This interview was done in 1995 by Ruud Janssen. 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.
MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HELD JR.
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HELD JR.
Started on: 3-11-1994
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: 22-11-94
JH : My first trip to Europe was in 1975. I went to France, Italy, Greece, Austria, Germany, and Holland. In Amsterdam I came across a rubber stamp store by chance. They sold sets of visual stamps (flowers, animals, fairy tales). I bought several, and talked to the director, Mr. Van der Plaats, about his business. When I returned to New York, I began to use them in my artwork (I was then doing pen and ink work). I never heard of artists using rubber stamps in the context of fine art before. I thought I had discovered a new art medium. But as a professional librarian, I began to research if this was true or not.
One day in the New York Times newspaper I saw an article about Bizarro Rubber Stamp Company. They published a catalog of visual rubber stamps. I wrote to the director, Kenn Spicer, and he informed me that there was an underground art form called mail art, and that they used rubber stamps to decorate envelopes. He gave me the names of two New York artists who were involved in this work: Ray Johnson and Edward Plunkett. Ray Johnson had started this artform in the fifties as a way of distributing his pop art imagery. Ed Plunkett gave a name to Johnson’s activities in 1962: The New York Correspondance School of Art. Plunkett sent me dadaesque “free tickets” that were rubber stamped with odd names and images. Johnson sent photocopied works, which he encouraged me to “add and send to” persons unknown to me. They turned out to be other members of the NYCSA, such people as Anna Banana and Richard C. But it was with Johnson himself that I had the greatest correspondence.
Ray Johnson not only introduced me to people through mail, but gave me the address and introductions to well-known artists like the painter Arakawa and his poet wife Madelyn Gins whose work I admired. For a young person not yet thirty, this was a fantastic way to participate in the contemporary art of my time, and actually meet the participants.
I accumulated more rubber stamps and made more and more mail art contacts. In 1976 I returned to Amsterdam to have a show at Stempelplaats, the rubber stamp gallery and museum that Mr. Van de Plaats had just started with the encouragement of myself and Ulises Carrion. While there, I spent one week with Carrion, a Mexican artist who had started the Amsterdam bookstore and gallery Other Books and So. Carrion was the center of the European mail art scene and exhibited and sold postcards, rubber stamp works, artist’s books, photocopy work, artist publications of all kinds, in short the only public distribution point for this very underground art form. From Ulises I learned the conceptual side of mail art and the philosophy behind much of my future activity.
RJ : What is this conceptual side of mail art in your eyes? How is it connected to your current activities ?
reply on : 20-12-1994
JH : Many of the ideas Ulises Carrión expressed on mail art and rubber stamps are contained in his book Second Thoughts. In his essay, “Mail Art and the Big Monster,” he explains that mail art uses as support the postal system, but the post is not the medium. A mail art piece consists of a series of actions. Production of the piece and posting of the piece are only two of them. In another essay in Second Thoughts, “Personal Worlds or Cultural Strategies,” Carrión extends the concept of an artwork when he asks the question, “Where does the border lie between an artist’s work and the actual organization and distribution of the work?” He answers it by saying, “When an artist is busy choosing his starting point, defining the limits of his scope, he has the right to include the organization and distributation of his work as an element of the same work. And by doing so, he’s creating a strategy that will become a constituent formal element of the final work.”
So I came to understand through Carrión, and others as well, that mail art is not about the mail, the production of postcards, or other relics of the process, but about communication and the control of distributed creative energy. This is a conceptual exploration that begins with the production of physical objects, but as Carrión has said, “Most artists and the public seem to have lost themselves in the game. They have come to think that making Mail Art means producing postcards.” It’s not so. Mail Art is a medium itself for the distribution of “personal worlds” and “cultural strategies.”
The organization and distribution of the work of which Carrión spoke of is a critical concern of mine. I am not only an artist, but an librarian. Both of these professions deal with information intake and dissemination. I think that my greatest contribution to Mail Art has been the publishing of my book, Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography. It was a five-year project in which I gathered information, put it in a readable form, had it printed, and left it to find an audience. It was not only a research project, but a work of art. So is the curating of a mail art show. Organizing the show, gathering the information, finding a place to exhibit, mounting it for the public in the form of a global collage free of restrictions, these are all elements of a sustained energy, which is conceptualized, harnessed and presented to the public. The Mail Art Congresses of Fricker and Ruch; the Art Strike that Stuart Home conceptualized; Guy Bleus’s Administration projects; Neoism as undertaken by Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin; Picasso Gaglione’s Stamp Art Gallery; Pawel Petasz’s Commonpress Project; Dobrica Kamperelic’s Open World magazine; your own Rubber Stamp Archive – these, and many other efforts within the network, are other projects that I consider important conceptual artworks within a mail art structure.
