THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH DICK HIGGINS (USA)
by Ruud Janssen
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
DH: Dear Señor Janssen – I got involved in the mail-art network in July 1959 shortly after I met Ray Johnson in June. He sent me a marzipan frog, a wooden fork and three small letters in wood, which I correctly misunderstood. I sent him some wild mushrooms which I had gathered, and they arrived at his place on Dover Street just before they decomposed.
RJ : Was this mail-art in the beginning just fun & games or was there more to it?
(Together with his answer Dich Higgins sent me his large, 46 pages long, Bio/Bibliography and a contribution to my Rubberstamp Archive, a stampsheet with some of his old and new stamps printed on)
DH: Indeed it was fun to communicate with Ray. But it was a new kind of fun. I had never encountered anyone who could somehow jell my fluid experiences of the time when I was doing visual poetry (thus the letters), food and conceptual utility (perhaps I had shown him my “Useful Stanzas” which I wrote about then. But what had he left out? Nature – thus my sending of the wild mushrooms, collecting and studying which was an ongoing interest (I was working on them with John Cage, an important friend of Ray’s as of mine).
As for rubber stamps, in 1960 when Fluxus was a-forming my home was in New York at 423 Broadway on the corner with Canal Street and my studio was at 359 Canal Street a few blocks away. Canal Street was known for its surplus dealers (some are still there) including stationers, and one could buy rubber stamps there for almost nothing – and we did! I had already made some rubber stamps through Henri Berez, a legendary rubber maker on Sixth Avenue, long gone but he was the first I knew who could make photographic rubber stamps – Berez made a magnesium, then a Bakelite and finally the rubber stamp, And I blocked the magnesiums and used them for printing as well. I had stamps of musical notation symbols made and also of my calligraphies, etc. At an auction in 1966 when he moved to Europe I also bought Fluxartist George Brecht’s rubber stamps (mostly of animals) which he used starting ca. 1960; I used those to make a bookwork of my own, From the Earliest Days of Fluxus (I Guess), which I think is in the Silverman Collection. Others of my rubber stamps are in the Archiv Sohm and perhaps Hermann Braun or Erik Andersch have some, I am not sure. I think there was an article on Fluxus rubber stamps in Lightworks – that must be listed in John Held Jr’s Mail Art: an Annotated Bibliography (Mettuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991) and/or in Jon Hendricks’s Fluxus Codex (New York: Abrams, ca. 1992). I also composed some music using rubber stamps, notably Emmett Williams’s Ear/L’orecchio di Emmett Williams (Cavriago: Pari & Dispari, 1978).
That’s about all I can add to the rubber stamp thing at this time. It would be much more efficient for us if I send you my Bio/Bibliography which has facts that need not be endlessly repeated, so I am doing that under separate cover. The curious type face I used on that is one which I designed and named for Fluxmail Artist Ken “Kenster” Friedman, “Kenster.”
RJ : Your Bio/Bibliography is quite impressive. The sentence on the first page: “I find I never feel quite complete unless I’m doing all the arts — visual, musical and literary. I guess that’s why I developed the term ‘intermedia’ , to cover my works that fall conceptually between these” , indicates you are always focussing on all kinds of media to express yourself. Which place has mail-art in this?
29 C and about 85% relative humidity
(Together with his answer Dick Higgins sent me a poster with titel “SOME POETRY INTERMEDIA” explaning metapoetries or how poetry is connected to many other art-forms. Published by Richard C. Higgins, 1976 , New York, USA)
DH : Yes, I am a “polyartist” – Kostelanetz’s term for an artist who works in more than one medium, and some of these media themselves have meaningful gradiations between them. Visual poetry lies between visual art and poetry, sound poetry lies between music and poetry, etc. But between almost any art and non-art media other intermedia are possible. What lies between theater and life, for instance? Between music and philosophy? In poetry I got into this in my “Some Poetry Intermedia” poster essay. If we take any art as a medium and the postal system as a medium, then mail art is the intermedium between these – postal poetry, postal music, mail-art [visual variety], etc.
Some of these are more capable than others of the subversive function which I value in mail art – it bypasses the gallery world and the marketplace, so it becomes somehow immune to censorship. If used aggressively it can make a reactionary politician’s life Hell. And it is not yet played out yet. For instance, while Fax art has no special characteristics (it is like monochromatic regular mail, “snail mail”) what is e-mail art? Can’t it subvert the rich folks’ machines? Ruin their modems? Yet even that is a commonplace, once one has considered it. Little artists can do it. Its power is inherent in its medium. I can tell you stories of how the Poles of Kodsko tortured an East German bureaucrat who has banned a Mail art show in (then) East Berlin. I happened to be visiting there at the time and was involved in this.
