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Networking Beyond Happy Hour:

Using a Government System to Connect Artists

The term "networking" usually conjures up images of Kenneth Cole-clad young professionals (read yuppies) juggling embossed business cards and shiny cell phones while making important career connections over martinis. However, networking in the mail art realm is considered a collaborative effort; and when the concept first evolved in the 1960s the U.S. Postal Service proved the most accessible and cheapest method for artists to exchange ideas across the country.

The Fluxus group, a loose organization of artists distinguished by their desire to consider anything as art, helped set the mail art movement in motion by employing the postal system as a public means of transmitting private art. Boundaries of the postal system were tested when artists would attempt to send each other physically impractical objects, including Ken Friedman's disassembled, unwrapped chairs. (USPS restrictions weren't as strict in the 1960s as they are today.)

The use of postal communication as a mode of uniting artists was expanded into a public broadcast when Fluxus artist Dick Higgins created a newsletter sent to thousands of peers that assembled ideas of art and featured contemporary works.

Since then mail art has evolved into a broad category; rubber stamps, photocopies, postal stamp art, and decorative envelopes have found themselves under this umbrella. And the concept is not limited in geography to the U.S.; the Russian Futurists experimented with rubber stamps in the first quarter of the century and mail art remains an active movement in Japan. Mail art exhibitions have appeared in Italy, Uruguay, Poland and the U.S.

The Joan Flasch Artist's Books collection, in SAIC's Flaxman Library, owns a substantial part of artist Dorothy Patrick Harris' correspondences collected during the 1980s and early '90s. Among the 360 artists' pieces represented in the collection, one finds envelopes crafted out of brown paper bags, postcards, and magazine images sewn on recycled envelopes.

Fernand Barbot's correspondences are often mailed in various types of paper bags, many featuring rubber stamps of lunch bags with bug antennae and legs inked on. The mailings include art clippings and fliers of upcoming shows.

A self-described rubber stamp enthusiast, Susan Farm-Heumann stamps and sews hearts onto her envelopes containing a baby announcement, family pictures, and lengthy letters. A Judy Dennis piece involves a Chevy Caprice Classic magazine ad fashioned into an envelope with photography of a gallery inside.

Although mail art didn't at first address any conscious political issues, the use of postal stamps guaranteed that someone's feathers would be ruffled. The earliest known example of postal stamps created for an art exhibition is Robert Watts' "FBI Most Wanted" stamps.

Robert Watts' stamps also were present in the Fluxus Postal Kit, printed in 1966 and 1967. The kits all included sheets of Watts' stamps and the Official Fluxus Cancellation Stamp by Ken Friedman packaged in a box with an image of a mailbox on the front.

The iconic quality of the postal stamp translated well into Andy Warhol's series-oriented paintings. More literally, George Maciunas' "Fluxpost" sheets featured, on perforated paper, portrait heads that progress by age and whose denomination increases stamp by stamp. The tactile, utilitarian properties of the artist stamp separate it from the "high-art" Warhol paintings intended for a gallery.

Although artist stamps vary in political tone, they share physical characteristics in that they are printed on a perforated adhesive paper, possess a denomination and a country of origin, and are affixed to an envelope.

When it comes to conceptual qualities, artist Patrick Marchand points out in Timb! res d"artistes that "postage stamps are by nature commemorative." It is this politically charged quality that artists like the Crackerjack Kid (aka Chuck Welch) take advantage of. Welch"s "Boycott Exxon" stamp sheet bearing a skull and crossbones (similar to Michael Hernandez de Luna"s "Anthrax" stamp) with an Exxon ship leaking oil into a dead-fish littered ocean took on a performative quality when a former Exxon stockholder affixed the stamps to his cancelled stock certificates and sent them to the venerable oil giant. The stamps were also placed on gas pumps by the artist.

Of course, legality is an issue when an artist's stamp makes it through the postal system. Pierre Restany writes in Timbres d"artistes: "When [the postal office employee] is submerged by an abundant flood of mail, he gets to the point where acute awareness is replaced by the instinctive gesture. It was as a result of this that during the preview to Yves Klein's Epoque Bleue exhibition in Paris in 1957 a whole group of invitations stamped with a small blue square marked IKB arrived at their destinations without being stamped with the official postage seal."

Whether using faux postal stamps to test the fine line between fraud and free speech or rubber stamps to give the sterile business envelope a decorative flair, mail art is a reciprocal concept that goes beyond the art as object aesthetic.

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