Mail art is a worldwide cultural movement that began in the early 1960s and involves sending visual art (but also music, sound art, poetry, etc.) through the international postal system. Mail Art is also known as Postal Art or Correspondence Art. The term networking is often used to describe Mail Art activities, based on the principles of barter and equal one-to-one collaboration.
The sexual revolution (also known as a time of “sexual liberation”) was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behaviour related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the Western world from the 1960s to the 1980s. Sexual liberation included increased acceptance of sex outside of traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationships (primarily marriage). Contraception and the pill, public nudity, the normalization of homosexuality and alternative forms of sexuality, and the legalization of abortion all followed.
After a peak in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mail Art phenomenon has gradually migrated to the Internet, whose “social networks” were largely anticipated and predicted by the interactive processes of postal collaborations. Nevertheless, Mail Art is still practiced in the new Millennium by a loose global community involving thousands of mail artists from the most varied backgrounds.
The term “Sexual Revolution” has been used at least since the late 1910s and is often attributed as being influenced by Freud’s writing on sexual liberation and psychosexual issues.
Out of the reasonable assumption that the commercial gallery system is limited and perhaps corrupt, many artists emerging in the 1970s and 1980s around the world decided it would be more feasible to exhibit their work not through galleries and ancillary museums but through the postal system, especially if they lived in areas where galleries and other artists were scarce. For the production of imagery, they drew often upon xerography (photocopying) and the earlier technology of rubber stamps. They would also announce exhibitions in venues previously devoid of art, such as city halls in remote parts of the world, ideally accepting everything submitted and issuing a catalogue with names, usually accompanied by addresses and selected reproductions. While such work had little impact upon commercial galleries (and the “art magazines” dependent upon galleries’ ads), one result was a thriving alternative culture, calling itself “The Eternal Network”, as intensely interested in itself as serious artists have always been.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, newly won sexual freedoms were exploited by big businesses looking to capitalize on a more open society, with the advent of public and hardcore pornography. Historian David Allyn argues that the sexual revolution was a time of “coming-out”: about premarital sex, masturbation, erotic fantasies, pornography use, and sexuality.
Some mail artists claim that Mail Art began when Cleopatra had herself delivered to Julius Caesar in a rolled-up carpet, others consider early avant-garde experiments with the postal system to be the origin of the movement, but the term Mail Art was coined in the 1960s. The Futurists already had taken an interest in ‘mail art’, but the official birth of the phenomenon dates to the early sixties. Its main promoter was Ray Johnson who, with his New York Correspondance [sic] School, institutionalized the free exchange of postal messages between artist and artist or between artist and audience.
The sexual revolution can be seen as an outgrowth of a process in recent history, though its roots may be traced back as far as the Enlightenment (Marquis de Sade) and the Victorian era (Algernon Charles Swinburne’s scandalous Poems and Ballads of 1866). It was a development in the modern world which saw the significant loss of power by the values of a morality rooted in the Christian tradition and the rise of permissive societies, of attitudes that were accepting of greater sexual freedom and experimentation that spread all over the world and were captured in the concept of “free love”.
Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Art provided Mail Art with a blueprint for the free exchange of art, as opposed to its commercialization. The New York Correspondance School Show organized in 1970 by Johnson and Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum in New York is considered the first important public exhibition of the genre and helped set the ground rules for future shows. In his renowned diagram of 1973 showing the development and scope of Fluxus, George Maciunas included Mail Art among the activities pursued by the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou (who coined the term “the Eternal Network” that has become synonymous with Mail Art). Other Fluxus artists have been involved since the early 1960s in the creation of artist’s postage stamps (Robert Watts, Stamp Dispenser, 1963), postcards (Ben Vautier, The Postman’s Choice, 1965: a postcard with a different address on each side) and other works connected to the postal medium. “Indeed, the Mail Art Network counts many Fluxus members among its earliest participants. Although Ray Johnson (1927–1995), considered by many as the founding father of Mail Art, never joined Fluxus, his work is aesthetically close to that of the Fluxus group… Johnson’s work consists primarily of letters, often with the addition of doodles, drawings and rubber stamped messages. The work is lightweight and humorous; rather than being sold as a commodity it is usually mailed to friends and acquaintances. Although much of Johnson’s work is given away, this hasn’t prevented it attaining a market value. The late Andy Warhol is quoted as saying he would pay ten dollars for anything by Johnson.”
The period of Cold War puritanism, some say, led to a cultural rebellion in the form of the “sexual revolution”. Despite this, however, before the 1920s the Victorian era was much more conservative than even the 1930s and 1950s. Attitudes were transformed by mass communication systems such as televison and its increasingly wide dissemination in the 1950s; the vast majority of Westerners had access to television by the 1960s.
In spite of the many links and similarities between historical avant-gardes, alternative art practices (visual poetry, copy art, artist’s books, etc.) and Mail Art, what sets the creative postal network apart from any traditional artistic movement, school or group (including Fluxus) is its complete openness, an absence of hierarchies, and a disregard for the rules of the official “art system” and the commercialism of the art market. Anybody can participate in the postal network and exchange free artworks, and each mail artist is free to decide how and when to answer (or not answer) a piece of incoming mail. Participants are invited to take part in collective projects in which entries are not selected or judged, and while contributors might be asked to submit work on a particular theme, work to a required size, or send work by a deadline, Mail Art generally operates within a spirit of “anything goes”.
