This interview was done in 1995 by Ruud Janssen. Address: TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda , the NETHERLANDS, e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org. It is possible to spread this information to others, but for publications you will have to get permission from TAM and the interviewed person! Enjoy reading this interview.
Started on: 3-12-1994
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on: 7-1-1995
AB : This is one of those questions I’ve answered so many times, I thought everyone knew by now! Anyway, for the record, here goes. In 1971, I was living outside the small town of Sooke, on Vancouver Island. In an attempt to connect with some creative people, I declared myself the Town Fool of Victoria, capital of the province of British Colombia, some 36 miles from where I was living. That turned out to be an uphill climb, and in an effort to communicate with the populace of Victoria, I started publishing the Banana Rag. I delivered copies of this newsletter by hand to a number of public schools in the Victoria area, and while I was at it, I mailed copies to some of my artist friends in Vancouver.
The response from the schools was varied, and in some instances, I was invited into the schools to do activities with the students. One of my friends in Vancouver who was then a member of the Image Bank collective, responded with a copy of the Image Bank Request List. This little 2-page flyer brought the first information I had that there was, in fact, a network. It was a list of names and addresses of artists, and the sorts of images they wanted to receive; lips, clouds, 50’s cars, that sort of thing.
I went through my stack of old clip magazines and put together an envelope for each of the perhaps 20 artists listed, and mailed them out, with a copy of the Banana Rag, and a note stating that I was interested in receiving ANYTHING to do with bananas; images, news stories, jokes, music, whatever, as long as it had a reference to bananas. Within 2 or 3 weeks, my mail-box came alive, and here I had the sort of enthusiasm and response I was missing elsewhere in my life. Amongst the bananas, there were samples of the others’ work, invitations to projects, etc., and before I knew it, I was HOOKED.
In the course of the next year and a half, I responded to all the mail I received, participated in all projects I heard about, and expanded the number of artists I was exchanging with to perhaps 100. When I left Sooke, it was to go on the road, to meet my correspondents, and decide where I would live next. I intended to drive across Canada, down the eastern USA, across the southern states, and up to the West Coast. However,the van I bought to make this trip in turned out to be a lemon, and my start was delayed for 6 months. When I did leave Canada in May of 1973, I went south into Washington, Oregon and California. In the Bay Area, I met with all 12 of my mail art connections, and decided pretty quickly that that was the place for me to live.
However since I had written to all my correspondents that I was heading their way, I went on with the trip for another 2 months, after which, I realized a number of things:
1The USA is huge, and driving across it more time consuming than I had figured.
2Driving alone across vast stretches of the continent was not all that much fun.
3Most of my correspondents were men, and most of them had wives or lovers who, while they tolerated my visit, were none too enthused about it.
4In San Francisco, I had met my future husband, and I knew that was where I wanted to live. I decided to quit the mega-trip, and headed back to San Francisco at the end of August, where I settled down for the next 8 years, getting even more committed to mail art with the publication of VILE magazine, which I began in 1974.
RJ : This extensive answer arises a lot of questions in me, but I have to settle for one now. Some mail-artists have a private life besides their mail-art life, but in your case it seems that your private life and your mail-art world got completely integrated. I remember the issue VILE (#8, 1983), and it looked like your life and your art were the same at that moment. Some photo’s of you and Bill Gaglione indicate the same. Am I right?
Reply on : 18-4-1995
AB : During those years with Bill, we were both very involved with mail art and performance art, and there was very little time for anything else (except the everyday jobs/work we did to support that activity which took up the majority of our time! We just don’t write about that stuff.), so I suppose you are right, at that moment, my life and art were very integrated. What isn’t apparent from that view you had of us from VILE #8, is that we both DID have jobs or paying work that is never spoken about in the context of the magazine.The humdrum work that just about everyone has to do to pay the bills. Bill had a variety of jobs over the year, and after working in a print shop, and for a weekly newspaper, I started my own graphic design and production company, Banana Productions, which is how I earned the money to publish VILE and the Banana Rag.
