THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH VITTORE BARONI
Started on: 24-01-1995
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: 30-3-1995
VB : I got involved in the mail art net in 1977, when I discovered the existence of mail art through the work of G.A. Cavellini – I had seen an ad in Flash Art Magazine for G.A.C.’s “Free” Art Books – I wrote him, got the books, started a correspondence with G.A.C. (my first contact!) and soon with Anna Banana and all the other late 70’s regulars. The rest is history!
RJ : Is mail art itself history, after the death of Ray Johnson?
Reply on : 20-4-1995
VB : As I wrote in the latest issue of ARTE POSTALE! magazine # 69, the sad demise of R.J. in a way is an event/date that signals the end of the “golden age” of mail art, that big phenomenon that Ray was instrumental into originating in the early sixties and that probably had its peak moment in the first half of the eighties. January 13th 1995 also means the completion of a cycle, with fax/e-mail/internet/etc. picking up the inheritance of “snail mail”/ correspondence. It must be pointed out that those learning to travel the electronic highways have a lot to learn from postal networkers (with years of experience behind them) in terms of strategies, share-work practices and open frame of mind. So mail art is a bit more “history”, but its teachings will live on.
RJ : Could you explain what you mean with strategies, share-work practices and open frame of mind. What are the teachings you would like to live on?
Reply on 27-10-1995 (printed text and diskette)
(I’ve sent a few times copies of the question and some samples of finished interviews to Vittore Baroni. His answer came in a large envelope with lots of info’s. Also there was a diskette in it, but as I tried to read it, I discovered that it was for a Macintosh computer. Since the file was not transformed to a DOS-file, I could read the printed version and retyped the whole answer)
VB : Dear Ruud, sorry if I disappeared without answering to your latest mailings, I didn’t mean to be rude bur really from May to September my work (almost) 24 hours-a-day at the Hotel makes it impossible for me to deal with any kind of correspondence. I don’t even open the damn envelopes, sometimes. Now I’m back home and trying to put things into shape, while answering to the latest question of our mail-interview, I also try to put some order in my head regarding what I feel about the network today, and what I want to do from now on (more ramblings in next Arte Postale!)…. So here I go, reverting to paper (my last disk was by mistake an MS-DOS translated Mac text, but this is yet again a Mac disc on Word 5).
Question: something to do with what is exactly the legacy that mail art leaves to internet surfers?…
A lot of people approach Internet and electronic networking with a strictly utilitarian attitude, they are looking for financial gains or sexual encounters or whatever. Others enjoy the possibility/power to chat with millions of people, but have nothing to say to them, so it’s only a big waste of time and money: to me it is like those Hi-Fi freaks who own incredibly expensive stereo playback systems and use them to hear the same ten records, technology nerds into communication. I hope that some of the “golden rules” of mail art will find their way into the cyber-community, because what I see and read now regarding what’s going on in the Net isn’t always that free and open. I must first of all admit that I do not own yet a modem and I only used Internet a few times through the courtesy of a friendly neighbour who has an access and University pass-word. But I do read a lot about it in international magazines (Wired, .net and the like), so I know more or less what is going on, regarding my favourite subjects. I noticed a lot of resistance against the new media from old-time mail artists, especially those who do not use a computer daily. I do not feel like that, I am really enthusiast about the possibilities of the new media, but I tend to be also realist: I will wait till there will be a Internet link also in my town (and by the way, even local phone calls in Italy may become very expensive if you do a long call, so using Internet for hours is not cheap around here!), also I will wait till the jargon and hype surrounding the Net will have vanished a bit, when it will be just another common communication system added to the existing ones, then I will start doing my electronic projects, probably not leaving the postal medium abruptly but little by little. A book like Chuck Welch’s Eternal Network I think can be of great help even to people who have never heard about mail art and will never practice mail art (or who are not interested in art altogether), as a sort of preliminary introduction to the spirit of free networking: it’s something totally different from the tons of Guides for Internet surfing you find in every bookshop, because it is founded on over thirty years of intensive experiences in the field of free and open exchange-communication. It is a wealth of wisdom that you just can’t sum up in a few words or even in a single book, but I believe a mail artist approach to Internet will always be much more free-and-easy than the approach of people who had no previous networking experiences. If mail art arrived where Internet is today, connecting the whole planet in a web of spiritual energy, using a much cheaper medium, at the same time I believe strongly that mail art as a phenomenon has lost much of its significance now that Internet is spreading: it will be just anachronistic to continue using stamps beyond a certain (and very near) point in time.
Everything reaches a peak and then starts to drop, mail art probably had its peak in ’92 with the Networker Congress thing, and now with the death of Ray Johnson the cycle is complete, the only thing that can be done is tell the whole history in a more complete way (like the books by Géza Perneczky, John Held Jr., Chuck Welch are testifying), museums and collectors can enter the scene and eat the remains. Those who where there for the excitement (& warmth & enlightenments) of it and not for the glory, will move on to better occupations. Of course it will take years and years for the big wave to pass completely and dry out, there is still an enormous amount of activity in mail art, and with Global Mail we also have something the Network always lacked (except maybe for the short life-span of Vile and a certain period of Umbrella) and always cried for, a magazine to act as a forum and reference point, a small but reliable solid island in the chaotic mailstream. I do not intend to stop printing my own Arte Postale! magazine yet (at least three issues are planned for this winter, starting with a Baroni-Bleus collaboration), and there are still things that I need to do with the postal system, but I do not feel tied emotionally hands and feet to it: I am a networker at heart, and I use the more satisfying and more affordable instruments I can put my hands on. If I had the possibility to phone all around the world for almost nothing, I would use the phone, if I had a voice strong enough to get over the mountain, I would just scream and scream. Before year 3000 something better than Internet will be invented, and we will all be finally able to tele-transport ourselves P.K.Dick-style wherever we dream to go.
