Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mail-Interview with M.B. Corbett (USA)


Started on: 28-5-1995

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: 20-6-1995

MC : Ah, the origin myth. I first heard about mail art from a fellow art school student when he gave me a Cavellini sticker in 1983 or '84. He also invited me to his home to speak with Ryosuke Cohen in Japan during a group telephone call. I had no idea who these people were or what they were about.

Mind you, I had been sending decorated envelopes and collaged postcards to friends since the late '70's, but did not make the superficial connection. I came across Crane and Stofflet's Correspondence Art in the local library. I enjoyed reading it, but again the relevance eluded me.

I must admit I was not very impressed by my friend's activities. No doubt his poor explanations and my uneasy relationship with him did not help matters. Now I understand the difficulty in conveying certain experiences, especially to an audience not yet ready to grasp the emotional and conceptual framework underpinning those experiences. I was certainly not ready. Arrogant and ambitious, I felt destined to answer the higher calling of serious art. I was young and foolish.

Six years pass. My situation was now drastically reduced. I had made little or no art over the last three years due to a crisis of faith. It was a bleak, yet necessary, period. Nigredo. True, I had a busy mail-life, but it was mostly as a passive consumer. I happened upon an article about the old incarnation of Factsheet Five. I obtained a copy and found a few stray mail art listings therein. I contributed to a photograph exchange project and wrote to a person in Ohio with a very odd name, FaGaGaGa. Pleased by the response, I took an active, if unoriginal, step and ran an ad for a copycat photograph exchange in a local publication. This garnered two contributions. One contributor, Alice Borealis, would re-enter my netlife a few years later and become an important correspondent and collaborator. We had a Bogside congress here in the autumn of 1993.

During this same time period I recalled a graduate school printmaking professor's beautiful eraser carvings and began my own cruder efforts. I used them on my love letters and other mailings.

In 1991 I moved from the inner city to my present mountain fastness. The new found isolation would prove conducive to my budding mail art activities. Prefigured by eraser carving and use of rubberstamps in my sculptural work, my interest in stamp art grew. I discovered the magazines National Stampagraphic and Rubberstampmadness, and Thompson and Miller's The Rubber Stamp Album. Both magazines contain mailart listings. I began to spend hours making postcards to send to these strangers. My family worried I was wasting my time. They did not understand I felt an utter failure. Working again gave me joy and calmed my troubled spirit. Moreover, I was reaching out. This was a novel endeavor for me.

Besides making postcards, I contributed a number of eraser carving designs to Ryosuke Cohen's "Brain Cell" project. I am afraid I did not put him together with the phone call until much later. I also revived my long dormant interest in copyart with a contribution to Pascal Lenoir's assembling book, Mani-Art.

A few responses to my postcards trickled in, mostly from US addresses. I had a great deal of difficulty relating to their content.

In early 1992 I read two articles about the Decentralized Worldwide Networker Congresses. I was intrigued. This seemed very different from what I had experienced with mail art. I wrote to John Held and Crackerjack Kid seeking more information. Both responded and are beloved friends today, but it was John who sent me a copy of The Drawing Legion's Networker Congress Statements booklet. It, Mani-Art, and "Brain Cell" all arrived within the space of a few days. They were a revelation. The "AHHHHHH!" experience of connection, so frustrating in any attempt at description, was almost visceral. So, please forgive my poverty of details.

I knew I had found my new practice, one answering most of the questions that had caused my long drought. Some have expressed surprise these projects and the Congresses had such an impression and effect. It was not them per se, but rather the concept and network behind them that so moved me.

My artwork had long been concerned with visual and tactile models of unseen processes, giving form to the formless and vice versa. I knew I needed a framework for my future activities. I took "Brain Cell" and Networker Congress Statements as seminal inspirations and joined these with the formal, physical model of Mani-Art to provide the basis for my assembling project, Tensetendoned. It was begun in August, 1992, and the first issue appeared in December of the same year. It is now June of 1995 and the next issue is number twenty-six. Tensetendoned is my baseline.

I also borrowed the idea for a rubberstamp exchange from Michael Leigh of A.1. Wastepaper Co. Ltd. It is ongoing and very active.

I realize I have discussed as much of how as when I became involved in the network. I feel they go hand in hand since it is an evolving process. My main point is the many threads of years' length that came together to weave a new role. Some of those I have not yet touched on extend far beyond the parameters of my lifetime.

RJ : When I see the large collection of rubberstamps prints you have sent in for the TAM-Rubberstamp-Archive I know you have quite a large collection. How large is the collection now, and a more curious question....why do you want so many stamps?

Reply on 27-7-1995

MC : True enough, I do have many stamps. I send you all my custom designs, but few commercial ones. So, while you have numerous crowded TAM Archive sheets from me, you have seen but a portion of my collection. I estimate I presently own 2000+ stamps.