Currently I am curating a mail art show at the National Museum in Havana, Cuba, organizing the Faux Post artist stamp that will travel the United States for two years, editing Bibliozine, producing artist postage stamps and other visual works for exhibition, writing and lecturing about my experiences, planning for future travels that will allow me to meet other networkers, and of course, answering the mail that comes to me daily in a creative fashion to ensure maximum information exchange. These are all current projects that are based on my conceptual understanding of Mail Art.
RJ : When I read this answer I realize that mail-art has taken over your way of life a lot. Your travels and work are integrated with the concept you give of mail art. Your travels seem to bring you to the corners of our world that are difficult to reach by mail. Cuba is just a new example after your travels to the USSR, Yugoslavia, etc… Why are you reaching for these outer corners of the network?
Reply on : 13-1-1995
JH : If mail art is about communication, then the greatest challenge is to reach those who are at the “outer corners”. If one can overcome language problems, cultural differences, governmental obstacles, and technical difficulties when contacting correspondents from different countries, them you get a better understanding and appreciation of those closer at hand.
My collaboration with Abelardo Mena, the Curator of Foreign Art at the National Museum of Beaux-Arts in Havana, Cuba, has presented special problems because of the economic and cultural barriers between our two countries. The mail cannot be sent directly to Cuba from the United states, but must be forwarded through a third country, such as Mexico or Canada. Our letters would take from two to six months to arrive at their destination. To overcome this we began to communicate on the Internet. Now our communication is practically instantaneous. This action reveals both the limitations of mail art and it’s expansion into different areas.
My friendship with Abelardo Mena has given me special pleasure because of the obstacles we have had to overcome to achieve it. I have always thought of mail art networking as a grassroots diplomacy, and this has never been more true than in my recent relation with Aberlardo. Because of the situation that exists between our countries, we are both forced to make extra efforts to communicate and collaborate on a project of common concern. I look forward to my forthcoming trip to Cuba, for which I have worked six months to obtain travel visa from the Cuban government and a license from the United States Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control in order for Abelardo and I to meet.
The communication mediums of mail and telecommunication are often preludes to physical contacts. I learned very early in my meetings with mail art participants that there is a mysterious, yet veiled, bonding that is cultivated through the postal system. When distance is stripped away and the contact is manifested in the flesh, the relationship is totally changed. Sometimes this is for the better, sometimes it is not. It is less mysterious, but it is more truthful. Most revealing is that the long-distance/time-delayed encounter is inherently flawed by a lack of essential information that is hidden through mediated communication processes.
This is not to diminish the importance of the mail art experience. I can’t think of anything else that better prepares two people to meet. Something very essential is always communicated. And even if there is never a physical meeting between the two, something is gained through the postal contact. At it’s best, a spiritual connection can be formed. Of course, it’s impossible to meet all of one’s correspondents if one is very active in mail art, but it’s a great way to explore the greater world. I am curious about the unseen world, and mail art allows me to explore it.
My travels are guided by a search for practical answers that can be used to conduct my life in a more knowledgeable and comfortable fashion. Mystery is a lack of information that is overcome by meaningful communication. It may seem that by traveling to the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Uruguay, Japan, and now Cuba, that I am driven by a desire for exotic experiences. The truth is that travel, like my use of the postal system, is based on making my life less exotic, more truthful, and to use the “outer corners” to discover the center. I always return home better informed, more aware, of the greater world. This has an influence to my future networking activities.
RJ : What is the vision of these ‘future networking activities’ for you?. It seems you started to use Internet (just like me) as an alternative for mail just to gain time or to have a communication-form when there is no other way. Do you think that E-mail will gradually take over what Mail-art brings or is it just “an extra tool” for the networker?
Reply on : 28-2-1995
JH : First of all, I have to mention that since we talked last, Ray Johnson died. This happened on January 13th, 1995, just four days before my trip to Cuba. I’ve talked about Ray before and how he was not only the founder and guiding spirit of Mail Art, but also a personal mentor for my own activities. His death marks a new period for this medium which he gave birth to. It is especially meaningful to me that so shortly after his death, I left for Cuba to curate the first Mail Art exhibition in a National Museum of Fine Arts. The members of Banco de Ideas Z, the Cuban art collective that co-sponsored the show, dedicated this exhibition to Ray.
