Mail-Interview with Keith Bates (UK)
Started on: 15-8-1995
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 19-9-1995
(Together with his first answer Keith Bates sent me the documentation of his 'ARTISTCHEQUE'-project, an artistchequebook, and also some info on his newest project)
KB : I started doing mail art in 1983. I attended an Open University Summer School in which the Polish artist Henryk Gajewski ran a course called "Networking". Some things in life, you know immediately are for you - it was like that for me with mail art, I fell in love with the concept!
RJ : It seems everybody has his or her own views about mail art. Which concept of mail art do you mean?
Reply on 3-1-1996
KB : I simply love the idea that there existed a network of artists who worked in physical isolation, but exchanged their work, It seemed a superb social outlet for creativity, not tied up with money and profit; a social function bound up with ideas of mutual respect, tolerance, democracy, the lot. And it was fun!
I tend to organise one mail art project every year or so. In addition I try to answer all the mail I receive (except for thank you's and confirmation of receipt letters, etc.) and to participate in all the projects I hear about (unless they really didn't interest me). I do however work very slowly; life is busy with other things, so I prefer snail mail to the electronic variety. I'm also not that into letter writing, writing is hard work and for me the occasional letter is an extra to the exchange of mail art.
RJ : Well, when you are slow in answering, this just will mean that this interview will take some time to finish. No problem really. In your answer you mention some interesting things. It seems that you focus mainly on the mail art projects. To give the readers of this interview some idea of what you have done so far, could you mention a few of your projects and tell me what they were about?
Reply on 10-1-1996
KB : I like the way modern art movements have reappropriated graphic design techniques. Mail art does this all the time with artistamps and rubber stamps. A lot of my projects have focused on different graphic design formats and I have based mail art projects on comic book frames (1983), stamps (1984), tickets (1985), jigsaw pieces (1990), shop receipts (1991) and bank cheques (1995). I have also organised projects using fragments of mail artists' works - Elements in 1986 and my current "Studio Floor" project with Leanda Ryan.
Some of my projects have just been realized as documentation - a booklet, catalogue, photographs and address-list, cassette tape, etc. In 1991 I did a project called "Jackson Pollock's Shoes" asking mail artists to send me accidental masterpieces by their favourite artists. That project was realized as a spoof Christie's auction catalogue.
Other projects involve a show or exhibition. My last project, Artists' cheques, not only involved making Artistcheckbooks for contributors but also exhibitions in Covent Garden (London) and York. My "English Suppresionists" project (1993) about an imaginory movement resulted in an illustrated booklet about Englishness and an exhibition in Brighton.
RJ : Lots of activities since your start with mail art! I notice that the years 1986 and 1992 are not in your list with activities (tourism-year and DNC-year). For me these years were full of meetings with other mail artist (actually also the years 1985 and 1991 for me personally). I remember you had quite specific ideas about those two special international projects, about meeting the other mail artists. Are these views still the same in the year 1996, which has just started?
Reply on 19-1-1996
KB : Yes, I don't think it should be expected or assumed that mail artists will wish to visit each other.
I did attend a Congress meeting at the Tate gallery in 1986, it was a bit of fun but I don't think I gained any deep insights from the experience. The whole Tourism thing was hailed as a logical next step for mail artists, almost obligatory. I just tried to defend the corner of those who wanted to mail art, those who couldn't or didn't want to congress.
RJ : Another "logic step" some mail artists think of, is the e-mail and the internet as a new way of communicating. I myself have explored this form already, and still prefer the traditional mail. I only use e-mail if the digital form is essential (as in not having to retype texts) or speed is essential (a large text of 20 pages gets at the others address in a few minutes). Have you any specific thoughts about this new communication form?
Reply on 22-3-1996
KB : E-mail and the internet can be used as an extension of the mail art network by those who have access. I don't at the moment, but I wouldn't preclude the possibility for the future. It's worth remembering that a lot of people who do mail art don't have a computer let alone access to the internet.
I admit to being a sucker for hard copy rather than the screen image. I like the whole mail art thing of envelope, stamps, the colors and textures of papers, inks, paints, the mixed media extravaganza. I'm not convinced that e-mail compares to the richness of the snail mail experience.
