"Few mail artists know their own history well." - Ken Friedman

Ruud Janssen with Ken Friedman

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

This interview was done completely with the use of internet
in the period May to December 1995.
The appendixes contain some texts connected to the interview.

RJ: When did you get involved in the mail-art network.

KF: In 1966, when I came into contact with Fluxus and with Ray Johnson.

RJ: How did you get in contact with Ray Johnson?

KF: Dick Higgins introduced me to Ray. In 1964 or 1965, Dick published Ray's book, The Paper Snake. I already knew the book. In August of 1966, I was visiting Dick in New York. Dick had a huge production camera in his basement where he worked every night, listening to Beach Boys records and shooting plates for Something Else Press books. One night, he used the big camera to shoot a portrait of me, the portrait that was published in Jon Hendricks's Fluxus Codex. Dick suggested I ought to send something to Ray. I chopped a negative of the photo into a jig-saw puzzle and mailed it. That was our first contact.

In those days, corresponding with Ray was more personal than after he got his Xerox machine. We exchanged a lot of work over the years. Everything was one-to-one with Ray in those days. Even after he got the Xerox machine, Ray remained a spider at the center of his web and tried to mediate as many of the interactions between his contacts as possible. Ray had no philosophical relationship to theEternal Network. He wasn't interested in social issues or public space. He was interest in a forum for his poetic activity.

Ray's approach was private, personal, poetic and it was different from those of the Fluxus artists who aspired to broad social discourse. That discourse was a key aspect of the Fluxus approach. It was an implicit network approach, a public and social way of working with art and communication. That was one reason I became active in Fluxus. I got involved in the mail art network through Fluxus and Dick Higgins. Dick introduced me to Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School. There was a lot of overlap between the groups but different kinds of activity took place in each.

RJ: Fluxus seems to have earned a place in history. Lots of books have been published, most of them by people who aren't Fluxus artists. With mail art, it seems to be different. Almost all books, magazines, articles are written by mail artists. Whenever someone who is not a mail artist tries to write about mail art, it comes out as a strange story. On the other hand, what mail artists write is often misunderstood by outsiders. Will it stay like this? If so, why?

KF: The first people to write about Fluxus were the Fluxus artists ourselves, describing our ideas, our work. Several Fluxus people are skilled writers. Some have worked as editors and publishers. Over the years, we defined Fluxus, writing our ideas and our history in our own words. These writings shaped the first wave of Fluxus literature. Intellectual focus and literary skill were two reasons. The third reason was that we felt we had to do it. Thirty years ago, people didn't know how to respond to the work and it was easiest for critics and historians not to respond at all. If we wanted to put our ideas into play, we had to do it ourselves. We organized our own exhibitions and performances, published our own art and music in scores and multiples, wrote published our theories of art, music, literature and design in essays and books.

We published through several presses, but there were two central Fluxus publishers. One was Fluxus, the publications and multiples organized by editor-chairman George Maciunas in New York, producing mostly multiples. Something Else Press was the other, producing books. Fluxus objects ran in editions of a few dozen and Something Else Press books ran in editions ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 copies. These circulated widely enough to affect the cultural life of the United States and Europe. Along with our own presses, we were occasionally given special magazine issues.

The second wave of writers on Fluxus was typified by Fluxus friends and enthusiasts. This included critics such as Thomas Albright or Henry Martin, curators and gallerists such as Ren Block, Jon Hendricks and Harry Ruh, archivists like Jean Sellem and Hanns Sohm. Fluxus artists continued to write in an environment where there were more artists in Fluxus than critics or scholars who wanted to write about us. The third wave of writing on Fluxus began in the 1970s when trained scholars began to examine Fluxus in papers and articles. The first doctoral dissertation on Fluxus was in anthropology, written by Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1974. Art historians first became interested in Fluxus in the 1970s. The first was Peter Frank. By the late 1970s they included Stephen C. Foster, Estera Milman and Jan van der Marck along with scholars in comparative literature such as Georg M Gugelberger Philip Auslander in theater.

In the 1980s and 1990s, available literature on Fluxus began to expand. Growing interest across several disciplines was one reason. Another was the wide availability of publications by Jon Hendricks. The availability source material made an important difference as scholars and writers who became interested in Fluxus had the chance to examine images of work that had often been a rumor more than a fact.

