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Miriam Kienle

PhD Candidate University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Miriam Kienle is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and is writing a dissertation on the contemporary artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995). Her project—which analyzes Johnson’s role as the initiator of the international “mail art” movement through the lenses of postal history, post-war avant-gardism, and theories of gender and sexuality—has received funding from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH), and the Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA). In addition to her doctoral work, Kienle has authored a number of critical articles and reviews, organized several scholarly symposia, and curated national and international exhibitions, including a recent exhibition Krannert Art Museum entitled, “Return to Sender: Ray Johnson, Robert Warner, and the New York Correspondence School.”

Responses

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As mail art often engages the communication system that enables it, making palpable the conflicts imbedded within its circuitry, Poema Colectivo: Revolución (1981)—particularly the blank space at the center of the mailer—recalls a popular narrative about the origins of the modern post from the mid-19th century along with the system’s ideological underpinnings. In this story, Rowland Hill, who was a prominent British businessman, schoolmaster, and social reformer, envisions the Universal Penny Post after witnessing a woman of humble means turn away a letter sent to her by her brother because she could not afford the shilling it cost to receive it. Insisting on paying the postage despite the woman’s objections, Hill was astounded to learn that his efforts had been in vain because the letter inside was blank, acting as a signal of its sender’s wellbeing rather than a more detailed report. Like a 19th century version of an On Kawara postcard, the message was simply “I GOT UP” and "I AM STILL ALIVE." Hill, however, saw this manipulation of the post as a travesty and a missed opportunity. As one version of the story recounts: “Most people would have remembered this incident as a curious story to tell: but Mr. Hill was a mind which wakened up at once to a sense of the significance of the fact. There must be something wrong in a system which drove a brother and sister to cheating, in order to gratify their desire to hear of one another’s welfare” (Harriet Martineau [1849], quoted in Thomas, Postal Pleasures, 21).

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Example of the Poema Colectivo: Revolución sheet of paper sent to Colectivo III’s network of correspondents.

Having his mind awakened by the blank page that awaited inscription, Hill began to advocate for affordable pre-paid postage on the grounds that it would both encourage popular literacy and be good business for the British Empire. With the institution of the first postage stamps that cost only a penny (introduced first in Great Britain in 1840, with other nations across the globe following shortly thereafter), working class men and women of all races and ethnicities could afford to send letters, and through their participation the government could generate funds to expand its network of postal roads, railways, and post offices. Furthermore, with the “Universal Penny Post” citizens and non-citizens alike could afford to send letters, thereby making them part of a citizenry of the postal system, even if they were not citizens proper. The agency that the post afforded, however, was also understood as restricted by one’s assimilation into a system that could track, monitor, and regulate their communications. The post, therefore, was not only seen as an extension of subjectivity, but also a displacement of it. In the mid-to-late 19th century imagination, communication therefore came to be understood as entirely intermediated and regulated by a vast state apparatus, rather than a direct, limited, and intimate affair. The Universal Penny Post, in other words, marked an epistemological shift from an epistolary epoch to a postal one, in which correspondence could no longer be seen as an intimate communing of sender and receiver. Although the Post Office, as an instrument of Empire, compelled citizens to imagine themselves in the image of the sovereign through the licking and sticking of stamps that they adhered to their communications, the users of the postal system undermined this utopian image of collective sovereignty and cohesion as they found excitement in distance, delay, and misdelivered messages that skewed the trajectory of communication, or revealed how skewed all communicative trajectories already are.

In the Rowland Hill origin story of the modern post, the intermixed and intermediated aspects of postal usage, however, are suppressed in favor of an image of universal unification through an imperial system. Hill, the savior of the “vast multitude of the lower orders,” delivers humanity from the “terrible blank of enforced silence” through the widespread availability of uniform stamps (Martineau 425-6). Further reinforcing the universalist rhetoric of imperial enfranchisement, we later learn that the story of the blank letter had been falsely attributed to Hill and in fact belonged to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which in the minds of mid-19th century British citizenry reinforced a link between the postman and the poet as mouthpieces of “universal sympathies” and conduit of emotion “common to all” (Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Scrutinies, 8-10; Thomas, Postal Pleasures, 22.) Pushing against the universal feeling and common connection that characterize the imperial fiction of the modern post are the diverse and divergent perspectives that constitute what Salman Rushdie called the “empire writing back.” These are the voices of people writing from the various far-flung locals in which they stand, contesting the obliteration of distance and disparity put forth by national, imperial, and commercial entities that claim universal citizenship through communication systems.