RJ : Some readers of this interview might not know your magazine “Arte Postale!”. What is your magazine about?
Reply on 24-11-1995
VB : I discovered mail art in 1977 and the following year I was already corresponding with an ever increasing number of contacts, a hundred or more, so I soon reached the point when you are not able anymore to find the time for elaborate original answers to each and every single mailing. I needed something readily available to trade with other networkers and that could become the focus for my postal activities, so the natural step to take was to create my own magazine, like other mail artists did before me (at the time, I was particularly impressed, even more than by the “glossy” Vile, by an american xeroxed publication called Cabaret Voltaire, that showed you could make a strong original magazine with just a black and white photocopier).
And that’s how ARTE POSTALE! (with – often forgotten! exclamation mark, to me a reminder of the excitement of my first encounter with the mail art medium) was born in October 1979, as a totally non-profit publication, distributed only through the postal system and wholly dedicated to the aesthetics and philosophies of mail art.
Through perseverance and a few weird ideas that did hit the mark, it has become one of the most well known and long-lived magazines in the whole Eternal Network. The title is simply “Mail Art!” translated into italian, as I wanted it to be from the start a “pure” mail art publication, totally rooted in the correspondence milieu. There never was a fixed size or periodicity, though in the first three years I was able incredibly to maintain a monthly pace (I was a young student and single then, with a lot of free time in my hands!), now I am lucky when I am able to publish more than two issues a year. After five or six issues completely printed on cheap paper-plate off-set machines (I later turned to photocopies for a better resolution quality), always produced in 100 numbered copies, the magazine gradually turned into an “assembling” publication, gathering together original pages contributed by various international networkers, while I still printed the cover and a few “home pages”. I don’t remember exactly from where I got the idea in 1979, but probably I was aware of the Assembling magazine by Richard Kostelanetz (though at that point I still had not actually seen one) and I had received some collective mail art publications (though they looked more like artistic “portfolios” than magazines, with loose pages and minimal editorial work). From the beginning, I wanted Arte Postale! to look like a “real” magazine, not an arty multiple, so I always stapled all the pages together, never mind the “preciousness” of some of the works, sealing sometimes the smaller bits into bags or envelopes glued to the pages. Though there were often themes to stick to, participants were usually totally free regarding the size and medium of their contributions (often someone would send a hundred totally different pages), so I also got several tridimensional oddities, like plant leaves, glass beads, ping pong balls and bee wax bas reliefs. This forced me sometimes to adopt unusual formats, the most bizarre issue being the “boxed” N.24, with mostly 3D works and resembling a marriage between a mail art mag and a Fluxus box. To do a “gathering mag” is big fun only if you deeply and sincerely love the mystic side of the self publishing experience. Each time you are confronted with a different challenge of finding the best way to bring into harmony an array of disparate works, so it is never a mechanical practice, it is like stitching together a Frankenstein creature and trying to infuse some life into it. The boring aspect is of course the actual work of collecting page after page to put all the copies together, once a scheme and order of assembling is decided, but I usually did this in the late evening, while listening to music or watching films on TV with an eye, often with the help of my mother (!) who was also sitting in, so with only 100 copies to go it never took more than two or three very relaxed working sessions. I think one reason why some of us just feel a sort of orgasm when they finally hold in their hand the first finished copy of a self publication lies in the fact that we are a generation raised in a global media environment, we are used to get most of our views on the world from the printed page and to assimilate magazines since we are born (I’m talking of people born in the fifties or sixties, younger generations are much more video centered): the fact of actually editing and publishing a mag is for us the (often inconscious) accomplishment of a cathartic reversal of roles. It is like when a video recorder first entered into your house, making you feel that you no longer depended on what “they” wanted to show you: now you could decide what movie to watch and at what pace and which scene you wanted to see again and again. But it is even more than that, now you can star in the movie… Well, anyway, as even the best games tend to become tedious after some time, I decided to stop collecting original pages starting with issue N.52 (it was supposed to be N.51 really, but a lot of people kept mailing things in a hundred copies even after I discontinued the call for contributions I still get the odd accidental package now after ten years, so unforeseeable are the network circumvolutions!). This change left me free to vary and experiment with the number of copies produced, ranging from the single copy of the special “homage issue” (N.53, this was put together by Mark Pawson as a terminal tribute to the “assembling days” of Arte Postale!, with unique pieces by fifty some different networkers, it came like a total surprise and I liked it so much that I decided to give it a proper AP! number) to the 600 copies of issue 63 (with a 7″ vinyl record by my group Le Forbici di Manitu inside, singing the Let’s Network Together hymn) and the “unlimited” issues N. 60 61 69 (xerox copies always available). The most successful and fun to do issues have been the “mail art show show catalogue” N.47 (I organized a project requesting fake mail art invitations, to be diffused to short circuit the net!), the bumper N.5O “silver issue” (a real silver knife sent from Canada hidden in one of the copies), the “mail art handbook” N.55 (a sort of half serious synthetic guide to happy networking), the “mail art & money do mix!” N.56 (I sent money out to networkers with optional requests on how to use it and I glued a real coin to each cover: not only a free magazine, but a mag that pays you to be read!). Differently from several mail art bulletins and publications that consist mostly of reproductions of adds and lists of invitations to projects (these may be useful as a source of information, but I find them really boring as magazines, if not done with the craft and passion of a Global Mail), I always wanted each issue of Arte Postale! to be a sort of personal/collective little art work in itself, with many hand interventions in each single copy (folded pages, blots of colour, small glued inserts, rubberstamped images, etc.), like a miniature “artist’s book” minus the pretentiousness of priced gallery art. So instead of using the small space available (lately, I try to keep AP! under the weight of 20 grams, to save on trees and postage) to reproduce invitations and lists of addresses, I prefer to focus each time on a single theme, selecting the most inspired contributions and arranging them so to make a collective statement on that particular topic (of course also all the contributors not reproduced in the mag to include always everything would be economically and technically impossible! do get a free copy).