Why so many is indeed a much more curious question. It may be cultural. One aspect of the American character is a tendency toward excess. Then again, it may be an inherited trait. I come from a family of collectors and have been one myself my entire life. Stamps are abundant and inexpensive in this country. It is very easy to amass them in great quantity. I assure you, my hoard is matched and surpassed by many others'. Of course, some of my stamps have been the gifts of kind friends and family. There is also the ebb and flow of my exchange project, but I keep very few of the stamps sent in trade. Now I am generating my own designs through a professional stampmaker and this had added considerably to my collection.

Such are the mechanics of why so many, but desire must also be taken into account. I am much enamored of rubberstamps. I am aware many view them as the cold and remote marking devices of officialdom and bureaucracies the world over. In fact, the term "rubberstamp" has a number of negative connotations in the English language. I understand this, I do, yet I find them intimate and human.

Rubberstamps evoke memories of childhood play and so contain the heady violence of nostalgia. As adult playthings or serious tools, they form a bridge from memory to the (post)office and on through the seminal fringes of 20th century art.

There are an eternity of nows between the meeting of stamp and paper. The resulting imprint betrays the hand behind it. Repetition creates singular multiples. These marks are traces, residue, evidence, and history.

Each stamp I own increases my vocabulary of images. I use stampings as graphic elements in artwork for reproduction, thereby multiplying the multiple. I use stampings in juxtaposition to other images, thereby multiplying correspondences. I use stampings as artwork in and of themselves, thereby multiplying meanings. The stamp is an amplifying catalyst. The sudden abundance of ersatz rubberstamped images in current American print and video advertising speaks to awareness of this enchanting power.

RJ : In the last months you send me always copies of articles about Ray Johnson for which I am very thankfull. When and how did you get in touch with Ray Johnson and how was your correspondence (dance) with him?

Reply on 15-9-1995

MC: I first became aware of Ray and his work during my initial encounter with Correspondence Art in the mid 1980's. I had recently attended a copy art workshop and his use of the photocopier as an art tool intrigued me.

While Ray's name did not survive the vagaries of my memory, his work did. His infamous "Deaths" letter to the New York Times lodged firmly amid the cobwebs.

Years later when I had become involved in the net, I heard rumors of a near mythic figure, the reclusive father of mail art. This was, of course, Ray. I did not put him together with the still remembered "Deaths" letter until I reread a borrowed copy of Crane and Stofflet's book.

I set about to find him. Little did I know he had had the same address for well over twenty years. So, I felt as if I had found a hidden treasure when I came across it in an issue of Crackerjack Kid's Netshaker. I summoned my courage, took the plunge, and sent him something I cannot now recall. I was very pleased when he responded with a "RAYSDIARY" triangle. We were off and running from there.

Our postal exchanges grew in complexity and frequency as time passed. Some weeks I mailed to Ray on a daily basis and vice versa. He sent books, articles, newspaper clippings, posters, drawings, collages, letters, photocopies, sculptures, photographs, love and nothings. Recurring, layered themes wove throughout. Many still leave me puzzled. Some mailings contained things to be sent to a third party. I passed along items to a number of people; including Geoff Hendricks, Robert Warner, Bill Wilson, John Evans and Roy Lichtenstein. There are certain gifts from Ray I hold especially dear; such as a large seed pod from a Kentucky coffee bean tree, a T-shirt from Baja California, a box covered with postage stamps by Geoff Hendricks, two of his exhibition catalogues, and a box of perfumed carrots tipped with balloons.

Ray began telephoning me in early 1994. We first spoke the day before I left on a long car trip to Seattle and San Francisco, the Tensetendoned Pacific Rim Expedition. I remember the conversation well because I was so shocked Ray had called. Among other things, he told me he was "actually quite charming" despite his reputation to the contrary. Indeed, he often was just that.

During the aforementioned trip, I sent Ray a postcard from San Francisco depicting a drunken couple dressed in rabbit suits sitting on a bed. I returned home to find his response waiting, the now infamous "Condom Man" bunny head sculpture. The same pile of mail yeilded two invitations from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. I packed off the altered bunny head to the "In the Spirit of Fluxus" exhibition and its doom. The rest of the story has been well documented. Despite the distasteful nature of the "Condom Man" incident, I feel it did much to deepen our relationship. Ray was calling almost daily during this period. Some days he called two and three times.

I last spoke with Ray around 8 PM on December 30th, 1994. He said he had called to tell me "the New York Correspondence School bunny was MURDERED (his emphasis) on December 30th, 1994," and I was "the first to know." I answered with phony expressions of shock and dismay. "How did they do it?," I asked. Ray replied, "Oh, so that's what you'll ask. That's what you'll say. We'll have to wait and see. You'll read about it in the New York Times." Later I did indeed do this very thing, but at the time I took it all in terms of the "Deaths" letter. I thought Ray was once again reinventing himself, shedding his skin as it were. The NYCS. The Fan Clubs. Buddha University. Taoist Pop Art School. Next? He sounded very upbeat, so it did not disturb me unduly. We went on to have a long, happy conversation about rabbits.

