Communities Collaged: Mail Art and The Internet

By Mark Bloch

(Originally appeared in New Observations)

NEW YORK June 6, 2000- Is it a coincidence that both international mail art and the Internet reached a critical mass in the late 1960s?

Mail art was expanding exponentially as a new generation of artists all over the world practiced ideas developed a decade earlier about artists linking via the postal system, both within and beyond their geographical limitations.

In March ‘68, artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht emerged from a “sort of workshop” and “international center of permanent creation” in the south of France called La Cedille qui Sourit  and announced they “had developed the concept of the Fête Permanente or Eternal Network, as we chose to translate it into English, which we think should allow us to spread this spirit more efficiently than before… we announced our intentions and sent it to our numerous correspondents… The artist must realize also that his is part of a wider network… going on all around him all the time in all parts of the world.”

“My mail box lit up,” said Anna Banana of her entrée the early 70s, “the network just suddenly went ‘pow’… From these… mostly artists who knew each other… all hell broke loose. File started publishing... Everyone who saw it was like, ‘This is neat! Let’s do it.’”

Meanwhile, a contract for the development of what would become the Internet was awarded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in fall 1968. A year later, the first pieces of the ARPANET were in place. Researchers in several universities, military bases and government labs used it to exchange files and electronic mail and to provide remote login to each other’s sites.

Was this activity the parallel development of two diverse communications media whose time had come or was the mail art network an earlier form of what we now call “cyberspace”?  Fluxus artist Geoff Hendricks, who was (and is) also a link to a community emerging at Rutgers University in the late 1950s suggests that:

“People today are using the Internet and web sites and so forth very extensively for the communication of art ideas… it’s more like correspondence art and what was happening with Fluxus ... a perceiving of… the end of easel painting and modernism and that whole aspect of art... realizing that there’s a another form of communication between artists and another way to express art ideas… it’s almost like all of this is in anticipation of the Internet. It’s using that slightly older form of the post to exchange ideas but realizing that this is the communication that we need to have today: to talk to each other, to reach each other.

Was the increasing irrelevancy of the tangible art object in favor of a collective reaching out to other artists by artists in a non-hierarchical social structure, at that moment in time, the beginning of the changes we now see being experienced by the culture at large?

In 1945, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development under FDR, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), published a groundbreaking article, "As We May Think" in Atlantic Monthly magazine. Bush introduced his conception of the “Memex” machine- an “easily accessible, individually configurable storehouse of knowledge.” Imagining an analog computer, Bush was unknowingly laying the groundwork for hypertext, a system for “multiple authorship, a blurring of the author and reader functions, multiple reading paths, and extended works with diffuse boundaries.” Ironically, he abandoned his research when the digital computer was invented but his ideas were adapted by Ted Nelson (b. 1937) who coined the phrase “hypertext” in the mid-60’s.

In 1943, Ray Johnson began an illustrated correspondence with a hometown Detroit artist. Shortly thereafter, Johnson headed for the experimental Black Mountain College where he added a new circle of friends to accompany him on his five-decade journey exploring long distance art communication, eventually called the New York Correspondence School.  When Johnson and others, including Black Mountain teacher John Cage, moved to New York, actually living across the hall from each other in 1948, the small intersecting spheres of post-war artists began to coalesce. Cage’s 1958 classes at the New School led to Fluxus and Happenings while Johnson continued to build his own overlapping network.

Two years before the first Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962, Johnson (who by 1955 claimed a mailing list of 200 people) held a “nothing,” his response to the “happenings” of Alan Kaprow (himself part of the Rutgers group) at George Maciunas’ Manhattan AG Gallery. Maciunas, in turn, had been influenced by a similar program of gigs at Yoko Ono’s downtown loft. Thus, by the time Johnson’s “school” and Maciunas’ Fluxus were named in ‘62, all the pieces were in place for a cross-fertilization of iconoclastic ideas already enveloping American artists by word of mouth and mail.

The ambitious Maciunas next created Fluxus newsletters to unite like-minded artists around the goals of his collective: to “fuse the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front and action.” The newsletters played a vital role in bridging two continents as the Fluxfest took form in Wiesbaden.

