THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH ANNA BOSCHI
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH ANNA BOSCHI 36
Started on: 15-5-1995
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: 19-8-1995
AB : I have been involved in mail art since 1986, when I exhibited my artistic
works in Milano (Italy) – by Centro Lavoro Arte – where I met Ruggero Maggi
who talked to me about mail art and invited me to participate in a project
“DON’T KILL THE ‘PEACE’ WORD”. I took part in that project with pleasure
and when I visited the show (by the way, it was made just in Bologna) I felt
immediately a strong emotion. I realized to be in front of a wonderful
networking circuit. From that moment I have never left off to make mail art.
RJ : How did things develope after participating in this first project, how did you
get in touch with other networkers?
Reply on 25-9-1995
AB : The mail artist MARCO LORENZONI, living at that time near Bologna, sent
to me a beautiful coloured envelope, duly signed and numbered, containing
one elaborate on which I put my intervention and returned it to him. This was
my first personal contact in mail art. Marco said to me he was moving to
another Region and in fact I never had any news from him since.
Successively I participated in the “WINDOW” project by Maria Rosa Simoni,
and also to the “SELFPORTRAIT” project in Ireland, and other mail art
projects in Italy and abroad.
At the beginning I made mail art in small doses, because I wanted to realize
well its meaning. I wrote to some networkers asking more information about
mail art and at once m.a. notes, magazines, fanzines etc. etc. reached me.
RJ : At a certain point you probably thought of doing your own mail art project.
How did you realize your first project?
Reply on 23-10-1995
AB : In 1990 there was the centenary of the GIORGIO MORANDI’s birthday, the
famous artist of Bologna (Italy), sensible interpreter of humble things, as just
the bottles. I wanted to pay hommage to him with the “BOTTLE PROJECT” ,
a mail art project. I received 100 wonderful works (30 real bottles and 70 bi-
dimensional works) from 19 Nations and I organized the exhibition in
Bologna – by KAOS ex MABUSE space. I was very happy for the success of
my first project.
In the catalogue I expressed the connection between mail art and the
bottles: …. MAIL ART as container of different emotion’s states, expressive
potentiality free from markets and system conditions, wish to make and
transmit art, but especially container of sensitive human relations
overcoming any geographical/cultural/ideological frontier…..
…… BOTTLE as container of thoughts, ideas, messages (in fact, in the past,
it was thrown in the sea to send appeals or call for help), but mainly
container of human history, as time symbol……
RJ : Doing a first mail art project is mostly a difficult task. What did you learn from
this first project?
Reply on 1-12-1995
AB : Before I got involved in the mail art network, I attended only the “official”
circuit but, notwithstanding my great passion for the artistic work, I often felt
uneasy, probably caused from the unreasonable competition that originates
false friends, from the personal interests, from the criticism’ conditioning and
discrimination etc. After my first mail art project I immediately realized to be
in human contact and especially freedom. Yes, I learnt this: MAIL ART IS A
FREE ARTIST! And this is not a small thing!
RJ : How large is the network you are in contact with nowadays?
Reply on 24-1-1996
AB : Nowadays I am in contact with a great number of mail artists all over the
world and, like you, I have to select. I am very sorry for it, but it is not
possible for me to write to everybody. So I prefer to stay in touch with the
networkers with whom already exist a “mail art feeling”, a mutual exchange,
a frequent mail and work, friendship etc. etc.
However, often, beginning artists write me asking about mail art and in this
case I send them a little documentation with projects, addresses and other
news, and naturally my contacts augment. Usually, when I organize a mail
art project, I receive works from 25-30 nations (thanks networker friends!!).
RJ : Which mail art project are you working on at the moment?
Reply on 4-3-1996
AB : At the moment, besides several participations to various mail art projects, I
am working on two of my projects: Centenary of the Radio’s invention
(GUGLIELMO MARCONI) and PREHISTORY IN FORLI, the last one
together with Lia Garavini of Forlì.
Concerning the MARCONI project. now I am taking care of organizing the
show soon. I received 180 works from 25 Nations and I hope to exhibit them
inside a private “Marconiano” Museum of wonderful old radios. phonographs
and other communication sets.This museum is denomined “THOUSAND
VOICES…. THOUSAND SOUNDS…..” However I am not yet sure to realize
this initiative. In a different way, I shall care for another space.
Regarding instead the PREHISTORY project, the show will be on next
september, just during the XIII Congress of the International Union of
Prehistoric Sciences in Forli’ (8-14th September 1996). Even if there is to do
so much, I am always glad to organize mail art exhibitions, because I think it
is good to make known this international artistic circuit, as fraternity
message, without frontiers and discrimination. Also during the III-rd edition of
the “MAILARTINCONTRIAMOCI a CASTEL S.PIETRO TERME (8-9-10th
September 1995)”, besides many performances and installations made by
the participant networkers, I prepared a mail art show with fragments of the
“Bottle Project” – “1962-1992 – 30 years of M.A. in hommage to RAY
JOHNSON” and “FELLINI” projects, with one installation of envelopes from
all over the world in the centre of the room. It was so much visited and many
young artists asked me how to be involved in this circuit. And thus the mail
RJ : How do you explain the mail art network to those new young artists that want
Reply on 12-4-1996
AB : I don’t make particular effort, because the exhibition tells by itself. The artists
who feel (as you say: TO FEEL MAIL ART) something different from the
“official” artistic circuit, want to know better this network and ask me
informations about the possibility to come into communication. So, I give
them explanations about mail art projects, with some addresses, notes,
articles, etc., etc.
Many young artists think the mail art is like a chain of postcards and
enveloped, without knowing the real meaning of this circuit, besides the
various ways to interpret mail art.
Personally, I don’t like chain-letters because I find them “very cold”, without
soul, only made to receive an avalanche of works, and I prefer to participate
to mail art projects and write directly to the networkers, privileging the human
contact, the personal acquaintance, the friendship etc. , etc.
RJ : In 1992 there were the Decentralized Networker Congresses (DNC), where
mail artists were encouraged to organize meetings. Were you active in this
Answer on 18-6-1996
AB : Yes, I was active in that period. In April 1992 I organized the show about my
mail art project: “30 YEARS of M.A. in homage to RAY JOHNSON”, in
Bologna (Italy) at “PRIMA PAGINA space”. Baudhuin Simon from Belgium
came to Italy to visit it and during the exhibition we also met Fabio Sassi and
Rosa Biagi of Bologna, and we had one little congress.
At the inauguration were present many other mail artists too (Alberto Rizzi,
Fulgor C. Silvi, Marco Pasian, Giovanni Strada, Nielsen Gavina, etc.)
Successively, Baudhuin Simon (on August 1992) returned to Italy and
together we went to VILLORBA (TV), where Ruggero Maggi and M. Pia
Fanna Roncoroni had organized one big Congress (4 days), very interesting,
with installations, performances and video – meetings, etc. I stayed there 2
days because then I started to SPOLETO (PG) where I redid the show in
homage to RAY JOHNSON, in public space. On October 1992 I took part in
the meeting at the ARTESTUDIO SUMITHRA by Rosetta Berardi in
Ravenna, a whole day with collective works, performances, poetry, etc. Very
beautiful meeting, with friendship and human contacts! I finished the year
(on december 1992) with another show in Milano (Italy) by Avida Dollars
Gallery – always dedicated to Ray Johnson.
RJ : Why do you focus so much on Ray Johnson?
Reply on 24-7-1996
AB : At the beginning I strongly admired this artist who gave life to an artistic
universal networking circuit, beyond every cool, conditioning and restrictive
rule of the “official art”. And in the 1992 DECENTRALIZED CONGRESS
YEAR, I considered dutiful to pay hommage to his (HE)ART, so I dedicated
to him one big mail art project. (Sincerely, today I am very glad to have
celebrated Ray Johnson when he lived!)
Successively, reading about him, I was more and more interested to
understand this artist, so ironic in his art and in the same time so lonely and
private in his life. I’d have wanted to know him personally for better realizing
the extraordinary sensibility of a man able to refuse the personal success (a
thing so rare in the artist!), in behalf of an artistic collective expression,
without celebration, money and honours.
RAY is an interesting and mysterious rebus, like his death. Why 13? Day 13
– Hours 13 – Room 13 !
A great man, with a great art, with a great idea debouching in the
international mail art circuit, but I think also with a great human solitude.
WHY? I often ask myself. Yes, it’s true, I focus on Ray.
RJ : Another great mail artist that is dead for some time is the Italian Cavellini.
What do you think was his role in the mail art network?
reply on 14-10-96
(together with Anna’s answer she sent me two beautiful catalogs of mail art projects she has worked on)
AB : I like very much Cavellini. He was (is) a great artist, but I find hir role in the
network much different in respect to Ray Johnson’s. First of all, I think Ray
gave life to the mail art circuit without being aware of this, through his
choice, nearly oriental, to send small signs, little ironical messages, discreet
provocations, pointing on the commonplace and myth’s absurdity, while
Cavellini utilized mail art to autocelebrate himself, affirming the artist’s
He came from the collectionism, had money and could easily travel round
the world to meet other artists, playing funnily with his performances,
affirming “I am the sole, I am a free genius!” Therefore, I admit to know
superficially Cavellini. I read his book “A GENIUS LIFE” where is descibed
also the funny meeting between him and Ray. Wonderful! However Cavellini
is loved very much from the artists, and I like his work strongly, too, but my
“feeling” is with Ray.
When I payed hommage to Ray Johnson with the mail art project “1962-1992
– 30 YEARS OF MAIL ART”, the american Lon Spiegelman sent me one
poetry dedicated to Cavellini, writing me : “….Anna, don’t forget to hommage
Cavellini!”. In Italy, as you surely know, there is the networker Fausto Paci
called “AMBASCIATORE CAVELLINIANO”; he knew Cavellini personally,
admired strongly this big artist, and now he goes on with Cavellini’s artistic
RJ : You have been active now in mail art for ten years and must have received
lots of stuff. Do you keep all the things that you receive? How does your
‘archive’ look like?
answer on 5-1-1997
AB : My mail art “archive” is in the studio where I paint and I try to keep it in good
order, to consult it with facility at any moment, but receiving so much stuff,
this is not always possible for me! The mail is contained in “gatheres” (in
alphabetical order for italian networkers – for abroad in alphabetical order of
Moreover, when there is more correspondence with one mail artist, I make a
particular “gather” for him. Then I keep the artistamps, the original
postcards, the artistic envelopes in separate books.
Concerning instead my mail art projects, a good deal of mail art works is still
framed, so as they have been exhibited. Yes, I keep all the things I receive,
and now I have also much mail in big boxes to set in order.
Some time ago, a mail artist made the project about circulation (not
preservation) in mail art, a provocation against the private little museums. In
general, I can agree with this concept, but the major part of the works is
dedicated personally, therefore to send them away it seems a “break-
gesture” – without appreciation – so contrary to the mail art soul! In any case,
I participated to that project, doing my proposal, that is to send to some
networkers during the year one portfolio containing mail art works of different
artists, as gift. In this way, I think the sense of the personal ties of friendship
Together with my participation-proposal, I sent my first portfolio, as
Christmas-gift, being December 1995. I didn’t receive an answer, but the
worst is I haven’t had more news from that mail artist! It is impossible to
enter in the head of the people! I didn’t think certainly to hurt him. I though to
suggest a good idea!
RJ : Most mail artists write mainly about all those good things that are happening
in the mail art network. Are there also negative sides to working within the
mail art network?
next answer on 8-4-1997
AB : All beautiful, all beautiful, all beautiful!………. I have strong doubts when I
hear this! Although I love very much mail art and the network, I must
however admit the negative sides concerning the mal artists ‘contradictions’!
Some of them preach the “false purity” in mail art, but really they don’t
practice what they preach! They shout to the scandale when they receive the
catalogue printed and sponsorized, because they say to be out of the mail
art soul, while then they send round the world a big quantity of the xerox
regarding their mail art activity! This is opportunism because they use mail
art to make publicity to themselves, not for community! Instead, the printed
catalogue referring to one mail art project regards all participants!
So, I think they have the straw tail. In my opinion, this is a big fault of the
network: mail art is free art , well , no money in mail art , very well ,
alternative art , well too, but why, if possible naturally, don’t improve the
documentation? Pay attention to the hypocrisy, she is always in wait.
RJ : Well, I fully agree with you on that. I don’t mind at all if someone has a
sponsor who pays for a wonderful catalogue, but I also do appreciate the
small catalogues people make by themselves without any sponsor. These
unwritten rules, like “mail art & money don’t mix” sometimes are mis-
interpreted by mail artists. Maybe we should make the new rule “there are no
rules in mail art”. What do you think Anna?
next answer on 24-6-1997
AB : Yes, wonderful! “No rules in MAIL ART”! I can completely agree with this. I
find it right, because – on the contrary – where is the ‘freedom’ of mail art?
Our mouth is always full of this phrase: “MAIL ART is FREE ART”, but when,
how, where? If the mail artist is always prompt to criticize and misinterprete.
Therefore I think it is important to make the new rule “there are no rules in
mail art” and every networker will decide his/her choice! With his/her
Concerning the sponsor in mail art , to pay a big catalogue, I accept with
pleasure this opportunity, but – like you – I appreciate very much the small
catalogues “hand-made” in xerox, that I receive always with great pleasure. I
appreciate also a simple list of names, and , in particular, I love every thing
sent to me by mail. And just for this “my feeling” regarding the circuit, I find
these limits very ‘stupid’.
Other thing: When I participate to one mail art project, I send my work with
pleasure, without thinking of a catalogue. If this reaches me successfully, I
am glad to receive it and it is always a surprise for me; on the contrary it is
not a problem for me! The important thing is the contact that was there!
RJ : Two new things you started to work on during this interview is the mail-art
magazine “WILD RABBIT NEWS” which you do together with Graziella
Caroni, and I also noticed the new stamp “MAILARTMEETING ARCHIVES”.
What is the story behind those two? Why start another zine, why create
next answer on 27-9-1997
AB : The story is very simple. Unfortunately, two important mail-art bulletins
stopped: NET INFORMER of Andrea Ovcinnicoff (Genova) and
TRANSFUSION of Alessandro Ceccotto (Adria). One day, after a long talk
about this situation with Graziella Caroni, we decided with enthusiasm to
give life to the WILD RABBIT NEWS, thinking it could be useful for the mail
art cirsuit. In fact, after the first number, we received demonstration of
interest, request to insert projects and particularly we receive various rabbits
from many networkers and we put them in every number.
Concerning MAIL ART MEETING ARCHIVES, this was already existing, but I
wanted to mention it, and referring to the MAIL ART IN CONTRIAMOCI
meeting, I have chosen MAILARTMEETING Archives. What do you think of
it? I feel it is right for mail art?Therefore the story is very simple, but I ask
you: Why another?
RJ : With the question “Why another” I also was referring to your motivation to
keep on doing this mail art and collecting material. Hasn’t repetition of doing
things started in, or is mail art still a surprise to you every new day again?
(With her answer Anna Boschi sent a photo of a recent meeting of mail-artists in Italy, the
“mailartincontramoci” on 30/31 August 1997 in Castel S. Pietro , and the newest issue of Wild Rabbit News)
AB : Yes, mail art is still a surprise to me every new day again! When the mail
arrives, I am happy and I feel in artistic conversation (through the “RED
WIRE” joining every soul) with friends all over the world. It is wonderful!
For this reason, I like to do every thing about communication and mail art. I
would strongly like to be in the possibility to answer always to old and new
networkers, but my days must be of 48 hours!
I am a painter since many years (structures, recycled and assembled
materials, etc.) and I love my work, but in mail art I find freedom, fraternity,
exchanges , human contacts so much rare in the artistic (and not) universe.
When I shall not more find these sentiments in my mail art, I shall stop, but
always I shall thank the friends of the circuit for that they gave me!
Therefore, in this moment where various bulletins have stopped (also Global
Mail! Do you know? Is it true?) It is a great pleasure for me to give the
“service” to the circuit. In fact, from this month it will start the first number of
the “Mailartmeeting Bulletin” with mail art projects, while Graziella Caroni will
continue “Wild Rabbit News”, with rabbit images, projects, notes etc. soon in
Internet ……AND MAIL ART GOES ………
RJ : Do you think that mail art is a term one can also use for the activities that
mail artists undertaking on the internet?
reply on 4-1-1998
AB : Really, I think the right term for the activities undertaken on the internet is
Electronic Mail Art , because mail art is for me only when there is
transmission by post-box , and internet never will replace the paper poetry,
the colour harmony , the sign strenght. This is MAIL ART! (I think , naturally).
