Mail-Interview with Jonathan Stangroom
Started on: 4-2-1996
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 2-3-1996
JS : Thank you for the invitation to your interview. I've been aware of mail art since my art school days, in the early seventies. I liked the ideas of collaboration and networking (although I doubt that they called it that back then). I liked that it occured outside the mainstream art world.....in the elusive underground. Unfortunately, I didn't have an address to mail to! That's not entirely true. In 1972 or so, under the pseudonym "The Guardians of Good Taste of North America," in collaboration with Liz Hardy a mail box/safe deposit box was reserved in a Canadian project conducted by Image Bank (I may be wrong about the sponsor).
To my knowledge nothing was ever deposited in this box and apart from the confirmation of our box reservation, no mail was generated. I continued to send creative mail (outside of the network) throughout the 70's and into the 80's. On returning to the states after a year in India (where the mail became an even greater force in my life) my ex-wife put me in touch with Kate Lanxner (whom I think once interviewed you, dear Ruud). She, in turn, introduced me to RUBBERSTAMPMADNESS as a source for mail art possibilities. Here, I found an entrance to the network. At this time I was experimenting with the copy machines at my brother's printing shop and produced artworks for Lancillotto Bellini's "The Artist's Family." Other early (for me) projects that I participated in were Jenny de Groot's "Transport/Transportation" and Pascal Lenoir's "Mani Art."
The documentation from these yielded some of my dearest and most consistant contacts. I have to admit that in the beginning I didn't have a clue what was expected from me (that's the way I thought). I was a bit shy about it. Once I was into the network the mail came and I've been involved since.
Alternative answer : 1987-88
RJ : Do you know now what is expected from you?
JS : I suppose I know that nothing specific is expected. In those early days I hadn't seen much mail art and didn't know what it looked like. It is often said that to understand mail art one has to participate.... until I became involved I didn't realize the possibilities or understand the breadth of the network.
Although, I decided early on to use my real name rather than hide behind a pseudonym, I considered my early mail art to be quite seperate from my painting and other artwork. Over the years this seperation has all but disappeared and I've embraced many of the anti-art establishment concepts that I've encountered in the network. I am no longer so keen to sell my artwork and have become rather particular about how it is presented. (This may be a result of my close work with galleries and art consultants). I've learned that money is not the only gauge of value.... the exchange, the gift is equally enriching. In the meantime my work has matured. My involvement in the network has coincided with my development as a copier artist, original copies being the bulk of the mail art that I send. I also send stampings, collages and the occasional drawing or painting.... usually with a chatty letter. I sometimes create works to address the theme of a particular project (this is expected) but more often than not I already have something lying around that is appopriate.
There is still the odd piece of mail that comes in that I don't understand! Documentation is another story.... decent documentation of a project is not only expected but required. At this point, I've been involved long enough to not have to worry about what's expected from me.... I work to send quality artwork..... I expect the same.
RJ : You mention your development as a copier artist. One might think that it is just a quick way to make an original by putting something on the xerox-machine. How do you go about when you want to make an "original copy"?
Reply on 26-4-1996
JS : I don't see anything wrong with making art quickly.... athough my work isn't produced quite as fast as it might seem. I use the copy machine as both a camera (photo) and a printing device (copy). It's another tool that the artist can create with. My work generally employs "direct imaging" that is, I place real, three-dimensional objects on the platen to create a tableau. I rarely make editions of given prints as I'm constantly refining the composition. The objects are sometimes manipulated during the course of the copying process to incorporate aspects of time and movement.... these copies are always unique.
Sometimes I approach the machine with a specific image in mind and bring the appropriate materials (I often use the supermarket as my art supply store). Other times I work with whatever is lying about.... always looking for objects that you're "not supposed" to put on a copy machine. Every new object is an experiment with the limited depth of field. The methods of working are different for the different machines that I use. The color machine makes six passes in the photo mode to make an image, allowing for manipulation between colors. I often create the background colors directly on the machine. Placing and removing a white sheet of paper at the proper intervals during the copying process can produce a specific color. The black and white machine makes only one pass, which allows for bolder movements of the subject. Another machine that I use has four seperate cartridges that print one color at a time. Both this and the black and white machine allow you to send a copy back through the machine for overprinting. Working in this manner takes knowledge of the machine and practice. One has to work with the rhythm of the machine.
