Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mail Art: Archives, Display and Classification Methodologies

This essay is a response to Mark Bloch’s question “how to archive mail art”? Which I think is a subtly malformed question. Archiving mail art should never be the goal, at least not for artists. To put a finer point on the question, I think Mark means 1) how to display mail art, and 2) how to classify mail art. To elucidate these points, let’s look at some common mail art practices today.
The creation and display of mail art often go hand in hand. In the classic "mail art show”, the curator/agitator/provocateur names a theme and sets a deadline, advertises at the show by distributing a mail art call throughout the network and then waits for the mail box to fill up. Having made preparations for displaying the show, a gallery is filled with the mail art objects. Some sort of documentation of the show is sent to all participants. More recently, or when a gallery is not available, or in addition to a show in a gallery, the work is displayed in a web blog format, which can also serve as an instant archive.

Recently at Fluxfest 2015 in Chicago, Honoria Starbuck’s show KISS, was remounted from an archive of the original show held in 1990. This gave the public an opportunity to see a mail art show created for a specific theme (loosely: the AIDS epidemic, LGBT rights/pride) in a historical light. This specific timeframe also included and interesting set of early computer graphics and graphics arts tools, and well as postal history considerations.
So in this case, the show elements becomes the archive. But of course, not all correspondence art (mail art) is created for shows. There are many loose unclassified correspondences that occurs frequently by artists sharing their work in a less organized way. Because of the nature of mail art, the mail artist-sender surrenders his/her ability to archive the work, and is often reliant upon the recipient to do so. With the advance and ubiquity of digital tools however, I have noticed a rise in the sharing of “outgoing” mail art. 

So the question really becomes, how to classify sets of mail art objects, acquired by a recipient over time, perhaps decades 1) into a coherent whole, or 2) into interesting chunks for display purposes. Further, as mail art archives are acquired by institutions and institutions and open up these archives to researchers and curators, is there a coherent way to classify these moving parts, as they get further away from their natural habitat in space and time? The answer is yes, but it requires a look at how curators/researchers/archivist might look at a set of correspondences (mail art) and apply some rules of information literacy to the whole. In the process, we’ll take a hard look at how postal historians (philatelists) classify mailed objects from a technical standpoint.

A classic mail art archive, such as the one that may be piling up in your home/office/studio is there for a reason. These objects _have been mailed to you_ by your friends and relations. It also reveals a set of basic data points common to any mail art objects: the sender and recipient. In this case the recipient is you and thus all the correspondence sent to you has your name and address prominently displayed on the front of the envelope or postcard. Most likely, but not always, the sender’s information is there too. So the most basic method of classification is sender/receipient, or in the case of a personal archive as described above, where the recipient is always the same, by the sender. These can be organized by date, provided by the clear dated postmarks (thanks, postal agency!) also prominently displayed as the objects ride through the mailstream.

So this is most basic way to archive or classify mail art, by using the data present on the objects themselves. Mail artists are fascinated by this systems art, so we should embrace that logic. But we are also fascinated by the many hiccups and errors that can occur and ultimately this basic methodology isn’t potentially that interesting. As archives get acquired and mixed into or paired with other archives some complexity sets in. The question then changes to: What objects do I want to display at any given time and why? The answer to that question (central to all curating projects) is “You want to tell a story.”

So, lets say you have access to a huge mail art archive and you have only a small window of display space available at any given time. How to mine the data to come up with an interesting and coherent story to tell? The answer is as creative as any single mail art object or grouping. The answer begins and ends with your mail art knowledge, its history, its people, its methodologies and its idiosyncrasies. As I mentioned before, specific groupings are often based on a theme for a specific show. But art historically, one can pick and choose from various correspondences, or find common threads from within several disparate archives, based on ones overall knowledge of mail art. This is also key to the way collectors may collect mail art in the future.

In 2009 I used the standard mail art show call methodology to present “Artistamps in the Mailstream”, a group show to promote the use of artistamps on mail art. I asked folks to send me examples (new or archived) of artistamps that were used on mail art. Thus, I pre-classified the show theme on a technical basis, all displayed objects were mailed objects that had an artistamp on the outside of the envelope or postcard (in addition to regular postage). Strict adherence to the rules usually makes a better story.

Further, creative curators in the future will have better access to more better archives than ever before to display and educate the public about various mail art activities. As suggested previously groupings can be as large or as varied as the suggested by available materials. For example, one could put together a collection or display of mail art by noted personages during a certain time period, say, “Mail art from Picasso Gaglione to the world, 1999-2007” and collect up examples of mail sent to from this prolific mail artist to various correspondents around the globe in this period. Extra points for showing examples sent to all seven continents.

Similarly one could mine several archives for examples of specific artistamps used by different correspondents or to show how specific memes spread through the network. These would be fairly advanced projects.