Started on: 15-5-1995
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: 16-6-1995
AT: I made my first mail-art work in 1973 after a visit to one of the pioneers of Yugoslavian mail-art, Bogdanka Poznanovic from Novi Sad. I mailed to her two bus tickets I used going to her and returning home, fixed on a postcard. I wrote beneath them: "My visit to the DT 20 Studio in the formulation of GSP (City Transportation Enterprise)". I think that in that moment I wasn't aware of the mail-art movement.
Later on that year, before I left for Prague, Czechoslovakia, to study painting, she launched an international mail-art project under the title "Feedback Letter-Box" and she invited me to send in something. The project was about letter-boxes; she sent out photos of her letter-box to 45 people, expecting them to send in their's. The project was open one year, and I sent my contribution in summer of 1974 (a photograph of the building and the window where I was receiving mail in my students' home, and the lady in white coat who was distributing letters). Later, when I returned to Novi Sad for vacation I saw the exhibition which was held in Poznanovic's DT 20 Studio. Participants were, among others, Joseph Beuys, Ken Friedman, Klaus Groh, Jochen Gerz, Janos Urban, Michele Perfetti, J.H. Kocman, Clemente Padin, Sarenco, Natalia LL, and from Yugoslavia Miroljub Todorovic and Balint Szombathy. I was listed under Czechoslovakia.
During my stay in Prague I continued sending mail-art, but only to few friends in Yugoslavia, because I was long away from home (for the first time in my life), so mail-art functioned in my case as continuation of creative contact with dear fellow artists which was interrupted by my leaving for Prague for several years. It was a natural need to stay in touch with some artists, surmounting the great distance between us. Soon after arriving to Prague I bought a rubber-stamp letter print for children, using it to print some words on envelopes and letters. It was some kind of visual poetry and concept art, sent by mail.
Since I studied painting and painting was my main art expression in that time, I used mail-art just sporadically. I also took part in some international mail-art shows in 1979: "Feedback Letter-Box", Zagreb (then Yugoslavia), "Numbers", Allesandria (Italy), "International Mail- Art Fair", Paris (France). Also in the year 1979 I got in touch with Franci Zagoricnik (from Kranj, former Yugoslavia) and Westeast group, which was based on mail-art communication, publishing the "Westeast" anthologies of visual poetry, using the "Assembling" method of compilation of 300 original works, also making exhibitions. Every anthology had its theme, and I took part in many of them. Through that I got in touch with many mail-art works, but the problem was that Zagoricnik jealously kept the addresses as top secret so I couldn't communicate with all those people. I could just watch their works and slowly get into the international mail-art spirit.
My real involvement in the network happened in 1983 when I met Dobrica Kamperelic, mail-artist from Belgrade (Yugoslavia). Even though we had correspondence for years, we met for the first time by chance in a Novi Sad bookshop. He gave me immediately a bunch of invitations for mail-art projects in Brazil, USA, Europe, also some personal addresses, and soon after I eagerly plunged into that challenging, unexplored field called mail-art network. Since then Kamperelic and I stayed closest collaborators and friends.
Soon I began receiving catalogs, info-zines from all over the world and the list of my correspondents was growing each day. The same year I launched my own mail-art project "Mail - Art Olympic Games" , which was organized in conjunction with the XIVth Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. In two months I received works by 120 artists from 20 countries, so I began to feel as a real part of the Eternal Network.
RJ: Participating in projects is something else than doing your own project. What did you learn from this first project that you did yourself?
Reply on 1-8-1995 (registered mail)
AT: Yes, it is different. When I began participating in others' projects, or I did mail-art communication on one-to-one basis it was a feeling of great excitement because you send your artwork to somebody unknown, or for some exhibition, for the unknown visitor. There is also a great expectation of some personal reply, or reaction that your work provokes in some spectator's mind, or in mind of a particular and much respected person to whom the work was dedicated. Such reply gives the mail-artist a special stimulus and encouragement for further work. And that is the most important aspect of that kind of communication. Of course important is also exchange of information, also of friendship and kindness. Another important characteristic is that you are choosing your correspondents, even if you are sending out mail massively. Substantially it is GIVING.
