"Visual poetry lies between visual art and poetry." - Dick Higgins

Ruud Janssen with Dick Higgins

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

Started on: 4-6-1995

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: 3-7-1995

DH: Dear Señor Janssen - I got involved in the mail-art network in July 1959 shortly after I met Ray Johnson in June. He sent me a marzipan frog, a wooden fork and three small letters in wood, which I correctly misunderstood. I sent him some wild mushrooms which I had gathered, and they arrived at his place on Dover Street just before they decomposed.

RJ: Was this mail-art in the beginning just fun & games or was there more to it?

Reply on 27-7-1995

(Together with his answer Dick Higgins sent me his large, 46 pages long, Bio/Bibliography and a contribution to my Rubberstamp Archive, a stamp sheet with some of his old and new stamps printed on)

DH: Indeed it was fun to communicate with Ray. But it was a new kind of fun. I had never encountered anyone who could somehow jell my fluid experiences of the time when I was doing visual poetry (thus the letters), food and conceptual utility (perhaps I had shown him my "Useful Stanzas" which I wrote about then. But what had he left out? Nature - thus my sending of the wild mushrooms, collecting and studying which was an ongoing interest (I was working on them with John Cage, an important friend of Ray's as of mine).

As for rubber stamps, in 1960 when Fluxus was a-forming my home was in New York at 423 Broadway on the corner with Canal Street and my studio was at 359 Canal Street a few blocks away. Canal Street was known for its surplus dealers (some are still there) including stationers, and one could buy rubber stamps there for almost nothing - and we did! I had already made some rubber stamps through Henri Berez, a legendary rubber maker on Sixth Avenue, long gone but he was the first I knew who could make photographic rubber stamps - Berez made a magnesium, then a Bakelite and finally the rubber stamp, And I blocked the magnesiums and used them for printing as well. I had stamps of musical notation symbols made and also of my calligraphies, etc. At an auction in 1966 when he moved to Europe I also bought Fluxartist George Brecht's rubber stamps (mostly of animals) which he used starting ca. 1960; I used those to make a bookwork of my own, From the Earliest Days of Fluxus (I Guess), which I think is in the Silverman Collection. Others of my rubber stamps are in the Archiv Sohm and perhaps Hermann Braun or Erik Andersch have some, I am not sure. I think there was an article on Fluxus rubber stamps in Lightworks - that must be listed in John Held Jr's Mail Art: an Annotated Bibliography (Mettuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991) and/or in Jon Hendricks's Fluxus Codex (New York: Abrams, ca.1992). I also composed some music using rubber stamps, notably Emmett Williams's Ear/L'orecchio di Emmett Williams (Cavriago: Pari & Dispari, 1978).

That's about all I can add to the rubber stamp thing at this time. It would be much more efficient for us if I send you my Bio/Bibliography which has facts that need not be endlessly repeated, so I am doing that under separate cover. The curious type face I used on that is one which I designed and named for Fluxmail Artist Ken "Kenster" Friedman, "Kenster."

RJ: Your Bio/Bibliography is quite impressive. The sentence on the first page: "I find I never feel quite complete unless I'm doing all the arts -- visual, musical and literary. I guess that's why I developed the term 'intermedia' , to cover my works that fall conceptually between these, indicates you are always focussing on all kinds of media to express yourself. Which place has mail-art in this?

Reply on: 4-8-1995 , 29°C and about 85% relative humidity

(Together with his answer Dick Higgins sent me a poster with title "SOME POETRY INTERMEDIA" explaning metapoetries or how poetry is connected to many other art-forms. Published by Richard C. Higgins, 1976 , New York, USA)

DH: Yes, I am a "polyartist" - Kostelanetz's term for an artist who works in more than one medium, and some of these media themselves have meaningful gradiations between them. Visual poetry lies between visual art and poetry, sound poetry lies between music and poetry, etc. But between almost any art and non-art media other intermedia are possible. What lies between theater and life, for instance? Between music and philosophy? In poetry I got into this in my "Some Poetry Intermedia" poster essay. If we take any art as a medium and the postal system as a medium, then mail art is the intermedium between these -postal poetry, postal music, mail-art [visual variety], etc.

Some of these are more capable than others of the subversive function which I value in mail art - it bypasses the gallery world and the marketplace, so it becomes somehow immune to censorship. If used aggressively it can make a reactionary politician's life Hell. And it is not yet played out yet. For instance, while Fax art has no special characteristics (it is like monochromatic regular mail, "snail mail") what is e-mail art? Can't it subvert the rich folks' machines? Ruin their modems? Yet even that is a commonplace, once one has considered it. Little artists can do it. Its power is inherent in its medium. I can tell you stories of how the Poles of Kþodsko tortured an East German bureaucrat who has banned a Mail art show in (then) East Berlin. I happened to be visiting there at the time and was involved in this.

