"Is mail art art?" - Ruud Janssen

Mark Greenfield with Ruud Janssen

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)

(During the interview I was doing myself with Mark Greenfield, he asked me if he could interview me in return. He started with the interview just after I published his interview - TAM-Publications # 960116, and here is the final result. The text was printed on my computer. I sent a print-out of the text to Mark Greenfield to make it possible to do the layout. The printing & distribution was done by TAM-Publications in Tilburg, Netherlands)

Started on: 6-3-1996

MG: Dear Ruud, do you consider mail art to be an underground "art form" opposed to established art forms?

Reply on 16-3-1996

RJ: Such a question raises another question in my head. Is mail art art? Is networking art? Of course the established art forums are mostly avoided by the mail artists, because they select for exhibitions, they ask fees for entering an art show, they in general select who they think is important enough to expose to an audience. This is what makes the mail artists tick. They want to have control over their own art. But this "art" is not the traditional art. It all has to do with communication.

To speak of myself, I never had a traditional art-education at an Art- University or so, although in the last years I have been doing quite specific courses to expand my knowledge of techniques (like e.g. multi-colored silkscreen-printing). I did my "art-lessons" through the networking I have been doing. Communicating with people that have to live from what their art brings them as well. In mail art there are a lot of participants that do their mail art besides a completely different job. Mail art can be practiced in that many forms, and yes, it doesn't follow the established art with their rules. However they are not opposites. My first mail art exhibition was in an official Gallery, the "Melkweg" 1985, in Amsterdam. I had complete freedom in the presentation, and they even paid my costs and helped me with the process; the invitations, opening, slide shows, etc. Only because of that, I liked doing it. I mostly avoid working with or within the "established art world", although I do like to visit museums and galleries in different countries sometimes. But my views aren't completely set on art. Communication is also quite interesting.

Next question on 28-3-1996

MG: Learning and communication are important, there are also plenty of other reasons for taking part in mail art. You mention the exhibition in 1985 but I believe you were involved with mail art before this date. What was the first project you took part in and what were your reasons for wanting to participate?

RJ: Well, TAM itself was started in 1980. I didn't know about the mail art network then, and only in 1983 I got hooked up with the network. Your question is which project I took part in first. You are lucky, because I do have a list of the projects I took part in for the first years (1983 and 1984).

After that, I didn't keep track anymore of the contributions I sent in to he various projects. Number one on this list, an audio-cassette that I recorded for Rod Summers in Maastricht (Netherlands). This was a contribution for his VEC-audio exchange that he was doing. As it turned out he had just finished the project with publishing his last collage-audio cassette (I TCHING), so he wasn't able to use my recordings.

Second part of your question, my reasons? I guess there are two. Firstly I was making first contacts with other mail artists, and it makes sense to make contacts with the mail artists in ones own country. So I had already made contact with mail artists like Ko de Jonge, Sonja van der Burg, Bart Boumans (all from the Netherlands) as well as Bern Olbrich, Anna Banana, etc. With these contacts I also received the first invitations. Secondly, in 1983 I was still a student (actually I graduated in this year) and student-life also involves (for me) lots of music. I had the equipment, also keyboards and guitar, microphone, and I had already recorded some tapes for myself. When I heard of Rod Summer's project VEC-audio- exchange, I recorded something for him, and sent it to him. That this first contribution to a project was an audio-cassette is pure chance, but when I look at the list I have of 1983 I see that I did make some other audio-art, mostly collages with sounds, produced by me or found in my surroundings. Other contributions also included photographs, stamp-works, and drawings.

Next question on 20-4-1996

MG: The name 'TAM' is used, please explain the meaning of these initials. Although you may not have kept a list of all the projects you have taken part in since that first year, you regularly send out printed documentations about your activities in mail art. Why do you place so much importance on this documentation?

RJ: TAM started in 1980, and it stood then for TRAVELLING ART MAIL. Over the years the word TAM also has functioned on it's own and got other meanings too (like Tilburg's Academy of Mail-Art and Tilburgse Automatiserings Maatschappij). I use the "firm" or "College" TAM also to play with the official institutes. It is funny that in the first meaning the words ART MAIL are there, knowing that I only got hooked up to the network in 1983.

Documentation. Yes, you're right, it is important to me. I have been keeping track of most of the things I have done so far. The fact that I haven't documented the many contributions to the different mail art projects is just because it takes too much time. Once a piece of mail is ready, it is sent out and I go on to the next thing to do. Keeping track of all the mail I sent out was something I did those first two years. In 1991 I started again with keeping track of how much mail I sent out, just because I was curious myself.

