"I am curious about the unseen world, and mail art allows me to explore it." - John Held Jr.

Ruud Janssen with John Held Jr.

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

This interview was conducted in 1995. It is possible to spread this information to others, but for publication you will have to get permission from TAM and the interviewed Artist! Enjoy reading this interview. This is the updated file on 9 december 1995.


Started on: 3-11-1994

RJ: Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?

Reply on: 22-11-94

JH: My first trip to Europe was in 1975. I went to France, Italy, Greece, Austria, Germany, and Holland. In Amsterdam I came across a rubber stampstore by chance. They sold sets of visual stamps (flowers, animals, fairytales). I bought several, and talked to the director, Mr. Van der Plaats, abouthis business. When I returned to New York, I began to use them in myartwork (I was then doing pen and ink work). I never heard of artists usingrubber stamps in the context of fine art before. I thought I had discovered anew art medium. But as a professional librarian, I began to research if thiswas true or not.

One day in the New York Times newspaper I saw an article about BizarroRubber Stamp Company. They published a catalog of visual rubber stamps. Iwrote to the director, Kenn Spicer, and he informed me that there was anunderground art form called mail art, and that they used rubber stamps todecorate envelopes. He gave me the names of two New York artists whowere involved in this work: Ray Johnson and Edward Plunkett. Ray Johnsonhad started this artform in the fifties as a way of distributing his pop artimagery. Ed Plunkett gave a name to Johnson's activities in 1962: The NewYork Correspondance School of Art. Plunkett sent me dadaesque "freetickets" that were rubber stamped with odd names and images. Johnson sentphotocopied works, which he encouraged me to "add and send to" personsunknown to me. They turned out to be other members of the NYCSA, suchpeople as Anna Banana and Richard C. But it was with Johnson himself thatI had the greatest correspondence.

Ray Johnson not only introduced me to people through mail, but gave me theaddress and introductions to well-known artists like the painter Arakawa andhis poet wife Madelyn Gins whose work I admired. For a young person notyet thirty, this was a fantastic way to participate in the contemporary art ofmy time, and actually meet the participants.

I accumulated more rubber stamps and made more and more mail artcontacts. In 1976 I returned to Amsterdam to have a show at Stempelplaats,the rubber stamp gallery and museum that Mr. Van de Plaats had just startedwith the encouragement of myself and Ulises Carrion. While there, I spentone week with Carrion, a Mexican artist who had started the Amsterdambookstore and gallery Other Books and So. Carrion was the center of theEuropean mail art scene and exhibited and sold postcards, rubber stampworks, artist's books, photocopy work, artist publications of all kinds, inshort the only public distribution point for this very underground art form.From Ulises I learned the conceptual side of mail art and the philosophybehind much of my future activity.

RJ: What is this conceptual side of mail art in your eyes? How is itconnected to your current activities ?

reply on: 20-12-1994

JH: Many of the ideas Ulises Carrión expressed on mail art and rubberstamps are contained in his book Second Thoughts. In his essay, "Mail Artand the Big Monster," he explains that mail art uses as support the postalsystem, but the post is not the medium. A mail art piece consists of a seriesof actions. Production of the piece and posting of the piece are only two ofthem. In another essay in Second Thoughts, "Personal Worlds or CulturalStrategies," Carrión extends the concept of an artwork when he asks thequestion, "Where does the border lie between an artist's work and the actualorganization and distribution of the work?" He answers it by saying, "Whenan artist is busy choosing his starting point, defining the limits of his scope,he has the right to include the organization and distributation of his work asan element of the same work. And by doing so, he's creating a strategy thatwill become a constituent formal element of the final work."

So I came to understand through Carrión, and others as well, that mail art isnot about the mail, the production of postcards, or other relics of theprocess, but about communication and the control of distributed creativeenergy. This is a conceptual exploration that begins with the production ofphysical objects, but as Carrión has said, "Most artists and the public seem tohave lost themselves in the game. They have come to think that making MailArt means producing postcards." It's not so. Mail Art is a medium itself forthe distribution of "personal worlds" and "cultural strategies."