Ray's last mailing to me arrived a few days later. Postmarked the 31st, it contained two items we had discussed the night before. One was the "BUNNY DEAD" sheet. I decided to include it in an issue of Tensetendoned and it has now been widely circulated by the Galantais of Artpool. I sent Ray a number of mailings in response to this sheet. One was especially morbid and my memory of it is now tinged with regret.

On January 14th, 1995, I was in the process of assembling Tensetendoned #22. This was the issue containing copies of the "BUNNY DEAD" sheet. I was just about to write Ray a letter to enclose in his copy when the telephone rang. I thought it might be Ray as our phone rarely rings. In truth, I was hoping it was Ray because I hadn't heard from him in two weeks and had a lot to tell him. Instead, it was a sobbing Sheila Sporer calling from Long Island. We had never spoken before. I knew right off Ray was dead. His body had been found earlier that day, but the circumstances of his death were not yet fully known. I fear I am much to blame for early reports of Ray's demise bearing an incorrect date. Upon finishing my conversation with Sheila, I called John Held in Dallas. He had heard the news a few minutes before I called. We spoke about Ray and his legacy. John declared his death "the end of an era."

In late April of this year I travelled to New York City to attend Ray's memorial service. I cannot say it was a sad event in overall tone or mood. A grand procession into the meeting house began the service. People then rose and spoke as the spirit moved them in the Quaker fashion. Some sang and others recited poetry. Dick Higgins performed works by John Cage and George Brecht. At one point Geoff Hendricks stood on his head with large dead fish strapped to his bare feet. His dress? Black tie, of course. A stunning group performance involving a giant profile silhouette of Ray being cut out of a huge sheet of paper from behind closed the formal portion of the event. An adjacent room offered refreshments and both audio and video recordings of Ray in action. An assortment of work from those unable to attend was prominently displayed.

I must admit the memorial service lacked a sense of closure for me. It did not feel like goodbye because there is still such a great deal of controversy surrounding Ray's death. It was THE topic of conversation. Some believe it was an accident and others consider it suicide. A few people even suspect foul play. The truth may never be known. So, the event raised more questions than it answered. I fear it reopened an all too freshly closed wound. This answer was difficult to write for similar reasons. I confess I harbor a small bit of anger over his sudden passing. We were not done yet.

I believe Ray chose to remain an enigma, but not without purpose. A key may be found in the contrast between the historical Johnson and the personal Ray. I was intrigued by Johnson; sought out by Ray. Conversations with others who knew him lead me to believe Ray embodied as many meanings as the number of people he affected. We were legion. In this way, he was a mirror. He reflected you. Indeed, the house that Ray built was a house of mirrors, a labyrinth. Please remember the labyrinth was originally a testing ground. I often failed.

Ray had a dark side and could be acerbic, to put it mildly. This did not diminish him in my eyes, but rather expanded and amplified his humanity. Whatever his mood, when he spoke with you he was THERE, so very much so, and as if for you alone. Whether Grand Inquisitor or Grail King, his were heart-seeking missives. Ray Johnson proved there is much to do about nothing.

RJ : The typical thing about mail art is that every mail artist gathers his/her own network around him/her. We always speak of 'THE NETWORK' but in fact everybody has his own special network around him/her. How large is your network and where are your correspondents located (globaly)?

(On October 17th I receieved the latest issue of Tensetendoned from Michael. In it was a sad message too though. I knew that his father was ill, and now he informed me that his father had died a few days ago).

Reply on 22-11-1995

MC: The differentiation you make is between theory and practice.

You are correct, in practice there are but a series of personal networks. Some are enmeshed. Others work in parallel ignorance. The true paradox is being in contact with people the world over while still toiling away alone in your particular small corner of the globe. I appreciate this distance, though. It can smooth away rough spots where my petty spirit is lacking and perhaps nurture communication based upon more universally human themes. However, I believe the root cause for the networking urge is personal and not universal. There are as many reasons why as there are networkers. The individual is the real theatre for the work.

The size of my network waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows. In the beginning, I would send something to every network address I could find. Responses were few. Now, it seems I spend most of my time answering mail. Unfortunately for my correspondents, I am growing slower and slower.

I keep few records, but perhaps the following will provide a clearer picture for those to whom numbers speak. As of today, November 7, I have sent 906 mailings to 449 networkers in 43 countries since January 1st. The 28 issues of Tensetendoned realized so far have involved 340 contributors from 43 nations. It appears I am getting duller as well as slower.

Global is indeed the word, yet most of my networking occurs between here and Europe and within my own country. It surprises me how certain relatively small nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands are brimful with activity while other, larger countries seem to foster so little. Of course, there are places where economic, political, and geographical factors do much to hinder even basic communication. Networking is a luxury. In my own experience contacts have been few in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and other Atlantean isles, Southeast and South Central Asia, and Oceania.