In sixteen years, over 500 networkers from approximately 35 different countries, ranging from elementary school kids to well respected artists like Ray Johnson and Ben Vautier, participated into Arte Postale!. In pure mail art spirit, no form of censorship or selection on the original “assembling” contributions was ever applied. Each contributor always receives one or more free copies of the issue he/she is featured into. Up till issue N.63 the magazine, though 99% distributed or traded free in the network, was also made available at a low cover price to interested non mail artists, through the diffusion of small mail order catalogues, but given the difficulties of such a minimal form of distribution sales never repaid even the cost of printing the catalogues! since issue N.64 it has become totally free: you cannot buy the new issues anymore, and I decide who is going to get them for trade or as a gift (only a few back issues are still available in a very limited number of copies). A complete (or almost complete) collection of the magazine is housed in several international archives, such as the Administration Centre/42.292 Networking Archive in Belgium, the V.E.C. Archives in Holland and the Sackners Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami Beach, USA. And yes, I have spotted recently some deleted early issues of AP! already offered at high prices in specialized catalogues for collectors of avantgarde publications: I don’t know if I should be proud or angry about it, for sure there is nothing I can do (and unfortunately I don’t have a secret stash of back issues under the roof!), I guess it’s inevitable that such ironic turns of events may happen… One thing I’ve been ruminating about for quite some time now is if I ever want to stop doing Arte Postale!, and I just made up my mind to reach at least issue 100, that would be a nice point to stop (or to turn into an electronic publication, who knows but then the name will have to change definitively). This still leaves 28 issues to go, and that means that Arte Postale!, like mail art itself, will still be around for quite a few years…
Ruud, I’m not sure if I have sent it to you already, anyway here is a complete list of the AP! editions so far (please note that some of the issues appeared with a different “fake” logo, still retaining the Arte Postale! numeration):
1 DEMONIA October 1979 edition of 100 copies
2 PATTI SMITH ROCKIN’ DEMONIA November 1979 100
3 ART SONGS FROM DEMONIA December 1979 100
4 MORE POLITICAL SATIRE: POST SCRIPTUM January 1980 100
5 CAVELLINIANA February 1980 100
6 AMERICAN MAIL ART DADA 80 March 1980 100
7 REFLUXUS ISSUE April 1980 100
8 AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ISSUE I May 1980 100
9 UK SPECIAL June 1980 100
10 AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ISSUE II July 1980 100
11 AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ISSIE III August 1980 100
12 ALL STARS ISSUE September 1980 100
13 T SHIRTS ISSUE October 1980 100
14 DEVELOP MY DREAMS November 1980 100
15 (teacher with kids) December 1980 100
16 VISUAL POETRY ISSUE January February 1981 100
17 ETOATLERPSA! March 1981 100
18 THE YAHOO BULLETIN 1st April 1981 100
19 THINK ABOUT MAIL ART May June 1981 100
20 UT FONA RES July 1981 100
21 44 88! no date (July 1981) 100
22 MIDSUMMER ISSUE August 1981 100
23 THE YAHOO BULLETIN (II) September 1981 100
24 BOXED EDITION (in 3D cardboard box) October 1981 100
25 THIS ORDER December 1981 100
26 YEARBOOK 1981 31st December 1981 100
27 POSTCARDSBOX (in cardboard box) January February 1982 100
28 CONFIDENCES March 1982 100
29 CRISIS OF #29 April 1982 100
30 EAST WEST CONNECTION May 1982 100
31 (vintage postcards) June 1982 100
32 BIDET July August 1982 100
33 (mask cover) September 1982 100
34 ARE YOU IN LOVE? October 1982 100
35 BIENNALE DE PARIS November 1982 100
36 (badges cover) December 1982 100
37 S.I.N.EWS I January 1983 100
38 CONCEPTUAL MAFIA March 1983 100
39 LEWD CARESS (also CARE N.8) April 1983 100
40 (old Forte dei Marmi photo) May 1983 100
41 S.I.N.EWS II June 1983 100
42 POST ART GUERRILLA July 1983 100
43 NETWORKART August September 1983 100
44 (postman & drummer) October November 1983 100
45 S.I.N.EWS III December 1993 100
46 A TRIP TO AKADEMGOROD January February 1984 100
47 MAIL ART SHOW SHOW CATALOGUE March 1984 100
48 MCMLXXXIV! April June 1984 100
49 THE MINIATURE ISSUE (in cassette box) July September 1984 100
50 SILVER ISSUE October 1984 100
51 S.I.N.EWS IV January 1985 100
52 SCRIPTA VOLANT February March 1985 200
53 HOMAGE A VITTORE BARONI no date (April May 1985) 1 copy only (this issue organized and edited by Mark Pawson, who also produced and distributed an unnumbered transparent xerox sheet with names of contributors)
54 CORNUCOPIA June December 1985 300
55 MAIL ART HANDBOOK January December 1986 500
56 MAIL ART & MONEY DO MIX! January June 1987 100
57 THE BOX GAME July December 1987 500
58 THE B.A.T. MANUAL January December 1988 300
59 ALTERNATIVE PHILATELY January June 1989 500
60 (the making of) NETZINE July September 1989 unlimited edition
61 SMILE October December 1989 unlimited edition
62 B ART ISSUE January December 1990 500 (250 with insert booklet by Günther Ruch)
