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During the sixties, while many cultural workers were moving away from the production of art objects towards violent political agitation, others were moving into the realms of non-art. Fluxus is the best known and most typical example of this trend. From the liberating climate created by the fluxworkers' assault on the dominant culture, mail art was able to develop. Indeed, the mail art network counts many fluxus members among its earliest participants. Although Ray Johnson (born 1927), considered by many as the founding father of mail art, never joined fluxus, his work is aesthetically close to that of the fluxus group. Indeed, Johnson often exchanged work and ideas with the guiding lights of the fluxus movement. Some of the correspondence he sent Dick Higgins was eventually published as a book, "The Paper Snake" (1965), by Higgins's Something Else Press.

Johnson's work consists primarily of letters, often with the addition of doodles, drawings and rubber stamped messages. The work is lightweight and humorous; rather than being sold as a commodity it is usually mailed to friends and acquaintances. Although much of Johnson's work is given away, this hasn't prevented it attaining a market value. The late Andy Warhol was quoted as saying he would pay ten dollars for anything by Johnson (presumably meaning his letters, since Johnson is also known in the straight art world as a moderately successful pop artist).

In the early sixties Johnson adopted the name "The New York Correspondence School" (NYCS) as an umbrella term for his mailings. He'd already spent some years building up a list of people with whom he could exchange letters and other oddities. This network, with Johnson at its centre, was the NYCS. The name was a parody of other more formal organisations. In 1973, the New York Times received a 'dead letter' from Johnson, which killed off the NYCS. However there was an 'instant rebirth and metamorphosis' as the Buddha University.

Johnson was not the only aesthetic contact fluxus had with the mail system, the fluxworkers themselves used the postal system for aesthetic purposes. The fact that the movement was spread between North America, Japan and Europe, forced its members to use the mail to exchange scores and ideas. But fluxus turned necessity into advantage and were soon churning out rubber stamps and artist's stamp sheets with which to adorn their letters and envelopes. The artist's stamp sheets were gummed and perforated like ordinary postal stamps, but their use was entirely decorative. They couldn't be used in place of any official postal issue. Individual Fluxists also dreamed up methods of subverting the postal system and increasing the involvement of postal workers in their mailings. The best known example of this is the Ben Vautier postcard "The Postman's Choice" (1965). This was printed identically on both sides with lines ruled out for different addresses and space for a stamp. It was left to chance and the postal authorities to decide which of the two possible addresses it should be delivered to.

Throughout the sixties the number of cultural workers exchanging ideas and small oddities through the post - and to a lesser extent the number creating works that took their meaning from being mailed - increased. This trend was fueled by the growth of conceptual and performance art, the main public residues of which were documentation in the form of notes and photographs. Using the postal system, such works could be sent around the world at very low costs. By the early seventies various groups were publishing lists of contact addresses for people interested in exchanging such ideas and works. The best known of these lists were those compiled by Image Bank, International Artists Cooperation and Ken Friedman (the latter published the "International Contact List Of The Arts" in 1972). What had been a few hundred people mailing each other slightly crazy messages suddenly mushroomed into several thousand individuals engaged in a new cultural form. The mail art network was born.

As the network grew, so various sub-genres developed within it. However, it never created a unique style of its own. Most of those participating used the new 'hot medium' of xerox alongside old fashioned rubber stamps. Certificates were produced in great number, which, like the rubber stamps, were used to parody officialdom. Typical among these certificates is Anna Banana's "Master Of Bananology" award. Banana herself typifies the fun side of the mail art network. Much of what she does - and this varies from post card collages to events like the 'Banana Olympics' - is based on the humorous connotations of her assumed name. She has also produced vast quantities of printed matter, varying from the ephemeral "Banana Rag" to the more substantial "Vile", one of the network's better known magazines. However, although she has not lost her sense of humour, Banana's performance work has recently taken on a much more serious tone - she's ceased her well received recreations of futurist and dadaist theatre; her live work is now primarily concerned with the global ecology crisis.

While Banana's activities would be suitable as family entertainment, Pauline Smith's "Adolf Hitler Fan Club" resulted in police raids on her home. In her 1983 CV, deposited in the Tate Gallery Library, Smith describes the reasons for her interest in Hitler and how she launched the 'Fan Club':

"The ADOLF HITLER FAN CLUB was intended to be an analogy for the week-kneed (sic) British Governments since 1945 and was stimulated by local Chelsea politics regarding landlords/tenants/development/tourism, in which I was interested in the early seventies. Of course, this was not the only factor involved but it was the most pressing. The country is a mess and nothing gets any better. What I feel about the current situation will take several years more to express through my art. For the immediate present I am preoccupied with Adolf Hitler's involvement in the occult, the mediumistic nature of his public speaking and the mystery of his charismatic appeal to the multitudes. He may have been a bad man but he knew very well that people do not live by bread alone - a fact our leaders seem to have forgotten, and probably forgotten precisely because Adolf Hitler thought so deeply about meeting a people's need for inspiration... Adolf Hitler remained the subject of my painting as he had been of my Mailart and I continue to paint about him because everything that has happened in this country since his death has been a reaction against him. He is the biggest influence on this country this century."

