Mail Art in the Age of the Internet

Keith Bates

In September 2012 I emailed a gentle rant to about 200 mailartists bemoaning the fact that although Mail Art calls were widely disseminated by email and project documentation often published online, submissions to Mail Art projects by email are all too rarely encouraged. I’m wondering if digital participation has become Mail Art’s new pariah?

It’s hardly a scientific survey, but the responses I’ve received so far suggest a fairly even spread between those hostile to the internet’s encroachment on Mail Art’s stamping grounds, the piggies in the middle who are pragmatically using both snailmail and email (and perhaps regard Email Art as an inevitability), and those who treat Email Art and the internet as welcome additions that will help keep Mail Art energized and fresh.


‘Paper-o-philes’ is Anna Banana’s term and she includes herself among them. I think it’s safe to say that she considers classic Mail Art inherently more valuable and certainly doesn’t enjoy digital working as much, “I am not enthralled with the screen, I spend entirely too much time looking at it as it is, so on that front, I'm not keen. I still love the paper objects, in spite of the storage issues that are mounting. I don't blog, tweet, or engage with networks like IUOMA, even though I am a member and have people emailing to tell me they’ve posted something for my attention. My shoulders complain enough with the amount of time I spend at the computer as it is and I LONG to do some collage work on my drawing board!”

BuZ Blurr writes, “I'm addicted to artistamps on physical paper support, and to keeping the mail stream flowing to my mail box.” Alan Brignull also treasures the physicality of traditional materials. Furthermore he regards the act of posting, the effort involved, and even the cost of postage, as imbuing worth and value, “I just like sending and receiving mail, and as long as real mail continues to cost money this is the guarantee that someone seriously wants me to receive this whatever-it-is. That someone queued and paid to send it is meaningful, even if the 'art' is worthless junk. Email is free and easy to send by the million, therefore people will send it by the million and you can't believe what you receive was really addressed to you even if it appears to be.”

Reed Altemus puts hand-made original works at the core of Mail Art, “I really don't think email art is the wave of the future as your writing might imply. Mail art will always be mail art, tied (maybe chained) to the postal system and I think it will go on that way for as long as the system survives (which admittedly it may not). I think the emphasis on hand-made original works (especially postcards) in many of the mail art calls these days is proof of the fact that until the postal system is phased out, mail art as a physical non-digital artifact will survive.”

Personally, I can’t see Mail Art, or indeed the international postal system, being ‘phased out’. Instead, I think we are witnessing 21st century Mail Art evolving, not in a way that overrides the paper practice but one that brings in a complimentary method of creating and supplying work. Increasingly mailartists are making use of email and the internet which unquestionably has greater resonance among younger, more digitally-minded networkers for whom the postal system has only secondary importance as 'parcel post' to be used when the need to transfer physical objects arises. Yet in many circles digital artwork appears to be unwelcome and undervalued.

The network has long accepted and included the mechanical reproductions that Walter Benjamin saw as lacking the aura of a unique work of art. Mail Art has embraced printed copies be they photographs, screenprints, linocuts, colour photocopies or computer printouts, and is largely responsible for turning rubberstamps into an art form. Only black & white photocopies have been regularly damned for being too easy or impersonal (though gritty tonal copies from the 1980s have acquired a punk charm) and I am concerned should a similar prejudice be applied to a huge range of rich, creative work, irrespective of aesthetic and ideological worth, simply because it exists in digital form.

Several mailartists see the introduction of Email Art as affecting the balance of the Mail Art exchange, with digital work being regarded as an inadequate gift, valued less highly or even not at all. For some contributors the etiquette of Mail Art is transgressed when digital documentation is published online.

Paperless Exchange

Pete Spence, along with several other mailartists, objects to sending artwork snailmail for projects that only exhibit online, and is dismayed by the reduction in personal mailings and the lack of printed documentation which made each mailartists’ archive unique, “I refuse to do mail art where i have to post the work via snail mail but the Catalogue is on line! I'm also not interested in doing shows via sending work electronically. I enjoyed the wander down to the post office with a bundle of envelopes going off in different directions. I never believed in doing every mail art project (as some seem to!) so as mail costs rose I was more choosey of what I did, as for now I only do a few things. An important thing is being lost and that is the political event of the mail (designed envelopes/artists stamps etc) moving around in a space between the sender and receiver. Then the catalogues in the mail becoming the mail artist's personal archive, all archives I would think are fairly different given each mail artist works with a different list than another, though most would touch each other at some time in their networking!”

Other mailartists too don't post artwork to projects that only publish works online, feeling that it is not a fair exchange. Rod Summers writes, “I find myself reluctant to answer email requests that offer 'on-line' documentation in exchange for mail that must come through the postal service.” Despite a staunch preference for paper, Anna Banana concedes that accepting Email Art contributions would redress the perceived imbalance, “I agree it's NOT FAIR for someone to disseminate an invitation to a mail-art project by email, then to reject receiving works by email… and they no doubt are the ones who then create their "catalogue" on a web site or blog.” And faced with the high costs of postal services and printing, even Anna is reluctantly having to consider going email with her celebrated Banana Rag.

I can’t believe that Pete’s notion of ‘the political event’ occurring between networkers need be any less meaningful for being conducted via the internet, or even that the individual personality of each mailartist’s archive will necessarily be diminished by creating archives digitally. The paperless archive offers practical advantages in terms of storage but would require artists to accept and value ‘art without the artifact’, and for our conception of email to transcend its crude beginnings and unpleasant associations with spam and computer viruses, to make the email attachment as welcome as the postcard. Such a shift of consciousness would not serve to replace traditional Mail Art (just as television didn’t replace radio, nor radio replace books), it would complete Mail Art’s acceptance of the internet, increase the choices available to mailartists and properly accommodate those who work on screen.