E-mail would also be too fast for me. I mail art slowly, I can't be a high-powered, mail-the-entire-world zealot. I enjoy doing mail art when I want to and when someone has asked for something that inspires me. I try to keep it fun, and part of the fun is the relaxed exchange over several months, not a few hours. I suppose I must piss some people off but you can't please everyone.
RJ : When you regard mail art as a relaxed exchange than probably the network you are in contact with isn't that large at the moment. Or am I wrong and are you (like a lot of mail artists) not able at all to answer all the mail you get in?
Reply on 10-4-1996
KB : Funnily enough I've just found a few invitations to mail art projects whose deadlines I've missed! Guilt trip.
To a certain extent a mail artist can control the amount of mail art he or she receives, the best way to ensure a full mailbox is to respond to communications quickly, the easiest way to back off a bit is to allow more time for your response.
I am afflicted by the dual mail art miseries - time and money. Because of my job as an art teacher, I often get knackered as a term progresses and I do more mail art during school holidays. In addition to that, I am feeling rather poor at the moment, and since I seperated from my wife I don't have as much spare cash to give to mail art. Nevertheless, even as I write, Leanda and I are preparing to collage the studio floor and the documentation for this project will put me deeper in debt. I am still addicted.
RJ : The final documentation of a mail art project sometimes is just a xeroxed address-list. Your documentations are normally quite special. What is improtant in a mail art documentation?
Reply on 22-5-1996
KB : Thank you for the compliment. I do put a lot into my project documentations. They are works of art. Works which could not have existed without the contributors.
Although putting together project documentation is hard work, I enjoy this aspect of mail art. I like to get some personal touch into each documentation if possible. I have nothing against photocopiers, I use them all the time for my tickets and labels, but if I just receive an address list as a documentation to a mail art show I've participated in I consider it to be a sign of life, no more. On the other hand, exciting documentation is for me a real reward of networking, I love it! It is not essential if my work is used in documentation, but it is much more exciting if it is, it's nice to feel appreciated and valued.
The perfect documentation would show every contributor's work, but sadly mail art exists in the real world and most mail artists are not rich. Money is scarce and sponsorship for mail art projects is rare, particularly here in Britain. If a xeroxed address list is all someone can afford, that will do - especially if a personal 'thank you' or something is enclosed.
RJ : You mention 'particularly here in Britain'. Are there other things in mail art that are 'typical British', or is this a stupid question?
reply on 23-8-1996
KB : I don't really know if there are things that are typically Britisch about mail art. I suspect the kind of silly, surreal humour that runs through the work of Michael Leigh and Don Jarvis is maybe typically Britisch. My "English Suppressionists" project was an attempt to define my Englishness and I suppose I wondered if my opposition to Tourism might be linked to an English reserve and island mentality.
RJ : Maybe some of the readers don't know your project English Suppressionists , so maybe you can tell a bit more about it. How did you attempt to define your Englishness and what was the result?
reply on 29-11-1996
KB : In 1992 I did a lot of thinking about the facets of my identity. Being English was hard to define, so I asked mail artists to send something about the subject by joining an imaginary art movement, the English Suppressionists. I received stuff about steroetypes, ideas about language, humour, history, politics, surreal connections. The atoms of identity.
I think that Stephen Perkins best summed it up by explaining that identity is strongest when you have to fight for it. Maybe because the English have tended to dominate the British Isles, it is the Scots, Welsh and Irish communities who make more of their national identities.
Perhaps the English have sat back and basked in the glory of Britisch achievement, history, the Empire, and a language that is pervasive. If the fight forges identity, I guess that's why it's lacking.
Perhaps if you are less worried about nationhood and nationalism, you're free to think globally, to consider yourself human rather that belonging to this or that nation. Or maybe that's 2 luxury only the comfortable and privileged can expect.
RJ : You have been doing mail art for a long time now. Did you notice any big changes in the mail art network over the last decade? If so, which changes do you find important?
answer on 5-1-1997
KB : I suppose the network has become well-established in the years I've been mail-arting. And become establishment to a certain extent, taught in colleges and sponsored by industry. Not necessarily bad things, but in the early eighties I had a real sense of joining something radical, and although part of what I perceive results from my familiarity with mail art practices, I think there is generally less frenzied excitement about the mail art network. People now know what a network is.