(no Arte Postale! in 1991)
63 LET’S NETWORK TOGETHER (with 7″ record) January December 1992 600
63b META CONCERT IN SPIRIT (cassette) January December 1992 93
64 UTOPIA INFANTILE (V.B. & Robin Crozier) January March 1993 100
65 GLASS ENIGMA (David Drummond Milne) April June 1993 100
66 THE ONE MAN SHOW July September 1993 100
67 STICKERMAN SCRAPBOOK October December 1993 100
68 ARTURO G. FALLICO SPECIAL January December 1994 100
69 RAY JOHNSON LIVES! January February 1995 unlimited edition
70 THE NO INSTITUTE/JÜRGEN O. OLBRICH March April 1995 100
71 FUN IN ACAPULCO May September 1995 300
72 ONE YEAR LATER 1 13 January 1996 81
73 A DECK OF POSTCARDS October December 1995 100
74 MY OWN PRIVATE INTERNET 14 17 January 1996 300
75 LUTHER BLISSETT MAN OF THE YEAR 18 January 1 April 1996 100
And the following one is a short essay I wrote for the recent exhibition of the whole Arte Postale! collection organized by Guy Bleus in his mail art gallery space in Hasselt, Belgium it was not used in the catalogue magazine so it’s still unpublished:
ARTE POSTALE! 1979 1995: MEMORIES OF A MAIL ART MAGAZINE MAKER
As the old saying goes, I am not an artist, I am a networker. When I started utilizing the mail art net, I was looking for something that the traditional art system could not give me. At that time, in the late seventies, I tried to restrain myself as much as I could from creating “fine” images. I did not want to make “artworks” and develop a style or please myself aesthetically. I wanted to find new ways to communicate my ideas, avoiding all the usual traps and cliches of the gallery museum critic artmagazine routine. I was very young and naive, and of course I was also wrong (a style always develops in spite of yourself, and you can’t hide away indefinitely your love for pencils and colours), but my clumsy idealism lead me instinctively to fully and wholeheartedly embrace this correspondence art thing. It was so liberating, the whole anarchic idea of Mail What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law. Furthermore, operating at distance (as those travelling the Internet are realizing thirty years later) permitted you to disguise yourself with harmless trickery, switching sex, age, status, credo and (pen)name as fast as you could lick a stamp. It was not art in the traditionally accepted sense, yet you could pretend it was and “play artist” with hundreds of others grown up kids, create new real/fake art myths and throw them in the face of the official Artclique, or simply forget that such a thing as a cultural elite existed and make up your own ideal (net)working dimension, a planetary web with you at the centre.
For me, a networker is a new kind of cultural worker, with a new role in society and new tools and strategies of intervention at his/her fingertips: a sort of “cultural animator”, a meta artist who creates contexts for collective expression, instead of traditional art works. I always felt that, in the mail art medium, the “art work” is not represented by the single postcard or letter I mail, but by the whole process of interaction with my contact(s), including their replies and the spiritual link that is activated between us. A complete mail art project, a collection of contributions from dozens or hundreds of different people (not necessarily “artists”!) responding to one request or theme, is another form of what I regard as a proper networking art piece: not the single contribution, but the sum of all the interacting mailings. In this sense, photocopied (or off set printed) and self distributed mail art magazines, often including manual interventions and original pages submitted by various contributors, are yet another form of genuine art work generated by networking practices. I consider the thousands of copies of Arte Postale! that I lovingly hand assembled one by one in the past sixteen years as the best single documentation of my multifarious activities as a full free time networker. While many content themselves with simple lists of names and addresses, I believe there are infinite ways to turn a mail art catalogue or magazine into a fully satisfying little art piece in itself. All those unexpected holes or original fragments glued on the pages, one of a kind enclosures or hand signed messages are not intended to mimic the preciousness of pricey artists’ books, but to make the experience of reading a mail art magazine as fresh, unique and intimate as that of reading a personal letter. If only in a few cases I have been able to achieve this, then I am an happy networker.
RJ : Thanks for this extensive overview of your magazine and the philosophy behind it. In all those years you must have received lots of mail art. Is it all still at your place? Do you keep an archive or do you recycle a lot?
Reply on 27-12-1995
(With his answer Vittore included a diskette with the text as he had written it on his computer, Unfortunately it was a MAC computer, and since I use a DOS machine, I could not read the disk nor the text. Vittore also included some photos of his archive which I will use as illustrations when possible, and some small hand-made postcards).