RJ : Your answer is a nice example of how everbody experiences the network he is the center of. You mention Belgium and the Netherlands as places full with activity while I don't get that much mail from my own country and Belgium. Germany and Italy for me are active countries, as well as England and some more European ones. The USA of course the country with the largest amount of networkers I know, but somehow the mail from the USA is different than the mail I get from Europe. Do you also see this difference, or is it just my experience?

Reply on 26-1-1996

MC : Please understand. When I spoke of activity before, I meant it in terms of numbers of networkers alone and not volume of mail. In truth, I do not receive all that much mail from your country or Belgium either. My observations were based on my habitual perusal of project contributors lists as well as the daily mail. The point I failed to make clear was the number of networker addresses from Belgium and the Netherlands seems high in relation to their size and population.

I agree with you. Italy and the U.S. do appear to be the most active networking countries. Some things puzzle me, though. Why Italy? What makes it such a hotbed of activity? Japan is a very wealthy and densely populated nation. Yet, in light of this, they have relatively few networkers. Why?

You are not alone in your experience. Actually, might that not be a seminal lesson? I, too, see a difference between my European and domestic mail. Networking is a function of culture and I believe culture is the root cause of these differences. I also believe it may be the answer to my previous questions.

Now, be aware it has been said you cannot be a prophet in your own country. At times here I speak in generalities. I assure you exceptions can be found for every case.

The U.S. is a large country, but insular in its thinking. It is a place of extremes. A deep seated puritanical streak constantly wrestles with a fleshy hedonism. Every nation has its mythos. Ours is failing us. Violence, anger, and political angst abound. My domestic mail refelects the climate. All the hate mail has come from my compatriots.

Despite the turmoil, much of the work exhibits a sense of play or whimsey. This runs the gamut from the lark to the killing joke, but generally seems more lighthearted than the transatlantic variety. No doubt, Ruud, due to your long involvement with rubberstamps you have seen your share of "cute" mail art. Extremes and paradoxes.

Mail art can be a hard sell in this country. I choose my words carefully. Commerce is ingrained in our culture. So much so in fact, people are distrustful of anything which purports to be free. Many are eager to attempt to commercialize mail art. The "cute" mail I spoke of before is an example. It is driven by the stamp stores and magazines such as Rubberstampmadness and National Stampagraphic. I have had "cute" mail now from England, Germany, and Australia. It follows in the wake of a rubberstamp source springing up. Projects requiring participation or postage fees are becoming more common. You cannot expunge commerce from the network, but you can choose to minimize its influence.

My European correspondents assume less. Perhaps the proximity of so many cultures makes for a more open minded approach. Education is at a level where the great majority of my correspondents write and understand English, a stroke of luck for this comparatively ignorant anglophone. They seem to possess a better developed sense of history, both in art and the network. The work reflects this.

I believe European networkers are more likely to be willing to take on the tedious and thankless tasks some projects require than are my fellow Americans. We seek instant gratification and love the quick fix.

European networkers seem to have much better access to public and institutional funding. The dedication I spoke of before, coupled with this financial backing, often results in stunning documentation. The books weighing my shelves are testimony. When American institutions get involved with mail art, they frequently end up shooting themselves and the contributors in the foot. The key here is to find a sympathetic individual within the institution and work with her/him.

All in all, the best mail I receive comes mostly from overseas. The absolute worst is usually domestic. It all comes down to the spirit of the thing. Another's experience will no doubt engender a differing opinion. The real daily judgement is what to answer first.

RJ : Probably all mail from far away is the most interesting. But in most cases we shouldn't generalize. It is funny you mention "the daily judgement" of what to answer. Are you still able to answer all? If I look at all the mail I get in myself, I don't even try too, it would just ruin me. How do you deal with the daily frow of mail to your P.O.Box?

Reply on 11-3-1996

MC : If you recall, I did warn of the dangers of generalization.

While it is true I still experience a small thrill when I receive mail from a new country, distance alone lends no cachet to the contents.

I do try to answer all the mail I receive. I am slowing and this luxury may have to end in the very near future. I do not answer project documentation unless specifically requested to do so. Since I have learned not to write in anger, hate mail and other irritants are ignored.

I am a shameless mail addict. I need my daily fix and gloomy indeed is the day without. There are those days however, when I see the mail as nothing more than a source of potential work or trouble. Fortunately, this attitude is confined to times when I am absorbed in some other task such as during assembly week.

How do I deal with the daily flow? After I open and read all the mail, I record the networking portion in my mail diary. I also make note of and number all my outgoing network mail. Sorting follows recording. Contributions for my project go into the fabled Tensetendoned vault. This is actually an overflowing cardboard box. Other correspondence from contributors to future issues ends up here as well. I try to consolidate my efforts in order to conserve my finite time, energy, and resources. Most of what is left is then divided between two piles, "postcard" and "more than a postcard." These names reflect the level of effort required in an answer. Once answered, mail is moved to the nearby "dealt with" pile. Mailings which require no answer go here directly after being recorded. When this pile collapses and spills off the table and across the floor, I bundle it up for storage. Books, artistamps, and stickers are stored separately.