I've collaborated with other copier artists (most notably, Reed Altemus and M. Greenfield) and enjoy that process very much. My brothers have a printing business and for a while they had a store that offered copying servives... I could use their machines as I liked. Important, as I doubt that I would get a good response if I handed a fish over the counter to a technician. It took some time before I felt that I knew what I was doing. When they dismantled the store I bought a black & white machine from them (not working atthe moment)... they kept the color machine which I still travel to use. The color machine is now housed in a shop that is shared by the printing press and my father's woodworking tools (he's a wood carver)... there's a wealth of materials here. The "ORIGINAL" and "COPY" stamps that I use were found in an office supply store and seemed appropriate after a discussion with András Voith. Although we call the images that are made on a photocopier copies, I don't consider my work to be copies in the sense of reproduction... the copy is the original.
RJ : You just finished one of your mail art projects. How many have you done so far and what was this last one about?
Reply on 24-6-1996
JS : I'm far from finished....the latest project is "The found Sketchbook". I sent a call asking for found drawings, sketches or doodles. The response was pretty good, just over 100 participants. Some fine work....of course, my favorites are the truly found pieces. Tire marks, footprints and grit adding to the authenticity. They came from the street, peoples cupboards, trash bins....I even received several complete sketchbooks! I plan to create the documentation in the form of a real sketchbook....spiral bound at the top, etc. The work on this has been going exceedingly slow due to financial and personal difficulties...it will get done. There is also the possibilty of me trying to find a space for an exhibition of the work....but the catalogue has to be made first.
My first real project was the "Found Photo Album". During 1991 I asked for found photographs and produced an album including at least one photo from each of the 140+ participants. These too, were found in many ways "from found in the street to found in an underwater camera on the beach, from people's cupboards to errors from the processors" and there was a great wealth of subject matter. There was no exhibition and the whole project was conducted through the mail. A successful and very satisfying endeavor. I've heard that college instructors actually use it as an example!
During 1992-93 I had a call out on the theme of Multiculturalism and in June of 1993 mounted an exhibition at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston (which has a large multicultural student body). An interesting and varied show that introduced me to several now regular correspondents. One terrific result of this exhibition was that Angela & Peter Netmail used the documentation to contact and meet Wahyuni Kamah in Indonesia, inviting her to a stamp-carving workshop. Networking at it's finest.
Conducting a decent mail art project is expensive and time consuming. Postage alone (both for calls and sending out the documentaton) can easily be a couple hundred dollars. Printing is expensive even though my brothers give me a break and I do most of the repetitive, labor-intensive tasks. Good documentation is essential, though.... and I've found it worth the effort.
RJ : It seems that both in your copy art and in your projects you like to use the found objects or stimulate other artists to go and look for items that they can find somewhere out there. Did you ever think of the reason why you choose these 'found' items.....?
reply on 24-7-1996
JS : The "Found Photo Album" was prompted by R.K. Courtney, of Iowa City, who was collecting found notes for an as yet unrealised project. I had sent him some photos that I had found, telling him how much I enjoyed finding them. He suggested that I put out a call and do something with it. I did.
I, of course, was aware of Duchamp's use of the found object as well as Rauschenberg's and others. During the course of this first project I also became acquainted with Bern Porter's use of "founds". My enthusiasm for the found item is a bit different though. I'm interested in the deliberately made image that's not intended to be a work of art... but which, by it's very existance, is as valid as any museum piece. Real art by real people. The fact that we don't know the authors of most of this material or its original intent doesn't alter the aesthetic response. Presented in a formal manner (either in book form or as framed pieces on a wall) the items are no different than any other artwork. The Found Photo Album is as interesting as any family album when we try to discover the meaning of the events photographed. The Found Sketchbook should provide a similar experience to that of looking through any collection of drawings as we respond to the quality of line, composition, etc.