This mass communication device, along with other media outlets such as radio and magazines, could broadcast information in a matter of seconds to millions of people, while only a few wealthy people would control what millions could watch, in order to deliver this audience up to advertisers they had to cater to a degree to their tastes and moralistic titillation played a part in this. Thus the counterculture of the 1960s was becoming well known on radio, newspapers, TV and other media outlets by the end of the 1960s.
The Mail Art philosophy of openness and inclusion can be summed up in a few “considerations” of networking etiquette that are usually explicitly stated in the invitations (calls) to postal projects: a Mail Art show has no jury, no entry fee, there is no censorship, and all works are exhibited. The original contributions are not to be returned and remain the property of the organizers, but a catalogue or documentation is sent free to all the participants in exchange for their works. Although these “unwritten” rules are sometimes stretched, they have generally held up for four decades, with only minor dissimilarities and adjustments, like the occasional requests to avoid works of explicit sexual nature, calls for projects with specific participants, or the recent trend to display digital documentation on blogs and websites instead of personally sending printed paper to contributors.
One suggested trigger for the modern revolution was the development of the birth control pill in 1960, which gave women access to easy and reliable contraception. Another likely factor was vast improvements in obstetrics, which greatly reduced the number of women who die in childbirth and thus increased the life expectancy of women.
Mail Art has been exhibited in alternative spaces such as private apartments, municipal buildings, and shop windows, as well as in galleries and important museums worldwide. Mail Art shows, periodicals and projects represent the “public” side of postal networking, a practice that has at its core the direct and private interaction between the individual participants. For many mail artists, the process of exchanging ideas and the sense of belonging to a global community that is able to maintain a peaceful collaboration beyond differences of language, religion and ideology, is valued above the aesthetic merits of the artworks that are swapped or created together. It is what differentiates the Mail Art network from the world of commercial picture postcards and of simply “mailed art”.
Other data suggests the “revolution” was more directly influenced by the financial independence gained by many women who entered the workforce during and after World War II, making the revolution more about individual equality rather than biological independence. Many people, however, feel that one specific cause cannot be selected for this large phenomenon. Nonetheless, French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir was particularly adamant that economic equality greatly contributes to improved gender equality.
Typically, a mail artist has hundreds of correspondents from many different countries, but also tends to build a smaller core circle of favourite contacts. Mail art is widely practiced in Europe, North and South America, Russia, Australia and Japan, with smaller numbers of participants also in Africa, China and other countries. As a result of its unique openness, it is a global grassroots activity, carried out by all kinds of amateurs and novices, and professional artists (often as a side activity), of different ages and backgrounds. The work received is either collected, and in recent years Mail Art Archives have attracted the interest of museums and collectors, or it is ‘worked into’ and recycled back to the sender or to another networker. “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.”
The Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century and the growth of science and technology, medicine and health care, resulted in better contraceptives being manufactured. Advances in the manufacture and production of rubber made possible the design and production of condoms that could be used by hundreds of millions of men and women to prevent pregnancy at little cost.
With its inclination to break down the barriers between art and everyday life, and trying to bring to the surface everybody’s creative side, Mail Art has much in common with the utopian and libertarian philosophies of the Hippie counterculture. The magazines self-produced by many mail artists can be seen as a logical continuation of the “free press” of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the practice of Mail Art grew exponentially, providing a cheap and flexible channel of expression for cultural outsiders and demonstrating a particular vitality where state censorship prevented a free circulation of alternative ideas, as in certain countries behind the Iron Curtain or in South America.
Advances in chemistry, pharmacology, and biology, and human physiology led to the discovery and perfection of the first oral contraceptives also known as “the Pill”. Purchasing an aphrodisiac and various sex toys became “normal”. Sado-masochism (“S and M”) gained popularity, and “no-fault” unilateral divorce became legal and easier to obtain in many countries during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
The growth of a sizeable Mail Art community, with friendships born out of personal correspondence and, increasingly, mutual visits, led in the 1980s to the organization of several Festivals, Meetings and Conventions where networkers could meet, socialize, perform, exhibit and plan further collaborations. Among these events were the InterDada Festivals organized in California in the early 1980s and the Decentralized Mail Art Congress of 1986, a project comprising events that took place “any time two or more mail artists met in the course of the year”. Even if “Tourism” was proposed satirically as a new movement, Mail Art in its purest form could also function without the personal meeting between networkers that some felt diluted the appeal and the aura of mystery of this “art at a distance”. “The best part about mail art is that you don’t have to be there in person to be in on the action.”
All these developments took place alongside and combined with an increase in world literacy and decline in religious observance. Old values such as the biblical notion of “be fruitful and multiply” were cast aside as people felt increasingly alienated from the past and adopted the lifestyles of modernizing westernized cultures.
Ray Johnson suggested, with an ingenious pun, that “mail art has no history, only a present”, and with characteristic playfulness, mail artists have created their own mythologies. Parody art movements like Neoism and Plagiarism have challenged notions of originality, as have the multiple names Chus Martinez and Karen Eliot, proposed for serial use by anyone. Semi-fictional organizations have been set up and virtual lands invented, imaginary countries for which artists stamps are issued. Furthermore, rigorous attempts have been made to document and define the history of a complex and underestimated phenomenon that has spanned five decades. Various essays, graduate theses, guides and anthologies of Mail Art writings have appeared in print and on the Internet, often written by veteran networkers.
