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Mail-Art shifts the focus from what is traditionally called 'art' to the wider concept of 'culture.' And this shift is what makes Mail-Art truly contemporary. In opposition to 'personal worlds,' Mail-Art emphasizes cultural strategies.
A Mail-Art project is an artist's attempt to organize, in a coherent way, a chaotic range of ideas, feelings, experiences, objects, but also machines, distances, postal regulations, time uncertainties, and, most strikingly, Mail-Art pieces from other artists. By incorporating these pieces as one element of their work, they’re depriving them of their original identity. they’re giving them instead a role to play among other equally important elements of their own personal world.
Stamp activity and its antecedents are among the oldest forms of human communication. We see the first true use of stamps in the seals and signets used in China and Japan, as well as in the Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures. Woodcuts and guild marks in the Middle Ages contributed to the activity in its basic form.
In discussing contemporary stamp activity, a brief look at the history of the stamp sheds light on some of the implications bound up in the phenomenon of stamping. The earliest forms of stamping, such as cuneiform and signets, were acts of communication. This fact is common to all stamp activity since that time. Of particular interest is the political implication of early stamps. Communication, the hiring of scribes, and the possession of signatures and individuating marks were the province of the aristocratic classes. In a limited way, this aspect of communication is still evident in many nations where only the privileged classes have access to communications media, whether by legislative action and censorship or by economic control. In the stamp, this phenomenon was presented by Beke Laszlo in his unrealized stamp project, “Je n’ai pas de tampons, parce-que en Hongrie, il n’est pas permis de faire tampons par personnes prives.” (“I have no stamps because in Hungary, unauthorized persons are not allowed to make stamps, or to have stamps made for them.”)
Other early implications still invoked by the stamp revolve around the identification of ownership and production. Even though the use of the stamp gradually expanded, a relatively small class of privileged individuals—those who owned, or those who produced—made use of stamps and marks. This usage still survives today, though paradoxically expanded to the use of millions. It is the advent of mass technology which today makes possible the situation toward which Ulrichs and others point: that the stamp has become a medium available to and truly useful by the people, a reversal of the earliest context of the stamp.
The introduction of aesthetic and philosophical content into the stamp arrives with medieval woodcuts and Renaissance emblemata. The advent of the stamp composed of rubber coincides with industrialization, mechanical reproduction and the rise of the modern nation state. Rubber was introduced to the western world during the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century. Rubber was first produced commercially in a Viennese factory established in 1811. We see the bureaucratic use of the rubber stamp prefigured in the discovery of rubber by a colonial power and its production within the framework of the industrial system.
The first uses of the rubber stamp took place within the bureaucratic and commercial contexts. Stamps were used to validate and to certify documents. No human activity in modern times is possible without the intervention of bureaucracy, and its arm, the stamp. The stamp proves on the birth certificate that one is indeed among the living. The stamp validates on the marriage license the union of woman and man: what God and the stamp have joined together, let none tear asunder...until, of course, divorce proceedings take place, certified on papers marked with one form or another of the stamp. Whenever we pass from one realm to another, whether from nation to nation or life to death, stamped impressions on the passport or death certificate bear witness to our departure. It may be noted that not all of these stamps or seals are composed of rubber, but since the rubber stamp came into wide production, the vast majority of certifying seals formerly created by various embossing devices have been rubber stamps. The continuing parallel between rubber stamps and commerce in mass society is reinforced by the fact that only rubber stamps can be made swiftly enough and in large enough quantities to certify and channel the vast amounts of paperwork involved in all aspects of the contemporary world. Stamps not only give value…they devalue. Stamps are used in the postal system to remove the franking privilege embodied in the frank-mark, most commonly through the cancellation of the postage stamp. In commerce, stamps may not give value or remove it: they may simply indicate value or facilitate a commercial transaction through numbering, pricing, or the identification of individuals and products.
