"There are but a series of personal networks." - Michael B. Corbett

Ruud Janssen with Michael B. Corbett

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

Started on: 28-5-1995

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: 20-6-1995

MC: Ah, the origin myth. I first heard about mail art from a fellow art school student when he gave me a Cavellini sticker in 1983 or '84. He also invited me to his home to speak with Ryosuke Cohen in Japan during a group telephone call. I had no idea who these people were or what they were about.

Mind you, I had been sending decorated envelopes and collaged postcards to friends since the late '70's, but did not make the superficial connection. I came across Crane and Stofflet's Correspondence Art in the local library. I enjoyed reading it, but again the relevance eluded me.

I must admit I was not very impressed by my friend's activities. No doubt his poor explanations and my uneasy relationship with him did not help matters. Now I understand the difficulty in conveying certain experiences, especially to an audience not yet ready to grasp the emotional and conceptual framework underpinning those experiences. I was certainly not ready. Arrogant and ambitious, I felt destined to answer the higher calling of serious art. I was young and foolish.

Six years pass. My situation was now drastically reduced. I had made little or no art over the last three years due to a crisis of faith. It was a bleak, yet necessary, period. Nigredo. True, I had a busy mail-life, but it was mostly as a passive consumer. I happened upon an article about the old incarnation of Factsheet Five. I obtained a copy and found a few stray mail art listings therein. I contributed to a photograph exchange project and wrote to a person in Ohio with a very odd name, FaGaGaGa. Pleased by the response, I took an active, if unoriginal, step and ran an ad for a copycat photograph exchange in a local publication. This garnered two contributions. One contributor, Alice Borealis, would re-enter my netlife a few years later and become an important correspondent and collaborator. We had a Bogside congress here in the autumn of 1993.

During this same time period I recalled a graduate school printmaking professor's beautiful eraser carvings and began my own cruder efforts. I used them on my love letters and other mailings.

In 1991 I moved from the inner city to my present mountain fastness. The new found isolation would prove conducive to my budding mail art activities. Prefigured by eraser carving and use of rubberstamps in my sculptural work, my interest in stamp art grew. I discovered the magazines National Stampagraphic and Rubberstampmadness, and Thompson and Miller's The Rubber Stamp Album. Both magazines contain mailart listings. I began to spend hours making postcards to send to these strangers. My family worried I was wasting my time. They did not understand I felt an utter failure. Working again gave me joy and calmed my troubled spirit. Moreover, I was reaching out. This was a novel endeavor for me.

Besides making postcards, I contributed a number of eraser carving designs to Ryosuke Cohen's "Brain Cell" project. I am afraid I did not put him together with the phone call until much later. I also revived my long dormant interest in copyart with a contribution to Pascal Lenoir's assembling book, Mani-Art.

A few responses to my postcards trickled in, mostly from US addresses. I had a great deal of difficulty relating to their content.

In early 1992 I read two articles about the Decentralized Worldwide Networker Congresses. I was intrigued. This seemed very different from what I had experienced with mail art. I wrote to John Held and Crackerjack Kid seeking more information. Both responded and are beloved friends today, but it was John who sent me a copy of The Drawing Legion's Networker Congress Statements booklet. It, Mani-Art, and "Brain Cell" all arrived within the space of a few days. They were a revelation. The "AHHHHHH!" experience of connection, so frustrating in any attempt at description, was almost visceral. So, please forgive my poverty of details.

I knew I had found my new practice, one answering most of the questions that had caused my long drought. Some have expressed surprise these projects and the Congresses had such an impression and effect. It was not them per se, but rather the concept and network behind them that so moved me.

My artwork had long been concerned with visual and tactile models of unseen processes, giving form to the formless and vice versa. I knew I needed a framework for my future activities. I took "Brain Cell" and Networker Congress Statements as seminal inspirations and joined these with the formal, physical model of Mani-Art to provide the basis for my assembling project, Tensetendoned. It was begun in August, 1992, and the first issue appeared in December of the same year. It is now June of 1995 and the next issue is number twenty-six. Tensetendoned is my baseline.

I also borrowed the idea for a rubberstamp exchange from Michael Leigh of A.1. Wastepaper Co. Ltd. It is ongoing and very active.

I realize I have discussed as much of how as when I became involved in the network. I feel they go hand in hand since it is an evolving process. My main point is the many threads of years' length that came together to weave a new role. Some of those I have not yet touched on extend far beyond the parameters of my lifetime.

RJ: When I see the large collection of rubberstamps prints you have sent in for the TAM-Rubberstamp-Archive I know you have quite a large collection. How large is the collection now, and a more curious question....why do you want so many stamps?

Reply on 27-7-1995

MC: True enough, I do have many stamps. I send you all my custom designs, but few commercial ones. So, while you have numerous crowded TAM Archive sheets from me, you have seen but a portion of my collection. I estimate I presently own 2000+ stamps.

