Thursday, June 23, 2005

What, I Say, What IS Mail Art?

today, June 15, 2005.

Contributors from all over the globe have offered homage to "The Granddaddy of Mail Art," Belfast’s own, the renowned Bern Porter. Curated by Jacob R. Fricke, Editor of the newsletter, BERN PORTER INTERNATIONAL, the exhibit may be viewed during in the Library’s lower lobby through June 30th . And yes, children and savages are welcome (although pets are prohibited, with the exception of seeing-eye dogs and handicapped-assisting primates.)

It has been termed "The Eternal Network," "The D.Y.I. [Do It Yourself] Revolution," and, along with alternative journals called ‘Zines, "Networked Arts." But, ever since Ray Johnson founded the "New York Correspondence School" in 1962, "Mail Art" has defied definition… and… has nearly eluded description.

Nevertheless, at a Mail Art / ‘Zine retrospective exhibit in April, 2005, at The Design Center of Philadelphia University, I read this statement by curators Sean Carton and Gareth Branwyn. They describe Mail Art and ‘Zine culture:

"[Mail Art] and ‘Zine culture [have] always been about more than [disseminating] "sidestream" ideas. [They] have been about building networks of individuals. In the days before the Web, these networks were often invisible to the mainstream. Instead, they were tenuously connected webs of like-minded people joined through existing power structures such as the mail, the telephone, the fax machine. The do-it-yourself aesthetic of taking control of media for one’s own artistic and expressionistic purposes existed outside the mainstream."

In short, Mail Art was–and is—about subverting the dominant paradigm, about taking control of the means of production and dissemination of the Image and the Word in order to overturn the established aesthetic, undermine the prevailing social norms, and destabilize existing political structures. Mail Art creates an underground network, an alternative global community. To what end?

Continuing, Carton and Branwyn describe the historical context of such activity:
The history of ‘zines proceeds in a convoluted line that encompasses just about every cultural and artistic revolution over the past half-millennium. Martin Luther’s self-published 95 Theses jump started the Reformation in Europe during the 16th century. Benjamin Franklin’s broadsheets of the 18th century American Revolution helped win the propaganda war against the British. Russian samizdat (literally "self publishers") underground newspapers and books kept the voices of resistance alive in Soviet Russia. Dadaist diatribes of the post-WWI era, French Situationist art happenings, and Beat poetry chapbooks of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance in the 1950s helped promote and solidify the avant garde in the United States and Europe. Underground comics and publications of the ‘60s anti-war movement in the United States publicized the cause and changed public opinion during a very turbulent time. They offered an alternative to the mainstream news media that, for a long time, ignored the groundswell of popular opposition to the Vietnam War. Punk flyers distributed on lampposts and city walls in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80s in the UK and US, and ‘zines documenting underground shows and events, were integral to the creation of a new musical and cultural form. On through the late 1990s self-published and printed materials were a vital element of the literary, musical, cultural, and artistic avant garde.

"In the early ‘60s, American artist Ray Johnson was looking for a way to break out of the traditional arts power structures of galleries and critics. He turned to the mail as a way of distributing art to other artists. Johnson founded the New York Correspondence School in 1962 as a way of promoting "mail art," and saw it grow into a vital and comprehensive network of people who sent and received art in the mail. The phenomenon of mail art grew rapidly and gained some acceptance in the art world. The Whitney allowed Johnson and Marcia Tucker to put on a mail art show in 1970, and groups such as Fluxus and the French New Realists grew out of the movement.

"The mail art movement, with its emphasis on networks, jamming the postal system, and subverting power structures in the name of art shares commonalities with ‘zine culture, overlapping in many places. These forms of early-networked media arose out of a need for people to find ways to work around commercial media, a media that was often at odds with the expression of outsider ideas. And while ‘zines and mail art concentrated on printed material, other arts utilizing other forms found ways of stepping outside traditional media distribution networks. Musicians turned to cassettes and 45 records to self publish and distribute their music to those within their scenes, while labels such as Dischord in Washington DC and BOMP! Records in California, were published on shoestring budgets by punks for other punks. In many cases mail art merged with cassette culture when musicians with small audiences handcrafted packaging to ship their recordings to their fans."

The words and images themselves, as produced and distributed by Mail Artists worldwide, often combine aesthetic and political messages. Often, however, the Mail Art Network has provided a venue for the truly idiosyncratic vision. In this sense, it was—as the "Web" has become in recent years—an entirely "democratic" medium. Unlike the established gallery system, it did not, and does not, discriminate on the basis of degrees, credentials, connections, resources, or—even—talent! "NO JURY, NO FEES, DOCUMENTATION TO ALL PARTICIPANTS" was and is the standard banner on calls for entries to Mail Art shows in the ‘70s,’80s, ‘90’s and ‘00s.

Bern Porter’s vision was aesthetic, political, AND idiosyncratic. His "found art" ethos was widely accepted, adopted and adapted in the Network. Never prone to modesty, Bern often claimed, "I invented Mail Art when I was four years old in Houlton, Maine." Like most of Bern’s statements about his artistic activity and personal history, there probably is a kernel of truth amid generous helpings of braggadocio and shameless self-promotion.

But, without a doubt, in the world of Mail Art, Bern Porter was very widely known—often mentioned in the same breath with Ray Johnson himself. Those who place the descriptor "Mail Art Legend" before the name "Bern Porter" are, to my mind, both accurate and appropriate.
This exhibit pays homage to the "Legend" here in his long-time home, Belfast, Maine. Though some might take exception, I can state unequivocally: Bern LOVED Belfast. And, as I have often said, "Bern IS Belfast."

Bern was always telling me, and many others, "You’re in BELFAST, now, DEAR!" …after which he almost always added, "And if you don’t like it in Belfast, You can always go to EAST Belfast!"
But seriously… Many folks in Belfast may not realize the degree to which Bern Porter, by means of his Mail Art activities, put Belfast, Maine, on the global map. I myself came here in 1995—ALL THE WAY from Philadelphia, PA(!)—because of Bern and because of Mail Art. Both have had a life-transforming impact on ME. I think, if one would ask around the world, one might find many others who would say the same. The works presented in the exhibit are evidence of that.

Sheila Holtz
June 15, 2005

…on the occasion of the opening of "R.I.P., DEAR: TO THE GRANDDADDY OF MAIL ART—A Bern Porter Commemorative Exhibit" at the Belfast Public Library June 15 through June 30, 2005, curated by Jacob R. Fricke, Editor, BERN PORTER INTERNATIONAL


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