Repacking the Archive - An Editor's Note
By Lene Aagaard Denhart
The Mail Art Network, developed from many different sources such as Dada, Fluxus, Ray Johnson’s School of Correspondence – and other art movements, that were initiated throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s – to become a very active global network. Developing affordable printed matter, the photocopy, and an open-minded postal system, were all invitations to Mail Art.
Through these activities, the Mail Art Network were reconnecting to the Neo Avant-garde practices where activity itself became the very central focus. In this Mail artists and networkers were building a reflection on the new role of the artist and cultural activist, who essentially became networkers, operating both independently and collectively, yet always in some kind of collective nets proposing different forms of critical and artistic engagement.
Networking meant creating nets of relations through distributing material, by sharing experiences and ideas in order to communicate and experiment artistically. And as networkers, where artists and the public, cultural activists, and others engaged in underground environments, were acting on the same level. As such Mail Art was in its substance an anarchistic movement.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ARCHIVE
To introduce briefly how the archive came to be formed, as an integral part of Niels Lomholt’s engagement with Mail Art from the year 1970 and onwards, a little context will be provided here. Lomholt aka Lomholt Formular Press was involved in the Network, in the role of Mail artist and networker. Lomholt unfolds how this engagement came about through a number of contacts, in the essay “In and Out of Mail Art”.
Between 1970-1975 Lomholt’s contacts were a mixture of invitations to exhibitions through galleries and museums in a traditional sense. Around 1975 the invitations intensified and became more Mail Art specific “All shown, No fee, No return” and a number of invitations to seminars and artist meetings. From there on the Mail Art activities developed into Mail Art, it took the form that continued through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and developed into a Mail Art Network. The daily practice of Mail Art became standard practice.
As a response to the growing network and to find a meaningful practice within the network Lomholt Formular Press (1975-1985) was developed, and the printing press became an artistic tool for Lomholt.
The extended world wide contacts developed into different types of contacts. There were a number of very active centres, Eastern Europe, Italy, Holland, West Germany, Latin America and USA each with it’s own characteristic Mail Art work. Within these circles, Lomholt established closer Mail Art relationships with a number of artists. [see Correspondence A-Z] These contacts developed through personal letters, collective projects, exhibitions and travelling extensively. The Correspondence A-Z artists were all English-speaking.
As the Mail Art Network developed the number of exhibitions increased, as did the number of catalogues, magazines and books, all of various qualities, formats, and content. At the same time the Network became an important means of distribution for all kinds of printed matter. These publications became the face of Mail Art.
The archive and other archives
Over the years, a number of other Mail Art archives developed, build on the activity of the particular archivist, regional and personal contacts, collectors, archives, institutional archives, thematic archives (visual poetry, Fluxus, Dada etc.). The archives collected around a Mail artist contains only very few of the archivist’s own work, as these were send to other archives. This fact makes it all the more important to address the international scope of activities, and to continue to build and make visible the web of connections, that any given archive was an integral part of. As is pointed out in many of the essays accompanying the net exhibition.
The fate of the Mail Art archives differ. A few went to art institutions, some were dissolved, cut into pieces and sold to galleries, museums and art collectors, and unfortunately, many were destroyed. Often out of lack of resources, and due to poor storage.
In the past decades important work has been done, and continues to be done, recovering archives, re-establishing connections, adding new chapters and reorienting us towards new geographies and mappings of Mail Art.
Closing, unpacking, and repacking the archive
The doors to the Lomholt Mail Art Archive were closed in August 1985, and the archive got stored away in boxes. In 2007 the archive was unpacked, with a number of vague ideas about what to do with the material in the archive – a collection of marginal art from the 1970’s.
A publication Lomholt Mail Art Archive, Fotowerke, and Video Works came to be formed as a first substantial move, addressing Mail Art and related matters. Since the release in December 2010, we had been contemplating the next move and the big question to confront was: What is to become of the mass of the Mail Art archive? A clear answer to the question does not present itself, but several ideas emerged around making a complete digitalization of the archive and how to develop a suitable and open-structured “cloud solution”. This perspective seemed so much more enriching, rather than to hand over the archive to a caretaker for burial in some institutional museum or university basement.
Let it come alive!
