Fluxus and postal ephemera by Michael Lumb
Whilst much has been written on Fluxus, it has not been discussed in terms of its importance to the development of mailart. Writers on mailart on the other hand have acknowledged the importance of Fluxus to mailart. Significantly, Chuck Welch chooses to organise his book, Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology 2 with the first chapter, written by Fluxus man Ken Friedman, 'The Early Days of Mailart'3 including an account of Fluxus mailart work. It is not until the third chapter that Clive Phillpot's 'The Mailed Art of Ray Johnson' occurs, although Friedman does include writing about Johnson. (Chapter two is by John Held Jr., 'Networking: The Origin of Terminology.') Friedman perceives that it was through Fluxus that mailart:
"reached out to the public" ... "and began to make real, its potential for social change and for contributing new forms of communication to the world." 4
This is a view that I share, but note the importance of the word "began". Friedman also sees that it was Fluxus that encouraged people to find-out about each other through the mail, a means of broadening knowledge and understanding of other artists' work without having to travel and meet them.
Although Robert Atkins in his "guide" mentions mailart under Fluxus:
"Fluxus was not limited to live events. Mail (or correspondence) art - postcardlike collages or other small scale works that utilized the mail as a distribution system - were pioneered by Fluxus artists, especially Ray Johnson."5
the statement is misleading in that Johnson was never a "Fluxus artist" and given that, it was not Fluxus artists who pioneered mailart. Writing about Fluxus is frequently accompanied by reproductions of works that show Fluxus use of the mail but do not comment on them in terms of mailart, seeing them simply as Fluxus works6. John Hendrick's massive tome on Fluxus reproduces many works that used the mail, again without reference to mailart.7 In his introduction to this text, Robert Pincus-Witten describes Fluxus as an indictment of USA political and artistic (Abstract Expressionist) imperialism and a:
"campaign that subverted the inherited abstract value system - large, heroic, ambitious, and sexist - favouring an art that was intimate, ephemeral, and highly poetic."8
This is a view of Fluxus that is echoed by Hendricks in his foreword to the book and is not only applicable to Fluxus but also to my reading of mailart in the USA in the sixties and seventies.
2.2. The Conception of Fluxus.
Fluxus was conceived in 1961/1962 by George Maciunas (1931 - 1978), a Lithuanian architect and designer and part owner of the A/G gallery, 925 Madison Avenue.9 A/G got its name from the forenames of Maciunas and his partner Almus Salicus. The intention had been to exhibit abstract painting and sell ancient musical instruments but within the same year (1960) Maciunas met La Monte Young and others that were to be Fluxus artists and turned the gallery into a venue for their (including Johnson's) events that Maciunas sponsored. The gallery closed in 1961. Fluxus began outside Fine Art, with many of the people who joined Fluxus coming from non-art backgrounds working in the spaces between art forms and between art and life.10 In this way, they relate to mailartists with the participators not necessarily coming from an arts background and not signalling the importance of 'art'.
The first Fluxus manifestation was Maciunas' publication 'Fluxus' (1961) that grew out of the musical events of the people centred around John Cage. Many of those who were to become the mainstays of Fluxus11 had attended Cage's course in Musical Composition at The New School For Social Research, New York in the summer of 1958.12 In 1960, Maciunas also attended Maxfield Parish's classes in electronic music, and met La Monte Young at the same venue. La Monte Young, Fluxus man and composer organised performances at Yoko Ono's New York studio, (11 Chambers Street) from Dec. 18, 1960 to June 30th 1961 and Maciunas arranged performances in his gallery from March 14th to June 30th 1961. It was on an invitation card to three concerts in March of that year "Musica Antiqua et Nova" - "A 3 dollar contribution will help to publish Fluxus magazine." that Maciunas first used the word Fluxus.13 Johnson was one of the participants in these concerts, and so was involved in Fluxus right from the very start. La Monte Young and Maciunas were not simply connected by their involvement in Happenings14 but also their interest in publishing. Young had taken over Beatitude East magazine15 which developed, with Maciunas doing the layout and Mac Low assisting, into An Anthology (October 1961). The journal included experimental music and event scores; poetry and essays and the work of Nam June Paik; Dieter Rot; and Emmett Williams and was intended by Maciunas to be a serial publication under the banner of Fluxus but was interrupted by his moving to Germany to take-up a job with the U.S.A.F. in Germany as a freelance designer / architect. Although the move to Germany affected the intended production of the publication, it strengthened the idea of internationalism that is so clear from the nationalities of the artists involved in the Cage workshop, Fluxus in general and later in mailart. Nam June Paik (b.1932) was also in Germany at that time and Maciunas - taking advantage of his geographical location - planned an ambitious 18 months long tour of concerts, to include Paik, from Berlin in June 1961 to Tokyo in January 1964 via Moscow - a big city per month to be supported by Fluxus magazine. The reality of the locations was somewhat different to the plan - being limited to Europe - but still impressively ambitious.16 Fluxus performance and therefore Fluxus, was clearly launched.
