This is CHAPTER 2 of the thesis
CHAPTER 2 - FLUXUS AND POSTAL EPHEMERA.
In USA, whilst Johnson continued to use the postal system to transport his orchestrations, Fluxus - a constantly changing, international loose group of geographically separated people, through Europe and North America - participated in mailart and began to widen the network of mailart through publishing and to explore the creative potential of the elements of the postal system with postcards, stamps and franking. This chapter examines the uses of these elements by Fluxus and mailartists.
Whilst much has been written on Fluxus,
it has not been discussed in terms of its importance to the development of mailart. Writers on mailart on
the other hand have acknowledged the importance of Fluxus to mailart. Significantly, Chuck Welch chooses to organise his
book, Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology with the first chapter, written by
"reached out to the public" ... "and began to make real, its potential for social change and for contributing new forms of communication to the world."
This is a view that I share, but note the importance of the word "began". Friedman also sees that it was Fluxus that encouraged people to find-out about each other through the mail, a means of broadening knowledge and understanding of other artists' work without having to travel and meet them.
Although Robert Atkins in his "guide" mentions mailart under Fluxus:
"Fluxus was not limited to live events. Mail (or correspondence) art – postcard like collages or other small scale works that utilized the mail as a distribution system - were pioneered by Fluxus artists, especially Ray Johnson."
the statement is misleading in that Johnson was never a "Fluxus artist" and given that, it was not Fluxus artists who pioneered mailart. Writing about Fluxus is frequently accompanied by reproductions of works that show Fluxus use of the mail but do not comment on them in terms of mailart, seeing them simply as Fluxus works. John Hendrick's massive tome on Fluxus reproduces many works that used the mail, again without reference to mailart. In his introduction to this text, Robert Pincus-Witten describes Fluxus as an indictment of USA political and artistic (Abstract Expressionist) imperialism and a:
"campaign that subverted the inherited abstract value system - large, heroic, ambitious, and sexist - favouring an art that was intimate, ephemeral, and highly poetic."
This is a view of Fluxus that is echoed
by Hendricks in his foreword to the book and is not only applicable to Fluxus
but also to my reading of mailart in the
2.2. The Conception of Fluxus.
Fluxus was conceived in 1961/1962 by
George Maciunas (1931 - 1978), a Lithuanian architect and designer and part owner of the A/G gallery,
The first Fluxus manifestation was Maciunas' publication 'Fluxus' (1961) that grew out of the
musical events of the people centred around John Cage.
Many of those who were to become the mainstays of Fluxus had attended Cage's
course in Musical Composition at The New School For
At the start of 1963 Maciunas published the Fluxus, 'Purge Manifesto' which declared war on:"The world of bourgeois sickness, "intellectual", professional, and commercialized culture." Maciunas saw Fluxus as being free of confines and able to work in any way that it wished, without concern for tradition or the need for recognition by established art critics. Whilst the publication of Fluxus works and the opening of a Fluxus shop can be read as being a critical comment on commerce - given that the goods on offer were neither functional nor falling within accepted notions of Fine Art - there is also a danger of falling into the trap of becoming part of the very establishment that is being criticised. Maciunas' criticism of 'professional(ism)' is also problematic, given the professional role that he played as the highly committed organiser of Fluxus.
Rejection of the notion of 'Authorship' and therefore the 'Artist as Hero' was central to Maciunas' concept of Fluxus: participators were expected to sign their work - if at all - 'Fluxus.' Fluxus signalled participation, inclusivity rather than exclusivity, experimentation and creativity as being paramount and individual identity, career building and ego-feeding as being of no importance whatsoever. However, the reality was that the participators in Fluxus frequently did sign their work with their own names. Equally, mailartists usually sign their work as a principle because the spread of contacts is important to its activity. Although within mailart there is a tradition among some networkers of working anonymously by adopting pseudonyms, or 'combat names' as discussed in Chapter one, this is not the same issue as signing a work 'Fluxus' because these are individually held names and also because cynically it could be suggested that Maciunas' motive in encouraging this signing was giving Fluxus itself a higher profile than that of the individual participating artists. Whilst combat names, may well make the individual more memorable, they do not serve to promote mailart as a whole and mailart, unlike Fluxus has no intention of producing a saleable product.
