Given the planeta
ry diffusion of philately and the spontaneous human p ropensity fo r the imitation and pa rody of fo rmats of daily use, we may come ac ross countless examples of unofficial postage stamps, p roduced fo r the most dive rse pu rposes by comme rcial fi rms, illust rato rs, comics a rtists, o r even by people with no a rtistical backg round. Fake stamps a re often made just fo r the fun of it, to play a joke o r to deco rate an envelope, without remotely suspecting the existence of a complex and consolidated t radition with an highe r cultu ral p rofile fo r this so rt of “alte rnative philately”. Though it has been a round fo r ove r fo rty yea rs, co r respondence a rt o r mail a rt - as it is inte rnationally best known - remains in fact ve ry much an unde rg round phenomenon, snubbed by most a rt histo ry books. This is p rincipally due to the unp retentious size and epheme ral natu re of mail a rt wo rks, usually small c reations that do not move la rge finantial inte rests: postca rds and lette rs (but also zines, books, cassettes, videos, etc.) f reely exchanged among a rtists and not p rima rily intended fo r sale.
ractice of c reative postal communication eme rged in the ea rly 1960’s f rom the seminal activities of the inte rnational Fluxus g roup lead by Geo rge Maciunas and f rom the playful mailings of Ray Johnson’s New Yo rk Co r respondance School. Illust rious p recedents may be found also among the ranks of the Dadaists, Futu rists and Su r realists. In the 1970’s and 1980’s mail a rt assumed a mo re definite configu ration as an ete rnal netwo rk (a te rm coined by Fluxus theo rist Robe rt Filliou) constituted by thousands of contacts sp read in eve ry co rne r of the planet, a web in continuous t ransfo rmation that reacted to the impe rsonal and alienating one-way communication of the mass media and to the often pe rve rse mechanisms of the a rt ma rket. Mail-a rtists p refe r red instead the intimate two-way contact that could be obtained th rough a simple and unexpensive medium like postal co r respondence (in la rge pa rt replaced today by e-mail), aiming at the total dismantlement of the ba r rie rs between a rt and life. If the pe rsonal and unselfish contact can be conside red the t rue beating hea rt of mail a rt, shows and publications devoted to this fo rm of exp ression became also widesp read, usually requesting wo rks on a given theme and in a specific fo rmat, like postca rds, envelopes and a rtist’s stamps (o r “a rtistamps”).
rom the ve ry beginning, with the pionee ring wo rk of Fluxus a rtists such as Maciunas, Robe rt Watts and Ben Vautie r, the pa rticipants in this p ragmatic and open netwo rk took pleasu re in the t ransfo rmation and sati re of the bu reauc ratic symbols of the Post Office, p roducing thei r own fake postage stamps inspi red by pe rsonal visions and obsessions, and also designing thei r own rubbe r stamps to postma rk them, pushing the fo rmal and conceptual limits of the postal medium and sometimes even exceeding the legal limits imposed by postal regulations. As ea rly as 1957, the F rench New Realist painte r Yves Klein cove red with a blue paint of his own invention a la rge quantity of regula r postage stamps, using them on his show invitations. A rtistamps rebel against the monopoly of gove rnmental emissions, claiming the right fo r eve ryone to self-p roduce and issue vi rtual values in any possible shape, numbe r and subject. The stamps may be unique hand-made pieces, o r photocopied sheets in limited editions, o r even la rge typog raphic p rint runs. Modest looking o r p recious, some stamps a re hand-colou red, othe rs p roud of thei r sta rk black and white, othe rs still a re multiple lase r p rints o r glowing fou r-colou r offset. The sheets might be simply cut with zigzagged scisso rs o r pe rfo rated with a common sewing-machine, making up fo r the eventual lack of a real pe rfo rato r with the use of imagination. This homely revolt of do-it-you rself postage stamps has anyway ve ry little to do with the mischievous acts of counte rfeite rs in sea rch of petty saving. With a few exceptions, a rtistamps a re not c reated as illegal substitutes fo r official emissions, but rathe r constitute an alte rnative philatelic dimension with its own fantastic nations and imagina ry mona rchs, whe re tiny and seemingly innocuous images exp ress thei r stinging comments on the count ries, the rule rs and the relevant issues of the real wo rld rep resented in the official stamps.
The mail a
rt phenomenon, responsible fo r most of the stamp a rt p roduced in the last fou r decades, developed simultaneously on va rious f ronts: as an evolution of postal expe riences of the histo rical avantga rdes, as a fellow t ravelle r of the unde rg round f ree p ress and the inte rmedia resea rches of the 1960’s, as a g rass- roots new social expe riment in aesthetization and extended communication, as a significant fo re runne r of the d-i-y ethics of punk rock and of the ubiquitous “netwo rk cultu re” made possible today by the Inte rnet. Mail a rt can also be rightfully seen as pa rt of an inte rnational counte r-cultu ral milieu, an antagonistic attitude reflected by the most recu r ring themes of hund reds of exhibitions and p rojects o rganized eve ry yea r in diffe rent pa rts of the wo rld: calls against death penalty, solida rity with the mino rities, ecological issues, anti-globalization, wa r and peace, etc. It is the refo re not at all fo rtuitous that the stamp fo rmat has been chosen as an app rop riate medium to explo re the mythologies behind Axis of Evil, with the di rect involvement of seve ral mail a rt pionee rs and vete rans (Banana, Bloch, Blu r r, Felte r, F ricke r, Ha rley, Held, Higgins, Mancusi, Padin, etc.). Once again and at diffe rent levels, these witty and pa radoxical miniatu res rep ropose the ete rnal battle between David and Goliath. An a rt to be licked and mailed, instead of sold and f ramed on a wall.
r the 2nd edition of the DVD:
AXIS OF EVIL – Pe
ART AS GIFT (IT’S A NET, NET, NET, NET WORLD) - Vittore Baroni - 2000 Mail art is an happy entanglement of contradictions, an “eternal” and ethereal game of hidden, guessable, imaginary, amusing, poetical, provocative, banal, revolutionary correspondences. Independently from the materials circulating in the postal network, characteristic and specific to each different period of the long evolutionary course of mail art - with a gradual but constant tendency of the net to expand and diversify - the most disruptive and distinctive feature of this form of expression remains its open to all character and above all the fact of being created to be given out as a gift. This is a simple but substantial change in attitude, that may remind us (not accidentally, given the contiguity in space and time in the development of the two disciplines) of a certain kind of avantgarde street theatre of the sixties, like the work of the Bread and Puppet Theater or of the Living Theater: total happenings that did put into practice the art=life equation with a great simplicity of languages and immediacy of communicativeness, but without excluding because of this a touching profundity of contents. Just like the Living tried in its utopian way to put in action a theatre beyond theatre able to embrace the audience in a collective rite, in a similar fashion mail art placed itself from the beginning in a art beyond art perspective, breaking all sorts of taboos concerning the preciousness and sacredness of the work of art as masterpiece (in the mail art practice the materials are often recycled, dismembered, passed from hand to hand like cadavres exquis), beyond the myth of the artist as a demiurge of genius isolated on his/her pedestal.
I wrote of art given out as a “gift” rather than exchanged, because behind the daily barter of materials it is distinctly perceptible in mail art circles a common inclination towards a disinterested offering, a desire to astonish akin to the potlatch of the American Indians, a will to make game of the pretentiousness of official art and to operate in the opposite direction to the dominating market system, to recover a more playful and purely spiritual expressive dimension. The Fluxus adventure outlined a formidable and rigorous Intermedia programme about the possibilities for art to break into everyday life, carried out by an international alliance of full-time or at least part-time artists. Mail art, as a direct and inevitable consequence of some theoretical assumptions of the Fluxus group, is a heterogeneous and discontinuous aggregation of creative interferences carried out mostly by non-artists in their spare-time. It can therefore afford the luxury of being (in every sense) gratuitous.
Vittore Baroni - excerpt from the Bassano 2000 /Sentieri Interrotti catalogue