Mail art: a veritable mailbag of signs. To some within the community it is a McLuhanesque statement of medium as message, with the art object itself being secondary to the method of distribution. For others it is pure artistry, untainted by commercial considerations and far from the presence of the gallery and curator. When mail art is featured in galleries, it is shown collectively to reflect the openness inherent in mail art: paper and stamps are cheap, and letters are expert travelers. Also not to be overlooked, the power of the human exchange specific to mail art (sender receives) that brings humans together.
Letters have distinct way of marking time and place. Perhaps it is the postmark, a locative mark on the piece which the artist has no control over. It could also be the stamp, with its nationality, price, and design. Perhaps it is the logistic wonder of the actual sending: how many hands will it touch, how many trucks, cars, planes, will carry it, how many days will it take? For many reasons, mail art is a social phenomenon, a past time for some which is thriving in a world where more and more communication occurs electronically.
A major subject of discussion in the mail art community has been the impact of the internet on the work. Yet many claim that the practice of mail-art was a prototype for the kind distance-independent communities that exist now online. But while the internet has changed the way we all communicate, including those in the mail art world, we can still only send physical objects to each other via “snail mail.” You can’t digitize 3D objects, nor the tactile experience of handling them. So much of our ‘media’ has gone digital that receiving and sending a physical object in the post from a ‘stranger’ emphasizes the gift economy of mail art even more, especially for a younger generation of mail artists coming of age now. No doubt it is a special feeling to receive mail art tucked between bills and advertisements; a treasure just for you.
In many ways, mail art was a precursor to the web. Both are individually empowering by enabling individuals to circumvent an established, exclusive system of media distribution. Both encourage creative populism and undercut elitism, and both led to the creation of virtual communities, whose coherence is based on shared ideas rather than simple proximity. Essentially, blogs are to newspapers what mail art is to galleries: a way to relay the ‘news’ without censorship, and mail art protests the commercialism of art.
So why bring this anti-gallery movement into a gallery? Ironically, for the non-artist, the mail art community turns out to be more exclusive and less accessible than gallery shows. This is partially due to the relative obscurity of the movement, but also because the mail art doctrine of “senders receive” effectively excludes non-participants from experiencing the phenomenon. Gallery exhibitions of mail art are a paradoxic remedy to both of these problems, as well as a way to recruit the unaware into the fold.
But this gallery show is only a brief pause in the natural mail art cycle: each piece will eventually be sent to one of the participating artists, to keep. Mail art was born outside the gallery, and ultimately belongs in the wilderness of public correspondence. But this gallery show aims to be the equivalent to stealing a mail carriers' bag and finding nothing but mail-art within. You may be baffled, you may think 'why would anyone do this?' or you may be amused. In fact, you may think these things simultaneously and that is a testament to the artistry, as opposed to the network aspects of mail art. But the network aspects of mail-art are celebrated in this brief show as every participant will receive a work in return. We thank these artists for allowing us to serve as a holding-vehicle for these works and you, the viewer, for coming to share in this world that emphasizes sharing more than most.