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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.
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."
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...
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...
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.
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...