The organization and distribution of the work of which Carrión spoke of is acritical concern of mine. I am not only an artist, but an librarian. Both ofthese professions deal with information intake and dissemination. I thinkthat my greatest contribution to Mail Art has been the publishing of mybook, Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography. It was a five-year project inwhich I gathered information, put it in a readable form, had it printed, andleft it to find an audience. It was not only a research project, but a work ofart. So is the curating of a mail art show. Organizing the show, gathering theinformation, finding a place to exhibit, mounting it for the public in the formof a global collage free of restrictions, these are all elements of a sustainedenergy, which is conceptualized, harnessed and presented to the public. TheMail Art Congresses of Fricker and Ruch; the Art Strike that Stuart Homeconceptualized; Guy Bleus's Administration projects; Neoism as undertakenby Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin; Picasso Gaglione's Stamp Art Gallery;Pawel Petasz's Commonpress Project; Dobrica Kamperelic's Open Worldmagazine; your own Rubber Stamp Archive - these, and many other effortswithin the network, are other projects that I consider important conceptualartworks within a mail art structure.

Currently I am curating a mail art show at the National Museum in Havana,Cuba, organizing the Faux Post artist stamp that will travel the United Statesfor two years, editing Bibliozine, producing artist postage stamps and othervisual works for exhibition, writing and lecturing about my experiences,planning for future travels that will allow me to meet other networkers, andof course, answering the mail that comes to me daily in a creative fashion toensure maximum information exchange. These are all current projects thatare based on my conceptual understanding of Mail Art.

RJ: When I read this answer I realize that mail-art has taken over your wayof life a lot. Your travels and work are integrated with the concept you giveof mail art. Your travels seem to bring you to the corners of our world thatare difficult to reach by mail. Cuba is just a new example after your travelsto the USSR, Yugoslavia, etc... Why are you reaching for these outer cornersof the network?

Reply on: 13-1-1995

JH: If mail art is about communication, then the greatest challenge is toreach those who are at the "outer corners". If one can overcome languageproblems, cultural differences, governmental obstacles, and technicaldifficulties when contacting correspondents from different countries, themyou get a better understanding and appreciation of those closer at hand.

My collaboration with Abelardo Mena, the Curator of Foreign Art at theNational Museum of Beaux-Arts in Havana, Cuba, has presented specialproblems because of the economic and cultural barriers between our twocountries. The mail cannot be sent directly to Cuba from the United states,but must be forwarded through a third country, such as Mexico or Canada.Our letters would take from two to six months to arrive at their destination.To overcome this we began to communicate on the Internet. Now ourcommunication is practically instantaneous. This action reveals both thelimitations of mail art and it's expansion into different areas.

My friendship with Abelardo Mena has given me special pleasure because ofthe obstacles we have had to overcome to achieve it. I have always thought ofmail art networking as a grassroots diplomacy, and this has never been moretrue than in my recent relation with Aberlardo. Because of the situation thatexists between our countries, we are both forced to make extra efforts tocommunicate and collaborate on a project of common concern. I lookforward to my forthcoming trip to Cuba, for which I have worked six monthsto obtain travel visa from the Cuban government and a license from theUnited States Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control inorder for Abelardo and I to meet.

The communication mediums of mail and telecommunication are oftenpreludes to physical contacts. I learned very early in my meetings with mailart participants that there is a mysterious, yet veiled, bonding that iscultivated through the postal system. When distance is stripped away and thecontact is manifested in the flesh, the relationship is totally changed.Sometimes this is for the better, sometimes it is not. It is less mysterious, butit is more truthful. Most revealing is that the long-distance/time-delayedencounter is inherently flawed by a lack of essential information that ishidden through mediated communication processes.

This is not to diminish the importance of the mail art experience. I can'tthink of anything else that better prepares two people to meet. Somethingvery essential is always communicated. And even if there is never a physicalmeeting between the two, something is gained through the postal contact. Atit's best, a spiritual connection can be formed. Of course, it's impossible tomeet all of one's correspondents if one is very active in mail art, but it's agreat way to explore the greater world. I am curious about the unseen world,and mail art allows me to explore it.

