Mail art (also known as postal art and correspondence art) is a populist artistic movement centered on sending small scale works through the postal service. It initially developed out of what eventually became Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School in the 1950s and the Fluxus movement in the 1960s, though it has since developed into a global movement that continues to the present.
Media commonly used in mail art include postcards, paper, a collage of found or recycled images and objects, rubber stamps, artist-created stamps (called artistamps), and paint, but can also include music, sound art, poetry, or anything that can be put in an envelope and sent via post. Mail art is considered art once it is dispatched. Mail artists regularly call for thematic or topical mail art for use in (often unjuried) exhibition.
Mail artists appreciate interconnection with other artists. The artform promotes an egalitarian way of creating that frequently circumvents official art distribution and approval systems such as the art market, museums, and galleries. Mail artists rely on their alternative “outsider” network as the primary way of sharing their work, rather than being dependent on the ability to locate and secure exhibition space.
Mail art can be seen as anticipating the cyber communities founded on the Internet.
In the twentieth century, the dada movement and the surrealists used to practice mail art to provoke emotions and new reactions.The Dadaists consider e-mail as a way of showing the importance of social bonds by privileging relationships, art in everyday life and the enhancement of human relationships. They use collage techniques to emphasize it.
The postal art was born in 1962 of a need of communication, to pass ideas, by the verb and the image. This practice gives rise to exchanges in which the total freedom of creation is proclaimed.
The context played a key role in the birth of this art posted, so for example the framework of the two world wars has given rise to mail artists. Although soldiers were unaware of practicing postal art, it was the context of the war that caused them to draw on the envelopes or postcards they sent to their family or friends. Through the plastic expression, they could more easily describe or say what they could not write. It was also a way for them to avoid censorship.
“Correspondence art is an elusive art form, far more variegated by its very nature than, say, painting. Where a painting always involves paint and a support surface, correspondence art can appear as any one of dozens of media transmitted through the mail. While the vast majority of correspondence art or mail art activities take place in the mail, today’s new forms of electronic communication blur the edges of that forum. In the 1960s, when correspondence art first began to blossom, most artists found the postal service to be the most readily available – and least expensive – medium of exchange. Today’s micro-computers with modern facilities offer anyone computing and communicating power that two decades ago were available only to the largest institutions and corporations, and only a few decades previous weren’t available to anyone at any price.” -Ken Friedman
“Cultural exchange is a radical act. It can create paradigms for the reverential sharing and preservation of the earth’s water, soil, forests, plants and animals. The ethereal networker aesthetic calls for guiding that dream through action. Cooperation and participation, and the celebration of art as a birthing of life, vision, and spirit are first steps. The artists who meet each other in the Eternal Network have taken these steps. Their shared enterprise is a contribution to our common future.” – Chuck Welch
“The purpose of mail art, an activity shared by many artists throughout the world, is to establish an aesthetical communication between artists and common people in every corner of the globe, to divulge their work outside the structures of the art market and outside the traditional venues and institutions: a free communication in which words and signs, texts and colours act like instruments for a direct and immediate interaction.” – Loredana Parmesani
Mail art Media:
Because the democratic ethos of mail art is one of inclusion, both in terms of participants (‘anyone who can afford the postage’) and in the scope of art forms, a broad range of media are employed in creation of mail artworks. Certain materials and techniques are commonly used and frequently favored by mail artists due to their availability, convenience, and ability to produce copies.
Rubberstamps and artistamps
Mail art has adopted and appropriated several of graphic forms already associated with the postal system. The rubber stamp officially used for franking mail, already utilized by Dada and Fluxus artists, has been embraced by mail artists who, in addition to reusing ready-made rubber stamps, have them professionally made to their own designs. They also carve into erasers with linocut tools to create handmade ones. These unofficial rubber stamps, whether disseminating mail artists’ messages or simply announcing the identity of the sender, help to transform regular postcards into artworks and make envelopes an important part of the mail art experience.
Mail art has also appropriated the postage stamp as a format for individual expression. Inspired by the example of Cinderella stamps and Fluxus faux-stamps, the artistamp has spawned a vibrant sub-network of artists dedicated to creating and exchanging their own stamps and stamp sheets. Artist Jerry Dreva of the conceptual art group Les Petits Bonbons created a set of stamps and sent them to David Bowie who then used them as the inspiration for the cover of the single “Ashes to Ashes” released in 1980. Artistamps and rubber stamps, have become important staples of mail artworks, particularly in the enhancement of postcards and envelopes. The most important anthology of rubberstamp art was published by the artist Hervé Fischer in his book Art and Marginal Communication, Balland, Paris, 1974 – in French, English and German, to note also the catalog of the exhibition “Timbres d’artistes”, Published of Musée de la Poste, Paris, 1993, organized by the french artist Jean-Noël Laszlo – in French, English.