Certainly our performing, publishing and mail-art activities did NOT pay our rent, or put food on the table, and we both spent a good deal of our time at those money-earning activities in order to SUPPORT our mail art, publishing and performance work. Further, we both had friends and activities that were not related to art, but our social life was within a circle of art-related friends, and many of my friends in San Francisco were persons with whom I had exchanged mail-art before I went there.
RJ : Why did the VILE magazine stop? What was your next step?
Reply on : 9-5-1995
AB : It cost too much to produce and mail. It took too much time and there were other things I wanted to do. I felt hemmed in by the need to “do the next issue.” Bill wanted to take it in directions that weren’t consistent with my initial concept of it. My relationship with Bill was falling apart. I was tired of the vile focus, and felt it wasn’t an appropriate publication in which to air other sides of my perceptions and activities. I’d “been there, done that,” and it was time to move along, do something else.
At the beginning of our cross Canada tour of 1980, we were offered a sublet on an apartment in Vancouver. We had been evicted from our apartment in San Francisco the month before we left, and had put all our things in storage. We decided to take the sublet and move to Vancouver – a MAJOR change. That never happened. I moved and he stayed.
Arriving in Vancouver in late January 1981, I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t know at that point that Bill would not be coming up, but I was still feeling very displaced. All my close friends were in San Francisco, and the situation I moved into wasn’t quite what I had imagined it to be. In late February I went back to SF to do a final performance with Bill, one we had scheduled before the trip. At that time it became clear that he wouldn’t be moving to Canada.
During those first two years in Canada, I tried to quit mail art. I did only one issue of the Banana Rag, in 1981, and I almost let the mail accumulate, unanswered. Early in 1982, I convinced the local TV station to host my 10th anniversary April Fool’s Day event; the Going Bananas Fashion Contest. I applied for a grant to create the new performance work, Why Banana? and in the fall of ’82, toured it across Canada and the USA. After that, I applied for funding to produce About Vile, so that I could bring VILE to an official conclusion, use the materials that people had sent for it, and wrap up that period of my life. (my years in San Francisco ’73-’81).
Once I had published About VILE (in 1983), the natural place to distribute it was the network. Once I started distributing it, of course, the responses started flowing in…. and I got caught up again in sending and receiving mail. I altered the format and focus of the Banana Rag, making it more a mail-art information/forum, than the strictly banana content of the earlier editions. I had overspent the budget to print About VILE, and ended up with a debt, no money, no job, and no commercial contacts in Vancouver. The printers wanted the balance due, and I approached them with the proposition; give me a job, and I’ll pay what I owe. I was hired and worked there for two years, learning the ins and outs of full-color printing, doing paste-up and camera work, and a lot of in-house design.
In 1984, I was back in San Francisco for the Inter Dada ’84 events, and spent 3 weeks working with my friend Victoria Kirkby on a performance, In the Red, which we presented in that festival. In ’85 I did a performance art workshop with art students in Calgary. We worked with the material from “in the Red,” producing a new work, In the Red, In the Black. In ’85, I quit the producing job, and free-lanced my design services, both to the printer, and to other clients and connections I had begun to develop. I continued printing and sending the Banana Rag, and in the fall of ’86, I did a second tour of Europe, this one solo.
RJ : At the moment you are very active with artistamps. When did you start with those? What is so fascinating about them?
Reply on : 3-6-1995
AB : I did my first artistamp in response to an invitation by Ed Varney in the mid-70’s. He reproduced a number of my stamps on one of his many “anthology sheets.” The first ones I did were in B&W, and he printed them in black and red. Then somewhere around ’76 or ’77, Eleanor Kent, who was a neighbor of mine in San Francisco, got a Color Xerox machine in her home, and invited me to come and work with it. I produced my first two editions on that machine, along with many other collages and postcards, and Eleanor introduced me to Jeff Errick of Ephemera, which produced buttons, postcards and stamps. He allowed me to go and perforate my stamps there, in trade for copies of each edition. I believe it was also during that period (late 70’s) that Ed Higgins did his Nudes on Stamps book, producing sheets of artistamps from nude portraits of mail artists. On the cover of each issue, he stuck the stamp of the person to whom he was sending the catalogue.
