An Interview with Bern Porter
by Mark Bloch, circa 1985
Bernard Harden Porter (1911 - 2004) died Monday, June 7. He was a fascinating man. Before WWII, he worked as a physicist on cathrode ray tube technology that led to the creation of television. When the U.S. entered the war, Bern was drafted for uranium separation work on the Manhattan Project with Albert Einstein, a job he quit after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Next, Bern Porter was the first U.S. publisher of Henry Miller. He published Miller's anti-war tract, "Murder the Murderers" and also actively promoted and published other writers such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Anais Nin under his own imprint Bern Porter Books. He was also an early correspondent with Ray Johnson and urged Ray to collaborate with him on a project for a Russian publisher that was never realized. At the same time he published others, he developed his own art that incorporated found poetry, sound poetry, mail art and performance art among other art forms. Porter remained an advocate of self-publishing throughout his life.
Porter worked again as a physicist on NASA's Saturn V manned space project and while working on the integration of science and art, he formally developed his "Sciart Mainfesto" in 1950. He later founded the Institute for Advanced Thinking in Maine, a headquarters for his network of non-academic scholars in various arts. Among other things, the Institute had a Wilhelm Reich Orgone Accumulator on the premises. He lived in Maine until his death of natural causes June 7, 2004, the day after Ronald Reagan died. He probably would have found this coincidence annoying, or perhaps amusing. I do distinctly remember his opening a New York City lecture and discussion in the mid-eighties by chanting ritualistically, "Hail Nancy Reagan. Hail Nancy Reagan."
It may have been during that visit of his to Manhattan that I had a chance to sit down with Bern in the kitchen of our mutual friend Carlo Pittore for a taped discussion about mail art. His strategies for world peace were quite interesting then and perhaps even moreso now. Either way, he was an amazing person and the world will miss him and his unique point of view a great deal. His official website can be found at http://www.mainepoetry.com/bern.html
So here is our interview, which I present as a tribute to him. I am not sure when it took place. Some time in 1984 or 85.
Mark Bloch- So tell me, Bern, how's New York?
Bern Porter- I find it almost as repulsive as it's ever been. It's noisy, it's crowded, the streets are lined with garbage, buildings are in need of restoration, the people are ...well, people, I guess you'd say.
MB- Do you like people in general?
Bern- Well its possible I would like to see a miracle in biology and see better, stronger, wholesome, more enlightened, people born. I'm looking for a new person, in other words, to be created, biologically.
MB- I was looking at this interview that you did with Phil Nurenberg. You've certainly known a lot of interesting people over the years. Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Patchen, Einstein, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Werner von Braun, Anais Nin, Henry Miller. What do all these people have in common, if anything?
Bern- They were, are, pioneers in producing. And their work is such that has never been created before. They made breakthroughs and were adventuresome in their explorations. They were not afraid to oppose tradition or society; they were referred to as controversial because they rebelled. Without them we would be stagnant and pretty much behind the eight ball. I came in contact with them because I was in the publishing business, I sought them or vice versa.
MB- In 1983, I sent out an open call for the Last Mail Art Show and I have extended the deadline indefinitely because so many people are giving such interesting answers on the topic of mail art being over with.
Bern- I'm delighted to hear you started in 83 and you haven't finished because this is a continuing phenomenon and there will be no one, in my opinion, who will be in the position to say The Last Mail Art Show. Unless you are a satirist and making fun of the whole thing. It's very unfortunate to get out any suggestion that it has come to the end. The reason is quite clear that even those who practice it don't even know what it is. The quality of the items they submit is not up to their best and the total realization of what this is, is not known to the masses.
We were at 57th Street last night and saw 200 people, if you asked those 200 people, "What is Mail Art?", I would be surprised if there would be more than four who could even tell you anything about it.
So we have a long way to go with a very powerful tool. And it's not possible for you or anyone to sit around and say The Last Mail Art Show, unless you're making fun of the whole thing.
MB- Do you think that public awareness has something to do with our efforts coming to fruition, or is it just for us?