Because most of those participating in the mail art network held liberal to left views, Pauline Smith was not only tolerated but defended by many. While much mail art was inconsequential, the network - or at least parts of it - has conducted numerous campaigns for the freeing of political prisoners, and several against nuclear weapons. The flip-side of this is that, since the early seventies, there has been a sub-genre of mail art concerned with extremism, sado-masochism and pornography. The work of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge has provided some of the best known examples of this. In 1976 P-Orridge was convicted of sending obscene collages thrown the post, and much of Fanni Tutti's cultural work has centred around her activities as a stripper and model.

Another sexual extremist working within the mail art network during the seventies was Jerry Dreva (born 1945, Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Dreva is best known for his artist's book "Wanks For The Memories: The Seminal Work/Books of Jerry Dreva". Dreva created these books by masturbating until his semen stained the pages. The completed works were mailed to friends. As a result of these activities, Dreva has been dubbed 'the man who had a thousand orgasms for art' .

Dreva is also well known for his manipulation of the mass media. One of his earliest media escapades was "Les Petites Bonbons In Hollywood", created in collaboration with Bob Lambert, Chuck Bitz and others. The Bonbons went to all the right places and thus became a famous rock group without needing to bother about music. The Bonbons received coverage in People, Newsweek, Photographic Record and Record World, on the basis of wearing the right clothes and knowing the right people. Dreva became 'so fascinated with the power of the media to create and define' that he took a job on a Wisconsin paper to 'research the entire phenomenon'. As Dreva explains in a feature in "High Performance 9" (Spring 1980):

"Eventually I began to document my own life/art performances (many of them illegal) anonymously on the pages of the newspaper I worked for."

So, for example, Dreva would graffiti the outside of a Milwaukee High School - just before its Festival of Arts - with the slogans "Art Only Exists Beyond The Confines Of Accepted Behaviour" and "Death To Romance", and then in his role as a journalist caption a photo-story about the graffiti for the local press. He would then send copies of the story to his contacts in the mail art network.

In his "High Performance" feature, Dreva is quite clear about his intentions:

".....what I'm trying to do is point to a future when art will no longer exist as a category separate from life."

Dreva's lucidity is unusual among mail artists. Although most of them perceive Dada and Fluxus as their precursors, they are on the whole unaware of the critique of separation than runs as a common thread through these two, and all other, utopian currents. Mail art's popular success was achieved at the cost of abandoning any theoretical rigor. The mail art network continues to attract the involvement of a growing proportion of the lumpen-intelligentsia from all parts of the Americas and Europe, and participants in lesser numbers from Africa, Australia, Japan and South East Asia. These networkers are - on the whole - looking for an activity which will reinforce their perception of themselves as creative and tend not to be particularly critical about their pursuits.

The phenomenal growth of mail art is partially tied to the expansion of higher education during the fifties and sixties. For those who perceive it as "art" it serves as a simulacra and substitute for the rewards higher education promised but failed to deliver. Of the millions of students processed by the art schools, only a very few actually pursue a career as a practicing fine artist.

From a materialist perspective mail art is not art, despite the insistence of many of its practitioners. The democratic nature of the mail art network clearly situates it in opposition to the elitism of art (if art is defined as the culture of the ruling class).

The sheer numbers of people involved in mail art preclude the movement from being 'officially' recognised as a manifestation of high culture for at least as long as it continues to be practiced on such a wide scale. Most art movements (Pre- Raphaelites, Impressionists, Cubists &c.) would seem to number between five and fifty members; mail art by comparison numbers thousands. For a formal and organised art movement to number even a hundred members would pose a threat to its elite status - art critics would resist elevating such a mass of individuals to the pantheon of genius simply because such an elevation would bring the category 'genius' into question. Such numbers can only be dealt with by art critics under broader umbrella terms such as Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism.

As an open network the mail art system has enormous possibilities, but for these to be realised the majority of participants have to become fully conscious of the subversive current of which their mailings form an incoherent part.

Previous: Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers etc.

Next: Beyond Mail Art

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