At the start of 1963 Maciunas published the Fluxus, 'Purge Manifesto' which declared war on:"The world of bourgeois sickness, "intellectual", professional, and commercialized culture."17 Maciunas saw Fluxus as being free of confines and able to work in any way that it wished, without concern for tradition or the need for recognition by established art critics. Whilst the publication of Fluxus works and the opening of a Fluxus shop can be read as being a critical comment on commerce - given that the goods on offer were neither functional nor falling within accepted notions of Fine Art - there is also a danger of falling into the trap of becoming part of the very establishment that is being criticised. Maciunas' criticism of 'professional(ism)' is also problematic, given the professional role that he played as the highly committed organiser of Fluxus.18
Rejection of the notion of 'Authorship' and therefore the 'Artist as Hero' was central to Maciunas' concept of Fluxus: participators were expected to sign their work - if at all - 'Fluxus.' Fluxus signalled participation, inclusivity rather than exclusivity, experimentation and creativity as being paramount and individual identity, career building and ego-feeding as being of no importance whatsoever. However, the reality was that the participators in Fluxus frequently did sign their work with their own names. Equally, mailartists usually sign their work as a principle because the spread of contacts is important to its activity. Although within mailart there is a tradition among some networkers of working anonymously by adopting pseudonyms, or 'combat names' as discussed in Chapter one, this is not the same issue as signing a work 'Fluxus' because these are individually held names and also because cynically it could be suggested that Maciunas' motive in encouraging this signing was giving Fluxus itself a higher profile than that of the individual participating artists. Whilst combat names, may well make the individual more memorable, they do not serve to promote mailart as a whole and mailart, unlike Fluxus has no intention of producing a saleable product.
Multiple Names relate to Combat Names in as much as that they do not reveal the legal name of the networker but their origins lie in the Fluxus anti-elitist, anti-artist-as-hero stance. Whilst Duchamp used pseudonyms such as R.Mutt and Rrose Selavy, these were not used to suppress his career as an artist, arguably the opposite was the case. In 1920 however, Raoul Hausmann suggested that the Berlin Dadaists should all call themselves 'Jesus Christ'. This can be considered to be a typically provocative Dadaist idea rather than a serious proposition but nevertheless, it is a multiple name proposal. Maciunas had more success with suggesting to the Fluxus artists that they should simply sign their work 'Fluxus', in a move against the perception of art as elitist behaviour and careerism. The notion of an anonymous work of art has the effect of preventing the placing of value on a work of art because of its 'brand name.'
The issue of putting a name to a work of art was subsequently explored by mailartists and the first mailart Multiple Name was created in the mid 1970s by two British mailartists, Stefan Kukowski and Adam Czarnowski who tried to persuade other networkers to adopt the name 'Klaos Oldanburgh' (sic).19 The ideology of this concept is called into question by their use of Roman Numerals after the name to differentiate the different Klaos Oldanburghs, thereby in effect drawing attention to their being different people, with identities. One year before Maciunas' death, in 1977, David Zack a Los Angeles, USA. networker proposed what he described as an "Open pop-star" name that could be used by mailartists wishing to assume the identity of a pop-star. The name, Monty Cantsin became associated specifically with Neoism and in particular with a Canadian networker, Istvan Kantor (I discuss Neoism in Chapter 4). In 1985, Stuart Home, an English networker, became interested in Multiple Names but felt, because of the specific association of Cantsin with Kantor, that a new association-free name was needed and chose that of Karen Eliot. Documentation of mailart projects occurred where all the participators' names were listed as Karen Eliot or Monty Cantisn.20 Honouring the expectation of participants to receive the addresses of all participants in many respects defeated the principle of anonymity, the printing of the individuals' addresses making the identification of the participant possible.
The importance to Fluxus of publishing was to be significant for mailart in that it was the start of mailartists extending their work beyond the impetus of Johnson's 'letters', to making editions and journal based work.
In 1965, the first mailart book (and what seems to be the first published accounts of mailart after Wilcock's article) was produced by Dick Higgins - a prominent member of Fluxus - with the publication of Johnson's book, The Paper Snake.21 This work consists entirely of mailart works by Johnson from 1960 to 1964 and almost entirely sent to Higgins. These are mostly text with, in many cases, some resemblance to the text works of Yoko Ono from the 1950s and 1960s, often with barbed references to specific individuals, many of them famous from all walks of life. Although Johnson's address does appear, there is neither invitation, nor indication of the possibility of participation. The work makes no attempt to reach out to the uninitiated and as such perhaps would be unapproachable to most people, but would undoubtedly have made Fluxus artists more aware of the way in which Johnson used the mail. There is a short introductory essay by the American art critic, William Wilson, sometimes described as Johnson's unofficial biographer, eulogising about the work but adding no information on Johnson or mailart (see the introduction to this thesis).