VB : In the past fifteen years or so I remember very few days without a piece of mail in my mailbox. When that happens, I know that the post office might be on strike or that it must be a very special day indeed (with a mild sense of relief built in the very experience!). This means that yes, I have received a tremendous amount of mail, but luckily I have never been a compulsive collector and I always recycle a lot of what came in. My room as a young student was not that big, and it had to function as studio and archive of mail art besides containing all my books, records, clothes and stuff. There was no way I could save everything, so my line in action from the very start was to throw the most useless trash-mail in the bin, save the books, catalogues and zines for the library, keep only the “artworks” (classified in alphabetical folders and files, arranged under authors’ names and geographically) and the envelopes that contained enough meaningful drawings, artistamps or rubberstamps. This means that most of the personal messages, envelopes and trivia has been recycled as new envelopes, submissions to assembling publications or material for collages. This still leaves a LOT of paper material and 3D pieces.
When I moved to my new house in 1988, I had to pack everything into dozens of crates, it took me one year to put everything back into shape in the new E.O.N. (Ethereal Open Network) mail art studio-archive, that is now located in two small rooms under the roof at Via Battisti 339, Viareggio, Italy. One room is just a storage space, with boxes containing the works belonging to single projects, theme exhibitions, series of panels of my own work, etc. The other room has a library-wall with all the catalogues and magazines, plus all the folders and larger file-cabinets for the contacts with whom I have long-standing relationship, and files with the other mixed authors, divided geographically.
Downstairs I have a small “home gallery” space with temporary exhibitions by single mail artists, of materials culled from the archive. I must add the archive is in a perpetual state of “orderly disorder”, I am a very orderly type and I like everything to be neatly arranged, but I never seem to be able to keep pace with the upcoming mail.
At the time of writing, there are at least ten big cardboard crates full of answered mail that need to be subdivided into the various files, but who knows when I will be able to perform this lovingly boring task. I usually sneak up into the mail art room at odd times, very early in the morning before everyone wakes up or late at night when everyone sleeps, so I rarely spend there more than one hour a day, and that’s just time enough to answer a few letters and develop some new ideas. Right now the archive would need at least another room, as it has become really full up to the brim with materials. I am thinking right now of an unheard of manner to deal with the space problem, you’ll read all about it in a future issue of Arte Postale!
RJ : This space problem is something I hear from a lot of active mail artists. I am very curious about your solution, but I will wait till you publish it in your future issue of Arte Postale!. Let’s focus on something else. In 1986 there was the “tourism” and in 1992 the “DNC-year”. Were you active in those events too? Is meeting the artists, you are in contact with by mail, a logic step in mail art?
Reply on 17-1-1996
(Vittore wrote me that he will type the answers and questions all on his MAC-computer. Since I can’t read the MAC-diskettes, he will keep track of the words, and will then transform the final interview with the help of a friend to a DOS-diskette and send it to me).
VB : Yes, I did participate partially in both the big “decentralized congresses” of Mail Artists (1986) and Networkers (1992). In the first case, it was mostly through mail friends who came and visited me in Forte dei Marmi, where I still lived at the time. I got really very frequent visits from mail artists throughout the 80es, not one month passed away without someone dropping in unexpected, while in the 90es visits are very few and far between (this must mean something: either people has less money and travelling has become more expensive, my image as a perfect guest has changed, we have all grown old and with family ties, “tourism” is no more that exciting, I really don’t have an answer for this, maybe it is all these reasons put together). In the second case, I helped H.R. Fricker from the very start to formulate the call for the World Wide DNC92, so I felt much more directly involved, I travelled to several Congresses in Italy and to a major one abroad, the one held at Hans Rudi’s house in the Swiss mountains. I have many great memories and sweet anecdotes about all my mail art meetings throughout the years, and not a single bad one, so I definitely think that meeting in person after a long acquaintance through the post is a positive thing, but I would not call it a “logic step” in mail art (it’s probably just an “inevitable step”): when you meet, it is no more “mail art”, regardless to the fact that you do cooperate “live” on a performance or creative work or you just sip tea and chat, it’s a totally different kind of experience. I think meeting mail art contacts now and then is an healthy thing to do, it helps you to put certain things in perspective and to go more in depth and into details in conversation (though, with phone before and Internet now, you can do more of this also at distance), but to meet too many people too often, unless you are unemployed and with all the time in the world in your hands, is just putting an useless stress on your already difficult daily life schedule. Also, a strange thing I noticed is that even if a meeting is very intense and positive on all accounts, usually you tend to correspond less (or even stop corresponding) with someone you have met in person. I guess it erodes the myth we all slowly build around respect and friendships “at distance”, a little part of its magic is always lost in the process.
RJ : Will this magic stay there with the new communication forms the internet brings us? On-line chatting and video-phone…… Or the “anonymous” mail art by “snail-mail” shall survive this?
Reply on 24-2-1996
VB : Some forms of “magic” will probably disappear with the end of snail mail, in a few years or decades, like this strong romantic feeling associated with the history of love letters (letters to the loved one abroad, at war, in prison, etc.), we will miss the collections of letters by great poets, writers and artists, and so on (or we will start seeing collections of e mail messages in print). But other forms of “magic” will be introduced by the new media, like the possibility of taking on different identities (and even change sex) in the Internet, while probably you can do the same through on line dialogue and on video phone: you just have to alterate your voice or do a good make up job, it is easy to fool everyone! So all in all it will not be a great loss, because it will happen very gradually, people will have time to adjust to it and come up with all sorts of new pranks and “creative” transgressions if they want to. You can remain anonymous even if you meet someone else in person, you can change your looks a bit and just insist that your name is Luther Blissett.