Multiple Names relate to Combat Names in as much as that they do not reveal the legal name of the networker but their origins lie in the Fluxus anti-elitist, anti-artist-as-hero stance. Whilst Duchamp used pseudonyms such as R.Mutt and Rrose Selavy, these were not used to suppress his career as an artist, arguably the opposite was the case. In 1920 however, Raoul Hausmann suggested that the Berlin Dadaists should all call themselves 'Jesus Christ'. This can be considered to be a typically provocative Dadaist idea rather than a serious proposition but nevertheless, it is a multiple name proposal. Maciunas had more success with suggesting to the Fluxus artists that they should simply sign their work 'Fluxus', in a move against the perception of art as elitist behaviour and careerism. The notion of an anonymous work of art has the effect of preventing the placing of value on a work of art because of its 'brand name.'
The issue of putting a name to a work of
art was subsequently explored by mailartists and the
first mailart Multiple Name was created in the mid
1970s by two British mailartists, Stefan Kukowski and Adam Czarnowski who
tried to persuade other networkers to adopt the name
'Klaos Oldanburgh' (sic).
The ideology of this concept is called into question by their use of Roman
Numerals after the name to differentiate the different Klaos
Oldanburghs, thereby in effect drawing attention to
their being different people, with identities. One year before Maciunas' death, in 1977, David Zack a
The importance to Fluxus of publishing was to be significant for mailart in that it was the start of mailartists extending their work beyond the impetus of Johnson's 'letters', to making editions and journal based work.
In 1965, the first mailart book (and what seems to be the first published accounts of mailart after Wilcock's article) was produced by Dick Higgins - a prominent member of Fluxus - with the publication of Johnson's book, The Paper Snake. This work consists entirely of mailart works by Johnson from 1960 to 1964 and almost entirely sent to Higgins. These are mostly text with, in many cases, some resemblance to the text works of Yoko Ono from the 1950s and 1960s, often with barbed references to specific individuals, many of them famous from all walks of life. Although Johnson's address does appear, there is neither invitation, nor indication of the possibility of participation. The work makes no attempt to reach out to the uninitiated and as such perhaps would be unapproachable to most people, but would undoubtedly have made Fluxus artists more aware of the way in which Johnson used the mail. There is a short introductory essay by the American art critic, William Wilson, sometimes described as Johnson's unofficial biographer, eulogising about the work but adding no information on Johnson or mailart (see the introduction to this thesis).
Of particular importance to the spread
of mailart, Higgins also produced a newsletter in
1966, initially to present his essay on 'intermedia',
it went on to disseminate mailart ideas and to be the
inspiration for future network newsletters. Also in 1966,
Although mailing lists per se do not
appear anymore in mailart, documentation of mailart projects (discussed in Chapter 3) by tacit
agreement, consists of the names and addresses of all the participants, so
acting as a mailing list. Since Fluxus, there have been many mailart magazines which include name and address lists,
notably Lo Straniero, the production of Neopolitan Ignazio Corsaro who refers to his list as 'The Strangers
Directory', printing about 1,000 names and addresses, covering approximately
five letters of the alphabet each issue. This magazine is published in the
uniquely (for mailart) large edition of 10,000
copies, is professionally printed in Black and White and produced twice a year
since 1985, initially in Broad Sheet format. Corsaro's
magazine is a forum for discussion through letters sent to him and his reply to
them, through the magazine. Other means of increasing contacts occur in some
quite different journals, in
Fluxus production of magazines, developing from Maciunas' initial concept of a Fluxus magazine, was to become one of the mainstays of mailart, with magazines produced for a variety of reasons, from contacts and advertisers of mailart projects to publishers of visual and text based creative work. The word 'magazine' is often shortened to 'Zine', Stephen Perkins defines them as "self-produced, self-distributed, non-profit publications focusing on topics that are often ignored by the mainstream media." referring to self published, cheaply produced products with no commercial ambitions or outlets, he goes on to say that "the history of Zines can be traced back to the 1930s when science fiction fans started putting out their own slick science fiction magazines ... When those fans circulated their mimeographed writings amongst themselves, the zine was born".