RJ : It is amazing how these procedures are almost identical to how I process my incoming and outgoing mail. A problem might occur again when the "storage" of all those boxes isn't possible anymore (I am facing that problem at the moment). I understand more and more why mail artists prefer recycling sometimes. How much of the mail art you get in you actually do recycle?

Reply on 6-4-1996

MC : I suppose similar problems make for similar solutions.

As a failure of a wannabe archivist, I tend to keep most of the net mail I receive. Not counting those items intended to be passed along, I would estimate I recycle perhaps 10% of my mail. This runs the gamut from simple reuse to cannibalization.

This network of ours is a fragile thing and the evidence the experience leaves behind is flimsy. I value the experience, so I believe the evidence should be preserved. Yet, above all, mail art is a gift. What my correspondents do with my mailings is entirely up to them. It is not for me to say or vice versa. I confess I do not waste my best efforts on known chop shops, though.

RJ : For me, the computer is an important tool for my communication. For writing and printing texts, keeping track of data, even conducting this interview with you and others. I notice you always use this typewriter. Why this choice?

Reply on 29-4-1996

MC : It suits my needs. My illegible handwriting has been a problem since childhood. Typing removes this obstacle to clarity.

This machine is a manual Royal portable. My father bought it for his own use when he was in high school, c. 1938. I have been using it for fourteen years now. It feels like an old friend. I like it becasue it is simple, direct, and reliable. Power outages are a frequent occurrence in this mountainous rural area.

Do not confuse form with content.

RJ : Doesn't sometimes the form tell al lot too besides the content? The specific tools each mail artist uses for making his other mail art has mostly quite specific reasons. Like you told about your typewriter! Currently you are having an exhibition at the Stamp Art Gallery. Is exhibiting your work important to you?

reply on 12-6-1996

MC : I apologize for not making myself more clear. I was much too succinct and failed to provide proper context. I meant my use of the typewriter is not intented to convey my feelings concerning same or any other message.

Yes, absolutely, the form or medium can be content and impart meaning. After all, didn't Marshall McLuhan say, "The medium is the message"? Indeed, some of my current work relies on the medium to convey the message. A soon to rubberized stamp design of mine reads, "ACTUAL RUBBER STAMP IMPRINT." Quick and easy though this little joke may be, it will not work until it is stamped out.

The key is intent, since this I can control. While I have no doubt my choice of tools imparts messages to my audience, their reactions and perceptions are out of my hands. The work is a mirror for their mindset. I find this true of all the arts, as well as other public fields of endeavor such as advertising. I offer an example. In graduate school #2 I worked on a series of glass and ceramic sculptures about geophysical, biological, and chthonic forces. A common reaction from viewers was, "It looks like nuclear war." This anxiety was a product of their minds, not mine. I was open to alternative interpretations, though, being well aware I was in the mirror business. Besides, people do like mirrors and are inexorably drawn to those things that reflect themselves. It is the Western ideal.

Have I succeeded in backpedalling my way out of my own trap?

I feel the question of how to give form from to the formless is one central to the networking experience. We all find a personal solution through our activity. Another new text stamp of mine touches on this point: "This is not the eternal. This is the wrapper the eternal comes in."

Oh, I just came across this very pithy quote from Milan Kundera in a recent issue of the Village Voice. It speaks to what we just discussed as well as what will follow, "Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory."

Networkers do not often mention beauty, though, do they?

Yes, exhibiting is important to me. It is another form of contact presented in a context perhaps more easily grasped by those viewers not directly involved with the net.

Moreover, the documentation of such exhibitions is important to me. My show was transitory. Much less ephemeral are the catalogue and boxed set of rubber stamps produced in conjunction therewith. These traces of events and experiences are the raw material for the mill of network history. History being largely myth, I am casting my bread upon the waters to become what it may.

Years ago when I had an exhibition, I designed and installed it myself. My only audience consisted of those who actually attended. Now, I am working at a distance for shows I will not see. My audience has expanded beyond the viewer and out into the network itself. Working at such remove, it is important to have faith in those mounting the show. My strong relationship with the Stamp Art Gallery folks allows for that. In fact, I am just back from a lively romp with Bill Gaglione, Darlene Domel, John Held, Diana Mars, et al., at the Stamp Art Publications Fluxfest in New York City. As things stand now, I would only undertake a taxing project like this exhibition for a good friend or upon such a friend's recommendation. You and this interview are one example. Guy Bleus is another. We are exploring tentative plans for a Tensetendoned retrospective at his Hasselt space in 1997.