Another contribution that helped bring about this modern revolution of sexual freedom were the writings of Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, who took the philosophy of Karl Marx and similar philosophers, and added to them a more strident demand for sexual freedom.
By the 1990s, Mail Art’s peak in terms of global postal activities had been reached, and many mail artists, aware of increasing postal charges, were beginning the gradual migration of collective art projects towards the web and new, cheaper forms of digital communication. The Internet facilitated faster dissemination of Mail Art calls (invitations) and precipitated the involvement of a large number of newcomers. Mail Art blogs and websites became ever more frequently used to display contributions and online documentation, even if many mail artists still preferred the surprise of a catalogue found in their mailbox. The thrill of ripping open an envelope to find out what is hidden inside remains stronger as an experience than the click of a mouse.
When speaking of sexual revolution, historians make a distinction between the first and the second sexual revolution. In the first sexual revolution (1870–1910), Victorian morality lost its supposedly universal appeal (although it was actually the ideology of a bourgeoisie who never really adhered to it). However, this did not lead to the rise of a “permissive society”. Exemplary for this period is the rise and differentiation in forms of regulating sexuality.
“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 previously weren’t available to anyone at any price.”
Sigmund Freud believed human behaviour was motivated by unconscious drives, primarily by the libido or “Sexual Energy”. Freud proposed to study how these unconscious drives were repressed and found expression through other cultural outlets. He called this pseudo-science “psychoanalysis”.
The 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 beneath its big umbrella. Although there are materials and techniques which are commonly used and frequently favoured by mail artists for their availability, convenience and ability to produce copies, Mail Art’s potential to surprise and delight is in part due to the unregulated wealth of media and styles employed by myriad mail artists.
While Freud’s ideas were initially ignored as embarrassing, his work provoked a serious challenge to Victorian prudishness by providing the groundwork for the ideas of sex drive and infant sexuality. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development proposed a model for the development of sexual orientations and desires; children emerged from the Oedipus complex, a sexual desire towards their parent of the opposite sex.
Unsurprisingly, Mail Art has adopted graphic forms associated with the postal system. The rubber stamp officially used for franking mail, hardly an established or esteemed art medium but already utilised by Dada and Fluxus artists, has been embraced by mail artists who, in addition to reusing readymade rubber stamps, have them professionally made to their own designs, and 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 humble postcards into artworks and make envelopes an important part of the Mail Art experience.
According to Freud’s theory, in the earliest stage of a child’s psychosexual development, the oral stage, the mother’s breast became the formative source of all later erotic sensation. This pseudo-science eventually came to underpin the intellectual and cultural ideology of the new age of sexual frankness. Nonetheless, it should go without saying most of what Freud wrote has subsequently been discredited. Anarchist Freud scholars Otto Gross and Wilhelm Reich (who famously coined the phrase “Sexual Revolution”) developed a cod sociology of sex in the 1910s to 1930s.
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 artist stamp has spawned a vibrant sub-network of artists dedicated to creating and exchanging their own stamps and stamp sheets. Artist stamps and rubber stamps, have become important staples of mail artworks, particularly in the enhancement of postcards and envelopes.
The publication of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa brought the sexual revolution to the public scene, as her thoughts concerning sexual freedom pervaded academia. Published in 1928, Mead’s ethnography focused on the psychosexual development of adolescent children on the island of Samoa. She recorded that their adolescence was not in fact a time of “storm and stress” as Erikson’s stages of development suggest, but that the sexual freedom experienced by the adolescents actually permitted them an easy transition from childhood to adulthood. Her findings were later criticized by anthropologist Derek Freeman who later investigated her claims of promiscuity and conducted his own ethnography of Samoan society. Mead called for a change in suppression of sexuality in America and her work directly resulted in the advancement of the sexual revolution in the 1930s.
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, where genuinely personalized stationery adds real character to the letters and notes that often accompany mail art works.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Alfred C. Kinsey published two surveys of modern sexual behaviour. In 1948 Alfred C. Kinsey and his co-workers, responding to a request by female students at Indiana University for more information on human sexual behaviour, published the book Sexual behaviour in the Human Male. They followed this five years later with Sexual behaviour in the Human Female. These books began a revolution in social awareness of, and public attention given to, human sexuality. It is said that at the time, bourgeois morality severely restricted open discussion of sexuality as a human characteristic, and specific sexual practices, especially sexual behaviours that did not lead to procreation. Kinsey’s books contained studies about controversial topics such as the frequency of homosexuality, and the sexuality of minors aged two weeks to thirteen years. Scientists working for Kinsey reported data that led to the conclusion that people are capable of sexual stimulation from birth. These books laid the groundwork for Masters and Johnson’s life work: a study called Human Sexual Response. This 1966 publication documented the nature and scope of the sexual practices of young Americans.
In addition to appropriating the postage stamp model, mail artists have assimilated other design formats for unique and printed artworks. Artists’ books, decobooks and friendship books, banknotes, stickers, tickets, artist trading cards (ATCs), badges, food packaging, diagrams and maps have all inspired individual and collaborative work.
