Mail Art From 1984 Franklin Furnace Exhibition

1984 Johnstone mail art (both sides): 
"If you think about it, you've had it....
Hey let me buy you a drink - Jon
Just give this to the Dada bartender."

Perhaps more than any other genre, Mail Art as an international movement consciously promotes Marshal McLuhan's adage, "the medium is the message." Beyond the impact of the drawings, collages, stamps, xeroxes, or objects which are the visual content, the artist-to-artist network through which the art is passed asserts it's opposition to conventional distribution through gallery, publishing and museum systems. Ray Johnson's rubber stamp: "PLEASE ADD TO AND RETURN TO RAY JOHNSON" found on many of his mailings both proposes an authoring strategy often used in mail art (a variation of the collaborative relay mode popularized in the "exquisite corpse" by the Surrealists) and it is also an admonishment to see the art as something to be experienced and transferred rather than possessed.

If it is true that information about the knowledge of all modern art research is more than any one artist could comprehend, then the concept of the avant-garde is obsolete. With incomplete knowledge, who can say who is in front, and who ain't. I suggest that considering each artist as part of an Eternal Network is a much more useful concept.

--Robert Filliou in a 1973 issue of FILE magazine quoted in Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography by John Held Jr. Scarecrow Press, Metuchen NJ 1991 p. xxiv

In the sixties, seventies and eighties, The Eternal Network of Mail art also known as the "N -tity" had already considered many of the implications of free exchange of images as information instead of as commodities which are now arising on-line in the context of the World Wide Web:

The N -tity has become the historical now & is upon us. None of us can control it, all of us Navigate it. Concurrent, coalescing energy, the N -tity is all that we share N common.

The N -tity is the vanguard expression of the explosion in the means of communication & the consequential response to this fact, & the continuing shrinkage, of time & space.

--Carlo Pittore "The N -tity" Mail Art Then And Now, Flue magazine Volume 4, winter 1984, Franklin Furnace, p32.

Rather than the creation of one world culutre, mail art is showing that a respect for divergent ideas can be a powerful stratagem in reconciling multinational differences, and that specific cultures can interact in "open situations" where each cultural representation can make important contributions in an integrated process of creation.

Five decades after Ray Johnson developed his moticos mailing list, mail art has escaped the rigid boundaries of the artworld, and yet it still has lessons to impart to the mainstream art establishment. It confirms the idea that art is everywhere and that everyone can be creative given the opportunity to do so; that art is decentralized and does not depend on controlling opinions emanating from centralized world centers, Indeed, the diffusion of ideas is more potent and varied when it originates from the base of a pyramid rather than the summit.

--John Held Jr., op cit. p. xxii.

The opposition to institutional and market culture of art by the Eternal Network extended to Mail art exhibitions as well.

In the middle seventies, the mail art show came to mean "all work shown," "no fees to enter," and "documentation to all participants." Sensing that something important was happening, yet receving little support from the art establishment, mail artists took it upon themselves to curate their own shows and thus insure the growth of their preferred medium.

--ibid p. xxiv

This norm was tested in 1984 when curator Ronny Cohen organized an exhibition for Franklin Furnace called Mail Art Then and Now. As the title suggests it was to have an historical aspect as well as showing new mail art. To mediate the two aspects, Cohen wanted to edit the new mail art sent to Franklin Furnace which would be displayed. Though in the end, all the work received was shown, the intent to edit created a "public display of emotion" at an Artists Talk on Art conference in February of 1984 where many mail artists confronted each other in person to debate the issues raised by the exhibition.

Since In The Flow is not a mail art exhibition per se, we are showing some though not all of the Mail art which Franklin Furnace received in 1984 for the exhibition. The system of distribution again compromises the art, but we wish to acknowledge them as examples of an early network medium and to remember the issues of the controversy which pertain to the institutional, political and esthetic assumptions which often underlie presentation space even in a place as "alternative" as Franklin Furnace has been for twenty years.

The following links lead to writings from Flue, Volume 4 Issue 3, published by Franklin Furnace as the catalogue for "Mail Art Then and Now" Ronny Cohen Curator and guest editor:

On Mail Art: Doo-da postage Works by E.F. Higgins III

Illegal Mail Art (a poetical essay) by Valery Oisteanu

N-tity by Carlo Pittore