A different thing is starting your own mail-art project. The best comparison is with fishing: you throw the fishhook, or even a fishnet, and you wait for what is going to happen. If you are lucky, and if your "bait" is good enough you will catch plenty of "fishes." But in that plenty they will not be all of good quality, and in mail-art there is no throwing back "fishes" into the water. They all must be kept and "eaten." And that sometimes causes little problems. In other words, doing your own project you can't choose your correspondents, except if your invitations are strictly personal. But the charm of doing your own project is just the uncertainty and great expectation. The same as in fishing. Substantially it is TAKING.
But on the other hand, organizing of a mail-art project requires a great degree of responsibility, unlike the participation, when you are not obliged about nothing. When you organize a project, an exhibition, first you have to collect and keep the arrived works carefully, notify them, make the address list, find the exhibition space, produce a catalog or any documentation (time and money problem), and send the documentation to all participants. You become not just artist, but also a gallerist, writer, publisher and administrator. But I always did that as a kind of a little sacrifice for the international network, glad that I can give my small contribution to the collaboration, establishing new and creative contacts within it. I see every such international project and his organizer as a knot in the net, which keeps the whole together. In that sense, organizing of a show is also GIVING (REPAY).
Another problem with the one's own project is that you suddenly begin to receive a huge amount of mail, without a physical possibility to reply to it (a printed catalog after the show is not a real mail-art reply to an artwork). It can also give you a (wrong) impression that you are so important personality in the net because you get ten to fifteen pieces daily from all over the world. That feeling is very pleasant, but when the project is over your mailbox becomes sadly empty. That's the reason, I suppose, why some people in the network are running new projects one after the other. But it is not real creativity.
My first mail-art project, "Mail-Art Olympic Games" in February 1984, was realized in cooperation with the Novi Sad Television Program "Sunday Afternoon." Actually the exhibition was first shown on the television (installed in the studio), and after that it was installed in the "Forma" gallery in Novi Sad. That was maybe the first television mail-art show in the history, and it was broadcasted in the whole country, the former Yugoslavia, during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, so people from different countries, participants and visitors to the Olympics could watch it too, and the show has had millions of "visitors." In the show there were 120 participants from 20 countries after the deadline of only two months. It was a great experience for me. The next year I installed the show in Sarajevo, and that was the first mail-art show ever in that town. After that, in 1986 the show was hosted by Chuck Stake's CCAG in Calgary, Canada. So my first mail-art project gave me plenty of pleasure and excitement.
RJ: Another large project you did was "Nature gives....". What was the concept of this project?
Reply on 6-10-1995
AT: When you mentioned the word project it reminded me that in fact every artist's project is also a kind of his own artwork. So it can be taken also as self expression. Because the artist is one who chooses the theme of his own project, and he usually chooses the words or sentences that effect him/her the most. So the organizing of your own project is not only taking from the Network, but also playing with it, expressing yourself through others. I found somewhere a very good definition of today's artist, for whom other artists are the media of expression.
I would also like to use this opportunity to mention three of my earlier mail art projects I did in 1979 and 1980 but unlike "Mail-Art Olympic Games" I didn't get any response to them. The project "My Home" from 1979 consisted of sending to a number of artists a ground plan of my apartment, and a short description of circumstances of my living. It was my try to establish contacts with artists, but not based on art exchange, but on life exchange.
Another project, done in 1980, consisted of colorful postcards with flowers, and on the other side was my rubber stamp imprint saying: "How Are You." The addresses, which I had chosen at random from the phone- book were printed with a typewriter, and there was no trace of sender. My aim was to surprise those unknown people, to make them reflect about how they are, are they satisfied with their life? They couldn't reply to me because I didn't give my name and address.