Stamps first came into the hands of the common man in the form of personal name and address stamps. Where the past, functional history of the stamp ends and the contemporary history of the stamp begins is the arrival of rubber stamps used by the wide public. The availability of the rubber stamp gave to some unknown genius the idea of using a stamp to convey a slogan or message, probably political or commercial. In a certain sense, this gesture was the grandparent of contemporary stamp art.
Whoever the grandparent of rubber stamp art may have been, we know the name of the father: Kurt Schwitters. At the time that the principle of the ready-made was introduced to art by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters found in the stamp another ready-made vehicle for art activity. This fertile period in the history of art is typified by the act of transformation (Duchamp’s theory of displacement). Just as during those years and since, art moved forward by the introduction into the art context of phenomena previously belonging to the world at large, Schwitters spawned a new art medium by transforming the rubber stamp into a tool for drawing and collages. As early as 1919, Schwitters produced rubber stamp drawings and included stamps in his collages. In 1919, only one artist used rubber stamps. Today—over half a century later—thousands of individuals in the arts use rubber stamps in conjunction with, or as a major feature of, their work.
The first major series of works composed basically of stamps were the mid-1950s projects of French artist Arman and German-bom artist Diter Rot. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the systematic introduction of the stamp into projects by artists such as Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Ken Friedman, Dick Higgins, Milan Knížák, Nam June Paik, Daniel Spoerri, Saul Steinberg, Timm Ulrichs, and Wolf Vostell. Allan Kaprow used stamps in the production of books and multiples. Emmett Williams used stamps to achieve a large number of his visual poems. Two groups of artists are almost exclusively prominent in stamp activity through the mid-1960s—nouveau réalistes, including Arman, Spoerri, Manzoni and Klein; the fluxus group, represented not only by individual members’ works, but by group-published stamp works such as Vautier’s Certification of Fluxart or Friedman’s Fluxpost Cancellation Mark.
In the middle and late 1960s, several well-known artists brought the use of the stamp into their work. These include Fletcher Copp, Jochen Gerz, Ray Johnson, Terry Reid and Andre Thomkins. The next groups to become identified with the use of the stamp were Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School and the Canadian Image Bank.
Prior to the worldwide explosion of rubber stamp art and its wide critical acceptance as an aesthetic medium, a group of artists emerged in the last years of the 1960s and the early 1970s who became identified as the first generation of rubber stamp artists to be particularly well known for their involvement with the stamp as a major rather than as a secondary activity. These artists include Hervé Fischer, J.H. Kocman, G. Pemeczy, and Peter van Beveren. Other artists of this period were known for other activities, but have assumed prominence in the area of stamping, including Dieter Albrecht, Charles Amirkhanian, John M. Armleder, Anna Banana, Dadaland (Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi), H.P. Huber, Hanns-Werner Kalkmann, Maurizio Nannucci, and G. J. de Rook. Large numbers of artists have also used stamps in their work in less systematic ways. These include Eric Andersen, Claus Boehmler, Felipe Ehrenberg, On Kawara, Piotr Kowolski, Les Levine, Panamerenko, Robert Rehfeldt, Jock Reynolds, and Bill Vazan.
By the end of the 1960s, the rubber stamp was respectable enough to have appeared in a mainstream New York multiple. One series of rubber stamp works was widely visible during the entire decade—the witty cartoons and drawings of Saul Steinberg, many of which appeared in the New Yorker.
By 1971, critical reception of rubber stamp activity had begun.