But let's think about more positive areas. Please tell me about the spiritual aspects of mail art. How do you see that?

RJ: Yes, a nice try to end an answer with a question to me. I will send you some 'thoughts about mail-art' for you to read, but in this interview I would like to focus on YOUR thoughts and knowledge. I am in no hurry, so I would like to hear that story of how the Poles of Kþodsko tortured this East German bureaucrat who banned this mail art show in East Berlin.....

Reply on 17-8-1995

DH: (today in 1843 Herman Melville signed abroad the frigate 'United States,' this began the journey that led to 'White-Jacket')

It must have been about 1988 and I was traveling through Poland, reading and performing with a friend, the critic and scholar Piotr Rypson. Our travels brought us to Kþodsko down in the beak of Galiciato where a group of unofficial Polish artists had gathered to discuss what to do since the Mail Art Conference which Robert Rehfeldt had organized in East Berlin had, at the last moment, been canceled bysome bureaucrat. It was a final and irrevocable decision the bureacrat had made, finalized by his official rubber stamp besides his signature. This was a great disappointment to these artists who had very little opportunity to meet personally with each other, especially across international borders, and to exchange ideas. However these artists were Poles, from the land of the liberum votum , and they had sixhundred years experience at protesting. They made a list of things to do. Having access to some things in America which were problematic in Poland, I was asked to have four exact facsimiles of the bureaucrat's rubber stamp made up and to send one to each of four addresses I was given, one was an official one in the Department of Agriculture in the DDR and the other three were in Poland. I was also asked to buy some homosexual and some Trotskyite magazines in the USA, to send them one at a time to the bureaucrat and, if possible, to subscribe in his name to these things. I did these things and also I appointed the bureaucrat an honorary member of my Institiute for Creative Misunderstanding and sent an announcement of his appointment to Neues Deutschland, the main communist newspaper of the DDR.

For a few weeks it seemed as if nothing had happened. But then I received a long letter from Robert Rehfeldt in English (usually he wrote me in German) lecturing me on what a terrible thing it was to try to force a person to accept art work which he did not like. And a few weeks after that I received a post card from Rehfeldt auf deutsch saying "Fine - keep it up [mach weiter]."

In this story we can see the usefulness for using the mails on the positive side for keeping spirits up and for keeping contact with those one does not see, on the sometimes-necessary negative side for creating powerful statements which must have caused great problems for this bureaucrat. I have no idea who these people were to whom I sent the rubber stamps, but I can imagine that they were forging the bureaucrat's signature onto all sorts of capricious papers and causing great consternation within official circles of the DDR. For me this story tells well one of the main uses of Mail Art.

Perhaps it also suggests why Mail Art taken out of context can sometimes be such a bore. It has no particular formal value or novelty, especially when one has (as I have) been doing it for nearly forty years, so that mere documentation seems tendentious and egotistic. Would you want to only read about a great painting of the past? Wouldn't you rather see it and then, perhaps, read about it? Making good Mail Art is like making a souffl‚ - the timing is very very critical. Who wants to be told about a decade old souffl‚? And documenting the matter is not nearly so interesting as receiving and consuming it at precisely the right moment - with the right people too, I might add. It is an art of the utmost immediacy.

RJ: What was the reason for creating your "Institute for Creative Misunderstanding"?

Reply on 26-8-95 (Apollinaire born today)

(Besides his answer Dick Higgins also sent his poem "Inventions to make")

DH: K„ra Ruud, For years I was struck by how little one understands of how one's work will be perceived by others. We can prescribe how others will see it at risk of discouraging them. Duchamp, when anyone would ask "does your piece mean this or that...?" would smile and usually say "yes," no matter how absurd the question. The impressionists thought they were dealing with light; we see their contribution is one of design along the way towards abstraction. The Jena Romantic poets of Germany saw themselves as applying the philosophies of Kant and Plato to their writings, but we see it as reviving the baroque and providing a healthy restorative emotional depth to their poetry which had often been lacking in the work of the previous generation. The same is true of Percy B. Shelley who knew his Plato well (and translated passages of Plato from Greek into English), but who in poems like "Lift not the painted veil" or "The sensitive plant" moves Plato's ideas into areas which Plato never intended to create a new entity of art-as-concealment. Harold Bloom, a famous academic critic in the USA, was,in the 1970's in books like The anxiety of influence, stressing the role of recent art as cannibalizing and deriving from earlier art. I was not satisfied with Bloom's models and preferred to extend them and misinterpret them myself along hermeneutic lines using a Gadamerian model; this you will find in a linear fashion in my book Horizons (1983) and in the forthcoming "Intermedia: Modernism since postmodernism" (1996). But a linear presentation does not satisfy me either; it does not usually offer grounds for projection into new areas and it focuses too much on the specifics of my own ratiocinations. To broaden my perspective I conceived of a community of artists and thinkers who could take conceptual models and, with good will (my assumption, like Kant's in his ethics), transform these models - evoking not simply intellectual discourse but humor or lyrical effects which would otherwise not be possible. This is, of course, my Institute of Creative Misunderstanding. Into it I put a number of people with whom I was in touch who seemed to be transforming earlier models into new and necessary paradigms. I tried to organize a meeting of the institute, but could not get funding for it and realized that it might well be unnecessary anyway. I still use that Institute as a conceptual paradigm when necessary.