The third of my earlier projects (1980) was "Collective Infinite Work." I sent out an empty square and asked from the receiver to draw a line on it, and send it further on. Every artist was asked to draw only one line, until the drawing is completed, in the last one's opinion. The last one should send the completed work with a list of participants to me. It seems that this work will really be "infinite."
Now the "Nature Gives...." project which was your question. You are right, it was a large, in fact my largest project, with 375 participants from 30 countries, with 1,000 works sent in, and a full color 200 pages book as a documentation, sent to all participants. This project came after my also huge "Private Life" project (320 participants) which was shown in fourteen Yugoslavian galleries, so I was exhausted and decided not to organize any new mail art project in at least one year. But then I got a phone call from a cosmetics factory in Osijek, Croatia. They asked me to organize a mail art project in connection with nature and beauty and they will sponsor it. Well, I was pleasantly surprised that someone so far away heard about me and my mail art activity, and wants to invest money in it. So, what could I do, I accepted it, with few conditions: that a large full color book will be printed at the end,and that they will mail the invitations. They agreed, so we launched the "Nature Gives...." in 1988, and it lasted one year. My aim was to make an homage to nature and make artists and viewers all over the world to read and watch again and again the word "Nature" and become more aware of it. It occurred that, taken on the average, every day of that year one artist was sending in works.
When I collected the works in autumn 1989 I went to Osijek, showed them to the sponsor and they were excited. We made agreement that I prepare texts for the book, chose works for reproduction, find the printing-house, and they will pay everything. I engaged a professor from London, Pierre Rouve, art historian (he wrote the screen-play for Antonioni's film "Blow Up") whom I met in Novi Sad, to write an essay on mail art as foreword. Also I asked a young ecologist from Novi Sad to write on the catastrophic situation in the world, and I myself wrote an introduction about the project.
But as time was passing the situation in the former Yugoslavia was slowly changing. Croatia prepared its secession and soon my sponsor informed me about "financial problems". They suggested that I wait, but things were going worse and worse. Soon, in 1991, military clashes in Croatia began, so it became clear to me that I will have to realize the book myself (I had promised it to participants), and find another exhibition space.
So I had to begin everything from zero, searching for sponsors here in Serbia. It took me one year till I collected the money for printing the book (twelve firms participated). Finally in summer 1992 we opened the show in Belgrade's Cultural Center Gallery. It was a great success and media showed a great interest. It was the time soon after the imposing of the international cultural blockade on our country, so an international exhibition was a great event. The show was later traveling to the cities of Novi Sad, Sombor, Zrenjanin, Sremski, Karlovci, Pristina, Nis,.... all over Serbia during the years of the international cultural blockade.
Once I got an information that cosmetics factory in Osijek was bombed and completely destroyed, because it was used for ammunition storage.
That was a little bit sad story about mixing of art and life, mail art and war, ecology and politics. But I should say that in this case art, Nature and friendship had triumphed. Because in that show, among others, many Croat, Bosnian, Slovenian mail artists participated and the book was sent to all of them, even the war was going on in their republics.
RJ: This international cultural blockade is now lifted for some time. How were the international contacts during the blockade, and how are they now?
Reply on 18-11-1995 (registered mail)
AT: Unfortunately we have to talk about the blockade of Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro), although I would rather talk more about mail art, or Network phenomenon, about art in general, about spirituality, but I hope in this interview we will get back to these issues. The international cultural blockade was imposed on us, so it is logical that the theme of embargo on art is "imposed" to this interview, but it was "imposed" also to the whole Network as a real and crucial problem. So it is worth talking about. The blockade has put the entire networking idea on test, and that was maybe the most important event in the Network (besides the Balkan war) in the last few years. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we the Serbian networkers were here to testify about the embargo's effects and to try to overcome them, with a help of our friends from abroad.