Now some may say that this event marks a decline in Mail Art, and that this alternative artform has now entered the highest tier of the museum structure. I choose to look at this differently. Ruggero Maggi has stated that, “Mail Art uses Institutions in the place of Institutions against Institutions.” This is true for me as well. Mail Art is infiltrating the mainstream art world through the mainstreams’ own institutions, and using them to communicate its message of global art and the diversity of ideas. Museums are one more weapon in the arsenal of Mail Art.
Mail Art is not “selling out.” Direct person-to-person contacts continue in the netland. And not only through the post, but through the new communication technologies, like Internet. This is an evolution of great importance. It extends the reach of the Mail Artist making him a Network Artist. I still prefer to use the mail, because of it’s intimate nature: one can feel the materials that were created and touched by another person. But I also use faster communication mediums when the circumstances require it. I like this flexibility, and it shows me that the concept of mail art networking is broad enough to escape the limitations of the postal system. Ray Johnson started a spark that has grown to become a firestorm of international creativity.
Mail Art has also become more than person-to-person contact. Now we have Mail Art and Networker Congresses that involve a number of Networkers at any one time. We have exhibitions in important museums, which extend our audience and recruit new participants. Many in the network have give “mail art workshops,” which introduce the mail art experience to beginners. Mail artists continue to write about the medium in the vacuum of critical acceptance by mainstream art writers and scholars. Recently, Crackerjack Kid (Chuck Welch) has published, The Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology, which contains over forty essays on the Mail Art and Networking experience.
Mail Art is bigger, more active, and attracting more attention than ever. It’s not a sign of getting away from it’s root’s, but an indication that these roots are planted in fertile soil and that growth is taking place. The branches of Mail Art are reaching out and beginning to have an effect on those who have ignored it in the past. When Mail Art began, it was a sideline for mainstream artists. Now it can hold one’s attention on a full-time basis.
This is my good fortune. I have done mail art continuously since 1976, and I have grown as it has evolved. I am now able to pursue my interest in Mail Art almost full-time. Of course, it doesn’t pay, but that’s not so important to me, as I still have a part-time job that I enjoy (at the library), that pays most of my rent and bills. Mail art is not a career for me, but it is a preoccupation. And with this increased acceptance and growth, I have more opportunities to lecture, to curate exhibitions, to write, to exhibit works related to my mail art activities, to give workshops, to sit on panels that discuss such topics as the alternative arts, Fluxus, rubber stamp art, performance, and other subjects that have influenced and are effected by Mail Art.
So these are my future networking activities, which are still rooted in the traditional Mail Art exchange of postal objects. This does not mean that I don’t recognize that others in Netland may be taking a completely different path. After I returned from Cuba, I went to New York City for the publication party of Chuck Welch’s new book. I met Mark Bloch there, who I haven’t communicated with for four years. But Mark has not been inactive, nor have I. He has been involved in computer networks at the expense of his postal activities. We haven’t written to each other, and I haven’t seen his name on mail art show lists. But he’s been networking, and I’ve been networking. Just in different networks.
So where once there was a wholeness in the Mail Art Community, there are now divisions. The Networker Congresses of 1992 pointed this out. The Mail Art tree not only has new branches; it now has fellow trees. Mail Art can’t control the E-mail experience. E-mail can’t control Mail Art. But they can inform each other. They can interact with one another. And they can move forward together. Because despite the differences of the mediums, they still have communication creativity as a common goal. Ray Johnson planted a tree in what has become a forest.
RJ : When I look at the organ of senses a human being has, the computer-network has still only limited choices of communication (for most it is only visual communication!). The mail also has its limitations but adds smell and feel-possibilities, 3D views etc.., but with the tourism and congresses, the mail-art networking isn’t just a tree, it has to do with open communication. Maybe it is time to get rid of the term “mail-art” which is getting old-fashion? What do you think?
Reply on : 14-3-1995
JH : It’s not so much that Mail Art is old-fashioned, just that it is now in existence for some forty years. It has matured. Mail art is no longer the providence of avant-garde artists as it was when it was begun by Ray Johnson and Fluxus. In the fifties and early sixties, Mail Art had powerful new conceptions about art (democratic art of open systems, non-commodity art, communication art, collaborative art, the question of originality, art activism, multi-culturalism) that were unexplored and unacknowledged by mainstream art. Now these ideas have been brought forward and have entered the dialogue of the art community at large. Through the explosive growth of mail art shows, the medium is no longer a secret exchanged surreptitiously through the postal system, but can be seen on the walls of university galleries, alternative art spaces, and even National Museums.