RJ : You touched the subject of "network history". A lot has been written already in books and magazines. How much is true of what you have read? What is your experience?

reply on 28-8-1996

MC : History may be many things, but it certainly isn't truth. Truth is stranger than fact. So, while I do try to read as much of the history of the early network as I can find, I am aware it is an author's personal interpretation seen through the lens of time and culture.

That last is key. The concepts behind networking have changed with time, but personal interests and experience drive the individual networker and hence the net entire.

Today there are many who view the network as based upon underground, anarchic, and ahistorical principles. Actually, these are the concerns of the second wave of the net activity and the surrounding cultural climate during the 1960s. I understand how this appeals to the rebellious adolescent lurking within all of us. However, I find my own network spiritual roots a decade and more earlier when mail art was indeed art and historically aware.

So, people seize upon the version of networking tradition that suits their taste and needs. This is why so many heterogeneous views coexist. As network history piles up, these will multiply accordingly.

You asked about my personal experience. I must say written reports of events I have participated in have been reasonably accurate from my point of view. Of course, the historical legacy of present activity is as yet unknown.

Networking activities and artforms are currently marginalized at best. Cavellini's self-historification made for network legend, but did not make a dent in traditional modern art history. His goal eluded him. Such marginalization may or may not change in the future. History is fickle. Who knows where anyone will end up?

Network history is a muddled field. A case in point is Carlo Battisti. I believe his name is largely unknown outside of his native Italy. He was briefly involved with the net during the 1970s. Yet, he created the seminal "ARTE" rubber stamp and originated the mail art bull tradition as an homage to Cavellini , who himself did much to popularize his own later version. I am still glossing both men's work today.

History, like art, is mythic. The powerful open secret is that you can make your own. Do.

RJ : History will be based on facts that historians can find back. In mail art the more active participants in the network automatically build an archive. Do you consider your collection also an archive? Do you keep most of the mail you get?

reply on 12-10-1996

MC : I take your statement to mean historians will base their observations upon that which survives. True. This is why it is so important to have the original material perserved. Perception changes with the times. We do not look at a 13th century work with 13th century eyes or minds. Antique fakes seem so blatant to us today because they were created to satisfy contemporary expectations. Those of the present day were beyond the forger's ken. The raw stuff of our pursuit must be available to the fresh eyes that will follow.

I believe I mentioned my dismal failure as a wannabe archivist. I just don't have the temparment for it. My collection is more of a hoard. I tend to think of an archive as systematically filed and catalogued. While I have separate caches of mail art books, stickers, and artistamps; I cannot call this organization of any significance. I will have to leave the rest to the real archivists.

We previously covered the question of what I keep, no?

RJ : Yes, we did already discussed that issue. We have been doing this interview now for almost 1,5 year. Probably it is time to let others read these words as well. Normally I ask the interviewed person if I did forget to ask something. So, Did I?

reply on 6-1-1997

MB : Only you can say for sure.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for inviting me to participate in your interview project and the readers for their kind attention, especially in forbearance during my flightier moments.

RJ : Thank you for this interview Michael!

Address mail-artist:

Michael B. Corbett
P.O.Box 155
PA 18455 - USA

Mail-Interview with Bern Porter (USA)


Started on: 29-8-1995

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 12-9-1995

BP : I invented mail art, November 11. 1913

RJ : Why November 11th 1913? What happened on that day that you decided to start to send out mail art?

Reply on 19-10-1995

BP : Sitting together on the floor of his 8x8 foot apartment east side New York I asked Ray: "What are you doing?" He answered: "Being myself."

(the next question to Bern Porter I wrote with pencil on a two-color blue silk-screen printing of Ray Johnson)

RJ : Ray answered "Being myself". So, who was Ray? I would like to know.

Reply on 20-3-1996

BP : I asked Ray: "What are you doing?" He answered: "Being myself, average weight, average height, non drinking, non smoking, daily on the uproad to survival."

I maintain at a library here "The Bern Porter Collection of Contemporary Letters" and wish to have the complete set of everything you have ever done. Advise cost delivered to me U.S.A. B.P U.S. Dollars in bankcheck form.

RJ : "Everything I ever have done?" That is difficult. Because all the mail art I sent out isn't mine anymore. All I produce is sent out into the network and I only have spare issues of magazines and copies of some pieces of mail. Everything I received and kept so far, that is something I have. Are all the letters you get (like e.g. this one) going to be part of "The Bern Porter Collection of Contemporary Letters", or is is just a "part of your life" that forms this collection? Just currious, what is in the collection?

Address mail-artist:

22 Salmond Road,
BELFAST , ME 04915

(Bern Porter died, so the interview never was finished)

Mail-Interview with Ruggero Maggi (Italy)


Started on: 3-11-1994

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: 25-11-1994

RM : At the end of 1975 when I was invited for the mail art shows by the Saõ Paulo Library, by the Librije Beeldende Kunst Zwolle and for the Show "Papel y Lapiz" at Modern Art museum of Bogota.

