Mail-Interview with Michael Lumb
Started on: 24-11-1994
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: 02-12-1994
ML : Hope I pass your test with my answer! It is, of course, an extract from the thesis. Tomorrow I will see my tutor & find-out whether I have to re-write everything - I sincerely hope not!!
(Michael Lumb sent the text "MAIL-ART, A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION", which you will find as an appendix to this interview. It tells about how Michael got involved in the Mail-Art network and what his first projects were).
RJ : A mail-interview is not a test, but if you see it like that I must say you passed perfectly with this long answer. You are now working quite some time on this thesis, and the research you are doing is the main reason why I started this interview with you. Can you tell me first the main reason why you are writing this thesis? Is it just for graduating, or is there more to it?
Reply on : 12-12-1994
ML : Thanks. Glad I passed, perhaps I see all of life as a test! Your next question is perhaps personal though I think I quite like the distance/personal/warmth relationship. My reasons are perhaps boring to mail-artists. Firstly I feel that there is no existing thorough history and current survey/assessment/critical appraisal and I wanted to write it. Secondly my institution is putting pressure on staff to improve their qualifications and this seemed to be an ideal opportunity to combine the two and get professional guidance with research methods and writing techniques. I hope eventually to get the support of my institution to publish the book & produce an exhibition of examples plus a 'teaching pack' video.
RJ : Could a thesis on mail-art be written by somebody who isn't doing mail-art, and could a thesis about mail-art be understood by somebody who isn't participating in the mail-art network?
Reply on : 23-12-94
ML : Complex. Define a thesis! - Lets take it to be a PhD (100.000 words) thesis. The simple answer to both questions must of course be yes. I must also assume that you mean a thesis of minimum 'Pass' quality. A great deal of a thesis is demonstrating the ability to produce a cogent argument. The subject matter should be written by someone with real enthusiasm for the material and this, in the case of mail art must mean a networker of some years experience. If it is 'properly' written it should easily be understood by anyone but there is no substitute for first-hand experience in everything/anything.
RJ : Let's go back to mail-art. Most mail-artists know of the starting and Ray Johnson's role in this. But mail-art itself is changing over the years very rapidly. The new change is the E-mail services. Will this new communication form take over the traditional mail and also the mail-art?
Reply on : 4-1-1995
ML : My impression is that most mail artists do not know of Ray Johnson! However, I would agree that mail art is changing and has changed. I think I would prefer to refer to mail art networking as distinct from a necessarily conceptual (and enquiring) approach to mail art.
Mail art is primarily concerned with communication. E-mail permits the fulfillment of this. It is also important that mail art should be egalitarian, E-mail is a very long way from becoming egalitarian both in its availability and its expense.
This question could perhaps also relate to the future of books, - part of the pleasure of books is being able to read them in bed, on the train, on the beach. Technology will no doubt permit this in time but it will never be able to replace the tactile quality of a book that is also a fundamental pert of the pleasure of mail art. Technology is the way forward for reference material and that also has a part to play in mail art - I would answer this by E-mail if I had access to it for example.
It has been suggested that video (in your home) will replace traditional art. I believe painting; sculpture; photography; printmaking to be dead as vehicles for original creativity. However, the event of going to a gallery still has a function if only active and social (as opposed to unhealthy couch-patato) and single screen video; computer; holography, even virtual reality can not replace the time and travel experience of a multi-media installation.
I therefore see a future that is inclusive rather than exclusive and is therefore pluralistic. The same arguments would seem to me to apply to E-mail and mail art.
As for traditional mail, one might have expected the telephone (in the future the videophone) to have replaced letter writing but again, letter writing can express things that the telephone can not; for example formality. Above all, letter writing is an art, a craft with its individual expressions. This could be carried by E-mail but the personality of the sender in terms of choice of paper, envelopes, handwriting etc. All allow expression that E-mail does not. Further, the lack of immediacy of the letter has advantages as well in terms of consideration of suitable reply. Again, the answer must be in plurality.
RJ : I must say I agree for a large part with your views. Mail art just depends on the tools (paper, pen, computer, stamps, paint, xerox-machine, etc.) the artists has at hand. What tools do you prefer the most in your mail art?