In the United States in the years 1959 through 1966, bans on three books with explicit erotic content were challenged and overturned. This also occurred in the United Kingdom starting with the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and reaching a peak with the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case. Prior to this time, a patchwork of regulations (as well as local customs and vigilante actions) governed what could and could not be published. For example, the United States Customs Service banned James Joyce’s Ulysses by refusing to allow it to be imported into the United States. The Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum carried great weight among Catholics and amounted to an effective and instant boycott of any book appearing on it. Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, a largely Protestant creation inspired by Anthony Comstock, made “banned in Boston” a national by-word. In 1959 Grove Press published an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. The U.S. Post Office confiscated copies sent through the mail. Lawyer Charles Rembar sued the New York City Postmaster, and won in New York and then on federal appeal.
Printing is ideally suited to mail artists who distribute their work widely. Many forms of printmaking, in addition to rubber stamping, are used to create multiples, and copy art (xerography, photocopy) is a common practice, with both mono and colour copying being extensively used within the network. Black & white copies of artwork have sometimes been regarded as too easy and impersonal, and 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 unfavourable criticism. However, Xerography has been invaluable to the 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 in itself, to provide images for artist stamps and rubber stamps, and within printed and digital magazines and documentation.
In 1965 Tom Lehrer was to celebrate the erotic appeal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in his cheerfully satirical song “Smut” with the couplet “Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately? / I’ve got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley”. Henry Miller’s 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, had explicit sexual passages and could not be published in the United States; an edition was printed by the Obelisk Press in Paris and copies were smuggled into the United States. In 1961 Grove Press issued a copy of the work, and dozens of booksellers were sued for selling it. The issue was ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein. In 1965 Putnam published John Cleland’s 1750 novel Fanny Hill. This was the turning point, because Charles Rembar appealed a restraining order against it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, the court ruled that sex was “a great and mysterious motive force in human life”, and that its expression in literature was protected by the First Amendment. Only books primarily appealing to “prurient interest” could be banned. In a famous phrase, the court said that obscenity is “utterly without redeeming social importance”—meaning that, conversely, any work with redeeming social importance was not obscene, even if it contained isolated passages that could “deprave and corrupt” some readers. This decision was especially significant, because, of the three books mentioned, Fanny Hill has by far the largest measure of content that seems to appeal to prurient interest, and the smallest measures of literary merit and “redeeming social importance”. Whereas an expurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had actually once been published, no expurgated version of Fanny Hill had ever been. By permitting the publication of Fanny Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court set the bar for any ban so high that Rembar himself called the 1966 decision “the end of obscenity”.
The wealth of materials, techniques and formats available ensures that mail artists routinely mix media. Collage and photomontage are hugely popular, affording much 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 items that might seem mundane in one country become fascinating and extraordinary when relocated. Small assemblages, sculptural forms or found objects of irregular shapes and sizes are parcelled up or sent unwrapped to deliberately tease and test the efficiency of the postal service. Wit and humour permeate a lot of Mail Art.
The court decisions that legalised the publication of Fanny Hill had an even more important effect: freed from fears of legal action, nonfiction works about sex and sexuality started to appear more often. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, Careers, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men. The title itself would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. (In 1965 she went on to transform Cosmopolitan magazine into a life manual for young career women. In 1969 Joan Garrity, identifying herself only as “J.”, published The Way to Become the Sensuous Woman, with information on exercises to improve the dexterity of one’s tongue and how to have anal sex. The same year saw the appearance of Dr. David Reuben’s book Sex and the Single Girl (But Were Afraid to Ask). Despite the dignity of Reuben’s medical credentials, this book was light-hearted in tone. For many readers, it delivered quite literally on its promise. Despite the book’s one-sided and prejudiced statements about gay men, one middle-aged matron from a small town in Wisconsin was heard to say “Until I read this book, I never actually knew precisely what it was that homosexuals did”.
Lettering, whether handwritten or printed, is integral to Mail Art. Visual poetry is well represented within the movement. 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 eternal network. Although English has been the de facto language, owing to the movement’s inception in America, an increasing number of mail artists, and mail artist groups on the Internet, now communicate in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian and other first languages.
In 1970 the Boston Women’s Health Collective published Women and Their Bodies (which became far better known a year later under its subsequent title Our Bodies, Ourselves). Not an erotic treatise or sex manual, the book nevertheless included frank descriptions of sexuality, and contained illustrations that could have caused legal problems just a few years earlier. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Love Making appeared in 1972. In later editions though, Comfort’s libertinism was tamed as a response to AIDS. In 1975 Will McBride’s Zeig Mal! (Show Me!), written with psychologist Helga Fleichhauer-Hardt for children and their parents, appeared in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic. Appreciated by many parents for its frank depiction of pre-adolescents discovering and exploring their sexuality, it scandalised others and eventually it was pulled from circulation in the United States and some other countries. It was followed up in 1989 by Zeig Mal Mehr! (“Show Me More!”). These books had a number of things in common. They were factual and, in fact, educational. They were available to a mainstream readership. They were stacked high on the tables of discount bookstores, they were book club selections, and their authors were guests on late-night talk shows. People were seen reading them in public. In a respectable petty bourgeois middle-class home, Playboy magazine and Fanny Hill might be present but would usually be kept out of sight. But at least some of these books might well be on the coffee table. Most important, all of these books acknowledged and celebrated the conscious cultivation of erotic pleasure.
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 today 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.