RJ : How did these 'traditional art institutes' get your address?

Reply on : 9-12-1994

RM : Firstly: "Mail art uses institutions in the places of institutions against institutions". To "Papel y Lapiz" I was invited by Jonier Marin, a Colombian artist (organizer of the show) lover, like me, of Amazon and with whom I spoke, for the first time, of an eventual Amazonian Archive about -multimedia Ecological Art-. For the other 2 shows is a mistery!

RJ : What is the connection of Amazon and mail-art. What is your "Archive of Artistic Works and Projects" all about?

Reply on : 31-12-1994

RM : At 1979 I went for the first time to the Peruvian Amazon and there, by the direct contact with the immensity and the magnificence of that world and unfortunately with all the ecological problems which, already at that time, were borning, I decided to found an international archive dedicated to artistic projects and works about Nature in a general way and about Amazon in a specific one.
Today, after 12 years of activity, the Archive AMAZON reckons upon the participation of hundreds of artists with their works coming from various countries and it has arranged tens of international exhibitions in all the world.
At these last 20 years of Mail Art I have also arranged other projects like: "United for Peace" - "The Shadow Project" - "Playcare" - "Italian Report" - "Not Only Books" - "Aquarantacinquegiri" - Etc..

RJ : The most well-known project from you probably is the Shadow Project. I was lucky to be present during the event in 1985 in Italy where we painted shadows on the ground in Villa di Serio. Could you tell a bit more about the origin of this project, how it grew and if it still is going on....?

Reply on : 30-01-1995

RM : When the 1st atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima 50 years ago, human beings who were within three hundred metres of ground zero were instantly vaporized by the scaring heat, leaving behind only their shadows - the remnants of these innocent victims provide the image and the theme of the shadow project. The silent shadows scattered throughtout the city are representations of a sight, which, if a bomb had been detonated would be seen by no one. Unlike the shadows left by a nuclear holocaust, the images painted on the streets are now permanent.

At 1985 I received the invitation from the central shadow project organization in USA to arrange the Italian event to celebrate the Hiroshima Holocaust. How you have remembered, I invited some artists to "perform" with me at the 6th of August (the H-bomb day) at Villa di Serio, near Bergamo, for the biennia of that town. Between others also Enrico Baj was with us that day. After that event I organized many other shadow project days in Italy (Bologna - Tivoli - Senigallia - Cervo - Pordenone - Como - Scandiano - Etc.), At Dublin, at Minden in Germany, etc.. In 1988 I was invited also to realize the Shadow project in Japan at the same Hiroshima just at the H-bomb day! It was a dream, which had come true! After Hiroshima I and many other Japanese and foreign networkers, realized the Shadow project also at other Japanese towns: Kyoto - Iida - Nishinomiya - etc...

RJ : Are you at the moment planning any new projects connected to mail-art or is your interest shifting into other areas connected to art?

Reply on : 2-5-1995

RM : Since about 10 years I'm developping a theory about chaos art. I have always loved monsters since I was a child. The so-called irregularity, synonym of "ugliness", of some forms has always fascinated me. On the contrary, the aesthetic regularity of some lines, a pathetic attempt at perfection has very often bored me to death.

At a certain age, I also have sincerely tried to deepen the contact, to probe into the knowledge with a possible geometric "beauty", but, to my great surprise, the squares never were perfectly spaure, the circles never were perfectly circular, and so on. And yet I realised my work in that period scrupolously following the "ancient rules" tought at school. But nothing could be done: in spite of my efforts. The geometric figures, realised in different materials, did not fit in an exact way or at least in a way satisfactory to me.

There almost was a repulsion of the forms in fitting together. Strongly enough, a repulsion of the forms and not of the materials, which, on the contrary modelled themselves together joining in their greater or lesser roughness. The fault, as I discovered some years later only, though I had already got some signs, was Euclid's and of his deceptive geometry. Yes, it was really the foult of mathematics, which has been administred to us at school and which is introduced as a decoder of Nature, but is very little natural! She is in fact a pure and simple abstraction, so abstract and deceptivele regular to forget completely that nature is instead set up by forms, diverse ones: perforated, twisted, fragmented.... Forms however, that are easily fitted in. This world which only appears chaotic, needed a new type of geometry allowing a more realistic measuring of nature: the geometry of the fractals (from latin "Fractus" : broken, split).

In contrast with the Euclidean forms, the fractals are geometrically irregular forms in every part and present the same degree of irregularity on all scales. The irregular aspect of Nature and her discntinuous side, which have been real monstruosities to science for a number of years at a mathematical level, come at last outdoors and are studied through the geometry of fractals. Now that it's been looked for, CHAOS seems to be everywhere, from the spirals of smoke of a cigarette, which break into irregular spires to the dripping faucet passing from a regular rhythm to a chaotic one. These and other aperiodic and now linear movements are clear examples of turbolence, which is at the basis of the study and the revelant visual representation of the strange attractors. Strange not because unusual (in reality they are incredible incomprehensible). A further feature of the strange attractors of of being fractals, i.e. of having a complete structure (independently from the scale of magnification).