Ken Friedman – Georg M. Gugelberger: The Stamp and Stamp Art, in: International Rubber Stamp Exhibition, Front, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Special Catalog Edition), La Mamelle, San Francisco, May, 1976, pp. 13-26. (Ed. by: Carl. E. Loeffler)
In the art of the 1980s, mail art was what the unlimited world wide web is for us today. Contrary to other forms of “art,” mail art was neither a medium, nor a trend, but instead a chaotic, random interactive surface open to free movement that (theoretically) could only be governed by postal restrictions…- Gyorgy Galantai, 1997
György Galántai was born in Bikacs, Hungary in 1941. From 1963 to 1967 he studied painting at the College of Fine Arts in Budapest. From 1970 on he organized semi-legal exhibitions, actions and happenings in the chapel of Balatonboglár, which he had rented from the Catholic Church until it was closed down by the police. Galántai experimented with graphic art, visual poetics and sound poetry. In 1978 he sent out the call “Please send me information about your activity” to the international Mail Art Network. With the received mail he founded the Artpool archive that–besides its focus on the new and alternative mediums in contemporary arts from the 1960s on–became the most important center for documentation and research on Mail Art in Middle-Eastern Europe. After 1989 the archive was opened to the public, and since 1992 it has been receiving financial support from the city of Budapest.
Ulises Carrión and the Big Monster
Mail Art knocks at the door of the castle where the Big Monster lives. You can tell the monster anything you like, according to your experiences and beliefs . But the fact is, that the Big Monster exists and presses us.
Every invitation we receive to participate in a Mail Art project is part of the guerrilla war against the Big Monster. Every Mail Art piece is a weapon thrown against the Monster who is the owner of the Castle, who separates us one from the others, all of us.
What or who is the monster I am talking about? Do I mean the Post Master? Post Office clerks? Do I mean the Minister of Communications? Or, do I mean the technology they use and control? Do I mean those little, colorful pieces of glued paper that we must buy every time we post something? To tell you the truth, I do not know exactly what or whom I am talking about. All I know, is that there is a Monster. And that by posting all sorts of Mail pieces I am knocking at his door.
When we were making painting we could talk about sensibility, beauty, vision, craftmanship, etcetera. But when we are knocking at the Monster's door, what does it count? The answer is simple: it counts how hard you are knocking. How can we measure the intensity of our knocking? By the echo we produce, obviously.
I know that the eternal skeptics won't like this. First they found Mail Art was too small, too petty. Now they are going to say that you cannot judge art with arithmetics. They do not see that, when we talk of numbers, it is not arithmetics we are talking about. We are talking about harmony.
When someone posts a Mail Art piece and later gets an answer–that is harmony: agreement, accord. We could judge the beauty of the answer, yes. But as far as the Mail Art piece is concerned, the only thing that really counts is getting answers.
What about Mail Art pieces that require unanswered in order to exist?
The answer is as follows–we still don't know how to measure the response. We count them one, two, three and so on because we still don't know any other way. This is only a temporary, provisional sort of measuring. However, this imperfect method gives us an idea.
We need more ideas for Mail Art. We are receptive to more ideas. Why don't you give some ideas? Only, do not say them: Mail them, please.’
Mail art is like the history of unwritten history. - Paulo Bruscky, 1976
Edgardo Antonio Vigo (1928-1997), Clemente Padín, Paulo Bruscky, and Graciela Gutiérrez Marx (Argentina) were foremost among early Latin American conceptualists and mail artists. Also remarkable is the presentation by the Uruguayan-German artist Luis Camnitzer and the Argentine artist Liliana Porter in Buenos Aires, 1968. It is also worth noting Pedro Lyra in Brazil who, in 1970, published a manifesto on Postal Art. In Latin America mail art was institutionalized by the first exhibitions made by Clemente Padín in Uruguay (1973), Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Argentina, and Paulo Bruscky, in Brazil (1974).
The “new poetry” of mail and stamp art was an open aesthetic that rejected conventional linguistic communication and engaged in making objects, resulting in a practice that is difficult to distinguish from art proper; it was, in Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s words, a “total art” that did not recognize boundaries between the literary and the visual aesthetic.
In Vigo’s 1976 text Mail Art: A New Stage in the Revolutionary Process Of Creation he writes: “In MARGINAL COMMUNICATION there is a tendency to reject technology, inclining toward the manual and above all toward A NEED TO COMMUNICATE BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS.”
Additionally, he states: “ A POETIC LANGUAGE IS A SYSTEM OF MEANING FOR THE COMMUNICATION OF IDEAS.”
