Mail art

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Mail art is art which uses the postal system as a medium. The term mail art can refer to an individual message, the medium through which it is sent, or an artistic genre. Mail art is also known as postal art and is sometimes referred to as Correspondence/Mail Art (CMA).

Mail artists typically exchange ephemera in the form of illustrated letters, zines, rubberstamped, decorated or illustrated envelopes, artist trading cards, postcards, artistamps, faux postage, mail-interviews, naked mail, friendship books, decos, and three-dimensional objects.

An amorphous international mail art network, involving thousands of participants in over fifty countries, evolved between the 1950s and the 1990s. It was influenced by other movements, including Dada and Fluxus.

One theme in mail art is that of commerce-free exchange; early mail art was, in part, a snub of gallery art, juried shows, and exclusivity in art. A saying in the mail art movement is "senders receive", meaning that one must not expect mail art to be sent to oneself unless one is also actively participating in the movement.


[edit] History

There is a rich history of creative examples sent through the post. The most familiar example is the illustrations on envelopes carrying first day issue postage stamps, which philatelists refer to as "first day covers", but mail art encompasses other decorated envelopes such as event covers, as well as a wide range of other procedures and media such as rubber stamps and artistamps. Mail art is traditionally, though not always, distinguished from simply "mailed art", which is art that does not truly use the postal service but is simply regular art that is sent through the mail.

Mail artists claim that mail art began when Cleopatra had herself delivered to Julius Caesar in a rolled-up carpet.[1] However, perhaps the initial genesis of mail art was in postal stationery, from which mail art is now typically distinguished (if not defined in its broadest sense). The first example of postal stationery was the pictorial design created by the English artist William Mulready (1786-1863) for mass printing-press reproduction on the first stock of prepaid postage wrappers or envelopes produced for the launch of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840. Mulready's design was not well received by the public, and various cartoonists and artists produced lampoon versions. However, it was recognized that an innovative and powerful communication adjunct piggybacking on the basic letterpost service had become available, and over the next 50 years or so, millions of pictorial envelopes with a wide variety of motifs and designs were processed by postal services worldwide.

As an art form, the early genre produced low- and high-minded works ranging from the comic and satirical through commercial and industrial advertising to the promotion of social causes such as fair trade, world peace and brotherhood, and the abolition of slavery. Examples exist of pictorial propaganda envelopes with patriotic motifs produced by both sides during the American Civil War.

The enthusiastic use of this piggyback medium continued throughout the second half of the 19th century, until postal administrations worldwide began to authorize the use of picture postcards, which were first approved and offered for sale at all post offices in Austria-Hungary on October 1, 1869.

This was the beginning of the end of the heyday of the pictorial envelope. Producing a card with an illustration on it, whether executed by hand or by a mechanical printing process, is less involved than producing it on an envelope. A card is flat and usually rectangular like a canvas; an envelope starts out flat, but the sheet from which it is formed has to be shaped and then folded. The extra difficulty that producing multiple printed envelopes entails eventually led to the establishment of the commercial envelope printing and overprinting industry, which, like commercial envelope manufacture, is perforce an economy-of-scale activity, which means it is at its most economically efficient when the print run is very long.

This was the situation prevailing until the advent of digital electronics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The convergence of this technology with telephone technology led to the development of the social-change engine known as the Internet by the early 1990s, so that by the end of the 20th century, it had become increasingly common to find households with a digital computer and a sheet printer. By employing suitable software, the printer could be used to customise machine-made envelopes, each with a unique composition of colorful digitised text and graphics.