Of particular importance to the spread of mailart, Higgins also produced a newsletter in 1966, initially to present his essay on 'intermedia', it went on to disseminate mailart ideas and to be the inspiration for future network newsletters.22 Also in 1966, Ken Friedman of Fluxus West (San Diego) began to publish the annual compilations of Fluxus mailing lists which George Maciunas had produced since the early days of Fluxus as membership lists so that people could communicate directly with each other. These could seem to relate to Johnson's 'meeting' lists but differ in two important ways. Firstly, Fluxus lists were factual whereas Johnson's were, at least in part, fantasy. Secondly, Johnson did not reproduce lists of addresses with the names, to enable and encourage growing networks. Fluxus compilations grew until by 1972 the list was of more than 1400 names and addresses of people interested in communicating experimentally. The 1972 list was published in co-operation with 'Image Bank', a Toronto, Canada artists' collective which sent out bi-monthly requests to other participants, a kind of brokerage firm, based on Johnson's example of putting people in touch with each other.23 The Image Bank list, in turn, became the core of the artist's directory of File (see below) which was released in hundreds of free copies, distributed to artists, arts organisations and publishers around the world. The artist's directory published network information, addresses and project invitations, providing the first possibility of information rather than simply written versions of Chinese Whispers.
Although mailing lists per se do not appear anymore in mailart, documentation of mailart projects (discussed in Chapter 3) by tacit agreement, consists of the names and addresses of all the participants, so acting as a mailing list. Since Fluxus, there have been many mailart magazines which include name and address lists, notably Lo Straniero, the production of Neopolitan Ignazio Corsaro who refers to his list as 'The Strangers Directory', printing about 1,000 names and addresses, covering approximately five letters of the alphabet each issue.24 This magazine is published in the uniquely (for mailart) large edition of 10,000 copies, is professionally printed in Black and White and produced twice a year since 1985, initially in Broad Sheet format.25 Corsaro's magazine is a forum for discussion through letters sent to him and his reply to them, through the magazine. Other means of increasing contacts occur in some quite different journals, in England the commercially produced Artists Newsletter includes a column, compiled by London mailartist Michael Leigh, listing current mailart projects.26 Mailart newsletters vary from the highly efficient, professionally produced but visually bland Global Mail produced by Ashley Parker Owens of the U.S.A., to the visually enjoyable but slimmer, photocopied and more random quality of husband and wife Serbian Lawyers, Rorica and Dobrica Kamperlic's Open World. Global Mail developed from an initial single fold in 1992, to issue no.15, December 1996, consisting of 32 pages, stapled, with the listings under eleven categories and 2500 copies produced.27 In choosing to concentrate on the content of her visually functional journal rather than creating a very recognisable appearance, Ashley Parker Owens highlights the importance of simply being able to contact people and expand the network, over the nature of the contact, she remains impartial to how her information is used. Open World, has been published since 1985 and continued throughout the war in ex Yugoslavia, even though it was published in Beograd. The magazine consists of paste-ups of fliers for mailart projects and photographs of mailartists, with typewriter generated text. Whilst this makes it difficult to use as a reference work about current projects, unlike Global Mail, it is a much more visually seductive production, encouraging browsing and with a sense of ownership in that although Ashley Parker Owens prints entries sent, these are changed into the text, style and format of the magazine, whereas the Kamperlics simply photocopy whatever is sent. The Kamperlics also encourage the spread of the magazine by recipients photocopying it and sending copies to other mailartists. Ashley Parker Owens also uses mailartists to pass the magazine on, but by sending-on copies sent. In both cases they are using the potential of the network to distribute their magazines about the network beyond their immediate contacts. Both have their place in mailart and represent two extremes of mailart, Ashley Parker Owens being highly 'professional' (although at her own considerable expense28) and the Kamperlics enjoying the immediacy of hastily produced magazines that enabled them to produce and distribute 83 editions in the first ten years of production.