In any case E-mail art is very interesting, important , USEFUL and too much
(With her mail Anna Boschi sent me some magazines. Also another mailing arrived with the newest issues of “Mailartmeeting bulletin” and the documentation of Anna’s project “What do you inspire this house?”. The next question was only sent out middle of March 1998 due to a little break I took – RJ)
RJ : Are you participating in Vittore’s IM98 project? Since it is initiated in Italy I
suspect this will cause a lot of activities in Italy…….
next answer on 7-5-1998
(because of a small break in the interview-process I only retyped the answer on January 16th, and sent the next question on that day. The IM98 project has already come to an end and Vittore probably is working on the documentation right now. In the period between the two questions Anna Boschi has been busy. She has sent me several copies of her
“MAILARTMEETING BULLETIN, and also I received the catalogue of her project “LIBRI
d’ARTISTA e POESIA VISIVA – MAIL ART 4” , a book of 143 pages with illustrations of the
contributions to this project.)
AB : Yes, I received some months ago the invitation to take part in the
Incongruous Meetings during 1998 (IM 98), but I think to continue the
MAILARTINCONTRIAMOCI meeting, because it is already an incongruous
meeting! It can be an intelligent meeting, an intolerant meeting, an
impossible meeting, an insuperable meeting etc. etc. However I suspect too
there will be in Italy a lot of activities. In fact, Emilio Morandi will make the IM
98 on July 20th 1998, just when there is his birthday, the same day of
GIORGIO MORANDI’s birth, the big and international artist “bolognese” (he
was born in Bologna , Italy on July 20th 1890). Do you remember my mail art
project “Bottle project” dated 1990 in homage to him? Did you participate?
Now, I don’t remember. His poetry were the bottles (full of silence, art and
lirism). Emilio Morandi wants to refer to this solitary and great artist, being
born the same day, many years after.
Besides, I am sure other Italian networkers will make an Incongruous
Meeting. But, sincerely, this is a hard year for me, on account of serious
family problems; I shall continue to make mail art and to not break the “red
wire” with the circuit, but with less participation and contacts. However my
heart will be always with you all!
next question sent on 16-1-1999
RJ : I guess it is right time now to end the interview. I understand all to well the
busy periods in ones life since I have one right now as well. Was there
anything I forgot to ask you before we end the interview and publish it?
(together with the last question I sent Anna the complete text of the interview to proofread and some more info’s)
next answer on 15-5-1999
AB : Dear Ruud, I am sending you the corrections of the typing mistakes of your
interview with me. I thank you very much for what you did and for all the
interesting and important documentation you sent me. I like the interview and
I hope you make the book, when you can, naturally.
Via G. Tanari n. 1445/B
40024 CASTEL S. PIETRO
TERME (BO) – I T A L Y
This interview was done in 1995 by Ruud Janssen. Address: TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda , the NETHERLANDS, e-mail : email@example.com. It is possible to spread this information to others, but for publications you will have to get permission from TAM and the interviewed person! Enjoy reading this interview.
Started on: 3-12-1994
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on: 7-1-1995
AB : This is one of those questions I’ve answered so many times, I thought everyone knew by now! Anyway, for the record, here goes. In 1971, I was living outside the small town of Sooke, on Vancouver Island. In an attempt to connect with some creative people, I declared myself the Town Fool of Victoria, capital of the province of British Colombia, some 36 miles from where I was living. That turned out to be an uphill climb, and in an effort to communicate with the populace of Victoria, I started publishing the Banana Rag. I delivered copies of this newsletter by hand to a number of public schools in the Victoria area, and while I was at it, I mailed copies to some of my artist friends in Vancouver.
The response from the schools was varied, and in some instances, I was invited into the schools to do activities with the students. One of my friends in Vancouver who was then a member of the Image Bank collective, responded with a copy of the Image Bank Request List. This little 2-page flyer brought the first information I had that there was, in fact, a network. It was a list of names and addresses of artists, and the sorts of images they wanted to receive; lips, clouds, 50’s cars, that sort of thing.
I went through my stack of old clip magazines and put together an envelope for each of the perhaps 20 artists listed, and mailed them out, with a copy of the Banana Rag, and a note stating that I was interested in receiving ANYTHING to do with bananas; images, news stories, jokes, music, whatever, as long as it had a reference to bananas. Within 2 or 3 weeks, my mail-box came alive, and here I had the sort of enthusiasm and response I was missing elsewhere in my life. Amongst the bananas, there were samples of the others’ work, invitations to projects, etc., and before I knew it, I was HOOKED.
In the course of the next year and a half, I responded to all the mail I received, participated in all projects I heard about, and expanded the number of artists I was exchanging with to perhaps 100. When I left Sooke, it was to go on the road, to meet my correspondents, and decide where I would live next. I intended to drive across Canada, down the eastern USA, across the southern states, and up to the West Coast. However,the van I bought to make this trip in turned out to be a lemon, and my start was delayed for 6 months. When I did leave Canada in May of 1973, I went south into Washington, Oregon and California. In the Bay Area, I met with all 12 of my mail art connections, and decided pretty quickly that that was the place for me to live.
However since I had written to all my correspondents that I was heading their way, I went on with the trip for another 2 months, after which, I realized a number of things:
1The USA is huge, and driving across it more time consuming than I had figured.
2Driving alone across vast stretches of the continent was not all that much fun.
3Most of my correspondents were men, and most of them had wives or lovers who, while they tolerated my visit, were none too enthused about it.
4In San Francisco, I had met my future husband, and I knew that was where I wanted to live. I decided to quit the mega-trip, and headed back to San Francisco at the end of August, where I settled down for the next 8 years, getting even more committed to mail art with the publication of VILE magazine, which I began in 1974.
RJ : This extensive answer arises a lot of questions in me, but I have to settle for one now. Some mail-artists have a private life besides their mail-art life, but in your case it seems that your private life and your mail-art world got completely integrated. I remember the issue VILE (#8, 1983), and it looked like your life and your art were the same at that moment. Some photo’s of you and Bill Gaglione indicate the same. Am I right?
Reply on : 18-4-1995
AB : During those years with Bill, we were both very involved with mail art and performance art, and there was very little time for anything else (except the everyday jobs/work we did to support that activity which took up the majority of our time! We just don’t write about that stuff.), so I suppose you are right, at that moment, my life and art were very integrated. What isn’t apparent from that view you had of us from VILE #8, is that we both DID have jobs or paying work that is never spoken about in the context of the magazine.The humdrum work that just about everyone has to do to pay the bills. Bill had a variety of jobs over the year, and after working in a print shop, and for a weekly newspaper, I started my own graphic design and production company, Banana Productions, which is how I earned the money to publish VILE and the Banana Rag.
Certainly our performing, publishing and mail-art activities did NOT pay our rent, or put food on the table, and we both spent a good deal of our time at those money-earning activities in order to SUPPORT our mail art, publishing and performance work. Further, we both had friends and activities that were not related to art, but our social life was within a circle of art-related friends, and many of my friends in San Francisco were persons with whom I had exchanged mail-art before I went there.
RJ : Why did the VILE magazine stop? What was your next step?
Reply on : 9-5-1995
AB : It cost too much to produce and mail. It took too much time and there were other things I wanted to do. I felt hemmed in by the need to “do the next issue.” Bill wanted to take it in directions that weren’t consistent with my initial concept of it. My relationship with Bill was falling apart. I was tired of the vile focus, and felt it wasn’t an appropriate publication in which to air other sides of my perceptions and activities. I’d “been there, done that,” and it was time to move along, do something else.
At the beginning of our cross Canada tour of 1980, we were offered a sublet on an apartment in Vancouver. We had been evicted from our apartment in San Francisco the month before we left, and had put all our things in storage. We decided to take the sublet and move to Vancouver – a MAJOR change. That never happened. I moved and he stayed.
Arriving in Vancouver in late January 1981, I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t know at that point that Bill would not be coming up, but I was still feeling very displaced. All my close friends were in San Francisco, and the situation I moved into wasn’t quite what I had imagined it to be. In late February I went back to SF to do a final performance with Bill, one we had scheduled before the trip. At that time it became clear that he wouldn’t be moving to Canada.
During those first two years in Canada, I tried to quit mail art. I did only one issue of the Banana Rag, in 1981, and I almost let the mail accumulate, unanswered. Early in 1982, I convinced the local TV station to host my 10th anniversary April Fool’s Day event; the Going Bananas Fashion Contest. I applied for a grant to create the new performance work, Why Banana? and in the fall of ’82, toured it across Canada and the USA. After that, I applied for funding to produce About Vile, so that I could bring VILE to an official conclusion, use the materials that people had sent for it, and wrap up that period of my life. (my years in San Francisco ’73-’81).
Once I had published About VILE (in 1983), the natural place to distribute it was the network. Once I started distributing it, of course, the responses started flowing in…. and I got caught up again in sending and receiving mail. I altered the format and focus of the Banana Rag, making it more a mail-art information/forum, than the strictly banana content of the earlier editions. I had overspent the budget to print About VILE, and ended up with a debt, no money, no job, and no commercial contacts in Vancouver. The printers wanted the balance due, and I approached them with the proposition; give me a job, and I’ll pay what I owe. I was hired and worked there for two years, learning the ins and outs of full-color printing, doing paste-up and camera work, and a lot of in-house design.
In 1984, I was back in San Francisco for the Inter Dada ’84 events, and spent 3 weeks working with my friend Victoria Kirkby on a performance, In the Red, which we presented in that festival. In ’85 I did a performance art workshop with art students in Calgary. We worked with the material from “in the Red,” producing a new work, In the Red, In the Black. In ’85, I quit the producing job, and free-lanced my design services, both to the printer, and to other clients and connections I had begun to develop. I continued printing and sending the Banana Rag, and in the fall of ’86, I did a second tour of Europe, this one solo.
RJ : At the moment you are very active with artistamps. When did you start with those? What is so fascinating about them?
Reply on : 3-6-1995
AB : I did my first artistamp in response to an invitation by Ed Varney in the mid-70’s. He reproduced a number of my stamps on one of his many “anthology sheets.” The first ones I did were in B&W, and he printed them in black and red. Then somewhere around ’76 or ’77, Eleanor Kent, who was a neighbor of mine in San Francisco, got a Color Xerox machine in her home, and invited me to come and work with it. I produced my first two editions on that machine, along with many other collages and postcards, and Eleanor introduced me to Jeff Errick of Ephemera, which produced buttons, postcards and stamps. He allowed me to go and perforate my stamps there, in trade for copies of each edition. I believe it was also during that period (late 70’s) that Ed Higgins did his Nudes on Stamps book, producing sheets of artistamps from nude portraits of mail artists. On the cover of each issue, he stuck the stamp of the person to whom he was sending the catalogue.
While all of this whetted my appetite for the stamp format, it wasn’t until I moved back to Vancouver, and started working at Intermedia Press, that I really got the BUG for stamps. I saw the editions Varney had produced, and found myself wanting that quality of reproduction and that quantity of stamps so that I could really USE them, not just trade sheets. Through my job at Intermedia, I learned the technology necessary to produce full color, photo offset editions, however I didn’t put this into practice right away.
My initial editions done in Vancouver, were reproduced using Color Xerox, and these dated from 1984, when I had an artist in residence on Long Island, NY, and had the time and resources to experiment with the medium. I also did a series that year commemorating the Inter-Dada ’84 Festival. The originals of these editions were still collages, as were my 15-sheet Euro-Tour Commemorative edition which I did in 1987 after my ’86 European trip. For these editions, however, I utilized the brand new Canon Laser color copier, and was very impressed with the results. However, these were still pretty pricey to produce, and that’s when I started doing the figuring necessary to cost out a full-color printed edition. I circulated this information in 1987, and in 1988 produced the first two editions of International Art Post. There are 16 editions of these in print to date, and considerably more of my own, limited editions, for which I still utilize the Canon Laser copier. (Full colour printing is still too costly to use for all my own editions).
There are many aspects of artistamps that engage my attention. I think the first thing that grabs me about them, is that they parody of an official currency/medium of exchange. People still do double-takes when looking at an envelope with artistamps on them. Because they look so REAL, the question always comes up, “are they real/legal?” , “Can I mail a letter with these?” I like this aspect, because it startles people, and makes them question what IS real. Since I have a healthy disrespect for most government agencies, this is very satisfying.
Another side of this aspect is that of putting ones own subject priorities on a stamp, claiming or assuming power, or the trapping of power, and again, demonstrating that often appearances are deceiving.
Years ago I gave up object making, as it produced too many bulky products that then had to be stored, framed, shipped, etc., all of which took up a lot of room and money. If you put $200 worth of materials and $500 worth of your time into a work, it wasn’t easy to just give it away, and so one felt obliged to take care of there products. I felt there was already too much “stuff” in the world, and I didn’t want to be producing more, especially of things that would tie me down, in terms of mobility, space, and resources. I gave up object making to become the Town Fool of Victoria, creating public events, interactions, and doing mail art.
The beauty of stamp art is that it doesn’t take up a lot of room, doesn’t require exotic equipment and supplies (other than a pin-hole perforator!). One doesn’t have to have a huge studio in which to work. One can experiment with different medium without a big cost factor. One can produce a large body of work, and keep it all in one simple box on the shelf, or in an album. One can produce additional copies of an edition as they are required, rather than having to do a huge run all at once. One can send single sheets, or a whole show around the world without great expense, trade with other stamp makers, and produce limited editions at a relatively moderate cost.
Furthermore, they have a USE. They are not just for matting and framing, but torn up and put on envelopes, they become a colorful and provocative elements on a mail-art piece. One can make a statement with a stamp, in a very limited space. I LOVE THEM!
RJ : Because you are active in mail art for such a long time, you must have received a lot of mail art too. Did you keep it all? How would you describe ‘your archive’
Reply on 28-07-1995
AB : Yes, I kept everything except for chain letters, which I either destroyed, or when I was feeling particularly patient, sent back to sender with a note explaining that I do not consider this form of communication in any way art, or even mail art. I think they are tyrannical and unimaginative, and I have NEVER responded to any of them as requested.
If I had only one word to describe my archive, it would be “humongous,” or perhaps more accurately, “comprehensive.” Being a “paper addict,” and an “image junkie,” I treasured the mail I received from the very beginning. When I left Canada in May of ’73, driving in a Dodge van which I had modified to be my home, I carried with me my mail art archive which consisted of 2 boxes of material. When I took up residence in San Francisco in August of ’73, one of my first purchases was a file cabinet. During my 8 years in San Francisco, the collection grew by leaps and bounds, partly because I was publishing VILE magazine, and everyone in the network then was anxious to have their works documented by having them reproduced in the magazine. I also continued publishing the BANANA RAG during that period, and that also drew numerous mailings from the network.
When I left San Francisco in 1981, I had 40 boxes of archival material shipped to me in Vancouver. While perhaps a third of that was books, at least half of them related to mail-art shows and projects, and a good many were “network ‘zines.” For the most part, I have filed the books, periodicals and catalogues separate from the letters and mailings, to make access to them easier. In the absence of a catalogue of the archive, this isn’t the most satisfactory solution, since any time I wanted to refer to a particular artist, I couldn’t go to just one place in the system to get a complete picture of their activity. I also streamed out postcards, as their own category, and in more recent years, have separated the artistamp sheets from the rest of the materials. The advantage of this system, of course, is that if I want to present a talk about postcards, artistamps, or books and ‘zines, I don’t have to go ploughing through all fifty boxes of material to find what I want. Maybe someday I’ll get around to cataloguing it all, but having recently sold and catalogued 400 pieces to the National Postal Museum of Canada, I don’t think that’ll be any time soon. Cataloguing is a tedious and time consuming activity which I can’t afford to do at this point. That’s all for now, over and out-
RJ : It seems that the Postal Museums are very interested in mail art these last years. What are the plans of the Canadian Postal Museum with your collection?
Reply on 17-8-1995
AB : First I’d like to clarify for your readers, that the NPM has only 400 pieces of mail art from my archive; a very small sampling from my 23-year-accumulation. I think the postal museums have taken an interest in mail-art, as they are loosing their primary position in the world of communication due to phone, FAX and e-mail. While stamp collectors will no doubt continue to treasure the little bits of paper the post offices of the world issue, fewer and fewer people resort to the post office when they wish to communicate. And of course, with telephones, fewer people write letters than they did in times past, so where are they going to turn for new support and interest? Mail-art fills the bill very nicely. It’s interesting, lively, international, visual, playful, creative, and relatively cheap, as art goes… and ANYONE can do it!
The National Postal Museum of Canada has not been very forthcoming about their plans for this collection. The most I know, is that they will use it for educational purposes, and to that end, will probably mount exhibitions from it, and offer workshops in their little gallery within the Museum of Civilization. They have spoken to me about a second mail-art exhibition which would focus on artistamps. The dates mentioned are well in the future, and from my experience in negotiating with them, it will be some time before anything conclusive will come out of these talks. They did suggest that they would like me to be the guest artist when this exhibit does come about, and of course I said I would be most interested. However, I’m not holding my breath about this one… the NPM is part of the large bureaucratic structure of the National Museum, and as such, decisions take a very long time. I will certainly keep you posted on developments.
RJ : Especially the last decade a lot of publications have been written about mail art (mostly by male mail artists). Is it always true what is written down?