Life magazine, with the punning
potential of its title, inspired a number of mailart
magazines that in some cases had large print runs, received grants and reached
out beyond the confines of the network. These magazines evolved organically in
the change of title and passing of production from mailartist
to mailartist. The first of these, and perhaps the
first magazine to be generated through the mailart network, was produced by General Idea who began File
magazine in 1971 with a grant from the Canada Council. File was printed in
editions of 3-5,000 and was sold at news-stands in major USA cities, but by
1974 it had ceased to address mailart, choosing to
concentrate on the general activities of General Idea, in preference to what
they perceived as being the 'Quikkopy crap' that they
were seeing in mailart as a response to the new
availability of photocopying and the broadening out from the hand-crafted works
that epitomised the early years of mailart. File was
conceived as an anagram of Life and the first issue, April 15th, was a
convincing imitation of a 1948 issue of Life magazine. In 1974
A further evolution of the name of the
journal was adopted by
The concept of common ownership of
journals was not Home's original idea, this can be
traced back to Fluxus.
The principle of magazines produced by individual participants sending their contributions as ready to print artwork, took the name 'assembling' from the title of a publication by New York writer and critic, Richard Kostelantz who, between 1970 and 1981, produced 11 editions of his magazine Assembling. This journal was unique amongst mailart magazines in being published in editions of 1000 copies, thanks to financial support from various sources. Kostelantz requested 8 1/2" X 11" artwork and sent each contributor three copies of the complete work.
Earlier, in 1968
2.4. Postal Elements.
For Fluxus, unlike mailart,
production of objects was for an intended sale. Central to the production of
Fluxus material was the mail order warehouse and shop which Maciunas
had opened, with the Flux-Hall for Performances, at
The recognition by Fluxus of the postal system as a means of keeping in touch with each other, and as a system for selling their work, led to Fluxus people seeing it as a medium and vehicle for their work. Paik operated through the mail, although not using his own stamps. 'The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism.', taking Johnson's fascination for bizarre names, was a series of works that Paik mailed out in 1963.
"To the subscriber of the Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism sometimes comes something by mail. once, or twice, or thrice, you will find a tiny 1 cent coin in a white envelope. or ..."
It is not clear how many Paik sent although there may be some clues given in his deliberately unlikely suggestions as to what he would send, including "arm-pit hair of a chicagoan negro prostitute". There is little interest shown in the appearance of the envelope although the use of his own rubber stamp should be noted.
Although mailart was not of primary importance to Fluxus, it is interesting to note how central a part it made of the postal system in a parody of marketing systems. Fluxus, taking the postal system seriously as a medium, (that is to say seriously from an often humorous point of view as was their wont) went so far as to produce a:
" Fluxus Postal Kit, prepared in 1966 complete with a Fluxpost cancellation mark, permitting an entire, Fluxus-controlled postal exchange to take place."... " By the end of the 1960s, a number of Fluxus people had begun to view mail art as a medium offering unique potentials and challenges. They saw beyond the basic issue of art through the mail, and began to explore the reaches and media of correspondence and mail themselves."
'Flux-post kit 7', 1968 shows the range of postal ephemera that Fluxus was involved in but it also shows - with its box container - how these objects were very much seen - at least by Maciunas - as commodities rather than explorations of the mail. For Maciunas there was little difference between Flux Tattoos, as an artwork / commodity and Flux Postal ephemera, in that both were produced to be sold and collected.
Although these objects were to add to the correspondence aspect of mailart that Johnson had begun, for mailartists, it is the interaction through the mail that is important. It is not insignificant in the consideration of mailart that every communication received, and sent, will have the marks of the postal system (postage stamps and franking) of, at least, its country of origin. These in themselves can lead to, both a better understanding between two countries and the simple though not to be devalued pleasure of an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities and charm of stamps and frankings of other countries. It is therefore apparent that irrespective of the networker's contribution and intervention, any mailart communication, in order to comply with the postal system, has intrinsic interest. For Fluxus and mailartists, there was also the possibility of adding their own faux-stamps and faux-frankings.Faux-stamps were to become known as Artistamps.
