Fluxus arrived in the mail. It was formed and fueled by the international postal system. Even before the publication of Fluxus 1—with envelopes as pages packaged in a unique ready-to-mail container—delivery by mail was a necessary and vital element for those involved. The proto-Fluxus book An Anthology reproduced a facsimile letter, Plans of Action—complete with envelope—by Dennis Johnson. George Brecht and Bob Watts’ Yam Festival—an American parallel to early Fluxus activities—was constituted largely as a series of postal events. From the organization of the European Fluxum Festorum to George Maciunas’s erratic Newsletters, the mail informed and inflected the fluid ideology of the group, of which perhaps the most radical gesture was the Fluxus Mail-order Warehouse. And just as these elements were configured in part by the conventions of the post office, Fluxus in its turn shaped many communities of Mail Art. In their ambition to connect dimly discerned international communities within the experimental arts, the loose coalition of Fluxus artists provided models for correspondence artists. Mail Art’s enthusiasm for anthology, stylistic heterogeneity, gender and geographic diversity, publishing acumen and imagination, devolved administration, and overarching sense of humor are direct repercussions of Fluxus’s modalities. Fluxus was disseminated by mail and spread across Europe, Japan, and America during the 1960s, and Mail Art continued the development and circulation of these ideas across oceans and political divides through the next decades.
Since Sir Rowland Hill conceived the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, mail has been a vehicle for expression, and personal mail—whether love letters from long ago or a scribbled vacation postcard—acts as a gift which once made the arrival of the post a significant event. Mail Art is creative communication at a distance between and among individuals, and it, too, carries some elements of gift-exchange and of familial, friendly, or accordant relations.
Mail Art allowed all kinds of unorthodox ideas to travel widely. In letters and on postcards, in Xeroxes, indexes, and magazines, it acknowledged few ideological barriers and was only reluctantly constrained by the regulations of the Post Office. Determinedly international commonalities met amicably and in defiance of contemporary norms in mailboxes and assorted envelopes from Elblag or Omaha to Brno or Dubba, ignoring or gaming the controls and conditions that would have made actual meetings impossible. The official rules and practical constraints that come with the mail even provided raw material for Mail Art. Repressive cultures led to creative solutions against mail surveillance and interference, whereas more liberal regimes made easy targets for Mail Art anarchists. These challenges and responses were collaboratively explored by artists, and the interchanging influences are visible in the works they mailed.
Moreover, the manifold forms and concerns of Mail Art communities often ignored conventions of exhibition, of editorial authority, and of centralized power—whether geographic, political, or stylistic—always eschewing any unified creed or dogma. Some Mail Art networks made strident calls for an art world with “no jury, no returns and no fee,” while a few individuals addressed postcards directly to MoMA, NY. A number of Mail Artists created fake stamps to cheat the office of the post, but Ben Vautier’s double-sided Flux Post-card left the final destination in the hands of the mail-deliverer. Alighiero e Boetti’s year-long mail event remains secreted in sealed envelopes, while Genesis P-Orridge was prosecuted under obscenity laws for sending a surrealist-inspired postcard.
The antic collection presented here was originally exhibited in 1982 at the Royal College of Art, London. As announced in the posted introduction, it was part of my submission for an M.A. in Cultural History [a short-lived programme founded by my inspiring and generous tutor—later president of RCA—Sir Christopher Frayling]. His was a bold and interdisciplinary curriculum, and my thesis attempted to live up to the ideals I felt it embodied. Entitled Fluxus: Early Years and Close Correspondences, the submission was in three parts: a written element consisting of a dozen short chapters, presented loosely in a box to be read in any order, each dealing with the most vital elements of Fluxus as I saw them; a ¾ inch Umatic videotape of about twenty-five minutes, featuring selected Fluxus events composed by central characters in the group [performed by myself and two friends, Clive Howard and Helen Begley, and videotaped by fellow student, Margaret Warwick]; and the exhibition of Mail Art re-presented here.
In the early 1980s, Fluxus was not well-known, the Eternal Network less so, and thus the tenor of my thesis was mostly expository rather than theoretical. I had fortuitously been exposed to Fluxus, to artists’ books, and to Mail Art as an undergraduate art student in Sunderland through the seemingly effortless teaching of Robin Crozier, a genial genius as well as a considerable force in Mail Art and intermedia before the terms were widely used. Robin was not only in correspondence with Fluxus artists and Mail Artists all over the world, but happy to share ideas and addresses with any interested student. His 1975 exhibit and publication Portrait of Robin Crozier [Ceolfrith Press, Sunderland] was a seminal influence on my thinking about identity and representation, as well as art. It was through Crozier’s good offices that I first performed his and others’ event scores and got access to artists’ books such as those published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, among others. Under Robin’s magnanimous tutelage, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Fluxus, and it was he who prompted me to write and ask Alison Knowles, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Wolf Vostell, Ken Friedman, and others for Twenty Words about Fluxus. No doubt it was the confounding success of that maneuver which led me, a few years later, to the idea of asking practicing Mail Artists to answer my blunt questions about the relationship between Correspondence Art and Fluxus.