Reply on 8-9-1995
AB : That’s a biggie! What is the TRUTH? People have been searching for that one for centuries. I believe to a larger extent, people write what they BELIEVE to be true, but none of us is objective, and we all have our histories, friends, experiences which filter our perceptions. Further, no one individual can tell the “whole story” of mail art, because no one individual has all the contacts – it’s NOT a finite system. An outsider researches the phenomena would never be able to cover the whole picture, because while mail art is not a finite system, it is also a changing one. People are constantly discovering the phenomena and starting exchanges while others quit and go on to other forms of expression. If it were made extinct, by say, the termination of the international mail system, THEN, perhaps, someone could do a complete picture of it, but even then, it is unlike that one researcher could unearth all the persons involved and review all the work that has been exchanged. Nor do I think it important that every work and every practitioner get a mention.
The whole point of mail art has been to be involved in a creative, expressive PROCESS of exchange, between two or more parties. You send out, and you get back. You have an audience that responds. If they don’t respond, you don’t send to them any more. This is the nature od mail art, and it can be represented by describing the types of materials exchanged, and the persons one knows of who make these exchanges. But this isn’t the same as a history of mail art, and I rather doubt we will ever read one that is completely satisfactory to our own perception of the story, because it will not reflect our view of the thing.
For example, in an essay introducing a bibliography of mail art that sounds like the complete history when you read it, unless you happened to be active during the periods described, and your contribution to the process doesn’t get mentioned. This is the situation I found myself in with that essay. I was very active in the 70’s, publishing both the Banana Rag and VILE Magazine. I felt both were focal points in the network, and know that many persons contributed material to VILE in the hopes of being published. I felt that VILE was THE show-place of the network during the period of its publication (74-81), yet I nor VILE got a mention in that essay. What was written was “true,” but incomplete, yet that essay will be quoted as “the story of mail art.”
That essay was published in a mail art show catalogue a couple of years before it appeared in the bibliography. I wrote to the author and asked why I and my contribution to the network were omitted. He didn’t respond to the question at first, and when he eventually did, he really didn’t give any reason. Then he published it, unchanged, in the bibliography. I was outraged. He was well aware of my work, and of VILE, yet he decided not to mention it. I reviewed the bibliography in Umbrella, questioning this omission. However, the book is published, and in circulation. It won’t be changed. It has authority. It is a massive work and very well done. Why did he choose to exclude me from that essay? I don’t know.
In May of ’94, he and I were both at the mail art congress in Quebec city. I asked him again, in person, why he had omitted me from that essay, and why he had refused to alter the piece when I raised the issue. He said he just wrote what came to mind when he was writing, and that he never changes a piece once it is written. So, from his perspective, my work in recording the network during the 70’s was not important. Who can argue with what another considers important? The problem is, that what is written sounds like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, when in fact, there is a considerable amount of opinion being expressed about the truth, in both what is said, and in what is omitted.
I can’t comment on a lot of the other publications on mail art that have come out, as I haven’t had the time to read them all. However, I’m sure similar situations exists, and the contributions of many others, often women, have been overlooked, or disregarded in the great move now afoot, to record the history of mail art.
I think that, generally speaking, each person who writes about mail art attempts to tell “the true story.” As readers, we have to remember that each person must and will tell it from their own perspective; with all their likes and dislikes, opinions, priorities, and experiences between them and the phenomena we’ve come to know as mail art.
RJ:Well, in a way I am looking for this “true story” and am currently doing these mail-interviews where I don’t edit the answers as much as possible. I already sent you some interviews. Any reaction to the last one I sent you?
Reply on 8-9-1995
AB:I am enjoying reading the interviews, and found the current one you sent, arto posto’s to be quite stimulating. I was interested to note her making a distinction between the original mail art network, and the rubber-stamp net being spawned by Rubberstampmadness. I’ve been watching RSM’s development for some time, and note that many of the advertisers are running CONTESTS to get readers to send in artworks, with PRIZES offered for the best work! This is NOT in the mail art tradition, nor is all the “how-to/techniques” articles that are run in RSM. What I see happening there, is the gentrification of mail art, ie. the “taming of the shrew.”
Since RSM is basically a commercial magazine, with enormous amounts of advertising which represents a lot of money changing hands over the purchase of rubber stamps, supplies, papers, etc. all related to THE CRAFT of rubber-stamping, naturally, the results are more predictable. The focus in this rubber-stamp movement – moving into main stream America – is decorative, rather than revolutionary. This focus on craft and technique produces “pretty” art-works, but entirely misses the CONTENT with which mail art rubber stamping began; ie. the usurping of an initially business technology (the rubber stamp) for the expression of radical, anti-established, anti-consumerist sentiment.
I find it amusing and ironic that mail art, which while radical and critical in outlook, was always about inclusive; anyone can do it – everyone has something to say, everyone’s work is to be of equal value, etc. etc. etc. , is now being watered down by this great rubber-stamp connection to mail-stream America via RSM. In place of discussion of political, economical, human rights or artistic philosophies, we now find techniques and how-to articles flooding the pages. Criticism of the status quo has definitely taken the back seat, if it has not been left behind all together.
I was also interested in arto posto’s comments about how she hasn’t time to keep up with all the contacts she gets, let alone deal with all the responses she gets from the internet. That’s why I have avoided the internet – I am already overwhelmed by the amount of mail I get, and I can’t imagine trying to keep up with more. I am definitely NOT a mail-art crusader, nor do I approve of persons setting themselves up as mail-art experts, and doing workshops to teach others techniques, passing out mailing lists, etc. There are already too many people exchanging to be able to keep up with it all, without going out and beating the bushes to get more recruits.
The funny thing is, Vittore Baroni, Guy Bleus and other earlier mail artists (myself included) all started out attempting to contact EVERYONE in the network, then after a few years, realized that the more people one contacted, the heavier the burden of reply became. In the beginning, it was great fun to get lots of new contacts, but there seems to come a turning point, when the load gets too heavy, both in terms of one’s time and $$$, when it is no longer possible to respond to everyone who sends you mail…. that response becomes a burden rather than a joy. Myself, Baroni and Bleus have all written on this point, and it appears that Baroni has pretty much dropped out of networking, and I have curtailed my mailings to fewer people, and very few shows, aside from Artistamp News to which individuals must subscribe, or I can’t possibly afford to continue the contact. Bleus appears to be continuing to attempt to be there for everyone, and I wonder how long he will last at it.
RJ : Should the “earlier mail artists” , as you call them, learn the newcomers what mail art is about, or should they find it out for themselves?
Reply on 26-9-1995
AB : I don’t see it as the role of ‘earlier mail artists” to instruct newcomers to the field. This is a free playing field, and one of the joys of it was the lack of rules – except, of course, rules were made up and issued – in some cases, almost as demands. This network is evolving, as it always has, since Johnson’s first mailings, since the FLUXUS artists first mailings. In those days (1960’s and 70’s), it was perpetrated by artists who celebrated their being outside the “real art world.” …but who were none-the-less, big time players in that world. Those initial players were critical of the status quo on many levels; from the tightly focussed elitism of the Art World, to the “american way of life,” (ie. consumption).
FILE magazine in the early 70’s brought a whole other community of artists into contact with each other, and these were the artists who carried the ball after 1974. These were still persons who perceived themselves as artists, but ones who enjoyed their “outsider” status; artists who didn’t get shows in commercial galleries, or anywhere else, and who celebrated their discontent with very dada sorts of artworks. The network became their showplace, and their disaffected attitudes and criticisms of main-stream America were exchanged via the mail; then, more frequently through the late 70’s and 80’s, were exhibited in mail art shows. The one-to-one exchanges were replaced by growing numbers of mail art exhibits and projects to which one could send one’s work, and get one’s name in a catalogue. Witness the show listings in Global Mail, if there is any question about this.
In the past five years or so, a number of practitioners (Michael Jacobs, John Held, Peter Küstermann, for example) seem to have become crusaders, and with an almost religious zeal, go about giving workshops to “get everyone to join in,” rather than simply continuing to explore and enjoy their existing contacts. Providing information about the network seems OK to me – if people “get it,” and want to participate, fine, one has facilitated that connection. However, these workshops in techniques seem self-serving in that, in the guise of “spreading the word,” the motivation behind them is either to get paid the fee for doing the workshop, or to sell products; rubber stamps, supplies and equipment – which is a long way from the original critical stance of those engaged in mail art.
All that said, I must come back to your question and say I don’t believe there are any valid “shoulds,” in mail art. Mail art is an ever-changing, evolving networking practice, and it is futile to attempt to tell anyone how they “should” do it. For me, it is not as interesting to exchange with persons who focus on how-to/techniques, or concern about producing decorative, saleable greeting cards and the like, as with those whose focus is a critique of the society in which we live. However, if people are getting their creative juices flowing doing these things, then BRAVO. Carry on, do it, enjoy it, send it out and let the network evolve! This is still far superior to spending one’s time in front of the tube, and I applaud it.
Maybe this is a good point to end? Unless you have some more provocative questions…. Go Bananas!
RJ : Yes, I think it is a good moment to end this interview. But even after ending the interview, I will keep asking questions now and then….! Thank you for this interview.
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH AL (BLASTER) ACKERMAN
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH AL ACKERMAN.
Started on 17-6-1996
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 29-7-1996
(Al’s first answer came typed on a paper with a copy of one of Al Ackerman’s famous drawings with the text: “Sigh….My most gifted pupil…. too bad her head is bean shaped” on it).
AA : At the time I started doing mail art I had already tried a lot of other things, with zero-to-little success. As a kid I’d early on become addicted to the old pulp magazines Weird Tales, Trilling Wonder, Planet, Doc Savage, Dime Detective and so forth — and my earliest aspirations had to do with becoming part of this world, which seemed to me to be a nicely hermetic three-ring-circus & pocket universe thing where marvels were still allowed to happen.
I’d developed this pulp-ghetto ideal where, by turning out reams of pulp under various pseudonyms for very low pay, you could live a precarious but romantic existence. That was the idea. But by the time I was actually old enough to begin my hand at it, 1953-54, most of the pulp mags had folded, the whole pulp market collapsed, leaving me and my dream bereft. Along with this I had been having some correspondence with Fredric Brown, the late-great scifi and mystery writer. And one of the things he told me, by way of helpful advice, was, “always try to be lucky enough to work in a despised medium.” I wasn’t quite sure I knew what he meant but I filed it away, at least subconsciously, for future reference.
So — time passed and I drifted into quite a lot of writing for the confession magazines and then did some TV work, had a nightclub & TV act, did some theatre, wrote plays, etc. None of it very satisfactory from my pulp-dream standpoint. Finally, in 1972, I happened to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone, the issue with the Thos. Albright article “Correspondence Art.” I read that and all the names and addresses of these people mailing things, I thought that sounded like it might be right up my alley. I had like this very possitive 100% yes-response. To me, the whole mail art thing seemed like an ideal way to realize my long-cherished pulp dream, that is, to do a lot of fundamentally rapid work and use a lot of different pseudonyms and not make a dime.
So I started right in mailing out these nitwit Gnome Club and Clark Ashton Smith Fellowship Chapter doodads. I got a nice response, people like The Northwest Mounted Valise and Dr. Brute and John Dowd and Image Bank and Irene Dogmatic, and later on Billy Haddock and John M. Bennett, and then Image Bank put me onto Dave “Oz” Zack, etc. And on that basis I got hooked. And now here it is, nearly a quarter of a century later, and I’m still hooked. I also understand what Fred Brown meant when he said “Always try to be lucky enough to work in the despised medium.” I’ve had a very lucky run. In fact, looking back on it all, I have to feel luckier than a moth in a tampon factory.
RJ : It is always good to hear that someone feels he had a ‘lucky run’. At “The Online Blaster – Meanderings of an American Ling Master” the text about you starts as: “A master of pseudonyms and of schizophrenia,….” How far do the pseudonyms influence you?
Reply on 23-8-96
AA : Here again — for me — the use of pseudonyms is something that goes back to my first early fascination with the pulps. In the old days, when a pulp mag used more than one of a writer’s stories at a time, it was common practice to put a different byline on each story — this helped give the reader the illusion he was getting more for his dime. If a writer was at all prolific — and some of those guys, like Kuttner and Woolrich, were singlehandedly writing entire magazines — he very often found himself operating under a half-dozen or more pseudonyms. And somehow this was a convention that held a lot of romantic appeal for my younger self. Probably because of its shady, less-than-honest aspects, the multiple-name dodge became in my mind a sort of cicerone or ideal. Years later when I began doing mail art I carried the idea of using multiple names over into that. The fact that the mail art network had long favored the use of weird and intriguing pseudonyms — Dr. Brute , Anna banana, Rain Rien, Andre “The Scientist” Stitt, Art Tar, etc. — seemed made to order for what I was up to.
I started out mailing under the name of “Blaster Al”– and I was also “Mrs. Blaster” and “Leonie of the Jungle” and Ralph “$50,000 Party” Delgado and the critic Ernst Stroh-Symtra (to get what “Stroh-Symtra” was about, read the name backwards) and Eel Leonard (“The Newark Cannibal” — don’t ask him what he had for supper) and Glans T. Sherman and Jana Peruda and Emergency Room Metcalf. (The last named mail art phantom was also known as “The Bleeder” because he suffered from hemophilia and could bleed to death from the slightest paper cut or prick from a postage stamp) plus quite a few other colorful and bogus handles I’ve mercifully managed to forget.
Along with all of this there were the different club names – Clark Ashton Smith Fellowship Chaper, Scientific Electricity Foundation, various incarnations of Gnome King and/or Kink Club, among others, and, later, when things went really out of hand, the Harry Bates Club scams done in collaboration with Gene Laughter and Lon Spiegelman. It was fun. Eventually the Harry Bates Club doings became so twisted that it would require a whole book (some would say a lengthy court deposition) to detail all that went on, including the postal inspectors being called in to investigate charges of “menace” and the seeming establishement of Pepeland, a top-secret Harry Bates clinic for maimed and crippled pets.
You mention the Ling Master — that name came about because I had promised my pal R. Kern a story for his magazine DUMB FUCKER. That first story was called “Confessions of an American Ling Master.” I did others. Ultimately, Ling and his mystic pillowcase hood with the single eyehole went from being a character in a series of stories to a pseudonymn I adopted as part of a mail art offer (“LING ANSWERS ANY QUESTION FOR $5!”), something I was hoping would generate a little extra income. As it turned out, Ling was one of those creations that become somewhat autonomous, and go on to lead a life of their own, meaning that as time went by, the Ling persona was picked up and adopted by a number of people who started using it for their own agendas. For instance, there was a seriously distubed man in London who went around calling himself “Young Ling” until the police stopped him for questioning and found all sorts of unspeakable floatsam taped to his body. More recently, Steve Sleaze Steele’s Provident Hot Check Productions Ltd. has done a film adaptation of the Ling story “I, the Stallion!” It just goes to show what small nuts the mighty okum runneth down and around all over the place seeking whom it may to deflower.
Of course, I could go on and provide a long song and dance that would freight across some fairly portentious academic-type theoretical blather having to do with the use of multiple names. I could talk about alternative realities and personalities as used for mimetic framing devices to create metafictional constructs ( and vice versa); also the philosophy behind “Plagerism”, “Neoism” , “Carrotism” and “Fletcheritis.” Fortunatly, though, life’s too short. Besides, the truth of the matter isn’t all that hard to glim: in the final analysis using a lot of fake names is a neat thing because it allows you to experience more than one reality, and dick around a lot in the process. I recommend it.
RJ : Sounds like a good advice. You have been doing this mail art now for quite a long time (nearly a quarter of a century as you mentioned it yourself). Probably you have noticed some changes in the mail art network over the years. What changes strike you the most?
Reply on 18-9-1996
AA : Well of course the two most obvious changes that come to mind are 1) the hellish ( and seemingly never-ending) increases in postage, and 2) the sheer growth & proliferation of the mail network itself.
Back in the early ’70s, when I was just starting out, it really was possible to know most of what was going on in the mails, to have at least a fair handle on 80% of the names, the personalities, the shows & scams & projects that were happening. Back then, mail art was very much a world unto itself & not all that populous, either. Plus postage was cheap enough to allow you hit the lists and range pretty widely. It made for an intense — and intensely rapid — situation, in which exchange and dissemination seemed to occur practically in the same breath. Things were very concentrated (hm, I almost wrote “consecrated”.)
Whereas today, it all seems a lot more spread out. More diffuse. More “hobbyist” orientated, perhaps. Or maybe after 20+ years I’m no longer quite so able to react in fresh ways. Joyce said we go through the world meeting Kings & Queens, thieves & baby pigs & incredible glycerin beings on legs that keep trying to dart behind us — meeting all these things but always meeting ourselves. So that may be all that I’m reporting here. I don’t know — as far as today’s teeming mail-edifice goes, it’s perfectly possible that someone super-industrious, like, for instance, my pal Ashley Parker-Owens over at Global Mail can keep up and keep track of the scene, maintain some sort of coherent overview….. I can’t. From my point of view, it’s simply grown too huge. These days there seem to be as many practicing mail artists as Wheaties has flakes. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. Who knows. (I tried asking the 14 Secret Masters of the World about it once, but the best they could tell me was, “Think about the life you would like to lead, and will lead, just as soon as you start selling reefer.”)