There, and also at the 1962 Misfits exhibition in London, the already complex collection of American nodes led by Maciunas intersected with Daniel Spoerri, founder of the experimental magazine Material, and part of the French New Realism group, and his friends Dieter Rot, Emmett Williams, Ben Vautier and Filliou.

That same year, Johnson corresponded with Christo in France and when Ray’s friend Henry Martin moved to Italy in ‘65, the Correspondence School meandered permanently into Europe. Meanwhile, Maciunas contacted Joseph Beuys in ’63 as Nam June Paik learned of Fluxus from Mieko Shiomi in Japan and established contact.

Brecht and Robert Watts, meeting informally at a restaurant near Rutgers, masterminded their inter-disciplinary 1963 Yam Festival, including mail events. By ’65, Spoerri had moved Stateside while Brecht sold his belongings, eventually heading with Filliou to the south of France. Books published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, including one of Johnson’s correspondence and one of Spoerri’s games with chance, also grew the circle.

Whether it was called art or not, whether it began with Mallarme, the Beats, McLuhan or some unidentified form of spontaneous combustion, the importance of “community” was in the air by 1968. As the student movement stirred uneasily around the world, the stage was now set for new tactics to take hold.

Once created, the ARPANET quietly transformed over the next two decades. In 1975 the worldwide communication system was transferred from ARPA to the Department of Defense, which partitioned it in 1983 into two connected networks that agreed to pass traffic to each other. The National Science Foundation NSFNET for experimental research eventually became the dominant backbone of the Internet.

Using the post and not wires, in the late ‘60s a young Flux-driven Ken Friedman joined forces with a pair of Canadian nodes, Vancouver’s Image Bank and Toronto’s General Idea, publisher of File Megazine, to bring the “artist address list” center stage. Borrowing the concept and some addresses from Friedman and Johnson, what began as a postcard show became a request list for and finally a conduit from North America into South America via visual poetry circles and via Beuys and grassroots political networks into East Germany, Hungary, and beyond. (Today, Flash Art’s annual Art Diary is a direct outgrowth of this activity.)

Soon after, articles on the interweaving networks in Art in America and Rolling Stone brought “mail art” to a generation of art students as still more publications did later to sci-fi and punk music enthusiasts. Thus did this gift-driven, do-it-yourself sensibility explode in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yet, as a cultural strategy, it was just beginning.

Realizing that data communication was crucial to scientific research, in 1987, the National Science Foundation insured that network communications would be available for US scientists and engineers. By mid-summer 1988 a larger NSFNET backbone was in place; the original shut down and disconnected. Then, in 1991, with the Internet growing beyond science and academia, a policy of commercialization and privatization by the US government began, including, for the first time, charging institutions for connections.

In 1982, I had put a computer-generated sticker on my magazine Panmag’s Issue #1: “Computers are the next logical step in mail art.” After exposure to both Mac’s and DOS based operating systems in my job as a multimedia producer, in 1985 I embarked on combining correspondence with computer generated art. I bought my first Macintosh in 1986. I exchanged computer works with Charles Françoise in Belgium and an American artist appropriately named Gene Laughter. I also recall a magazine called DooDa Florida that used a Mac. I’m sure there were others infiltrating the network.

On November 11, 1989, during a visit to Françoise’s home in Liege, I physically saw and participated in his newly created RATOS (Research in Art and Telecommunication) BBS. Two days later, Françoise, Rod Summers and I met in Maastricht, Netherlands for the First Computer Mailart Congress. Summers, a Dutch veteran of audiocassette exchanges, used a Sinclair, Acorn and finally an Amiga 4000 computer to create artistbook catalogues in the ‘80s.

When I returned to the US I logged on to Factsheet Five’s and then the WELL, where I checked out John Cage’s First Meeting of the Satie Society and connected with Fred Truck and Carl Loeffler, mail artists I had met in San Francisco in 1984. In 1990, I established a teleconferencing system of my own called Panscan. Part of the Echo BBS in New York, it was visited by mail artists including Françoise, Guy Bleus, Xexoxial Endarchy, Mark Pawson, and Robert Delford Brown, a correspondent of Johnson’s since the early 1960s.