While all of this whetted my appetite for the stamp format, it wasn’t until I moved back to Vancouver, and started working at Intermedia Press, that I really got the BUG for stamps. I saw the editions Varney had produced, and found myself wanting that quality of reproduction and that quantity of stamps so that I could really USE them, not just trade sheets. Through my job at Intermedia, I learned the technology necessary to produce full color, photo offset editions, however I didn’t put this into practice right away.
My initial editions done in Vancouver, were reproduced using Color Xerox, and these dated from 1984, when I had an artist in residence on Long Island, NY, and had the time and resources to experiment with the medium. I also did a series that year commemorating the Inter-Dada ’84 Festival. The originals of these editions were still collages, as were my 15-sheet Euro-Tour Commemorative edition which I did in 1987 after my ’86 European trip. For these editions, however, I utilized the brand new Canon Laser color copier, and was very impressed with the results. However, these were still pretty pricey to produce, and that’s when I started doing the figuring necessary to cost out a full-color printed edition. I circulated this information in 1987, and in 1988 produced the first two editions of International Art Post. There are 16 editions of these in print to date, and considerably more of my own, limited editions, for which I still utilize the Canon Laser copier. (Full colour printing is still too costly to use for all my own editions).
There are many aspects of artistamps that engage my attention. I think the first thing that grabs me about them, is that they parody of an official currency/medium of exchange. People still do double-takes when looking at an envelope with artistamps on them. Because they look so REAL, the question always comes up, “are they real/legal?” , “Can I mail a letter with these?” I like this aspect, because it startles people, and makes them question what IS real. Since I have a healthy disrespect for most government agencies, this is very satisfying.
Another side of this aspect is that of putting ones own subject priorities on a stamp, claiming or assuming power, or the trapping of power, and again, demonstrating that often appearances are deceiving.
Years ago I gave up object making, as it produced too many bulky products that then had to be stored, framed, shipped, etc., all of which took up a lot of room and money. If you put $200 worth of materials and $500 worth of your time into a work, it wasn’t easy to just give it away, and so one felt obliged to take care of there products. I felt there was already too much “stuff” in the world, and I didn’t want to be producing more, especially of things that would tie me down, in terms of mobility, space, and resources. I gave up object making to become the Town Fool of Victoria, creating public events, interactions, and doing mail art.
The beauty of stamp art is that it doesn’t take up a lot of room, doesn’t require exotic equipment and supplies (other than a pin-hole perforator!). One doesn’t have to have a huge studio in which to work. One can experiment with different medium without a big cost factor. One can produce a large body of work, and keep it all in one simple box on the shelf, or in an album. One can produce additional copies of an edition as they are required, rather than having to do a huge run all at once. One can send single sheets, or a whole show around the world without great expense, trade with other stamp makers, and produce limited editions at a relatively moderate cost.
Furthermore, they have a USE. They are not just for matting and framing, but torn up and put on envelopes, they become a colorful and provocative elements on a mail-art piece. One can make a statement with a stamp, in a very limited space. I LOVE THEM!
RJ : Because you are active in mail art for such a long time, you must have received a lot of mail art too. Did you keep it all? How would you describe ‘your archive’
Reply on 28-07-1995
AB : Yes, I kept everything except for chain letters, which I either destroyed, or when I was feeling particularly patient, sent back to sender with a note explaining that I do not consider this form of communication in any way art, or even mail art. I think they are tyrannical and unimaginative, and I have NEVER responded to any of them as requested.
If I had only one word to describe my archive, it would be “humongous,” or perhaps more accurately, “comprehensive.” Being a “paper addict,” and an “image junkie,” I treasured the mail I received from the very beginning. When I left Canada in May of ’73, driving in a Dodge van which I had modified to be my home, I carried with me my mail art archive which consisted of 2 boxes of material. When I took up residence in San Francisco in August of ’73, one of my first purchases was a file cabinet. During my 8 years in San Francisco, the collection grew by leaps and bounds, partly because I was publishing VILE magazine, and everyone in the network then was anxious to have their works documented by having them reproduced in the magazine. I also continued publishing the BANANA RAG during that period, and that also drew numerous mailings from the network.