Historically, the first recorded non official stamps are understood to have been made long before Fluxus, by Karl Schwesig. As with the history of most things however, earlier examples come to light and this is no less the case with artistamps. Artistamp News, in 1991 (1/2) published a brief article on rubberstamp produced stamps by Michael V. Hitrovo from 1914. A subsequent article in Artistamp News 2/1 1992 describes an even earlier example from the last century.43 More recently, an American, Donald Evans, looked to stamps as a format for artwork, though not a mailartist, he made one-off stamps. Evans began making stamps in 1957 when he was twelve years old and continued making them until his untimely death in a fire in 1977. Evans' water-colour stamps from imaginary kingdoms were exhibited in galleries and sold by him, thereby distancing him from the practice of networkers. None of these historical precedents relate to mailart in that they were not part of an exchange within a network and serve only to demonstrate that unofficial stamps had been produced before networkers began to make them.
The earliest stamps made as part of mailart activity were those of the prolific Fluxus member
Robert Watts who in 1962 printed 'Safe Post / K.U.K. Feldpost
/ Jokpost.' These stamps were subversive in that
whilst they imitated commercial stamps in their borders, the central images
were taken from photographs of naked women. The 1963 'Yamflug/5 Post 5'44 also
suggest commercial stamps with their traditional borders but are confusing to
the viewer because of their evident non-commercial heads.
By 1974 artiststamps
had become well established as a mailart medium, with
thirty-five networkers from nine countries
participating in the first "Artists' Stamp and Stamp Images" exhibition,
which was held in
As James Felter, a Canadian mailartist, recognised in an introductory essay to a Seattle Artistamp exhibition, that postage stamps give a universal message of authority, functioning in a manner that is instantly understood throughout the world.
"One symbol they (mailartists) have found is the postage stamp, or rather the postage stamp format. This is one of the few existing symbols of officialdom, of authority, and of low economic value that is recognised in every nook and cranny of the globe. It is a universal symbol of a means of communication and a carrier of an unlimited variety of 'authorized' messages in the form of words, numbers, and images (or any combination thereof). It is a symbol that is used everyday and collected throughout the world. The artists of the global village have adopted this symbol and named it 'Artistamp.'"The use of this old symbol as a carrier of new symbols, new visual messages and new aesthetic discoveries lends an aura of authenticity to the creative efforts of the artists of the global village and legitamizes their imagination with the international society."
Stamps are also a very low cost item
carrying an endless variety of images and texts that can be seen as miniature,
multiple artworks. The imitation of postage stamps by mailartists
is a logical decision, giving their enormous potential for the use of text and
image in miniature and relevance to the activity of postal art. In spite of
this, only a small number of mailartists produce
artistamps, presumably because they perceive them to be too difficult and /or
expensive to produce. Some of those who do produce artistamps on the other
hand, go to great lengths to create postal systems which at times even include
fake countries, languages and even Royalty. Robert Rudine,
There is an established precedent for non-postage stamp stamps, namely in what are called Cinderellas, that is to say the commercially produced stamps with no postal value, used as part of an advertising or promotional campaign.
"...the stamp format was widely used as an advertising medium throughout Europe and America from 1900 through 1940, as one of the only affordable means advertisers could use to circulate full colour reproductions of their products or facilities. After 1940 the medium died out quickly when technologies of colour and black and white printing were integrated, and colour advertising in the context of magazines, became available."
The design considerations for Cinderellas are the same as for most aspects of postage stamps and are also appropriate to artistamps. Whilst affordable to business, commercial printing is of course not affordable by the average networker and so whilst Cinderellas remain as a precedent, they do not indicate a standard method of production. Similarly, the production designing of postage stamps by artists is not related to mailart quite simply because postage stamps are the mark of authority. Whilst artistamps do not necessarily seek to subvert or mock the authority, they exist alongside it as a personal statement or mark.
In contrast to the hand produced works of Schwesig and Evans, the usual medium for artistamps has become the photocopier, hence the considerable increase in the production of artistamps since the widespread availability of photomechanical reproduction, especially the colour-copier. Other stamps are hand printed, silk screen for example and many are produced by rubber-stamping or designed and produced on computers. These images if hand produced may well be unique stamps and the printed stamps may be produced in editions of any number or unlimited.