In 1976, Edgardo Vigo’s son, Palomo was a victim of Argentina’s military right-wing terrorist state in which thousands of students, journalists, and activists were killed or “disappeared.” That same year, Vigo wrote Mail Art: A New Phase in the Revolutionary Process of Creation, wherein he described mail art as an alternative history of art. Fellow Argentine collaborator, Graciela Gutiérrez Marx proposed ideology of poetry in action and in August 1984, she participated in the establishment of the Association of Latin American and Caribbean Mail Artists, founded in the city of Rosario, Argentina, which grouped the vast majority of Latin American mail artists and that, soon, was constituted in an instrument of exchange and regional communication. Two other founders of the Asociación Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Artistas Correo are Clemente Padín and Jorge Caraballo, both having been imprisoned and tortured in 1977 for mail art that criticized the Uruguayan right-wing military junta. Padín, like Gutiérrez-Marx, performed in public streets and plazas with their poetry calling for what Padín called, the language of action.
When Brazilian mail artists Paulo Bruscky and Daniel Santiago organized Brazil’s Second International Mail Art Exhibit in 1976, the police immediately closed the show, destroyed the art, and sent Bruscky and Santiago to prison. Bruscky stated, “It is always the same, those who pretend to own culture will always try to impose their own methods.”
Decentralized Worldwide Networker Congress
Every six years for 30 years, the international mail art community has initiated a yearlong theme that examines a central concern of the medium. The initial project was the 1986 Decentralized Worldwide Mail Art Congress, which sought to stimulate practitioners into a discussion of the cultural relevance of mail art practice and its ramifications on their lives. Conceptualized by Swiss artists H. R. Fricker and Günther Ruch, the year brought together over 500 artists from 25 countries in 70 documented congress sessions.
Six years later, the 1992 Decentralized Worldwide Networker Congress (organized by Fricker and Peter Kaufman) was called into being to encourage mail artists to dialogue with other networks (zine culture, artist books, print and music distribution, Neoism, Church of the SubGenius, and nascent telecommunication communities). The year of Incongruous Meetings (1998), Obscure Actions (2004), and Art Detox (2010), all organized by Vittore Baroni of Viarregio, Italy, perpetuated mail art’s yearlong inquiries.
The Mail Art Congress years have always reflected the network’s concerns of the moment. In the mid-1980s, when they were first established, mail art turned inward. Neglected by the mainstream, the medium was bereft of critical examination from without, and succumbed to introspection. The present day finds the aging practitioner of the medium—those in their 60s, 70s, and older—concerned with the disposition of decades-old correspondence, publications, and artworks. Continued institutional disregard forces the mail artist who is apprehensive of their collection’s future, toward an attentive comprehension of the situation and the formulation of creative solutions.
When H. R. Fricker and Gunther Rüch first conceived of the 1986 Worldwide Decentralized Congress as a conventional and centralized meeting to discuss mail art, it was quickly modified to allow anyone, anywhere, to participate. It was felt that this best reflected the decentralized spirit of the medium, allowing open participation by anyone with an interest in the activity.
Social practice has been a fashionable avenue in art for quite some time now, and mail artists were among the first to tread this path on an international scale. Inspired by the Fluxus blend of art and life and espousing similar attitudes as those exemplified by the actions of Joseph Beuys, mail artists have extended their distanced relationships to meetings in which they interact in creative ways.
Mail art incorporated these ideas before the advent of the Internet, foreshadowing the widespread desire for timely, open, international communication, mimicking e-mail and the social media platforms yet to come. Like all advance scouts who venture into territories not yet trod by the populace, upon recounting their tales and making the unknown common knowledge, their services are no longer required. The analog postal system has been digitally superseded as the most popular timely, and economical means of information transfer, but it's obsolescence has opened itself up to new possibilities.
We need more ideas for Mail Art. We are receptive to more ideas. Why don't you give some ideas? Only, do not say them: Mail them, please.