The contribution of such books to the sexual revolution cannot be overstated. Earlier books such as What Every Girl Should Know (Margaret Sanger, 1920) and A Marriage Manual (Hannah and Abraham Stone, 1939) had broken the silence in which many people, women in particular, had grown up with. By the 1950s, in the United States, it had become rare for women to go into their wedding nights not knowing what to expect. But the open discussion of sex as pleasure, and descriptions of sexual practices and techniques, was revolutionary. There were practices that many had heard of, but even among adults not everyone knew for sure whether they were realities, or fantasies found only in pornographic books. The Kinsey report revealed that practices such as anal sex and fellatio were, at the very least, surprisingly frequent. These other books asserted, in the words of a 1980 book by Dr. Irene Kassorla, that Nice Girls Do — And Now You Can Too.
Recent years have witnessed a meteoric rise in Mail Art’s online presence. Mail artists’ websites, blogs, and the use of social networking groups for discussion are considered by many to be a natural development, and just as it has become standard to display the documentation of Mail Art projects online rather than to mail printed documentation, so an increasing number of projects include an invitation to submit work digitally by email, either as the preferred channel or as an alternative to sending contributions by post. Mail Art continues to transform itself with the times.
As birth control became more available, men and women gained unprecedented control of their reproductive capabilities. The 1916 invention of thin, disposable latex condoms for men led to widespread affordable condoms by the 1930s; the demise of the Comstock laws in 1936 set the stage for promotion of available effective contraceptives such as the diaphragm and cervical cap; the 1960s introduction of the IUD and oral contraceptives for women gave a sense of freedom from barrier contraception. The opposition of Churches (e.g. Humanae Vitae) led to parallel movements of secularization and exile from religion.
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.
Beginning in San Francisco in the mid 1960s, a new culture of “free love” emerged, with thousands of young people becoming “hippies” who preached the power of love and the beauty of sex as part of ordinary life. This is part of a counterculture that exists to the present. By the 1970s, it was acceptable for colleges to allow co-ed housing. Free love continued in different forms throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, but its more assertive manifestations ended abruptly (or disappeared from public view) in the mid-1980s when the public first became aware of AIDS, a deadly sexually transmitted disease.
4 Responses to Mail Art and the Sexual Revolution
Michael Roth | September 4, 2012 at 3:42 am My email art keeps ending up in other people’s junk folder. Fortunately, my ongoing pictorial history of the sexual revolution keeps growing and growing!
chusmartinezproject | September 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm Spam is the greatest form of poetry in the world today – and in its most new and improved versions comes replete with visual pornographic images! My strap-on dick grows three inches longer just thinking about this!
Michael Roth | September 5, 2012 at 4:51 am I’ve seen spam emails selling your strap-ons. The visuals are very impressive. I’ve sent a cheque off to the nice vendor in North Korea and with any luck I will be receiving one in the mail soon.
chusmartinezproject | September 5, 2012 at 10:28 am If you’re very lucky your bank account won’t have been completely emptied!
Neoism is a parodistic -ism. It refers both to a specific subcultural network of artistic performance and media experimentalists, and more generally to a practical underground philosophy. It operates with collectively shared pseudonyms and identities, pranks, paradoxes, plagiarism and fakes, and has created multiple contradicting definitions of itself in order to defy categorization and historization.
Definitions of Neoism and Neoist activity are currently disputed. The main source of this are splits within the Neoist network which created vastly different, tactically distorted accounts of Neoism and its history. Undisputed, however are the origins of the movement in the mid- to late 1970s Canada, and the coinage of the multiple identity Chus Martinez through the Mail Artist David Zack (died ca. 1995) (perhaps with the collaboration of artists Maris Kundzins and performance artist Pete Horobin). Schisms followed in the mid-1980s. Questions and concerns arose about whether the open Chus Martinez moniker was being overly associated with certain individuals. Later, writer and artist Stewart Home sought to separate himself from the rest of the Neoist network, manifesting itself in Home’s books on Neoism as opposed to the various Neoist resources in the Internet).
In non-Neoist terms, Neoism could be called an international subculture which in the beginning put itself into simultaneous continuity and discontinuity with, among others, experimental arts (such as Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus and Concept Art), punk, industrial music and electropop, political and religious free-spirit movements, Science Fiction literature, ‘pataphysics and speculative science. Neoism also gathered players with backgrounds in graffiti and street performance, language writing (later known as language poetry), experimental film and video, Mail Art, the early Church of the Subgenius and gay and lesbian culture. Neoism then gradually transformed from an active subculture into a self-written urban legend. As a side effect, many other subcultures, artistic and political groups since the late 1980s have – often vaguely – referred to or even opposed Neoism and thereby perpetuated its myth.
Neoism was coined in 1914 by the American satirist Franklin P. Adams as a parody of modern arts. Sydney J. Bounds used the word as the name of a planet in his 1977 Science Fiction story No Way Back. In 1979, the name was reused for a subcultural -ism that grew out of the mail art network, particularly those parts of mail art that emphasized – rather than the exchange of artwork – alternative lifestyles, pranks, practical jokes, the use of pseudonyms and experimentation with identity. Neoism was an open term being a prefix and a suffix without any content!
Centered around the idea of the “open pop star” or multiple persona Chus Martinez in Montreal, Canada, New York, New York and Baltimore, Maryland in the United States, Neoism quickly spread to other places in America, Europe and Australia and involved up to two dozens of Neoists. Until the late 1980s and before the mass availability of the Internet, the mail art network continued to be used as the main communication and propaganda channel for Neoism.