When I left San Francisco in 1981, I had 40 boxes of archival material shipped to me in Vancouver. While perhaps a third of that was books, at least half of them related to mail-art shows and projects, and a good many were “network ‘zines.” For the most part, I have filed the books, periodicals and catalogues separate from the letters and mailings, to make access to them easier. In the absence of a catalogue of the archive, this isn’t the most satisfactory solution, since any time I wanted to refer to a particular artist, I couldn’t go to just one place in the system to get a complete picture of their activity. I also streamed out postcards, as their own category, and in more recent years, have separated the artistamp sheets from the rest of the materials. The advantage of this system, of course, is that if I want to present a talk about postcards, artistamps, or books and ‘zines, I don’t have to go ploughing through all fifty boxes of material to find what I want. Maybe someday I’ll get around to cataloguing it all, but having recently sold and catalogued 400 pieces to the National Postal Museum of Canada, I don’t think that’ll be any time soon. Cataloguing is a tedious and time consuming activity which I can’t afford to do at this point. That’s all for now, over and out-
RJ : It seems that the Postal Museums are very interested in mail art these last years. What are the plans of the Canadian Postal Museum with your collection?
Reply on 17-8-1995
AB : First I’d like to clarify for your readers, that the NPM has only 400 pieces of mail art from my archive; a very small sampling from my 23-year-accumulation. I think the postal museums have taken an interest in mail-art, as they are loosing their primary position in the world of communication due to phone, FAX and e-mail. While stamp collectors will no doubt continue to treasure the little bits of paper the post offices of the world issue, fewer and fewer people resort to the post office when they wish to communicate. And of course, with telephones, fewer people write letters than they did in times past, so where are they going to turn for new support and interest? Mail-art fills the bill very nicely. It’s interesting, lively, international, visual, playful, creative, and relatively cheap, as art goes… and ANYONE can do it!
The National Postal Museum of Canada has not been very forthcoming about their plans for this collection. The most I know, is that they will use it for educational purposes, and to that end, will probably mount exhibitions from it, and offer workshops in their little gallery within the Museum of Civilization. They have spoken to me about a second mail-art exhibition which would focus on artistamps. The dates mentioned are well in the future, and from my experience in negotiating with them, it will be some time before anything conclusive will come out of these talks. They did suggest that they would like me to be the guest artist when this exhibit does come about, and of course I said I would be most interested. However, I’m not holding my breath about this one… the NPM is part of the large bureaucratic structure of the National Museum, and as such, decisions take a very long time. I will certainly keep you posted on developments.
RJ : Especially the last decade a lot of publications have been written about mail art (mostly by male mail artists). Is it always true what is written down?
Reply on 8-9-1995
AB : That’s a biggie! What is the TRUTH? People have been searching for that one for centuries. I believe to a larger extent, people write what they BELIEVE to be true, but none of us is objective, and we all have our histories, friends, experiences which filter our perceptions. Further, no one individual can tell the “whole story” of mail art, because no one individual has all the contacts – it’s NOT a finite system. An outsider researches the phenomena would never be able to cover the whole picture, because while mail art is not a finite system, it is also a changing one. People are constantly discovering the phenomena and starting exchanges while others quit and go on to other forms of expression. If it were made extinct, by say, the termination of the international mail system, THEN, perhaps, someone could do a complete picture of it, but even then, it is unlike that one researcher could unearth all the persons involved and review all the work that has been exchanged. Nor do I think it important that every work and every practitioner get a mention.
The whole point of mail art has been to be involved in a creative, expressive PROCESS of exchange, between two or more parties. You send out, and you get back. You have an audience that responds. If they don’t respond, you don’t send to them any more. This is the nature od mail art, and it can be represented by describing the types of materials exchanged, and the persons one knows of who make these exchanges. But this isn’t the same as a history of mail art, and I rather doubt we will ever read one that is completely satisfactory to our own perception of the story, because it will not reflect our view of the thing.