Some mail artists lavish more attention on the envelopes than the contents within. Painted envelopes are one-of-a-kind artworks with the handwritten address becoming part of the work. Stitching, embossing and an array of drawing materials can all be found on postcards, envelopes and on the contents inside.
Printing and copying
Printing is suited to mail artists who distribute their work widely. Various printmaking techniques, in addition to rubber stamping, are used to create multiples. Copy art (xerography, photocopy) is a common practice, with both mono and color copying being extensively used within the network. Ubiquitous ‘add & pass’ sheets that are designed to be circulated through the network with each artist adding and copying, chain-letter fashion, have also received some unfavorable criticism. However, Xerography has been a key technology in the creation of many short-run periodicals and zines about mail art, and for the printed documentation that has been the traditional project culmination sent to participants. Inkjet and laserprint computer printouts are also used, both to disseminate artwork and for reproducing zines and documentation, and PDF copies of paperless periodicals and unprinted documentation are circulated by email. Photography is widely used as an art form, to provide images for artistamps and rubber stamps, and within printed and digital magazines and documentation, while some projects have focused on the intersection of mail art with the medium itself.
Lettering and language
Lettering, whether handwritten or printed, is integral to mail art. The written word is used as a literary art form, as well as for personal letters and notes sent with artwork and recordings of the spoken word, both of poetry and prose, are also a part of the network. Although English has been the de facto language, because of the movement’s inception in America, an increasing number of mail artists, and mail artist groups on the Internet, now communicate in Breton, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Russian.
In addition to appropriating the postage stamp model, mail artists have assimilated other design formats for printed artworks. Artists’ books, decobooks and friendship books, banknotes, stickers, tickets, artist trading cards (ATCs), badges, food packaging, diagrams and maps have all been used.
Mail artists routinely mix media; collage and photomontage are popular, affording some mail art the stylistic qualities of pop art or Dada. Mail artists often use collage techniques to produce original postcards, envelopes and work that may be transformed using copy art techniques or computer software, then photocopied or printed out in limited editions.
Printed matter and ephemera are often circulated among mail artists, and after artistic treatment, these common items enter into the mail art network. Small assemblages, sculptural forms or found objects of irregular shapes and sizes are parceled up or sent unwrapped to deliberately tease and test the efficiency of the postal service. Mailable fake fur (“Hairmail”) and Astroturf postcards were circulated in the late 1990s.
Having borrowed the notion of intermedia from Fluxus, mail artists are often active simultaneously in several different fields of expression. Music and sound art have long been celebrated aspects of mail art, at first using cassette tape, then on CD and as sound files sent via the Internet.
Performance art has also been a prominent facet, particularly since the advent of mail art meetings and congresses. Performances recorded on film or video are communicated via DVD and movie files over the internet. Video is also increasingly being employed to document mail art shows of all kinds.
Characteristics and constraints:
The fact of using this means of transport conditions the characteristics of the object to be sent, in terms of size, weight or shape, which must adhere to the conditions established by the different postal services of each country. Often there is what we might call “transgressions” of the system by both parties, sometimes the postal artists play with the state specifications of the mail, and others, the officials allow the circulation of those objects taking part in a game that they already form part whether or not they are aware of it.
The letter, whatever its form, must travel in the open, and have been sent by the postal services. It must therefore include the recipient’s address, a stamp and be canceled. Today, the generalization of automatic sorting of mail requires the standardization of mailings. This phenomenon is likely to be a fatal blow to mail art. The materials used must not be dangerous: cutting objects and plants can not be sent. No sending must exceed 1 meter.
The channel is an integral part, and sometimes the most important one, since it contributes noise, uncertainty, or intervention on the work of the different administrative phases through which the postal journey takes place.
But the AP is something more than a simple exchange of art through the mail, it is mainly communication. Both aspects, art and communication merge in the postal sending, giving priority to each occasion and depending on each postal artist, one on the other, or establishing a compensation between both characteristics.
Today, the AP has taken over the new office or digital technologies and uses any of these new instruments as means of dissemination, thus, they were generalized before the shipments through the fax, or through email currently.