Reply on : 11-1-1995
ML : When you ask me what tools I prefer most in my mail art, I am instantly faced with a problem, because in their use I have no preference for any tools. I do not gain any pleasure at all from making art. For me the pleasure is in developing the idea and having the completed work. If I could, I would have an assistant to produce all my work to my designs. I do not however agree that mail art 'just depends on the tools' and suspect that you were being provocative in writing that. To me the medium is irrelevant, it is the content that is important. I am not clear as to the intentions of your question, it feels as though the question is about my own working habits, and the answer to that would be very long and complex indeed. Superficially, the answer relates to my interest in the working habits of the great British writer, Anthony Burgess who wrote a fugue every morning (he had trained as a composer), I have in many ways approached mail art in the same way, as an exercise in creativity, an adjunct to my other creative work and teaching; an exercise in creativity and communication. It naturally follows that I have frequently used rubber stamps because of their immediacy, given a number of stamps that reflect my thinking and creative areas of interest. I particularly enjoy responding to projects that I have already explored as part of my own work and can respond to the request with a photocopy or copy from an edition of a work produced by me at an earlier time. Whatever, I certainly do not recognize a higherarcy of materials or techniques, it is the level of communication that is important.
RJ : This level of communication is an interesting thing. Communication means that there is an interaction, in this case between the artists. Could you tell what you see as 'levels' in this communication, and is it that some levels have certain consequences for you? Can it become more than 'an exercise in creativity and communication' as you call it?
Reply on : 25-01-1995
ML: For me interaction is of paramount importance. Networking frequently is much more than an exercise, but identification of precisely what it is, is very subjective. The levels of communication refer to the degree to which two people are communicating anything meaningful to one another and ultimately, as you imply the affect that that communication may have on the life of one or both of them. It would be possible to list all the ways in which mail art may give that value added something. This will differ for different people at different times in different places and different situations. Primarily, it must be the global importance of peoples understanding each other more. The importance to the individual is in realizing that she or he is not alone in this world of fears, worries, trials and tribulations. There is no hierarchy of medium, technique or image, purely the way in which the communicated affects the receiver, and this might even dispense with mail art per se and simply be a very personal letter but remains mail art networking because the communication is within the context of the mail art network. This communication does not have to be personal however; the anonymous pass‑on may bring humor, warmth or optimism to the receiver at a critical moment and so becomes effective.
RJ : This diversity in mail art is probably the most interesting aspect of it. Sometimes mail-artists go in a specific direction after 'doing the net' for a while. Others become addicted to this diversity. How is this for you?
Reply on : 4-2-1995
ML: I am not aware of a direction that is affected by the Network and certainly no deliberate decisions. I do however have certain parameters, specifically that I am not in a position to spend much money on mail art and certainly am not in favor of any mail art that asks for money. I do not have much free time and so am not able at the moment to join any project that requires multiple copies.
I enjoy a variety of relationships with different networkers; those who make no pretence at producing mail art any more and simply send letters, those who are in very difficult times (e.g. Bosnia); those with whom I exchange a range of work, (bookarts, postcards, artistamps); those who send lively mail with projects that I can reply to fairly instantly and mostly those with whom I feel a spiritual affinity. I somehow feel that there is an essence to your question that I am missing, something implied about contacts that I am not understanding.
RJ : For me mail art brings new ideas, new contacts, not only 15 years ago, but still today. In a way I am addicted to this diversity that mail art brings. The essence is that this diversity now fits perfectly in my life and for some mail-artists 'doing mail-art' is just a part of their work. So to put the question more precise, has mail-art infiltrated in your life or is it a separate part?
Reply on : 9-2-1995
ML : This is a frighteningly complex and personal question but I will endeavour to answer it. Firstly, I am not at all sure about addictions, in some senses I do become addicted to things but on the other hand I can just as easily reject them and never look back, so I don't really know. I have no plans to stop networking. I am not sure whether addiction implies enjoyment and I am not really sure, if I am honest, what I enjoy and don't enjoy or why I do things. As an example, for about twenty years or more I drank alcohol every single day but three years or so ago I had an enlarged liver and so stopped for a month and now only drink at weekends (normally) but I am aware of trying to find some sort of reward from the alcohol. Perhaps it is like this with mail art, in that I am trying to find some sort of reward. I am a perfectionist and so consequently despise most things that I do and am disappointed by a great deal of that that I see.