But let’s think about more positive areas. Please tell me about the spiritual aspects of mail art. How do you see that?
RJ : Yes, a nice try to end an answer with a question to me. I will send you some ‘thoughts about mail-art’ for you to read, but in this interview I would like to focus on YOUR thoughts and knowledge. I am in no hurry, so I would like to hear that story of how the Poles of Kodsko tortured this East German bureaucrat who banned this mail art show in East Berlin…..
DH : (today in 1843 Herman Melville signed abroad the frigate ‘United States,’ this began the journey that led to ‘White-Jacket’)
It must have been about 1988 and I was traveling through Poland, reading and performing with a friend, the critic and scholar Piotr Rypson. Our travels brought us to Kodsko down in the beak of Galicia to where a group of unofficial Polish artist had gathered to discuss what to do since the Mail Art Conference which Robert Rehfeldt had organized in East Berlin had, at the last moment, been canceled by some bureaucrat. It was a final and irrevocable decision the bureacrat had made, finalized by his official rubber stamp besides his signature. This was a great disappointment to these artists who had very little opportunity to meet personally with each other, especially across international borders, and to exchange ideas. However these artists were Poles, from the land of the liberum votum , and they had six hundred years experience at protesting. They made a list of things to do. Having access to some things in America which were problematic in Poland, I was asked to have four exact facsimiles of the bureaucrat’s rubber stamp made up and to send one to each of four addresses I was given, one was an official one in the Department of Agriculture in the DDR and the other three were in Poland. I was also asked to buy some homosexual and some Trotskyite magazines in the USA, to send them one at a time to the bureaucrat and, if possible, to subscribe in his name to these things. I did these things and also I appointed the bureaucrat an honorary member of my Institiute for Creative Misunderstanding and sent an announcement of his appointment to Neues Deutschland, the main communist newspaper of the DDR.
For a few weeks it seemed as if nothing had happened. But then I received a long letter from Robert Rehfeldt in English (usually he wrote me in German) lecturing me on what a terrible thing it was to try to force a person to accept art work which he did not like. And a few weeks after that I received a post card from Rehfeldt auf deutsch saying “Fine – keep it up [mach weiter].”
In this story we can see the usefulness for using the mails on the positive side for keeping spirits up and for keeping contact with those one does not see, on the sometimes-necessary negative side for creating powerful statements which must have caused great problems for this bureaucrat. I have no idea who these people were to whom I sent the rubber stamps, but I can imagine that they were forging the bureaucrat’s signature onto all sorts of capricious papers and causing great consternation within official circles of the DDR. For me this story tells well one of the main uses of Mail Art.
Perhaps it also suggests why Mail Art taken out of context can sometimes be such a bore. It has no particular formal value or novelty, especially when one has (as I have) been doing it for nearly forty years, so that mere documentation seems tendentious and egotistic. Would you want to only read about a great painting of the past? Wouldn’t you rather see it and then, perhaps, read about it? Making good Mail Art is like making a soufflé – the timing is very very critical. Who wants to be told about a decade old soufflé? And documenting the matter is not nearly so interesting as receiving and consuming it at precisely the right moment – with the right people too, I might add. It is an art of the utmost immediacy.
RJ : What was the reason for creating your “Institute for Creative Misunderstanding”?
