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

Assembling a Network

Artful correspondence has a long tradition, but by the early 1960s artists were self-organizing into extended exchange networks. Artist Ray Johnson was a key figure in the movement, developing a coterie dubbed the New York Correspondence School. In the following decades, mail art networks expanded through the circulation of mailing lists, calls for responses to themes, “assemblings” or compilations of the results, and the cultivation of subgenres such as artist-made stamps. Newsletters and zines were integral to the process, as works in themselves and as means of documenting and disseminating mail art activity.

Image Bank. Memorandum in Space Atlas (Victoria, B.C.: Ace Space, 1971)
In 1969, several artists founded the Image Bank, an early system for soliciting and distributing images among correspondents. In this work, a postcard addressed to the Bank encourages contributions.

Panmag no. 13 (n.d.)
In 1980, artist Mark Bloch “simply wanted to make contact” with mail artists, so he sent out forms asking for replies. The compiled responses suggest the reach of the analog network.

Gunter Demnig. Flaschenpost Transatlantik. n.d.
A bottle like this one was tossed from a transatlantic ship, bearing a message to mail it to the MoMA Library.

Add and Pass n.d.
This is an example of a self-organizing mail artwork in which a blank book is circulated with no parameters except to “add and pass.”

Rimma and Valerei Gerlovin. Glove. n.d.
The Gerlovins reached out from the Soviet Union with this glove, inscribed “We send you information about our art & our hand to shake your[s] through the mail.”

Signal no. 1 (September–November 1970)
The Signalist movement aspired to a universal visual language. Artists from around the world contributed concrete poetry and related works to the group’s journal.

Shozo Shimamoto. Mail Art Map in AU no. 46 (September 1981)
Editor Shozo Shimamoto incorporated mail art into this newspaper of contemporary Japanese art activities, periodically charting his international correspondents as a “first step to make a complete map about mail artists around the world.”

Brain Cell no. 21 (April 1986)
Editor Ryosuke Cohen collects artists’ rubber stamp impressions and stickers through the mail, gathers and reprints them on a poster-sized sheet, and redistributes the results. With over six hundred issues published since 1985, the publication forms a colorful index of network activity.

Mail Art as Political Protest

In the analog era, mail art served as one of few alternatives to monolithic or state-controlled media, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In the US and Europe, racial, gender, and economic disparities were consistent themes in mail art and zines. Zines’ multi-page, serial format enabled extended focus on topics such as consumerism,
the service economy, new music, and the art establishment.

Genesis P-Orridge (Neil Megson). G.P.O. versus G.P-O: A Chronicle of Mail Art on Trial (Geneva: Ecart, 1976)
NYCS Weekly Breeder 1, no. 1 (1969)
In 1975 the performance artist Genesis P-Orridge was prosecuted by the British General Post Office for mailing postcards similar to the one shown here. The book documents the legal process, during which P-Orridge mobilized the mail art network for support.

Commonpress no. 51 (n.d.)
The mail art journal Commonpress was notable for its shifting editorship. The Budapest alternative space and archive Artpool organized this issue. A 1984 exhibition of the issue’s mail art contents, titled Hungary Can Be Yours, was shut down, but as a publication, the work circulated internationally.

McJob no. 1 (n.d.)
Zines like McJob addressed the downsides of the emerging service economy.

Anticopyright no. 1 (n.d.)
“Stick and destroy” was the motto of this fledgling “distribution service for agitational and generally scurrilous art/flyposters” intended to “attack, subvert and supersede the present order.”

Mailartspace no. 1 (1982)
Examples from this “assembling” or mail art compilation include works by Harry Ertl, Daniel Daligand, and G. E. Marx Vigo (Graciela Gutierréz Marx and Egardo Antonio Vigo).

Vagrich Bakhchanyan. Stalin Test. 1983
Stalin’s portrait is a persistent theme in Bakhchanyan’s work. Here a series of rubber stamps on postcards distort the dictator’s image. In the most extreme, his hair forms a mouthpiece, a metaphor for ideological power.

Clemente Padin. Cards. n.d.
Padin critically conflates symbols of corporate and government power, such as Shell Oil and the Marines.

Collective Farm no. 1 (December 1981)
A “kolkhoz” is a Soviet-era collective farm. For this dossier, Russian artists in Moscow and New York contributed pages on the theme.

Pawel Petatz. Secret Mail Art. n.d.
At first glance, this appears to be a blank sheet of stamps, but a closer look reveals the word “secret” printed in several languages. The work suggests how mail art can be used to “secret” messages past postal censors.

Open and Closed Systems

As mail art flourished in the decades after 1960, some participants attempted to define the practice, while others resisted the drive for conventions. This discourse took the form of statements, interviews, debates, and visual representations of the network.