By the 1990s, art historians and critics began to discover Fluxus and intermedia and make the major focus of their work. These included Europeans such as Marianne Bech and Ina Conzen-Meairs, Americans such as Kathy O'Dell and Kristine Stiles, Asians such as Hong Hee Kim Cheon, and Keiko Ashino. These were the years of the first significant body of writing by trained scholars specializing in Fluxus: Simon Anderson at the Royal College of Art in London, Owen Smith at the University of Washington, Ina Blom at the University of Oslo, David Doris at Hunter College, Hannah Higgins at the University of Chicago and Karen Moss at the University of Southern California.

The growth of Fluxus writing from the artists to independent scholars was characterized by overlaps between Fluxus artists and their friends; between artists and scholars; between artist-scholars and scholars who began to make art. That era has come to close. Scholars and critics now come to Fluxus as outsiders. Curators and editors now work on the basis of secondary material and they can't always discuss issues and ideas with the artists, composers, designers and architects whose work they present. Even so, there is much source material available. Higgins, Filliou, Williams, Knizak, Flynt, Vautier, Paik and I have all written extensively. Brecht, Beuys, Christiansen, Klintberg and others have written from time to time.

Most important, the Fluxus writers knew their own history and many have been broadly conversant in general culture, culture theory and art history. This makes a qualitative difference between Fluxus and mail art. Few mail artists know their own history well. They tend to oppose historical writing and thinking. They are often anti-experimental and judgmental about intellectual issues, believing that scholars hip, theory and intellectual process are the antithesis of the network spirit. As a result, they don't know that many of the authors writing on Fluxus have also written on mail art.

Mail art seems to be different for several reasons. Most of the books, magazines and articles these days are written by mail-artists. Only a few have a scholarly tone or even a public tone. That tone and a way of communicating so that others can under stand gives the basis for others to write on a subject. Only a handful of mail art writers make sense to outside scholars. You can count them on your fingers -- Chuck Welch, Mike Crane, Judy Hoffberg, Anna Banana, Jon Held, John Jacob.

Even so, it's a bit of a myth to suggest that there are always mistakes whenever non-mail artists write about mail art as compared to writing on art in general. Mail artists do as well as any group of artists. There are a dozen excellent writers whose articles were central to developing the network. Those articles often introduced the idea of mail art to new mail artists.

Mail art people have their own, strongly held opinions. When you combine strong opinions with a lack of historical knowledge, what outsiders write on mail art can seem strange. There's another reason people don't write about mail art. It's easy to be attacked. From time to time, a writer or curator who generally does an excellent job offends part of the network. When the offended parties involve their friends in harsh response, the noise grows to deafening proportions. I recall several highly visible examples and they've been a reason for some excellent writers and historians to stop writing on mail art. Mail art is a minor field for art historians and art journals. You don't get much credit for working on mail art but you can get a lot of anger. In a situation with few rewards and plenty of ways to find trouble, there's little reason to write.

Will this stay like this? It will until mail art people learn broad, public language. Mail artists often claim to seek broad public discourse. They claim to be open to issues and ideas. But many behave like small-town gossips complaining over the strange doings in the next town. There's little tolerance for differences of opinion, style or culture. The reasons for that kind of culture aren't clear. I have some suspicions but no answers. You'd expect a different sensibility on the network, broader, more international, more intercultural. Every times I imagine that things are improving, an unpleasant encounter suggests that the mail art network is what it's been for two decades now. The mail art network has developed a stable culture with a fairly stable population at any given moment and a certain number of relatively stable ways of interacting. It leads me to wonder about the degree to which the mail art network and the Eternal Network coincide. I can't see the Eternal Network in the village morals and parochial behavior patterns of the mail art network.

RJ: You say that the mail art network has somehow developed a fairly stable structure. The last years there have been some new aspects to the network. The use of the FAX-machines, and the introduction of the Internet for some of the networkers. I remember your reply to Guy Bleus's FAX-project in which you explained why you don't take part in network Telefax Art Projects. Do you take part in Internet Art-projects?

KF: No, I don't, but not for any particular reason. There haven't been many well thought out art projects on Internet. Most art mediated by Internet or e-mail aren't exciting. E-mail works well for correspondence and literature. Web sites make visual art possible. But most artists using the medium aren't doing work that interests me. If the work isn't interesting, I won't take part just because it's presented in cyberspace.

RJ: Since the beginning, the term "mail artist" has been used in relation to correspondence. Now everybody is talking about "networkers" and "networking." Somehow I see that the focus isn't as much on art as it is on communication. What do you think about this?