Networking art expands the concepts that mail art first exposed. Artists are moving into the new communication technologies like computer and fax and applying the lessons learned in Mail Art, especially the collaborative aspect, the respect for divergent opinion, and the notion of originality. Other artists have applied these lessons in performance works that are done in real time and space. Many artists are now involved in a variety of mediums, and they can best be represented as communication or networking artists. As these artists move into new territories, they find even more information to be examined and new results that push art beyond it’s present definition.
But Mail Art still exists. The term Mail Art doesn’t need to be thrown out. It exists in mailboxes around the world, and is very much a reality. It is useful to many people who still find it an inexpensive and far-reaching tool. But now it is just one weapon in the arsenal of the progressive artist: this new artist – the Networker. And it is the Networker who is now pushing forward the new frontiers of artmaking.
To be a Mail Artist, yes I agree, it’s not an avant-garde activity anymore. It has entered the mainstream. To practice only Mail Art is worthwhile for many, but it’s nostalgic. It is an activity based in history. For many who began mail art, this rage for the avant-garde still burns. So they move forward into Internet, into fax, into Congressism and Tourism, and even newer means of art communication that have not even been named yet. They move into Networking, but they can still practice Mail Art with effective results. It’s just that choices have to be made in getting one’s message across in creative ways. If you are stuck in Mail Art, you may not be getting your messages across in the most effective manner. You can’t refuse the new computer technologies. Then you lose by omission, just as the painters and sculptors, and other tradition laden artists refused to consider Mail Art a legitimate new art when it first arrived to revolutionize the new art theories.
RJ : With your book and your newsletters it is obvious that you like to document things a lot. Is there a reason for putting all these things on paper? For the Electronic Mail (-art) it becomes even more difficult to document it because it is connected to hardware and software, and the printed form is just a copy of the art. How should the electronic mail be archived and how do you do that?
Reply on : 5-4-95
JH : It’s often difficult being both an artist and librarian. One of my good friends in the network is Dr. Al Ackerman, who is just a complete wild man. He seems to act from a subconscious level, where I am always analyzing. Ackerman is a natural artist because something pure flows through him and he has a very individual way of expressing it. The same was true with Ray Johnson. And for these two, documentation is not a primary interest. Reflection is not a component of their art as much as unfiltered creativity. But this is not my way. It doesn’t come naturally, and I have to work hard for my art. I feel an affinity with Marcel Duchamp, who was also a great artist, but more measured. Duchamp was also a librarian for a time, a writer, and a curator as well. Art and the Network have room for these different approaches to the creative process.
It’s not so much that I like to document things, but I’m in a position to do it because of my professional training in informations science, and I don’t see anyone else attempting it. I know if these ephemeral things in the Network don’t get documented, in all likelihood they will be lost. Mail art and networking are important to me, and I feel that the work I am doing will make them more accessible to others. Then they will join me in seeing that something very important is happening as a result of networking activity.
Before I started using a computer I wrote my articles on a typewriter. The first several drafts were thought out on paper. I saved these drafts so that others, if they were curious enough, could see the development of my thought. This is, of course, the same for other writers throughout the centuries. But now writers, myself included, are composing on the computer and corrections are made electronically with no record left behind. This is perhaps a deficiency in the new technology, but there are so many other benefits that this negative is far outweighed. For instance, when I write letters on the computer they can be stored and saved for the future. Previously they were handwritten, and I had no record of them. When I write articles they can be filed for further updating and compilation. And of course there is the matter of easy access. All my letters, articles, and graphics are easily found.
Now as to the archiving of Electronic mail, since I have so little experience in this, it’s difficult for me to comment. But can’t these electronic messages be printed out and/or stored? If so it’s a matter of choosing which message to save. I save all the mail art I receive, so there is no issue of selectivity. I can understand, however, that the personal computer only has so much memory, so the issue of selectivity must be confronted. This is unfortunate, because what appears to be disposable one day becomes important in the future. Whenever I am researching, I am always surprised what I find in the archive. My interests change from year to year. What is important to me one year is less so another year.