To the second part of your question, whilst I am wary of frustrating you, I am not sure that I understand the question. In the sense that you have used it, I am not sure that I know what life is. Every morning, mail art is part of my routine before I go to work and when I return home if I haven't finished everything in the morning. There was a time, when my children were little that I quite literally involved my family in the production of my work, for instance, on a family Sunday walk, we would take my portable white canes and search for a suitable installation place in which to photograph them. But, perhaps this was egocentric. It feels as though the answer, or at least in part lies in my answer to your question about working practices. Attempting another tack, I do sometimes wonder, as a loner and with no one to share my art or interests with whether mail art is not my salvation and that without it I might go mad. I am a Nihilist and so it is difficult to find purpose and as an idealist, all to easy to destroy any proffered proof of purpose or value in life, but perhaps it could be said that mail art keeps me going. What is perhaps difficult for me is to sort out the truth in terms of the reality that I do enjoy some things, and certainly enjoy some mail art that I receive, but have very high ideals and so it is easy to objectively question a lot of the things that give me pleasure. Perhaps one of the advantages of mail art is that you can just get on with it and not think. Whilst I claim to be a Nihilist, I do nevertheless have a very strong need for spirituality, (one of the things that I loved about Poland) and abhor Capitalist Materialism, it is difficult to be optimistic in these times.
I have not commented on your point about new contacts; for me it is my link with other human beings and I suppose for that reason alone, is very important to me but it also feeds my idealism, in that there is always new hope with new networkers to postally‑meet.
I am avoiding the temptation to sum up this response, in a sense it shouldn't be because my answer must be complicate and even difficult and contradictorary.
RJ : Strangely enough the answer fits perfectly to the question, in lots of ways. But lets focus again on the history of mail-art. On your envelope the rubberstamps "40 years of -55-95- mail art" and "Ray Johnson 1927-1995" are mixed together. Do you have any predictions to what will happen to the mail-art network now Ray Johnson has died?
Reply on : 1-3-1995
ML: I don't really do predictions! However, it does seem to me difficult to imagine what could bring about an end to mail art, now that it has lasted four decades. A possibility of course is that the cost of postage could rise to such an extent that it becomes totally unviable, this seems highly unlikely to me though as I have faith in the need for people to send postcards home when they are on holiday and to send greetings cards. If the cost of postage were to prohibit this, it would also impact on the very lucrative and thriving Greetings Cards industry and this seems unlikely. Furthermore, whilst I am aware that in countries such as Estonia, networkers have already had drastically to reduce their mail art activity because of escalating postal costs, it also seems likely that as the tide of capitalism catches up with them, so also will the Greetings Card industry and a subsequent fall in the cost of postage. We have already debated the possible impact of technology on the future of mail art and to me it would seem that communication of the sort that mail art provides fulfills a basic need in people that in whatever way the world develops will never go away.
RJ : If everybody has a need for communication (which I think is true) then only a few of all people on earth have chosen the mail-art way. Who becomes a mail-artist? Is it all 'pure chance' that one stumbles on the network? If that is so, will the effect of the INTERNET on mail-art be that the mail-art network will grow even more. What do you think?
Reply on : 9-3-1995
ML : Gosh, what a question. This seems to require an exploration of one's own personal faith rather than a belief about mail art. To a degree, those who find‑out about mail art do so through chance but maybe there is a wider controlling force than just chance, I just don't know. Of course many people are aware of mail art but choose not to explore it. Of these no doubt some make the wrong decision for them in that they would enjoy it if they did pursue it. Is there something about the kind of person who is responsive to learning about things like mail art?‑ again I am unsure but it seems possible. Is the mailartist a type of person? If so I would like to identify that type for my thesis, although I am arguing that there is not a typical mailartist.