Why it is so important for me, this documentation, is a difficult question. am not sure. Maybe it gives me a certain grip of the process called "my life", to know what I have been up to so far. Because I am always working on so many different things, it is essential to keep track of things in a orderly way. To give a small example, the interview I am now doing with you (the fact that I answer your question) is just one of the over 30 interviews that are taking place in my P.O.Box or internet-address. Another reason for documenting is, of course, to let others see the documented things too. In networking you can't send all your thought, works and words to everybody. So I have chosen to send things out quite randomly, the same goes for the printed documentations you mentioned in your question. It takes less time to document a certain part of your work and then be able to send a copy to anybody you think is interested in it (as a relay to your mail) com paired to writing long letters over and over again. The time it saves I can use on getting to the more personal details, the personal letters I enjoy writing too.

Next question on 2-5-1996

MG: Both in your interviews and in a lot of your texts, you appear to spend a lot of time analysing the network rather than the individual artist or our own art, what is the reason for this?

RJ: The first part of the question. The interviews and texts are accessible for the network, so it is only natural that 'the network' is central in the interview. By answering the specific questions the interviewed person can decide how many details one wants to give about his/her personal life and personal art.

The really personal details and exchange of art with other mail artists is mostly on a one-to-one basis. In the many interviews that have come out you can see how different the interviews go. Analysing the network is interesting for me. It seems everybody has his/her own views about the network and some mail artists even think that they have grasped the whole concept of the network. With each interview I discover that the network means something else to every specific cell in the network.

The second part of your question, analysing my own art and writing about my own art. Well, I do copy sometimes the drawings that I have made and spread them through the network. But I never choose to write an explanation about my art. Others can judge what they see in it. Also I exchange with some graphic artists my silkscreen prints and water-color works. This is the one-to-one exchange again. I analyze art I see from others. Judging ones own art and analyzing it is quite a personal thing. If someone asks me about the art I do explain however. I remember writing a book-letter about the first multicolored silkscreens I made in 1994 for Litsa Spathi in Germany. In this book-letter I included some parts of the original prints and some test prints to explain how I worked. But I did this because she was interested in these techniques and in what I was trying to explain with the silkscreens. Again on one-to-one basis I explain my own art, but not in texts-form accessible for the whole network. I make my own art because I like to make it, because I need to make it.

Next question on 15-5-1996

MG: Although you seem to spend a lot of time creating mail art, you also seem to spend an equal amount of time producing art which you do not use in your mailings. You mention your drawings, what do you do with the originals? You also refer to your silkscreen prints, some of which I've been lucky to see even though I wouldn't describe myself as a graphic artist! Are there any other forms of art that you use, which are not related to your mail art? While I was at college I specialized in sculpture. Do you create any sculpture?

RJ: Well, your question contains three question marks, and almost sounds like a questionnaire about the art I produce. The word 'art' is a difficult one, because I am quite confused about what to call art, and what to call 'things I want to do in my life'. Anyway, back to your questions.

(1) The drawings. Well, it isn't an 'equal amount of time' as you call it. Only when I find the time I work on those other things besides the mail art. I do make copies of most of these drawings and spread them into the network, but most originals I have kept for myself. There is the occasional drawing that I make for a project or for a person, or the exception of an original I send out to someone. The drawings are a way capturing my views. Most subjects of my drawings aren't planned in advance. I just feel that something is about to come out and make a start. The results mostly show something of what is going on inside me, and that probably is the reason why I keep most of them myself (paper only takes little space). Maybe the making of the drawings is some kind of therapy I discovered for myself. I am learning what makes me tick, and the drawings help me with that. Sometimes after years I discover again something that came out of me through those drawings. Must sound strange maybe, but it is how I feel it. Maybe in the nearby future I will start to send them out. Maybe I will exhibit the collection somewhere if I think it is good enough to do so. Also the drawings are a source to look back on for subjects of other 'art' I like to do. Some of the drawings are transformed into an oil painting, others into silkscreen prints, although this last form I don't use that much anymore. The silkscreens I sometimes send out into the network are test prints I made. A selection of some of the colors-parts I used on a larger silkscreen. The final silkscreens are mostly too large to fit in envelopes. I now and then give them to people I meet who are interested in (mail) art, or make large parcels to exchange things with other graphic artists. Also in the last years whenever I visit a mail artist or when someone visits me, they end up with getting a silkscreen. Made Balbat in Estonia has quite a collection. John Held Jr & Bill Gaglione visited me last year and ended up with the silkscreen I made of a portrait of Ray Johnson (originally the portrait was a linocut made by Tim Mancusi in USA). I don't like the gallery system, so I never tried to get into one. Except for the mail art project I mentioned before in the Melkweg-gallery in Amsterdam. The only time some of the silkscreens were exhibited was at the 'Duvelhok' (in 1993 and 1994) ; an artist work center here in Tilburg with their own exhibiting space. Every year they make an exhibition of the people that have worked there.