Fluxus production of magazines,29 developing from Maciunas' initial concept of a Fluxus magazine, was to become one of the mainstays of mailart, with magazines produced for a variety of reasons, from contacts and advertisers of mailart projects to publishers of visual and text based creative work. The word 'magazine' is often shortened to 'Zine', Stephen Perkins defines them as "self-produced, self-distributed, non-profit publications focusing on topics that are often ignored by the mainstream media." referring to self published, cheaply produced products with no commercial ambitions or outlets, he goes on to say that "the history of Zines can be traced back to the 1930s when science fiction fans started putting out their own slick science fiction magazines ... When those fans circulated their mimeographed writings amongst themselves, the zine was born".30
Life magazine, with the punning potential of its title, inspired a number of mailart magazines that in some cases had large print runs, received grants and reached out beyond the confines of the network.31 These magazines evolved organically in the change of title and passing of production from mailartist to mailartist. The first of these, and perhaps the first magazine to be generated through the mailart network, was produced by General Idea who began File magazine in 1971 with a grant from the Canada Council. File was printed in editions of 3-5,000 and was sold at news-stands in major USA cities, but by 1974 it had ceased to address mailart, choosing to concentrate on the general activities of General Idea, in preference to what they perceived as being the 'Quikkopy crap' that they were seeing in mailart as a response to the new availability of photocopying and the broadening out from the hand-crafted works that epitomised the early years of mailart. File was conceived as an anagram of Life and the first issue, April 15th, was a convincing imitation of a 1948 issue of Life magazine. In 1974 Anna Banana adopted File, renaming it Vile. Banana was no newcomer to self publishing having produced ten issues of her Banana Rag since 1971. Her particular ambition was to imitate Life magazine to such an extent that it could be taken for it and by 1977 she published the fourth issue which came close to her ambition. At that point she dropped the notion of imitating Life, not least because the producers of File had lost their battle with Time / Life over the use of the similar logo.32 By then the publication was jointly produced with Bill Gaglione, in a different format and with different designs and they continued publishing it until 1981. Although mailart based, Banana and Gaglione chose to seek funding for the publication and the third issue that had included poetry and fiction was given a grant by the Co-ordinating Council of Literary Magazines making it possible to print 1000 copies. The sixth issue also received a grant from the CCLM and entitled 'Fe-Mail-Art' explored women mailartists. By complete contrast, the seventh issue was a much smaller edition and hand produced.33
A further evolution of the name of the journal was adopted by Stewart Home who in February 1984 published his first issue of Smile, 'The official organ of the Generation Positive.' This journal was to express Home's ideas on 'Positive Plagiarism' which are explored in Chapter 4. Home also encouraged others to produce copies of Smile which several did though to Home's initial disappointment the first, continuing the established tradition of punning on the title, calling it Slime & Limes. Home had intended that all magazines should be called Smile and subsequent issues conformed to that request. Smile remains open as a possibility for any networker to use the title for a magazine and from time to time networkers do publish under that title, frequently with a political agenda. Jo Klaffki for example, a German mailartist who uses the name Joki Mail Art has published a number of editions of Smile sometimes with political undertones but always with a strong sense of humour.34
The concept of common ownership of journals was not Home's original idea, this can be traced back to Fluxus. Ken Friedman of Fluxus West published the first twelve issues of The New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder, initially 81/2" X 11" single sheets, it was begun in 1971 and in 1972 began to be passed from networker to networker for subsequent issues, spawning the idea of magazines that were owned by the network as a whole and not the egotistical province of an individual or group, reflecting the belief in anti exclusivity of Fluxus. This publication became influential not only within the network but also in Bookarts. Since Fluxus, other people have worked with the concept of common ownership and in 1977, Polish mailartist, Pawel Petasz initiated the Commonpress periodical project which encouraged other networkers to publish editions, using his/her own theme and format, following the Fluxus lead. All contributors to any edition were expected to produce their own edition, in a print run of not less than 200.35 Petasz produced the first copy and a total of sixty were produced across thirteen countries between 1977 and 1981, all co-ordinated by Petasz. At that point the political climate in Poland made it inadvisable for him to continue and he handed over the co-ordination to a Canadian networker, Gerald Jupiter-Larsen.
The principle of magazines produced by individual participants sending their contributions as ready to print artwork, took the name 'assembling' from the title of a publication by New York writer and critic, Richard Kostelantz who, between 1970 and 1981, produced 11 editions of his magazine Assembling.36 This journal was unique amongst mailart magazines in being published in editions of 1000 copies, thanks to financial support from various sources. Kostelantz requested 8 1/2" X 11" artwork and sent each contributor three copies of the complete work.
Earlier, in 1968 Ken Friedman produced the one and only issue of Amazing Facts Magazine which established a cherished mailart principle of a journal produced from gathered material as an editorial principal.37 This was a collation assemblage of received mail which was dispatched to the participators. In Germany in the late 1960s, Thomas Niggl created Omnibus News which was the first accumulated magazine to be published in multiple editions.38 This notion was developed through the 1970s and is a very common aspect of networking today, founded on the general principle of a co-ordinator responsible for collating and distributing the finished product to the participants, the number of participants dictating the number of copies that each contributor is required to send to the co-ordinator. Typically, numbers have ranged from twelve, twenty, fifty and sometimes 100. Co-oridnator/originators also state the dimensions required although these have usually been given as a maximum so that the final assembled work is frequently a hotchpotch of work on different types of paper and other supports as well as varying in thickness and dimension this means that the visual appearance alone of assembling zines instantly separates them from commercial magazines. Central to this notion of publishing is the decision to exercise no editorial control, as in the practice of no juries for mailart shows. This inevitably has meant that the content and 'quality' in the critical sense have often been questionable because the importance of these zines lies in the inclusion of material, without editorial control, of work from a wide cultural and geographic background where the taking part is of supreme importance.
2.4. Postal Elements.
For Fluxus, unlike mailart, production of objects was for an intended sale. Central to the production of Fluxus material was the mail order warehouse and shop which Maciunas had opened, with the Flux-Hall for Performances, at 359 Canal Street, on his return to New York after the Fluxus tour. The warehouse advertised many items, mostly made by Maciunas though few existed in advance of orders. Although Fluxus was keen to sell its products, 70% of them were given away rather than sold.