But the thing to remember is that electronic mail is a completely different medium than mail art, and has different demands. It’s like the film and video mediums. Although the technology exists to videotape movies from television, I’ve never recorded programs, because there are always new ones that come along. It’s a never ending stream, and yes, sometimes it’s nice to dip into the river and try to capture a moment of it, but the nature of the river is that it is constantly changing. Maybe it’s the same with the electronic mailstream. It’s nature is instant communication and change. So it’s not as important to capture the small physical moments as one does in the medium of postal exchange.
Anyway, it’s not a question of one medium (electronic) replacing another (postal exchange). Each has it’s own benefits, and both can be used to one’s advantage. Each has it’s own storage requirements, and I’m familiar with those of the postal exchange, but not the electronic one. Since I don’t have a modem yet, or even a personal fax machine, I’m not immersed in the archiving of the telecommunication medium at this point.
I am, however, very interested in the question of stored electronic messages, and plan to do a great deal in the future with compilations and anthologies. For instance I’m planning to compile all the issues of Bibliozine I’ve done to date (30) into one work. This is very easy to do when all the issues are stored electronically and can be manipulated into a different format without too much effort. I’d also like to anthologize all the essays I’ve written. In the age of the electronic word this is much more easily done than previously. Copy and paste are commands much more easily done in the electronic medium than the printed one. And isn’t it interesting that these words (cut and paste) have been taken from the print medium to the electronic one. It just shows that mediums are interchangeable in certain ways, but have peculiarities that distinguish them one from another.
RJ : After so many years of mail art and writing about it, how would you describe mail art to a non mail artist?
(Between the sending of the answer and the getting of the reply John Held Jr. and Bill Gaglione visited me in Tilburg after their performance at the ‘Museé de la Poste in Paris where there is currently an exhibition of rubberstamps used by artists as well as a selection of mail-art including rubber stamping)
Reply on 31-5-1995
JH : When I meet someone for the first time, and they ask me what I do, I tell them I am a Mail Artist. Then they look at me like I’m stupid, because, of course, I’m obviously a “male” artist. Very few people know what “Mail” Art is, even other artists. This is very frustrating because I spend so much of my time thinking, living, and doing Mail Art.
My standard answer in response to the question, “What is Mail Art?,” is that it is an international community of artists that exchange art and ideas through the mail. If pushed, I explain that rubber stamps and artist postage stamps are used to decorate envelopes, and that it is an art open to everyone from professional artists to children, because it is a democratic artform that provides an opening to anyone that wants to participate.
Often I am told that, “Oh, I’m a Mail Artists, because I decorate my envelopes and letters also.” I explain that Mail Art is more than the act of decoration, that Mail Art is a process of interaction with a global network of artists. That these artists join together for mail art shows, assembling publications, collaborative performances, and other projects that stress the collaborative nature of the medium.
But as any Mail Artist knows, an explanation of mail Art is very difficult, and that a true understanding of the medium can only be obtained by doing it. Then the intricate weaving of the fabric of the network begins to make sense.
The thing that upsets me the most is that people think that because there is no commercial value to Mail Artworks, it is a hobby, not a valuable contribution to contemporary art. The general public, and other artists alike, tend to judge the importance of an artwork and it’s creator by the commercial value assigned to it. There is such a lack of spirituality in mainstream art today that people can’t believe that artists would make art for any other reason other than financial gain. And if they do, it’s a hobby, because it doesn’t generate any income. So I think most people write Mail Art off as an amusement.
But what I hope Mail Art can do is transform people’s conception of what art is. That it is a creative transfer of information that has the power to show the world that a common thread runs through the culture of all people, and that once this thread is discovered in one aspect of life, it can be extended to other sectors such as social welfare and politics. Once we know more about each other it becomes harder to wage war, impose embargoes, and stereotype enemies. Mail art is about living in a shrinking world.
But explaining this is difficult. Each person has to come to their own level of understanding. All you can really do is stress that Mail Art is fun and that it is exciting to receive mail from all over the world. Then if the person gets involved, they can come to their own conclusions.
RJ : Besides the Mail Art you do, you also did and still do a lot of performances as you have mentioned before. Could you describe how such a performance usually works for you?
Reply on 28-7-1995
JH : Do you think it was a performance when I came to see you last month? Showing up at your door with Fake Picabia Brother Picasso Gaglione? When we went to dinner? When I went through your archive, and Picasso took many impressions of your rubber stamps? And you, blowing up the air mattress I was to sleep on. Now that was a performance!