(Apollinaire born today)
(Besides his answer Dick Higgins also sent his poem “Inventions to make”)
DH : Kära Ruud, For years I was struck by how little one understands of how one’s work will be perceived by others. We can prescribe how others will see it at risk of discouraging them. Duchamp, when anyone would ask “does your piece mean this or that…?” would smile and usually say “yes,” no matter how absurd the question. The impressionists thought they were dealing with light; we see their contribution is one of design along the way towards abstraction. The Jena Romantic poets of Germany saw themselves as applying the philosophies of Kant and Plato to their writings, but we see it as reviving the baroque and providing a healthy restorative emotional depth to their poetry which had often been lacking in the work of the previous generation. The same is true of Percy B. Shelley who knew his Plato well (and translated passages of Plato from Greek into English), but who in poems like “Lift not the painted veil” or “The sensitive plant” moves Plato’s ideas into areas which Plato never intended to create a new entity of art-as-concealment. Harold Bloom, a famous academic critic in the USA, was, in the 1970’s in books like The anxiety of influence, stressing the role of recent art as cannibalizing and deriving from earlier art. I was not satisfied with Bloom’s models and preferred to extend them and misinterpret them myself along hermeneutic lines using a Gadamerian model; this you will find in a linear fashion in my book Horizons (1983) and in the forthcoming “Intermedia: Modernism since postmodernism” (1996). But a linear presentation does not satisfy me either; it does not usually offer grounds for projection into new areas and it focuses too much on the specifics of my own ratiocinations. To broaden my perspective I conceived of a community of artists and thinkers who could take conceptual models and, with good will (my assumption, like Kant’s in his ethics), transform these models – evoking not simply intellectual discourse but humor or lyrical effects which would otherwise not be possible. This is, of course, my Institute of Creative Misunderstanding. Into it I put a number of people with whom I was in touch who seemed to be transforming earlier models into new and necessary paradigms. I tried to organize a meeting of the institute, but could not get funding for it and realized that it might well be unnecessary anyway. I still use that Institute as a conceptual paradigm when necessary.
So I would not discribe the Institute for Creative Misunderstanding as a “fake institute,” as you did, so much as an abstract entity and process of existence which creates a paradigm of community of like-minded people by its very name and mentioning. Are you a member of the Institute, Ruud? Perhaps you are – it is not really up to me to say if you have correctly misunderstood it in your heart of hearts.
RJ : Who is to say if I am a member? But I sure like all those institutes and organisations that there are in the network. You spoke of the intention to organize a meeting. In the years 1986 and 1992 there were lots of organized meetings in the form of congresses. Is it important for (mail-) artists to meet in person?
(Cage born -1912)
DH : (laughing) Who’s to say if you are a member? Why the group secretary, of course – whoever that is. Perhaps I am acting secretary and I say you are a member. Anyway, to be serious, the question of meetings is not answerable, I think, except in specific contexts. The events planned at Kodsko could not have been planned without the people being together; but at other times it would seem unnecessarily pretentious to bring them together – frustrating even, since most mail artists are poor and they would have to spend money to be present. At times this would be justified, but if it were simply a matter of pride or of establishing a place in some pecking order, well that would not be good.
Think of a camp fire. Shadowy figures are in conversation, laughing and talking; what they say makes sense mostly among themselves. A stranger wanders in and listens. The stranger understands almost nothing – to him what is said is all but meaningless – and the part which he understands seems trivial to him. The stranger has two options: he can stay and learn why what is being said is necessary, or he can go away and suggest that all such campfires are silly and should be ignored or banned. Mail art is like that. I go to shows, and the work is arranged not by conversation but according to a curators’s skills of the past, as if these were drawings by Goya. But they aren’t. Their meaning is more private, often contained in the facts and conditions of their existence more than in the art traditions to which they seem to belong. The show therefore doesn’t work. Few do. But a show arranged chronologically of the exchanges among some specific circle mail artists – that would have a greater chance for an outsider to learn the language and love the medium. Wouldn’t you like to see a show of the complete exchanges between, say, San Francisco’s Anna Banana*1 and Irene Dogmatic (if there ever was such an exchange) than the 65th International Scramble of Mail Artists presented by the Commune di Bric-á-Bracchio (Big catalog with lots and lots of names, but all works become the property of the Archivo di Bric-á-Bracchio).
*1 of course Anna has since moved to her native Vancouver, and I haven’t heard of Irene Dogmatic in many a year)
Chance encounters among mail artists, meetings among small groups – oh yes, those are quite wonderful. But I don’t usually see the point in large gatherings of mail artists. Actually, there haven’t been many of them – thank goodness. Berlin would have been an exception, methinks.
As e’er- Dick (laughing) (Dicks signiture was placed here as a smiling face)
RJ : What is the first ‘chance encounter’ (as you call them) that comes up in your mind when I ask for a memory about such an event?
DH : By “chance encounters” I mean those meetings which could not have been anticipated or which take place on the spur of the moment. In on Wednesday I arrange to meet you the following Tuesday at 7:30 and if I am unable to sleep Monday night because of faxes from Europe arriving all night long Monday night and the cat is ill on Tuesday so that I must waste half the day at the veterinarian’s office, you and I will have a very different kind of meeting from the situation of my meeting you in the post office and the two of us going to spend a few hours together talking things over, or if I say: “Look: I cooked too much food, please come over and help me eat it.”