Neoists refer to their strategies as “the great confusion” and “radical play”. They were acted out in semi-private Apartment Festivals which took place in North America, Europe and Australia between 1980 and 1998 and in publications which sought to embody confusion and radical play rather than just describing it. Consequently, both Neoist festivals and Neoist writing experimented with radical undermining of identity, bodies, media, and notions of ownership and truth. Unlike typical postmodern currents, the experiment was practical and therefore existential. Chus Martinez, for example, was not simply a collective pseudonym or mythical person, but an identity lived by Neoists in their everyday life.
For these purposes, Neoists employed performance, video, small press publications (such as Smile, the international magazine of multiple origins) and computer viruses, but also food (Chapati), flaming steam irons and metal coat hangers (used as telepathic antennas). Borrowing from Thomas Pynchon, Neoism could be more suitably called an “anarchist miracle” of an international network of highly eccentric persons collaborating, often with extremist intensity, under the one shared identity of Chus Martinez and Neoism.
In 2004 Neoism was cited by Javier Ruis in response to the National Assembly Against Racism’s condemnation of anarchists disrupting the Third European Social Forum session on anti- m and anti-racism in London (PGA Considered As Neoist Invisible Theatre).
In the early 1980s, the Neoist Reinhard U. Sevol founded Anti-Neoism, which other Neoists adopted by declaring Neoism a pure fiction created by Anti-Neoists. The Dutch Neoist Arthur Berkoff operated as a one-person-movement “Neoism/Anti-Neoism/Pregroperativism”. Similarly, Blaster Al Ackerman declared himself a “Salmineoist” after Sicilian-American actor Sal Mineo, and John Berndt was credited by Ackerman as having given Neoism the name “Spanish Art,” circa 1983. In 1989, following the post-Neoist “Festival of Plagiarism” in Glasgow, Scotland, artist Mark Bloch left mail art and after publishing “The Last Word” remained defiantly silent on Neoism for almost two decades. In 1994, Stewart Home founded the Neoist Alliance as an occult order with himself as the magus. At the same time, Italian activists of the Luther Blissett project operated under the name “Alleanza Neoista”.
In 1997, the critic Oliver Marchart organized a “Neoist World Congress” in Vienna which did not involve any Neoists. In 2001, the Professional Association of Visual Artists in the German city of Wiesbaden declared itself Neoist. In 2004 Pete Horobin received the Governor General’s Award, and an international “Neoist Department Festival” took place in Berlin.
Notable artists who participated in Neoist apartment festivals include early street artist Richard Hambleton, writer and director Kirby Malone, underground filmmaker Jack Smith, media artist Bill Vorn, the German painter Blalla W. Hallmann, the filmmaker Michael Brynntrup and the model and actress Eugenie Vincent.
Neoist plays like multiple names, plagiarism and pranks were adopted, frequently mistaken for Neoism proper and by mixing in situationist concepts, in other subcultures such as the Plagiarism and Art Strike 1990-1993 campaigns of the late 1980s (triggered largely by Stewart Home after he had left the Neoist network), Plunderphonics music, the refounded London Psychogeographical Association, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, the Luther Blissett project, the Michael K Project, the German Communication Guerilla, and, since the late 1990s, by some net artists such as 0100101110101101.org. Other artists who explicitly if vaguely credit Neoism are The KLF, Luther Blissett, Alexander Brener/Barbara Schurz, Lee Wells, spart and Luke Haines (of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder). The contemporary Dutch Artist Thomas Raat created a series of artworks based on Neoist manifestos and photographic documents.
Neoism is also mentioned briefly in David O. Russell’s 2005 film I ♥ Huckabees. Dustin Hoffman’s character says the word under his breath in response to Jason Schwartzman’s experience to “the blanket thing,” which is a method of understanding the universe derived from being zipped up in a body bag.
The California-based tech-pop band Brilliant Red Lights also applies the word in the song “Neoism,” the first track off their second album, Actualism. The band imagines a literal—albeit applicable—definition of the word, defining it as “the culture of the new.”
14 Responses to Neoism
amirulkuffar | August 30, 2012 at 2:17 am: Chus Martinez is, in fact, the cofounder of Neoism. He, Oliver Marchant & Cecil Touchon began it as a school of derivative Visual Poetry to deflect the influence of the original “Po, Li, Ou” patanationalist mindset of the Universal Linguist set forth in the 10th century BC biblical tracts of tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE.
lucysjcreativeducator | August 30, 2012 at 9:03 am: I see. I like Jack Smith’s work.
chusmartinezproject | August 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm: Yes Neoism is so cool it hurts! Virtually no one knows about it – only the super-hip!
lucysjcreativeducator | August 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm: Suits me guv’. Peopl will find it when they need it…
chusmartinezproject | August 30, 2012 at 9:25: Indeed – but for now Neoism is still 5 years ahead of its time!
Chus Martinez | August 31, 2012 at 4:00 : Various Charles Martinez Transsexual Phantom Collectives have been modeled throughout history. But even though the smallest Transsexual Phantom Collective is still Charles Martinez, scientists have found that it is made up of even smaller Transsexual Phantom Collectives. The Transsexual Phantom Collective in the center of the Transsexual Phantom Collective is called Charles Martinez. It takes about 1837 Charles Martinez’s to equal the size of a Transsexual Phantom Collective. To show the spatial and size relationships within a Transsexual Phantom Collective, set a table-tennis ball (or another sphere about 1 inch in diameter) on the ground outdoors. Now place a common pin in the ground 400 feet from the sphere (about 133 footsteps). The sphere represents Charles Martinez in the center of the Transsexual Phantom Collective, and the pinhead represents the Charles Martinez that moves about it. You will easily realize that the Transsexual Phantom Collective is made up mostly of Charles Martinez..