I don't think of the objects that I use in my copier work to be "found". Even if I'm using items at hand.... they're carefully selected for content and visual strength. Banal items, yes... but I think that I'm working in a Dada/Fluxus mode that gives equal weight to all objects/subjects.... "anti-aesthetic", Reed Altemus calls it.... I'm not sure that I agree with him. Regardless, the objects are considered before I use them and not randomly chosen.
RJ : This expression "I'm working in a Dada/Fluxus mode....." is quite interesting. What does Dada and Fluxus mean to you?
reply on 18-9-1996
JS : Both Dada and Fluxus are quite well documented art movements. Dada evolved as a reaction to the First World War and was based on the premise that the war had made aesthetic values meaningless. Considered and chosen utilitarian objects were instilled with the same value as "fine art" objects. Fluxus occured during the early sixties, and pushed the ideas of Dada a bit farther. Everyday activities were orchestrated to become works of art, proclaiming that everyone is an artist and narrowing the gap between art and life. The focus was social rather than aesthetic. Working outside of the "official" art world they challenged the "art as commodity" norm. This is a very basic description of two art movements that confronted very complex issues.
So, when I state that "I think that I'm working in a Dada/Fluxus mode...." all I really mean is that I'm using the commonplace object as the subject of my artwork, using what's at hand. I'm making art from everyday life in the belief that these simple objects / subjects require contemplation and offer numerous interpretations. Art is a reaction to being human and ultimately it doesn't matter what I put on the machine to photocopy.... it's the fact that I'm doing it that's important.
RJ : Thanks for this short explanation. The envelopes I receive from you are always quite recognizable. The handstamped address is always there. Any specific reason for this typical use of rubber stamps?
Reply on 9-10-1996
(Together with Jonathan's answer he sent 58 color copy-art works, which will be included in the final printed version of the interview as an example of his work)
JS : When I started out I tried to collage all of the addresses.... this quickly became too time consuming. I acquired this great rubber stamp alphabet and found that the scale was perfect for the 6"x9" envelopes that I use (the envelope is just the right size to send an 11"x17" photocopy with two folds). The activity of stamping the envelopes is a pleasant respite from my other endeavors. I do tend to use consistant formats and this is one of them. Being easily recognizable doesn't hurt, but at this point it's as much a habit as anything. Lately, I've been thinking that the addresses are looking rather dull. The yellow envelopes that I used to use are no longer available.... the white ones seem stark. I may experiment with some kind of background. but the rubber stamping will continue. (I'm still looking for a set of numbers that matches the smaller alphabet that I have).
RJ : Over the years you must have received lots of mail art. Do you keep all you receive? How does your 'archive' look like?
Reply on 18-11-1996
JS : I just spent twenty minutes looking for your question....this may give you an idea about the state of things around here. It's a bit embarrassing. Yes, I keep most everything that comes in. Unfortunately, I'm a very sloppy archivist. Before I moved to this house everything was pretty much under control. I had a file cabinet close at hand and periodically things would be put in order. Upon moving the file cabinet ended up in the attic (where my new studio is slowly nearing completion) and I've been working in a 6x9 foot room for the past two years. A token attempt was made at bringing a small file box in, to deal with my more active correspondents. It didn't really help and has recently been sent to the attic in anticipation of my move upstairs. At the moment, as I sit at the computer, on the desk to my left is a 5 inch stack of supposedly current mail.... a little excavation reveals an old Global mail, Greenfield's interview booklet and a picture of an ex-wife's kids from years ago. Next is the computer festooned with unpaid bills and photographs atop the monitor and various calls for artwork and other ephemera tucked beneath the keyboard. As we look right there's an ashtray, a pile of rubber stamps and ink pads, my checkbook, photographs and a hole puncher. At the far end is another stack of mail, photocopies, potential collage debris and a 1988 Michelin guide to Great Britain. On the floor under the desk, starting at the right, as a pile of stuff that the cat knocked over while making a nest, jig-saw puzzles and other collage material, boxes containing mail art compilation zines, under my feet is another box of rubber stamps and to my left is a stack of atlases and a waste basket with collage material balanced on top. There are shelves that hold mail art books, computer manuals and various office supplies. A stool holds a big stack of photocopies and a book about Fluxus. In back of me are several wallpaper sample books, empty frames and boxes. It's worse than it sounds. Barely room to move. Soon this should change. The studios upstairs is almost ready.... a little more taping, trim out the window and doors and paint it. I'll move my piles of stuff up, organizing on the way. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep things in order.... that's the plan. Oh yeah, there are several boxes upstairs containing the "Multiculturalism" show. One of these days I have to put it back together and ship it off to someone who's doing a better job at this.
