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An Art of Flight, an Art of Pursuit: Notes on Mail Art, Fugitiveness, and Bombs

A few months ago, Mara Polgovsky responded to Mauricio Marcin's essay "Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation." The post editorial team liked her response so much that we decided to translate it to make it available in English. Please enjoy, and contribute your own discussion piece.

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Sam 0970 web 1

Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra

CLAS, University of Cambridge My research focuses on twentieth-century Latin American art and visual culture, exploring synchronic developments in heterogeneous local contexts and questioning dated... Read more »
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An Art of Flight, an Art of Pursuit: Notes on Mail Art, Fugitiveness, and Bombs

A few months ago, Mara Polgovsky responded to Mauricio Marcin's essay "Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation." The post editorial team liked her response so much that we decided to translate it to make it available in English. Please enjoy, and contribute your own discussion piece.

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A few months ago, Mara Polgovsky responded to Mauricio Marcin's essay "Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation." The post editorial team liked her response so much that we decided to translate it to make it available in English. Please enjoy, and contribute your own discussion piece.

Mail art in Mexico in the 1970s was the result of an impulse to flight, prompted by a desire to flee from the museum, nationalism, authoritarianism, the market, and the immediacy between the production and reception of the work of art. Its fugitive character also signaled a time of disappearance, not only the disappearance of the centrality of vision in the arts, but also of the notion of a work as a complete and coherent entity. This will to flee, to escape, to flow, is the most commonly evoked characteristic of mail art expressions in Latin America. Along these lines Mauricio Marcin posits that “mail artists attempted to de-objectify creative work in order to extract it from the cycles of consumption and alienation”.1

This process of extraction and escape inevitably ran the risk of pursuing the desire for flight to the point of invisibility, of pushing the search for immateriality to the point of art’s physical dissolution. As we commemorate these works today, however, their material status speaks of other processes that were also underway. That is to say that, in the same way that these conceptual exercises never reached the point of dematerialization, they never became islands of exile from the art world. Mail artists sought contact and, as Marcin mentions, reciprocity.

Kurtycz1
Envelope of a letter bomb sent in 1980 by mail artist Marcos Kurtycz to sculptor Helen Escobedo, then serving as director of Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM). Helen Escobedo Archive, reproduced with permission of Andrea and Miguel Kirsebon and Beatriz Escobedo. 2

It is worth exploring the notion of “fugitiveness” through the dual meaning of the related Latin word fuga, whose second sense is lost to us today, but, as we will see below, appears to be reemerging ominously in the transformation of “fugitive practices” into their negative other. The well-known meaning of fuga refers to the notion of flight, related to the verb fugere, to flee. Its hidden root fugare, however, denotes the opposite action: to pursue something, to cause to scatter, or to encourage flight. If mail art was indeed an art of flight, this was not just owing to its focus on escape—the search for the interstitial and the ungrounded—but also because of its critical and penetrative impulses, which sought to supplant and transform certain artistic traditions. While proposing these ideas, I keep in mind specific examples, as every generalizing impulse would be inevitably challenged by mail art’s nearly “infinite number of forms,” so clearly evoked by Marcin’s 'erratic' reflections.

Toward the end of 1982, the experimental Polish-Mexican artist Marcos Kurtycz announced to Helen Escobedo, then director of Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM), that she would be subject to bomb attacks. This verbal threat was followed by 365 “letter bombs” (one a day for the year), which consisted of a diverse array of communications sent by mail, each reflecting the artist’s inventive imagination and his exploration of a wide range of printing techniques. The first letter, sent on October 31, 1981, reads toward the end: “It is a war. There will be no truce (unless mail rates rise).” This bracketed joke already suggests that rather than being directly harmful, aggressive, or explosive, the bombs were meant to be provocative, placing constant pressure on the institution of the museum, by pursuing Escobedo to endorse conceptualist practices, new forms of artistic experimentation, and innovative forms of relationality between the museum and the public realm. As Escobedo recalls, “Sometimes I didn’t even have time to open them, they kept piling up”.3 But even as a mountain on the director’s desk, Kurtycz’s bombs did not go unnoticed, if only for their arresting envelopes. Escobedo continues: “The tone of the letter bombs was varied: sometimes poetic, sometimes angry, sometimes grotesque, never straightforward.” To give a particularly striking example, one of them juxtaposes Helen’s name with the word "death" in Spanish (muerte), written backwards in capital letters. Escobedo also mentions being unsure of what to do with them, whether to thank the sender, reply, keep them, or throw them away. Exhibiting or storing them in the museum was out of the question, for in those days such objects/communications/relations were simply not thought of as artworks.

