Mail Art

In the fall of 1978, my friend Cathy Gayhardt gave me what was probably a partially typewritten, mostly handwritten list of maybe ±100 names & addresses of Mail Artists. The handwriting was in various hands, I imagine the list had been circulated through the mails & added to by its recipients. It wasn't until later that I realized that one of those hands was that of "Blaster" Al Ackerman who became one of my most important correspondents.

I picked the names on the list that seemed the most imaginative & sent out my 1st Mike Film Form Letter. I had shot 13 50' rolls of super-8mm film of 21 art objects I'd made up 'til that point & then cut up the rolls by hand to yield approximately 46,800 individual frames which I then proceeded to distribute internationally. I still have some left 39 years later. The 1st form letter explained the project & had a pouch that contained pieces of Mike Film. I asked each correspondent to do something with the film & report back to me about what they'd done. Each successive Mike Film Form Letter then provided these reports & more film.

I think some of the 1st people I sent these out to were Anna Banana, Cosi Fanni Tutti, Irene Dogmatic, & Professor Plum. Everyone wrote back except for Fanni Tutti. Cathy also passed on Box 382 at the main Baltimore Post Office. I reckon her Mail Art days were on the wane & she was happy to make the box available to myself & the Chrononautic Society (as it was probably then known). The box was accessible 24/7 so it was great to be able to go to it & check for mail at all hours of the day or night. There was more or less always something there because I was sending out as many as 20 mailings a day & getting back as much as 14 a day. I eventually had over 1,400 correspondents.

After I'd made the Mike Film I held a modest event at my apartment where I gave away the 21 art objects. This was to mark my transition from artist to mad scientist. My point was, & still is, that "art", per se, is such an established context for creativity that it's no longer useful for actual creativity because it's too bounded by baggage. Bonnie Bonnell took one of the drawings & tore it up outside. I don't know if anyone kept any of the objects. I took back my Suggestion Box from Steve Brooks so at least there's one survivor.

Given the above critique of the "art" context, I never particularly liked the term "Mail Art", preferring instead "P.I.N.-U.P." (Postal Interaction Networking - Underground Participant) or, more simply, correspondence. For me, the most interesting participants in the network were exploring the personal, often in a Trickster way & weren't so much occupied with the "art" aspect of it. The participants I had the least interest in were the ones who just cranked out the same type of thing over & over that they sent out to everybody without even a personal note. Their interest was generally in getting themselves into as many Mail Art shows & catalogs as possible - usually without any regard for the theme of the show.

Nonetheless, predictably enough, it's the name "Mail Art" that's stuck & now the Mail Art era, the time of the cheapest postal rates & the most activity, perhaps 1970 to 1990, seems like a Golden Age to me because there was such a frenzy of interesting exchanges happening.

I haven't completely ceased correspondence through Snail Mail but I don't put much effort into it anymore. Anyone who sends me something is lucky to even get a reply. For me, my heyday was from 1978-1984. In 1984 I went away to London, Paris, & Madrid for a month & by the time I returned I had such a backlog of mail that I'm not sure I ever got caught up again. As such, that was the beginning of the end for me.

The quality of the mail I was receiving started to decrease. By the fall of 1991 I even made a post-card that explained that "NO MORE WILL I WASTE MY TIME WITH YOU!" to be mailed out to people who sent me the most thoughtless materials. One guy in Canada just sent me an envelope of the sort of advertisements that one could pick up on the ledge of restaurants, nothing original. I'm sure he received this rejection post-card but, ultimately, I 'hadn't the heart' to send it out to most people. If the sender was trying even a little to send something interesting then I'd reply positively.

I didn't want to turn into one of those older Mail Artists who just sent out 'trademark' images without any attempt to care about the recipient. By the time I corresponded with old timers Ray Johnson & Bill Gaglione I just got impersonal responses with images from them that I'd already seen too many times elsewhere. Alas, these days, if I bother to reply at all I'm more likely to just send out mostly impersonal prefabricated objects.. the enthusiasm of 1978 to 1984 just isn't there. Making matters worse, of course, is that postal rates are prohibitive.

What probably ruined my own experience the most with Mail Art was simply the bureaucracy that I had to maintain in order to keep track of it all. Since almost all of my correspondents were frequently changing their handles & addresses I had to keep track of who was who, where they were now, what they'd sent me & what I sent them in order to have the type of quality personal interaction that made it all worthwhile. As such, I created a filing system, 4X6" file cards with all the relevant info on them.

As long as I liked what I was getting, keeping the files wasn't too burdensome - but, alas, the more people started sending me thoughtless impersonal junk mail the more irritating it became to keep track of who was who. Eventually, I just didn't want to spend so much time logging things I didn't care about.

These days, older Mail Artists have migrated to using social media - although probably for most of us 'it's just not the same'. There IS "I.U.O.M.A." (International Union of Mail Artists: ) & I do have a very minor presence there ( ) but I don't really interact with it the way I'd need to to have a quality experience.

Ruud Jansen, the Mail Artist who created the IUOMA site puts his Mail Art online, Niels Lomholt has his Mail Art Archive online ( ) & there're many others who're doing the same. I have 16 boxes of Mail Art. The amount of time & effort that it would take for me to scan even a small sampling of their contents to put online would be so enormous that I'd have to give up most of the rest of my life. Instead, perhaps at best, I'll proceed in dribs & drabs having already started with "Blaster" Al Ackerman, a few Home Tapers, & Vermin Supreme. Don't expect this to develop quickly, if at all.

- September 17, 2017 note from tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE































idioideo at verizon dot net


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