Submit your Mail Art
Prompt: We live in real time.
Often associated with the Fluxus movement and Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, mail art has a deep association with Printed Matter’s mission of circumventing the institutional spaces through which art is usually distributed and consumed and providing artworks directly to the audience to be experienced in the context of their daily lives. In our digital age there are countless ways to engage with artists and art movements around the globe, but we thought we’d go analog—back to printed matter!
Send us your art in mail form before May 18, 2020! We’ll be selecting one piece of mail art per day to feature as an Instagram Story. Once we return to our normal operations, we’ll make a selection of submissions to be featured in a publication, and all submissions will be saved in Printed Matter’s institutional archive. Please note there will be no returns.
Please use caution when sending us physical mail. If you or anyone in your household feels ill, or if you do not feel safe traveling to a post office, please send a photo of your submission to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Whenever it feels safe to physically mail the submission, please do so—we would love to receive as many physical submissions as possible.
During these challenging times we also want to acknowledge the postal workers, who are providing an essential public service and not receiving hazard pay. In addition, the United States Postal Service is under the threat of collapse and has received no aid from the federal government. To sign a petition in support of the USPS, you can text “USPS” to 50409, or you can sign these petitions for Immediate Financial Relief for USPS and Hazard Pay for all USPS Employees.
Aaron Krach on Mail Art
Gerard Barbot on Mail Art
Mark Pawson on his 1980s Mail Art Archive
Tolling Elves with Thomas Evans
Mitsuko Brooks on Mail Art
Jeremy Jams on his Wallpaper Postcards
History and Context
[Mail art] is a way to convey a message or a kind of idea to someone which is not verbal; it is not a confrontation of two people. It’s an object which is opened in privacy, probably, and the message is looked at … You look at the object and, depending on your degree of interest, it very directly gets across to you what is there … —Ray Johnson
It was in the late 1950s that standard letters and postcards, through a surge of creativity and in the spirit of anti-institutionalism, grew into what we now know as ‘mail art’. Consisting of postcards, envelopes, rubber stamps, stickers, collage, and other paper ephemera, mail art in fact only has one common characteristic: that it be circulated through the postal service.
Although its origins can be traced back to the Dadaists and Italian Futurists, New York artist Ray Johnson is considered by many as the founder of contemporary mail art. In the 1950s, he began sending out small-scale collages he called “moticos,” some of which included simple instructions for the recipient. The mail was often meant to be sent back, or forwarded to another person, creating effective chains of artistic correspondence.
Mail art proved to be successful in countering existing institutions and galleries. Artists began corresponding with each other, disseminating their art, and creating notoriety through this unconventional method. Thus, due to its explicitly populist and anti-commercial tenants, mail art found a place within the countercultural art movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
With this communal artistic concept and approach, circles of artists started to form all across the United States and abroad. Johnson’s own works and the consequent network of artists creating mail art came to be known as the New York Correspondence School. Another collective contemporary to the Correspondence School was Image Bank, founded in 1970 by Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov. Image Bank also used mail art as a means to create an alternative economy of artistic exchange. Members created gender-bending alter egos and responded to other members’ prompts with artwork that often incorporated wordplay and visual puns.
Mail art’s fusion of collage-making and performance made it a popular artistic practice amongst Fluxus artists of the late 1960s, such as Robert Watts, Ben Vautier, and Robert Filliou. They even created postal ephemera such as sheets of postage stamps, rubber stamps, and a “Flux Post Kit”. Through these experiences, Filliou coined the term “Eternal Network” in order to articulate how mail art had become a new form of international communication and social change.
Mail art, as a democratic response to the often elitist art world, attempted to dismantle the hierarchical system of museums and galleries. It was a populist form of art, allowing participation simply by writing a letter, sending a postcard, or responding to an open call for submissions. Today, the art form has expanded to include emails, faxes, and blogs. The distinctly democratic and inclusive qualities of mail art keep the form alive, even in our digital age.