Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Special delivery: These artists’ preferred medium was the mail

Illustration for article titled Special delivery: These artists’ preferred medium was the mail
Photo: William Gottlieb (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Mail art

What it’s about: Back in ancient times, there was no Snapchat, or Ello, or whatever new thing has already come out to confuse us and make us feel old. There was no Facebook, or Myspace, or even Friendster. Nay, in these primitive times, people would communicate by scratching symbols on a flattened piece of wood pulp and handing it to a “letter carrier,” who would take it across town or across the country, to be read days later (if you were lucky) by just one other person. These so-called “letters” were usually functional. But like anything else, mail can be turned into an art form if you’re determined and/or bored enough.

Biggest controversy: The section on “printing and copying” says that mail artists will often copy their work to send to multiple recipients. In recent decades, this was done via photocopying, but in the pre-Xerox era, artists would make their own rubber stamps, either to stamp artwork onto multiple letters or postcards, or to put their own spin on the markings the postal service adds to letters in transit. Artists would also make “add & pass” sheets, where each recipient was asked to make a copy of the work, then add their own contribution and pass it along. The article notes this method has “received some unfavorable criticism,” but does not specify why or from whom. Instead of “citation needed,” this claim received the rare and wonderful “According to whom?” note in Wikipedia.

Strangest fact: Besides using letters and postcards to disseminate drawings, paintings, and sketches, mail artists have pushed the form by testing the limits of what they can actually mail. Artists have tried sending irregularly shaped parcels, sculptures, and found objects, often with postage but no packaging, simply to see what would reach its destination. In the late ’90s, someone (Wikipedia does not specify who) sent postcards made of fake fur and of Astroturf.


Thing we were happiest to learn: Mail artists have taken advantage of every aspect of the postal system, up to and including stamps. Artistamps are fake postage stamps used as very small canvases. Some even purport to come from a fake country’s fake postal service. While the name wasn’t coined until 1982 (by artist T Michael Bidner, who made it his life’s work to track and and collect such stamps), the practice dates back to at least 1941, when German political prisoner Karl Schwesig created a series of drawings illustrating life in a concentration camp on the perforated margins of a sheet of stamps. The most famous artistamps are most likely the ones artist Jerry Dreva sent to David Bowie, who then used them on the cover of the single for “Ashes To Ashes.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The internet has taken its toll on the mail art trend. The movement peaked in the 1990s, and as the internet has become central to, let’s face it, most human activities in the industrialized world, many artists who would have once mailed their art have decided to save on postage and disseminate their work online to a larger audience. However, the internet has also helped those still pursuing mail art, as it’s a useful tool to document work, and put out a call for artists to join a project.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: When mail art first gained some recognition in the ’60s, it was quickly embraced by the Fluxus movement. Fluxus was a loose community of artists who produced experimental work, usually involving performance in non-traditional spaces. The group pioneered video as an artistic medium, and encouraged mixed media in various combinations. The movement’s best-known practitioners include Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Yoko Ono.

Further down the Wormhole: Because of its use of nontraditional spaces to display work, mail art is considered to be a part of the avant-garde. Also on Wikipedia’s list of avant-garde movements is microtonal music, which uses pitches in between the 12 traditional notes of the scale that are the foundation of Western music. While microtonal music is an old tradition, in 2016, composer Daniel Wilson brought it into the 21st century by creating a microtone-generating web application, based on 1940s sound equipment created by George de la Warr. de la Warr was a pioneer of radionics, a branch of pseudoscience that said that diseases could be cured by radio waves. His work is mentioned in Encyclopedia Of Occultism & Parapsychology, co-written by Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian parapsychologist (yes, just like in Ghostbusters) who wrote academic works about poltergeists and telepathic communication in the ’30s and ’40s. One of Fodor’s favorite subjects was Gef, an alleged talking ghost mongoose that haunted a farmhouse on the Isle Of Man. We’ll look at Gef and the family he haunted next week.


Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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