Mail-interview with Chuck Welch
Chuck Welch has been a leading practitioner of mail art since 1978. His first book : “Networking Currents,” (1986) is a pioneering text about mail art subjects and issues. Last year he edited mail art’s first “ezine” “Netshaker On-Line”. Currently, Welch’s Eternal Network Mail Art Anthology is being published by University of Calgary Press. Copies are available.
RJ :Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
CW :My first exposure to mail art and subsequent participation is linked to the historic “Omaha Flows System” held at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska and curated by Fluxus artist Ken Friedman. So my evolvement began in April 1973, but at the time I didn’t know that this major exhibition was the precedent for all mail art shows that followed. My active involvement in mail art occurred in 1978 when I began corresponding under the nom de plume of crackerjack kid. I chose that pseudonym because crackerjack is a well-known American phrase and is also a candied popcorn which contains a surprise in every box. I turned the candy box phrase to suit my own mail art objectives, “to place a surprise in every mailbox.”
In a paragraph I can best describe how I’ve come full circle in my mail art interest. My initial attraction to mail art is difficult to analyze. I must be crazy because I spend about $1,600 each year on postage, enough to buy a new powerMac computer. Who says mail art isn’t expensive? But the mail art form fascinated me not because of the media, but because the message is what bonds us all in a global community. You see, mail art crosses borders between individuals, nations and cultures and makes your mailbox a central grounding space for the merging of art and life. At its best mail art is open, honest, democratic and collaborative. At its worst mail art is selfish, petty, factionalistic and clubish. Historically, mail art has traveled an intermedia course that diminished distances between communication forms as divergent and different as copier machines and telecommunication. As the international post declines will mail art too? I think not! The spirit of mail art is already transforming as the ethereal, eternal network in cyberspace-what I’ve termed in my 1991 telenetlink neologism, “emailart”.
RJ :It seems that at the moment two networks, that have existed beside each other for many years, are gradually being influenced by each other. What can the Internet mean to mail-art and visa-versa?
CW :I developed the idea of Telenetlink in 1991 to explore how the on line internet and mail art communities might interconnect. That process is still evolving primarily through my widespread distribution of contact lists, but if mail art is a house and internet is the street, both forms will link in private homes and public spaces. In North America even the homeless have access to Internet through countless public libraries. The story is quite different in Europe where governments and industries must decentralize to join Internet. This means letting go of control, de regulating authority. Some experts say Europe is four years behind North America in understanding the potential of internet and Japan is almost without a clue. An interesting historical link exists between the internet and mail art and that occurred when pioneering mail artists quit the mailstream in the mid 1970s and created the first on line artists networks. Today, there are thousands more on line artists in North America than there are mail artists. Both communities will become acquainted and merge through Telenetlink. Then we’ll begin to understand what both communities will become to one another.
RJ :For me the internet with the E-mail and speed is still different compared to the mail art network because of the digital form. Digital art is just a fragment of the total art that is produced. Some say that the Internet is just another way of communication besides the traditional mail-,fax-, telex- and phone-networks. What is this potential of the internet in your eyes compared to the other networks I mentioned?
CW:To network or knotwork, that is the question. The message (emailart) and messenger (networker) are the medium, not cyberspace or snail mail. The emailartist is an invisible messenger who breathes the ether of cyberspace. The aesthetic of form in cyberspace is formlessness. Form is fluxed forever: time, speed, and distance are distorted, fragmented, diffused, and shattered. And, as if this induced anxiety isn’t enough, we can expect our notions of a virtual reality will continually change as technology transforms the tools at hand.
When you talk about cyberspace being primarily a digital experience, I would point out that Internet carries sounds, visual images, and motion through software like Macromind Director. Internet then, IS MAIL, IS FAX, IS TELEX, IS SOUND, IS MOTION, IS VISUAL IMAGE all wrapped together through the existing telephonic technology such as fiber optics.
