Postal Static: Mailbox Magic & Madness
by John Held Jr.
(Artpapers, March/April 1990)
Duchamp pieces together four postcards with no apparent meaning in 1916 and in so doing heralds in the age of postal existentialism. The Futurists bewilder the postal authorities by mailing postcards of metal. In reaction to the more prevalent "happenings" that are occurring , Ray Johnson stages a "nothing" by gathering together his correspondents in one room and then removes himself to see what, if anything, takes place. And when he is invited to present his New York Correspondance (sic) School of Art outside the United States for the first time at the Western Front in Vancouver, Canada, Johnson tangles with his supporters and proceeds to spread his blood on the white gallery walls, entitling the work, "Blood of a Concrete Poet."
While the sporadic postal activities of Duchamp and the Futurists preceded the more intensive actions of Ray Johnson, they already pointed to the direction mail artists were to take-playful, boastful and willing to stretch the boundaries of a bureaucratic structure. To take their actions to the limit and in so doing explore the boundaries of art. And of living within society.
Because from the very beginning, mail art sought to take art out of the studio and into the world. To take creativity out of the hands of an elite few and make it accessible to the general public. to forgo the precariousness of the object in order that it become available to a wider audience. to concentrate no on what was communicated, but how art was communicated. mail art became an attempt to circumvent the entropical processes in art by keeping it in constant circulation and transformation and thus have it evolve and re-create itself. No dead art in museums, but live art in lively situations.
So in the early and mid-fifties, Ray Johnson began to form about himself a mailing lint of persons linked by coincidence and metaphorical correspondences. Artists and artworld insiders were mixed together with figures from popular culture in actions which predated the emergence of Pop Art. the mixing and the matching always had the touch of poetry. In 1962, Ed Plunkett called it the New York Correspondance School of Art. and that's what is was: a dance controlled by the dance master, Ray Johnson. His admonishments to "add and send to" either a known or unknown third party extended the dance outward.
But others were also discovering the rewarding reach of the postal service. Both Fluxus and Nouveau Realisme found creative ways to manipulate the postal bureaucracy. Yves Klein obtained permission to create and mail out an International Klein Blue Stamp to adorn an exhibition invitation. George Maciunas and Robert Watts designed their own postage stamp as well, and collaborated on a Flux Post Kit with Ken Friedman, Ben Vautier and George Brecht. And it was Fluxus artist Robert Filliou who provided the rallying cry for the emerging potpourri of artists coming together through the post...the Eternal Network.
Canadians seemed especially fond of the emerging mailstream. In addition to Western Front, General idea of Toronto began the publication of FILE "megazine" and adopted Ray Johnson as their patron saint. Image Bank from Vancouver joined in by providing an Image Request List in most issues, which paired mailers with the images they desired. And when General Idea became wary of catering to the motley menagerie of mailers, VILE was begun by Bill Gaglione and Anna Banana to pick up the slack. "the militantly anti-style of such parodistic magazines as FILE and VILE (take-offs on LIFE), with their concentration on the bizarre and repulsive, served as a model for many of the publications that grew up around the New Wave scene later in the 1970s," wrote Thomas Albright in his book, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area: 1945-1980.
But it wasn't really New Wave-it was Punk-or better yet-Industrial. And no one was more tuned in to either Punk or Industrial Culture-or mail art-than Genesis P-Orridge. An early mailer from England, P-Orridge went on to found the bands Throbbing Gristle (1976-1981) and Psychic TV (1981-). But in the early seventies, he was prosecuted for mailing a reproduction of Magritte's 1937 painting, Time Transfixed to which he added a copulating couple. His court case ended in a fine and a lot of publicity for mail art.
Another English mailer of the seventies with a bent for controversy was femail artist Pauline Smith. Her fascination with Adolf Hitler, and her propagation of the fan club which bore his name, found her in constant harassment with the British Postal authorities. but she was accepted by mail artists. It was a safe bet most didn't agree with smith's choice of idolatry, but they allowed her the opportunity to express it.