RJ : Do you think that keeping all this mail art is an important part of mail art? What normally happens is that only the 'good' things are kept in a collection, and that the 'bad' things are thrown away. What is your opinion?
reply on 10-1-1997
JS : Good question. I don't know. Obviously, I want to keep the work of my favorite correspondents. I'm not sure that I'm the one to judge what's 'good' or 'bad' . Most of the mail that I get is sent with a sincerity that transcends 'good' or 'bad' . There are pieces that I don't respond to.... keep them or not.... it's a dilemma. Today I received two postcards among the mail. One was from a regular corresponondent from Indonesia.... an address change with a note saying that she enjoys my mail (I'm remiss). The other was from Holland.... telling me that the sender was back into the network. Will I save them? Probably. They illustrate part of the process. That might be important. Can I find them? Maybe not. Mark Greenfield says he recycles all of his mail, adding that he keeps all my letters.... I can't be the only one that he saves. Robin Crozier saves every bit of mail art that he receives... it's a remarkable collection.... has he thrown things away? Probably. You'd never know it. Maybe that's one of the reasons that I keep all this stuff. If I didn't, there would be no record of what happened. Is that important? I don't know. I do refer to it all from time to time.... just to see what I've been up to. Sure, I throw things away... they sit around for a while before I do it. Calls for work that I never got around to doing.... other odd bits and scraps that I don't understand eventually get tossed. My personal network is fairly small and I value most everything that I receive, therefore I save it. I have no specific plans for this collection. When it comes time, I hope that I can find a suitable home for it.... it provides a good study of one small corner of our network.
RJ : You mention two english mail artists in your answer and I know you recently visited England as well. How different is meeting a mail artist compaired to writing to a mail artist?
next answer on 19-4-1997
(Stangroom's answer came from West-London, England)
JS : It's great to meet these people that I've been corresponding and collaborating with. I'm not sure what the differences are...... obviously you're connecting in a different format. I suppose there are certain apprehensions and a kind of curiosity in anticipation of a meeting. For the most part I've known the mail artists that I've met for a long time through the mail. We've known each other well before meeting in person. There aren't many surprises.I recognized Greenfield, as he waited on the steps of the Tate, by his rubberstamp self-portrait! There are some exeptions. I had not been in contact with Peter & Angela Netmail when they came through in 1992. I was enlisted to drive them from Boston up to Carlo Pittore's in Maine. They were delightful and I had the privilege to witness an over the top post office performance as Peter franked some 200 artist stamps surrepetitously while doing other postal business. We chatted mail art gossip for the whole ride. We still have very little mail contact.
Another exception would be András Voith of Hungary. We'd been corresponding for some time, though we hadn't traded many personal details. In 1993 he hosted an exhibition of my copier work and I traveled to Debrecen to attend the opening and do a copier performance. I really had no idea who I'd be meeting. He turned out to be half my age, but ever so capable. It was a terrific opening and a fine visit. He took great care of me. Since then he has visited me in the States, unfortunately I wasn't able to spend the time with him that he had spent with me in Hungary. We're still good friends, although the mail has fallen off during the past year.
This one on one kind of personal meeting is different than meeting in groups. I've been involved in a handful of group meetings at Crackerjack Kid's , Carlo Pittore's and at Printed Matter in New York. With a group the energy is spread through out the crowd...not that these meetings are less significant than the one on one, but these usually have more structure and the interaction is less intense. (Of course, this is the case whether it be mail artists or some other similarly focused group.)