As for the expansion of the network through INTERNET, it seems highly likely, if only because any new chain of information must increase the numbers from a logical point of view. However, it would be useful in considering this question to be able to assess the affect of for example the mail art column in Artists Newsletter in Britain on the number of mailartists and to predict the rise of the INTERNET and the public that it will reach and by when. So, to summarize, the short answer is yes. A longer debate, based on research that would seem to be impossibly difficult given the nature of the mail art network would however be more interesting.
RJ : Even for two mail-artists is sometimes seems to be difficult to talk about the mail art network and what it is in their eyes. Did you succeed in explaining to your tutor what mail art is all about?
Reply on : 20-3-1995
ML: She hasn't asked me! That in itself is interesting because it suggests that people think they know what mail art is, but we networkers know that it is a very complex thing and one that evolves in ones understanding as one becomes more and more involved with an ever wider network. From the point of view of my thesis, she will judge me on the cogency of my argument so that she will assess whether I appear to have logically and thoroughly described mail art however, as she doesn't know what mail art is, she can only judge the cogency, not the accuracy of my description, always assuming that there is such a thing.
RJ : Well, I must say I am becoming more and more curious about the complete thesis, especially the part in which you will write about the years 1980 and lateron. The books I have seen so far show me obviously that the writers always are writing about their own network, and that every mail-artist has his/her own network in mail-art. Therefore every story will be different and only by knowing lots of stories one can find a common basis that is making us do this mail-art. In my eyes all mail-artists have something special that they are looking for which they can't find in their surroundings. Is this true? If so, what are you looking for?
Reply on: 3-5-1995
ML: Your question suggests others, for instance, how am I going to ensure that I do not simply write a personal account of mail art? Of course I cannot be sure but I will not be setting out to write the 'story' of mail art, rather to identify what it is, where it has come from and how it has evolved. From my vast bibliography, I feel as sure as possible that I will not simply tell my own story.
As for what I am looking for in mail art, I think it relates to my next performance, 'An Attempt At Survival In Alien Circumstances Too'. I think we are in alien circumstances and I am particularly aware, having just returned from New York, that there is a whole world 'out there' and I want to be a part of it. So, I want to try and survive and for that I need to communicate, I want to try and make sense of the world and I want to participate and have some fun. I want there to be serendipity in my life. Mail art seems to me to be the best way to satisfy all those needs especially as it is all things to all men.
RJ : We haven't discussed your performances yet. Could you describe what they are sometimes like?
Reply on : 12-5-1995
ML : I haven't written about them before so I find the question interesting but one that could result in an extremely long essay if I am not careful. The background interests me in that my Mother was a dancer, my paternal Grandfather a priest and my Father a teacher: all what could be perceived to be performance professions. My early thoughts were of being an actor but I changed and did a degree in theatrical design. I then spent five years in television, giving it up to start an arts center. Throughout this time I continued to produce my own work and realized that fine art was what I should be doing full‑time as far as was possible. In May 1968 I wrote my first performance pieces, "The Darkness Concert" these involved dance, music, silence and a cat, as yet they are unperformed. The major part of my work at that time centered around experimental painting but in the early seventies changed to a much more social form of art that took the artist (me) out of the studio and involved other people going about their daily lives and no longer involved paint.
In 1991 I began a series of photoworks using my own body to explore issues that whilst specific to me, I felt had universal application. In the mail art network I produced the work Madonna and Child, asking networkers to send me a Madonna and Child in return I sent it back with my face superimposed on that of the child as well as photo‑copies of those that others had sent me and full documentation of the project. I did not explain that the purpose was for me to try and experience what it would have been like to have been cuddled as a child.
In 1993 I made my first visit to Poznan, Poland where I had two wonderful weeks with no responsibilities at the Summer Academy and produced my first performance video (I had previously produced my first video artwork in 1983) this was a harrowing piece entitled, 'Rebirth' which was an improvised work where by I methodically removed my clothes, laboriously folding them and then, in the foetal position, tied myself up with string until I was in considerable pain, I then released myself, rubber‑stamping my forehead with the word 'Rebirth'. The following year (1994) I returned to Poznan as a visiting professor and made the video‑performance work 'Pathway'. In this I tied chairs to my leg until I was unable to proceed and fell over, finally collapsing under the weight. This work made use of English language in that I tied the chairs to me and that related to family ties, however it is important to state that I deliberately returned to pickup extra chairs, indicating that the ties were of my own volition.