Is this better than what traditional mail art offers? It isn’t a question of what’s better. Perhaps it is a choice, or preference we make based on what we already know. Cyberspace isn’t paradise, but neither is mail art. Both have major pitfalls and both share problems of community, of censorship, of systems regulating, controlling, and centralizing authority. Mail art networkers have grappled with these issues long before cyberspace came along. How can our experiences help shape and form new communication spaces? I think mail artists have much to offer as does cyberspace. Both forms will merge in the streets of networking. This is the inevitable future of mail art, whether mail artists like it or not.
RJ :One of the things you do on the internet is your magazine Netshaker, which I received through the net from you too. Does the concept from a e-zine differ a lot from the zines we know in mail-art? Does the e-zine bring new possiblities (or problems) besides the speed of sending?
CW:If concept includes the objective of building on line communities, encouraging collaboration, debate, presenting projects, etc., then my “Netshaker On Line” is almost identical to the snail mail version of “Netshaker.”. But as a networking tool, “Netshaker On Line has a much greater potential for reaching an enormous international on line audience with speed and with little expense.
In discussing “ezines” I want to clarify that this term is an invention of my own, an abbreviated form of “electronic zine.” Prior to “Netshaker On Line” there were no mail art zines on Internet, only formal “magazines” such as Art Com and Post Modern Culture. Part of the challenge of the Networker Telenetlink has been to lead the way in pointing out possibilities. The definition of mail art “ezines” will evolve as other mail artists experiment with the form. For now, it is important to start the idea of “ezines” moving. Now, I see that Mark Bloch and Guy Bleus have made their zines available over Internet. Vittore Baroni wrote last week that he would be going on line next Fall, so it is possible that his “Arte Postale” will go on line too.
Ezines are primarily text based rather than visual, but this doesn’t mean I can’t replicate visual images as seen in mail art zines. Graphics can be scanned, compressed, and transmitted over internet by GIF, an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format. How can you move a graphic image over the network?
Pictures can be shipped as ASCII text, but the recipient must have software on their own computer to put it in shape. Downloading visual images can be a boring, consuming process if you’ve got a slow modem, say 2,400 bps. rather than 19,000 bps. Plus visual images consume a lot of space on disks and computers. If your personal computer is directly linked to a mainframe, computer speed isn’t an issue. But quite a few artists like me are connected to mainframes with modems, and this is a problem because I can tie up my phone lines for one or two hours downloading a single photograph. These access problems will be solved as fiber optic technology evolves.
I think it would be a mistake to think that the ezine should function in the fashion that hands on mail art zines do. Mail art zines combine sound, vision, and touch with tangible form. Even the smell of fresh off set print has an appealing sensation that is first hand, and not simulated. Remember, I am a papermaker, a craftsperson who likes to work by hand. It’s ludicrous to think of taking a computer monitor to bed like you can a mail art zine.
Mail art zines appeal directly to our senses and there is nothing simulated or compromised in the interaction. So I think it would be foolish to expect the ezine to replicate this experience. But you must remember that mail art zines will not compete with the virtual reality of an electronic zine a magazine that can stimulate the senses with mixed media techniques combining sound, vision, and motion. I can present, for instance, an ezine snapshot to my readers of a group mail art portrait taken at Katz’s Deli in NYC. Readers can click any mail artist in the portrait and hear the actual voice of that person speaking. Or with buttons mixed with text, readers could click a button for a video clip of Carlo Pittore eating salami. The interactive play could be hilariously interactive, even inviting the reader to add on, splice in all kinds of outrageous information. Ezines will be entirely interactive forms available on internet listservs, the World Wide Web or newsgroups.
RJ :Yes, I know it is all technically possible, the things that you mention. But the computer-tools that the mail-artists have at hand normally aren’t up to it. An example is the TAM-Bulletin I tried to upload to the DDS-Unix server. I then found out that it doesn’t accept ‘extended ASCII-signs like :