KF: My use of terms "mail art" and "correspondence art" is flexible. I don't use the term "networking" to describe art. The term I use depends on the aspect of the work to be emphasized. I also use the term communications art. My work with mail or correspondence isn't my main interest. It's part of a larger inquiry. The idea of a network of people doing mail art, correspondence art or E-mail art as "networkers" or "tourists" bothers me. Any group of people communicating with each other constitutes a network. What makes one network different than another? The focus and content of their communication. When a network begins to focus primarily on the fact that it is communicating, it becomes a group of pen-pals, a small-town social club. The larger networks we can form allow us to step outside the boundaries that were once imposed by time and space. Even though we can transcend the restrictions of local culture, the mail art network has built its own small town culture. This culture is enacted in a fragmented but linked environment. It's described as the mail art network because it grew up around the mail art scene. The culture celebrates its local heroes. Its members set up their own rules and interact in a restrictive and problematic way. The "networkers network" and the "tourist network" are contrary to what interested me in the broad, open-ended phenomenon -- cultural, intellectual, spiritual -- that Filliou termed "the Eternal Network."

I don't talk about networkers or networking. The network doesn't interest me as a network. It's no better and no worse than most social clubs. Networks are interesting for what they can do, what they transmit, what they can achieve.

RJ: What IS the primary focus of your work ? What is the larger inquiry you mention?

KF: The broad focus of my work is art as a tool for research, creative and rigorous experiments in different domains of culture, meaning and consciousness. Every search has many levels. Some levels are abstract. Some are concrete. I stake out problems that interest me and work them through in different ways. That sounds abstract but the work is quite concrete, a response to specific ideas and situations. The situations and ideas change like conversations or food. There are issues that interest you or foods you like but you don't want the same conversation or the same meal all the time. That's what makes what I do quite different from what many artists do. Most art is based on a style or format. People play with the style format. It defines their work as artists and enables their public to recognize them. That way of working is characteristic of artists in most media, including mail art.

The whole point of research and experimentation is developing useful tools and interesting ways of approaching problems. The issues that interest me change. The question of tools and problem solving has been constant. Some of my experiments shaped tools or approaches to art that others can use. At one point in the 1960s, I was interested in how experimental artists were communicating, how they worked with one another, how they interacted. That interest led to a series of projects involving mailing lists and 'zines. The lists gave birth to projects such as the File magazine lists and to directories such as Art Diary. 'Zines such as Amazing Facts or the New York Correspondence School Weekly Breeder helped to define a way of publishing mail art that has widely used since then. Next, I began to wonder how to open mail art network to a broad public. That gave rise to three mail art exhibitions at The Oakland Museum, Henry Art Galley in Seattle and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. Those experiments gave rise to useful paradigms that others were able to adapt and use.

According to Chuck Welch, these three shows became the model for most the mail art exhibitions and projects since the early 1970s. My purpose with mail art wasn't to do mail art but to engage larger issues. Intermedia and Fluxus projects predominate in the total range of my work. Like everyone, I take part in projects I like. Every situation sparks ideas. I often work in response to an idea from another artist. Some times an idea just pops into mind. Every artist has both experiences. The scope of my interests has been evolving for over thirty years. I did many of these things as a child. George Maciunas saw some of those things when I was sixteen and invited me into Fluxus. Thirty years is a long time. That's 360 months, 1,560 weeks or 10,950 days. You can get a lot done in thirty years if you keep busy. The specifics change. The overall approach and philosophy has been the same.

My philosophy and activities are described in a number of articles and serious interviews. They'll answer the question better than a quick reply.

RJ: When I sent the first question for this interview, you sent me a bibliography of books and articles where I could find your thoughts on paper. Here, again, you mention your attempt to describe your philosophy and activities at any time. Why is documenting your activities important for you?

KF: Documentation is the place to look for ideas, art works or events from the past. We continually construct and reconstruct our reality through thought and memory. Documents are a tool. This is natural for artists who work with intermedia and or concept art, including mail art, 'zines, lists, tapes, letters, even interviews. Art media that function at a distance or over time require documents. Even so, while the document offers an entry into dialogue with the work, it's not the same as the work. The score to an event is the score. It has a valid function as a document and in some cases, it is also a work in its own right. There is also the realized event, and the realization exists in another way. Documents were aspects of art long before the era of concept art and intermedia. Earlier documents include the musical score and libretto for an opera, the text of a play, the blueprint of a building. They're all documents and they're all works in their own right for people who can read them and comprehend them through the act of reading. It is nevertheless true that few people can successfully read and comprehend a musical score or the blueprint of a building. For most people, these documents are more important as keys to a realization.