Data structure and function of the archive
The archive contains of 4252 entries/posts, and 17.797 files of digitalized artworks, documentations, postings and other artefacts, from 878 artists and networkers, send from 33 countries. At the date of launching the project, the site contains an index of networkers, including 109 biographies, with more to be added during the exhibition period. The artworks and postings presented are primarily works and correspondences on paper (postcards, letters, texts, pictures, collages, and drawings), printed matter (1087 catalogues, magazines, books), but present are also a number of audiotapes and assemblages (three-dimensional collages, book objects, and other artefacts).
The structuring of data for the archive is done through common Excel sheets with the 4252 entries/posts presenting a range sub-categories (such as name, occupation, country, category, medium, title, notes, date, and various keywords including related artists and co-workers, subjects, thematics, and references).
As such the archive is from the core based on associations, the dissemination of ideas and artistic concepts, topics of historical and political significance, apart from the more apparent information around the artist, medium and geographical origin.
Ways to map and search the archive
Date/Place/Country: On the site date, place, and country is used as a search function.
Categories/Medium: Simple categories as postcards, magazines, catalogues, books, and the respective media chosen.
Artist/Networkers/Occupation: To get both an overview and in-depth searches of individual participants, collaborations, and type of working area.
Texual entries: Texts, essays, interviews, and thematic focus sections highlighting various aspects and key thematics.
Visual mappings: In connection with the textual entries, image tours or visual mappings allow for the user to browse a defined map of images as well as to navigate through the images and posts, opening towards navigating more freely and generating independent searches, establishing new connections and to aid further trajectories.
Behind the title “LOMHOLT MAIL ART ARCHIVE 1970-1985 – a net exhibition at MUSEET for SAMTIDSKUNST, Roskilde, Denmark” is a straight-forward aim: to make the entire archive available on the net from September 2014 to September 2015. Initially, “’to make the entire archive available” meant photographing all Mail Art material stored in the archive, descriptions of content, some academic texts and first-hand accounts by Mail artist involved in the Network, during the period of 1970-1985. We needed the data to be structured and placed in some sort of visual web structure, without making it too confined to the norms of museum display, like caging it in and making it too orderly. The aim was to preserve some of the anarchistic, non-hierarchical structure, and open-ended play that was so central to the dynamics of Mail Art networking.
There has been no intention of writing the History of Mail Art, but to reconsider and unfold the various themes we found were circulating within the Mail Art Network, during the period of 1970-1985, represented in the Lomholt Mail Art Archive. Laying bare the material and through a series of thematic entries to the material, the attempt has been to give an introduction to one particular Mail Art archive, that was in close exchange with other archives and international networks during this period. A central aim of this net project has been to find a system of categories, artistic and academic entries, visual mappings, as well as a range of search functions, in order to give access to, and to facilitate the viewer/user’s engagement with and journeying through this anarchistic and at times ephemeral substance, without sacrificing too much of the Mail Art spirit.
Our intention with the net exhibition has thus been twofold. Firstly, to present the material in an structure, open for the viewer to explore in rhizomatic ways, with the opportunity to define and refine searches in and mappings of the material, by way of using the search menu or to navigate more openly as a visual trail or by tags and keywords - and thus to unfold the many stories told in the works, being postcards, collages, pictures, drawings, assemblages, texts, statements, and audio recordings. Through the search menu, and extended use of tags, we have wanted to emphasize a participatory engagement of the viewer.
Secondly, to give a series of possible entries to the archive made by academic writers and Mail artists, and through a series of thematic ”Focus” sections, to be added during the period of on-line display. These function similarly as invitations to engage with the material, to get a sense of the structure of materials and network activities during the period of 1970-1985, covered by the archive. Each given entry into the material presents multiple opportunities for further navigation. Connections present themselves, and new maps open up, where each piece gives pass to other entries and networkers, thematics and concepts, within or outside the archive.
The structure and display of the archive
The Lomholt Mail Art Archive is digital mapping of artworks and postings, artists and networkers, and extended circles and thematics. The material is divided into three sections:
1. Correspondence A-Z
More frequent and personal exchanges between the twelve Mail Artists Al Ackerman, Peter Below, Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Robin Crozier, Pete Horobin, Istvan Kantor, Pat & Richard Larter, Sabine Mertens & Görd Kaa, and David Zack. These Mail Artist performed a closer circle and are richly represented in the archive.