As you might know the international blockade, which included also sports and cultural embargo, was imposed on Serbia on May 31, 1992 (about the righteousness of that I will not discuss now). The United Nations, or their mentors, decided to exclude Serbia and its people from the cultural exchange. For us networkers, who are working for decades on establishing cultural exchange with all parts of the globe, looking for a planetary culture, that was a great shock. We who contributed so much for years and decades to this humane and cosmopolitan idea, were simply put under blockade without exception. The cultural blockade is inhumane, harmful and inadmissible, but on the first place unnatural in today's globalized world. And that was the reason we raised our voices in protest against cultural embargo. So the postal communication was not the problem, because mail was going almost regularly, as before the embargo, but that feeling of injustice was my, and my friends' main motive to act. I took embargo as a symbol of VIOLENCE of the world authorities which endangers our nice and positive idea of an open network, and my task was to fight against it, for the universal reasons, not the selfish ones. Because, as I said, the postal communication didn't stop, but UN's decision to put one state, one group of people under cultural blockade made me react. So I left almost all other art activities and dedicated my time and energy to fight the MONSTER.
In the moment the embargo was imposed I made a hand-carved rubber stamp with the inscription "EMBARGO ART", and I used it on everything I sent out to the network. During these three years of embargo I made more than twenty anti-embargo rubber stamps, did anti-embargo performances, published anti-embargo articles all over the world, organized many anti-embargo exhibitions in collaboration with Aleksandar Jovanovic, publisher of the anti-embargo magazine "Cage" (in Vichte, Belgium, in Dallas, Tokyo, also in Belgrade, Novi Sad). All our anti-embargo activity began in Sremski Karlovci, where I organized the Anti-Embargo Net Congress (September 1-3, 1992) where eight of us Serbian networkers signed the "Deblockade of Creativity" declaration which was distributed into the network. We did so many things since then, that one book could be written on it.
Besides me and Javonovic the anti-embargo group consisted of Dobrica Kamperelic, Miroljub Todorovic (Belgrade), Jaroslav Supek, Nenad Bogdanovic (Odzaci), Ratko Radanovic (Srpski Miletic), Jozef Klacik (Novi Sad), and later Vlado Njaradi (Vrbas), Sandor Gogolyak (Odzaci) and Anica Vucetic (Belgrade) have joined us. But maybe the most important was the support by foreign networkers from about twenty countries, who collaborated with "Cage" magazine, published our protests, exhibited our works, visited us here in Serbia, distributed our stuff, supported us morally in letters and publicly in their countries, made anti-embargo works themselves etc. Among them are John Held Jr. (USA), Peter and Angela Netmail (Germany), Jose van den Broucke (Belgium), Shozo Shimamoto (Japan), Hans Ruedi Fricker (Switserland), Ruud Janssen (Holland), Gyorgy Galantai (Hungary), Crackerjack Kid (USA), Ruggero Maggi (Italy), Clemente Padin (Uruguay), Teresinka Pereira (USA), Livia Cases (Italy) and many others. That brother/sisterhood made us stronger and more decided to fight till the end. In one interview John Held stated: "Yugoslavian networker artists are using their position to signal the condition of their life. They are saying in creative ways that it is wrong to separate people culturally, as well as economically. I'm for an art that is used for a higher purpose than to compliment the colors of a living room couch. Yugoslav networker artists are freedom fighters and are serving as examples to other network artists. They are reminding us of art's higher purpose. (...) Even though it is more expensive now to mail from Yugoslavia, the artists have kept in touch with other network artists. Their spirits have not been defeated, if anything they seem to have gotten stronger. They have done important things with their anti-embargo art actions. I think perhaps this has made their art even more relevant. Certainly it has given them increased respect throughout the world. (...) With their experiences under cultural embargo, and their creative response to it, they have placed themselves at the very center of network attention".