The Best of Both Worlds

Although Günther Ruch considers himself old-fashioned and values personal collaborations with other artists above all, he has been tempted to contribute to Email Art shows in recent years. And Sean Woodward writes, “I must admit to having a mixed view about digital vs mailart. The majority of work I create is done digitally but I've always enjoyed receiving good art in the post - the tactile nature of artist books and artistamps especially.” Martha Aitchison is similarly ambivalent, “I have been producing eMailArt for years now, but always keeping the SnailMailArt on the go as well. As posting is getting so expensive I wonder how long it will survive. I will not be able to give up paper and paints entirely though.”

Several other mailartists express a strong preference for paper-based exchange yet have also drifted into digital, either for the obvious reasons of convenience and cost-effectiveness, or for email’s suitability to a particular project. Jürgen Olbrich prefers to work with physical materials but states, “I can accept it all, I just feel that displaying any kind art on a computer is not the "real" thing for me. But no problem, if someone wants a mail-art-project just to be in/on the computer, that is one option. Most things can easily exist alongside each other, and there are some things that just exist best in a specific medium.”

This openness is one of the most endearing characteristics of Mail Art, and while nobody can tell artists (of all people) what they should find fascinating, I would argue that it is within the inclusive spirit of networking to allow those artists who wish to contribute digitally to do so on equal footing. HR Fricker would rather not use the term Mail Art, “As you know I always preferred the term NETWORK or NETWORKING since we use the internet too.”

Carla Cryptic, another artist that uses both postal service and email exchanges, writes, “I've been open to both for years”, and points out that for project organizers printed documentation which includes everyone’s art is prohibitively expensive, “The printing costs plus the mailing costs added up to quite a lot. What I would do is save up for a couple or three years to be able to send out the kind of docs I wanted to produce.“ By contrast, publishing online documentation may lack the personal touch of a postal delivery, but it does routinely do each contributor the honour of including every submission without adding to the financial burden on project organizers.

It is sometimes overlooked that digital work can be just as demanding and time-consuming as using traditional materials. Some artists unfairly consider online documentation and Email Art as easy options and might even regard as lazy or second-rate artists who simply prefer to spend their time creating rather than joining the queues at the Post Office. Vittore Baroni believes the network is actually becoming less open with an ominous tendency to divide into factions, “It would be great to see a more active exchange of experiences between young digital networkers and what is left of the postal art network. People tend to close themselves into tribal communities, mail art practitioners as a whole do not seem to mingle that much with net.artists, hackers, social networkers and the like.”

Despite the misgivings of some mailartists, I am more convinced than ever that actively encouraging Email Art participation in Mail Art projects is the best way to keep the network open and pulling together. It’s time for project organizers to acknowledge a fundamental contradiction in that all too often repeated line, “Technique: free, no e-mail-contributions please”.

Come Together

Fortunately many artists are genuinely impartial about the medium as long as the message gets through and welcome a Mail Art that is evolving to include Email Art. Ken B. Miller writes, “I've always tried to give email contributions equal standing with my projects, mainly because I think it's easier for the organizer. I still love the tactile feel of paper too. I think they both have a place in mail art.” Terry Reid puts it in a nutshell, “Any fuel, I say, when you are attempting to light a fire.” Rod Summers comments, “When I think about it, I apply the same criteria to both forms... if I fancy the subject I respond, if I don't I doesn't.”

And Guy Bleus adds his voice, “The inclusion of e-mail art into mail art and the Eternal Netland is inevitable. Since the rise of fax-art and later on email-art, I've always treated these electronic works with the same respect as the postal mail art works.” Maurizio Follin expresses a similar view, “I think mail art and e-mail art are two different forms of communication, but very close and of equal dignity.”

Steve Random now favours Email Art because of the increasing inconvenience of traditional mail, “Bowdoinham Maine (Steve’s old home town) was a town of a few hundred and I had great access to the postal system, ironic that I live in the capital city of Raleigh and it's nearly impossible to get to the post office, ridiculous hours during the week and only open 2 hours at a far away office on Saturday. I won't even go into recent restrictions on postal formats and weights. I think we are on the proverbial same electronic page when it comes to mail art and email art. Email art is so convenient.”

Jim Leftwich has also become an advocate of Email Art, finding trips to the post office increasingly unpleasant and expensive, “I've been doing exhibits of mail art here in Roanoke for the last 4 or 5 years, mostly as a way of giving the idea of networking a presence in the local community, so it's been useful to have physical pieces. At the same time I've been advocating email art, largely because my experiences with the post office have followed a trajectory similar to what you describe. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I went to the post office almost every day. In recent years I've been less and less able to afford that, and I've found the experience of being at the post office less and less enjoyable.”

Michael Lumb suggests times have changed, “I would agree that there is something magical about receiving things through the snailmail but that relates to an earlier time both in the development of mailart and of technology which has made snailmail financially unattractive and in terms of speed, and has opened up dynamically interesting and constantly evolving electronic possibilities.”

Email is already being widely used to disseminate Mail Art calls and to share information. Mail Art websites and blogs proliferate and project documentation is increasingly likely to be published online. It is now time to complete the equation and widen project calls to include mailartists who wish to participate via email.

Mail Art and Email Art are two sides of the same coin, smelted from the same sense of global community. They belong together and should stand together as equals. So, to promote inclusivity and push for universal acceptance, I’m starting to send Email Art contributions to postal projects that are publicized by email or include an information email address in the invitation, especially where calls specify ‘no e-mail contributions’. I’ll expect to be omitted from the documentation, but as Norman ‘Mr Postcards’ Solomon stamped, “Obscurity is its own reward”, and at least I’ll have made the point.

Anyone for mass action?

Obscurity is its own reward