Fluxus work whilst at times poking fun
at and parodying the establishment, tended to achieve their aim through humour, some artistamp makers on
the other hand have taken risks by subverting the official postage due. The
simplest form is simply to send mail with no stamp, but that runs the risk of
the recipient having to pay, which at least in the case of mailartists
from countries where incomes are relatively low, is not an acceptable risk.
Simply using an artistamp is another possibility.
Famously (although not part of mailart networking)
Yves Klein made his IKB stamps in 1958 to send out on the envelopes of his
invitations to the exhibition Le Vide. Reputedly, these were the only stamps on
the envelopes and successfully reached their destinations without surcharges
being added. More provocatively, in 1970, USA. mailartist, William Farley's USXX
stamp of a rear view of a head with a pony tail in an early
The simplest form of artistamps is to
work with the official stamps, this can be for
aesthetic, subversive reasons or purely for fun. The more stamps that are
placed on the envelope, the more possibilities there are of aesthetics, with
choice of colour, placing and relative positioning. An example of this is to
use the lowest denomination stamp and to totally cover the envelope with the
stamps, thereby making a minimal work of art. This kind of 'game' is not unique
to mailartists at all, and is often played by friends
who have never heard of mailart. Subversively,
inverting the Queen's head demonstrates disrespect, if not a treasonable
offence and placing the stamp in an attempt to avoid franking so that it can be
reused by the recipient are all strategies that mailartists
use. Actually working on the stamps and altering them is another possibility
that has been explored by an English mailartist who
limits his introductions to his combat name of Red Herring who in 1988 over
painted a stamp of
Rubber Stamps, or Rubberstamps as they have come to be known by mailartists, were invented by businessmen in the mid to late nineteenth century and by the late 50s and early 60s were widely used by both Fluxus and Nouveau Realists as a medium for producing artworks.
The combination of the mundanity and power of rubberstamps gives
"a symbol of power - their role is to validate or invalidate something. There are many symbols of power and we are frequently confronted by them. But none is as common and petty as the rubber-stamp. Their lack of sophistication and glamour seems to contradict the enormous power conveyed by them."
This is particularly evident in
oppressed countries where, as discussed later, received mail has usually born
the mark of the censor. Rubberstamps fall into several categories,
the official stamp is associated with authority and validation of, for example,
licenses, certificates and passports: these actions and documents acknowledge
and approve us. The very medium or carrier of mailart,
the Royal Mail, validates our messages with rubber-stamps and officialdom in
general uses them to number our documents. Fluxus used faux frankings,
Domestically there is a formal but far
less official use as a convenient method of producing letter heads and 'sender'
address stamps for the back of envelopes. These were used by Fluxus and Johnson
and are used by most mailartists today, partly for
convenience. Name stamps have also been used for fake institutions, such as, as
already stated, Paik's '
The use of rubberstamps as cheap movable type has long had an attraction for children with 'John Bull' printing sets, allowing them to play at typesetting. It is this element of play that many mailartists find attractive, with the hand-crafted appearance of something that is close to a commercial graphic process but with the visual attraction of its imperfections, so much loved by Warhol in his early 1960s photo silk-screen prints. Although most type for Fluxus work was generated by letterpress, (by Maciunas usually) Vautier for example enjoyed the use of rubber stamp type.
In 1974 Herve Fischer, a French artist, published rubber-stamp images and in 1978 the first Rubberstamp Album was produced in America by Joni Miller and Lowry Thompson who subsequently edited the massive bimonthly journal Rubberstampmadness begun in 1979 and still running commercially (currently 92 pages). The 1970s also saw a proliferation of companies, particularly in the USA., offering a wide range of ready made decorative rubberstamps and a bespoke service giving an enormous range of creative possibilities. This, coupled with mailartists beginning to carve their own rubberstamps led to a considerable increase in the use of rubberstamps in mailart.