Anyway, I still try to enjoy what small corner of it comes my way. Changez les draps, as Decartes says somewhere.
RJ : You mention “the 14 Secret Masters of the World”. Who are they?
(On September 27th I received some copies from Al Ackerman’s book where some texts he wrote explain some details of the things he told about in his answer).
reply on 5-11-1996
(Al’s answer was typed on paper that started with a special cartoon with title: “I often wonder, am I……..mad?” made by Al Ackerman)
AA : I have been thinking about this one all day, and I wonder if I can come anywhere near answering it without sounding like The Bat Staffel.
I think, for our purposes here, it would be best to stick to the immediate accertainable mail-art side of things, which means eschewing the palmier and in some ways more fascinating background of ancient mystic lore and eldritch hoodly-doodly that permeated the 14 Secret Masters like white permeates rice. The surreptitious powder theories of Thomas Dalton. The Egbo Assembly, said to have originated at 13th- century fairs. Various ideas about legominism and critomancy. Borges insisting, quite correctly, that “the secret is sacred but it is always vaguely ridiculous.”The Mordacaii Brotherhood, so weird and drooling. Leviticon and Maat Kheru, the true intonation, the Flying Legion and Charles Williams and Chullunder Ghose and Mrs. Guppy’s famous transit and the eerie Hastraun sect…. Some time I’m going to write a book about the 14 Secret Masters complete with all the esoteric trimmings, but this isn’t it.
To begin with, then, let’s just say that the 14 Secret Masters, in certain ways, was a lot like RayJo’s Buddha University. That is, a handy all-purpose cover-name for a number of mail and mail-related activities, not all of them strictly “real”. In the case of the 14 Secret Masters of the World (to give the thing its full sobriquet; hereafter abbreviated 14SM) the emphasis was on the sort of shadowy secret society that exists somewhere between the dingbat methaphysical realms of the Golden Dawn Society and the more lurid down-cellar activities of Fu-Manchu. The 14SM was meant to seem screwball, but it definitely had its meaningless aspects.
In this respect — and taken purely as a mail-art entity — the 14SM functioned on several levels. Sometimes it simply served to designate my favorite core-circle of mailers… or as a convienient letterhead for whatever correspondence scam happened to be going down at the moment. Sample from ’75: “Dear Richard Nixon — ways of filth stand by you and land smell naz creep figure span down toward how long your finger been exhaustingly pleasing little things in big twin hillocks…. (etc., etc. for three more pages). Signed, 14 Secret Masters of the World.”
At other times, especially as the 14SM action became more elaborate and mazelike, there would be actual meetings. My favorites were the ones held at Dave Zack’s house (“Manderlay”), in Portland, Oregon; this was around ’78-’79, when Istvan Kantor was in town. We did a fair amount of plotting, affecting sinister disguises, etc. Zack, for instance, used to don his Arthur Caws mask. I had the beautiful Edgar Allen Poe Head, big and purple and built entirely out of paper mache. Andre “The Scientist” Stitt would cover himself in garish filth. There would generally be someone dressed in the mystic Ling pillocase hood — lots of colorful and dramatic outfits…. Some have said Istvan Kantor (“Monty Cantsin”) was a bit eccentric. He used to come to the meetings dressed as the Oscar Meyer Wiener, and he may have thought he was that character. Talented guy, though.
In those days, Zack had a crazy man named Jerry Sims living in his basement and Jerry used to rush upstairs, burst in on us and jabber things like “I’m very ashamed of my tiny bone structure! I’m very ashamed of my tiny bone structure!”(For some reason he liked to repeat everything twice.) I remember I used to tell him, “Don’t worry, Jerry — your bones are larger than a chicken’s.” At this, he would look relieved, somewhat, and return back downstairs. Point being: this sort of umplanned manic interruption was as much a part of what the 14SM was about as anything else that might have been going on at those meetings. maybe more so.
The — for me — nice thing about the 14SM was that when I started writing the Ling Stories, in the 80’s, I found I had this whole readymade background to draw on, this meticulously built-up pocket universe I could dip into for purposes of verisimilitude. Very handy. Still, what I remember most fondly are the scams and mailings and meetings of the 70’s , when things were at their peak, it was all…. I wouldn’t say overwrought, but it was definitely stimulating, and there were times when, as the saying goes, we stimulated each other practically to the point of nervous breakdown.
I guess that’s all I’m at liberty to reveal about the 14SM.
RJ : Well, the things you write down now reveal already a part of the 14SM. What ever happened to Dave Zack?
answer on 5-1-1997
AA : Dave Zack, now, that glittering guy. There are times when I think he was the most wayward-tragic-doomed figure I ever met, and other times when I think of him I can’t stop grinning. (Hm, something not quite right about that last sentence, but hopefully you get my drift.)
“It doesn’t make it if my postman doesn’t get it,” Zack would mutter, shuffling toward the mailbox, his arms overflowing with envelopes, each day’s astonishing, and astonishingly arted, output.
“This is this,” and as he moved, things would drop from his beard and shaggy jacket: cookies crumbs, flakes of gold glitter, twigs and old leaves. When it came to grooming he was a sort of latter-day Swamp Thing.
There are mail artists, quite a few, maybe the majority, who manage to practice their art and in the same `breath are able to coexist peacefully and even succesfully with the workaday world: they pay their bills and hold down jobs and have families, and never go to jail, and this and that. Not so Zack. Zack was a law unto himself. He was what the scifi people mean when they use the term “mad genius”, and what Aesop had in mind when he penned that cautionary fable about the grasshopper who got punished terribly for dicking around on his fiddle when winter was fast approaching. Zack was brilliant, madding and great. Difficult, visionary and cracked. I would go over to his house in the late- 70’s , in Portland, and find him busy as a bee collaging phone and utility bills. As I later explained it in an article, “In those days Zack knew he would never be able to pay all the bills that came to the house, so rather than show any favoritism or partiality he made it a practice to pay none of them, equally. Rather, he would take the various gas and water and electric bills (also the subpoenas and summonses — never any lack of those) and construct these beautiful 10-foot-high assemblages, which he would then title ‘Tall Carefree Clown #27,’ ‘Tall Carefree Clown #28,’ whatever number it happened to be in the sequence, and these he usually sent out and about as part of his mail art. It was a quite amazing continuous year-round project….” Or I’d go over and find him busy petitioning officials at the state capitol, pestering them with his different nutty fundings proposals. Or he’d be playing his cello upsidedown. Or he’d be writing something for the art mags.
At the same time he gave the imprimatur to mail art by being one of the first to write about it at length for a major slick-paper journal (Art in America), he was finding time to come over and live for long stretches in my pantry, and in my dreams I can often still hear him in there, munching, munching. (Like Wimpy in the Popeye strip, Zack’s motto was always, “I would like to invite you for a duck dinner — you bring the duck!”)
In collaboration with Istvan Kantor, he helped dream up the “Monty Cantsin” name and concept, and what later became Neoism. He was certainly one of the all-time world-class letter writers, right up there with Henry Miller and Fanny Burney. At some point I gave him the nickname Dave “Oz” — Oz obviously being the only locale that could comfortably accomodate him, Baum’s magic fantasy kingdom where even the animals can talk. By and large we had a lot of laughs and he seldom failed to make me want to chew the rug and pull my hair out.
In the late -70’s, true to his history of hairbreadth escapes, Zack gave his Portland, Oregon, creditors the slip by moving to Canada. There he operated a sort of quasi-legal rooming house for drunkard Newfies. A few years later, he left Canada one jump ahead of the mounties and used the money I grudgingly loaned him to lam down to Mexico. Ultimately it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference to the Mexican authorities that, in Zack, they had one of the world’s top idea-man and practitioners of mail art. The authorities were more interested in the fact that for two or three years he’d been cashing his dead parents’ Social Security checks, which was the routine he’d worked out to support his mail art activities. They tossed him in the jug (I tend to lie awake thinking of this by the hour because if things had happened a little differently I could have gone the same route myself). In ’91, after three or four years of who-knows-what-hell , they finally let him out, probably afraid he was going to die on the premises — by then, Zack who had a lifetime history of diabetes was gravely ill, with (among other things) gangrene of the foot. Somehow he made his way to San Antonio, Texas, and all praise to Patty Blaster who took him in and did what she could for him until what little health he had left failed him.
Last I heard he was in a country rest home or some damn place, stroked out, largely unresponsive. not long ago — last week, in fact — I had an E-mail from one of his former girl friends, Judith Conaway, who’d done a lot to help him over the years, saying she’d heard that he’d died in the latter part of ’95. Maybe so. On the other hand, such was my old pal’s cantankerousness, his boundless power for aggravation that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pop up again. The way I picture this, I’ll be transporting a heavy piano across a rope bridge in Africa and halfway across the chasm I’ll meet a figure in a gorilla suit who’ll proceed to jump up and down and mess things up outrageously. That’ll be Zack.
RJ : Are you crazy enough to be transporting a heavy piano across a rope bridge in Africa, or do you lead a quite normal life nowdays?
answer on 18-3-1997
AA : I don’t know if you’d call it “quite normal” but nowdays my life is definitely quieter. Partly , this is due to natural attrition, the slowing-down process that comes with getting older and no longer being able to sit up all night drinking and bullshitting. These days I find that my nightclubbing activities are likely to add up to no more than two or three nights a week. I am no longer such a rumba addict as I once was. I haven’t gone on the wagon but it must be at least four years since I drank enough to fall down in public. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I sunk all my money in a get-rich-quick uranium deal, or even bet on a horse. No more harebrained coast-to-coast bus flights with $ 3,50 in my pocket.
Aside from getting up on stage and performing on the last Tuesday of each month at Rupert Wondolowski’s Shattered Wig Night, downtown, which I love and which pretty well satisfies my hunger for making a spectacle of myself in front of an audience, I feel happy staying out of the spotlight unless there’s a good deal of money being offered. Fortunately, the people who are likely to offer me this kind of money are not, on the whole, the sort of people I feel comfortable or even safe being around, not the sort I’d want to be trapped in an elevator with, as we used to say in the hospital business. So finding myself tempted into strenuous flamboyant displays is seldom a problem. Living a more sensible life, I often think of myself as a little old character who has survived his own bad habits to become rather monkish and retiring, almost flowerlike.
As I say, getting older accounts to some extent for this new-found mellowness. But partly (and maybe largely) it also has to do with finding myself in this very lucky position, where for the first time in my life I’m able to sit down and devote 6-12 hours a day to just writing. Thanks to the fortunate situation I fell into six years ago when I landed here in Baltimore, I now have considerable stress-free time available, something I never had before, and I am able to put in as many hours at the typewriter working on poems and stories as I want to. That’s where you’ll find me at all-hours — hunched far over the keys, smoking and sipping, my ears ringing. At such times the true bright nitwit light of the fanatic will come into my eyes, I’m told. And once the day’s writing gets done, there’s generally enough time and energy left over to persue my mail art activities. At this moment I have a new book out from Shattered Wig Press that I’m definitely happy with in the sense that I was able to go all out on it and not have to stop for anything; I am well along with a new batch of Eel Leonard poems, and this week, in a burst, I finished two other short magazine pieces and am also about to start mailing out my letest “14 Secret Master Reports on Cloning”. This last, which ia a mail thing, will give me a chance to do up some strange envelopes showing off the new postage stamp series that I and my charming mail pal DKA recently collaborated on. (Which seems as good a place as any to give credit where it belongs, and say that if I still devote a part of each day to mail art it’s largely because of terrefic mailers like DKA. Terrific mailers like Rudi Rubberoid with his inimitable handmade envelopes and gnomic, nearly indecipherable handwriting. Terrific mailers like Suzy Crowbar and Sleaze Stele, who has raised head-infestation to an art, and John M. Bennett and Gerald “Flash” Burns and Jack the Raver Saunders. Aces all, whose work keeps on coming and keeping me interested.). Anyway, when it comes to the stuff I was able to churn out this month, my aformentioned writing and mail output, I’m happy to report that it was mostly accomplished without too much undue strain or looniness, as distinguished from ten years ago when my life was so crazy complicated that this sort of output (coupled with the scuffling I was having to do just to stay afloat financially) would have wrecked me, physically and mentally — and often did. To say nothing of what I put my family through. I don’t kid myself that there aren’t things about the old hectic life I miss, but as I come creeping up on the Big Sixty, I have to feel very lucky that I’ve lived to make the adjustements which have allowed me to remain fairly productive and not vagged or institutionalized as yet. So far so good.
RJ : You say “……… that there aren’t things about the old hectic life I miss”. You can guess that I am curious to know which things these are, or are they too obvious to tell about?
next answer on 2-5-1997
AA : I wonder. That is, I’m not sure I can succesfully convey all that I mean about missing — I might as well put “missing” in quotes — certain things from a time in my life that, in retrospect, now seems hectic to the point of being chimeratic, if not actually deranged. I look back on those days and I have to wonder how I survived them. In a general sense, the period from 1972 to 1990 during which I was living the mail art life on a full-time basis was not unlike having a job where every day you’re required to go down in this pit, and for 10-12 hours, sometimes longer, you have to try to control seven maniacs with just a chair. Along with the maniacs, there are flames down in the pit — and rats and snakes, etc. And every 10 hours or so you get to take a lunch break, which consists of preparing a bat over the leaping open blue flames: a bat sandwich. That’s the job. You also have creditors and bill collectors trying to get in at you all the time, and relatives and neighbors who think you maybe ought to be put away. It may seem like I’m being exessively metaphoric here, or morbidly fanciful, but consider: on a typical day when I was at my peak and the mail art “life” was running high — let’s say, for instance, on 5-7-83, in San Antonio, Texas, a Thursday morning, I can remember getting Stephanie, my wonderful daughter, off to school and then setting down in the kitchen to work on six or seven seperate pieces of mail art. (For years, I’ve worked at the kitchen table, partly because I’ve never been able to function in a formal office or studio space, and partly because the kitchen table puts me in closer touch with the cold beers that function for me in lieu of breakfast.) As generally happens on such mornings, I’m having a lot of untoward thoughts, doing a lot of writing in my head, thinking about Pego Von Berndt’s proposal that the name “Mail Art” be changed to “Spanish Art,” thinking about the neighborhood bruja (witch) who’s sworn to get me ( a long & complicated story having to do with her mistaken belief that I stole her blouse) etc. On this particular day, I’m also remembering that I have to go over to the stamp place on San Pedro Avenue and pick up my latest rubber stamp. The stamp says “SURFACE FREE LITERATURE FOR THE BLIND” and I’m wondering how that’s going to work out, whether it’s going to help me realize my dream of significant postal savings or mean more trouble from the inspectors. (Too. there’s also the chance that today’s the day Dave Zack will pick to arrive from Mexico, he’s been threatening all month to pay us a visit) but for the moment I’m in the middle of making these envelopes, when I detect the unwelcome sound of footsteps coming up the wooden staircase and onto the back porch. I know those footsteps. They belong to the landlord, who’s intent on collecting his measly $ 200 – 300 in unpaid rent and always picks the early morning hours to come nosing around, a fanatic, fanatic character. Well, I’ve changed all the locks, so that part’s O.K.; he can’t get in. But I’ve forgotten to pull the curtain, so he can see in, and to prevent him spotting me (this morning, for some reason, I’m wrapped in my wife’s dressing gown) I have to get down on all fours and, with a partially completed envelope to Lon Spiegelman (or Pat Tavenner or R. Kern or John Evans or the Mambo 6-Fingers Club — whomever) clutched in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, crawl rapidly into the bathroom. Where I find Sleaze Steele, our current house guest, kneeling on the tiles and talking to Ed on the Big White Phone. Sleaze has been with us two months now. He has serious nerve and gastric problems, no question about it. He should probably try laying off the wine coolers and cough syrup. In the meantime, having to share the bathroom with him while he’s pouring out his esophogeal wealth and I’m waiting for the landlord to give up and go away, is not exactly my idea of a great morning situation but what you gonna do, Ruud? Through it all, between spasms, Sleaze is rambling feverishly in his mind, saying things like, “The car wash in Spokane failed, and Vi and I set out to see if we could build a life together”, “I have never been at ease knowing there’s a jealous husband in the picture” , “Vi wasn’t much of a talker, so I never really had a chance to find out how much Walter knew, or if he’d hired detectives to follow us, or whether he might be back there somewhere on the road himself grimly dogging our trail in his ancient black Buick”, “I knew the pain the jealous outraged husband in my grandmother’s life had caused my father” , “My brother and I were silent witnesses of it all, the whole neighborhood in on the secret from the beginning when my grandmother grew too passionate about being on top, the unexplained giant rodent, etc.”
By then, it’s nearly 9:30 a.m. and my mail art is just beginning. So to think of doing this willingly — even happily — seems hard to believe, but that’s how it was, back when I was younger and had the energy. I think that’s probably what I mean when I talk about missing certain things.