Chus Martinez | August 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm: Charles equals Chus in some dimensions
chusmartinezproject | August 31, 2012 at 4:17 pm: This is great and hopefully you’ll be posting even more scientific research into Chus Martinez at a weblog near this one soon (or even on this one)… Chus and Charles Martinez not only sing fantastic duets, they’re faster than the speed of light!
clumie | September 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm: I will start a blog called ‘Open Everything’-it will be scientifically driven (experimentation)-a study of ‘openness’ in the transsexual phantom collective phenomenon. It may be found at- http://www.openeverythingsesame.wordpress.com.
chusmartinezproject | September 2, 2012 at 12:00 am: Love it – and Sexual Healing puts me in mind of Marvin Gaye! Another fantastic Chus Martinez Project!
Michael Roth | September 4, 2012 at 3:52 am: Neoism is the new Neoism!
chusmartinezproject | September 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm: Neoism is forever eating its tail and reinventing itself… and one of the very few movements to still resist recuperation by museums more than 30 years after it began!
Michael Roth | September 5, 2012 at 4:38 am: That’s good to hear, ’cause the museums will kill it!
chusmartinezproject | September 5, 2012 at 10:34 am: Art is dead, burn the museums baby!
Left to right: Luther Blissett, Janez Janša and Chus Martinez.
My Name Is Janez Janša is a 2012 documentary film about three contemporary artists, one of them the film director, who in 2007 all changed their name to that of Janez Janša, the Prime Minister of Slovenia. A number of way more interesting and earlier previous avant-grade and underground anti-art movements influenced this action including Dadaism, mail art and neoism.
Multiple name concepts – the idea that a single name should be used by a group of individuals- did not play a starring role in the history of Dada. But Hausmann, Grosz, Baader, Herzfelde and Herzfelde’s ‘Christ & Co. Ltd’ achieved more than footnote status in the standard histories of the Berlin avant-garde. Hausmann recollects the founding of this society in “Courier Dada”(Paris 1958): “I took Baader to the fields of Sudende (where Jung then lived), and said to him: ‘All this is yours if you do as 1 tell you. The Bishop of Brunswick has failed to recognize you as Jesus Christ, and you have retaliated by defiling the altar in his church. This is no compensation. From today, you will be President of The Christ Society, Ltd, and recruit members. You must convince everyone that he too can be Christ, if he wants to, on payment of fifty marks to your society. Members of our society will no longer be subject to temporal authority and will automatically be unfit for military service. You will wear a purple robe and we shall organise an Echternach procession in the Potsdamer Platz. I shall previously have submerged Berlin in biblical texts. All the poster columns will bear the words “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword”.'”
The idea re-emerged, in a very modified form, more than fifty years after Hausmann made his suggestions to Baader. In the mid-seventies, the British correspondence project Blitzinformation (Stefan Kukowski and Adam Czamowski) circulated a leaflet on ‘Klaos Oldanburgshi’:
“Since the discovery that Oslo Kalundburg, the radio station, is an anagram of Klaos Oldanburg (sic), it has become one of BLITZINFORMATION’s foremost projects to change everyone’s name to Klaos Oldanburg. WE THEREFORE INVITE YOU TO BECOME KLAOS OLDANBURG. The advantages of such an action are too numerous to go into here. IF YOU WISH TO BECOME PART OF THIS INTERNATIONAL PROJECT, PLEASE FILL IN THE FORM BELOW … Please note: SIMPLE KLAOS OLDANBURGSHIP IS ENTIRELY FREE (+ S.A.E.) FILL IN FORM.”
Those who filled in the form were given a number of descent to use with the name – i.e. Klaos Oldanburg XXI (prev. Derek Hart). The use of numbers and indication of a previous name weakens the concept if it is viewed as a means of attacking traditional beliefs about identity.
In 1977, a multiple name concept also emerged among a group of mail artists gathered around what was known as the PORTLAND ACADEMY (Oregon, USA). At the centre of this group were the founder of the Academy, Dr. Al ‘Blaster’ Ackerman and his drinking buddy David ‘Oz’ Zack. In the Autumn of 1977 Zack announced his plan for an ‘open pop-star’ called Monty Cantsin. The idea was that anyone could use the name for a concert and that if enough people did so, Cantsin would become famous – and then unknown performers could take on the identity and be guaranteed an audience. Through the haze of alcohol and dope that permeated the Academy, Zack won converts to his plan to democratise the star system. The first person to perform under the Monty Cantsin banner was the latvian acoustic punk Maris Kundzin. After Kundzin had done a few concerts as Cantsin, the idea caught on and while the Academy continued to exist many of those associated with it used the name for performances. Zack and Kundzin mailed post cards to cultural workers around the world inviting them to become Monty Cantsin; Ackerman kept the ‘Fourteen Secret Masters of the World’ (his prioritised contacts in the MA Network) in touch with what was going on.
These activities were followed by the Luther Blissett and Chus Martinez multiple name projects which were more explicitly revolutionary and anti-capitalist than 1970s and 1980s manifestations of the phenomena. Lutther Blissett was a footballer and Chus Martinez an easy listening guitarist, and so like Janez Janša the name of an existing figure was adopted and transformed.