There are mail artists who see the electronic network as successor to mail art. mail art certainly provided the template for free exchange, maybe the internet has taken some wind from mail art's sails - if you want to start serious networking in 2000 I guess you buy a computer. It just hasn't grabbed me yet, even if I had the spare cash. I saw the David Hockey show at Manchester City Art gallery the other day. He had a fax wall. Fax walls are a good argument for postal art.
Artistamps had a good decade. Major growth. Colour photocopies and colour printouts of computer art too. Black & White photocopies have become annoying to some, but not half as annoying as chain letters. I still enjoy collage stuff - I got a nice little one from Vittore Baroni only this morning.
I'm not sure if Tourism and networking Congresses changed the mail art world while I was in the bath. I think not, though I nearly met Jonathan Stangroom a few months ago - but not quite!
RJ : Have you kept all of the mail art you have received over the years? What is the future of your "archive"?
answer on 8-4-1997
KB : Well, I don't think I'll be selling my archive to sponsor my Touristic activities! I've kept a wardrobe full of treasures, much of it still in the original envelopes and stored in box files without any real filing system. I've certainly not tried to keep every piece of mail art I've received and I'm sure I've recycled some really valuable items in my time, but I can't keep everything I receive so I tend to hang onto the things that most appeal to me at the time.
RJ : Should I ask a future question about mail art romances?
answer on 8-4-1997
KB : I'm not sure if you could call Leanda and I a mail art romance. I taught her art at high school many moons ago and when she left to go to college we kept in contact with mail art and she occasionally popped into school for a chat. When she went to university two years later, romantic sparks began to fly and I'm still besotted after almost 3 years!
RJ : The funny thing about this is that I read about you and Leanda in a mail art documentation (by Lancilotto Bellini, Italy) where mail artists were invited to give a short 'CV' about themselves. Yes, I would call it a mail art romance since you kept contact in a mail art way as well. Most long-participants in the network know about Bill Gaglione and Anna Banana. John M. Bennett told in his interview that he also met his wife through mail art. Vittore Baroni suggested in his interview that he knew a lot about mail art romances (see the last question he answered) and yet a lot about romances in the mail art network hasn't been written. Is it easy the expose one's privat life to the mail art network?
(together with the question I sent Keith bates the interview with Vittore Baroni, so he could read what he said as well)
next answer on 16-6-1997
KB : I think so. You expect mail artists to be broad-minded and tolerant of other's opinions. Even so, I was at first a bit nervous about how mail artists would react to the fact that I had been Leanda's teacher and the 24 years difference in our ages. I half-expected some disapproval but it didn't seem to bother anyone and we received some very nice comments like John Held Jr.'s "Age is just age".
Revealing details about your private life to family or neighbours is very "in your face", proximity can make disapproval dangerous ; in many jobs details about an unconventional private life can have economic repercussions. I think that distance and interval enable the networker to be less concerned about the consequences of revelations and more concerned about genuine expression.
RJ : Some mail artists never seem to write or even think about the negative sides there are to mail art. They like to praise mail art, the free exchange, no-money involved, 'documentation to all'-principle, etc. An example was how people reacted to the project by K. Frank Jensen (Denmark) when he started his 'missing documentation' project, where he wanted to list all the promissed documentations that never were sent out. You stated in your answer "You expect mail artists to be broad-minded and tolerant of other's opinions". Do you think that the average 'mail-artist' is different then the 'average person'? (Yes, I know, maybe a difficult question.....)
next answer on 25-4-1997
KB : Lots of mail artists don't really write about mail art at all, but I suspect we do think about negative aspects - time and money problems, will it all be superseded by the internet, the invasion of the Killer Tourists. Missing documentation is probably the least of my worries and in general I think mail art deserves whatever praise we lavish on it.
I have probably got a rather romantic view of mail artists but I think it's good to be a touch idealistic about things that mean a lot to you. I suppose you have to be prepared to moderate your idealism with realism, but part of being passionate about something involves setting aside logic and common sense, and just doing it because you've got to do it.