Bern- The first thing you have to realize is that this is an underground movement and its success depends on it being underground. But it's success also requires that a very substantial majority know about it and know where it is and what it's doing. To my knowledge that's not true. We are a very select people throughout the world, not more than 600 in number. Our number should be considerably more than 600. On the other hand, it's very interesting that 600 may just be enough to carry on with what we are doing. So I'm not happy with the following:
Number one, how few people know about what we're doing.
Number two, how few of us who are doing it understand what it is we are doing.
And three, that the quality of our work is not much more improved.
So in effect I'm saying if you feel that it's ending, it's because of the inferiority -that the practitioners are falling down along with our responsibility. And the masses are unaware, continuing to be unaware, of our worth.
MB- And what is our worth?
Bern- Well it happens that on the top layer the media of newspapers, radio, television and books create a screen of fear, doubt and misunderstanding, and all of this has to be broken.
MB- And how can it be broken?
Bern- The only way it can be broken is by people touching one another.
MB- On what level?
Bern-The only way I know of is through the world network of practitioners like ourselves. So, we still have a long way to go.
MB- Do you know what we're doing?
Bern- Not really, and the reason I don't know what we're doing is that, unlike most of you, I am in touch by personal visits ... I have more than personal contact, I have meetings face-to-face in exotic parts of the world, I find it difficult to answer your question because in each part of the world that I go, the people that I encounter are flavored by their own background, their own native tradition, their native myths. The universal aspect of combining these national views which are now regional, into a universal language is still to come. And I must point out that, so far, this is a universal thing. it just hasn't come to its full fruition.
MB- So, are you talking about things that we have in common as a sort of lowest common denominator, or celebrating the differences between people? What do you think it would take to get us all on the same wavelength, or are we already on the same wavelength?
Bern- Well, 600 of us in about 40 countries are already on the same wavelength, I should be elated about this instead of making disparaging remarks, because the 600 of us can in effect save the world. If we could somehow only get over our regionalism.
For example, some mail artists in Sri Lanka are influenced by their incredible background of forty thousand years of civilization. Where as the mail artists in Manhattan are hampered by the fact that they are only 350 years old. The mail artists of Malaysia and those of Manhattan do have a common objective, that is, of touching one another, reaching one another and saying something to one another. This is highly desirable.
The time has come to clarify the atmosphere, to clarify world confusion, doubt, fear, and violence. That's why we are essentially an underground movement and as such are extremely valuable. Maybe if we came to the surfaces then maybe we would fail.
MB-Yes, isn't there that danger of reaching a lot of people, or gaining public acceptance, mass attention?
Bern- There is a danger, but there is also a danger of being totally underground. There's a happy medium however, that I'm in favor of. I insist that the quality of the items we send must be better. If you feel we are coming to a close, it's because the quality of the things we are sending is inferior to our best. When you send out an item, it should be the very best that you can produce.
MB- What if people just don't have the time to produce quality work?
Bern- In that case they should not assume that they are part of the network. You either produce your best or get out.
MB- The obstacle that we're all up against, the reason that we're trying to "save the world" is because there are obviously some problems with it. And a lot of these problems dictate that people just can't spend a lot of their time making personal objects to send to individuals that they've never met. Especially when they are trying to reach out to 600 people or any portion thereof.
Bern- It behooves us to think about it more seriously than we do. My complaint is that while it's true that we're doing a fantastic job, and we have great potential, I think that we're falling down.
Even you. You made the remark that this is the Last Mail Art Show. I think that our future has just begun. There are groups all over the world working on all matters of issues. It's interesting that the mail artist has the advantage over all of them. Some miners, for example, are parading today on the streets of England. Some people in Ireland are shooting at one another. In Central America they are carrying on in numerous directions involving violence and misunderstanding.
