"I prefer creating artwork by hand..." - Chuck Welch

Ruud Janssen with Chuck Welch

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

This interview conducted in 1995. It ispossible to spread this information to others, but for publications you willhave to get permission from TAM and the interviewed person! Enjoy readingthis interview. This is the updated file on 9 December 1995.

About the interviewed artist

Chuck Welch (aka Crackerjack Kid) has been a leading practitioner of mail art since 1978. His firstbook: "Networking Currents," (1986) is a pioneering text about mail artsubjects and issues. Last year he edited mail art's first "ezine" "NetshakerOn-Line". Currently, Welch's Eternal Network Mail Art Anthology isbeing published by University of Calgary Press. Copies are available (seeaddress artist at the end of the interview).

Started on: 14-02-95

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

Reply on: 28-2-1995

CW: My first exposure to mail art and subsequent participation is linked tothe historic "Omaha Flows System" held at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha,Nebraska and curated by Fluxus artist Ken Friedman. So my evolvementbegan in April 1973, but at the time I didn't know that this major exhibitionwas the precedent for all mail art shows that followed. My active involvementin mail art occurred in 1978 when I began corresponding under the nom deplume of crackerjack kid. I chose that pseudonym because crackerjack is awell-known American phrase and is also a candied popcorn which contains asurprise in every box. I turned the candy box phrase to suit my own mail artobjectives, "to place a surprise in every mailbox."

In a paragraph I can best describe how I've come full circle in my mail artinterest. My initial attraction to mail art is difficult to analyze. I must becrazy because I spend about $1,600 each year on postage, enough to buy anew powerMac computer. Who says mail art isn't expensive? But the mail artform fascinated me not because of the media, but because the message iswhat bonds us all in a global community. You see, mail art crosses bordersbetween individuals, nations and cultures and makes your mailbox a centralgrounding space for the merging of art and life. At its best mail art is open,honest, democratic and collaborative. At its worst mail art is selfish, petty,factionalistic and clubish. Historically, mail art has traveled an intermediacourse that diminished distances between communication forms as divergentand different as copier machines and telecommunication. As theinternational post declines will mail art too? I think not! The spirit of mailart is already transforming as the ethereal, eternal network in cyberspace-what I've termed in my 1991 telenetlink neologism, "emailart".

RJ: It seems that at the moment two networks, that have existed beside eachother for many years, are gradually being influenced by each other. What canthe Internet mean to mail-art and visa-versa?

Reply on: 11-3-1995 (internet)

CW: I developed the idea of Telenetlink in 1991 to explore how the on-lineinternet and mail art communities might interconnect. That process is stillevolving primarily through my widespread distribution of contact lists, but ifmail art is a house and internet is the street, both forms will link in privatehomes and public spaces. In North America even the homeless have access toInternet through countless public libraries. The story is quite different inEurope where governments and industries must decentralize to join Internet.This means letting go of control, de-regulating authority. Some experts sayEurope is four years behind North America in understanding the potential ofinternet and Japan is almost without a clue. An interesting historical linkexists between the internet and mail art and that occurred when pioneeringmail artists quit the mailstream in the mid-1970s and created the firston-line artists networks. Today, there are thousands more on-line artists inNorth America than there are mail artists. Both communities will becomeacquainted and merge through Telenetlink. Then we'll begin to understandwhat both communities will become to one another.

RJ: For me the internet with the E-mail and speed is still differentcompared to the mail art network because of the digital form. Digital art isjust a fragment of the total art that is produced. Some say that the Internetis just another way of communication besides the traditional mail-,fax-, telex-and phone-networks. What is this potential of the internet in your eyescompared to the other networks I mentioned?

Reply on: 18-3-1995

CW: To network or knotwork, that is the question. The message (emailart)and messenger (networker) are the medium, not cyberspace or snail mail.The emailartist is an invisible messenger who breathes the ether ofcyberspace. The aesthetic of form in cyberspace is formlessness. Form isfluxed forever: time, speed, and distance are distorted, fragmented, diffused,and shattered. And, as if this induced anxiety isn't enough, we can expect ournotions of a virtual reality will continually change as technology transformsthe tools at hand.

When you talk about cyberspace being primarily a digital experience, I wouldpoint out that Internet carries sounds, visual images, and motion throughsoftware like Macromind Director. Internet then, IS MAIL, IS FAX, ISTELEX, IS SOUND, IS MOTION, IS VISUAL IMAGE all wrapped togetherthrough the existing telephonic technology such as fiber optics.

