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
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
· 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
Mail Art Resources
An excellent Spanish-language mail art Web site.
Mail art news, discussions, and interviews.
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
Includes mail art news. Subscriptions: $18 from Box 3640, Santa Monica,
CA 90408; www.colophon.com/umbrella
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