The use of the rubberstamp by networkers varies considerably in intention and effect from networker to networker. For some, at times as humorous pastiche and at others to make critical comment: this impression can only be created with the blandness of commercially produced rubberstamps. Hand cut rubberstamps however, created usually with a scalpel from an eraser, inevitably present an entirely different image, lacking the authority of precision but with the visual attraction that goes with hand-crafted work. Equally, with Rubberstampmadness giving examples of how to create complete pictures in multi colours purely from rubberstamps, the creative possibilities are considerable. Whilst the latter suggests more of a craft-hobbyist approach, the experimental nature of mailartists has resulted in very imaginative rubberstamps and uses for them, whether commercially or hand produced. In an age in which for many networkers, making contact with people is more important than laboured hand produced creativity, the rubberstamp offers a very quick, accessible and immediate medium with considerable potential: expediency and pragmatism dominating ideology.
The beginnings of handmade and
commercially produced picture postcards, in
Whilst the sending of Picture Postcards by mailartists to each other as mailart is probably usually because of a wish to share the image, because of its beauty, humour, personal relevance or any one of a number of reasons, it could be seen to indicate either a lack of concern for any attempt at considering the communication as art or on the contrary, possibly the consideration of the chosen postcard as a ready-made in the Duchampian sense. Fluxus members often sent messages to each other on postcards but it was Ben Vautier who used the postcard as a creative vehicle in itself. In 1965, he made what was probably the first pure conceptual mailart work - 'The Postman's Choice' in which he produced a double-sided postcard, inviting the postman to decide which side s/he wished to select to determine the recipient. Whilst being an admirable work in terms of conceptual process, Ben's postcard lacks an interest in interchange and therefore remains outside mailart networking. Further, Maciunas' request, "can I reprint 1000 of them! and sell for 10 c each?" indicates very clearly that for Maciunas at least they were perceived as a commodity to be sold and used by others rather than as a conceptual usage of the post by the artist.
Artist's Postcards became so popular as a medium for mailart
exchange that by 1971, two Canadian networkers,
Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov in
Maciunas' need to control and organise Fluxus extended to thorough documentation of Fluxus activities and archiving Fluxus material. Whilst the habit of documenting and archiving work is one that has been adopted by many mailartists, unilateral control is both alien to mailart and not possible, given the vast numbers and disparity of its adherents. Although Johnson was a figurehead of mailart, at least in the late fifties and early sixties, he was nevertheless, keen to encourage exchange that went beyond his control. Maciunas' willingness to devote himself to the cause of Fluxus and his generosity in giving work away are however, very much a fundamental part of mailart attitudes.
Fluxus was highly influential on mailart with its, philosophies, attitudes and internationalism. Of particular importance was its usage of postal elements; stamps and postcards and especially with the publishing of address lists which greatly enlarged the number of participants. This was partly responsible for mailart taking on a much broader geographical and cultural spread than it had been possible to achieve simply with the efforts of one man - Johnson. Mailart became a union of two elements, the orchestration and interchange through the mail as practised by Johnson and the playing with the elements of the postal system which - whilst not generally used as mailart - were demonstrated by Fluxus.
Where Fluxus failed was in its attempt to rid itself of authorship by the simple tactic of requiring the participants to sign themselves 'Fluxus', had this happened, it would have changed the way in which the work has been commodified, particularly given the illustrious careers that many of the Fluxus artists went on to have - without names, the historian looses interest. The anonymity of mailart is something that was to become central to its operation and it is with the theories of authorship and art that Fluxus man Joseph Beuys - building on Fluxus ideas - was to propound, that mailart was to develop its rationale, as I debate in the final chapter.
It was natural with the anti-establishment idealism and optimism of the late sixties and early seventies that mailart should grow beyond the life and parameters of Fluxus and Johnson. The burgeoning of mailart reflected the tremendous interest that grew at the time in the seventies of exploring and setting-up new and alternative systems, which in mailart was to be centred on MAPs (Mail Art Projects), their exhibiting and documentation.
Fluxus: The seven original members, George Maciunas; Dick Higgins; Emmett Williams; Alison Knowles; Nam June Paik; Ben Patterson and Wolf Vostell were soon joined by George Brecht; Philip Corner; Toshi Ichijanagi; Ben Vautier; Jackson Mac Low; Yoko Ono; La Monte Young; Charlote Moorman; Daniel Spoerri; Josef Beuys and Robert Filliou, the last three being peripheral members.
The complete thesis by
His current mailing-address: