The Addictive Hobby of Mail Art

My name is Chris and I am a mail artist. Though I’ve been on the wagon for years now, my past still haunts me. This week’s unsolicited mail included a handmade postcard from Naples, a packet of Japanese grapefruit-flavored “shower candy” from a co-editor of the zine Sugar Needle, and a request from a German librarian “working privately on rats and mice in culture” to send, well, pictures of rats and mice.

According to some, mail art can be traced to Dada-influenced artist Ray Johnson, who used the post for creative exchange during the ’60s. I’m skeptical. Although this official view is often repeated in books and art journals, it overlooks the fact that people have been making mail art for almost as long as they have been sending letters. Prisoners decorate outgoing envelopes with drawings; children affix stickers on letters to aunts and uncles. There’s something aesthetically pleasing both in adorning the commonplace and in overturning convention.

My adventures began, innocently enough, with the Winter 1987 issue of Whole Earth Review, where I found several articles on mail art, zines, photocopier art, and “cassette culture” that captivated my imagination: Send away and get cool mail? I wrote to someone named Woman Ray at an address barely legible in the reproduction of a postcard on the magazine’s back cover. Then the magic began. Woman Ray replied, with a note in a personalized “Dodge-o-Gram” envelope, emblazoned with rubber-stamped images. Ray also sent lists of names and addresses–labeled “Brain Cell 52 and Brain Cell 61”–of others to whom I might write. They hailed from places as remote as China, Romania, and Uruguay, but most were from North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Many of the names seemed to be straight from a ’70s science fiction novel: Dogfish, Musicmaster, Leavenworth Jackson, Cracker Jack Kid. I chose John Held Jr. and took the plunge.

Good choice. A librarian then working in the art department of the Dallas Public Library, Held was compiling a massive mail art bibliography, putting him at the center of a large international movement of artists, rebels, and flakes who spurned the art industry’s galleries, juried shows, and cash-for-art economics by using the world’s postal services as a medium. Here was a network–more aptly, countless interlinked networks–of people mailing each other manifestos, collages, treasure chests, Band-Aid boxes, posters, unwrapped stones, 10th- generation photocopies, and (sometimes, fortuitously) precious ephemeral works of art.

Thanks to my new pen pal, I quickly picked up the protocols and techniques of the mail art world, not to mention its informal rules. “Mail art and money don’t mix” these artists often said, but even this basic standard could be bent if not flouted. Why shouldn’t Anna Banana charge for her full-color, gummed, perforated, commemorative artist’s stamps? Another thing I learned was that not only did many mail artists use pseudonyms, but the concept also could be turned around, with multiple people sometimes appropriating a shared alias such as Karen Eliot or Monty Cantsin. In fact, anyone can be “Chris Dodge.”

A certain pluck, if not downright hubris, goes with the mail art game. With my partner, Jan DeSirey, as enabler, I declared myself a mail artist and ordered return address labels for DeSirey Dodge Peace Post. Thus identified, I felt obliged to organize a mail art show. I sent out flyers requesting physical representations of artists’ head sizes and soon received several dozen responses ranging from half a centimeter (“Can you measure a nail head?”) to a roll of paper 105 feet long, marked with a line of green ink to depict “King Kong’s head size!” Common mail art etiquette for such projects boiled down to a simple dictum: “No rejections, no returns, documentation to all.” In fact, I did send everyone a list of participants’ names and addresses, along with a description of what they sent me; but then I bent the no-return rule slightly and mailed them someone else’s entry.

At first this was fun: the give and take, a certain private excitement in anticipating mail from strangers in distant places, holding in my hand a physical something affixed with foreign postage stamps, wondering what it might contain . . . and then to open it and to reply. For Cracker Jack Kid I made a plaster cast of my navel, which he used to make personal paper belly buttons, perforated like stamps.

My fever then rose another notch. Incoming mail multiplied. What started harmlessly turned into a manic obsession. Looking back, I can see the signs of mail art addiction:

• The highlight of each day is checking the mail.

• Postage costs rival grocery bills.

• You know your mail carrier’s exact schedule, and you fret when delivery is late.

• You’ve unwittingly memorized addresses of people in distant lands whom you’ve never met.

Out of the glut of creative (and not so creative) expression, certain patterns and forms of the mail art aesthetic became clear to me. Sometimes mail art travels from one to many: personalized stickers, badges, even balloons emblazoned with messages and sent out en masse into the world. There’s an obvious element of ego involved in some of these cases, but just as often mail art may entail a two-person collaboration or the serial participation of many. One day, a papier-mâché head arrived, rubber-banded to our front door by the mail carrier. The full-size representation of mail artist Shozo Shimamoto’s shaved head was divided up by markings into numbered sections, with instructions: “Add art to a section and send along in the mail.” Several days later, the head was on its way.

What do postal workers think about all this? Mail art has been written about in postal trade magazines in the amused tone one might use to describe an eccentric relative. To acknowledge these partners in a process that relies on them, I created and regularly used a rubber stamp with the words SOLIDARITY WITH POSTAL WORKERS. A Belgian mail artist known as Société Anonyme has also recognized their importance, organizing and publishing photographic documentation of mail artists with their mailboxes and mail carriers.

Sometimes mail art simply means sending original art to another person, perhaps using the envelope or package itself as a medium. Occasionally, mail artists send themselves. Germans Peter Küstermann and Angela Pähler (now also known as Angela and Peter Netmail) traveled the globe in 1992, hand-delivering nearly 4,000 items to about 350 mail artists worldwide. To Daniel Daligand in Paris, “the network’s leading Mickeymousologist,” they delivered a Mickey Mouse-covered umbrella. They carried a kangaroo bone from Tani in Australia to his Native American friend Rosy Gordon in Dallas. During their visit to Minneapolis, they delivered over a dozen pieces to me, and also stayed up late each night compiling graphic journals that were later bound, color-copied, rubber-stamped, and otherwise personalized and sent to those who had given them lodging.

While mail art is obviously a lot of fun, it can also be serious. I’ve been especially moved by works with a political message, like Hans Braumüller’s “500 Years of Genocide and Colonialism.” Participants originally sent Braumüller multiple copies of their art–works on paper ranging from photocopies to prints. He then compiled the pieces into beautiful and powerful packets that he presented to all the collaborators. Clemente Padin has done projects with Amnesty International and was actually imprisoned in Uruguay for two years in the late ’70s for his anti-dictatorship artistic activities, including street theater and mail art.

For several years I binged, counting the minutes until the mail carrier would arrive. As time went on, however, I gained control of my habit, choosing to save more time and creative energy for other pursuits. Instead of answering each new communiqué with an original piece, I sent out a mass-produced newsletter. And I responded to a call for a mail art show only if the theme seemed particularly meaningful.

Even so, the wonderful allure of first class mail has never ceased. The physical, tactile nature of an envelope, the tiny paper package covered with idiosyncratic handwriting, cannot be replaced by e-mail. The things about mail art that worked for me were the personal connections, finding affinity with kindred spirits living far away. Mail art gained me long-term friendships with people I’ve never met, before I’d heard of the Internet. Now I’m a small link on the periphery of the network. I now see myself more as a correspondence artist. I write letters–crisp pages of typewritten sentence upon sentence–to a chosen few.

And the things about mail art that didn’t work? There’s apparently no way to stop the steady trickle I continue to get, most from people I’ll never meet. But that’s not a problem. I’m cured now: no returns.

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