[2] Other forms of art, you asked about. Well, no time for other graphic things I guess, although I do write a lot too. Do you call that art too? Also I try to keep up with the changing world of computers and how one can use them to produce things, to communicate, to print things, and is that art? I mostly don't think of myself as an artist, I just want to have a creative life, and that means doing & creating things. And I do think I have succeeded in that so far. Oh yes, just forgot, I recently started with acrylic-paint because the oil- paint took so long to dry. Currently I am making small colorful 'things' on carton, to see how I can use this paint. These tests are mostly small and I do send them out to some mail artists. The distinction I made between mail art and art not connected to mail art isn't that clear. It has to do with the intention. Some art I make to mail out, and other wasn't made with that intention.

[3] The last part of your question; sculpture? Well, as a young boy I liked to do that very much. I still have two works in my living room that I made when I was about 11 years old. They still are a source of inspiration for me, but after elementary school I not done any sculpture at all. I enjoy seeing it though, very much, but a day has only 24 hours and there is only a limited amount of things a person can do. Most of the time goes to the work at College and the mail art anyway.

Next question on 3-6-1996

MG: Much of the visual art that you have sent me has been the "result" of you expressing "what is going on inside". You appear to concentrate in this type of subject and I can not remember seeing any of your art which was expressing an opinion about "what was going on outside" yourself. In your "7th Thoughts about mail art" article you acknowledge the world is still a turbulent place to live in. How and why do you avoid making any social or political statement visual art?

RJ: The question could be answered with a simple NO. I don't avoid it and don't concentrate on the things you mention. Some of my contributions to mail art projects ARE visual statements on social or political issues. Your question probably comes as a reaction to my drawings, because there I must agree that the social or political aspect is not always obviously there. But maybe you should look closer. The views I give of the world that I see INSIDE me are a reflection of the things I see OUTSIDE of me. I am very aware of what is going on in the world and have written also about that. Maybe the choice of words was wrong. I meant that I don't use realistic subjects in my drawings, for that I use photography, something I enjoy also a lot. For sociological and political issues I probably use the text-format a lot. The internet for example is a social issue as well (and not a technical as some try to explain) on which I have written quite a lot.

As for my drawings/texts it seems you like to analyze it. I don't analyze it too much; it just comes out, and I use a visual way (or sometimes a textual way) for that. If someone asks me for a specific social or political statement I participate in those projects too. In my "life besides the mail art", I have chance enough to deal with social or political subjects. I teach students aged 16 to 21 years old, and they are very interested in these aspects as well. In my student-years I was also member of environmental groups here in Tilburg or even national ones. It seems that the balance in my life makes it so that I don't have to find another outlet for social or political subjects. For emotions that exist inside me I DO need another outlet, for example the art that I sometimes like to produce.

Yes, the world is a turbulent place. In the mail-interview project I am trying to document some of that too (interviews with Svjetlana Mimica in Croatia and Dobrica Kampereli in Yugoslavia during the war in Bosnia, Clemente Padin in Uruguay who was imprisoned because of his actions, and also more interviews on its way with Andrej Tisma in Yugoslavia, Ayah Okwabi in Ghana, Rea Nikonova in Russia, Edgardo-Antonio Vigo in Argentina, Raphael Nadolny in Poland, etc.). I myself live in a luxury state, where the political and social problems are small compared to those in some other countries. To my surprise a lot of networkers don't realize this.

Next question on 17-6-1996

MG: As well as texts and visuals, you also like to visit a lot of mail artists. Do you consider this an advantage? What are the benefits of these 'meetings'?

Continue with Interview . . .

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

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

Interviewer: Mark Greenfield, P.O.Box 409, Newcastle, Staffs - ST5 3LW. ENGLAND

E-mail Ruud Janssen

Interview List . . .
Library Foyer . . .

Café Jas . . .
Museum Entrance . . .

Copyright ©1997-2005 Jas W Felter, all rights reserved.