I mean that I miss the energy I had back then, the energy that allowed me to get through it all and arrive at this quieter, more balanced state where I’m enjoying, as Philip Whalen would say, “Relaxation to write while hearing / Half-misunderstood foreign language in Grant Street.”
RJ : I re-typed your answer today (May 30th 1997), just after coming from the dentist, and because I passed the Postoffice, collected my mail also. Not much mail today so I am able to deal with delayed mail. Mail art is fully integrated in my life, and probably it is the same with you (especially when I hear the details of that specific day in 1983). The question that arrises now might be a stupid one, but who cares. Are you able, nowadays, to pay your rent? Or do postagestamps still get priority?
next answer on 19-6-1997
(Al Ackerman’s answer came in a envelope with a drawing on it stating ‘you are the ENTITY’ – ‘MUY PICANTE’ , where a typical Al’s Adam & Eve are witnessed by a snake in the tree….. In the envelope also a newspaper-article with photo of Al, where Peter Werbe writes — among others — about Al’s forthcoming reading out of his book ‘The Blaster Al Ackerman Omnibus’ at the Detroit’s Trumbull Theatre)
AA : As Ed Higgins might say, Blood Red Sun. And honeycomb in the shape of the body from my sleeping on sofas, its expanse streched in mid-air, nearly weightless, yet already bending a little from its own mattedness. Looking down at this, all this hair and stuff on my comb, made me think of how it would be to restage the Trial of Socrates with just crickets.
Or maybe you were 2 years old and you had a friend, name of Vennie Lice, with a brother got some Lady-Fingers still had the bandage on his right arm from slamming some clam….never mind….besides us sails a mighty armanda of rears, crapping the planet on its upper third….HELP ME OUT HERE, RHONDA!
Ah, I love those Higgins Answers.
Actually, making the rent is always a struggle, always a victory (these days, Ann and I split it on a real hovel) and if I was still spending as much on postage as I was spending back in ’72-’91, it wouldn’t even be close. Nowadays, though, postage only runs me $5-10 per week, a savings of about $60-70. I thought I might go in the hole, last month, when I traveled to Detroit to appear at the Trumball Theater but even though I had a slight psychotic episode on stage (very weird, I suddenly found the spirit of Dwight Eisenhower manifesting itself in my voice and gestures, and ran around trying to light various small fires) the theater management was kind enough to pay me, plus I sold some books, so I wound up doing O.K. on travel expenses and was able to pay my half of this month’s rent, i.e. , $160, when I got back to Baltimore. The old story of “Horrible rent / beautiful art , and vice versa” (I just hope Bierce was right about this.) Hi Vennie.
(Perhaps it’s snowing?)
RJ : Reading or talking in front of a public is quite different from writing letters or texts which are sent in the mail to others. Do you like to ‘perform’ in front of a public, or do you prefer the intimicy of the envelope (when there is a choice…)?
next answer on 28-7-1997
AA : The best answer I can come up with runs like this: if you crossed a horse with a spider you’d have an awfull odd-looking thing but at the same time it would be something that when it bit you you could maybe climb on and ride it to the hospital. That’s sort of how I tend to view (and do) mail art and performance stuff. There’s a lot of overlap. It’s not always easy to keep the two activities separate. For example — a few months ago, I wrote something called “Palookaville” which I sent out as a mail art piece. It’s a rather delecate “mood” piece that begins, “The one-way ticket to Palookaville expressing sexual prejudices in witch hunting has been fortunate in that the prossessed and their investigators usually couldn’t concentrate. But the true success story has been my leaving the marine Corps to investitate the initial charges from a possessed fifteen-year-old girl –” and goes on poignantly in this vein for a page or so, and ends with the words, “Awoke instantly for my mind crossed a rabbit and a fox to produce a thing addicted to bad public relations to the air force.”
Anyway, once I’d mailed it out I had no further plans for it. So, and this is what often happens, I more or less forgot about it. Time passed. Then, several months later when I was in Detroit doing a show and I needed something to read on stage — something brief that would serve as a bridge between two longer pieces — I remembered “Palookaville” and dug it out and read it, and as an extra added gimmick I read it with a half-empty cigarette pack stuffed in my mouth. When you read something and you have a cigarette pack jammed between your teeth it can impart a whole new dimension, can make the piece seem even stranger than it was originally, which, in the case of “Palookaville” , seemed to be what was needed and, sure enough, I had the impression that the thing worked better in performance than it had on the printed page. So that’s one way — using a piece of mail to generate a performance or reading.
The other way is like what I do once a month at the Shattered Wig Nights here in Baltimore. I should probably explain that Shattered Wig is, first of all, a really terrific magazine — The Shattered Wig review — edited by poet and bon vivant Rupert Wondolowski. It’s like one of the very few magazines I take seriously. Fortunately it’s been around for a number of years. And over the years there has grown out of this publishing venture a tradition of Shattered Wig Nights, monthly blow-outs that happen at a club downtown, involving poetry, music, performance and what-have-you. (I say “what-have-you” because some of the acts can get pretty weird and it’s not always easy to tell. I’m thinking here of things like The Montana Joe Project, which involves eroticism with Sesame Street dolls — and T. “Justice” Duggan, whose thing is to dress as a Supreme Court Judge and punish people — anybody who’s foolish enough to get up there with her on stage can have their skin flayed with a whip.) So anyway, while I’m nowhere in the same league as these people, I do get up once a month at these evenings and do readings and sometimes I’ll push it over into the realm of actual live performance and do things like, well one night I had ten people up on stage with me. They were tied — they were roped around me in a circle — with surgical tape. And they’d each been given the task to perform — : “Crush a bag of patato chips under each arm and go, ‘Urg! I’m a party animal!” , “Pretend to knit a straitjacket for Saul Bellow and meanwhile discover turfy things in your hair while squatting and brooding.” So I had these ten different activities that were taking place around me while I proceeded to stand up and read this long poem whose text featured the word “muff” over 150 times. It was quite a spectacle. It took me about 45 minutes to read the “muff” epic and meanwhile the helpers around me were carrying out their various repetative actvities and, towards the end, everybody was becoming frankly exhausted — moaning, falling down, etc.. — so that the stage took on the appearance of The Raft Medusae, that old disaster-at-sea painting where the survivors are writhing in agony on a raft. But the point is, I wrote the “muff” piece especially for this particular Shattered Wig Night. In fact, I was working on it right up until time to go on, practically. It wasn’t till later I xeroxed it for mailing, turned it into a mail art thing, cut it up and pasted it on envelopes and so forth. Made postcards. That’s how it works for me.
Sometimes the performing swings the mail and sometimes the mail swings the performing. I don’t really have a preference — how could I? It’s more like falling down the stairs than any pre-conceived programatic thing and I’m just taking it as it comes. I’m usually surprised and I’m always the last to know — but, I don’t know, Ruud, does that answer what you were asking? I’m not sure I haven’t gone off on a tangent and missed the point entirely. I have the feeling it may be like the old riddle: “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Ed Dorn, the poet, has a nice answer to that one, where he says, “The question is not, which came first / the chicken or the egg / the question is which came first / journalism or tabacco.” Hell if I know.
RJ: If you missed the point entirely or not isn’t interesting at all. Your answer shows clearly how you work, and I am very much interested in that. Just wondered, do the people who see those performances understand anything of the concept of mail art. Do they participate in the network, or is that part unknown to them?
next answer on 8-9-1997
AA : It varies. I’ve done readings, especially here in Baltimore, where at least half the audience either had done mail art themselves or knew what it was. So they were certainly aware of the connections. Although I don’t know how much difference it made in the long run, as far as my performance went, because, I mean, you can get up in front of a crowd that’s primed to bursting with mail art insights and you can still give a bum reading. Again, I’ve done readings — at high schools, say, or in front of straight poetry groups — where nobody had a clue, the ‘term’ mail art was something they’d never run into before, just a cypher.
In such cases, there are two ways you can go about it. You can either throw out some prefatory remarks, try to explain what mail art is and how it ties in to what you’re about to read — or — you let it go and just read. I’ve handled it both ways. I must say that, times when I’ve tried to explain, I didn’t really feel I was making much headway. Trying to briefly explain the concept of mail art to a roomful of people who’ve never even remotely encountered the term before, is about like trying to explain the concept of model railroading to a Martian. Once, I got up and said: “Mail Art is a sphere whose circumference is infinite and whose center is everywhere” — and everybody in the audience just looked at me. Nowdays I mostly eschrew the explenations. It saves a lot of wear and tear. Nowdays, I’m likely to begin very softly, I’ll have my head sort of lolling to one side — and speaking in this very affected, very fruity-sounding voice, I’ll start by saying something like, “Hello there, poetry povers. I’m Blaster Al Ackerman and I’m not wearing any socks but my ankies are painted with Indian ink. Here’s one called ‘Yellow Wallpaper Song’ that’s a favoriteof mine and — I hope — of yours?” Then I’ll jam a cigarette pack between my teeth and yell:
YELLOW WALLPAPER SONG
I’m goin’ down Georgia
I’m goin’ down Georgia
pelow on my mind
I’m goin’back stay
I’m goin’ back this time
today — really goin’
I see my tie, childish
from gin I guess I’m
freezin’ my palm when
them ripplin’ eyeballs
insistent up the wall
from full intent to
wed my penis to some
wealthy invalid. Oh my veins are blue
wherever they make you
wait in line
RJ : Because you have been so long working with this mail art, you must have received tons of materials. Have you kept it all , thrown it away, or to be short: how does your “archive” look like?
next answer on 15-1-1998
AA : You reminded me of how long I’ve been putting off shoveling up the mess in here. Things are getting way out of hand in my “archives”.
Actually , where my methods are concerned. the term “archives” is something of a misnomer — venture to say a joke. Just as a hen mysteriously lacks lips — and a snake a navel — I have always mysteriously lacked the power or ability or whatever it takes to keep an “archive” going. I seem to be incapable of maintaining any sort of systemized filing system. Rather, over the years I’ve learned to deal as best I could with greater or lesser “accumulations”. Mail in boxes, mail on the floor, mail stacked out in the garage, etc.
“Piles” might be not a bad way to describe it, except for certain spurious medical connotations. For years I used to let things pile up, the glut and overflow relieved only by what I was glomming up on the walls or recycling back into the mail network. From time to time I would make desperate gifts to this or that museum — the Krazy Kat Archives at St. Andrews (Scotland) got a lot of the early stuff, and later on the Smithsonian took some of it off my hands.
Once, when the walls of my kitchen, in San Antonio, had reached such a state of overload that the layers of mail were threatening to drag down the plaster, I removed everything, peeling it off laborously into a sort of continuous gigantic scroll and, with John M. Bennett acting as go-between, donated it all to Washington University. This vast and lumpy artefact known as “The Ackerman Kitchen Collection”, which I packed in a large crate for shipping, comprised five years of nonstop mail art accumulation — postcards , letters , collages , paintings , manifestos , you name it. Quite a treasure.
Unfortunately, a multitude of roaches had started nesting behind it on the walls and when the art came down and went into the crate a good many “roach hotels” went along for the ride. I never did find out how the people at Washington University reacted to what must have certainly been a lively uncrating scene.
Bequests to museums and universities, frantic recycling measures — no matter what I tried, I could never keep ahead of the build-up. I wasn’t the only one. Nunzio Mifune, another top mailer, was also having problems with overflow. I visited him once at his home and found him staring glassy-eyed at the piles. I asked him if he had any ideas but all he said was, “You may have heard the one about the after-dinner speaker who knew a good story about a gun and wanted to tell it, but couldn’t think of any graceful way of introducing it into the speech he was making. Desperate at last, he cried, ‘Bang! Was that a gun I heard?’ and went on happily to unleash his gag……”
At this point I realized poor Nunzio had gone clean off his rocker. He had become hebeprhrenic — just another tragic victim of mail-art buil-up. My living situations have always been on the precarious side, with lots of relocations and moonlight flits. Nevertheless, between ’72 and ’89 I managed to haul a dozen or so jumbo boxes of mail along with me wherever I went, including two hellish cross-country moves that left me shaky as a kootch-dancer.
Seventeen years of this. What to do? Finally , in 1990, a year of unpredictable weather and heavy rains, the matter was teken out of my hands when a flash flood in San Antonio, Texas, wiped out most of my collection. I think it would be a bit inaccurate to say that just because I was suddenly relieved of carting around hndreds of punds of mail art the loss came as nothing but a relief. A lot of what I lost was irreplaceble and to this day I still miss it. On the other hand, there are days — especially moving days — when I can’t stop grinning.
Anyway , my decision after the flood of ’90 was to save no more than I could comfortably carry. I’ve found this to be a challenge but by recycling most of what comes in I’ve managed to stay in the clear. As it is I still manage to go on accumulating a hell of a lot of stuff. Even though the clutter and overflow is nothing like it was in the old days, my mail space here at the bookstore is far from tidy. I keep looking around at the piles, which have a way of accumulate glacially, and telling myself that tomorrow, for sure, I’m going to give things a good sorting and cleaning. That’s what I keep telling myself.
Well, we live in hope, and when the time eeeeaaaaGGGGHHH!
Excuse me – something just came out of one of the piles and bit me.
RJ : I hope you are O.K. Blaster , this mail art can be dangerous sometimes. I guess it is time now to end the interview so I won’t be feeding your mail piles anymore. On the other hand, when I publish the interview it might cause some reactions to your mail box……. Anyway , my last question is always: “Did I forget to ask you something?”. But somehow I know I probably did……
Next answer on 14-5-1998
AA : Yes
RJ : I could have known that…… Thanks for the interview Al Ackerman!
Blaster Al Ackerman
c/o Normal’s Books,
425 – E 31st Street,
Baltimore – MD 21218, USA
Ruud Janssen – TAM
P.O. Box 1055
4801 BB Breda
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH ANDREJ TISMA 38
Started on: 15-5-1995
Reply on: 16-6-1995
AT : I made my first mail-art work in 1973 after a visit to one of the pioneers of Yugoslavian mail-art, Bogdanka Poznanovic from Novi Sad. I mailed to her two bus tickets I used going to her and returning home, fixed on a postcard. I wrote beneath them: “My visit to the DT 20 Studio in the formulation of GSP (City Transportation Enterprise)”. I think that in that moment I wasn’t aware of the mail-art movement.
Later on that year, before I left for Prague, Czechoslovakia, to study painting, she launched an international mail-art project under the title “Feedback Letter-Box” and she invited me to send in something. The project was about letter-boxes; she sent out photos of her letter-box to 45 people, expecting them to send in their’s. The project was open one year, and I sent my contribution in summer of 1974 (a photograph of the building and the window where I was receiving mail in my students’ home, and the lady in white coat who was distributing letters). Later, when I returned to Novi Sad for vacation I saw the exhibition which was held in Poznanovic’s DT 20 Studio. Participants were, among others, Joseph Beuys, Ken Friedman, Klaus Groh, Jochen Gerz, Janos Urban, Michele Perfetti, J.H. Kocman, Clemente Padin, Sarenco, Natalia LL, and from Yugoslavia Miroljub Todorovic and Balint Szombathy. I was listed under Czechoslovakia.
During my stay in Prague I continued sending mail-art, but only to few friends in Yugoslavia, because I was long away from home (for the first time in my life), so mail-art functioned in my case as continuation of creative contact with dear fellow artists which was interrupted by my leaving for Prague for several years. It was a natural need to stay in touch with some artists, surmounting the great distance between us. Soon after arriving to Prague I bought a rubber-stamp letter print for children, using it to print some words on envelopes and letters. It was some kind of visual poetry and concept art, sent by mail.
Since I studied painting and painting was my main art expression in that time, I used mail-art just sporadically. I also took part in some international mail-art shows in 1979: “Feedback Letter-Box”, Zagreb (then Yugoslavia), “Numbers”, Allesandria (Italy), “International Mail-Art Fair”, Paris (France). Also in the year 1979 I got in touch with Franci Zagoricnik (from Kranj, former Yugoslavia) and Westeast group, which was based on mail-art communication, publishing the “Westeast” anthologies of visual poetry, using the “Assembling” method of compilation of 300 original works, also making exhibitions. Every anthology had its theme, and I took part in many of them. Through that I got in touch with many mail-art works, but the problem was that Zagoricnik jealously kept the addresses as top secret so I couldn’t communicate with all those people. I could just watch their works and slowly get into the international mail-art spirit.
My real involvement in the network happened in 1983 when I met Dobrica Kamperelic, mail-artist from Belgrade (Yugoslavia). Even though we had correspondence for years, we met for the first time by chance in a Novi Sad bookshop. He gave me immediately a bunch of invitations for mail-art projects in Brazil, USA, Europe, also some personal addresses, and soon after I eagerly plunged into that challenging, unexplored field called mail-art network. Since then Kamperelic and I stayed closest collaborators and friends.
Soon I began receiving catalogs, info-zines from all over the world and the list of my correspondents was growing each day. The same year I launched my own mail-art project “Mail – Art Olympic Games” , which was organized in conjunction with the XIVth Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. In two months I received works by 120 artists from 20 countries, so I began to feel as a real part of the Eternal Network.