Is this better than what traditional mail art offers? It isn't a question ofwhat's better. Perhaps it is a choice, or preference we make based on whatwe already know. Cyberspace isn't paradise, but neither is mail art. Bothhave major pitfalls and both share problems of community, of censorship, ofsystems regulating, controlling, and centralizing authority. Mail artnetworkers have grappled with these issues long before cyberspace camealong. How can our experiences help shape and form new communicationspaces? I think mail artists have much to offer as does cyberspace. Bothforms will merge in the streets of networking. This is the inevitable future ofmail art, whether mail artists like it or not.

RJ: One of the things you do on the internet is your magazine Netshaker,which I received through the net from you too. Does the concept from a e-zine differ a lot from the zines we know in mail-art? Does the e-zine bringnew possiblities (or problems) besides the speed of sending?

Reply on: 25-3-1995 (INTERNET)

CW: If concept includes the objective of building on-line communities,encouraging collaboration, debate, presenting projects, etc., then my"Netshaker On-Line" is almost identical to the snail mail version of"Netshaker.". But as a networking tool, "Netshaker On-Line has a muchgreater potential for reaching an enormous international on-line audiencewith speed and with little expense.

In discussing "ezines" I want to clarify that this term is an invention of myown, an abbreviated form of "electronic zine." Prior to "Netshaker On-Line"there were no mail art zines on Internet, only formal "magazines" such as ArtCom and Post Modern Culture. Part of the challenge of the NetworkerTelenetlink has been to lead the way in pointing out possibilities. Thedefinition of mail art "ezines" will evolve as other mail artists experimentwith the form. For now, it is important to start the idea of "ezines" moving.Now, I see that Mark Bloch and Guy Bleus have made their zines availableover Internet. Vittore Baroni wrote last week that he would be going on-linenext Fall, so it is possible that his "Arte Postale" will go on-line too.

Ezines are primarily text based rather than visual, but this doesn't mean Ican't replicate visual images as seen in mail art zines. Graphics can bescanned, compressed, and transmitted over internet by GIF, an acronym forGraphics Interchange Format. How can you move a graphic image over thenetwork?

Pictures can be shipped as ASCII text, but the recipient must have softwareon their own computer to put it in shape. Downloading visual images can bea boring, consuming process if you've got a slow modem, say 2,400 bps.rather than 19,000 bps. Plus visual images consume a lot of space on disksand computers. If your personal computer is directly linked to a mainframe,computer speed isn't an issue. But quite a few artists like me are connectedto mainframes with modems, and this is a problem because I can tie up myphone lines for one or two hours downloading a single photograph. Theseaccess problems will be solved as fiber optic technology evolves.

I think it would be a mistake to think that the ezine should function in thefashion that hands-on mail art zines do. Mail art zines combine sound,vision, and touch with tangible form. Even the smell of fresh off-set print hasan appealing sensation that is first-hand, and not simulated. Remember, I ama papermaker, a craftsperson who likes to work by hand. It's ludicrous tothink of taking a computer monitor to bed like you can a mail art zine.

Mail art zines appeal directly to our senses and there is nothing simulated orcompromised in the interaction. So I think it would be foolish to expect theezine to replicate this experience. But you must remember that mail art zineswill not compete with the virtual reality of an electronic zine - a magazinethat can stimulate the senses with mixed media techniques combining sound,vision, and motion. I can present, for instance, an ezine snapshot to myreaders of a group mail art portrait taken at Katz's Deli in NYC. Readerscan click any mail artist in the portrait and hear the actual voice of thatperson speaking. Or with buttons mixed with text, readers could click abutton for a video clip of Carlo Pittore eating salami. The interactive playcould be hilariously interactive, even inviting the reader to add-on, splice inall kinds of outrageous information. Ezines will be entirely interactive formsavailable on internet listservs, the World Wide Web or newsgroups.

RJ: Yes, I know it is all technically possible, the things that you mention.But the computer-tools that the mail-artists have at hand normally aren't upto it. An example is the TAM-Bulletin I tried to upload to the DDS-Unixserver. I then found out that it doesn't accept 'extended ASCII-signs like :???‚‚‚‚‚????‚‚ρ‰‚Š (when you read this question, you will see what thecomputer has done to the signs), so on Internet I even have less possibilitiesat the moment compared to the BBS-services that I am used to work with. Istill get this feeling that with Internet I'm back to basics as far as the E-mailis concerned. Internet surely needs some artists to change it. Maybe you cantell me a bit about the Telenetlink '95? How is it going so far?

reply on: 31-3-1995 (internet)

(As I expected the "???‚‚‚‚‚????‚‚ρ‰‚Š" -part of my e-mail got distortedinto other signs during the internet-communication. Because of the EDI-protocols the extended ASCII-signs aren't understandable for allparticipating hosts yet.)