Kurtyczimage4
First letter bomb sent to Escobedo in October 1982. It states: “It is a war. There will be no truce (unless mail rates rise).” Helen Escobedo Archive, reproduced with permission of Andrea and Miguel Kirsebon and Beatriz Escobedo.
Letter bomb image5
One of the most menacing bombs, in which Helen’s name is followed by the word "death" in Spanish (muerte), spelled in capital letters and backwards. Helen Escobedo Archive, reproduced with permission of Andrea and Miguel Kirsebon and Beatriz Escobedo.

At that time the MAM and the Mexican art scene in general were experiencing crisis and undergoing an important process of transformation. According to art historian Rita Eder, “New proposals” like mail art “profoundly damaged the idea of Mexican art as conceived by the State’s cultural institutions,” which had “aimed to achieve a representation of national identity by means of established aesthetic values.” 4 Escobedo’s tenure as director (1982–84), however, saw a search for renewal, opening spaces for new languages and promoting a more direct and critical interaction between artist and public. Eder argues that this process took place “in parallel” with Kurtycz’s interventions, through his mailings and periodic incursions into the museum.

Kurtycz image6
Letter bomb sent to Escobedo during the yearlong bombardment of Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art (1982–83). Helen Escobedo Archive, reproduced with permission of Andrea and Miguel Kirsebon and Beatriz Escobedo.

The relationship between Kurtycz and MAM in the 1980s also provides a means of reflecting on the changing times. As I write these lines (January 2014), the MAM has dedicated an entire wall to a display of mail art in the exhibition Obras son Amores (Works are Loves), curated by Marisol Argüelles and Luis Orozco. The wall contains works made between 1970 and 1990, including pieces by Santiago Rebolledo, Diego Mazuera, Gabriel Macotela, Jesús Reyes Cordera, René Freire, Walter Zanini, Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Stelarc, and Kurtycz. The show emphasizes the importance of mail art in the renovation of MAM, in its embrace of new practices such as performance, its increasing interest in breaking down the distance between the gallery and the street, and “its rupture with the nationalism of the first half of the twentieth century.” It should not surprise us, however, that the show has been filled not from the archives of MAM, but instead from private archives belonging to Vicente Rojo Cama, Santiago Rebolledo, Mario Rangel, Ana María García, Armando Cristeto, Mónica Mayer, and many others whose homes and basements house the memory of this unique art of the fugue.

Obras son amores installation photo
Santiago Rebolledo’s Collection of Mail Art (1970s–90s). Displayed at MAM’s exhibition Obras son Amores, November 2013–March 2014. Photo: Mara Polgovsky.

These basements scattered throughout Mexico, containing hundreds, if not thousands, of letters, improvised sketches,and recycled materials turned into art (or bombs) are another way of reflecting upon the two rivers mentioned by Marcin. The river of memory and the river of oblivion that run through each work of mail art are also clashing flows of intimacy and exposure, currents of privacy that nourish and intersect the construction of the public.

These notes, triggered by Marcin’s digitally published "erratic investigation" on mail art, can be concluded with a question that encourages continued discussion: is mail art a phenomenon that has “ceased to exist,” as he proposes, or, following its Heraclitean nature, has it flowed today into digital form?

1.

This essay is a response to Mauricio Marcin’s “Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation.” All references to Marcin come from this text.

2.

I would like to thank Andrea and Miguel Kirsebon, along with Beatriz Escobedo, for granting permission to publish images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 (all untitled), belonging to Helen Escobedo’s archive. All digital copies come from Francisco Reyes Palma’s archive, and were digitalized by Jimena Oliver. Also, thanks to Francisco Reyes Palma for the conservation of "bombs" and for facilitating their publication.