RJ : Participating in projects is something else than doing your own project. What did you learn from this first project that you did yourself?
Reply on 1-8-1995 (registered mail)
AT : Yes, it is different. When I began participating in others’ projects, or I did mail-art communication on one-to-one basis it was a feeling of great excitement because you send your artwork to somebody unknown, or for some exhibition, for the unknown visitor. There is also a great expectation of some personal reply, or reaction that your work provokes in some spectator’s mind, or in mind of a particular and much respected person to whom the work was dedicated. Such reply gives the mail-artist a special stimulus and encouragement for further work. And that is the most important aspect of that kind of communication. Of course important is also exchange of information, also of friendship and kindness. Another important characteristic is that you are choosing your correspondents, even if you are sending out mail massively. Substantially it is GIVING.
A different thing is starting your own mail-art project. The best comparison is with fishing: you throw the fishhook, or even a fishnet, and you wait for what is going to happen. If you are lucky, and if your “bait” is good enough you will catch plenty of “fishes.” But in that plenty they will not be all of good quality, and in mail-art there is no throwing back “fishes” into the water. They all must be kept and “eaten.” And that sometimes causes little problems. In other words, doing your own project you can’t choose your correspondents, except if your invitations are strictly personal. But the charm of doing your own project is just the uncertainty and great expectation. The same as in fishing. Substantially it is TAKING.
But on the other hand, organizing of a mail-art project requires a great degree of responsibility, unlike the participation, when you are not obliged about nothing. When you organize a project, an exhibition, first you have to collect and keep the arrived works carefully, notify them, make the address list, find the exhibition space, produce a catalog or any documentation (time and money problem), and send the documentation to all participants. You become not just artist, but also a gallerist, writer, publisher and administrator. But I always did that as a kind of a little sacrifice for the international network, glad that I can give my small contribution to the collaboration, establishing new and creative contacts within it. I see every such international project and his organizer as a knot in the net, which keeps the whole together. In that sense, organizing of a show is also GIVING (REPAY).
Another problem with the one’s own project is that you suddenly begin to receive a huge amount of mail, without a physical possibility to reply to it (a printed catalog after the show is not a real mail-art reply to an artwork). It can also give you a (wrong) impression that you are so important personality in the net because you get ten to fifteen pieces daily from all over the world. That feeling is very pleasant, but when the project is over your mailbox becomes sadly empty. That’s the reason, I suppose, why some people in the network are running new projects one after the other. But it is not real creativity.
My first mail-art project, “Mail-Art Olympic Games” in February 1984, was realized in cooperation with the Novi Sad Television Program “Sunday Afternoon.” Actually the exhibition was first shown on the television (installed in the studio), and after that it was installed in the “Forma” gallery in Novi Sad. That was maybe the first television mail-art show in the history, and it was broadcasted in the whole country, the former Yugoslavia, during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, so people from different countries, participants and visitors to the Olympics could watch it too, and the show has had millions of “visitors.” In the show there were 120 participants from 20 countries after the deadline of only two months. It was a great experience for me. The next year I installed the show in Sarajevo, and that was the first mail-art show ever in that town. After that, in 1986 the show was hosted by Chuck Stake’s CCAG in Calgary, Canada. So my first mail-art project gave me plenty of pleasure and excitement.
RJ : Another large project you did was “Nature gives….”. What was the concept of this project?
Reply on 6-10-1995
AT : When you mentioned the word project it reminded me that in fact every artist’s project is also a kind of his own artwork. So it can be taken also as self expression. Because the artist is one who chooses the theme of his own project, and he usually chooses the words or sentences that effect him/her the most. So the organizing of your own project is not only taking from the Network, but also playing with it, expressing yourself through others. I found somewhere a very good definition of today’s artist, for whom other artists are the media of expression.
I would also like to use this opportunity to mention three of my earlier mail art projects I did in 1979 and 1980 but unlike “Mail-Art Olympic Games” I didn’t get any response to them. The project “My Home” from 1979 consisted of sending to a number of artists a groundplan of my apartment, and a short description of circumstances of my living. It was my try to establish contacts with artists, but not based on art exchange, but on life exchange.
Another project, done in 1980, consisted of colorful postcards with flowers, and on the other side was my rubber stamp imprint saying: “How Are You.” The addresses, which I had chosen at random from the phone-book were printed with a typewriter, and there was no trace of sender. My aim was to surprise those unknown people, to make them reflect about how they are, are they satisfied with their life? They couldn’t reply to me because I didn’t give my name and address.
The third of my earlier projects (1980) was “Collective Infinite Work.” I sent out an empty square and asked from the receiver to draw a line on it, and send it further on. Every artist was asked to draw only one line, until the drawing is completed, in the last one’s opinion. The last one should send the completed work with a list of participants to me. It seems that this work will really be “infinite.”
Now the “Nature Gives….” project which was your question. You are right, it was a large, in fact my largest project, with 375 participants from 30 countries, with 1,000 works sent in, and a full color 200 pages book as a documentation, sent to all participants. This project came after my also huge “Private Life” project (320 participants) which was shown in fourteen Yugoslavian galleries, so I was exhausted and decided not to organize any new mail art project in at least one year. But then I got a phone call from a cosmetics factory in Osijek, Croatia. They asked me to organize a mail art project in connection with nature and beauty and they will sponsor it. Well, I was pleasantly surprised that someone so far away heard about me and my mail art activity, and wants to invest money in it. So, what could I do, I accepted it, with few conditions: that a large full color book will be printed at the end,and that they will mail the invitations. They agreed, so we launched the “Nature Gives….” in 1988, and it lasted one year. My aim was to make an homage to nature and make artists and viewers all over the world to read and watch again and again the word “Nature” and become more aware of it. It occurred that, taken on the average, every day of that year one artist was sending in works.
When I collected the works in autumn 1989 I went to Osijek, showed them to the sponsor and they were excited. We made agreement that I prepare texts for the book, chose works for reproduction, find the printing-house, and they will pay everything. I engaged a professor from London, Pierre Rouve, art historian (he wrote the screen-play for Antonioni’s film “Blow Up”) whom I met in Novi Sad, to write an essay on mail art as foreword. Also I asked a young ecologist from Novi Sad to write on the catastrophic situation in the world, and I myself wrote an introduction about the project.
But as time was passing the situation in the former Yugoslavia was slowly changing. Croatia prepared its secession and soon my sponsor informed me about “financial problems”. They suggested that I wait, but things were going worse and worse. Soon, in 1991, military clashes in Croatia began, so it became clear to me that I will have to realize the book myself (I had promised it to participants), and find another exhibition space.
So I had to begin everything from zero, searching for sponsors here in Serbia. It took me one year till I collected the money for printing the book (twelve firms participated). Finally in summer 1992 we opened the show in Belgrade’s Cultural Center Gallery. It was a great success and media showed a great interest. It was the time soon after the imposing of the international cultural blockade on our country, so an international exhibition was a great event. The show was later traveling to the cities of Novi Sad, Sombor, Zrenjanin, Sremski, Karlovci, Pristina, Nis,…. all over Serbia during the years of the international cultural blockade.
Once I got an information that cosmetics factory in Osijek was bombed and completely destroyed, because it was used for ammunition storage.
That was a little bit sad story about mixing of art and life, mail art and war, ecology and politics. But I should say that in this case art, Nature and friendship had triumphed. Because in that show, among others, many Croat, Bosnian, Slovenian mail artists participated and the book was sent to all of them, even the war was going on in their republics.
RJ : This international cultural blockade is now lifted for some time. How were the international contacts during the blockade, and how are they now?
Reply on 18-11-1995 (registered mail)
AT : Unfortunately we have to talk about the blockade of Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro), although I would rather talk more about mail art, or Network phenomenon, about art in general, about spirituality, but I hope in this interview we will get back to these issues. The international cultural blockade was imposed on us, so it is logical that the theme of embargo on art is “imposed” to this interview, but it was “imposed” also to the whole Network as a real and crucial problem. So it is worth talking about. The blockade has put the entire networking idea on test, and that was maybe the most important event in the Network (besides the Balkan war) in the last few years. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we the Serbian networkers were here to testify about the embargo’s effects and to try to overcome them, with a help of our friends from abroad.
As you might know the international blockade, which included also sports and cultural embargo, was imposed on Serbia on May 31, 1992 (about the righteousness of that I will not discuss now). The United Nations, or their mentors, decided to exclude Serbia and its people from the cultural exchange. For us networkers, who are working for decades on establishing cultural exchange with all parts of the globe, looking for a planetary culture, that was a great shock. We who contributed so much for years and decades to this humane and cosmopolitan idea, were simply put under blockade without exception. The cultural blockade is inhumane, harmful and inadmissible, but on the first place unnatural in today’s globalized world. And that was the reason we raised our voices in protest against cultural embargo. So the postal communication was not the problem, because mail was going almost regularly, as before the embargo, but that feeling of injustice was my, and my friends’ main motive to act. I took embargo as a symbol of VIOLENCE of the world authorities which endangers our nice and positive idea of an open network, and my task was to fight against it, for the universal reasons, not the selfish ones. Because, as I said, the postal communication didn’t stop, but UN’s decision to put one state, one group of people under cultural blockade made me react. So I left almost all other art activities and dedicated my time and energy to fight the MONSTER.
In the moment the embargo was imposed I made a hand-carved rubber stamp with the inscription “EMBARGO ART”, and I used it on everything I sent out to the network. During these three years of embargo I made more than twenty anti-embargo rubber stamps, did anti-embargo performances, published anti-embargo articles all over the world, organized many anti-embargo exhibitions in collaboration with Aleksandar Jovanovic, publisher of the anti-embargo magazine “Cage” (in Vichte, Belgium, in Dallas, Tokyo, also in Belgrade, Novi Sad). All our anti-embargo activity began in Sremski Karlovci, where I organized the Anti-Embargo Net Congress (September 1-3, 1992) where eight of us Serbian networkers signed the “Deblockade of Creativity” declaration which was distributed into the network. We did so many things since then, that one book could be written on it.
Besides me and Javonovic the anti-embargo group consisted of Dobrica Kamperelic, Miroljub Todorovic (Belgrade), Jaroslav Supek, Nenad Bogdanovic (Odzaci), Ratko Radanovic (Srpski Miletic), Jozef Klacik (Novi Sad), and later Vlado Njaradi (Vrbas), Sandor Gogolyak (Odzaci) and Anica Vucetic (Belgrade) have joined us. But maybe the most important was the support by foreign networkers from about twenty countries, who collaborated with “Cage” magazine, published our protests, exhibited our works, visited us here in Serbia, distributed our stuff, supported us morally in letters and publicly in their countries, made anti-embargo works themselves etc. Among them are John Held Jr. (USA), Peter and Angela Netmail (Germany), Jose van den Broucke (Belgium), Shozo Shimamoto (Japan), Hans Ruedi Fricker (Switserland), Ruud Janssen (Holland), Gyorgy Galantai (Hungary), Crackerjack Kid (USA), Ruggero Maggi (Italy), Clemente Padin (Uruguay), Teresinka Pereira (USA), Livia Cases (Italy) and many others. That brother/sisterhood made us stronger and more decided to fight till the end. In one interview John Held stated: “Yugoslavian networker artists are using their position to signal the condition of their life. They are saying in creative ways that it is wrong to separate people culturally, as well as economically. I’m for an art that is used for a higher purpose than to compliment the colors of a living room couch. Yugoslav networker artists are freedom fighters and are serving as examples to other network artists. They are reminding us of art’s higher purpose. (…) Even though it is more expensive now to mail from Yugoslavia, the artists have kept in touch with other network artists. Their spirits have not been defeated, if anything they seem to have gotten stronger. They have done important things with their anti-embargo art actions. I think perhaps this has made their art even more relevant. Certainly it has given them increased respect throughout the world. (…) With their experiences under cultural embargo, and their creative response to it, they have placed themselves at the very center of network attention”.
During all these years of blockade the real problem in communication within the network was our difficult economic situation and foreign anti-Serb propaganda. So back in 1993 the daily monetary inflation was 300% (!), our monthly income was about US$ 3,-, but the postal taxes were on the world level. So you had to decide if you are going to send a letter by airmail to the USA or buy for that money twelve kilos of bread (bread was almost everything we ate in that time). Of course I always gave the priority to sending the letter. Because to stay in touch with the Network, especially with some of the friends, meant more than bread. It gave us moral support which was important in circumstances when there was no heating in the winter, no fuel for cars or city buses so we had to go everywhere by foot, and sometimes we had electricity only for four hours a day. With your networker friend’s letter in your pocket you feel safer and warmer, really.
I mentioned also some misinformation by the foreign media, so during these years I received few insulting letters in which it was written that Serbs are killers, that I can not be trusted because of Serbs’ acts in Croatia, that I am a fascist swine and that my Serbia should be bombed (By the way I had nothing in common with the civil wars which were all fought outside of Serbia, and Serbia as a state was not in war for a single day. But that’s a long story). Also many networkers who were invited to come and visit us, because of misinformation and propaganda were afraid to come, although our country was totally safe and peaceful. That was experienced by only few networkers who have visited us since the war began in the former Yugoslavia, like Bob Kirkman (USA), Livia Cases (Italy), Peter and Angela Netmail (Germany), John Held (USA). As Peter Netmail stated in his “DNC Book 92” after visiting Serbia (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Odzaci): “It is dangerous to rely on mass media reports in our countries only. Personal eyesight was definitely better. (…) Everyday life was grotesquely normal, even full of hectic consumerism in Belgrade (…), Novi Sad and Odzaci. Every single day of his life Peter has seen in his own Germany home cities more soldiers than in Serbia now. (…) Our networker friends take great efforts to stay cosmopolitan and pacifist within very narrow horizons. Their biggest heroic deed seems to happen in their own hearts, attitudes and consciousness.”
In your question you have mentioned that the cultural blockade is now lifted for some time, and you are right, it was suspended in October 1994. But it seems that it is not working in practice, especially in America, Canada…. I was surprised, even shocked when the Chuck Welch’s book “Eternal Network: A mail art Anthology” was not aloud by United States Postal Service to be sent to Serbia. It was in March 1995 when Chuck received his package back with bright red ink imprint “REFUSED”. Chuck has informed me, after asking the State Department, that his package was violating the UN embargo sanctions imposed upon Serbia. So the story begins again, and it never stopped, even though we already celebrated the lifting of the Cultural embargo together with John Held on our 1st Post Cultural Embargo Networker Congress, Novi Sad, October 30, 1994. Since I was very angry on such an act by the US Postal Service, and the same thing happened with Canadian too, I wrote an open letter to Welch (on March 29) asking him to protest to his government, and he did so writing to four of his congressional representatives personally (on April 6), asking them “what right have we to create cultural concentration camps of other countries in the world?”. Since he was not satisfied with their answers he continued his fight to make possible that his book comes freely to my doorstep. In his correspondence he was informed in October 1995 by the State Department’s officer, trough Senator Bob Smith that “last year the United Nations suspended a limited number of sanctions, including those on cultural exchange”, but that “under current US law, however, Americans are not entitled to sanctions relief, and are still prohibited from engaging in transactions with Serb entities without permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control”. So as you see sanctions are still functioning in some countries, and our fight for freedom of art and cultural exchange must continue. But we must fight all together, if we want some results. Now Chuck is fighting hard; he launched a project into the Internet asking people to protest by sending letters, post-cards and anti-embargo art to some governmental institutions’ addresses in Washington. Let us hope for success. We must first FREE the art and then DO art. Our fight for free art is also art, if it is sincere and humane.
RJ : Just before the falling apart of the large Yugoslavia you started with the “Institute of spreading of love”. What was the idea behind this?
Reply on 16-1-1996
AT : Actually I started the Institute when the war in the former Yugoslavia was on its beginning, in November 1991, as the continuation of my previous activities for peace; performances, (spi)rituals, street actions, written statements sent into the Network etc. For example in September 1991, when the war in Croatia was on its peak, I did the public (spi)ritual “Declaration of Peace”, in the Peace Chapel of Sremski Karlovci, a Franciscan church, talking about love between people, then breaking knifes and lighting candles symbolically, distributing rubberstamp imprints of a big red radiating heart to the audience. And already in August that year I launched the “Love Offensive” campaign and rubberstamp, as reaction to hatred, nationalism and destruction all around me in the former Yugoslavia. I used every opportunity to radiate love, in everyday life, in my art, in the radio, TV etc. So the founding of the Institute for the Spreading of Love was the result and continuation of all these activities, and also an art project. Because I realized, as I stated once, that LOVE is the greatest ART, and greatest TREASURE in this world. So, dealing with love was pure art for me. The CROWN of it all.