So I would not discribe the Institute for Creative Misunderstanding as a "fake institute," as you did, so much as an abstract entity and process of existence which creates a paradigm of community of like-minded people by its very name and mentioning. Are you a member of the Institute, Ruud? Perhaps you are - it is not really up to me to say if you have correctly misunderstood it in your heart of hearts.

RJ: Who is to say if I am a member? But I sure like all those institutes and organisations that there are in the network. You spoke of the intention to organize a meeting. In the years 1986 and 1992 there were lots of organized meetings in the form of congresses. Is it important for (mail-) artists to meet in person?

Reply on 5-9-1995 (Cage born -1912)

DH: (laughing) Who's to say if you are a member? Why the group secretary, of course - whoever that is. Perhaps I am acting secretary and I say you are a member. Anyway, to be serious, the question of meetings is not answerable, I think, except in specific contexts. The events planned at Kþodsko could not have been planned without the people being together; but at other times it would seem unnecessarily pretentious to bring them together - frustrating even, since most mailartists are poor and they would have to spend money to be present. Attimes this would be justified, but if it were simply a matter of pride or of establishing a place in some pecking order, well that would not be good.

Think of a camp fire. Shadowy figures are in conversation, laughing and talking; what they say makes sense mostly among themselves. A stranger wanders in and listens. The stranger understands almost nothing - to him what is said is all but meaningless - and the part which he understands seems trivial to him. The stranger has two options: he can stay and learn why what is being said is necessary, or he can go away and suggest that all such campfires are silly and should be ignored orbanned. Mail art is like that. I shows, and the work is arranged not by conversation but according to a curators's skills of the past, as if these were drawings by Goya. But they aren't. Their meaning is more private, often contained in the facts and conditions of their existence more than in the art traditions to which they seem to belong. The show therefore doesn't work. Few do. But a show arranged chronologically of the exchanges among some specific circle mail artists - that would have a greater chance for an outsider to learn the language and love the medium. Wouldn't you like to see a show of the complete exchanges between, say, San Francisco's Anna Banana*1 and Irene Dogmatic (if there ever was such an exchange) than the 65th International Scramble of Mail Artists presented by the Commune di Bric- -Bracchio (Big catalog with lots and lots of names, but all works become the property of the Archivo di Bric- -Bracchio).

*1 of course Anna has since moved to her native Vancouver, and I haven't heard of Irene Dogmatic in many a year)

Chance encounters among mail artists, meetings among small groups -oh yes, those are quite wonderful. But I don't usually see the point in large gatherings of mail artists. Actually, there haven't been many of them - thank goodness. Berlin would have been an exception, methinks.

As e'er- Dick (laughing) (Dicks signiture was placed here as a smiling face)

RJ: What is the first 'chance encounter' (as you call them) that comes up in your mind when I ask for a memory about such an event?

Reply on 18-9-1995

DH: By "chance encounters" I mean those meetings which could not have been anticipated or which take place on the spur of the moment. If on Wednesday I arrange to meet you the following Tuesday at 7:30 and if I am unable to sleep Monday night because of faxes from Europe arriving all night long Monday night and the cat is ill on Tuesday so that I must waste half the day at the veterinarian's office, you and I will have a very different kind of meeting from the situation of my meeting you in the post office and the two of us going to spend a few hours together talking things over, or if I say: "Look: I cooked too much food, please come over and help me eat it."

We have all had such meeting, no? Those meetings are the most productive, I think. Few mail artists (or any artists) can really control their own time, their own scedule. Only the rich can do that, if anyone can. We are mostly poor and must depend on the schedules of others. But there are days when this is not true - days when it works perfectly to see someone. Ray Johnson was a master of this - he would call, "I am with (whoever), we're down the street from you. Can we come see you?" If yes - great. If not, one never felt locked into the situation.