Chaotic art must inquire into the inner side of world, at last "cleaned" from the old scientific prejudices, looking for the mainforld aestetic and conceptual possibilities contained in chaos. A part from researchers concerning computer graphics, the possibilities are infinite. For instance, I am projecting a "chaotic machine", which will be a metal structure 8 mt. high, with a central plexiglas sphere providing for the insertion of a person which will be the first interference disturbing and therefore shifting to aperiodic the movement of the sphere itself, which will also be set in motion by some magnets. Being designed for outdoors, the other "disturbances" will be caused by elements like rain, wind, etc. All the structure will be connected to a computer, which will compute all the relevant strange attractors, and, through a printer, will visualise them on sheets, which will be given to the public.

The great discovery of the science of chaos is that apparently complicated behaviors can become simple if the right graphic representation has been chosen. The images of chaotic art are not only splendid but also contain an infinite series of data and information.

RJ : Did you use the computer before in your art? What is the potential of this machine?

Reply on 28-7-1995

RM: I have just used the computer at the Basel Art Fair (1989) to elaborate some Nazca drawings into spatial signs - all this was a part of my space art installation at the stand of OURS (Orbiting Unification Ring Satellite) at the same art fair. The result was a series of works reproduced then by copy machine which I have here enclosed. Pierre Restany has written some time ago: "In this society it becomes necessary to recreate the relationship between man and machine, and today this machine is the computer. To re-define this relationship implies the creation of right and true conditions of a dialogue between two types of intelligence: Artificial and human. And it's in the core of this dialogue where Maggi's linguistic research is inserted."

RJ : Are you already working with the Internet or are you planning to? What will be the impact of the Internet on the 'traditional' mail-art?

Reply on 17-8-1995

RM: I have planned to work by Internet for the "Quintessences" project about the death of the Count of Gagliostro and the vital necessity "to free yourself and to gain an essential truth". I wished to realize a plan of the Papal Fortress of San Leo (near Urbino, where Gagliostro died imprisoned) and include it into the Internet system, inviting artists from all the world to visit him (!) at the day of his bicentennial death: 26th of August 1995. All this was not possible and we are organizing a fax art project with the same spirit! Or better..... Metanetworker in spirit!

RJ : What will be the impact of the Internet on the 'traditional' mail-art? I've noticed that a lot of mail artists in the USA are using e-mail now besides the traditional mail system? I've written down my thoughts and experiences with e-mail. What are your views?

Reply on 8-1-1996

RM: Dear Ruud, sorry for the delay to answer but I have been in Brasil at São Paulo participating to a great interactive art event and now I'm in Lima from where I'll return to Italy at the 29th of December -- Happy New year to you & your family!

Your question -- Internet is the positive answer to the utopic danger: The Great Brother! Instead of a great central power, the Man has created a fantastic system of millions of peripheric little PC's connected through internet.

Some virtual network museums have been born in in all the world. In USA Honoria and Crackerjack Kid are very active in this sense. In Italy, at Porto S. Giorgio, the first Italian mail art virtual museum and gallery have been founded. They have opened their "doors" with a celebration of Ray Johnson and a "show" of mine, Internet URL : < >. I'm planning also two computer-installations: A Telematic Totem and an Anti-Nuclear French tests in Pacific work.

RJ : You write quite opimitic about the Internet. I see also lots of negative sides, like the access to the hardware (no electricity or computers for e.g. African networkers), no money for the access to Internet. Also "The Great Brother" is still there, since the companies that own the telephone-lines can now monitor all the e-mail if they want to. Am I being to negative or are there also real dangers to the Internet?

Reply on 26-7-1996

RM : The poverty in Africa and in all the so-called 3rd world is a tragic, incontestable fact to which naturally also the defiency of electricity and the following lack of computers are joined.

If a certain kind of mentality and a sadly overflowing culture doesn't change in the rest of the world, it will be impossible for those countries to raise theirselves. After having ravaged throughout centuries, now it's time to give back something. But not in the shape of simple assistance, but building schools, hospitals, etc... Don't send shoes but build a shoe-factory!

However, how in all the cultural mutations (and surely internet is one!) there are some beginning problems but, for me, the game.... IS worth the the candle! The real danger has always been in the use which man can do and not in the machine.

RJ : I sure agree on that issue with you. Another subject; the mail art projects that are currently done in the mail art network mostly aren't that interesting for me anymore. How is this for you? Do you still participate in all the project-invitations you get?

(because of time & other things that happened in both our lives this
interview was broken off. On November 25th 2001 I decided to put all
unfinished interviews online as well).

Interviewed person:
Archive of Artistic Works and Projects.

Ruggero Maggi
C. so Sempione, 67
I - 20149 Milano

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