The recognition by Fluxus of the postal system as a means of keeping in touch with each other, and as a system for selling their work, led to Fluxus people seeing it as a medium and vehicle for their work. Paik operated through the mail, although not using his own stamps. 'The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism.'(Plate 16), taking Johnson's fascination for bizarre names, was a series of works that Paik mailed out in 1963.
"To the subscriber of the Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism sometimes comes something by mail. once, or twice, or thrice, you will find a tiny 1 cent coin in a white envelope. or ..."39
It is not clear how many Paik sent although there may be some clues given in his deliberately unlikely suggestions as to what he would send, including "arm-pit hair of a chicagoan negro prostitute". There is little interest shown in the appearance of the envelope although the use of his own rubber stamp should be noted.
Although mailart was not of primary importance to Fluxus, it is interesting to note how central a part it made of the postal system in a parody of marketing systems. Fluxus, taking the postal system seriously as a medium, (that is to say seriously from an often humorous point of view as was their wont) went so far as to produce a:
" Fluxus Postal Kit, prepared in 1966 complete with a Fluxpost cancellation mark, permitting an entire, Fluxus-controlled postal exchange to take place."... " By the end of the 1960s, a number of Fluxus people had begun to view mail art as a medium offering unique potentials and challenges. They saw beyond the basic issue of art through the mail, and began to explore the reaches and media of correspondence and mail themselves." 40
'Flux-post kit 7', 1968 (Plate 17) shows the range of postal ephemera that Fluxus was involved in but it also shows - with its box container - how these objects were very much seen - at least by Maciunas - as commodities rather than explorations of the mail. For Maciunas there was little difference between Flux Tattoos, as an artwork / commodity and Flux Postal ephemera, in that both were produced to be sold and collected.
Although these objects were to add to the correspondence aspect of mailart that Johnson had begun, for mailartists, it is the interaction through the mail that is important. It is not insignificant in the consideration of mailart that every communication received, and sent, will have the marks of the postal system (postage stamps and franking) of, at least, its country of origin. These in themselves can lead to, both a better understanding between two countries and the simple though not to be devalued pleasure of an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities and charm of stamps and frankings of other countries. It is therefore apparent that irrespective of the networker's contribution and intervention, any mailart communication, in order to comply with the postal system, has intrinsic interest. For Fluxus and mailartists, there was also the possibility of adding their own faux-stamps and faux-frankings.Faux-stamps were to become known as Artistamps.41
Historically, the first recorded non official stamps are understood to have been made long before Fluxus, by Karl Schwesig.42 As with the history of most things however, earlier examples come to light and this is no less the case with artistamps. Artistamp News, in 1991 (1/2) published a brief article on rubberstamp produced stamps by Michael V. Hitrovo from 1914. A subsequent article in Artistamp News 2/1 1992 describes an even earlier example from the last century.43 More recently, an American, Donald Evans, looked to stamps as a format for artwork, though not a mailartist, he made one-off stamps. Evans began making stamps in 1957 when he was twelve years old and continued making them until his untimely death in a fire in 1977. Evans' water-colour stamps from imaginary kingdoms were exhibited in galleries and sold by him, thereby distancing him from the practice of networkers. None of these historical precedents relate to mailart in that they were not part of an exchange within a network and serve only to demonstrate that unofficial stamps had been produced before networkers began to make them.
The earliest stamps made as part of mailart activity were those of the prolific Fluxus member Robert Watts who in 1962 printed 'Safe Post / K.U.K. Feldpost / Jokpost.' (Plate 18) These stamps were subversive in that whilst they imitated commercial stamps in their borders, the central images were taken from photographs of naked women. The 1963 'Yamflug/5 Post 5'44 (Plate 19) also suggest commercial stamps with their traditional borders but are confusing to the viewer because of their evident non-commercial heads. Watts continued to make artistamps, as part of his Fluxus activity, until his death in 1988. In a further parody of the postal system Watts in 1963 produced his own stamp dispenser, an altered readymade, taking his own stamps. Fluxus stamps, with the word 'Post', inclusion of numerical 'values' and frequent use of heads as subject matter, very clearly indicate a wish to produce something that relates very strongly to officially produced stamps. This is an imitation of a formal system which Watts, with references to Fluxus on his stamps, clearly situated in Fluxus production. It was an offshoot of the considerable structure that Maciunas attempted to set-up, in that with its own shop and publishing, stamps were a logical development. Maciunas, as well as producing finished artwork and producing many of the multiples designed by other Fluxus people, also designed his own stamps, for example, 'Fluxpost (Smiles)' (Plate20). These stamps relate to his Flux Smile Machine and as such situate them firmly within Fluxus products rather than for mailart usage.