My travels are guided by a search for practical answers that can be used toconduct my life in a more knowledgeable and comfortable fashion. Mystery isa lack of information that is overcome by meaningful communication. It mayseem that by traveling to the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Uruguay,Japan, and now Cuba, that I am driven by a desire for exotic experiences.The truth is that travel, like my use of the postal system, is based on makingmy life less exotic, more truthful, and to use the "outer corners" to discoverthe center. I always return home better informed, more aware, of the greaterworld. This has an influence to my future networking activities.

RJ: What is the vision of these 'future networking activities' for you?. Itseems you started to use Internet (just like me) as an alternative for mailjust to gain time or to have a communication-form when there is no otherway. Do you think that E-mail will gradually take over what Mail-art bringsor is it just "an extra tool" for the networker?

Reply on: 28-2-1995

JH: First of all, I have to mention that since we talked last, Ray Johnsondied. This happened on January 13th, 1995, just four days before my trip toCuba. I've talked about Ray before and how he was not only the founder andguiding spirit of Mail Art, but also a personal mentor for my own activities. His death marks a new period for this medium which he gave birth to. It isespecially meaningful to me that so shortly after his death, I left for Cuba tocurate the first Mail Art exhibition in a National Museum of Fine Arts. Themembers of Banco de Ideas Z, the Cuban art collective that co-sponsoredthe show, dedicated this exhibition to Ray.

Now some may say that this event marks a decline in Mail Art, and that thisalternative artform has now entered the highest tier of the museumstructure. I choose to look at this differently. Ruggero Maggi has stated that,"Mail Art uses Institutions in the place of Institutions against Institutions."This is true for me as well. Mail Art is infiltrating the mainstream art worldthrough the mainstreams' own institutions, and using them to communicateits message of global art and the diversity of ideas. Museums are one moreweapon in the arsenal of Mail Art.

Mail Art is not "selling out." Direct person-to-person contacts continue inthe netland. And not only through the post, but through the newcommunication technologies, like Internet. This is an evolution of greatimportance. It extends the reach of the Mail Artist making him a NetworkArtist. I still prefer to use the mail, because of it's intimate nature: one canfeel the materials that were created and touched by another person. But Ialso use faster communication mediums when the circumstances require it. Ilike this flexibility, and it shows me that the concept of mail art networkingis broad enough to escape the limitations of the postal system. Ray Johnsonstarted a spark that has grown to become a firestorm of internationalcreativity.

Mail Art has also become more than person-to-person contact. Now we haveMail Art and Networker Congresses that involve a number of Networkers atany one time. We have exhibitions in important museums, which extend ouraudience and recruit new participants. Many in the network have give "mailart workshops," which introduce the mail art experience to beginners. Mailartists continue to write about the medium in the vacuum of criticalacceptance by mainstream art writers and scholars. Recently, CrackerjackKid (Chuck Welch) has published, The Eternal Network: A Mail ArtAnthology, which contains over forty essays on the Mail Art and Networkingexperience.

Mail Art is bigger, more active, and attracting more attention than ever. It'snot a sign of getting away from it's root's, but an indication that these rootsare planted in fertile soil and that growth is taking place. The branches ofMail Art are reaching out and beginning to have an effect on those who haveignored it in the past. When Mail Art began, it was a sideline for mainstreamartists. Now it can hold one's attention on a full-time basis.

This is my good fortune. I have done mail art continuously since 1976, and Ihave grown as it has evolved. I am now able to pursue my interest in MailArt almost full-time. Of course, it doesn't pay, but that's not so important tome, as I still have a part-time job that I enjoy (at the library), that pays mostof my rent and bills. Mail art is not a career for me, but it is apreoccupation. And with this increased acceptance and growth, I have moreopportunities to lecture, to curate exhibitions, to write, to exhibit worksrelated to my mail art activities, to give workshops, to sit on panels thatdiscuss such topics as the alternative arts, Fluxus, rubber stamp art,performance, and other subjects that have influenced and are effected byMail Art.