In January 1992 I began publishing the “Love” magazine (bilingual) and sending it all over the world. As I stated in the introduction of the first number, the aim of the Institute was to collect, to record and to study all positive world trends which include feeling, demonstrating and spreading of love. Intention was also to coordinate and initiate events of such kind all over the world, and to radiate love through rituals. The Institute consisted of three departments: for love for the humans, love for the nature and for arts. I sent out invitations for collaboration, and soon I had very good international response. All received stuff was published in the “Love”magazine and sent out to collaborators for free. The Institute and magazine had public presentations in Novi Sad, Belgrade, on radio and TV, in newspapers and even books. In that time Chuck Welch (USA) wrote: “I see Andrej Tisma’s Institute of Love as a bold statement and challenge, not without risk, in a war torn Yugoslavia”, and Harley (USA) supported me writing: “Your Declaration of Peace performance with its message of love is of vital importance. The constant roar of all the violence and hatred is hard to fight with quiet messages of love and peace – but effort must be made. It is the last refuge of sanity. Please don’t give up and lose your faith – my heart is with you”.
It was obvious that people all over the world, and especially in the war surroundings of the former Yugoslavia, are very fond of love, and my Institute was treated very seriously; I was invited to TV shows (the Institute was even announced in the evening TV news, strongly contrasted to images of bloody corpses from the war-front) to different meetings, manifestations, the magazine was collected by libraries, included in some magazine shows, even got awards, sponsors etc. All those forms of public life of the Institute were fascinating and inspiring for me. My work of art got its real life, it mingled into the everyday life, brought new friends, stirred emotions (one friend told me that he was crying while reading the magazine), did something positive in the awful life of that time, gave hope to many people, gave another image of Yugoslav people abroad. It was my master-piece of art, but also realization of ideals, of the networking principles, of human principles. I entered some new networks and circles of people, nice and spiritual, good willing persons. Giving love resulted in receiving love, and the circle of love was formed.
But when the former Yugoslavia split up into many small countries (in 1992), which was assisted by Europe and USA, the part in which I found myself (Serbia and Montenegro, or the small Yugoslavia) was put under total embargo. All positive things I did were put aside and I had to suffer equally with all my compatriots: women, children, old and sick people under unseen before inhuman circumstances. So I started the fight against the embargo, together with my networker friends (that was the theme of our previous question), and the Institute for the Spreading of Love had to slow down for a while (unfortunately). I have published the last issue of the “Love” magazine in August 1993. But by then I had already organized the Anti-embargo Congress (September 1992), and the first issues of the “Cage” magazine were edited by A. Jovanovi, in which I was very active for three years.
Now the war is over, and the blockade is suspended. Reasons for further publishing of “Cage” don’t exist anymore. So we will see what will be our next activity. I would prefer to come back to the “normal” networking, exchange of views, art stuff, spiritual issues that are mostly interesting for me. Because spiritual development of mankind is the greatest task of our time. It can be achieved through love, compassion, exchange on all levels. So there are many tasks in front of me, and I’ll be glad to work on that new challenge which concerns the whole planet.
RJ : Could you explain what you mean with “spiritual development” without getting too technical?
Reply on 21-2-1996
AT : Thank you for asking me that. Because all my art activities, since mid 70-ies, when I was still a painter, were aimed not towards visual or aesthetic explorations, but toward ethical, ecological and humane messages. Because I think that even thought art can not change the world, it can influence people’s minds, consciousness, spiritual level.
I remember in 1973 to 1976, while studying painting at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts (I am one of the few mail-artists who have a classical art education, and for me it was maybe more difficult to “jump into networking”, leaving behind all I have learned at the Academy) themes of my paintings were, for example, good deeds of people in the city streets, buses, helping old and sick people, feeding animals, helping poor people etc. After that, when back from Prague, I was painting ecological metaphors, dedicated to the power of nature, of growth, pure energy, etc. That is why discovering of the mail art movement and participation in it was for me a great joy, because I could work with many persons world-wide, apply my ideas and test them in communication. Because for me mail art is not just sending beautiful pieces of paper, but working with living people, spiritual exchanges with them, which leads to mutual spiritual development.
If you remember, the themes of my mail art projects were dedicated to some social, political and ecological problems of our civilization: Mail Art Olympic Games (1984), Private Life (1986), AIDS and Paradise (1987), Nature Gives… (1992), FAX HeART (1994). Also my “Love Offensive” campaign, founding of the Institute for the Spreading of Love, publishing of the “Love” magazine, organizing the Anti-Embargo Net Congress and the three years long anti-embargo campaign world-wide. All these activities I consider to be art, my works of art, which is engaged not aesthetically or visually, but mentally and spiritually.
Besides networking I have since 1984 an other parallel activity I call (SPI)RITUALS. It is direct spiritual exchange with the audience during my performances. In short, it is transmission of my inspiration, or positive energy on people, opening their spiritual channels, widening their consciousness, which is still too narrow. So I am doing my best in its widening. In the last six years I did about forty different (spi)rituals, some of them, since 1991, were aimed to stop the war in Iraque, then in former Yugoslavia, and finally against the cultural isolation of my country. I did it by radiation of love onto the universe, trying to influence all confronted sides to find peaceful solutions. Now when the war in former Yugoslavia is over, I will dedicate my energy to spiritual development of people around me, and further on, everywhere in the world. Because I believe that artists will be PRIESTS of the future world. Or more precisely, artist, priest and scientist will again become one person, as in ancient times.
I think that the mail art network is a good model for the future world, because it is based on collaboration, love, exchange, tolerance, cosmopolitism. Also I can say that my (spi)rituals derived from mail art activity. It began with postal exchange world-wide, then it developed into Tourism which was direct mental exchange with people whom I met (I called that kind of art activity “Meet art”, before I heard of Frickers project). After I defined in 1985 mail art network as an “immense collective work of art; pulsating spiritual sculpture that encompasses the world”, I began considering all my meetings with networkers to be works of art – spiritual sculptures. After that I realized that I can also meet ordinary people, and that it will still be a spiritual sculpture. So I began with public performances in which I was “meeting” people, unknown people, trying to exchange my inner world with them. And it was working so well. I found a huge new territory for artistic work I call (spi)rituals. I use them for the “spiritual development of mankind” you were asking me about.
I will not get too technical, I’ll just say that in my (spi)rituals I mostly use talk, in form of lecture or monologue. After, or during that I distribute some printed materials: flyers, post-cards, xeroxes, or I apply stickers, badges, or some other material – in order to break the communication barrier with the audience. Sometimes I put rubberstamp imprints on people’s hands, or other parts of the body, or I draw or write on them. It is all mental game to open their attention for the present, and to make them active and collaborative. Then I give them my spiritual content, I inspire them, with words or by direct transmission of spiritual energy. You can find more about that in my article Art As Telepathy, Meeting And (Spi)ritual published first in the “ND” magazine No. 14 (February 1991), then in Chuck Welch’s “Eternal Network” book (1995). Of course, by doing that I believe I influence not only the present audience, but the more wider territory, using the audience as transmitters of my spiritual energy, by telepathy. That is also one kind of networking, but by using non-material and invisible means.
So, by “spiritual development” I mean that with time people could become better, more compassionate, loving all creatures, less envious, evil, destructive. I mean spiritually more developed people with whom we could realize a new world, a better world to live in all together and in love. I think all of us networkers are striving for that. In some happy moments of networking it seems to me that we are already living in such a world.
RJ : You mentioned before the term Internet, and I know that your views, as stated once to an open letter to Chuck Welch, were quite specific. Some mail artists are now using e-mail for their communication, others just don’t want to use it, and some just see it as a new communication-tool like the FAX is. Are your views about the Internet still the same?
reply on 22-04-1996
AT : In short I would say: in mail art, and especially in Tourism, you are dealing with EMOTIONS, and in Internet with E-MOTIONS! As I consider Tourism to be the greatest artistic achievement in the field of networking, maybe also in the 20th century art, I can’t see anything better than personal contact between artists, or the artist and the audience (in performance). Internet can be just a very good tool for bringing people together, but can not SUBSTITUTE GATHERINGS. Because Internet can not guarantee sincerity, can not transmit expression of love, nor can lead to real love (especially between different sexes, as Tourism can). Also you can’t feel someone’s smell, can’t observe his emotional reactions, and so on and on. As I stated to Chuck Welch, back in 1993, Tourism philosophy is a child of a new world of COMPASSION, and Internet is a child of the sterile world of ILLUSION.
Instead of Internet I suggested another solution for the networking, more advanced than Tourism: The Networkers’ Teleportation System (By definition given in The Aquarian Guide to New Age, 1990, teleportation is ability to transport physical bodies instantaneously to a new location without moving through the intervening space). In that case, if such vehicle will be available to us, meetings will be immediate, without exhausting traveling, and it will make creative communication faster, more direct, amusing, unexpected and richer than Tourism and Internet are. It will enable creative people, compassionate people, loving people and happy people to gather in any moment, to stay together as much as they like, with whom they like. To live in Paradise on Earth.
Of course I am not against e-mail or Internet, because I think they are very useful, as telephone or fax are. Sometimes I think I couldn’t live without telephone. But when I want to meet some dear person, I prefer to meet her/him personally. Also mail artists, I had many phone talks with some of them, but until we met personally I always felt these contacts to be incomplete, because I couldn’t use all of my senses. I felt alienated. On the video screen it could seem less alienated, but in fact it is also only an illusion of contact. Such contacts can only function as additional ones, not the only ones. Of course in the field of artistic communication.
RJ : The problem of course is that teleportation, as you described it, is a fiction, while snail-mail, Internet, e-mail, fax and Tourism are all reality and have existed for several decades (including Internet). Communication is only possible in reality. To be honest I don’t believe that from a technical view, teleportation is possible. In your previous answer you mentioned telepathy, and I wonder, is this reality or fiction?
Reply on 2-7-1996
AT : Well, dear Ruud, if you don’t believe in telepathy, even though it is obvious to majority of people that it is reality, I can’t convince you about that. I just want to remind you that scientific experiments with telepathy have been done for decades in USA and USSR for example, of course for military purposes, and as I read in some scientific magazines, they were very successful. People were sending messages from laboratories where they were totally isolated and under control, to other people who were also isolated thousands of miles away, using only their thoughts. They communicated through some mental energy, some waves which were immediately received on the other side. This ability of living beings (plants can also read our thoughts) is unfortunately neglected in our civilization, which rather relies on communication by language, image or text. For me as an artist it is interesting and challenging to use telepathy in my art, because it gives new possibilities to my expression, and opens a new field of research, which is extremely interesting to me.
Actually I am interested, and working on it, in transmission of emotions, radiating love on people and everything around me, and transmitting my inspiration directly on people without using any classical media for that. I am trying in my (spi)rituals to give people my artistic inspiration directly, to make them feel inspired the same as me. Because in use of any material media the great percent of the initial idea and inspiration is lost. So I am trying, by means of mental resonance with the audience to “tune” their mind to the state I’m in in that moment of enlightenment and try to enlighten them too. I feel I have success in that.
Now concerning teleportation, it is also reality, and experiments proved it. I read one such experiment was done by US Navy in October 1943 in the Philadelphia harbor. They were using Nikola Tesla’s electromagnetic fields of low frequency induced by lasers to make one warrior ship (Eldridge DE-173) invisible. In few seconds, after becoming invisible, the ship appeared in the harbor of Norfolk (Virginia) 350 kilometers far from Philadelphia. After the electromagnetic field was disconnected, in few seconds the ship appeared again at the same place it was before, in the harbor of Philadelphia. I am sure such experiments have been done many times, but they are still kept in secret. I hope this technique will be soon improved and will enable networkers to travel faster through space, doing Tourism. I didn’t say that Networkers’ Teleportation System is possible today, but I was suggesting it as a solution for communication better than Internet. It is not just a fiction.
RJ : I remember seeing a Science Fiction film about the Eldridge, but for me it really is fiction. I studied Physics for six years and have learned to analyze things quite well. For me teleportation is impossible judging the basics of physics. But I guess it wouldn’t be interesting in this interview to see what is possible or not. It also has to do with belief I guess. Maybe readers of this interview could give their own opinion on this issue to both of us.
Well, I guess it is time to end this interview now, or did I forget to ask you something?
Reply on 29-7-1996
(Together with his answer Andrej sent me some more of his rubber stamp prints, and the catalog of his recent exhibition at the Association of Artists of Applied Arts and Designers of Vojvodina in Serbia, Yugoslavia).
AT : So we came to the end of our mail-art interview. I think it was a great pleasure for both of us. Our “conversation” took more than one year, and I’m very glad if you thought it was worth doing it through such a long period. Congratulations to both of us for patience, persistence, good will and energy for exchange of our thoughts, which we had to do besides many more other things we were occupied with.
Of course we could discuss more things, for example my rubber stamp activity which is going on for more than 20 years, and I exhibited stamps this year in the Stamp Art Gallery in San Francisco (250 imprints), and these days in Novi Sad (100 imprints). But maybe you know too much about stamps, since you are one of the greatest collectors of them in the world. Also we could talk about my writing on art, since I am a professional art critic, also about my activities in the field of photography, video-art, about my poetry and prose which I publish for 16 years under the pen-name Andrej Zivor (I have ten books published, two in USA and one in France)…. but it would take much more space and time. If you feel I told you enough about things you were interested in, I’ll be glad to finish this great interview, and I’m eager to see the book ready, in my hands and in the hands of my networking friends. SO LONG and THANKS!
RJ : Also thanks to you Andrej, for this interview. Maybe some other interviewer will ask the things that aren’t covered by this interview. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.
21000 Novi Sad
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CAROL STETSER
THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH CAROL STETSER
Started on 12-11-1995
Reply on 11-12-1995
CS : In 1976 I founded Padma Press (see enclosed catalog) and proceeded to publish in the next 3 years, three offset books of my photographs. In July 1978 Judith Hoffberg reviewed one of my books in “Umbrella” and it is in this periodical that I first read about mail art. On March 5, 1979, I participated in my first mail art exhibition “Umbrella”, sponsored by Hoffberg and held at the University of California, Riverside. During 1979 I participated in a dozen mail art shows and double that number in 1980. I primarily sent out postcards of my photographs and tear sheets from my books.
Correspondents sent me xeroxes, the first time I encountered that medium. I packed up my darkroom and only shot instant photographs. Then I began making xerographs, both black-and-white and color in 1981. These early pieces were very photographic in nature. For example, the first series of color xeroxes I ever printed I called “Pollages”; these were collages utilizing polaroid SX-70 prints. In 1982 I joined the ISCA (International Society of Copier Artists) and from that time up to the present I have made xerography my primary medium.
At the time I began participating in the network I lived in a rebuilt tin shack that was once a miner’s cabin in the small town of Oatman in the Mohave desert of Arizona. Retired people and bums made up the population of 200. Wild burros roamed the hills and Main Street. Gunfights entertained the tourists on weekends. My husband, a disabled Vietnam veteran, painted murals and did wood-carving. We lived on his government pension. I also worked at various times as the bookkeeper for the local water company, salesperson at a hardware store, and eventually in the post office (Oatman, where a mail artist delivers the mail). By choice we had no telephone or television. It was 25 miles to a gas station or grocery store. So you can see we lived a very simple life – and a very isolated one. Mail art was perfect for me because it brought me in contact with the rest of the world.
In a small town you spend a lot of time discussing the weather, the potholes in the road, who is sleeping with whom, and who got drunk last night. This gossip bonds a community together and helps pass the time, but it does have its limits. My correspondence had no limits; mail art opened the world to me. It brought me information and stimulation and friendship from all over the globe. It gave me hope and kept me from becoming as crazy as my neighbors.
RJ : I can guess that in such a small town the people also knew about your mail art……. Didn’t your neighbors think that you were crazy? How do the people in your surroundings react to the mail art you receive?
Reply on 5-1-1996
(together with her answer Carol Stetser sent me a 8-page long list with an overview of her activities and publications)
CS : This is an interesting question that I never thought about before. The townspeople knew nothing at all about the mail art network or my participation in it. The postal employees enjoyed the decorated envelopes that passed through the mail, but that was the only feed back I received. My neighbours knew I did photography, but no one ever visited my darkroom.
When I showed people prints of local buildings the comments usually were, “You make that old tin shack look too good.” I gave photographs to the locals who posed for me; they thanked me, but I never saw the pictures hanging in their cabins. When my books were published, the self-portraits, naked from the waist up, generated the most comments, principally from the men. You see, the majority of retired people living in this town were from the working class and lived on social security benefits. Few of the local kids finished highschool. Art meant nothing to them.
We artists, whose lives revolve around art, tend to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t share our passions. The idea of Art for Art’s sake was inconceivable to my neighbors. If you couldn’t sell it to buy food, beer, cigarettes, or shelter, what good was it? Art meant the pictures on calendars. Art is realistic and pretty. Anything else was incomprehensible.
RJ : The publishing and making of books, even handmade unique books, seems to be very important for you. Is it a commercial activity for you or is there more to it?
Reply on 20-1-1996
(Besides her answer Carol also sent some info about Padma Press and some artworks. Also she writes that she has sent some more books by surface mail, so I hope to get that during the continuation of this interview).