On the common denominator level, there stands the mail artist who is free to send an underground message to all groups, "Let's resolve our problems, lets get on." so we're in a very ideal position. We don't march on the street. We don't put ads in the paper; we don't speak on the radio. But in an underground way, we're in a position to send a message worldwide of any theme that we want to mention. And it's interesting that all of these themes, no matter what they are, are speaking about the same thing: Primarily, let's touch one another; let's get together. More than that, let's love one another.
MB- What I'd like to know, is how much ego there should be in mail art, because obviously there has to be some, because without ego, there wouldn't be the personalities to do it, right?
Bern- All of us are a bundle of egos to be sure, but in this journey to be an egotist, one stumbles over a great number of issues and bundles of questions. In the course of this, takes on one which sort of feels right for him, what feels right for him whether he is in Columbus or Sri Lanka, also feels right for someone in Japan or West Germany.
MB- And what is this something that, "feels right?"
Bern- It's a vibration, plasma of energy, a gem on a vast beach, which says, "Hello, I am well, are you well? Do you feel as I do?" This is a very important contact and I know of no other means of establishing it. The next step is to improve the quality of our submissions and secondly, to feel more intensely the message that we are trying to impart, it is very wrong for us to send something to someone and expect a reply. It is better that we merely manifest the energy of an idea and send it out.
And if you don't feel right about what you generate and send out, then perhaps you should get out of the whole thing. Just forget about it. On the other hand, if you're not willing to set it aside, then you should examine why it is that you want to put anything out, I'm wanting everyone involved to make it top quality and in addition I'm hoping everyone involved will feel some personal excitement, some fulfillment in the act of having an idea. Than cementing it to a piece of paper and running to the post office with it. Just that act alone is all that I feel is necessary. That's the key element. That ideas be generated, manifested, then sent out. And this energy will take care of the result.
You seem to be experiencing some doubts and I would like to ask you not to have that. You must discover the single most exciting thing that you personally can do for yourself. If you find this and express this, then send it out, you have fulfilled yourself. It's not necessary to question what the others are doing, or has it come to an end. And if you're not getting any satisfaction in this process, then perhaps you should say, "Well, mail art is not for me," and move on to something else.
One of the features of our culture is that only with great force and discipline can you concentrate on any given thing. There's a staggering number of possibilities, so much that they are overwhelming. So we must fight off what is undesirable, which is not intense and concentrate on this simple little spark of awareness. Which brings me to the point that out of 24 hours in a day, it's a very unusual individual who is using his faculties any more than 5 or 6 minutes out of 24 hours. I'm calling for high intensity, concentrated production; first quality, which gives you pleasure and satisfaction, without questioning it, without doubt. I'm saying that the generating is the feature.
Throughout the world there are people who are doing this and it's interesting that at the end result of what they do is pretty much of a common statement. A metaphor would be the innumerable religions and cults and all of them are talking about the same thing. They just use different symbols and languages. So in this morass of what you think is complex is actually quite simple.
You have to achieve zero position through relaxation. You have to be cool, calm, collected and aware, then you start to glow, radiate and that's what matters.
MB- Do you think that the universe is perfect as it is now, or are there things, events that disturb you?
Bern- Well, its been put together by a perfect designer. Of that you can be sure. It's just that the interpreters can come along and they've fouled it up in such a way that it's hard to be aware of that design. So you have to dismiss what has been done before you and see what you personally can contribute.
It turns out that what you can contribute requires first this state of relaxation. It requires an excitement about something. And to the degree that you have the urge to state it, make a postcard of it, then send it out. You have to review the things you are doing and discard those which are causing you concern and doubt, and cling to those which you are most secure with this is a continuing process, this organization.
MB- Do you think that mail art should organize any more than it is now?
Bern- No. It's success depends on the fact that its not organized. Its very loose, free. If it becomes organized, I think the spontaneity would be lost.
MB- How can it gain more attention without being organized?
Bern- Most people, as I understand it, feel that they must send something back the same day they receive something in the mail. When you receive something, you are the bearer of a torch, which must be passed on. Maybe not to the sender, but to anyone, near or remote. Someone you've never met. So, when you send something back to the sender, you're closing the circuit. When you are sending it to someone you've never met, you are bringing in a new cohort, a new convert. You are spreading the message.