During all these years of blockade the real problem in communication within the network was our difficult economic situation and foreign anti- Serb propaganda. So back in 1993 the daily monetary inflation was 300% (!), our monthly income was about US$ 3,-, but the postal taxes were on the world level. So you had to decide if you are going to send a letter by airmail to the USA or buy for that money twelve kilos of bread (bread was almost everything we ate in that time). Of course I always gave the priority to sending the letter. Because to stay in touch with the Network, especially with some of the friends, meant more than bread. It gave us moral support which was important in circumstances when there was no heating in the winter, no fuel for cars or city buses so we had to go everywhere by foot, and sometimes we had electricity only for four hours a day. With your networker friend's letter in your pocket you feel safer and warmer, really.
I mentioned also some misinformation by the foreign media, so during these years I received few insulting letters in which it was written that Serbs are killers, that I can not be trusted because of Serbs' acts in Croatia, that I am a fascist swine and that my Serbia should be bombed (By the way I had nothing in common with the civil wars which were all fought outside of Serbia, and Serbia as a state was not in war for a single day. But that's a long story). Also many networkers who were invited to come and visit us, because of misinformation and propaganda were afraid to come, although our country was totally safe and peaceful. That was experienced by only few networkers who have visited us since the war began in the former Yugoslavia, like Bob Kirkman (USA), Livia Cases (Italy), Peter and Angela Netmail (Germany), John Held (USA). As Peter Netmail stated in his "DNC Book 92" after visiting Serbia (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Odzaci): "It is dangerous to rely on mass media reports in our countries only. Personal eyesight was definitely better. (...) Everyday life was grotesquely normal, even full of hectic consumerism in Belgrade (...), Novi Sad and Odzaci. Every single day of his life Peter has seen in his own Germany home cities more soldiers than in Serbia now. (...) Our networker friends take great efforts to stay cosmopolitan and pacifist within very narrow horizons. Their biggest heroic deed seems to happen in their own hearts, attitudes and consciousness."
In your question you have mentioned that the cultural blockade is now lifted for some time, and you are right, it was suspended in October 1994. But it seems that it is not working in practice, especially in America, Canada.... I was surprised, even shocked when the Chuck Welch's book "Eternal Network: A mail art Anthology" was not aloud by United States Postal Service to be sent to Serbia. It was in March 1995 when Chuck received his package back with bright red ink imprint "REFUSED". Chuck has informed me, after asking the State Department, that his package was violating the UN embargo sanctions imposed upon Serbia. So the story begins again, and it never stopped, even though we already celebrated the lifting of the Cultural embargo together with John Held on our 1st Post Cultural Embargo Networker Congress, Novi Sad, October 30, 1994. Since I was very angry on such an act by the US Postal Service, and the same thing happened with Canadian too, I wrote an open letter to Welch (on March 29) asking him to protest to his government, and he did so writing to four of his congressional representatives personally (on April 6), asking them "what right have we to create cultural concentration camps of other countries in the world?". Since he was not satisfied with their answers he continued his fight to make possible that his book comes freely to my doorstep. In his correspondence he was informed in October 1995 by the State Department's officer, trough Senator Bob Smith that "last year the United Nations suspended a limited number of sanctions, including those on cultural exchange", but that "under current US law, however, Americans are not entitled to sanctions relief, and are still prohibited from engaging in transactions with Serb entities without permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control". So as you see sanctions are still functioning in some countries, and our fight for freedom of art and cultural exchange must continue. But we must fight all together, if we want some results. Now Chuck is fighting hard; he launched a project into the Internet asking people to protest by sending letters, post-cards and anti-embargo art to some governmental institutions' addresses in Washington. Let us hope for success. We must first FREE the art and then DO art. Our fight for free art is also art, if it is sincere and humane.
RJ: Just before the falling apart of the large Yugoslavia you started with the "Institute of spreading of love". What was the idea behind this?
Continue with Interview . . .
Mail-artist: Andrej Tisma, Modene 1/IV, 21000 Novi Sad, YUGOSLAVIA
Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, NETHERLANDS