RJ : You mention “Luther Blissett”. I’ve read the article about yet another “universal” name, like I knew “Monty Cantsin” and “Karen Elliot”. Isn’t the repetition I see in a lot of mail art initiatives the indication that the mail art network is ready to vanish gradually?
Reply on 19-3-1996
VB : I haven’t noticed a particularly relevant increase in “repetitiousness” in the mail art network in recent months or years: to my knowledge, it has always been there! That of mindless cloning of ideas or of repetition of cliches is maybe an unavoidable side effect of all interesting phenomena and exciting activities, it is always easier to imitate than to be original and too many people are just plain lazy (God bless their unstressed lives!), so I guess this only helps you to select the correspondents with whom you really love to trade stuff… Regarding “multiple names”, their history goes back a long way before Monty Cantsin was born in the mind of Mr. David Zack, as you can read in a chapter of Stewart Home’s 1988 book Assault on Culture (that by the way I am in the process of publishing in italian for the small publishing house AAA I just founded with my ex TRAX partner Piermario Ciani). I am involved in multiple name strategies since 1980, when I created the ubiquitous conceptual group Lieutenant Murnau: with my present band Le Forbici di Manitú I am assembling right now a retrospective CD of Lt.Murnau’s seminal “plagiarist” recordings, to be released later this year on the UK label Earthly Delights. I truly believe the negation of the singular identity in favour of a shared name is a wonderful and radical development of some networking philosophies inherent to mail art (there is no single “artwork”, the process or the collective project is the artwork, there is no centre, each cell is at the centre of the net, etc.). I don’t believe, though, that much has been obtained by Cantsin, Eliot, Mario Rossi, Bob Jones and all the other “historical” multiple names, especially if compared with what the Luther Blissett Project has been able to accomplish in Italy in just two years. Since the beginning of 1995, for the first time the multiple name concept has really been embraced by a large number of people working secretly in several towns (there are now groups of Blissetts in Rome, Bologna, Udine, Rovigo, etc.), and it would take a whole book to report you all the media pranks that have been successfully played to the italian national TV, to big newspapers and publishers, etc. In fact, there are already three books out in Italy on the Blissett case (and a fourth one will be published in May ’96 by AAA: Totò, Peppino e la Guerra Psichica), plus several magazines and pamphlets (a few things are now being translated into english in London), there are also several Luther Blissett radio shows on independent radio stations and tons of articles from the press every month. So this is not the repetition of an old concept, but rather the beautiful big flower that has finally blossomed out of all those minimal old seeds. It is growing fast, you can maybe compare it to the Church of the SubGenius for the kind of fringe people it usually attracts, but it is much more radical in ideology (all Blissett materials are no copyright and the battle against copyright is a favourite cause for Blissett, while the SubGenius is a deposited trademark!), the stated aim being to cause panic into all media, to challenge and sabotage all the centres of Power and Control everywhere. The Blissett Project goes way beyond the problems caused by an enflated ego, so often a burden in all (mail) art circles, and it goes way beyond being simply an “art project” (so maybe I should stop discussing it here!): it is cultural terrorism at work.
RJ : This news about Luther Blissett is quite interesting for me. I thought to be quite well informed about what is going on in the network, but it seems that this Luther Blissett-idea is especially being developed in Italy, and hasn’t reached the network that well yet (I only remember seeing the name on some xeroxes I got from Italy, and then there are the beautiful artistamps that Piermario Ciani designed for his Blissett-project). It seems that in the whole network, Italy takes a special place when it comes to networking within a single country. Any specific reason?
reply on 10-04-1996
VB : There are two main attitudes towards this “mail art” activity as a whole: one attitude consists in escaping the prison of the closed official art system (artist-critic-dealer-gallery-museum-passive audience) just to end up building another (more satisfactory) small ghetto utopian fairyland (the “network” seen as a circle of “friends”, where everyone knows each other and what is going on: mail artists catalogues exhibitions magazines meetings more active mail artists); the other attitude consists (and I subscribe to this one) in seeing the mail art practitioners as just a tiny fragment of a global networking phenomenon (including the small and underground press, the tape network, what happens in free BBS, in some areas of the Internet, and then again fax zines, phone phreeks, ecc.) where no one is physically able to keep trace of every net focussed thing that is going on in the planet, and where really anything can happen to link human consciousnesses together (without necessarily the need of an “art” tag). Italy is part of the global network just like any other geographical or linguistic area, so if a project is well developed here you can’t say it “hasn’t reached the network”, it simply means that in the case of the Blissett project Italy has become the centre of the network (that will spread from there), just like in the case of the Decentralized WorldWide Congresses of 1992 Switzerland functioned as the originating centre of that project: it’s not a dogmatic thing, the centers are always different and shifting places, each one of us is at the center of the whole network, but surely every project must have to begin somewhere… (regarding Blissett, I must point out that there are several english speaking Luther Blissetts in UK, USA, Holland, Germany, Australia: I can provide several addresses if you want, also see the contacts list and english text found in Internet reprinted in issue 75 of Arte Postale! plus LB has written with Stewart Home the pamphlet Green Apocalypse and published another booklet in UK recently, Bob Black has written about LB in the USA, I included a text in english from John Berndt/LB in the book Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica, etc., but what is really interesting is how the Blissett project has managed to satisfactorily sabotage and infiltrate the big national media: never assume something isn’t happening in the network if you do not know anything about it, I was also pleasingly shocked when I first found out about the Blissett project, just because it proved me that so much can be happening before that even a “seasoned” networker like me finds out about it…). Italy has always been at the forefront of mail art activities (just see the number of italian participants to any catalogue, compared to the size of our country!), so it comes as no surprise to me that there is also a number of projects being developed in our own tongue (there are so many more things that you can do when everybody speaks fluently the same language!), a lot of small poetry magazines for example have opened their pages to mail art since the late seventies here, and I doubt a lot of these mags have spread beyond the borders, as they were all written in italian. There are probably many reasons for this, but I guess it depends a lot on the strong background of political awareness of the average italian student, the cultural agitation of the movements of protest of 1969, 1977, and of the early 90’s really left their mark on several generations of young people, who got used, among other things, to the mail art and networking ideas through several influential magazines (Amen, Decoder, Neural, Rumore I wrote for years a “networking” column for the last two of these high circulation magazines, reaching thousands of readers not to mention the small zines like Arte Postale!, Na, Fuck, Sorbo Rosso, Il Sorriso Verticale, Underground, etc.etc.) and books (Opposizioni 80, No Copyright, Last Trax, to name but a few). I think that besides Italy, maybe only in the USA (through the influential work of Factsheet Five, Global Mail, The Church of the SubGenius, Hakim Bey’s “Immediatist” theories, Chuck Welch and John Held’s books, etc.) the networking practice has become so widely rooted and accepted as a relevant contemporary cultural strategy belonging to everyone, and surely not limited to artistical practices. But inevitably this situation will gradually spread to larger cultural areas. Like millions of other people, I was thinking and doing “networking” for a long time before discovering about mail art, and I am & will be thinking and doing networking in and out of mail art also as I grow old.