2. Lomholt Formular Press
A Niels Lomholt Mail Art Project (1975-1985) questioning how life and art correspond to established rules, by conceptual explorations of basic schematic forms, a questioner, narratives, formulae.
3. Mail Art Network
The daily practice and distribution within the Mail Art Network. The participants [networkers] within the system were coming from various artistic and cultural practices within visual arts, music, literature, critical theory, gallerists, political and social activists and not yet established positions. This wide range and mixture of participants expanded the network beyond traditional art practices.
Exhibiting Mail Art on the net
A key focus has been to preserve some authenticity of the object. Thus to photograph, and not just scan the individual works and postings. Scanning leaves the object somewhere between a digital image and printed matter. Mail Art is more, it is an object that has been handled and touched by time and space. This tactility is to some extend transferred through the photograph. The tactility of the work produced in 1970, photographed in 2014.
We have thus made different technical choices regarding how to exhibit Mail Art on the net. It is not the tactile authentic works and postings, but rather that choosing a museum showcase with limited access and the material categorized into sections, we have aimed at giving the archive some of the dynamics and interconnectedness that was such a central part of the works and networkings of the time. To find a way into, or to get lost in Mail Art. As such, the net offers a great number of search opportunities, enlargements, and tracings, going beyond the limited space and linear readings of the book format or museum display. And not least, the net display can be continuously updated.
To some extend the net exhibition addresses also in a visual form some of the current concerns of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions searching for new ways to organize and present their collections. A reorientation can be said to place within the Mail Art Network also, countering the initial distance towards and movement away from ’Art’ to broader concepts of ’culture’ and ’communication’ – now taking interest in exchanging with the institutions, on how to develop more open or loose formats of display. The present net exhibition is conceived with the freedom and experimental spirit of the Mail Art Network and is thus to be viewed as a rather exceptional study and approach on how to exhibit a digital mapping and display of the rhizomatic, non-orderly and entangled collections of Mail Art.
The themes, projects and works in the archive vary greatly and it is not an easy task to set one focus only, on the function of the archive or the artworks, mailings, and correspondences represented. However, some obvious themes present themselves: The political situation in the period, the social circumstances, the material developments and the function of networks. However, many other themes, links and connections could and have been developed. As such the structure of the archive is closely connected to the political and historical scene. The archive is set in the year of 1970, with the history of the 1970’s being of particular importance, The Cold War, Eastern Europe, Post-Pop Art, Conceptual Art in the West, and dictatorships within Latin America.
Also the mundane every-day life aspects had their particular significance. Post offices world wide has set standards, as to what can be mailed and what cannot, although there are different standards and tolerations as to weight, size and subject, ranging from porn to East European reused envelopes or political statements in Latin America, all very much a subject of the time.
As aforementioned, the tactility of the object has been of importance also. How Mail Art comes to be worn and shaped during its journey through time and space. The envelope, considered as the Mail Art skin, is stamped with a date and a place, which is not necessary the date or place of production. Date and place is thus of some importance in Mail Art as the art form carries the immediate response to events, the presence of the moment. When and where did the event of Mail Art take place?
Apart from the journey of the object, art tourism and travelling was a integrated part of Mail Art. The five Mail Art networkers invited to contribute an essay to the project, they all start with a journey: Anna Banana goes to San Francisco, Terry Reid goes to Japan, Chuck Welch goes to Vietnam, Niels Lomholt goes to Poland, Vittore Baroni visit Cavellini in Italy.
A user-generated structure
A central aim has been to create a user-generated structure. Through the search menu, and extended use of tags, we have wanted to emphasize a participatory engagement of the viewer/user. And a forum on the social media will give way for the users of the archive, and others to contribute with comments, to add further links and stories relevant for the material, and supply with eventual missing information. As such we have aimed for the open-ended structure of the network to be present in the display, and in connected fora in order to keep alive the anarchic spirit of Mail Art and thus to continuously aid possible new connections to be established.