The Fake Picabia Brothers trip to France, Belgium, and Holland in May 1995, was it a performance or just a part of life? Le Musée de la Poste. Daligand. Bleus. Summers. Janssen. The Fake Picabia Brothers. I can’t tell you if it was a tour, an extended performance, an excursion, certainly a meeting of old and new friends interested in the network. And then the documentation Gaglione published through his Stamp Art Gallery, including my travel diary, photographs, and the stamp impressions Picasso pulled along the way.
Certainly, Gaglione and I did a more formal performance at the opening of the exhibition, “L’Art Du Tampon,” at the Musée de la Poste in Paris, which was carefully prepared. At least aspects of it. A special rubber stamp commemorating the event was made at Galione’s Stamp Francisco rubber stamp company. Stickers were produced. The action was thought out and explained to the curators of the museum exhibition. Modifications were made. Things were improvised during the actual performance, which consisted of Gaglione using my tuxedo as a mount for the rubber stamps he stuck on me. We passed out posters of the action, which were first impressed by the stamp on the sole of my shoe. It involved the participation of others, and fortunately, there was a large crowd that seemed interested in the action.
So that Musée de la Poste performance was more controlled like the more free-flowing exchange we had. Which I consider in some way to have been a performance. At the least, a Mail-Art Meeting in the grand tradition of Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Art Meeting, Flux Festivals, Ace Space’s “On the Road Travel Diaries” of 1971, the Eastern Europe tours of Anna Banana and Dadaland in the mid-seventies, the Mail Art Congresses of 1986, the Networker Congresses of 1992. This personal interaction among networkers is always a special moment. When I meet other networkers, I try to focus on the daily occurances that haphazardly happen, rather then dictate a planned agenda. Nevertheless, it seems more clear than the ordinary acts of life; a crystal-clear moment framed by previous acquaintance in a shared art context.
Gaglione likes to repeat performances. He says only a few people get to see them at a time, so why not do it over again for a new audience. I’m of a similar mind, because you learn something about the piece every time you do it. The technique firms up. Nuances are noted. also like doing working in a series. The shadow performances, the letter-opening events, the electrical tape anti-embargo works, the mail art meetings, the Fake Picabia Brothers; all of these are done till the idea driving them become exhausted.
All of these events come out of the mail art experience. That’s the key that informs the entire body of work. I don’t do a performance for it’s dramatic or visual effect. Usually these are resultant occurances. Ideas derived from mail art involvement shape the concept, determine collaboration, and conceive the documentation. My performance activities are just fodder for continuing mail art correspondence and visual material.
And dear Ruud, I know it is I who is answering the questions and not you, but don’t you think that your Mail Art Interviews are a performance? The writing of letters. Sending faxes. Networker interviews via Internet. Concentrating on asking the right questions. Determining who to interview. Knowing when to end it. Preparing the documentation. It’s difficult to know where the performance ends, and where reality kicks in.
It’s the same for me. My life is so full with the different activities of mail art, that the lines between it’s practice and my personal life get a little fuzzy. Performance, being a real-time component of the Eternal Network, is just cultural interaction made manifest. Like mail art, this type of performance is never good or bad, only useful if it is open enough for people of different cultures and levels of understanding to appreciate it in their own way. And if they want to participate, prepare an opening for them to experience it as well.
RJ : In your “Art from the Rim: The New York Correspondence School of San Francisco Artistamp Travel Diary,” sent to me by Picasso, I read that you are making another “performance”, you are moving from Dallas to San Francisco. Are the reasons for moving connected to mail art too?
Reply on 12-9-1995
JH: Yes, very much so. In the past years I have been collaborating with Picasso Gaglione on performance and other projects, such as writing for his publications program at the Stamp Art Gallery. I’m very impressed with the work he is doing. You must remember that I started in mail art because of my interest in rubber stamps, and that I was very involved with stempelplaats, the first rubber stamp gallery, in Amsterdam, Holland. I believe strongly in the free-flowing nature of mail art, and it’s direct communication between artist. But I also think that it can co-exist with points around the globe where these communication and artistic experiments surface on a regular basis and manifest themselves to the public. I’m for an utopic art, but not a cult art, and this is one manner in which mail art can reach a wider audience.