That is how I never met Yves Klein. One night, perhaps in 1961, at 11:15 Ray phoned me from down the street and said that Yves Klein was with him and would like to meet me. I said I'd like to meet him too but I was in bed and it was a week-day. I had to work the next day. We agreed that I should meet Yves Klein the next time he came to New York. It didn't happen; Klein died instead.

It is also how I met Alison Knowles, - Ray Johnson and Dorothy Podberand myself had dinner in Chinatown in New York and then they took me to Alison's loft nearby. I had met her briefly before that, but this time we got to talk a little. That was thirty-six years ago, and Alison and I are still together.

And so it goes -

RJ: Yes, and also the forms of communication are proceeding. To my surprise I noticed on your 'letterhead' that you have an e-mail address too. Are you now exploring the possibilities of the internet as well?

Reply on 20-10-1995 (sent on 11-10 from Milano Italy)

(Dick Higgins handwritten answer came from Milano, Italy, where he is preparing a retrospective show of his work.)

DH: Yes, "exploring" is the only possible word, since the internet is constantly changing. You can "know" yesterday's internet, but today's always contains new variables.

In the world of computers, most of the "information" is irrelevant, even to those who put it there. Few of us bother to download clever graphics since advertising has made us numb to those. I only download graphics if the text which I see really seems to need them. I need them no more than I need to watch show-offy gymnastic displays, divers or pianists who play Franz Liszt while blindfolded and balancing champagne glasses on their head. What I like on the "net" are three things:

1) Making contact with people whose contributions to the internet shows interest similar to my own. Far from being alienating, as others have said of the web and internet, I find this element a very positive and community-building factor. For instance, I enjoyed meeting on the internet a guy whom I'd met three years ago, a visual poet named Kenny Goldsmith, and had not seen since. Now he does "Kenny's page " -< HTTP: index.html ~kennyg so wfmu.org > - where he creates links to anything in the new arts which excites him. It was like looking into someone else's library - a revelation, and one which I could use. It led me to meet him again in person, a real delight.

2) I cannot afford to buy the books I once could. But often I can download and print out things to read before going to bed. For an author, what a way to get one's work and ideas around! Why wait two years for your book to appear, for your article to come out in some magazine which nobody can afford? Put it on the net and it is potentially part of the dialogue in your area of interest. Further, it tells me not only what people are interested in, but what is going on - a John Cage conference , which interested me, was fully described on the net for instance - and it gives me access to everything from dictionaries, indexes and lists of words, people and events. I suppose a saboteur could list false information, and of course commercial interests can tell me about their stuff, but this only sharpers my skeptical abilities - I can avoid their garbage with no more effect than on a commercial television set. I suspect the internet is a blow to the effectiveness of normal advertising.

3) As someone whose favorite art, books and literature are seldom commercially viable, I am happy to see how the internet actually favors the smaller organizations and media. If I access a big publisher's pages with ten thousend titles, I stop and quit almost at once - it takes too long. But a small publisher's page is often worth a glance. Further, the phenomenon of links gives an element of three -dimenisionality to the internet. A book sounds interesting. I click on it and I see a few pages of it. This is like browsing in a wonderful bookstore. A good example is the pages for Avec, a small avant-garde magazine and book publisher in California. I found it through a link on the Grist pages - < HTTP: ~grist www.phantom.com >. It's designed by the editor of Witz , a new arts newsletter (address: [email protected]).Perfect. Another good one is Joe de Marco's pages < HTTP: ~marco www.cinenet.net > - full of fluxus things and theater. All this suggests new forms of distribution, which has always been a problem for small publishers. If you can safely transmit credit information to an address on the internet, then, if you live in a small village as I do, it is as if you lived in a large city with an incredible bookstore near you.

Because of links, I do not see how big corporations can commercialize all this. My computer is black and white, I have no money to invest in their corporations, and their rubbish is easily avoided. Thanks to the internet, the dumber kind of popular culture will probably begin to lose its strangle-hold on people's attention. Of course it will take time and other developments too, but the internet rips off the conservatives' three-piece suits, remakes them and gives them to us in a better form.

RJ: It seems like publishing is very important for you. In mail art a lot has been written about the book "The Paper Snake" by Ray Johnson, which you published with Something Else Press. What was the story behind this specific book?

Continue with Interview . . .

Mail-artist: Dick Higgins, P.O.Box 27, Barrytown, NY, USA 12507

Tel: (914) 758.6488 - Fax : (914) 758.4416
E-mail Dick Higgins

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

E-mail Ruud Janssen

Interview List . . .
Library Foyer . . .

Café Jas . . .
Museum Entrance . . .

Copyright ©1996-2005 Jas W Felter, all rights reserved.