RJ : The expanding of the network is mentioned by other mail artists as well as an important goal in networking. Do you think that everybody can be an artist? Do you think that everybody can be a networker?
Reply on 11-5-1996
VB : Of course everyone can be an artist (good or bad, it does not matter), but this surely does not mean that everyone should be an artist! Luckily, we have all a different brain and a slightly different idea of what is good for us. As the old saying goes, differences are what really spice up the world. At the same time, a little bit of creativity surely makes your life more complete, just like a little bit of sport makes your body feel better. Those who never consider exploring their own creative potentials (and I don’t mean they necessarily have to paint a picture, it can just be arranging the flowers in a vase, or making up a lullaby for your son, etc. etc.) surely are missing a good reason to live up to be 100 yrs old. The same applies to the fact that everybody can be a networker, with the difference that, strictly speaking, everybody already is a networker (of one sort or the other), unless he has always lived alone in a desert island with no form of communication available, not even with the birds and bees…
RJ : Another topic that seems to be very vivid at the moment in the USA is the mail art & money issue. Lon Spiegelman introduced the sentence “money & mail art don’t mix” more then a decade ago. What are your thoughts on this subject?
Answer on 5-7-1996
Question received on May 17, 1996, mailing of the answer delayed till July 1996 (the printer of Vittore’s computer broke down at the same time he started his summer job)
VB : I just wrote a very long and detailed letter on this subject the other day, to an american networker called Joy who gave an university lecture on Fluxus & mail art: in that occasion the issue was raised of the fact I did offer in a recent issue of Arte Postale! magazine “slices” of my archive for sale (that was my provocative solution to the “space problem” discussed earlier in this interview). I reproduce here my letter (minus some personal remarks) that I think can sum up well my own position on the money issue.
“(…) Going straight to the “money & mail art do not mix” affair, I guess every generation of networkers is confronted with this same issue and reacts more or less in the same way. I was very active myself in the late seventies, campaigning for the unwritten “golden rules” of mail art (no jury, no rejects, no prizes, no prices of admission, free catalogue to all, etc.) whenever I found someone trespassing the line of fair conduct by asking an admission fee to a mail art show or money for a mail art catalogue, etc.. At the time I even got myself into a little bit of trouble (by writing a provoking “purist” mail art leaflet in the mock shape of a Red Brigades message…) and surely into endless postal debates, that sometimes spilled onto the pages of Umbrella and other network related zines. What is nice but a bit boring at the same time is the fact that (misinterpretations aside, which anyway always abound!) my position was and is very much alike the one outlined in your letter, that is in turn very similar to the conclusions that any sensitive and judicious networker will get to with just a little pondering: the exchange is FREE, for each show or project (or magazine) ALL participants should receive a free copy of the documentation (surplus copies of catalogues and magazines can be sold to general public, of course, on a generally no profit basis), it is ethically very UNFAIR to sell archives (or single pieces of mail, for that matter!) you accumulated as personal gifts (though there is no law that can prevent you from doing it, if you really want), much better to donate them to interested institutions, and so on and on and on.