I was a desultory correspondent and undisciplined artist, but from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, the mail kept me connected to a larger world of egalitarian ideology and creativity that seemed increasingly relevant. Because Mail Art required little personal commitment, less financial outlay, and no justification, it fitted my situation. One replied or not, depending on individual taste, opportunity, or ability to keep to deadlines: to me, at that time, it seemed akin to Fluxus, but without the weight of organization Maciunas had designed, or the museum-worthy reputations that artists such as Nam June Paik or Yoko Ono were then accumulating. It was intentionally affordable, addresses were easily available, and different circuits of correspondents catered to different personal styles.
By the standards of current curatorial protocol, my Mail Art exhibition was ill-considered and unprofessional. Most decisions were made pragmatically, and the casual Introduction characterizes my approach embarrassingly well. The addresses came from a variety of correspondence notices, photocopied then literally cut-and-pasted, and apart from some in Crozier’s hand, I do not recall the other sources. Of course, not everyone responded, but I remember being anxious to include correspondents whose work I deemed interesting, for example, the inimitable Bern Porter, who began on Tuesday November 11, 1914; Pawel Petasz, founding editor of the remarkable shape-shifting periodical Commonpress; Vittore Baroni, prolific and thoughtful publisher of Arte Postale; the zany enthusiasms of Anna Banana and Bill Gaglione, et cetera, but I chose not to repeat requests to Fluxus artists, and many recipients were completely unknown to me.
I had few expectations of the exhibit, and resources were severely limited, so posterity was far from my mind in planning or execution. I produced the invitation-form in the letterpress shop at RCA using my evident paucity of design skills; before mailing, I decorated some with my own hand-made rubber-stamped slogans. The mounting boards were donated by my mother, who worked at a printing press, and each submission was, as is now obvious, attached with non-archival tape. The boards were unceremoniously stapled to the wall.
My well-intentioned scheme to spread the contents among interested visitors—which comported with a number of experiments of the period to keep the correspondence moving—was an utter failure, and with the exception of one work being mysteriously removed from its mount, apparently no one actually interacted with the exhibition.
Until this international online airing, the material has subsequently lain in a box and been seen only by students of the graduate seminar I occasionally teach in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: Opening & Unfolding: Correspondence Art. In this electronic iteration, you will open your screen, but the unfolding may occur elsewhere.
I hope it works.
Artists originally exhibiting in 1982 (plus half-a-dozen entries from unknown or anonymous contributors): Ackerman, A.; Barber, D.; Baroni, V.; Bennett, J.M.; Brancatelli, R.; C, Richard; Calleja, J.M.; Cammer, L.; Canals, X.; Cracker Jack Kid; Craven, C.; Crozier, R.; D’Adda, B.; Dana, L.; de Araujo, A.; de Jonge, K.; Dreyfus, C.; Duch, L.F.; Eckmeyer, R.M.; Evans, J.; Farkas, S.; Fletcher, L.; Frangione, N.; Fricker, H-R; Gaglione, W.; Gnazzo, A.J.; Groh, K.; Hahn, H.; Harley; Helmes, S.; Higgins III, E.F.; Hoare, T.; Hompson, D-D; HYPE; Johnson, J.; Larter, P.; Lipman, J.; Lusignoli, G.; Mark, P.; Marx, G.G.; Minkoff/Oleson; Morgan, R.; Ockerse, T.; Olbricht, J.O.; Orworks; Pack, T.; Perfetti, M.; Petasz, P.; Porter, B.; Radio Free Dada; Radio, R.; Rousselle, N.; Schmidt-Olsen, C.; Scott, M.; Shown, J.; Siff, E.; Spiegelman, L.; Summers, R.; Tahoe, E.; Tóth, G.; Tupitsyn, V.; van Geluwe, J.; Welch, C.; and Wielgosz, A.
Simon Anderson is a British-born-and-educated cultural historian whose art-school exposure to Fluxus helped to mold his career. He has worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1993, teaching a range of seminars and lecture classes around twentieth-century art and anti-art. In addition to organizing exhibitions, designing, and producing publications, he has written exhibition commentaries, magazine criticism, and book chapters on Fluxus, Mail Art, expanded poetry, the Situationist International, conceptual photography, and more. He has lectured widely and has acted as a gallery dealer in, private consultant on, and public speaker about the experimental arts and artifacts of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Long an advocate of performance as a way of knowing, he continues to observe, arrange, and perform the events of his life in a Fluxus mode.