You can say that I began working with documents of art when I saw the books Dick Higgins was publishing, Ray Johnson's Paper Snake, Dick's own Postface/Jefferson's Birthday, the Great Bear Pamphlets, Daniel Spoerri's Anecdoted Topography of Chance, Robert Filliou's Ample Food for Stupid Thought. These books were documents and through them, a body of work and a way of thinking came to life for me. The Fluxus multiples and publications worked in much the same way.

I'd ask your question another way. We live in the age of information and intermedia. Can any serious artist work without documentation? Don't most contemporary artists cross back and forth between ideas, the representation of ideas and the realization of ideas?

RJ: I couldn't work without documentation. But there may be a danger in documentation if it forms its own truth. Reality -- things that happen in a specific moment -- can never be captured by objective documentation because reality is different for everybody who observes it. Everyone recognizes his own truth through the act of observation. Isn't there a danger in the possibility that those who create the documents dictate the shape of history? Is documentation that powerful?

KF: This is a danger. It's a basic problem that we face in all forms of documentation, no matter who makes them and no matter the purpose for which they're made. It seems to me that there is a strong argument to be made for a variety of clear, understandable sources of document from several views. In the recent past, most documentation on art has been compiled or presented by a handful of journalists, critics and finally by art historians. I suggest that there can be valid approaches to art documentation by scholars from several fields and by artists themselves.

The better, the broader, the more clear and conscious a body or documents is, the better we can understand what's happened. I believe that documentation has valid goals and purposes. These purposes can be realized or abused. How we handle documentation, how much and how well, makes the difference.

RJ: How active are you in mail art at this moment. Do you still send "snail mail," or has the Internet taken over? This question comes out of my personal curiosity. I haven't had any exchange of mail art with you and I'm not sure if you are still active. I guess that future readers of this interview will be interested, too. I see your name in lots of Internet-related materials and I have only received e-mail from you, so that's the reason for my question.

KF: These days, other projects take most of my time. I'm not active in mail art. I exchange with friends like Dick Higgins or Jean-Noel Laszlo and I follow the work of important figures like Chuck Welch or Dobrica Kamperelic. Even so, I haven't been directly active in mail art for a long time. I do something when I'm inspired by an idea or a message. Mail art always took two forms for me. One was exchange when someone sent me an idea or a work. The other was when I had an experiment I wanted to attempt. Not many people send me mail these days, individual pieces meant specifically for me. I don't respond to printed things or mass-produced objects meant for thousands of people. Once in a while, someone does develop an amazing mass-produced piece, but the normal mail art going about these days consists of photocopy collages that don't interest me.

There are no experiments I want to try using the mail these days, either. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I set out a program of projects and experiments using the mails. I look on much of what I do in art as a form of research. You can consider my mail art experiments as a research program. I completed the research a long time ago. Part of what I set out to do was to test the limits, possibilities and paradigms of the post office with projects like the pieces of furniture that I mailed or finding different ways to send objects that stretched the limits of postal regulations.

The other series of experiments was an attempt to find ways to define mail art as a system, an opportunity, a network. I described some of these experiments and projects earlier in our interview. Internet is a terrific communications tool, not an interesting artistic tool. The technology is still too crude to make good use of Internet for art. Or, to put it another way, the technology that is sophisticated enough to use for art is time-consuming and expensive. I've like simple, inexpensive tools. That's one of the things I loved about mail art. With Netscape and Eudora, Internet is a simple, inexpensive communication tool. That's what I use it for. Pioneers like Joe De Marco see Internet and the World Wide Web as good art tool, but even the best projects to date have actually been communication projects, communicating art. I don't know what's next.

If you see my name in connection with Internet, it's because I give wide permission to circulate my work. It's likely to be related to my work on the faculty of the Norwegian School of Management. Internet has become an important tool for my work as a scholar and as director of the Nordic Center for Innovation. The reason you and i communicate by e-mail is that we both have it. For those of us lucky enough to have e-mail, there's no better or faster way to send words back and forth.

RJ: I have noticed that most people don't archive their e-mail as properly as they do with the printed matters they receive. I myself save all e-mail on diskette, and I even print out the important parts on paper because I like to re-read things on paper rather then on the monitor of my computer. How do you deal with the e-mail you get and send?

Continue with Interview . . .

Reproduced with the permission of
Further reproduction without the written consent of
Ruud Janssen and the Artist is prohibited.

Mail-artist: Ken Friedman, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Leadership and Strategic Design, Norwegian School of Management
Box 4676 Sofienberg' N-0506 Oslo, Norway

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

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