Textual entries to the archive
To introduce, unfold and discuss the archive a number of writers and Mail artists were invited to contribute. The essays included in the net exhibition consist of four different types of text materials:
- Theoretical texts by Peter van der Meijden, Fabiana Pianowski, and Kornelia Röder.
- Essays by Mail artists who participated in the Mail Art Network 1970-1985: Anna Banana, Vittore Baroni, Klaus Groh, Terry Reid, Chuck Welch, and the editor Niels Lomholt.
- Focus texts giving a series of thematic entries into the archive. Introductory essays and interviews on key subjects, themes, and geographical areas within the Mail Art Network by Vittore Baroni, Gregorz Dziamski, John Helt jr., Rod Summers (interview conducted by Thomas Bey William Bailey), Chuck Welch, and Lene Aagaard Denhart.
- Original texts by Mail artists represented in the archive.
Writers and Mail artists were invited to contribute with a text on key thematics of Mail Art and/or a networker’s own experience in the Mail Art Network, 1970-1985 – the period covered by Lomholt Mail Art Archive. The given invitation was open: texts could address personal concerns around important subjects within a particular period of time og geographical area, such as historical, political and/or personal experiences within the local and global network, to address network circles, central gatherings, collaboratory projects, etc.
Generally speaking, the aim was, from a range of viewpoints, and through the significance of the individual Mail artist’s own work, projects, and network activities, to set the key questions and intentions of “Why Mail Art?” in perspective.
The range of accounts, critical reviews and thematic trajectories gives enriching entries into the material. “What Mail Art means to me, bottom line” is the opening statement by Anna Banana in “Excerpts From a Mail Artist’s Diary” which also catches the spirit of the essay. Banana’s drifting from Vancouver to the Bay Area in San Francisco early in the year of 1970, and finally settling in the area the same year: ‘The Fun Begins’. The Bay Area became one of the most active centers of Mail Art, where artist’s projects and publications became the backbone of the network activities. Aspects well recorded in Banana’s essay, as such a gem of Mail Art history. In 1978 Anna Banana, together with Bill Gaglione, commenced on a Mail Art tour through the European continent. Banana shares a very detailed dairy of this journey, giving names, places, dates and a record of performances. Another interesting section is focused on The adventures of Cavellini, events which took place at the Inter-Dada 80 and Inter-Dada '84 in San Francisco, Ukiah and Los Angeles. Two central events in the history of Mail Art.
Vittore Baroni’s essay “Memo from a Networker” gives a critical yet very personal journey into Mail Art, starting from the first contact with Guglielmo Achillle Cavellini in 1977, who became a mentor and a ‘role model’ to Baroni. The essay contains a flashback to the beginning of Baroni’s journey, exploring his passion for music and back to his quality as a true archivist, collector and restless producer of Mail Art, with a special attention to magazines and a continuous close contact and collaboration within the network. Baroni’s essay touches on his relation to the ‘narrow-mindedness’ of art institutions, and how he related to his own (art) heroes. He keeps questioning what makes Mail Art so interesting, testing the limits of medium and form. Baroni’s account of the development of Mail Art is highly personal, with the experienced insider’s point of view, and profound knowledge of how each artist used the network in personal ways, coming from other areas of activity, to end with a last note on what happened to Mail Art in later years.
Klaus Groh’s essay “Das Mail Art-Archiv als wichtige Ergänzungsquelle für historische Kunstforschung” sets Mail Art as an important indicator of the 1970’s political history. The network of senders and receivers is the theme in Grohs essay, as a dialogue and democratization process going beyond the art institutions, taking place between the artist and the public. Groh maintain that Mail Art is not a certain style, but a form of communication, open for information through various artistic expressions.
“In and out of Mail Art” is an essayistic personal contribution by Niels Lomholt, on his direct encounter with Mail Art, and his movements in and out of the Network. As such it takes the form of a mental journey of Mail Art, with an ever increasing number of characters, stage sets and events. Parallel to the Mail Art journey the essay moves into the physical journey, with Lomholt travelling to Poland, where the mental journey merges into the conceptual activities and founding of Lomholt Formular Press. Lomholt makes an account of his meeting with David Zack, and their exchange when Zack visits Denmark in 1979, as an artist in residence at Egmont. Then moving on into 1980 and a journey to USA, with Mail Art times in Los Angeles, a postal experience in Toronto, a film experience in Portland and an encounter with Al Ackerman on S.E. Belmont, Portland. As such Mail Art turns the physical journey into a surrealistic event: the physical experiences becomes linked to the Mail Art Archive as evidence.