By 1974 artiststamps had become well established as a mailart medium, with thirty-five networkers from nine countries participating in the first "Artists' Stamp and Stamp Images" exhibition, which was held in Canada.45 In 1984, Michael Bidner of Canada, held an exhibition in Ontario, combining his passions of art and stamp collecting.46 This show exhibited stamps by over 1000 networkers from almost 50 countries. Artistamps were totally to dominate Bidner's life with his mission to document the production of artistamps and to produce a catalogue.47 The documentation and entire collection of over 10,000 images was given to the 'Artpool' Archive of Julia and Gyorgy Galantai in Hungary, after Bidner anticipating his death, failed to persuade any Canadian Museum to take them.
As James Felter, a Canadian mailartist, recognised in an introductory essay to a Seattle Artistamp exhibition,48 that postage stamps give a universal message of authority, functioning in a manner that is instantly understood throughout the world.
"One symbol they (mailartists) have found is the postage stamp, or rather the postage stamp format. This is one of the few existing symbols of officialdom, of authority, and of low economic value that is recognised in every nook and cranny of the globe. It is a universal symbol of a means of communication and a carrier of an unlimited variety of 'authorized' messages in the form of words, numbers, and images (or any combination thereof). It is a symbol that is used everyday and collected throughout the world. The artists of the global village have adopted this symbol and named it 'Artistamp.'"The use of this old symbol as a carrier of new symbols, new visual messages and new aesthetic discoveries lends an aura of authenticity to the creative efforts of the artists of the global village and legitamizes their imagination with the international society." 49
Stamps are also a very low cost item carrying an endless variety of images and texts that can be seen as miniature, multiple artworks. The imitation of postage stamps by mailartists is a logical decision, giving their enormous potential for the use of text and image in miniature and relevance to the activity of postal art. In spite of this, only a small number of mailartists produce artistamps, presumably because they perceive them to be too difficult and /or expensive to produce. Some of those who do produce artistamps on the other hand, go to great lengths to create postal systems which at times even include fake countries, languages and even Royalty. Robert Rudine, a USA. mailartist, using the combat name, Dogfish or the King of Tui Tui produces Philatelic Bulletins to accompany every new issue of stamps for his 'country': these are accompanied by a glossary for those not familiar with the language of Tui Tui in which some of the text is written. Working with artistamps and systems can become a fantasy life in which the creator escapes to his/her land of his/her dreams that s/he can be in complete control of, a way of escaping from the mundanity of everyday life, which in a sense mailart is, every time the post deliverer arrives. Equally it ridicules the seriousness of officialdom, a comment on the artificiality of established systems, the ease with which they can be constructed and the shallowness that can be their underpinning.
There is an established precedent for non-postage stamp stamps, namely in what are called Cinderellas, that is to say the commercially produced stamps with no postal value, used as part of an advertising or promotional campaign.
"...the stamp format was widely used as an advertising medium throughout Europe and America from 1900 through 1940, as one of the only affordable means advertisers could use to circulate full colour reproductions of their products or facilities. After 1940 the medium died out quickly when technologies of colour and black and white printing were integrated, and colour advertising in the context of magazines, became available." 50
The design considerations for Cinderellas are the same as for most aspects of postage stamps and are also appropriate to artistamps. Whilst affordable to business, commercial printing is of course not affordable by the average networker and so whilst Cinderellas remain as a precedent, they do not indicate a standard method of production. Similarly, the production designing of postage stamps by artists is not related to mailart quite simply because postage stamps are the mark of authority. Whilst artistamps do not necessarily seek to subvert or mock the authority, they exist alongside it as a personal statement or mark.
In contrast to the hand produced works of Schwesig and Evans, the usual medium for artistamps has become the photocopier, hence the considerable increase in the production of artistamps since the widespread availability of photomechanical reproduction, especially the colour-copier. Other stamps are hand printed, silk screen for example and many are produced by rubber-stamping or designed and produced on computers. These images if hand produced may well be unique stamps and the printed stamps may be produced in editions of any number or unlimited.
Fluxus work whilst at times poking fun at and parodying the establishment, tended to achieve their aim through humour, some artistamp makers on the other hand have taken risks by subverting the official postage due. The simplest form is simply to send mail with no stamp, but that runs the risk of the recipient having to pay, which at least in the case of mailartists from countries where incomes are relatively low, is not an acceptable risk. Simply using an artistamp is another possibility. Famously (although not part of mailart networking) Yves Klein made his IKB stamps in 1958 to send out on the envelopes of his invitations to the exhibition Le Vide. Reputedly, these were the only stamps on the envelopes and successfully reached their destinations without surcharges being added.51 More provocatively, in 1970, USA. mailartist, William Farley's USXX stamp of a rear view of a head with a pony tail in an early US design, imitating a Lincoln stamp was used by a friend of his in place of an official stamp. The stamp was traced back to Farley and resulted in him being forced to surrender all the remaining stamps to the Secret Service. Totally undetected however was the production and use by an anonymous American artist of a facsimile of the '10c US. Air Mail' stamp.52 Subversive activity has not been limited to stamps but has included franking with the production of fake franking and specifically fake wartime "Utility" marks, producing a strange time-warp for any handler of the envelope recognising the franking.