San Francisco also can claim an important place in the history of mail art. Gaglione and others in the Bay Area during the late sixties (including Anna banana, Pat Tavenner, La Mammelle Art center, Geoffrey Cook, Tim Mancusi, Jeff Berner, Buster Cleveland and many others) are among the first generation of the true mail artist. Not artists who painted and also did mail art; who performed and also did mail art; or did conceptual art and also did mail art; but who were full-time mail artists. The Bay Area Dada Group, like the Canadian art groups General Idea and Image Bank, were an important evolution beyond the initial impact of Ray Johnson and his Correspondence School. This is something I want to research more when I move to San Francisco and can access to the primary materials that were generated by Bay Area Dada.
In addition, contemporary San Francisco is one of the most important centers for zine culture, and the base of operations of R. Seth Friedman and his publication Factsheet 5. This is an aspect of networking that interests me greatly, and I hope to become more involved in this area.
There is a whole support base in San Francisco for the networking arts that is completely lacking in Dallas. Mike Dyar, Seth Mason. Vicki Manuel, Steve Caravello, R. Seth Friedman, Gaglione and his wife Darling Darlene, Geoffrey Cook, Patricia Tavenner, Darlene Tong, Steve Lieber, Lure Books: all these people are familiar to me through my activities, and I look forward to closer contact with them. In Dallas I am completely alone. Of course this is the state of most mail artists and what drives them to communication through the mail. But after fifteen years, I’ve grown too isolated, and have done what I can with the institutions at hand. I look forward to a new start, and must say it is very exciting for me, and I relish the prospects of this new experience.
RJ : Now that you are preparing for the moving to San Francisco, you surely will be confronted with the large amount of mail art that you have received over the years. Have you kept all? How well organized is the archive of a librarian?
Reply on 12-10-1995
JH : I have thought about moving for a number of years now, but it has always worried me that I wouldn’t have enough space for the Modern Realism Archive. But in talking to Gaglione about the possible move to San Francisco, he assured me that I could keep the materials in the Stamp Francisco warehouse until I found a place for them. That convinced me that the move was possible.
Not only have I kept and continue to archive all the mail I receive, but I also receive collections from other mail art friends, who don’t share my passion for documenting this activity. I was recently staying in Chicago with Ashley Parker Owens of Global Mail, who was busy with the organization of the Underground Press Conference where I was speaking, and she gave me the first opportunity to go through her collection of over one-thousand zines and mail art catalogues that she was about to distribute to the participants of the conference.
Since Ashley is at the forefront of international communication in facets such as mail art, internet, and zinedom, you can imagine the incredible collection she has amassed. Ashley’s approach to collecting mail art is completely opposite of mine. She thrives on the process and concentrates on that. Her’s a constant worldwide activity, which has contributed incredibly to the spread of networking arts. The American Ryosuke Cohen.
Ashley doesn’t want a collection. That’s not what interests her. It’s the same for others and I respect their choice, which most of the time is due to storage problems, as much as anything else. But I’m building the tower of Bable. I’m collecting all these different voices and trying to make sense of them – in my language.
I’ve saved every scrap of paper that has come to me since I moved to Dallas in 1981. Before that, I have scattered correspondence from my start in 1976. I packed 18 small boxes of correspondence, rubber stamps and clothes for my move to Dallas. Fifteen years later I leave having spent the entire Summer organizing the archive for the move to San Francisco.
How does a librarian do it? I started first by sorting all my mail by domestic and foreign correspondents. I have 19 legal size storage boxes of American mail art and 16 boxes of foreign mail. Each box contains files for about 60 correspondents. That’s over 1200 American correspondents and almost 1000 Foreign corresponds
In addition to the storage boxes of correspondents I have special sections of the Archive devoted to artists stampsheets (3000 sheets from 400 artists in 31 countries), posters, mail art catalogues, artist publications and zines (about 750 titles from over 25 countries) personal documentation and artwork, rubber stamps (3000), reference material that formed the Annotated Bibliography, and other subdivisions of special interest (such as Congresses, Art Strike 90-93, Cuba, Ray Johnson, Mohammed, Stempelplaats, and others).
An attempt has been made to house these materials so that they will be preserved. The storage boxes are made of acid free materials so that they will not damage the works within. I remove all tape and paper clips from the works, which will in time damage the works. I lay the posters flat so that they will not become brittle from folding. These are small things that I have learned from my work with ordinary library materials.