For example, in an essay introducing a bibliography of mail art that sounds like the complete history when you read it, unless you happened to be active during the periods described, and your contribution to the process doesn’t get mentioned. This is the situation I found myself in with that essay. I was very active in the 70’s, publishing both the Banana Rag and VILE Magazine. I felt both were focal points in the network, and know that many persons contributed material to VILE in the hopes of being published. I felt that VILE was THE show-place of the network during the period of its publication (74-81), yet I nor VILE got a mention in that essay. What was written was “true,” but incomplete, yet that essay will be quoted as “the story of mail art.”
That essay was published in a mail art show catalogue a couple of years before it appeared in the bibliography. I wrote to the author and asked why I and my contribution to the network were omitted. He didn’t respond to the question at first, and when he eventually did, he really didn’t give any reason. Then he published it, unchanged, in the bibliography. I was outraged. He was well aware of my work, and of VILE, yet he decided not to mention it. I reviewed the bibliography in Umbrella, questioning this omission. However, the book is published, and in circulation. It won’t be changed. It has authority. It is a massive work and very well done. Why did he choose to exclude me from that essay? I don’t know.
In May of ’94, he and I were both at the mail art congress in Quebec city. I asked him again, in person, why he had omitted me from that essay, and why he had refused to alter the piece when I raised the issue. He said he just wrote what came to mind when he was writing, and that he never changes a piece once it is written. So, from his perspective, my work in recording the network during the 70’s was not important. Who can argue with what another considers important? The problem is, that what is written sounds like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, when in fact, there is a considerable amount of opinion being expressed about the truth, in both what is said, and in what is omitted.
I can’t comment on a lot of the other publications on mail art that have come out, as I haven’t had the time to read them all. However, I’m sure similar situations exists, and the contributions of many others, often women, have been overlooked, or disregarded in the great move now afoot, to record the history of mail art.
I think that, generally speaking, each person who writes about mail art attempts to tell “the true story.” As readers, we have to remember that each person must and will tell it from their own perspective; with all their likes and dislikes, opinions, priorities, and experiences between them and the phenomena we’ve come to know as mail art.
RJ:Well, in a way I am looking for this “true story” and am currently doing these mail-interviews where I don’t edit the answers as much as possible. I already sent you some interviews. Any reaction to the last one I sent you?
Reply on 8-9-1995
AB:I am enjoying reading the interviews, and found the current one you sent, arto posto’s to be quite stimulating. I was interested to note her making a distinction between the original mail art network, and the rubber-stamp net being spawned by Rubberstampmadness. I’ve been watching RSM’s development for some time, and note that many of the advertisers are running CONTESTS to get readers to send in artworks, with PRIZES offered for the best work! This is NOT in the mail art tradition, nor is all the “how-to/techniques” articles that are run in RSM. What I see happening there, is the gentrification of mail art, ie. the “taming of the shrew.”
Since RSM is basically a commercial magazine, with enormous amounts of advertising which represents a lot of money changing hands over the purchase of rubber stamps, supplies, papers, etc. all related to THE CRAFT of rubber-stamping, naturally, the results are more predictable. The focus in this rubber-stamp movement – moving into main stream America – is decorative, rather than revolutionary. This focus on craft and technique produces “pretty” art-works, but entirely misses the CONTENT with which mail art rubber stamping began; ie. the usurping of an initially business technology (the rubber stamp) for the expression of radical, anti-established, anti-consumerist sentiment.
I find it amusing and ironic that mail art, which while radical and critical in outlook, was always about inclusive; anyone can do it – everyone has something to say, everyone’s work is to be of equal value, etc. etc. etc. , is now being watered down by this great rubber-stamp connection to mail-stream America via RSM. In place of discussion of political, economical, human rights or artistic philosophies, we now find techniques and how-to articles flooding the pages. Criticism of the status quo has definitely taken the back seat, if it has not been left behind all together.