Jaroław Kosłowski and Andrzej Kostołowski. NET (Cologne: Soft Geometry Publications, 1993)
In the early 1970s, Kosłowski and Kostołowski compiled and circulated a mailing list of “persons invited to be co-creators of NET,” which they defined only as “open and uncommercial . . . NET has no central point and any coordination . . . points of NET are anywhere . . . all points of NET are in contact among themselves. ”

Netzine no. 1 (1989)
The envelope for this “collaborative net-working tool for discovering ethereal open networks” defines networking as a “2-way, 1 to 1 anti-dogmatic activity” that “challenges the status quo as it provides unexpected exposure to ideas not filtered and diluted by mass media saturation.”

Henning Mittendorf. What is Mail Art? in HeMisA Book no. 2B (1995)

Ayah Okwabi and Ruud Janssen. Mail Interview with Ayah Okwabi in Mail Art Interviews (1997)
Consistent with the mail art ethos, Janssen interviewed participants through correspondence and then published and mailed the results.

Abraham. 1996
Mail artists gathered in person to make this collaged journal issue, which states: “Mail art networking is a harbinger of the future tendencies of global cultural interaction. Networking is not about art, but about the structure and aesthetics of communication.”

Mail-Art Statements from Ruud Janssen. 1993–95

Post Arte no. 6 (December 1982)
Real Correspondence no. 6 (May 1994)
Vittore Baroni’s “Before and After” diagrams of
“MA Tactics” posit mail art as an alternative to established art distribution systems, while Günther Ruch’s “Short Uncomplete Chronology” charts a history of mail art.

PhotoStatic no. 35-1 (May 1989)
This zine sought to “collect, compose and present Xerox artwork in (a) way that only xerography makes possible.” In this issue, photocopied texts are blacked out except for key phrases. Here “fading of aura” refers to critic Walter Benjamin’s idea that reproduced artworks lack the “aura” of an original but also have a presence of their own.

Ulises Carrión. Table of Mail Art Works in Mailartspace no. 1 (January 1982)
Carrión attempts to codify mail art in this postcard, outlining format, scope, subject, and a category for “anomalies” of those same categories.

Analog to Digital Networking

Once individuals began to have Internet access in the form of electronic bulletin board systems (BBS), e-mail, and early Web browsers, analog networkers began to actively experiment with and adapt to these new communication tools. After his first encounters with the Internet, longtime mail artist Ruud Janssen speculated that “access to computers will be common, like access to a mail-box currently is. The Internet as a communication method is a reality that will only grow.”

TAM-Bulletin (September 1987)
On a printout of his newly digital bulletin, the editor notes, “Now the whole world can get the info immediately.”

Netshaker 2, no. 2 (September 1993)
A “Networker Telenetlink” is proposed to “merge media and explore diverse forms of expression via Internet” and “enact networker ideals envisioned for the millennium.”

Factsheet 5 no. 56 (June 1995)
The cover story of this issue of the “definitive guide to the zine revolution” asks, “Should Your Zine be on the Internet?”

From the Archive: Mail Art and Networking Culture no. 3 (Spring 1996)
Ray Johnson committed suicide in 1995, at the height of the Internet’s popularization. Editor Neil Degnay found meaning in the timing, observing that “the death of Johnson at a time when Mail Art is being usurped by the all conquering Internet and its ability to transmit aesthetic messages instantly to a vast audience, can be interpreted as ‘a turning point’ in the continual flux of Mail Art.”

Newark Press 3, no. 2 (Winter 1985)
“Having played around with the new Apple Macintosh,” the editor solicited responses to the theme of “art robot.” Responses included a design for a mechanical mail art machine. The bitmapped cover by Ray Johnson appears to have been born digital, but is in fact a work on paper that was scanned, then “printed out on a computer printer, copied on a Xerox, and finally printed on an offset press.”

Art Com 11, no. 10 (November 1991)

Mail-Art Statements from Ruud Janssen. 1986–94
“Mail-Art, Fax-Art, Email-Art, Telephone-Art, Computer-Art. . . . I would call it ‘Communication-Art,’ but I [would] rather call it ‘Life.’”

Géza Perneczky. Pseudo-Computer. 1984
A mailed folder of prints includes phrases such as “computer stigma” and “post infinite,” suggesting ambivalence towards new networking media.

Rudolf Baranik. Postcard. 1989
Baranik imagines a twenty-fourth-century dictionary definition of mail art as “one of the means employed in the pre-telepathic era.”

Endre Tót. I Write You Because You Are There / I Am Here. n.d.
Tót’s simple statement communicates the essence of mail art, independent of medium.