3.

“Conversación con Helen Escobedo”: (http://www.marcoskurtycz.com.mx/testimonios.htm). My translation.

4.

Rita Eder, El arte contemporáneo en el Museo de Arte Moderno de México durante la gestión de Helen Escobedo (1982–1984), México: UNAM, 2010, p. 29. My translation.

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An Art of Flight, an Art of Pursuit: Notes on Mail Art, Fugitiveness, and Bombs

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12 fe y andrea salda%c3%b1a

Very subjective recollections

I'm flummoxed and flabbergasted by the amount of texts appearing here and there on mail art: definitely bewildered by the whys and wherefore offered by some thinkers, mostly quite young people; astounded by some of the interpretations proffered, surely, with good, even best intentions.

Fact is, 'art texts' as we now know them did NOT exist when mail art began to flourish. Fact is, art texts as we now know them hadn't even come into being when mail art declined and petered away into oblivion.

What I'm trying to say is that I can't remember any of us producing mail art self consciously, in search of someone to interpret what we were creating (if in fact, any one of us considered the creativity that went into making-sending-waiting-for-reponse equal to that of producing a painting, an etching, a sculpture).

Unlike most of (today's) contemporary artists, who strive more and more to attract the attention of curators and art writers and the collectors (buyers) who follow their lead, while caring less and less for neighbors, family or friends, the stuff we manu--factured and sent out was almost invariably a one-to-one gesture, a one-to-one dialogue, be it with a friend (beautiful word), be it to make a new friend. I doubt any of us conceived or perceived our shipments as art. Many things sent by mail contained bits and pieces of other dialogues, visual and literary puns, private jokes, elements in a continuum of friendships and complicities that may be hard if not impossible to deciphre 20-30-40 years later by a young thinker whose whole professional upbringing depends on the science fiction reality they live today (as compared to what we lived) and the incredibly complex and laberynthical nature of contemporary art criticism, a plethora of googled quotes by cultural philosophers from the Northern Hemisphere. None of this type of thinking underlies Clemente Padin's 'ovums' or Marcos Kurtycz' bombs or my mail puzzles to be pieced together or Robin Crozier's mail barrages or Klaus Groh's whimsies. Mail art simply did not exist as a legit niche in art thinking…

Unlike most of the artists I knew and met in those years, I happen by chance to be a compulsive saver, storer, keeper… My files are now spread out between the UK (Tate), the US (Stanford), Mexico City (MUAC and in storage) and São Paulo (in studio). While I kept most of what I received, I very much doubt anyone kept what I sent them.

Just a year ago, in a totally retro and absolutely ludic impulse, I decided to take up old fashioned mail art again. My addressee was my friend Enrique Guerrero, who has a really nice little gallery in Mexico City.

http://www.poder360.com/article_detail.php?id_article=7150

Shipping costs and insurance and brokers' fees being so high, I decided to send him 24 collages by snail mail (Filipéndulas: cart as a México). To my surprise and far beyond Enrique's promotional capacities, the show garnered an incredible amount of attention from the non specially media, papers, TV, radio and the feedback from normal people was fantastic… And not surprisingly, no attention whatsoever from professional art writers. And Enrique only sold 3 pieces... Which proves my point (of there be a point at all).

BTW: I DID enjoy Mara Polgovsky's ponderation; so apropiate for her to state "This will to flee, to escape, to flow, is the most commonly evoked characteristic of mail art expressions in Latin America."

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Very subjective recollections

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I have to take issue with Felipe's claim that mail art has disappeared - my impression is that it's still going pretty strong...and it has also appropriated the web into its networking strategies. I do agree with him regarding the attention it is receiving from younger scholars, whereas before the only people writing about it were insiders, this new development is healthy. The fall of the wall and the reconfigured political climate in Latin America obviously have been a bonus in regard to examining the important role it played within those repressive regimes. Much still remains to be written, and from my own perspective the key roles played by artists' periodicals in sustaining this network have hardly been addressed at all...

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I have to take issue with Felipe's claim that mail art has disappeared - my impression is that it's still going pretty strong...and it has also appropriated the web into its networking strategies. I do agree with him regarding the attention it is...