Diogenes g. metidieri
Diogenes G. Metidieri. Brazil.

In Poema Colectivo: Revolución, there exists a tension between the utopian sentiment of universality, inclusivity, and open exchange of the modern postal system, and the heterogeneity, ambiguity, and misalignments of postal usage—between these “sheets of paper with blank squares in the center” and this “mosaic on the complex and considerably contradictory theme of revolution.” Participants in the project also appear to have picked up on this conflict. As Magdalena Moskalewicz points out in her post, the artist Zbigniew Jeż, living in the USSR-dependent People’s Republic of Poland in 1981, expressed antagonism toward Collectivo III”s theme of “revolution,” calling it “rubbish” propagated by “stupid dicks,” because in his experience the term had become little more than “a hollow ideological cover for the totalitarian measures pursued by the supposedly democratic-socialist government.” In another contribution, the Brazilian mail artist, Diogenes G. Metidieri chose to leave blank space almost entirely empty, except for a few smudges of red ink from the pen that he used to underline the word “revolution” and sign his name. Living under an authoritarian military dictatorship brought on by a US-sponsored coup d’état, called “The Brazilian Revolution” by its perpetrators, perhaps Metidieri, like his Jeż, was weary of the term and found little value in espousing its significance. Possibly fatigued by the blood shed under the banner of “revolution” or concerned that speaking out might elicit censorship or physical harm, Metidieri chose to leave the page largely blank. Along with these two contributions, we find numerous others that offer (perhaps less reluctantly) various personally and politically inflected definitions of revolution, while still others seem to have nothing at all to do with the proposed theme. The submissions are so varied and contradictory that they “give anything but a unified take on the meaning of revolution,” as Gilbert and Marcin describe in their introduction to the project. Rather than the utopian vision of common sentiment, they offer an image of what Foucault has called “heterotopia” or social spaces that are “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” [1967], 25).

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Kazimir Malevich. Suprematist Composition: White on White(1918)

Within the heterotopian mosaic of Poema Colectivo: Revolución, how then does the “blank square” figure? In contrast, as a metaphor of the communal ideal of the universal post, equal on all sides and open to everyone? As the fiction of a blank slate proffered by revolution? As the poetic subject inscribing and inscribed by universal sentiment? In the call to participation, contributors are asked to take in to account that the “poetic message also plays a significant role in transforming reality.” But how does the form and format of Poema Colectivo: Revolución frame the relation between poetry and transformation? Perhaps the answer exists in the misalignment of its central signifier—in the not quite square dimensions of the blank square—that reveals the skewed nature of communication itself. By calling it a “blank square,” a slantwise correspondence can be drawn between Poema Colectivo: Revolución and the history of modern art, particularly Malevich’s Suprematist compositions Black Square (1915) and White on White (1918), which are tied to both the aesthetic revolution of abstraction and the politics of the Russian Revolution. While Malevich’s Black Square is often framed as an origin point for histories of abstraction and the new Soviet state (like Rowland Hill’s blank letter heralding a new postal age), it is also the means by which the ideal of forward progression and universal communing become unraveled. As Boris Groys has pointed out in a recent article on Malevich entitled “Becoming Revolution,” the Black Square was revolutionary not because it critiqued the status quo or gestured forward to a more perfect society, but because it accepted and embodied the radical forces of destruction. Malevich’s work, Groys states, articulates a “dialectics of imperfection,” which disallows the teleological proposition of perfecting the individual soul through enlightenment or the material world through technology. This dialectic accepts the finitude of our bodies (prone to change, sickness, and death), thereby showing humanity a perspective on the “infinite horizon of human and transhuman material existence.” Just as the imperfect outlines of Malevich’s square destabilize its precise borders, opening up a sense of infinite space and human connection, the imperfect alignment of contributions to Poema Colectivo: Revolución are marked by their material traversal of distance and displacement. Structured by absence, this collective poem posted by hundreds of participants from around the world, speaks to humanity’s inability to achieve universal connection and coherence, and by relinquishing utopia, strives to communicate with others.

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As mail art often engages the communication system that enables it, making palpable the conflicts imbedded within its circuitry, Poema Colectivo: Revolución (1981)—particularly the blank space at the center of the mailer—recalls a popular...

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