As I just said, this is all very reasonable and very simple to understand by everybody, but I just happen to have already lived the whole dispute a few times during my experience that spans several “generations” of networkers, so it is just getting a little more boring each time around… (I should simply reach back in my old papers and photocopy ten years old leaflets and articles, then circulate them again to show that nothing is changing but I just don’t have the time to search through my very chaotic archive… it’s so much easier to think up something new!). Fact is, I don’t like to play the networking game with a “boy scout attitude” to quote an appropriate expression once used by my friend Al Ackerman and instead of writing politically correct “netiquette” manifestos I much prefer to stimulate reactions on a given topic by playing pranks and hard to tell jokes (if it’s too easy to spot, it is no more a good hoax), acting absurdly and (in my intention at least) “creatively”. In the early eighties I devoted one whole issue of my Arte Postale! magazine to the Mail Art & Money dilemma, titled provokingly “Mail Art & Money DO Mix!” (a real coin glued to each cover) and documenting the reactions to a mail project for which I had sent several real banknotes, with amounts ranging from 1 to 50 dollars in different currencies, to contacts around the globe, with humorous requests attached like: “buy me a gift with this money or drink it to my health” or “you are a wonderful artist, keep this money as payment of the mail you just sent me” or “you are a terrible artist, keep this money but please stop mailing me stuff”…
The same “absurdist” approach I adopted recently with the text ironically titled “The big sell out” included in a micro issue of Arte Postale! #74. I had just read news of Ray Johnson’s letters starting being marketed and of people selling or venting the idea of selling their archives, so I had this very instinctive guts reaction of coming up with a paradoxical idea for “selling out” my own archive as well (the cheapo “sharepiece” concept is an obvious parody of digital shareware), just to see how Net Land would have reacted to this move. I didn’t really expect many hot reactions though, there seem to be less and less people in the mail art circles who really care about these issues, and in fact until today your phone call was the only hint of somebody taking my “molest proposal” seriously: I got no reactions at all in the mail, maybe people are too shy to point out that I am doing wrong and they prefer the back stabbing gossip spreading technique (my shoulders and conscience are large enough to take in a lot of eventual bad vibes!), except for just one polite order in cash from a NY publisher/networker (I spent more than 50 dollars to assemble and mail his “share piece”, and he already thanked for it, I’m not sure he got the joke though). Of course, I knew very well that (almost) NOBODY would have spent 50 dollars to get a bunch of old battered letters artistically arranged by me, and even if I DID get an handful of orders, I could manufacture a few “archive share pieces” by using some of the semi junk mailart I receive daily and I always end up recycling into my works anyway. It should be clear to you by now that I am not an anal retentive archivist, I always loved to PlAy with the stuff I receive, I recycle most of the envelopes and useless xeroxes so I never have to buy envelopes and stationery this saves trees, by the way there are pieces I receive that I treasure and others that I throw away and others that I play with, I believe it is my right to do so, just as others con do what they want with what I send them.
One key concept here I think is the “no profit” bias of what you do with your mail art archive, not HOW you use it. Not all of us are collectors at heart or have the time and energy to file orderly thousands of pieces. I have often tried to print top quality issues of my zine Arte Postale! or of other networking related projects (like the TRAX series) and I always lost A LOT of money in the process. I always mailed free (expensively by air mail) copies to ALL the participants contributors to ALL my projects, and then I tried to sell the remaining copies to cover at least part of the printing costs, but I soon learned that people who are in the mail art network just plain don’t like to buy stuff (it’s totally OK for me, and that’s why since 1993 my mail art zine has become smaller and with no price attached), while distribution through other underground or official channels just proved not to work at all (very few copies sold, and two distributors out or three will not bother ever paying you back, I still got credits pending all over the world…). I was never inclined nor lucky in getting funds for my projects from any kind of organization or institution, I always preferred to work independently with no pressures or hustles from anybody, this also means that when I have done a good publication or a small hand assembled catalogue I always paid from my pocket, giving what I believe is a fair “gift” in exchange for the materials submitted to my projects. I sure wish half of the projects I enter into every year would do the same, but usually it’s just a two pages xeroxed list of addresses you get, which I find most of all a very un artistic practice. Even with just two photocopies you can do wonderful mini books… Though I have a good “normal” job, helping out my father in his Hotel business from May to September, plus another low income job all the year round as a professional rock journalist and freelance writer, I find more and more difficult to keep up with the cost of running a family and at the same time communicating with hundreds of friends, that’s why sometimes I have to keep silent for months or why I haven’t been able yet to save enough money to buy me a modem, a bigger computer, a subscription to a server and start up using E mail, as I’m sure I will do in a not too distant future. But I assure you I never intended to become rich by selling pieces of my history, I’d rather starve or sell my record collection than part ways with letters like yours, that have touched a nerve of my being (and that’s the essence of NETWORKING to me).”
RJ : Well, maybe this interview will touch some more nerves of other networkers when it hits the network. I guess with the Summer that has already started, it is time to end the interview unless I forgot something important to ask you?
Reply on 17-7-1996 (complete text via e-mail)
(The last answer from Vittore Baroni came together with a 58 KByte file which contained the complete text of the interview. So far Vittore has been the first to type all answers on his computer, and therefore I only had to adjust the complete text on my own text-processor a bit for the final result)
VB : I really enjoyed answering to your questions and I am a bit sad that this is the last one, as I am sure there are numberless things worth discussing about mail art that have been left out (memories of Cavellini, the Neoist Camps and APT fests, the TRAX saga, marriages arranged and broken through MA, etc. etc.). I believe that a project like your “mail interviews” is very important to the spirit of mail art, exactly like the Decentralized Congresses of past years, because it activates on a (semi)public level A COLLECTIVE REFLECTION on a phenomenon that tends naturally to remain invisible and private. Yours was a very simple idea, but that will surely be fertile of positive results, and for this I must thank you enormously. As this seem to be already a very long interview, I will end up very briefly with the hope that other projects with the relevance of your “mail interviews” will continue to appear now and then unexpectedly in the mail art net, giving back strength and voice to a warm sense of community that often seems to dissolve into “silent” and mechanical exchanges. DO KEEP IN TOUCH!
Address of mail artist:
NEAR THE EDGE EDITIONS
Via C. Battisti 339
LU – ITALY
phone/fax: + 39 584 963918