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Sam 0970 web 1

Anachronistic, incomplete and even misguided, as the reflections of the historian may be, they are prompted by the no small task of placing into consideration the layering below the ground upon which we stand and following the uncertain, if not labyrinthine, paths of the roots that sustain our precarious certitudes. The task of the historian, old or young (this mostly depending on his or her spirit) is also to multiply the tonalities of those voices claiming legitimacy to narrate the stories of the past, hopefully opening space to those that have not been heard. Ehrenberg’s ‘subjective recollections’, framed in the first person as they are, have a significant value in this task of multiplication and diversification, so necessary to enrich our as yet superficial knowledge of the history (past and present) of mail art. It is indeed encouraging to notice that this history still excites anger and dispute, for it signals its pressing importance, first, among those whose lives where once marked by the waiting (and thrill) between one mailing and another. Second, among those youngsters who feel an itchy curiosity to understand early experiences of networked communication, and how they have influenced today’s practices. But, of course, what could these youngsters know? The haven’t made history and most likely they will never even enter history, as this seems to lie outside of their horizon of interests and possibilities. And no matter what they do, in a state of apathy or activity, they will be dismissed for taking (science) fiction for reality. But if we leave this ‘generational trouble’ aside, the most intriguing aspects of this dispute are far and away the coincidences between the old folk and the cyber-youngsters. I cannot but agree with Ehrenberg when he argues that friendship is a feeling and a condition everywhere present in mail art, and (from what I’ve seen in my research) particularly in the mailing practices of Marcos Kurtycz, whose archive attests to his diligence in making sure that his friends kept laughing, kept being provoked, and kept being taken care of by his letter-bombs. A second point of coincidence is the non-existence of mail art as a recognised ‘art form’ during its most active years, a topic that I develop at some length in my text. This is why Helen Escobedo didn’t quite know what to do with Kurtycz’s bombs when she received them. Keeping them in the museum was out of question. This is also why the mailings that we have today are only the remains of thousands of letters, most of which have been lost, and happily so, for they were never intended to become icons. Collecting mail art has been the task of private, spontaneous gatherers, such as Ehrenberg himself, who have kept the history of this practice buried in their cellars, and who only recently started to dig back into them, partly as a result of nutty youngsters asking nutty questions. So yes, mail art did not exist, as we now imagine it, when it first developed. This is natural for all historical processes (Marx wasn’t Marx, the French Revolution wasn’t the French Revolution, Pancho Villa wasn’t Pancho Villa, etc). Consequently, their ‘posthumous’ reconstruction is always problematic, yet somehow inevitable, as we try to make sense of the present amongst the productive noise of rumours and clashing recollections. Who is it then to decide who’s going to tell the final story? Well, there is no final story. Whatever answer one gives to this question, it is bound to be incomplete, if only for the difficulty of hearing the voices of the dead, not to mention the insurmountable challenge of recuperating all the mail art that already lies in the dustbin of history. To conclude I shall say that, after I Googled the words, I also felt ‘flummoxed and flabbergasted by the amount of texts appearing here and there on mail art’. When I first started my thesis on Kurtycz I imagined it would be a rather solitary endeavour (wondering, for instance, whether anyone will ever care about my topic). My thesis supervisor once even suggested that I had invented an artist that did not actually exist, inviting me to watch the mockumentary ‘Un Tigre de Papel’ by Luis Ospina. Yet more and more people do seem to care, and they even have reasons to care (well beyond any secret plot to become mail art dealers, hang ‘letter-bombs’ in the private hospitality of their homes, or finally imprison mail art in a white cube sarcophagus). Those revisiting the history of mail art seem to be looking for something else: perhaps the rusty material supports of early experiences of international networked activism; perhaps a new understanding of institutional critique; most surely the killing of one’s father. What is the point of being young if one does not care about this triune equation? To solve these puzzles neither Google nor Western philosophers do the trick. Do mail artists really help? Probably so, if only for their relentless commitment to be and always remain renegades.

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Anachronistic, incomplete and even misguided, as the reflections of the historian may be, they are prompted by the no small task of placing into consideration the layering below the ground upon which we stand and following the uncertain, if not...

Show more »