I think I rather innocently assume artists generally to be more balanced , tolerant and liberal than ordinary folks, other people tell me that artists are more likely to be self-centered, egotistical and abusive to their nearest and dearest. But mail artists I do expect to be different to the average person because he or she has chosen to be involved in a mutual activity with a very real sense of giving as well as receiving. Choosing to give makes people nicer. Mail art feeds your ego and also puts it in a wider perspective through collective goals. Each mail artist largely controls his or her own level of participation and financial outlay. More control, less stress, nicer person?
RJ : With your last answer you (as usual) enclosed some more tickets and other printed matters. The one I liked the most this time: "What is beauty? - It is the sudden flash of truth". by Joseph Beuys, a Quoticket. I remember that you also did a project called "Jackson Pollock's Shoes" where you asked mail artists to send their accidental masterpieces by their favourite artists. You seem to be influenced a lot by these modern artists. What do they teach you?
next answer on 28-8-1997
KB : I've just watched a television interview with Paul McCartney who was asked if he ever heard someone else's song and wished he'd written it. Sometimes you see an artwork that makes you wish it was your creation. Sometimes you find people who have similar ideas to your own or who have explored the same corners and it gives you a feeling that you're not alone, you're part of a larger process. Other artists' work can help put your own into context and it can also present new possibilities and fire your imagination.
Some of the mail art projects I've most enjoyed contributing to have been tributes - Creative Things's Homage to Kurt Schwitters was superb. There was a project about Joseph Beuys a while ago, more recently Warhol and renoir, and the current tribute to Cavellini. It gives you an excuse to reasearch or copy and try to do it their way. Or take the piss and do a Cadbury's Renoir chocolate box design.
RJ : Some mail artists copy a lot from others (mail artists with typical styles or the Dada of Fluxus-movements). Most artists try to develop their own style. Is a mail artist an artist? Is it o.k. when a mail artist only copies what other do?
next answer on 5-11-1997
KB : I've stopped worrying about copying. Copy widely enough and you'll end up with something new in collage or post-modernist fashion. They say "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery", and if you have something to say, you will find your own voice.
I'll never be the most origina; artist in the world, but I add my voice and it's fun to do things differently.
The old question "is it Art?" is a bit meaningless. Art is an open concept and anyone can be an artist (just by doing art) , mail art included. I suppose you might not consider a straight copy to be a very good artwork, so perhaps a better question might be "is it good art?"
RJ : Together with your answer for the interview I received Vittore Baroni's book "Arte Postale". A beautifully done book in italian language about the mail art network where you are included as well. But again a book done by a mail artists and not an outsider to the mail art network. Do you think one of these days an outsider of the network might write a book on this mail art?
next answer on 6-12-1997 (by e-mail)
KB: I can't help but feel that mail art is best experienced from the inside, by participating, so I think it is good that mail artists are the ones to put our practices into a wider context. Without any doubt outsiders will write books about mail art; they write about it now in art magazines and commentaries in catalogues and documentation. It's only a matter of time before the definitive history of mail art is written by an android.
RJ : How does it feel to send out e-mail?
next answer on 5-9-1998
KB : That's better! I'm back to long delays and snail mail. Sorry about that, I've been working, doing some music, and Leanda and I have been to New York. Add a holiday in Kefalonia and it all makes meagre mail art moments. I'm trying to catch up with a horrendous backlog.
I did feel a bit dizzy after sending you the e-mail but I don't feel any lasting ill-effects. I've even been trying with the idea of buying a Mac and a modem if the finances pick up sufficiently. Leanda's enthusiasm for HTML and webby things has rubbed off on me a bit. For the moment I'm a paper fetishist, a dead tree addict with an enduring passion for sweet smelling envelopes - don't you just love the golden colour and crispy texture of the American envelope I'm sending this answer in!
(The next question was only sent out on November 11th 1998 because I took a break in the interview-project)
RJ : Yes, I am still fond of that paper mail as well, although I do use a lot of electronic bits and bytes in my communication nowadays. You mentioned 'music' in your answer. Didn't you once make a beatiful tape with music related with tyhe theme mail-art?
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