You might get a response from the person asking, "Who the hell are you?" which would be a very healthy response. The only way we can widen this circle is by sending things to unknowns. Just go through the telephone book, pick out an interesting name, put a stamp on it and send it to him or her.
MB- Do you really think that will work?
Bern- I think that achieves the objective of the system, I think we're closing it, tightening it when we send things to one another.
MB- You mean the mail art system?
Bern- I mean the simple act of receiving something from a mail artist and feeling an obligation of sending it to an unknown, when some theme is established for a central collection point such as an exhibit, you of course send to that. Simultaneously you send copies or other items to others unknown to you. I guess most mail artists think of this as a new idea. The thinking is that we're a closed circuit, but we're not. I suggest everyone try this the next time they receive something, don't feel obligated to reply by returning something of yours to that person, send it to someone who you've never met.
MB- But we get things now from new people and we just don't know where these things are coming from, or who's behind it, or how they ever found out about mail art; what their objectives are or who will see the work we send back. Do you feel that matters?
Bern- That's contrary to the whole system. We shouldn't be questioning who started this, "How did they get my name?" You should respond as early as possible and send your best work.
MB- You think we should send our best work to a mystery address?
Bern- That's correct, it's one of the basic principals. You have been contacted and you respond.
MB- Is there any responsibility in any of this?
Bern- Yes, there is, several. You respond immediately, spontaneously and with your best.
MB- What is the responsibility of the person on the other end?
Bern- No need to worry, if he's part of the bona fide system, then he is under obligation to send and exhibit and not to reject.
MB- Is it a mistake then to challenge Dr. Ronnie Cohen, when she....
Bern- No, that (mail artists publicly challenging a curator who erred) was one of the most exciting things to have happened around here in a long time. And if Colby (College) messes up (on their mail art show), then they are to be challenged also. But don't start out with the idea that things are going to be contrary. And don't think that there's no responsibility at the other end. They will take care of that. You have to take care of yourself by responding immediately.
MB- Couldn't a person make a career out of this, similar to a full time job?
Bern- Yes. I personally receive anything from four to eight items a week that need response, so its a personal choice on the participant's part.
MB- My Last Mail Art Show could be considered as a statement, about running out of spontaneity and creative ideas in this particular form. I'm tired of all these shows. And people who don't really know too much about it writing articles and books about it. I'm wondering what's something similar that we can do to take it a step further and let it evolve into something else.
Bern- It has generated quite a few things. For instance, the mail poem. This is a system where instead of sending so-called art, you send poems. They can either be complete, or just two lines. And they, in effect, ask the receiver to either criticize or add his own two lines, and then it gets sent on. Then when someone feels it's complete, it gets sent back to the sender. This serves as a valid outgrowth of mail art. Dick Higgins and I invented mail poems and had specimens published in Germany. Couldn't get it published here, everyone thought we were nuts, but in Germany they're highly appreciative. What else? There's people who play chess by mail.
MB- This year is the 100th Anniversary of Duchamp's chess by correspondence competition. He was the head of the French team. I thought we should commemorate it this year.
Bern- This mail phenomena touches chess, art, poetry, music.
MB- What can it extend to that it already hasn't touched?
Bern- Hopefully the political arena. In that sense we would have mail politics, mail government. This is a very powerful tool. So again, I'm very disturbed that you may want to end it all with this Last Mail Art Show.
MB- I haven't really said that I wanted to end it; I'm merely raising the question, should we end it?
MB- Why do you say no?
Bern- It's unfortunate that you would even raise the question. What's important is to respond without question. And if it gets too expensive, cut back, but keep your hand in so that you are not completely forgotten. I admit that I've done it, slacked off. And I apologize for it. But in general, out of every ten requests, eight I will respond to.
MB- Do you think that a mediocre response is not as bad as no response at all?
Bern- If you can't make a super response, don't make it.
MB- Thanks Bern.