One of the reasons for the latitude afforded participants in mail art is that the emphasis is placed on maintaining an open channel of communication between artists. "What" was said was never as important as long as it was "allowed" to be said. It became sort of an unwritten code to permit network participants their conceits. And there is certainly no more conceited (or assured) person in mail art than Guglielmo Achille Cavellini. This wealthy Italian collector and artist has been disseminating his materials of "self-historification" through the mail art network since 1974. He has issued books, stickers, postage stamps, and posters, all in an attempt to insure his self-proclaimed rightful place in art history. In his book Cimeli, he writes, "Generally the gifted artist is recognized and appreciated as such only after his death,. From that moment onward, the interest for his work and his personality becomes general. Researches are made among the papers and photographs of his existence. I don't want this to occur for me and my work. I am myself, therefore, collecting and presenting all that concerns me. These documents, unfortunately incomplete, might have been totally lost or destroyed were it not for this indexing effort on my part."
As he is a wealthy man by virtue of his ownership of a successful family supermarket chain, Cavellini sends materials freely throughout the network. In exchange for these generous and skilled outpourings, always of the highest quality (postage stamps of Cavellini include a portrait of the artist reproduced from a portrait by Andy Warhol), Cavellini is accorded a warm reception. Cavellini Festivals have been staged in Japan, Hungary and Belgium. He was the special guest of honor at Interdada 1980 (Ukiah, California) and Interdada 1984 (San Francisco). In Ukiah, he was placed on a throne and driven through the streets in his own Cavellinimobile, which was festooned with his distinctive red, white and green stickers bearing the legend: Cavellini 1914-2014.
Of course there is always someone to point out that the emperor has no clothes. In the July/August 1980 issue of Fuse magazine, Ken Friedman wrote of his growing contempt for Cavellini. "Cavellini's Self-Historification-as-art is cute-to a degree. It was funny when he first did it. Very funny. It became a dim reminder of itself when he carried it forward, yet there remained a glimmer of its original impact. People could still look forward to his next venture. At that critical moment when the original impact had vanished-but disgust had not yet emerged-one could imagine that the evanescent boredom was a trough between two peaks. The one peak, Cavellini's past; the other, a new and fresh suite of ideas yet to emerge. But no new ideas were about to emerge.
What apparently sent Friedman over the edge was a statement by the artist entitled, "An Urgent Appeal of Utmost Importance." Cavellini wrote that, I urgently appeal to all the peoples of the Earth and implore them to do everything within their power to avoid the outbreak of an absurd and catastrophic nuclear war and thus to foster the preservation of the works of art that I have created: these works constitute a heritage to be passed on to posterity for the benefit of all mankind and of universal history." It was just too much for the socially conscious Friedman when Cavellini came out against nuclear war only to insure the survival of his own works. this was taking self-historification too far!
On the other hand (and in mail art there is always a divergent approach-on this we pride ourselves), there are those artists who wish to remain anonymous either through pseudonyms or other forms of confusion. One of these forms of confusion in Neoism. Rather than try to explain Neoism, which really can't be explained anyway, I'll quote form the October 1989 issue of Photostatic magazine, an excellent networking publication edited by Lloyd Dunn of Iowa city, Iowa. In a letter to Dunn entitled the "Origins of Neoism Illuminated, Al Ackerman writes:
...In answer to you question 'are you the inventor of neoism?' I can only reiterate that in no way, shape, or form can I be credited on this account. I have no idea how this rumor ever got started, except that I happened to be in the same general vicinity (Portland, Oregon) when the deed got done (the late 1970's or thereabouts), and I was in close daily contact with the two principals in the case-David Zack and Istvan Kantor. Otherwise, my conscience and my hands are clean...My custom in those days was to use a lot of different names when I did my mailings. I had about then different pseudonyms or personas that I operated under. I'm sorry I can't reveal any of them here. Mainly my use of multiple names and aliases was a practical rather than a theoretical matter-a question of covering my tracks and throwing enemies off the trail. Zack, who had matriculated at the University of Chicago and was strong on art theory, took this a reversed it. Instead of one person operating under a lot of different names, Zack came up with the concept that one name could be used by a lot of different persons. He proposed, at one of the meetings of the 14 Secret Masters of the World (a deeply secret organization that met in his front room) to bestow this general all-purpose 'name' on Kantor. The name that Zack came up with was 'Monty Cantsin.' The idea being that anybody could become 'Monty Cantsin' and in this way achieve pop stardom. Thus Kantor became 'Monty Cantsin-Open Pop Star.' It was truly a historic moment. A Tuesday if I recall.