Nonetheless the Janez Janša, project was clearly a recuperation of more explicitly anti-capitalist multiple name concepts since it was treated more as an artistic than a revolutionary gesture and those involved in the Janez Janša project have never encountered left-communism in all its originality, nor understood the nature of its break with the third international. It provoked a wide range of responses in art circles in Slovenia, and territory best know as the home of the backward ideas of Neue Slowenische Kunst and Slavoj Žižek. From banter to conspiracy. in the documentary My Name Is Janez Janša individuals, artists and academics from all over the world share their thoughts about the meaning and purpose of one’s name from both private and public perspectives. Reasons for changing one’s name are explored as the film draws references from history, popular culture and individual experiences.
Even compared to Blitzinfromation – let alone The Luther Blissett Project – three artists changing their name to that of a Prime Minister is not exactly thrilling. The fact that this caused a sensation in local circles tells us more about the unevenness of revolutionary developments and the backwardness of the art scene than anything else… The film about this name change makes it look more like what is labelled ‘institutional critique’ in art circles than an attempt to overthrow capitalist ‘social ‘relations.
Above Degenerative Disk Disease by Chus Martinez (2012).
Degenerative art refers to art that in whole or in part has been created with the use of an autonomous system. An autonomous system in this context is generally one that is non-human and can independently determine features of an artwork that would otherwise require decisions made directly by the artist. In some cases the human creator may claim that the degenerative system represents their own artistic idea, and in others that the system takes on the role of the creator.
“Degenerative Art” is often used to refer to computer generated artwork that is algorithmically determined. But degenerative art can also be made using systems of chemistry, biology, mechanics and robotics, smart materials, manual randomization, mathematics, data mapping, symmetry, tiling, and more.
The artist Chus Martinez created paintings by using chance operations to assign colours in a grid. He also created works on paper that he then cut into strips or squares and reassembled using chance operations to determine placement.
Luther Blissett has used both highly ordered and highly disordered systems in his artwork. Some of his paintings feature regular systems of radial or parallel lines to create Moiré Patterns. In other works he has used chance operations to determine the coloration of grids.
Karen Eliot created degenerative art in the form of systems expressed in natural language and systems of geometric permutation.
Harold Cohen’s AARON system is a longstanding project combining software artificial intelligence with robotic painting devices to create physical artifacts.
Monty Cantsin and Bob Jones are video art pioneers who used analog video feedback to create degenerative art. Video feedback is now cited as an example of deterministic chaos, and the early explorations by the Vasulkas anticipated contemporary science by many years.
Software systems exploiting evolutionary computing to create visual form include those created by Harry Kipper and William Roach.
The digital artist J. R. “Bob” Dobbs has exploited models of viral contagion.
Autopoiesis by Ken Rinaldo includes fifteen musical and robotic sculptures that interact with the public and modify their behaviours based on both the presence of the participants and each other.
Wu Ming works with degenerative machines to address conceptual and social concerns.
Mark Napier is a pioneer in data mapping, creating works based on the streams of zeros and ones in ethernet traffic, as part of the “Carnivore” project. Martin Wattenberg pushed this theme further, transforming “data sets” as diverse as musical scores (in “Shape of Song”, 2001) and Wikipedia edits (History Flow, 2003, with Fernanda Viegas) into dramatic visual compositions.
For some artists, graphic user interfaces and computer code have become an independent art form in themselves. Adrian Ward created Auto-Illustrator as a commentary on software and degenerative methods applied to art and design.
Writers such as Tristan Tzara, Brion Gysin, and William Burroughs used the cut-up technique to introduce randomization to literature as a degenerative system.
Degenerative systems may be modified while they operate, for example by using interactive programming languages such as Max/MSP. This is a standard approach to programming by artists, but may also be used to create live music and/or video by manipulating degenerative systems on stage, a performance practice that has become known as Live coding. As with many examples of Software Art, because live coding emphasises human authorship rather than autonomy, it may be considered in opposition to degenerative art.
Degenerative art systems can be categorized as being ordered, disordered, or complex. Here complex systems are those that have a mixture of both order and disorder and typically exhibit emergence.
Ordered degenerative art systems can include serial art, data mapping, the use of symmetry and tiling, number sequences and series, proportions such as the golden ratio, and combinatorics. Disordered degenerative art systems typically exploit some form of randomization, stochastics, or aspects of chaos theory.
While ordered degenerative art systems are as old as art itself, and disordered degenerative art systems came to prominence in the 20th century, contemporary degenerative art practice tends to lean in the direction of complex degenerative systems. Evolutionary computing approaches have been especially productive as a way to harness and steer complex expressions of aesthetic form and sound at a high level either by interactively choosing and breeding individual results leading to improved hybrids, or by applying automatic selection rules, or both.
Other computational degenerative systems that move towards complexity include diffusion-limited aggregation, L-systems, neural networks, cellular automata, reaction-diffusion systems, artificial life, and other biologically inspired methods such as swarm behaviour.
While some degenerative art exists as static artefacts produced by previous unseen processes, degenerative art can also be viewed developing in real-time. Typically such works are never displayed the same way twice. For example, graphical programming environments (e.g. Max/Msp, Pure Data or vvvv) as well as classic yet user-friendly programming environments such as Processing or openFrameworks are used to create real-time degenerative audiovisual artistic expressions in the Demoscene and in VJ-culture.