuss mail art with guest Chris Dodge at the Arts conference in Café

Utne: cafe.utne.com

 

Mail Art Resources

www.artepostal.org.mx

An excellent Spanish-language mail art Web site.

www.faximum.com/jas.d/jl_mail.htm

Mail art news, discussions, and interviews.

Rubberstampmadness

This magazine for rubber stamp artists regularly features articles about

mail art. Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 408 SW Monroe, #210,

Corvallis, OR 97330; www.rsmadness.com

Umbrella

Includes mail art news. Subscriptions: $18 from Box 3640, Santa Monica,

CA 90408; www.colophon.com/umbrella

webkeeper@utne.com - © Lens Publishing Company, Inc. 1995-1999 A Service of Utne Reader


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