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Dieter Daniels
«The Art of Communication: From Mail Art to the e-mail»

When artists turn to a new medium, often the limits of the definition of art are tested. Given this premise, a comparison can be made between a few phenomena which seem quite disparate in contemporary practice and yet, upon closer inspection, reveal closely related artistic strategies: the numerous forms of Mail Art since the 1960’s and the new approaches to art using electronic networks and telecommunications methods. There are currently several cultural signs for a bridging of the gap between the 1960’s and the 1990’s: from the neo-psychedelic trend in the techno scene, to fashion featuring bell-bottomed pants and platform soles, to the relationship between art and technology. It is difficult to formulate overall cultural oscillations such as these in precise terms, and yet there are a few principal themes which can be seen to resurface in this transformation. Let us enumerate, by way of trial, just three of these themes:

In the 1960’s, some of these ideological approaches furnished decisive motifs to artists who began trying out new media. It would be wrong, however, to limit these approaches to the electronic media, for at the time the goal was not so much «media art» as an «intermedia art» seeking and creating a multiplicity of new forms of expression, thereby dissociating itself just as much from monopolized electronic mass communication as from established museum-centered art concepts. Today, we know that none of these approaches really brought about a decisive change in the existing conditions. Instead, the attempt to test the limits of the definition of art proved the enormous power of existing structures to assimilate to new conditions. For instance, the art market was certainly able to swallow the new art forms directed against it: the happening, conceptual art and media art. As it turns out, one of the basic principles of the market came into clear view only as a result of these approaches: that nearly all media, concepts or relics can be sold. All that matters is the marketable, prominent name appearing beneath the work in question.

Even if the failed utopias of the 1960’s cannot simply be recycled for the 1990’s, there are still positions originating in this period the trailblazing significance of which can be realized perhaps only in retrospect. Among these are also names not found among the prominent front row of the father figures of the 1960’s and whose traces to date have for the most part been spared from the reification of the museum. Representative of many others, here we can name Ray Johnson and Mieko Shiomi, two artists who developed models for art as communication which still get along without electronic technology and yet already serve in part to highlight the state of consciousness which the new media entail.

Ray Johnson can be considered the father of Mail Art. Following several exhibitions with the New York School of abstract expressionism, he befriended Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, and yet to this day he has kept his distance from all of the trends and lives outside the art scene, in Locust Valley, near New York. In the mid-1950’s, he began producing hundreds of little collages incorporating elements of his entire surroundings. At the same time, the mails became an integral component of the creation of his works: he sent collages by mail, used pieces of his mail in the collages themselves, sent pieces with the request to fellow artists to forward them or work on them, used the results in the event that they were returned to him, etc. A process without conclusion developed, involving more and more persons and leading to the establishment of the New York Correspondence School. Over the years, Ray Johnson alone sent out thousands of pieces of Mail Art, and whoever corresponded with him thus became the owner of a collection of his works, free of charge. Out of the germ cell of the New York Correspondence School grew a worldwide Mail Art movement the offshoots of which continue in operation to this day, even after the «declaration of death» which Johnson sent to The New York Times in 1972.

Even though in the meantime Mail Art has become in part a hobby for obsessive archivists and club members, something palpable remains of its original, anarchic impulse. Ray Johnson’s own work already contains many elements which then came to full fruition in the network of artists he initiated: Johnson creates collective products which arise out of the voluntary or involuntary participation of others; in the process, he alters his own identity again and again under numerous pseudonyms, in his correspondence establishing several half-fictive, half-real fan clubs and topic groups.

Many of these elements turn up again today in worldwide communication via Internet. News groups, fan clubs, fictive identities and constant recycling and «forwarding» as well as the combination of messages to form new information—these developments appear to represent an elemental fascination with such complex communication structures—be it via post or in the electronic web. In this connection, to date postal mail has had the advantage of permitting transmission of images and materials of whatever nature, whereas until recently e-mail was confined to mere text in standardized ASCII-code. On the other hand, distribution enlisting the digital medium is not confined to originals; every message can be transmitted and modified hundreds of times, without any loss or decay, and can be read and commented upon by everyone in the net. When new software (Mosaic, World Wide Web) makes the net multimedia-capable, this could well lead to a completely new dimension of worldwide montage of a collective world of texts, images and sounds.