Why so many is indeed a much more curious question. It may be cultural. One aspect of the American character is a tendency toward excess. Then again, it may be an inherited trait. I come from a family of collectors and have been one myself my entire life. Stamps are abundant and inexpensive in this country. It is very easy to amass them in great quantity. I assure you, my hoard is matched and surpassed by many others'. Of course, some of my stamps have been the gifts of kind friends and family. There is also the ebb and flow of my exchange project, but I keep very few of the stamps sent in trade. Now I am generating my own designs through a professional stampmaker and this had added considerably to my collection.

Such are the mechanics of why so many, but desire must also be taken into account. I am much enamored of rubberstamps. I am aware many view them as the cold and remote marking devices of officialdom and bureaucracies the world over. In fact, the term "rubberstamp" has a number of negative connotations in the English language. I understand this, I do, yet I find them intimate and human.

Rubberstamps evoke memories of childhood play and so contain the heady violence of nostalgia. As adult playthings or serious tools, they form a bridge from memory to the (post)office and on through the seminal fringes of 20th century art.

There are an eternity of nows between the meeting of stamp and paper. The resulting imprint betrays the hand behind it. Repetition creates singular multiples. These marks are traces, residue, evidence, and history.

Each stamp I own increases my vocabulary of images. I use stampings as graphic elements in artwork for reproduction, thereby multiplying the multiple. I use stampings in juxtaposition to other images, thereby multiplying correspondences. I use stampings as artwork in and of themselves, thereby multiplying meanings. The stamp is an amplifying catalyst. The sudden abundance of ersatz rubberstamped images in current American print and video advertising speaks to awareness of this enchanting power.

RJ: In the last months you send me always copies of articles about Ray Johnson for which I am very thankfull. When and how did you get in touch with Ray Johnson and how was your correspondence (dance) with him?

Reply on 15-9-1995

MC: I first became aware of Ray and his work during my initial encounter with Correspondence Art in the mid 1980's. I had recently attended a copy art workshop and his use of the photocopier as an art tool intrigued me.

While Ray's name did not survive the vagaries of my memory, his work did. His infamous "Deaths" letter to the New York Times lodged firmly amid the cobwebs.

Years later when I had become involved in the net, I heard rumors of a near mythic figure, the reclusive father of mail art. This was, of course, Ray. I did not put him together with the still remembered "Deaths" letter until I reread a borrowed copy of Crane and Stofflet's book.

I set about to find him. Little did I know he had had the same address for well over twenty years. So, I felt as if I had found a hidden treasure when I came across it in an issue of Crackerjack Kid's Netshaker. I summoned my courage, took the plunge, and sent him something I cannot now recall. I was very pleased when he responded with a "RAYSDIARY" triangle. We were off and running from there.

Our postal exchanges grew in complexity and frequency as time passed. Some weeks I mailed to Ray on a daily basis and vice versa. He sent books, articles, newspaper clippings, posters, drawings, collages, letters, photocopies, sculptures, photographs, love and nothings. Recurring, layered themes wove throughout. Many still leave me puzzled. Some mailings contained things to be sent to a third party. I passed along items to a number of people; including Geoff Hendricks, Robert Warner, Bill Wilson, John Evans and Roy Lichtenstein. There are certain gifts from Ray I hold especially dear; such as a large seed pod from a Kentucky coffee bean tree, a T-shirt from Baja California, a box covered with postage stamps by Geoff Hendricks, two of his exhibition catalogues, and a box of perfumed carrots tipped with balloons.

Ray began telephoning me in early 1994. We first spoke the day before I left on a long car trip to Seattle and San Francisco, the Tensetendoned Pacific Rim Expedition. I remember the conversation well because I was so shocked Ray had called. Among other things, he told me he was "actually quite charming" despite his reputation to the contrary. Indeed, he often was just that.

During the aforementioned trip, I sent Ray a postcard from San Francisco depicting a drunken couple dressed in rabbit suits sitting on a bed. I returned home to find his response waiting, the now infamous "Condom Man" bunny head sculpture. The same pile of mail yeilded two invitations from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. I packed off the altered bunny head to the "In the Spirit of Fluxus" exhibition and its doom. The rest of the story has been well documented. Despite the distasteful nature of the "Condom Man" incident, I feel it did much to deepen our relationship. Ray was calling almost daily during this period. Some days he called two and three times.

I last spoke with Ray around 8 PM on December 30th, 1994. He said he had called to tell me "the New York Correspondence School bunny was MURDERED (his emphasis) on December 30th, 1994," and I was "the first to know." I answered with phony expressions of shock and dismay. "How did they do it?," I asked. Ray replied, "Oh, so that's what you'll ask. That's what you'll say. We'll have to wait and see. You'll read about it in the New York Times." Later I did indeed do this very thing, but at the time I took it all in terms of the "Deaths" letter. I thought Ray was once again reinventing himself, shedding his skin as it were. The NYCS. The Fan Clubs. Buddha University. Taoist Pop Art School. Next? He sounded very upbeat, so it did not disturb me unduly. We went on to have a long, happy conversation about rabbits.

Ray's last mailing to me arrived a few days later. Postmarked the 31st, it contained two items we had discussed the night before. One was the "BUNNY DEAD" sheet. I decided to include it in an issue of Tensetendoned and it has now been widely circulated by the Galantais of Artpool. I sent Ray a number of mailings in response to this sheet. One was especially morbid and my memory of it is now tinged with regret.