The simplest form of artistamps is to work with the official stamps, this can be for aesthetic, subversive reasons or purely for fun. The more stamps that are placed on the envelope, the more possibilities there are of aesthetics, with choice of colour, placing and relative positioning. An example of this is to use the lowest denomination stamp and to totally cover the envelope with the stamps, thereby making a minimal work of art. This kind of 'game' is not unique to mailartists at all, and is often played by friends who have never heard of mailart. Subversively, inverting the Queen's head demonstrates disrespect, if not a treasonable offence and placing the stamp in an attempt to avoid franking so that it can be reused by the recipient are all strategies that mailartists use. Actually working on the stamps and altering them is another possibility that has been explored by an English mailartist who limits his introductions to his combat name of Red Herring who in 1988 over painted a stamp of Wellington, giving him a Donald Duck bill. Whilst this work is humorous and subversive, it is interesting to consider that it is so subtle that it could easily be sent to a mailartist who does not archive and so not noticing the altered stamp could have thrown away the envelope without ever being aware of Herring's labours. Requiring a similar amount of detailed effort is the attempt to remove any franking marks on the stamp, without damaging the original image so that it can be reused, the amount of time involved for what is a relatively small financial saving suggests that the importance to the perpetrator is in subverting the system rather than in saving money. In doing this as with Herring's stamp, the motivation is one that is primarily personal satisfaction and amusement at beating the system.
Rubber Stamps, or Rubberstamps as they have come to be known by mailartists, were invented by businessmen in the mid to late nineteenth century and by the late 50s and early 60s were widely used by both Fluxus and Nouveau Realists as a medium for producing artworks.
The combination of the mundanity and power of rubberstamps gives
"a symbol of power - their role is to validate or invalidate something. There are many symbols of power and we are frequently confronted by them. But none is as common and petty as the rubber-stamp. Their lack of sophistication and glamour seems to contradict the enormous power conveyed by them."53
This is particularly evident in oppressed countries where, as discussed later, received mail has usually born the mark of the censor. Rubberstamps fall into several categories, the official stamp is associated with authority and validation of, for example, licenses, certificates and passports: these actions and documents acknowledge and approve us. The very medium or carrier of mailart, the Royal Mail, validates our messages with rubber-stamps and officialdom in general uses them to number our documents. Fluxus used faux frankings, for example Ken Friedman's 'Fluxpost West 1964 - 1974' and many mailartists since have used their own versions of frankings. Similarly, mailartists have often used date stamps or numbering stamps, of for example their envelopes, partly to broadcast their prowess at having produced so much mailart but also to give spurious authority to their sending, in a play on officialdom. The reliving of childhood pleasures of 'playing Post Offices' with Post Office Sets, should not be underrated, the simple pleasure of using the paraphernalia and the sense of importance that accompanies the use of the stamp.
Domestically there is a formal but far less official use as a convenient method of producing letter heads and 'sender' address stamps for the back of envelopes. These were used by Fluxus and Johnson and are used by most mailartists today, partly for convenience. Name stamps have also been used for fake institutions, such as, as already stated, Paik's 'University of Avant-garde Hinduism' and often by Johnson for a wide variety of his fake institutions although he did not always use rubberstamps to validate them, often preferring to hand write or type the names. Johnson also used rubberstamps with text such as 'Ray Johnson Evaporations', 'Collage by Ray Johnson', or even 'Collage by Joseph Cornell.54
The use of rubberstamps as cheap movable type has long had an attraction for children with 'John Bull' printing sets, allowing them to play at typesetting. It is this element of play that many mailartists find attractive, with the hand-crafted appearance of something that is close to a commercial graphic process but with the visual attraction of its imperfections, so much loved by Warhol in his early 1960s photo silk-screen prints. Although most type for Fluxus work was generated by letterpress, (by Maciunas usually) Vautier for example enjoyed the use of rubber stamp type.
In 1974 Herve Fischer, a French artist, published rubber-stamp images55 and in 1978 the first Rubberstamp Album was produced in America by Joni Miller and Lowry Thompson who subsequently edited the massive bimonthly journal Rubberstampmadness begun in 1979 and still running commercially (currently 92 pages). The 1970s also saw a proliferation of companies, particularly in the USA., offering a wide range of ready made decorative rubberstamps and a bespoke service giving an enormous range of creative possibilities. This, coupled with mailartists beginning to carve their own rubberstamps led to a considerable increase in the use of rubberstamps in mailart.
The use of the rubberstamp by networkers varies considerably in intention and effect from networker to networker. For some, at times as humorous pastiche and at others to make critical comment: this impression can only be created with the blandness of commercially produced rubberstamps. Hand cut rubberstamps however, created usually with a scalpel from an eraser, inevitably present an entirely different image, lacking the authority of precision but with the visual attraction that goes with hand-crafted work. Equally, with Rubberstampmadness giving examples of how to create complete pictures in multi colours purely from rubberstamps, the creative possibilities are considerable. Whilst the latter suggests more of a craft-hobbyist approach, the experimental nature of mailartists has resulted in very imaginative rubberstamps and uses for them, whether commercially or hand produced. In an age in which for many networkers, making contact with people is more important than laboured hand produced creativity, the rubberstamp offers a very quick, accessible and immediate medium with considerable potential: expediency and pragmatism dominating ideology.