So these are my future networking activities, which are still rooted in thetraditional Mail Art exchange of postal objects. This does not mean that Idon't recognize that others in Netland may be taking a completely differentpath. After I returned from Cuba, I went to New York City for thepublication party of Chuck Welch's new book. I met Mark Bloch there, who Ihaven't communicated with for four years. But Mark has not been inactive,nor have I. He has been involved in computer networks at the expense of hispostal activities. We haven't written to each other, and I haven't seen hisname on mail art show lists. But he's been networking, and I've beennetworking. Just in different networks.

So where once there was a wholeness in the Mail Art Community, there arenow divisions. The Networker Congresses of 1992 pointed this out. The MailArt tree not only has new branches; it now has fellow trees. Mail Art can'tcontrol the E-mail experience. E-mail can't control Mail Art. But they caninform each other. They can interact with one another. And they can moveforward together. Because despite the differences of the mediums, they stillhave communication creativity as a common goal. Ray Johnson planted atree in what has become a forest.

RJ: When I look at the organ of senses a human being has, the computer-network has still only limited choices of communication (for most it is onlyvisual communication!). The mail also has its limitations but adds smell andfeel-possibilities, 3D views etc.., but with the tourism and congresses, themail-art networking isn't just a tree, it has to do with open communication.Maybe it is time to get rid of the term "mail-art" which is getting old-fashion? What do you think?

Reply on: 14-3-1995

JH: It's not so much that Mail Art is old-fashioned, just that it is now inexistence for some forty years. It has matured. Mail art is no longer theprovidence of avant-garde artists as it was when it was begun by Ray Johnsonand Fluxus. In the fifties and early sixties, Mail Art had powerful newconceptions about art (democratic art of open systems, non-commodity art,communication art, collaborative art, the question of originality, art activism,multi-culturalism) that were unexplored and unacknowledged by mainstreamart. Now these ideas have been brought forward and have entered thedialogue of the art community at large. Through the explosive growth of mailart shows, the medium is no longer a secret exchanged surreptitiouslythrough the postal system, but can be seen on the walls of universitygalleries, alternative art spaces, and even National Museums.

Networking art expands the concepts that mail art first exposed. Artists aremoving into the new communication technologies like computer and fax andapplying the lessons learned in Mail Art, especially the collaborative aspect,the respect for divergent opinion, and the notion of originality. Other artistshave applied these lessons in performance works that are done in real timeand space. Many artists are now involved in a variety of mediums, and theycan best be represented as communication or networking artists. As theseartists move into new territories, they find even more information to beexamined and new results that push art beyond it's present definition.

But Mail Art still exists. The term Mail Art doesn't need to be thrown out. Itexists in mailboxes around the world, and is very much a reality. It is usefulto many people who still find it an inexpensive and far-reaching tool. Butnow it is just one weapon in the arsenal of the progressive artist: this newartist - the Networker. And it is the Networker who is now pushing forwardthe new frontiers of artmaking.

To be a Mail Artist, yes I agree, it's not an avant-garde activity anymore. Ithas entered the mainstream. To practice only Mail Art is worthwhile formany, but it's nostalgic. It is an activity based in history. For many whobegan mail art, this rage for the avant-garde still burns. So they moveforward into Internet, into fax, into Congressism and Tourism, and evennewer means of art communication that have not even been named yet. Theymove into Networking, but they can still practice Mail Art with effectiveresults. It's just that choices have to be made in getting one's message acrossin creative ways. If you are stuck in Mail Art, you may not be getting yourmessages across in the most effective manner. You can't refuse the newcomputer technologies. Then you lose by omission, just as the painters andsculptors, and other tradition laden artists refused to consider Mail Art alegitimate new art when it first arrived to revolutionize the new art theories.

RJ: With your book and your newsletters it is obvious that you like todocument things a lot. Is there a reason for putting all these things onpaper? For the Electronic Mail (-art) it becomes even more difficult todocument it because it is connected to hardware and software, and theprinted form is just a copy of the art. How should the electronic mail bearchived and how do you do that?

Continue with Interview . . .

Mail-artist: John Held Jr., P.O.Box 410837, San Francisco, CA, USA 94141-0837

Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, NETHERLANDS

E-mail Ruud Janssen

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