We have all had such meeting, no? Those meetings are the most productive, I think. Few mail artists (or any artists) can really control their own time, their own scedule. Only the rich can do that, if anyone can. We are mostly poor and must depend on the schedules of others. But there are days when this is not true – days when it works perfectly to see someone. Ray Johnson was a master of this – he would call, “I am with (whoever), we’re down the street from you. Can we come see you?” If yes – great. If not, one never felt locked into the situation.
That is how I never met Yves Klein. One night, perhaps in 1961, at 11:15 Ray phoned me from down the street and said that Yves Klein was with him and would like to meet me. I said I’d like to meet him too but I was in bed and it was a week-day. I had to go to work the next day. We agreed that I should meet Yves Klein the next time he came to new York. It didn’t happen; Klein died instead.
It is also how I met Alison Knowles, – Ray Johnson and Dorothy Podber and myself had dinner in Chinatown in New York and then they took me to Alison’s loft nearby. I had met her briefly before that, but this time we got to talk a little. That was thirty-six years ago, and Alison and I are still together.
And so it goes –
RJ : Yes, and also the forms of communication are proceeding. To my surprise I noticed on your ‘letterhead’ that you have an e-mail address too. Are you now exploring the possibilities of the internet as well?
(Dick Higgins handwritten answer came from Milano, Italy, where he is preparing a retrospective show of his work.)
DH : Yes, “exploring” is the only possible word, since the internet is constantly changing. You can “know” yesterday’s internet, but today’s always contains new variables.
In the world of computers, most of the “information” is irrelevant, even to those who put it there. Few of us bother to download clever graphics since advertising has made us numb to those. I only download graphics if the text which I see really seems to need them. I need them no more than I need to watch show-offy gymnastic displays, divers or pianists who play Franz Liszt while blindfolded and balancing champagne glasses on their head. What I like on the “net” are three things:
1) Making contact with people whose contributions to the internet shows interest similar to my own. Far from being alienating, as others have said of the web and internet, I find this element a very positive and community-building factor. For instance, I enjoyed meeting on the internet a guy whom I’d met three years ago, a visual poet named Kenny Goldsmith, and had not seen since. Now he does “Kenny’s page ” – <http://wfmu.org so/~kennyg/index.html> – where he creates links to anything in the new arts which excites him. It was like looking into someone else’s library – a revelation, and one which I could use. It led me to meet him again in person, a real delight.
2) I cannot afford to buy the books I once could. But often I can download and print out things to read before going to bed. For an author, what a way to get one’s work and ideas around! Why wait two years for your book to appear, for your article to come out in some magazine which nobody can afford? Put it on the net and it is potentially part of the dialogue in your area of interest. Further, it tells me not only what people are interested in, but what is going on – a John Cage conference , which interested me, was fully described on the net for instance – and it gives me access to everything from dictionaries, indexes and lists of words, people and events.
I suppose a saboteur could list false information, and of course commercial interests can tell me about their stuff, but this only sharpers my skeptical abilities – I can avoid their garbage with no more effect than on a commercial television set. I suspect the internet is a blow to the effectiveness of normal advertising.
3) As someone whose favorite art, books and literature are seldom commercially viable, I am happy to see how the internet actually favors the smaller organizations and media. If I access a big publisher’s pages with ten thousend titles, I stop and quit almost at once – it takes too long. But a small publisher’s page is often worth a glance.
Further, the phenomenon of links gives an element of three – dimenisionality to the internet. A book sounds interesting. I click on it and I see a few pages of it. This is like browsing in a wonderful book store. A good example is the pages for Avec, a small avant-garde magazine and book publisher in California. I found it through a link on the Grist pages – <http://www.phantom.com/~grist>. It’s designed by the editor of Witz , a new arts newsletter (address: email@example.com). Perfect. Another good one is Joe de Marco’s pages <http://www.cinenet.net/~marco> – full of fluxus things and theater. All this suggests new forms of distribution, which has always been a problem for small publishers. If you can safely transmit credit information to an address on the internet, then, if you live in a small village as I do, it is as if you lived in a large city with an incredible book store near you.