CW: It's a shame that you're stuck with archaic protocol. Artists aren'tneeded to change it, European politicians and businesses will be the ones toopen the gates to Internet. As I'm writing this, European deregulation oftelecommunication industries is ever nearer with preparation for fullderegulation by 1998. French Telecom and Deutsche Telekom are planningan alliance with Sprint, a major U.S. long-distance carrier. Italy's SocietaFinanziaria Telefonica per Azioni, otherwise known as STET, began talkswith IBM last month (February 1995) in an alliance that could offer globalinternet connections to Europe. In the alliance with I.B.M. STET wouldprovide specialized skills like transmission and switching. STET is also in themiddle of a five billion dollar program to upgrade its lines with fiber glasscable - technology needed for interactive television. This forthcomingderegulation in European communications is comparable to U.S.deregulation of the Bell System in the 1980s.

It isn't true that American mail artists lack necessary computer tools toparticipate in Internet. Your statement relates more to European mail artiststhan here, but exceptions definitely include Guy Bleus and Charles Fran‡ois.As far as basic e-mail goes, H.R. Fricker, and Clemente Padin have joinedthe Telenetlink and today Jas W Felter from Vancouver, British Columbia senthis first email Telenetlink message to me. Many mail artists are finallycoming online partly because the Telenetlink has helped create a cyberspacecommunity that has spread the original emailart lists since early 1991. Justgot email today from Judith Hoffberg, Robert Ashworth, and Ramcell, allonline mail artists. My current Telenetlink Emailart Directory lists over 200participants. Albeit controversial, the Telenetlink has challenged the largersnail mail art community with a call for direct interaction rather than morecongress talk.

RJ: O.K. , lets talk about your book that just has come out. Tell a bit aboutthe concept of it, and how it differs from your previous book.

CW: Neither "Networking Currents" (1986) or Eternal Network: A Mail ArtAnthology (1995) are scholarly histories of mail art, although EN waspublished by a university press and "Networking Currents" was self-publishedby me. I am known in and outside of the network as a mail artist and not anart historian. Moreover, my purpose for editing EN wasn't to add to previoushistorical surveys of mail art.

In "Networking Currents" I discussed mail art subjects and issues with apioneering focus upon the concept of networking and networkers. I havebeen told by some academic scholars that "Eternal Network Mail ArtAnthology" is much akin to Robert Motherwell's "Dada Painters & Poets."That is, the EN anthology is more of an illustrated philosophy of mail artthan a history book.

I think it's unfortunate that few major mail art books have surfaced in recentyears. John Held's "Mail Art Bibliography" is a librarian's tool to accessingrare mail art sources. Winnes, Wohlrab, Jesch and Huber have recentlyproduced "Mail Art Szene DDR 1975-1990," a focused book about mail artbehind the Berlin Wall. And Peter R. Meyer recently co-edited a marvelouscatalogue/book "Mailed Art in Uppsala: Choosing Your Partner." But all ofthese books including my own edition have been written by active mail art"insiders." This can be interpreted as a boon or bane depending on one'sviewpoint about what constitutes "authoritative texts." It is possible that ENwill be an important sourcebook that will open doors to others where doorswere once locked shut.

RJ: Besides the Telenetlink and your books you also used to make beautifulartistamps and handmade books. Do you still have time for that?

Reply on: 19-04-1995 (internet)

CW: Yes, in fact I collaborated from 1992-94 in person and by mail withMarilyn Rosenberg, David Cole, and Sheril Cunning in the creation of"Spring Garden Mail Art Installation Bookwork". 32 signatures were madewith my handmade paper as a support for painting, drawing, printmaking,collage, and readymade objects. All four of us worked on all aspects of thebookwork , first in a workshop at my home and then for a year through themail. Our installation will be on display at the University of Nebraska'sMuseum of Nebraska Art through September of this year.

Two months ago my handmade paper artworks (artistamps, etchings, andengravings) were displayed at Adirondack Community College inQueensbury, NY. I've been invited to exhibit my bookworks at Boise StateUniversity in November 1995 and also in Scarborough, New York.

I prefer creating artwork by hand and now that my period of writing aboutmail art is over for awhile, I intend to focus more on handmade paperartistamps and/or painting and sculpture. My M.F.A. degree work was instudio art at Boston Museum School and my creations were whimsical stampmachines, three dimensional handmade paper stampworks and paper pulppaintings. I don't have a lot of room now for large work so I expect I'll scaledown to stampworks again. I have a handmade paper mill in my studio andsome small presses for making intaglio prints.

RJ: It is funny you mention the fact that you don't have a lot of room.Maybe this is the result of keeping all the mail-art you get. How is you'archive' organized?

Continue with Interview . . .

Mail-artist: Chuck Welch, P.O. Box 978, Hanover, NH, USA 03755

E-mail Crackerjack Kid

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

E-mail Ruud Janssen

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