In addition I have bookcases holding books and magazines about mail art, fluxus, contemporary art, artist’s books, mail art catalogues, and other interests. This is probably the strongest part of my collection, because I have made it a point to gather all the books on the subject of mail art and networking that I can. The annotated bibliography was conceived primarily to ferret out these sometimes very hard to get items (like Poinsot book, Italian and French books on Futurist postal activity, Johnson’s Paper Snake, a rare hardcopy of the Dutch PTT mail art catalogue, etc.) I’ve seen a lot of mail art collections first-hand, but in this category of books about mail art, I have never seen a finer collection than my own.
The Archive ia a working reference library. I am constantly to it for information on the articles and other writings I am doing. Therefore, it is organized so I can find things. That’s the real reason for the collection: to collect materials rich enough in breath allowing for a substantial overview of networking art. Then in writing about the medium, I can make informed opinions with a foundation of information behind me.
When I went to library school, I had no idea that I would become involved in the arts. It was always an interest, and I loved to read different biographies on artists. I saw them as free spirits in a world that limited our independence of action and style. When I first started writing to artists it was very much as an outsider trying to get a closer look at the monkeys in the cage. I met Jean Brown, who introduced me to many of the Fluxus artists. I met Ray Johnson in 1977. I began to witness first hand the creative personality, and it became an ideal of mine to emulate the freedom I witnessed. All the time, I was working in a library, married, raising children, and this freedom seemed impossible. But I was able to reach out through mail art and convince myself that this ideal was attainable.
Finally, in the mid-eighties, I was able to combine my skills in library work with the world of mail art I was witnessing, and the Annotated Bibliography was born. I feel now that I have in some measure repaid my many correspondents around the world for all the kindness they have shown to me over the years. Now after years of watching and learning, maybe I’m ready to enter their ranks as an artist myself.
RJ : Since you are now almost moving to San Francisco, I think it is a good moment to end this interview. But somehow I feel the interview isn’t finished yet, so I will call it ‘PART 1’. When you are settled down in San Francisco we will see if we both have the energy for a ‘PART 2’. I want to thank you for your time and I wish you a wonderful next part of your life in California!
Reply on 26-10-1995
JH : I think your idea is great, Ruud! I am very much on the edge now – on the rim of something new. It is now October 19th , 1995. In two days the movers come to pack my large rented truck, and then I will begin my adventure to San Francisco on October 23th. This is the last letter I will write and mail from 1903 McMillan avenue, an address that has served me well over the years.
Last week, on October 14th, I had an opening reception for my exhibition, John Held Jr. / Modern Realism: A Dallas Retrospective, 1981-1995. I had a very nice review of the show in the Dallas Morning News right before the opening (“Always on the Edge, and Always interesting”), and perhaps as a result, over 300 people came to the really beautiful non-commercial art space where it was shown. It was very pleasing to me that Honoria and her friend Miss Ruby (The fake Picabia Sisters) traveled from Austin, Texas, and buZ blurr came from his home in Gurdon, Arkansas.
It was great to see how much work done over the past decade and one-half on display. There was a room for my work (performance photo documentation, performance relics, mail art, large photocopied works that were colored with oils, a rubber stamp mural, posters of past projects at Dallas institutions), and another room that hosted selections of past shows at Modern Realism (Cavellini, Julie Hagan Bloch eraser carvings, Jenny Soup envelopes, postcards by Buttons, Ken Brown, Open World magazines by Dobrica Kampereli_, Printed Matters by Banco de IdeaZ in Cuba, Artistamps by Joki, etc.).
So, yes, dear Ruud, this is the time for summing up and for a new start. I have to tell you also that right before the show opened I had to have surgery for cancer, which was, thankfully, a complete success, so this only adds to the sense of finality and new beginnings.
And just yesterday, the catalog that I was long awaiting came from Banco de IdeaZ and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba, which documented the mail art exhibition that I curated there last January. It has an essay of mine, “The Open World of Netland.” Here’s the last sentences in it. “Because of the new communication technologies and the continuing desire of individuals of different countries and cultures to reach out to one another, borders are becoming obsolete. The object is not the creation of one world culture, but a respect and understanding for each other in our fragile, shrinking, world.”
I want to continue this search for understanding before my time is through. I think that in San Francisco I will have a firmer base from which to conduct this investigation. Ashley Parker Owens, our friend from Global Mail, will share an apartment with me. We will also share a post office box. I’ll be working with Picasso Gaglione at the Stamp Art Gallery. It is a bit of a Mail Art Utopia.
But we’ll wee in PART 2, yes?
RJ : We sure will, thanks for this part of the interview!
NEW address mail-artist:
John Held Jr.
RUUD JANSSEN – TAM
4801 BB Breda