CS : Ah, books. “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. isn’t that what Mallarmé wrote? When I “retired” from mail art and found I had time to devote to other pursuits, I sat down and thought about what was really important to me, what I believed in, to what organization I should volunteer my time and energy. In my town there’s a booklet listing all the groups for the retirees to join. Looking through this I realized that books had always been the focus of my life. I volunteered at the library.
When I was a student I often visited museums but never stepped into galleries. Therefore, in the 1970’s when I began making photographs I was not interested in exhibiting my prints in galleries. The audience seemed too limited. Instead, I thought about arranging the material around a theme in the format of a book. The mid-70’s in America was the hey-day of small-press, offset-printed books. I took all my money and put it into printing 3 books of my photographs. At the time I was naive enough to believe that publishing artists books was a commercial venture and would generate jobs and income for me. I’d been much better off to have purchased land and a house which is what my “hippy” brother did at the time. The books did receive good reviews, but I never made enough money to break even. You could say that my publishing was supposed to be a commercial activity but didn’t turn out to be. I still have stacks of cartons of books stashed in my closet.
But I did it and now I don’t have to do it again. When I reached the age of 40 I didn’t have the usual middle-age regrets about never having risked following a dream. It’s actually pretty amazing to realize I conducted the business with printers and binderies in New York City through the mail and over a pay phone on a rural Arizona main street. I don’t have that kind of naive optimism anymore, it’s something I’m glad I did in my twenties.
Eventually I realized my audience was a very limited one: other artists, a few university libraries and archives, who understood what artists books and visual poetry are all about. Then I could make very small runs or limited editions of xerographic books and at least recoup my expenses. But I continue to think about everything as it relates to a book. I haven’t done any audio work, performance art, or any more gallery exhibitions. My communication is always one-to-one through a book: personal, visual, and tactile.
Besides the 3 offset photography books I also made xerographic bookworks exploring photographic themes. Positive Negatives (1984) are collages using contact cheets. Persistence of Memory (1985) manipulates old family photos to explore the relationship between memory and photography. Fashion is another theme that interests me, women as portrayed photographically by the media. I edited two compilations on the theme of fashion and style in 1986 and 1990, put together a humerous assortment of accessories for mail artists in Letter Fashion in 1987, and made the color xerox bookwork of collages called Vogue Patterns which got me in trouble with Condé Nast and led to the mail art contest to rename the bookwork. I’ve also printed 5 travel journals and 3 visual poetry bookworks since 1988.
RJ : I can guess that living in a small town also means one wants to travel to other parts of the world. Since you wrote journals about your travels they must have been quite interesting. Am I right?
Reply on 10-2-1996
CS : Traveling has always been important to me. I met two husbands while traveling! In 1968 I met my first husband in the airport in Paris. We made 3 other trips to Europe including our honeymoon to Turkey and Iran. Then in 1973 I met Jim, my present husband, in a campground in Nevada. We spent 8 months on the road in America photographing Indian ruins in the Southwest. After we settled in Oatman we camped in the mountains every summer.
In 1988 when I was 40 we sold our cabin, our truck, and most of our possesions and spent a year in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. That’s when I first made visual travel journals to send to my family and mail art friends. We’ve made 6 trips to the South Pacific in the past decade. I love it there – it’s such a change from the desert. I like sharing my experiences and my correspondents seem to enjoy reading about our journeys.
RJ : Have you also traveled with the purpose to meet mail artists/correspondents? Any interesting stories about that?
Reply on 2-3-1996
CS : I haven’t met many mail artists. Julia and Gyorgy Galantai (artpool, Hungary) spent some time at the University in Phoenix where I met them one afternoon for lunch. Opal Nations visited me in Oatman, Peter Küstermann and Angela stopped in Sedona during their Congress travels. And once I met Richard Meade and Minoy at Michael Hyatt’s house in Los Angeles.
I have mixed feelings about mail art tourism. I’m a very shy person and find these social gatherings difficult. Also, personal encounters can dim the participants’ enthusiasm for correspondence. I prefer mail art in the mail.
RJ : That is probably one of the interesting aspects of mail art. It doesn’t matter where you are, but you are the center of your own network, and you decide yourself when you send out responses to the others in the network. You are the center and yet, it is completely solistic and anonymous. Does this make any sense to you?
Reply on 1-4-1996
(Besides her answer Carol also sent some color-xeroxes of her work and a statement on the “Politics” of Photocopier Artist’s Books, she wrote in February 1992).
CS : I think the notion of each mail artist being the center of her own network is very important. It’s the reason I believe it’s impossible to write a history of mail art. I “retired” from mail art in 1992 partly because I felt the personal nature of communication that first attracted me to the network was being lost. Xeroxed mailing lists of participants passed for exhibition catalogs. Books and articles outlined a “his story” of the network and profiled mail art stars. Workshops “taught” people how to participate in mail art. The network is too messy, too individualistic, to complex to fit into a neat restrictive outline. I think these interviews that you are conducting are an appropriate method of conveying something of the organic nature of the Eternal Network – which is why I’m participating in retirement!
There are as many stories about mail art as there are participants. We don’t need critics, judges, or historians. We need openness and freedom. The pathways of communication are infinite.
RJ : Well, I’m flattered with this kind of comment about my interview-project. Yes, every mail artist has his or her own story. And the reason why I started with this interview-project was because I could not find information about these stories. I wonder how it is like to have “retired” in mail art. Was it a sudden decision or was it planned in advance? Did you tell others about this or did you just stop answering the mail?
Reply on 22-4-1996
(The documents Carol metioned in the next answer were enclosed in the envelope, so I could see the whole story of her answer).
CS : I loved participating in the mail art network for many years. I gave my time, energy, and financial resources to mail art. I have nothing but good memories about my participation in the network.
But in 1991 I began to notice a change -in myself, and in the network. In the spring of that year I wrote an article, “Questioning the Historification of Mail Art” that summarized my dismay with the direction I saw the network heading. I questioned the motivation behind the urge among mail artists to become historians. I believed that mail art was being packaged for consumption by the art market. I saw mail art being turned into a commodity. I hated to see mail art touted as one more “ism” in art history. I didn’t want to see it co-opted by the establishment. I hated to once again see women’s participation in the network undermined or ignored by the white males writing their his-stories of the network.
My disillusionment with the direction mail art was heading was one reason I considered retiring from the network. The other reason was personal. I realized that a full mail box often elicited from me a groan rather than a smile. I began to look upon answering my mail as a chore instead of a pleasure. I was suffering from mail burn-out; mail art had ceased to be fun.
I tried cutting back but soon realized, that like all junkies, I would have to go cold turkey. I spent a year mulling over the idea of retirement. Then I read about all the activities planned around 1992 as the year of networker congresses and hit upon the idea of holding a congress through the mail. Since Arizona was not on the major route of artists’ travels I knew it would be difficult for me to physically attend any of these meetings. I also felt it was appropriate to hold my congress in the mail which is where I believed mail art belonged.
I mailed notices to my contacts and asked them to copy and pass around my invitation to a networker Congress through the mail to be held November 10, 1992 on the theme: “One day in the Eternal Network; One day in the life of a Networker.” This event would also celebrate my retirement after 14 years in the network.
Ironically, this project recreated for me the thrill I had first experienced when I began participating in the network. Each letter brought fresh revelations and insights into the life of the sender. I learned more during this project about various individuals than I had known after years of correspondence in the network. I wrote in my documentation of the event that this project demonstrated to me once again that the strength of the mail art network comes from its marvelous diversity. The mundane details of our lives are fascinating, often of greater interest to others than much of the “art” we produce.
I mailed out documentation of the congress in January 1993 and then ceased participating in network activities. When I received notices about mail art exhibitions I forwarded them to other artists. I responded to inquiries from new participants with a postcard stating that I had retired. I continue to correspond with 5-6 mail artists on a regular basis – as friends whom I met in the network. I continue to participate in exhibitions of visual poetry and to send out copies of travel journals to MA friends but these are not mail art activities.
One interesting postscript to my 1992 Congress: I was so interested in the daily accounts of the mundane events in people’s lives that I vowed to continue the project by yearly writing down what I did on November 10. This didn’t work. I missed Nov. 10, 1993. But beginning in December of 1993 I wrote down what I did on the 10th of each month. And by keeping to this regular schedule I’ve been able to maintain a journal for the past 2 years and hope to continue recording the events of the 10th as long as possible. For me this is a legacy of mail art.
I do believe “once a mail artist, always a mail artist.” In the same way that you can’t explain mail art to someone who doesn’t immediately grasp the concept, you can’t ever cease to be a part of the network. It’s in your blood, it’s part of who you are. I’m just a retired practitioner!
RJ : What did you do on the 10th of this month, April 1996?
Reply on 2-6-1996
(Together with her answer Carol sent a copy of her notes made of April 10th 1996).
CS : Today, when I am sitting at my desk responding to your interview question, it is Memorial Day, May 27th, 1996. I don’t remember at all what I did on April 10. Isn’t it amazing how quickly we forget the details of our past. We seem to remember only the highlights of our lives – either the very good or the very bad experiences are stored in our memories.
Each month when I write in my notebook, I try to mention the weather, the major news stories of the day, what I ate (when I travel I am fascinated by what people eat), the mail I received, and my activities for the day. Since my birthday is April 11, I always add the highlights of that day to my April entry.
Let’s see: April 10 was a Wednesday. Here’s the entry for that day (copy enclosed)
RJ : Do you still have all the mail art that you once got in?
Reply on 24-6-1996
CS : I still have all my personal correspondence. In 1987 when we sold our cabin in Oatman and put our belongings in storage before spending a year in the South Pacific I sent boxes of mail art exhibition notices to John Held. But I kept the binders of my personal mail art. Now, the binders sit on my library shelves next to my photo albums. I look at them periodically the same way I look at the photos. They reflect my life at a certain period of time in the same fashion as my snapshots do.
I am a very organized, methodical person. During the year, after I had responded to a piece of mail, I put it in a box in my studio. Then, every January, my first act of the new year was to archive. I put all my photographs and snapshots in an album and arranged them by month. Then I tackled my box of mail art. I sorted the year’s mail by sender making piles of art on the floor of my studio. I put all exhibition announcements and documentation in a seperate box (these eventually went to John Held Jr.). I put catalogs that I liked in my library.
Then I alphabetized the piles of mail art by sender’s last name and mounted everything in 8½ x 11 sheet protectors and put the pages in 3 ring binders housed in slipcases. As it happened, it’s a good thing that I was this fanatical or all my archives would have been destroyed.
A very bizarre incident occured to me in 1983. After Jim and I rebuilt a cabin in Oatman I converted the trailer we had previously occupied into my studio. The town bully (it seems that every town has one) put a stick of dynamite in the planter box at the end of the trailer and blew it up. The incident had nothing to do with me – it was commited in retaliation for testimony Jim had given in court against this man. But he was so stupid he didn’t know he was blowing up my studio instead of Jim’s.
(The answer of Carol was written on a copy of photos taken just after the blast to show how her archive looked because of this).
The blast shattered the windows and hurled metal and wood projectiles the length of the trailer. If I had been inside I would have been seriously injured or possibly killed. Papers and artwork were torn to bits and strewn everywhere. My archives had been on the shelf right below the site of the blast. I found the binders scattered around the room, the rings had popped open, some of the binders had seperated from the slipcases, but the mail art inside remained unharmed! To this day I still find pieces of glass and splinters of wood inside some of the notebooks. To me it was miraculous. Mail art survives dynamite! Art is mightier than the sword!
I learned many things from this event. I had always been terrified of losing everything in a fire (every summer one of the old wooden buildings in town burnt to the ground) And now my studio had been blown up – and I survived – and my artwork survived. I also understood that even if everything I owned had been destroyed it wouldn’t mean the end – my work had a life of its own. You couldn’t take away what I had shared with others. I lost that great fear we have that we have to hold on to all our possessions, that we exist only in terms of our possessions. A great liberation.
The whole incident backfired on the bully. I received tremendous support from the local townspeople. He was totally ostracized (although never brought to justice). Mail artists responded with solicitude. I greatly appreciated the personal and written comments of concern that I received. How’s that for a story of the indestructibility of mail art!
RJ : Yes, quite a story!. Another subject; collages. It is obvious that you like to make collages, and I am happy to get color-copies of some of them. Why are you so fond of this kind of work?
(During the summer vacation Carol spent her time on The Fiji-islands & surroundings.)
Reply on 12-10-1996
CS : I think collage is the perfect medium for American artists living in the late 20th century. In our consumer society we are constantly bombarded with colorful, glossy throw-away material. Daily our mailboxes are stuffed with brochures, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, etc. This is the material that surrounds us in our lives. Therefore it is the perfect material for the artist to use to communicate about our time period.
I just returned from a 2½ month trip to 3 South Pacific nations. You would not be a collage artist if you lived there. The printed matter is simply not available; therefore, collage doesn’t reflect those societies. Craftspeople in Fiji and Western Samon weave mats, make tapa, or carve wood out of the local materials. In the Cook Islands the woman make bright quilts called tivaevae out of the bolts of cloth that are readily available. Paper, on the other hand, is expensive and scarce.
When I lived in Oatman, my neighbors knew I cut up old magazines. They’d give me stacks of periodicals when they had finished with them. The post office where I worked was another rich source of material. In our tiny one-person office there was rarely more than an hour’s worth of work a day. Therefore, we were given the task of filing change-of-address cards for all the newspapers, magazines, and newsletters sent to customers who had moved from the surrounding towns. Every week I went through boxes and boxes of periodicals clipping off address labels and then throwing away the publications. Of course, I managed to cut out the images I wanted before relegating the magazines to the trash bin. The variety of publications printed in this country is astounding. Every conceivable subject has spawned a magazine. I gathered a wealth of material in this job. It was the only time I got paid to work as a collage artist!
Now in Sedona I work at the library. Here also we receive boxes and boxes of donated material. Some of the magazines are sold, some are placed on the “Free” rack, and many are tossed in the trash. Again, a wealth of material is available to me.
I arrange all my cut-outs in expanding-file-folders according to subject. Food, Furniture, Cowboys, Holidays, Houses, War, Snakes, Flowers, Cities, Outer-Space are some of the catagories. I also keep one file for bright colors. In the past, the fashion magazines provided me with the patterns and colors I liked. Now clothes tend to be black or white and I have to depend on Travel or House magazines for the vibrant colors I use in collages influenced by my Polynesian travels.
I do not intend the collages to be the finished product however. They are equivalent to a photographic negative to be printed in a darkroom. I make collages to print on a copy machine. I always keep the characteristics of xerography in mind when arranging a collage. When I work in color I visualize the tones the copier can reproduce. The pasted collage is an intermediate step for me. I keep the “original” collage in binders the same way I file my older negatives. I consider the xerographic print the final image.
(After receiving Carols’s answer I also got more mail with documentation about her travels to all those exotic islands. During her stay in those places she has also mailed me some ‘touristic’ cards which gave an impression of the places she was visiting)
RJ : After seeing how people live in these islands with the sometimes poor economical situations, do you think that mail art is for the ‘rich countries’ only?
answer on : 5-1-1997
CS : You must have the time, energy, and inclination to make mail art. That means money and education. To give away your art, to not ask for financial remuneration, is a luxury only the “rich” can afford. Wealth is relative, but in my experience, mail art is for the “rich”. The concept of mail art is as inconceivable to the poor in America as it is to the poor in the so-called Third World. You are not going to spend your time on mail art if you have no food or shelter.
RJ : The time it takes for my questions to reach you and your answers to reach me is sometimes very long because we both like to travel a lot (thanks for your beautiful travel journal on Western Samoa, I hope you received my report on my trip to San Francisco and California….). So, 6 days before I travel abroad again I would like to send you the next question. If you could travel without problems (like time, money, and other restrictions). Where would you like to go right now?
Answer on 1-4-1997
CS : The Moon.
RJ : Well, since it very difficult to send you mail there, or for you to send a reply to me, maybe it is time to end this interview. After all, we started it at the end of 1995 and it is time that others in the network can read your thoughts as well. Thanks for the interview Carol!
Sedona – AZ 86341
RUUD JANSSEN – TAM
4801 BB Breda
e-mail : email@example.com
End 2014 there was a lovely exhibition at the MoMa library in New York. Yopu can still find the information on: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2014/analognetwork/
It is a very interesting moment. After exploring the Fluxus collections they have, they are now also exploring the Mail-Art resources they already have in their collections. Off course I was honoured they also showed some things they have from me. During the Mail-Interview I always sent them samples of the mail-interviews for their library, and used all kind of envelopes for that. One of the mail-interviews was with Clive Phillpot. He was the former director of the MoMa Library, so that made the connections easy.
Title of the exhibition: Analog Network: Mail Art 1960-1999
Mail art—broadly defined as artists’ postal communication—emerged in the early 1960s from Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, and Conceptual art practices and expanded into a decentralized, global network. This exhibition traces the growth of correspondence networks, shows politically oriented works, documents discourse about the practice, and concludes with mail artists’ adaptation to the Internet.
The exhibition is organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library