The beginnings of handmade and commercially produced picture postcards, in England, date from 1894: until that time postcards could only be made by the government. Hand decorated postcards are as old as postcards themselves and as an art form are not confined to the network, exhibitions of postcard art having been held since the late 1970s. For the networker, they provide a simple and direct medium with all the process (accumulated ephemera of postmarks etc.) of its transition, from sender to recipient, unavoidably evident. Whilst the importance of mailart lies in bringing people together, the postcard, having no protective packaging, is prey to the ravages of its journey through the post. The postcard, therefore, is the most pure form of mailart. Ideologically, it truly functions as mailart by being open to be 'read' by all the postal workers who handle it and any casual passers-by who may see it on the door mat before it is received by the 'intended' recipient as I go on to discuss in Chapter 5.
Whilst the sending of Picture Postcards by mailartists to each other as mailart is probably usually because of a wish to share the image, because of its beauty, humour, personal relevance or any one of a number of reasons, it could be seen to indicate either a lack of concern for any attempt at considering the communication as art or on the contrary, possibly the consideration of the chosen postcard as a ready-made in the Duchampian sense. Fluxus members often sent messages to each other on postcards but it was Ben Vautier who used the postcard as a creative vehicle in itself. In 1965, he made what was probably the first pure conceptual mailart work - 'The Postman's Choice'56 (Plate 21) in which he produced a double-sided postcard, inviting the postman to decide which side s/he wished to select to determine the recipient. Whilst being an admirable work in terms of conceptual process, Ben's57 postcard lacks an interest in interchange and therefore remains outside mailart networking. Further, Maciunas' request, "can I reprint 1000 of them! and sell for 10 c each?"58 indicates very clearly that for Maciunas at least they were perceived as a commodity to be sold and used by others rather than as a conceptual usage of the post by the artist.
Artist's Postcards became so popular as a medium for mailart exchange that by 1971, two Canadian networkers, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov in Vancouver, Canada, were able to stage a show devoted solely to networkers' postcards.59 This exhibition was documented with an album of postcards and greatly helped to promote the idea of working in this medium as well as furthering the concept of creating an exhibition from mailart material, discussed in the following chapter.
Maciunas' need to control and organise Fluxus extended to thorough documentation of Fluxus activities and archiving Fluxus material. Whilst the habit of documenting and archiving work is one that has been adopted by many mailartists, unilateral control is both alien to mailart and not possible, given the vast numbers and disparity of its adherents. Although Johnson was a figurehead of mailart, at least in the late fifties and early sixties, he was nevertheless, keen to encourage exchange that went beyond his control. Maciunas' willingness to devote himself to the cause of Fluxus and his generosity in giving work away are however, very much a fundamental part of mailart attitudes.
Fluxus was highly influential on mailart with its, philosophies, attitudes and internationalism. Of particular importance was its usage of postal elements; stamps and postcards and especially with the publishing of address lists which greatly enlarged the number of participants. This was partly responsible for mailart taking on a much broader geographical and cultural spread than it had been possible to achieve simply with the efforts of one man - Johnson. Mailart became a union of two elements, the orchestration and interchange through the mail as practised by Johnson and the playing with the elements of the postal system which - whilst not generally used as mailart - were demonstrated by Fluxus.
Where Fluxus failed was in its attempt to rid itself of authorship by the simple tactic of requiring the participants to sign themselves 'Fluxus', had this happened, it would have changed the way in which the work has been commodified, particularly given the illustrious careers that many of the Fluxus artists went on to have - without names, the historian looses interest. The anonymity of mailart is something that was to become central to its operation and it is with the theories of authorship and art that Fluxus man Joseph Beuys - building on Fluxus ideas - was to propound, that mailart was to develop its rationale, as I debate in the final chapter.
It was natural with the anti-establishment idealism and optimism of the late sixties and early seventies that mailart should grow beyond the life and parameters of Fluxus and Johnson. The burgeoning of mailart reflected the tremendous interest that grew at the time in the seventies of exploring and setting-up new and alternative systems, which in mailart was to be centred on MAPs (Mail Art Projects), their exhibiting and documentation.
1 The seven original members, George Maciunas; Dick Higgins; Emmett Williams; Alison Knowles; Nam June Paik; Ben Patterson and Wolf Vostell were soon joined by George Brecht; Philip Corner; Toshi Ichijanagi; Ben Vautier; Jackson Mac Low; Yoko Ono; La Monte Young; Charlote Moorman; Daniel Spoerri; Josef Beuys and Robert Filliou, the last three being peripheral members.
above copied fromL http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/palace/62/fluxus.html
This is part of a larger project by Lamb, MAIL ART 1955 to 1995 Democratic art as social sculpture, You can see the whole thesis at: http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/palace/62/