In the winter of 1994 I made a performance in Ipswich, entitled 'Ambition', this was intended to be an 8 hour performance but because of technical problems (the threat of a severed central heating pipe) I had to abandon it after 5 hours. This work consisted of my attempt to produce a construction out of string that would enable me to reach the ceiling. (I was not permitted to make a rope ladder). During this I engaged in debate with the visitors to the performance about the nature of ambition and the pitfalls.
In May 1995 I made my latest performance, this was of 8 hours duration, with no breaks, and consisted of me dressed in black and white with a bowl of water and a bowl of flour, making paste and tearing images out of a vast pile of newspapers and sorting them out into categories and pasting them to the wall, using nothing but my hands. The work, making reference to the important English performance artist, Stuart Brisley, was entitled, 'An attempt at Survival in Alien Circumstances Too.' At the end of the performance, I scattered the remaining flour and water on the large residue of newspapers and emptied the dregs over my head, falling prone over the papers. Throughout the performance I talked in a fairly low volume about the images but communicated with no one.
My next, projected, performance is to be entitled, 'Pressing Engagement' and will consist of me wedged between a column of newspapers and a beam in the roof of the gallery, 10m up in the gallery for two hours, apparently naked. There will be no dialogue.
I did not plan to move into performance but it feels right at the moment, I can't predict the future but it certainly solves the problem of the marketable commodity in a market that I have serious concerns about.
RJ : In the beginning of the interview you said "I see all of life as a test". Is a performance a kind of test for you?
Reply on 22-5-1995 (disk)
ML: Gosh, what a thought, the answer, spontaneously is yes, but also about survival, clearly, by the fact that I still exist, I am a survivor. Fundamentally, I believe that art must communicate, that is why mail art is so wonderful, in that there is guaranteed communication, and I want to share my experiences with other people, hopefully, if they can identify with any of my pain, they might realize that they are not alone. This appears to be moving off the point of your question, I must ask myself, what are the tests that I am setting myself?
To begin with, undertaking a performance is a test in itself. For me everything that I do is judged (not least by my own harsh standards that always finds everything wanting) but also by those outside. So often with a preview people comment on the wine, ask after your family but never comment on the work. It is really good in the network when you receive feedback on something that you have sent, for example I was extremely nervous about my 'birth canal stamps', I was worried that they would be misinterpreted as being pornographic but felt that I had to make them. The feedback was the most positive I have ever received from the most number of people who happened to be predominently women.
'Rebirth' was a very difficult piece, being naked, although there was no 'full frontal' as the work was not about that, but especially revealing so much of my inner self and then sharing the video‑performance afterwards in a very public way. My first eight hour piece, 'Ambition' (which was abandoned for technical reasons after 5 hours) was very much about endurance but nothing compared with my latest eight hour work '...Alien...' which did last for eight hours with no break at all and involved no communication at all.
About eight years ago, I explored a series of drawings which consisted of covering the surface of the drawing paper with candle wax and attempting to draw with a hard pencil which would not take on the wax. I also attempted to draw difficult technical shapes free hand, intuitively. I do seem often to need to make things difficult, partly the Protestant Work Ethic which I was very much brought‑up with but it is also as though it can't be taken seriously unless it has involved considerable struggle. No pain, no gain. Maybe I need to convince myself that I am serious and that my work (I?) am worthwhile. This question has I am afraid resulted in a very egocentric answer.
RJ : Well, your answers are certainly worthwhile. I guess it is time now to end this interview unless there is something I forgot to ask you?
Reply on 28-05-1995
ML : Thank you for your kind comments. I have found the interview very interesting and quite revealing, enabling me to consider a number of personal issues.
RJ : Thank you for the interview and good luck with your thesis!