In April 1990, Chuck Welch and I connected our modems together and Chuck sent his first electronic file, something I had done with RATOS and others the previous December. By 1995, Welch had one-upped me, establishing EMMA: the Electronic Museum of Mail Art, the first mail art web site. Anxious to catch up, I posted my hypertext tribute to Ray Johnson about a week later. Johnson drowned earlier that year and I had been slowly building an HTML-based bio of Ray that I planned to be the first mail art web site on the burgeoning web.

Since then, of course, a thousand mail art-related sites have bloomed. The number of mail artists with email has increased a handful in 1995 to thousands today. Entire discussion groups now debate the pros and cons of mail art, what constitutes a Fluxus artist and how many can dance on the head of a pin.

Finding yesterday’s (and tomorrow’s) long-distance art superstars is only a click away on today’s net. I used email to arrange a face to face meeting with AA Bronson, one third of the influential General Idea team that created File Megazine in 1972. I had never met or corresponded with either him or his two late partners but the Internet and a mutual friend now brought Bronson and I together.

In a talk we had in February 2000, Bronson said:

“It’s a whole book to discuss about all the various threads of what was going on. I think it-- let’s call it the “electronic revolution”-- is already in progress without there being an electronic technology in place. So, the whole idea of networking on very horizontal rather than vertical structures. For example, the ideas of co-ops and communes... is roughly equivalent to the concept of the Internet. It’s about a very horizontal, free-flow sort of structure. It’s not based on a hierarchy and it’s not based on equality per se and it’s not based on… a sort of Marxist notion. It’s much more about free-form networking that operates in a very organic sort of way. So the Correspondence Art was very much like an illustration of that. It’s like the Internet… it’s exactly like the Internet in its structure and in the way it happened and the way it changed and shifted all the time.

“And it’s quite interesting the way these little banks of images pulled out of the popular culture were collected and then recycled-- very much the way imagery passes through the Internet, through everybody’s emails-- especially in the pornographic aspect of the network. The way people scan images out of magazines and trade them with each other and set up home web sites that have big banks of a particular kind of imagery and that sort of thing. So it’s very similar. I think it was, and is, the feeling of the time. It was appearing with a small group of people who were, in a way, more conceptually advanced. It was just part of the their nature. And it’s really now that it’s appearing in the culture at large. Buckminster Fuller always talked about a 25 year lag between something being invented and something appearing in the culture at large and that’s sort of how correspondence was. It was something for just a few people and now in the form of the Internet, it’s just sort of everyday activity for everybody.”

Bronson and several others changed direction in 1974 when the mainstream magazine articles appeared and artists stopped using the image request lists and just sending anything to anybody-- or everybody. Was that a precursor to today’s email “spam”? Are web sites the electronic equivalent of “zines”? Did Ray Johnson’s first “add to and send to” in 1962 lead to the Linux “open source” operating system: given away freely, not subject to copyright, with programmers encouraged to add to and improve?

Observing the fluidity of random interactions as “people passed information… standing at tables by the serving hatch, where coffee and croissants were served” helped Tim Berners-Lee mastermind the organizing principals of his Worldwide Web. What better testimonial is there to the ultimate expediency of Dada’s adherence to the laws of chance? The Internet required a detour into the realm of science to be created, but it remains an art form.

As it reaches a level of total saturation around the world, can electronic communication avoid pitfalls and capitalize on its strengths? Whether premonition, precursor, or just a goofy first cousin, mail art’s rich history represents a valuable inspiration and under-explored resource for the Internet.

Note: Mark Bloch wishes to acknowledge the following sources: Emmett Williams and Ann Noel, editors, Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas 1931-1978, 1997, Thames and Hudson, London; Catherine Guidis and John Farmer, editors, Ray Johnson: Correspondences, Flammarion and Wexner Ctr. for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio,1999; Joan Marter, editor, Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963 The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, 1999; Douglas E. Comer, Internetworking with TCP/IP, Volume 1,Third Edition, Prentice Hall Inc. , 1995; Sharla Sava, Clive Robertson, editors, Robert Filliou: From Political to Poetical Economy, Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, B.C., 1995 as well as conversations with Anna Banana, AA Bronson, Ken Friedman, Geoff Hendricks, Michael Morris, and Daniel Spoerri, and email correspondences with Tim Berners-Lee, Judith Hoffberg, Henry Martin and others.