Mieko Shiomi started out as a musician and through Nam June Paik came into contact with the Fluxus movement in the mid-1960’s. In 1964, she lived in New York for a short time, where she participated in Fluxus projects. From 1965 until this day, she has been living back in Osaka and is, working from Japan, one of the active participants in Fluxus. As a result of the distance between her and the rest of the Fluxus activists, communication across the distance grew to become a central element in her work. She says: «I found a new method for events—I saw the earth as a stage and used the post to put on the same event with people in many countries, everyone with his or her own realization of the piece, and then entered the participants’ reports on a map of the world—that is how the series of Spatial Poems began.» (Letter to the author) In Spatial Poem No. 1, in 1965, every participant was called upon by mail: «Write a word on the enclosed card and place it somewhere.» Perhaps the world map with its reports of results shows most clearly the international character of Fluxus as the first truly «intercontinental» art movement of the 20th century. Shiomi’s work, just as with that of Paik, has a strong character of immateriality, revealing origins in music and in Asian thought as well. It combines approaches in conceptual art and Mail Art to form a new, global composition which anticipates aspects of telecommunication such as simultaneity and ubiquity. That is why her work has also led Shiomi to enlist telecommunications, for example in the «Fluxus Remote Festival» held in 1994 in Osaka and featuring international, simultaneous telephone contributions.

These comparisons cannot obscure the fact that there lies a decisive difference between Mail Art in the 1960’s and today’s worldwide electronic communication. It is the difference between an artistic experiment and media-technological reality—a difference which is as unbridgeable as that between bow and arrow and a machine gun. Like nearly all innovations in media technology, the Internet has military origins, and yet in contrast with other technologies, to date it has served primarily scientific and cultural purposes. As an inter-university network, it has long since become an indispensable source of information in the natural-sciences and technology areas. The leap to private users is currently taking place—meaning that it is now the artists’ turn as well.

Approx. three years ago, a veritable boom in art projects using electronic networks began; only a few of these can be briefly sketched here. One of the pioneering projects is «The Thing», initiated in 1991 in New York by the German-American artist Wolfgang Staehle, which meanwhile has centers in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna and London. Along with numerous discussion forums on art theory, news and gossip, as well as a few on-line versions of art periodicals, recently «The Thing» has also begun offering works of art in the form of graphics which can be downloaded from the Web to a user’s personal computer. Art as «shareware» in a digital, unlimited edition, in exchange for a modest charge and with no storage problems as long as there is room on the PC’s hard drive—without doubt a promising-sounding model.

Staehle explicitly situates his theoretical roots in the 1960’s and cites Joseph Beuys: «What mattered to Beuys was the social sculpture, an artistic production made jointly by a group or a community. ‹The Thing› is just such a sculpture: it realizes the Beuysian idea of direct democracy, of political community as social structure. At the same time, it represents an expansion in the notion of what constitutes art.» (Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 22, 1994) Already in the case of Beuys, in spite of it all, good intention led to a unique cult of genius surrounding the person of the master.

The project is also somewhat archaic insofar as «The Thing» attempts to set up an independent art network which to date, with hardware of its own, has remained an autonomous unit beyond the existing, globe-encircling network structures of the Internet and to this extent has projected the social situation of contemporary art with all its limitations onto the electronic network.

Working on a server in the renowned high-tech forge shop of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the Austrian group HILUS has set up the UnitN room which can be accessed via Internet: a virtual exhibition, discussion and project space in which the Berlin artist duo of Dellbrügge/de Moll were the first guests. Whoever enters into the space, which consists of nothing more than a textual description and dialogues among users, is also greeted after exhibition hours by Victor and Nadine. After a while, however, these two turn out to be not associates but computer programs. What remains is the view from the window looking out upon an industrial district which, according to the description, is to be imagined as «typical Vienna». Indicative for the net projects named (and additional projects such as «Handshake» or «Museum für Zukunft» from Berlin) is that they operate under the name of a collective and are not beholden to the cult of the individual which is otherwise the foundation of every artist’s career. Beyond doubt, in this regard there are features involved here which can also be found in Mail Art and the idea of an open art work which comes into being only with the participation of the observer/user.