In principle, this meant that even the most graphically challenged could employ the pictorial or illustrated envelope medium and produce a work categorizable as mail art. (However, producing printed envelopes from the sizes of sheet processed by sheet printers does not obviate the tedious cutting out of the appropriate shape (see Envelope manufacture) or the production of awkwardly shaped waste offcuts.As much as 30% of an ISO standard-size A4 sheet can be wasted if producing an ISO standard-size C6 envelope from it). In addition,a machine-made envelope (i.e. a folded and gummed sheet of paper with a loose flap)does not behave like a flat sheet of paper does in a printer. Hence the illustrative content has to be restricted to the front (or face) of the envelope; in contrast a hand-illustrated envelope, even though machine-made, can have illustrative material on the back (or flaps) side

Standard sizes preferred by the postal authorities are relevant, because some works, whether or not produced with the aid of a computer, might be constructed with postal distribution in mind; others might make use of the postal service to facilitate a collaboration or work of correspondence art between artists.

[edit] Contrast to artist trading cards

There are similarities between mail art and artist trading cards (ATCs) as well as a distinctive difference. What is unique about the concept of ATCs is trading, specifically face-to-face trading. If ATCs are sent in the mail, they become yet another variation of CMA, but, once one attends a trading session, "the cards come to life".

There is no difference in a formal sense between ATCs and CMA—that is, in both cases, they incorporate the full range of art media and disciplines; they are not a formal innovation such as Cubism. Conceptually ATCs are extremely close to CMA; they are both about exchanging art without the interface of the artworld and without money being involved. Except for the concept of the trading session, the two activities could be, for all intents and purposes, the same.

[edit] Mail art communities

When the electronic telecommunications network known as the Internet gave rise to e-mail art, conventional mail artists came to refer to the international postal service as the paper net or snail-mail net. When a group of these artists are in some way linked through their works, they are collectively referred to as a Mail Art Network. The mail-art community has been referred to as the Eternal Network since the 1980s (or possibly even earlier) and predates the time when access to the Internet became widespread.

The Mail-Art Network concept has roots in the work of earlier groups, including the Fluxus artists and the notion of multiples, or artworks manufactured as editions. Most commonly, Mail-Art Network artists have made and exchanged postcards, designed custom-made stamps, or artistamps, and designed, decorated or illustrated envelopes. Even large and unwieldy three-dimensional objects have been known to have been sent by Mail-Art Network artists, for many of whom the message and the medium are synonymous.

Fundamentally, mail art in the context of a Mail Art Network is a form of conceptual art. It is a movement with no membership and no leaders.

The International Union of Mail Artists (see IUOMA external link) is a group of mail artists individually practicing in several countries. The IUOMA started in 1988 and now has their own online forum. Anyone can join just by saying so; in this way, the group is merely unified conceptually.

Early online server Prodigy had a large group of artists networking online and through the postal system to create and experience mail art in 1990. Many were hesitant to call themselves artists but were encouraged and educated by arto posto (Dorothy Harris) as they ventured into mail art. Mail artists were among the first to see and use the networking possibilities of the World Wide Web when it appeared in 1992 to bring graphics to the previously text-oriented Internet. At the same time, the Internet offered nothing new to them (as it is certainly not possible to send objects over the Internet without ubiquitous 3D printing). Mail artists, like graffiti and poster artists, often work anonymously or collectively under aliases. Artist trading cards, or ATCs, can also be sent by mail and are actively traded by many mail artists. is an organization of artists who create LMAOs, or Land Mail Art Objects, which are then swapped by post. The Snail Mail World Postcard Art Show in Canada is one of the largest of its kind, drawing in up to 1000 entries each year.

It is believed that some of the largest mail art projects are:

  • Ryosuke Cohen's Brain Cell project, started in 1985. As of 2007, more than 600 issues have been created, with new issues every eight to ten days.
  • Robin Crozier's Memo(random)/Memo(ry) project, started in the early 1980s.
  • The TAM Rubberstamp Archive by Ruud Janssen, started in 1983, in which he sends out standard sheets to document the use of rubber stamps in the mail-art network.
  • Fluxus Bucks started in 1994 by ex posto facto in Garland, Texas, USA. Thousands of Fluxus Bucks are still being collected and circulated with documentation that acts as a networking tool (2006).

[edit] Well-known mail artists

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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