Istvan Kantor had come to Portland via Canada from Hungary. In his homeland, he was hailed as "The Hungarian bob Dylan." Having taken the name of Monty Cantsin from Zack, Kantor went on to found Neoism, which is characterized by its outward manifestations (flaming steam irons, apartment festivals, Smile magazines, a searching for the unknown territory of Akademgorod) rather than by definition.
In 1985, Kantor wrote in Immortal Lies:
When you are a neoist people frequently ask you the same old questions, 'What is Neoism?', 'Who is a Neoist?', etc. and even if you have a lot of brilliant definitions after a while it becomes boring to reply to the same questions. That's when you should use RANDOM METHOD. All you need is a dictionary. And when someone asks you 'What is Neoism?' then you simply open your dictionary at random and choose a word at random (your eyes should be closed and you poke a word with your finger, or with your nose, etc.). the chosen word is your answer.
Kantor established a Neoist base in Montreal for most of the '80s, moving to New York later in the decade where he became the self-proclaimed "Leader of the Lower East Side." Allying himself with the Rivington School, Kantor's greatest New York triumph was getting arrested for splashing six vials of his blood between two paintings by Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art. "I thought they would leave the blood on the wall. But I was too idealistic," he was quoted as saying in a Village Voice article of December 13, 1988, entitled, "The Triumph of Neoism: The Last of the Old-Fashioned Avant Garde Makes Its Stand."
But a lot of folks thought that Kantor was old-fashioned. He had taken an "open" name but made it his own. Splinter groups began to develop.
One of these groups was centered around Stewart Home (or Karen Eliot as he was sometimes called) of London, England. Before he ever heard of Monty Cantsin or Neoism, Home was fronting an "open" band called White Colours and printing a magazine called Smile, which promoted an art movement called Generation Positive, which was very much akin to Neoism. In the second issue of Smile printed in April 1984, Home suggested that all magazines be called Smile. Writing in Smile, Vol. 63, September 1986, Home ruminated:
Incidentally I called Smile that name for a number of reasons, one being a play with/on General Idea's FILE, When I chose the name I was not aware of VILE or BILE. And if I had been more rigorous in thinking I would have named it FILE but it's too late now!
In late April of 1984, Home read about the Neoist movement for the first time and became involved by meeting most of the major players at an Apartment Festival held in London later in the year. By 1986, after an argumentative Neoist Festival in Ponte Nossa, Italy, Home had completely broken with Neoism and "...alienated a lot of the dead wood I needed to get rid of What I think is more interesting...is the Artist Strike for 1990 to 1993, which although it will take place also needs to be extended and developed, something I and others are working on." (Smile, number 8).
The "I and others" is the mail art network and talk of Art Strike 1990-1993 is rife. It's but another example of the magic and madness that runs rampant in the medium. Magic, because it forces artists to examine their role in society in a unique manner. madness, because the only artists likely to listen to the arguments for it are those most in tune with its sentiments and who the art world can least afford to lose. But when you are involved in mail art you walk the edge. The edges of art. and often on the fringes of life itself.
Text is also found at http://www.mailartist.com/johnheldjr/PostalStatic.html