Because of links, I do not see how big corporations can commercialize all this. My computer is black and white, I have no money to invest in their corporations, and their rubbish is easily avoided. Thanks to the internet, the damber kind of popular culture will probably begin to lose its strangle-hold on people’s attention. Of course it will take time and other developments too, but the internet rips off the conservatives’ three-piece suits, remakes them and gives them to us in a better form.
RJ : It seems like publishing is very important for you. In mail art a lot has been written about the book “The Paper Snake” by Ray Johnson, which you published with Something Else Press. What was the story behind this specific book?
DH: There is no doubt in my mind that Ray Johnson was one of the most valuable artists I’ve ever known. He was a master of the “tricky little Paul Klee ish collage,” as he modestly dismissed them; most of his work of the late 1950’s was collages in 8 1/2 x 11 format roughly corresponding to the European A3. That was a time when Abstract Expressionism (“Tachisme”) ruled the roost in America, and art was supposed to swagger, lack humor, be big and important looking. Johnson had rejected this long before, had, in the 1950’s, made hundreds or thousand of postcard size collages using popular imagery, had also made big collages and then cut them up, sewn them together into chains, had buried the critic Suzi Gablik in a small mountain of them (alas, only temporarily), had printed various ingenious little booklets and sent them off into the world, and, since there was no appropriate gallery for his work, had now taken to sending his collages out along with assemblages in parcel post form. For example, a few days after I had startled Ray by throwing my alarm clock out the window, he sent me a box containing a marzipan frog, a broken clock and a pair of chopsticks, calling shortly thereafter to suggest that we go to Chinatown for dinner.
But Ray could write too. He was always interested in theater and performance, had picked up many ideas from the days when he and his friend Richard Lippold lived downtown in New York City on Monroe Street on the floor below John Cage (all of them friends also from Black Mountain College), and he wrote and sent out innumerable playlets, poems, prose constructions, etc.
I saw Ray around town for several months before I met him, which was at a 1959 concert where I asked him if he were Jasper Johns. “No,” he said, “I’m Ray Johnson,” we got to talking and soon to walking and not long afterwards to visiting. Years later, when I met Jasper Johns, in order to complete the symmetry, I asked him if he were Ray Johnson. I expected him to say, “You know I’m not why do you ask?” Instead he said, acidly: “No.” And he walked away.
Something Else Press was founded on the spur of the moment. First I did my book “Jefferson’s Birthday/Postface” (1964). But before the thing was even printed, I decided the next book should be a cross section of the things Ray had sent me over the previous six years. So, having little room at my own place, I packed them all into two suitcases, visited my mother and spread everything out on her dining table. I sorted the book into piles performance pieces, poems, collages, things to be typeset, thing to be reproduced in Ray’s writing taking care to include at least some of each category. I knew the book would be hard to sell, so I didn’t want to make it a Big Important Book; I chose the format of a children’s book, set the texts in a smallish size of Cloister Bold (an old fashioned Venetian face), decided on using two colors to simulate four (which I could not have afforded), and then laid out the pages in a way which I felt would invite the reader to experience Ray’s pieces as I did on receiving them. Ray, who had at first been displeased by the project, perhaps feeling it would lock him into a format too much, become very enthusiastic as the project developed. Where at first he had refused to title the book, later he called it “The Paper Snake” after a collage and print he had made. He also wanted the price to be “$3.47,” for reasons I have never known (prices of that sort were always $3.48 or $3.98). And when, one winter day in 1966, the book was being bound by a New York City binder, I took Ray over to the bindery to see it being cased in (when the covers are attached to the book). By then he was delighted and wrote me one of the few formal letters ever received from him thanking me for doing it.
As for its reception, the book was a puzzler to even the most sophisticated readers at the time. Even someone who was a regular correspondent of Ray’s, Stanton Kreider, wrote me an outraged letter saying what a silly book it was. Such people usually felt that Ray’s mailings were and should remain ephemera. There were almost no reviews, but one did appear in Art Voices, one of the most scorching reviews I have ever seen, complaining the book was precious and completely trivial, a pleasure to an in group. These letters and reviews are now in the Archiv Sohm in Stuttgart, where you can persue them for yourself if you like.
RJ : It is good that you keep mentioning the places where things can be found, if I do or don’t persue, now somebody else might do it too. There are a lot of archives in the world. Besides the ‘official’ archives there are also the privat collections that most (mail-) artists have built up. Are there still things that you collect?