In “BOX BOXING BOXERS. Mail Art Projects, Exhibitions and Archives”, Peter van der Meijden gives special attention to Mail Art projects from Holland – and has a more theoretical take on Mail Art, exhibitions, and archives also, leaving open an interpretation of the words “box” or “boxes” as to stand for the exhibition space, or a certain framework, that a given context asks for a type of content [here Mail Art] to be placed within. In the following section, which deals with mail art exhibitions and exhibitions in general, van der Meijden elaborates on “box boxing boxers” as being a pharmakon, a kind of cure being both medicine and a poison at the same time. A cure van der Meijden relates to the curator [an art professional] and curating [an artistic strategy]. In the final section, curing as a method of preservation is in focus, concentrating on archives and the very act of saving, in its various meanings as preserving, or saving something, and as a deposit of value saved. Yet van der Meijden also fruitfully elaborates on the various ways exhibitions and archives are used, both as strategies and degrees of (or lack of) control of meaning, being different ways to communicate knowledge.
In the essay “The Net Out of Control: Mail Art in Latin America” Fabiana Pianowski talks about the movement away from the official circuits of art galleries and museums during the 1960s and 1970s. What emerges is a new art structure with a vast number of participants, exchanging works outside the state control, spreading throughout the entire Latin American continent. As social authorships starts dissolving the borders between art and public, and with the democratization of art, Mail Art became one of several weapons in the struggle against dictatorship in Latin America. Pianowski includes also a brief history of Mail Art in Latin America, focusing on the main contributors and their political struggle.
Terry Reid takes the temperature of ‘Mail Art 2014’ at the beginning of the essay “In the FORMULAR”, and then moves on to begin a highly personal art diary. The slow journey, meeting people and doing projects, from Canada to Japan in 1970, moving on to New Zealand and Australia. The vast number of projects and names relates somehow to most of the 1970’s experimental art in the South Pacific. A majority of these touching upon the political and environmental problems at the time, nuclear energy and Vietnam. Several projects were done in collaboration with Pat and Richard Larter. Reid’s essay contains a vide range of links and references to different Mail Art projects.
In the essay ”Topology and Functionality of the Mail Art Network and its specific significance for Eastern Europe between 1960 and 1989” Kornelia Röder contributes with a detailed map of the particular significance of Mail Art in Eastern Europe, with activities directed against the ideological misuse of art, helping artists to evade censorship and state regimentation and thus maintain relative artistic freedom. Because of the Network’s invisibility, its participants were able to partially elude the state-run control mechanisms and create subversive structures. Röder furthermore situates Mail Art within a more general art context, and elaborates on the distinct differences between Mail Art and the Fluxus movement, centered around an argument on the ways in which the two movements differ, regarding their approach to the activity of networking and advancing it to a status as art. Röder claims that the networking process itself was taken further within Mail Art.
The essay “E.M.A.C. – The E’Net Mail Art Cloud: Crackerjack Adventures With Formular Clouds” by Chuck Welch finds itself situated in Vietnam in the year 1970, contemplating the experience from a distant viewpoint, surrounded by letters, objects and abundant perspectives. As is the case for most Mail artists, the journey is an important factor, pointing to the challenge of locating the Mail Art body, and the mental and physical journey of both Mail Art and artist. Back on homely ground in 1973 the Omaha Flow System was the formal introduction to Mail Art, a very important Mail Art event. In the section ‘Crackerjack-Zack, and Modern Mail Art’, Welch elaborates on David Zack and two of his projects: The Modern Mail Art and the Formular Publishing projects. Works which, together with the Commonpress project by Pawel Petasz, sets a Mail Art standard and are considered a must in the understanding of Mail Art from the period. In a section called ‘Lost Archives: How Mail Art Dies’ Welch makes an account of the poor fate of a number of archives, yet, the melancholy is soon washed away and hope regained in the last section ‘Back to the Future’ contemplating possible new trajectories.