Mail art, by its nature is a social activity....and to me, meeting with these people is a natural development. Maybe I'm lucky.... I haven't met a bad one yet!
RJ : To my surprise your answer came from London (England) this time. Any mail-art meetings this time? Have you experienced something 'typically Britisch' while you were there?
next answer on 2-10-1997
JS : You examine your mail very closely...good! (I guessed that you did). The last question was answered and enveloped here at home, then mailed from London on a recent trip that I made with my father. He had spent some time there as a kid but hadn't been back to England since 1941.... I'd been over a couple of times last year and he became interested in returning. I had a free companion ticket thanks to American Express and Virgin Atlantic and off we went.
Yes, I had a 'typically' Britisch experience this trip, as we did a lot of the tourist thing.... changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace...... pigeons on Trafalgar Aquare.... that sort of thing. We did visit for an hour or so with Michael Leigh and spent the better half of a day with David Dellafiora who also introduced us to Patricia Collins and Peter Liversidge. I wasn't able to visit with Robin Crozier, but did phone him.... he's adjusting to retirement from his teaching job. All, great people and devoted mail artists.
Dad and I get along fine, but we'd never spent that kind of time alone together.... ever. It was also Dad's first flight! We've got different interests but seem to be able to accommodate each other. I was delighted when a guard at the National Gallery came over to reprimand Dad for getting too close to a painting.... he'd been enthusiastically gesturing and poiting as he described how he liked the piece (a skating scene from the Netherlands!). He's also participated in his first mail art project.... something that Peter Liverslidge is working on. No special "male bonding" took place.... we did not tell each other dark secrets nor make up for past differences. We just went on holiday and dealt with the issues at hand.
So the trip was a success, Dad got to visit some of his old haunts (we found the house where he'd lived in 1936) and got to catch up with my friends.
RJ : When people get in touch with mail art and start to be a mail artists it is in the beginning just like a 'small hobby'. For some the mail art then takes over more and more of their lives , also their social lives. In how far is you mail art integrated with your daily life?
(since the next answer took some time I resent the question again. Only years later I refound Stangroom’s e-mail address and sent him the complete interview again with the latest question. I told him I am finishing up the mail-interview project)
Next answer on 23-3-2001
JS : To start with I have never considered mail art to be a “hobby”. The term implies an activity that is done for relaxation…. something that kills time. From the beginning mail art has been much more important than that for me. I’m an artist…. That defines me and the artwork that I produce for the mail is every bit as considered as my painting and other art activities. My contacts have become true friends, both those that I’ve met and those that I haven’t. I consider them to be collegues on the same level as the artists that I work and socialize with daily. Maybe more so since we work in the same realm.
Thank you, Ruud for e-mailing me in regard to finishing this project. The above part of the reply to your last question has been in my computer since 1998!
Since that time I’ve moved house twice… the first move had me camped out in a friends painting studio for a year. I was quite depressed and did very little mail-art, keeping in touch with only a very few of my contacts. In September of 1998 I again visited the UK, assisting with the installation of my friend, Robert Richfield’s photography exhibition in Scarborough. I again met with the Croziers and WACK, who was living in David Dellafiora’s old flat (Dellafiora had by then moved to Australia).
In January of 1999 Reed Altemus and I journeyed down to New York to see the Ray Johnson retrospective at the Whitney and to attend the opening of the Bay Area Dadaists show at Printed Matter where I again met Buz Blurr, John Held Jr., Picasso Gaglione, Mark Bloch, Mel and Mark Corroto among others.
For the next year I did very little mail-art. In October of 1999 I again moved to a new flat…. A bit more civilized than the painting studio. I slowly began working my way back into the mail-art network. I’m still not as active as I was in my heyday, but I am making new contacts, reestablishing old ties and sending to projects. Thank you again for prodding me to complete this interview.
RJ : Thanks for this answer! I myself also had some changes oin my life and therefore am finishing of this project. Thanks for the complete interview. Now others can read it as well.
243 School St. #1
Somerville, MA 02145
Adres interviewer :
P.O.Box 103885000 JJ Tilburg