On January 14th, 1995, I was in the process of assembling Tensetendoned #22. This was the issue containing copies of the "BUNNY DEAD" sheet. I was just about to write Ray a letter to enclose in his copy when the telephone rang. I thought it might be Ray as our phone rarely rings. In truth, I was hoping it was Ray because I hadn't heard from him in two weeks and had a lot to tell him. Instead, it was a sobbing Sheila Sporer calling from Long Island. We had never spoken before. I knew right off Ray was dead. His body had been found earlier that day, but the circumstances of his death were not yet fully known. I fear I am much to blame for early reports of Ray's demise bearing an incorrect date. Upon finishing my conversation with Sheila, I called John Held in Dallas. He had heard the news a few minutes before I called. We spoke about Ray and his legacy. John declared his death "the end of an era."

In late April of this year I travelled to New York City to attend Ray's memorial service. I cannot say it was a sad event in overall tone or mood. A grand procession into the meeting house began the service. People then rose and spoke as the spirit moved them in the Quaker fashion. Some sang and others recited poetry. Dick Higgins performed works by John Cage and George Brecht. At one point Geoff Hendricks stood on his head with large dead fish strapped to his bare feet. His dress? Black tie, of course. A stunning group performance involving a giant profile silhouette of Ray being cut out of a huge sheet of paper from behind closed the formal portion of the event. An adjacent room offered refreshments and both audio and video recordings of Ray in action. An assortment of work from those unable to attend was prominently displayed.

I must admit the memorial service lacked a sense of closure for me. It did not feel like goodbye because there is still such a great deal of controversy surrounding Ray's death. It was THE topic of conversation. Some believe it was an accident and others consider it suicide. A few people even suspect foul play. The truth may never be known. So, the event raised more questions than it answered. I fear it reopened an all too freshly closed wound. This answer was difficult to write for similar reasons. I confess I harbor a small bit of anger over his sudden passing. We were not done yet.

I believe Ray chose to remain an enigma, but not without purpose. A key may be found in the contrast between the historical Johnson and the personal Ray. I was intrigued by Johnson; sought out by Ray. Conversations with others who knew him lead me to believe Ray embodied as many meanings as the number of people he affected. We were legion. In this way, he was a mirror. He reflected you. Indeed, the house that Ray built was a house of mirrors, a labyrinth. Please remember the labyrinth was originally a testing ground. I often failed.

Ray had a dark side and could be acerbic, to put it mildly. This did not diminish him in my eyes, but rather expanded and amplified his humanity. Whatever his mood, when he spoke with you he was THERE, so very much so, and as if for you alone. Whether Grand Inquisitor or Grail King, his were heart-seeking missives. Ray Johnson proved there is much to do about nothing.

RJ: The typical thing about mail art is that every mail artist gathers his/her own network around him/her. We always speak of 'THE NETWORK' but in fact everybody has his own special network around him/her. How large is your network and where are your correspondents located (globaly)?

(On October 17th I receieved the latest issue of Tensetendoned from Michael. In it was a sad message too though. I knew that his father was ill, and now he informed me that his father had died a few days ago.)

Reply on 22-11-1995

MC: The differentiation you make is between theory and practice.

You are correct, in practice there are but a series of personal networks. Some are enmeshed. Others work in parallel ignorance. The true paradox is being in contact with people the world over while still toiling away alone in your particular small corner of the globe. I appreciate this distance, though. It can smooth away rough spots where my petty spirit is lacking and perhaps nurture communication based upon more universally human themes. However, I believe the root cause for the networking urge is personal and not universal. There are as many reasons why as there are networkers. The individual is the real theatre for the work.

The size of my network waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows. In the beginning, I would send something to every network address I could find. Responses were few. Now, it seems I spend most of my time answering mail. Unfortunately for my correspondents, I am growing slower and slower.

I keep few records, but perhaps the following will provide a clearer picture for those to whom numbers speak. As of today, November 7, I have sent 906 mailings to 449 networkers in 43 countries since January 1st. The 28 issues of Tensetendoned realized so far have involved 340 contributors from 43 nations. It appears I am getting duller as well as slower.

Global is indeed the word, yet most of my networking occurs between here and Europe and within my own country. It surprises me how certain relatively small nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands are brimful with activity while other, larger countries seem to foster so little. Of course, there are places where economic, political, and geographical factors do much to hinder even basic communication. Networking is a luxury. In my own experience contacts have been few in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and other Atlantean isles, Southeast and South Central Asia, and Oceania.

RJ: Your answer is a nice example of how everbody experiences the network he is the center of. You mention Belgium and the Netherlands as places full with activity while I don't get that much mail from my own country and Belgium. Germany and Italy for me are active countries, as well as England and some more European ones. The USA of course the country with the largest amount of networkers I know, but somehow the mail from the USA is different than the mail I get from Europe. Do you also see this difference, or is it just my experience?

Continue with Interview . . .

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

Mail-artist: Michael B. Corbett, Michael B. Corbett, P.O.Box 155, Preston Park, PA 18455 - USA

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

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