I was also interested in arto posto’s comments about how she hasn’t time to keep up with all the contacts she gets, let alone deal with all the responses she gets from the internet. That’s why I have avoided the internet – I am already overwhelmed by the amount of mail I get, and I can’t imagine trying to keep up with more. I am definitely NOT a mail-art crusader, nor do I approve of persons setting themselves up as mail-art experts, and doing workshops to teach others techniques, passing out mailing lists, etc. There are already too many people exchanging to be able to keep up with it all, without going out and beating the bushes to get more recruits.
The funny thing is, Vittore Baroni, Guy Bleus and other earlier mail artists (myself included) all started out attempting to contact EVERYONE in the network, then after a few years, realized that the more people one contacted, the heavier the burden of reply became. In the beginning, it was great fun to get lots of new contacts, but there seems to come a turning point, when the load gets too heavy, both in terms of one’s time and $$$, when it is no longer possible to respond to everyone who sends you mail…. that response becomes a burden rather than a joy. Myself, Baroni and Bleus have all written on this point, and it appears that Baroni has pretty much dropped out of networking, and I have curtailed my mailings to fewer people, and very few shows, aside from Artistamp News to which individuals must subscribe, or I can’t possibly afford to continue the contact. Bleus appears to be continuing to attempt to be there for everyone, and I wonder how long he will last at it.
RJ : Should the “earlier mail artists” , as you call them, learn the newcomers what mail art is about, or should they find it out for themselves?
Reply on 26-9-1995
AB : I don’t see it as the role of ‘earlier mail artists” to instruct newcomers to the field. This is a free playing field, and one of the joys of it was the lack of rules – except, of course, rules were made up and issued – in some cases, almost as demands. This network is evolving, as it always has, since Johnson’s first mailings, since the FLUXUS artists first mailings. In those days (1960’s and 70’s), it was perpetrated by artists who celebrated their being outside the “real art world.” …but who were none-the-less, big time players in that world. Those initial players were critical of the status quo on many levels; from the tightly focussed elitism of the Art World, to the “american way of life,” (ie. consumption).
FILE magazine in the early 70’s brought a whole other community of artists into contact with each other, and these were the artists who carried the ball after 1974. These were still persons who perceived themselves as artists, but ones who enjoyed their “outsider” status; artists who didn’t get shows in commercial galleries, or anywhere else, and who celebrated their discontent with very dada sorts of artworks. The network became their showplace, and their disaffected attitudes and criticisms of main-stream America were exchanged via the mail; then, more frequently through the late 70’s and 80’s, were exhibited in mail art shows. The one-to-one exchanges were replaced by growing numbers of mail art exhibits and projects to which one could send one’s work, and get one’s name in a catalogue. Witness the show listings in Global Mail, if there is any question about this.
In the past five years or so, a number of practitioners (Michael Jacobs, John Held, Peter Küstermann, for example) seem to have become crusaders, and with an almost religious zeal, go about giving workshops to “get everyone to join in,” rather than simply continuing to explore and enjoy their existing contacts. Providing information about the network seems OK to me – if people “get it,” and want to participate, fine, one has facilitated that connection. However, these workshops in techniques seem self-serving in that, in the guise of “spreading the word,” the motivation behind them is either to get paid the fee for doing the workshop, or to sell products; rubber stamps, supplies and equipment – which is a long way from the original critical stance of those engaged in mail art.
All that said, I must come back to your question and say I don’t believe there are any valid “shoulds,” in mail art. Mail art is an ever-changing, evolving networking practice, and it is futile to attempt to tell anyone how they “should” do it. For me, it is not as interesting to exchange with persons who focus on how-to/techniques, or concern about producing decorative, saleable greeting cards and the like, as with those whose focus is a critique of the society in which we live. However, if people are getting their creative juices flowing doing these things, then BRAVO. Carry on, do it, enjoy it, send it out and let the network evolve! This is still far superior to spending one’s time in front of the tube, and I applaud it.
Maybe this is a good point to end? Unless you have some more provocative questions…. Go Bananas!
RJ : Yes, I think it is a good moment to end this interview. But even after ending the interview, I will keep asking questions now and then….! Thank you for this interview.