DH : I feel overwhelmed by THINGS at my home. My letters are one of the main things I have done in this life, and I try to keep copies of each letter I send; but there is no space to save them. For years now my files have been going away – to the Archiv Sohm, for about 1972 to 1989 to the Jean Brown Archive, and from then till now the Getty Center in Santa Monica, California.
I don’t think it makes sense for a private individual to have a closed archive if such a person is going to present a face to the world. I have read that Yoko Ono founded Fluxus, and I have seen that quoted as a fact many times. One critic or student picks up errors from the one before. I don’t know where that “fact” came from. Yoko is a good. modest person; she was a friend of ours and she had done pieces which are very much part of the older Fluxusrepertoire. But she was not present on that November day of 1961 when Maciunas proposed to a group of us that we do a magazine to be called “Fluxus” and that we do performances of the pieces in the magazine; nor was she in Wiesbaden in September 1962 when we did those performances and the press began calling us “Die Fluxus Leute” – the Fluxus people. So while she, for instance, was surely one of the original Fluxus people, she did not found Fluxus. Well, if I am going to assert this, it is important that the documents of the time be available somewhere besides in my own files. Too, my writings are complex and full of allusions; this is not to create mysteries but to enrich the fabric and draw on reality. It can be useful therefore that my files be open to anyone who needs them, and this would be impossible if the files were here in my church.
Then there are other collections: from 1977 to 1991 I collected things related to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), – apart from a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus, Bruno’s “De imaginum, signorum et idearum Compositione” (1593) has the earliest discussion I know of intermedia – but when Charlie Doria’s translation of this work came out (which I edited and annotated) I sold off all the Bruno materials I had. From 1968 to 1990 (about) I collected patterns poetry-old visual poetry from before 1900 – but that too has gone away, most of it anyway. I have collected almost all of the books written, designed by or associated with Merle Armitage (1893-1975), a great modernist book designer, and my biography of him, “Merle Armitage and the Modern Book”, is due out with David Godine next year. I will then sell that collection too. Perhaps it was a good experience acquiring these things, but that part is over now. Other collections have been given away. I collected a tremendous amount of sound poetry and information on it, meaning to do a book on the subject. But there was never money to do the book right. Perhaps that collection also should depart. There is too much art work by myself here in the church in which I live and work – it gets damaged because it cannot be stored properly. I would like to move to a smaller place, since I do not need and cannot afford this big one, and if that happens more things also go away.
There are some phonograph records, tapes abd CD’s too – too many to keep track of, some going back to my teen years when I used to spend the money I earned by baby-sitting on records of John Cage, Henry Cowell, Göesta Nystroem, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Anton Webern and such-like. I suppose the only books which are also tools and (for me) reference work-books on design or artistic crafts (orchestration, for instance), Fluxbooks and Fluxcatalogs (I need to check my facts), books and magazines in which I am included (so I can tell where such-and-such a piece first was printed). As for objects, I care about my mother’s dishes and one table, but that is about all – the rest can go.
No, I am a temporary collector – as Gertrude Stein said of her visitors, she liked to see them come, but she also liked to see them go. I will acquire things when they are needed, but I need to unload them too. I have no right to own art, even by friends, because I cannot take care of it properly. It too must go. This church is dark with things, things, things – and maybe somebody else, somebody younger that I, might like to have them.
RJ : Why do you live in a church?
DH : I live in this church because, when I moved to this area from Vermont (where I had lived almost fourteen years, off and on, up near the Quebec border) I bought a house, garage and church complex. It had been “defrocked” by the Roman Catholic Church in 1974, its consecration taken away and the cross and bell removed, and it was sold to a couple who wanted it to become an antique shop. However there was no drive by traffic so they found that would not work. But nobody wanted to buy it from them. So I got it at a good price, as they say. My plan was to live in the house a modest parsonage, for my wife Alison Knowles to use the garage (where we set up a photo darkroom to be shared), and for myself to use the church as my own studio. For this it was fine.
But in 1985 when my finances began to collapse with the decline in the US art world, the rise of our Radical Right and neo Christian coalition, and with the Fluxus syndrome among exhibitors and collectors, I had to rent out the house to survive and to move into the church. It is a nice space, well suited to be a studio, but it is dark in the winter and is quite gloomy and expensive to heat. It has no doors so nobody is separated from anything else that is going on. There are virtually no doors to close, so there is no privacy. Sometimes I think I will go mad here. Maybe I have. I would love to move, but like the previous owners I would find it hard to sell and in any case I have no money to move. Next winter I may have to do without heat here most of the time unless things look up. It is a curious environment for an artist.