The group by the name of «Ponton Media» is a typical example of the link forged between ideas of intermedia art and the electronic media. Despite changes in the group’s name, throughout a 15-year period, the central people have remained the same: Karel Dudesek, Benjamin Heidersberger, Gerard Couty and, until recently, Mike Hentz. Their roots lie in the group named «Minus delta T», which gained notoriety with the Bangkok project begun in 1980. The idea behind this project was to transport by truck a stone weighing several tons from England to Bangkok and to make this a comprehensive art occasion with events and performances in the cities on the way there. A necessary component of the entire project is to enlist all available media for documentation and for the events. With the container city realized first for the Ars Electronica in 1986 under the title «Ponton Projekt», the use of electronic media came to the fore. As of this juncture, the media are no longer merely means to an end but increasingly the vehicle of the actual message itself. This led, by way of several intermediate steps, to the «Piazza Virtuale» on the occasion of documenta 9 in 1992, this time under the group name «Van Gogh TV». Here, for the first time, the capabilities of television as an interactive medium were put to the test. Over the course of a full 100 documenta days, viewers of the project could intervene, via telephone, in the TV program which had been transformed into a multimedia screen. In the meantime, the catch phrase of «interactive television» had also reached the magazine sections of the daily press. Beyond any doubt, «Piazza Virtuale» was an artistic test case for the future of the mass media. Currently, discussion is going on everywhere with regard to the fusion of television and computer, i.e. between the old «networks» of broadcasting and the electronic net. «Ponton Media» has already shown a test run of this at the last Ars Electronica in 1994, where viewers took part in a discussion with a live moderator via computer modem.

The German-American artist Ingo Günther even takes art’s claim that it can provide a model for some future reality a step further, directly developing the idea of an entire state constituted primarily via the electronic net: the «Refugee Republic», intended to bring together the world’s 19 million refugees to form a shared «virtual state», providing them with a political organization which can make them a «capital» for the rest of the world instead of a burden. The Refugee Republic «requires no national territory in the traditional sense.» Instead, one can «classify parts of the electromagnetic spectrum as quasi-territorial space, thereby making it the economic as well as the public-law basis for the Refugee Republic. … The Refugee Republic is based on the shared property of difference, held together through worldwide information networks (Internet)… .» (Project paper 1993) If this sounds too speculative for some—especially in the truncated form in which it is presented here—they should recall Günther’s project of a pirate radio station in East Germany which began in Leipzig in 1990 as «Channel X» and has now become a legal radio station and will go into regular operation this year.

The fusion of TV and PC to form the TV/PC will cast fundamental doubt on the boundaries between individual media and mass media. Does this provide artists with the chance they have been waiting for to finally launch «their» artistic medium? But doesn’t this render void any notion of an opposition between non-cultural mass media and a small, visionary community of artistic utopians anyway? Is art today in any position at all to stake a claim to political effectiveness, or need it do nothing further than satisfy the norms of self-imposed «political correctness»?

Doubtless, there are ideological bases common to the worldwide net community and Mail Art. The catch words: «non-commercial», «cooperative», «open to everyone», «anti-elitist», «collective-creative», «politically effective», etc., enjoyed or still enjoy a high status both in artists’ circles as well as among net freaks. Above all, it is the anti-commercial aspect which unites the idea of Mail Art, which reaches its collectors with free delivery, and the ethics of the Internet, where an unwritten law until now has been that no commercial offers or advertising shall be fed into the mix. The net, growing and proliferating at colossal rates, «comes closer to genuine anarchy than anything before it.» (Internet expert Clifford Stoll, Spiegel 32/1994) Given the enormous expansion of the Web, however, the commercial pressure being exerted upon this enormous information potential is growing. Since there is—and this is the flip-side of anarchy—no law and no authority against commercial use, it will hardly be possible to put a stop to this process. But perhaps in this very respect, art is a step ahead of the communications media: In the art world it became apparent 20 years ago, that these utopias come to an end, the moment the system outgrows a small community of initiates.

This text was written in September 1994. It reflects the situation before the discussion about Net Art started. The World Wide Web was not yet the domain of the New Econony and Ray Johnson was still alive.

© Dieter Daniels 1994

published in: Neue Bildende Kunst, Nr. 5, Berlin, 1994, S. 14–18

Russian translation published in: Terra Incognita, International Magazine for Contemporary Culture, Nr. 8, Themenheft Net Art, 1999, S.16–19