I often refer to this “Fluxus syndrome.” It is my term for a problem that I face. It goes like this. A gallerist, critic or exhibitor tells me “I like your work. I know you are a Fluxus artist.” Then they see more of my work and they compare it to the work of George Maciunas, whom they take to be the leader of Fluxus instead of its namer and, in his own preferred term, “Chairman” of Fluxus. They note that there are differences and they say to me: “But that work is not Fluxus. Do you have any Fluxus work?” I say yes, and I show work from the early sixties through late seventies. It still does not resemble the work of Maciunas. It isn’t usually even fun and games, which is what the public thinks of as Fluxus. So I am marginalized in Fluxus shows, or I am left out of other collections because “This is not a Fluxus gallery/museum show/collection.” The problem is all but unavoidable, and in vain can one point out that if Fluxus is important, it is because of its focus on intermedia, that Maciunas recognized this repeatedly, that he knew perfectly well that there was room in Fluxus for work which did not resemble his at all. If one says anything like this in public, it is taken to be a disloyalty to George or some kind of in fighting for prestige. I have sometimes been tempted to show my work under a false name in order to escape this syndrome altogether. But even that sounds as if I were ashamed of my Fluxus past, which I am not, even though it is not awfully relevant to my work since the late seventies. Also I still feel affinities to some of my Fluxus colleagues, though the work of others has, in my opinion, become repetitious crap. Many of my Fluxfriends could do with a little more self criticism, in my opinion. Fluxus also has its share of hangers on, people who were utterly marginal to the group and who kept their distance during the years when Fluxus had not acquired its present and perhaps false public image, but who are now all too willing to con their way into the list and to enter their colors for the next tournament.
RJ : This story about “Fluxus syndrome,” is quite interesting when I compare it to mail art. There is the difference that in mail art most artist try to avoid the traditional art-world, and there is even the phrase “mail art and money don’t mix” by Lon Spiegelman, that is used by others too. There are on the other hand also artists who say to organize a mail art show and then start to use entrance-fees and ask for money for catalogues ; try to ‘con’ people in the mail art network. What do you think of “mail art and money don’t mix”? I know it’s not an easy question to answer.
DH : Money and mail art? Money and Fluxus? Mixing? You are right, I can’t answer that one easily. Certainly if somebody got into mail art (or Fluxus) as a means of advancing his or her career- “Gee,” says the dork, “ya gotta get inta as many shows as possible, I was in thirty-two last year and here’s the catalogs to prove it,” -he or she would swiftly learn that is not what the field is for. Rather, its purpose is to combat alienation, and that is only in some respects an economic problem. Mail art has tremendous disruptive potential (and even some constructive social potential), as I described in my story about Polish mail artists and the East German bureaucrat. And it has great community-building power – even my hypothetical dork can say” “Wow, I got friends all over, from Argentina to Tooneesia.” But I must make a confession: I have probably seen forty or fifty actual exhibitions of mail art, and NOT ONE OF THEM was interesting to see. There were good things in each of them of course, but the effect of looking at them was weak. Why? Because they did not reflect the function – they always treated the sendings as final artifacts (sometimes ranked according to the prestige of the artist). But mail art pieces are virtually never final artifacts – they are conveyors of a process of rethinking, community-building and psychological and intellectual extension. Thus it is, I think, a distortion to think, of mail art as a commercial commodity of any kind. Because it is typically modest in scale usually and it is usually technically simple, the finest piece may come from the greenest, newest or the least skilled artist. There is no rank in mail art so long as the artist thinks and sees clearly.
Nevertheless, the issue of money is one which must be faces. Lack of it can ruin your capability for making mail art, for one thing. When the heat is gone and you can’t afford to go to the doctor, it is very hard to focus on making this collage to send away, even though one knows that do so would bring great satisfaction and comfort. Yet the mail art itself is not usually salable, and nobody gets a career in mail art. One is free to be capricious, as I was circa twenty-odd years ago when I spent two months corresponding only with people whose last names began with M. It is not, then, so much that mail art and money do not mix but that mail art simply cannot be used to produce money, at least not directly, – which is not to say that one mail artist cannot help another. Obviously we can and do. I remember when Geoffrey Cook, a San Francisco mail artist, undertook a campaign through the mail art circuit to free Clemente Padín, the Uruguayan mail artist (among other things) who had been jailed by the military junta for subversion. It worked. And many is the mail artist who, wanting to see his or her correspondent, finds some money somewhere to help defray travel costs and such-like.
With Fluxus, the issue is different. Fluxart has in common with mail art its primary function as a conveyor of meaning and impact. But Fluxworks are not usually mail art and do not usually depend on a network of recepients. Some are enormously large. Some take large amounts of time to construct, some are expensive to build and so on. Given this, issues of professionalism arise which are not appropriate to mail art. If I insist on making my Fluxart amateur and to support myself by other means, I may not be able to realize my piece. I am thus forced at a certain point in my evolution to attempt to live form my art, since anything else would be a distraction. I must commercialize the un-commercializable in order to extend it to its maximum potential. What an irony! It is, I fancy (having been in Korea but not Japan), like the expensive tranquillity of a Zen temple in contrast to the maniacal frenzy of Japanes commercial life outside it. Peace becomes so expensive one might imagine it is a luxury, which I hope it is not. So one is compelled to support it.
The difference is, I think, that commercial art supports the world of commodity; Fluxus and other serious art of their sort draws on the world of commerce for its sustenance but its aim lies elsewhere – it points in other directions, not at the prestige of the artist as such (once someone once tried to swap, for a book by Gertrude Stein which he wanted, two cookies which Stein had baked, then about twenty-two years before) and certainly not at his or her ego in any personal sense (John Cage musing at the hill behind his then home, “I don’t think I have done anything remarkable, anything which that rock out there could not do if it were active”). One must take one’s work seriously, must follow its demands and be an obedient servant to them: nobody else will, right? If the demands are great and require that one wear a shirt and tie and go light people’s cigars, then out of storage come the shirt and tie and out comes the cigar-lighter. That is what we must do. But we do not belong to the world of cigars; we are only visitors there. It is a liminal experience, like the shaman visiting the world of evil spirits. We can even be amused by the process. Anyway, that’s my opinion.
RJ : Some mail artists say that the mail art network is more active than before. Others say that mail art is history because almost all the possibilities of the traditional mail have been explored, and that all the things that are happening now in mail art, are reproductions of things that happened before. Is mail art a finished chapter?
(Santayana born today (1863) and Jane Austin too (1775)
DH : Well, I think both sides are right. Mail Art is more active than before if more people are doing it. Of course, for those of us whose interest in exploration I am glad they are doing it even though I see no need to do it AS SUCH myself. Mail Art is [only?] history if all the possibilities have been explored yes, if one’s job is to explore things only formally. Of course I love history without it I never know what not to do. For me this last assumption is therefore right so far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Why should we assume that doing something once means it need not be done again? That is what I call the “virgin attitude,” fine for people who are hung up on sleeping with virgins but a dreadful idea if it is really love that you want. Aren’t you glad that Monet painted more than one haystack or waterlily painting? Don’t you have a food recipe which you would hate to change? A “finished chapter?” That has even more problematic assumptions.
After all, a chapter in a book (including the Book of Life) involves reading, and the best books invite reading more than once. Isn’t reading as creative as writing?
Mail Art is, in my opinion, not a single form. I am not much of a taxonomist someone else can decide how many forms it is, can classify and sort it out. What I know and have said in this interview is that Function precipitates Form. So long as new uses for Mail Art can appear, new forms are likely to arise. Just for instance e mail letters and magazines are relatively new. The ways we can use them have not fully revealed themselves. The politics of this world are as fouled up as ever; perhaps there are mail art methods (including e mail methods) which can be used to help straighten things out or at least point to the problems in a startling or striking way. No, I think mail art may be history it has been with us at least since Rimbaud’s burnt letters but only a Dan Quail (a proverbially obtuse right wing politician here) would say, as he did in 1989, that “History is Over!” And as long as there are people artists living alone here and there, confronted by problems (professional, formal, human or social), Mail Art is likely to have a role to play in helping to alleviate those problems. What we must not do is allow ourselves to take ourselves too seriously tendentiousness is a natural health hazard for the mail artist. The freshness and unpredictability of the medium are part of why, if mail art works at all, it really does. Just as we must always reinvent ourselves, according to whatever situations we find ourselves in, we must always reinvent our arts. And that includes mail art.
RJ : Well, this is a wonderful moment to end this interview. I want to thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts.