the Theory and Practice of Mail Art
(from S@TP #3, March 1995)
I first heard of mail art while I was in college, at Penn State University. I heard strange rumors of a group of people who shared artwork by way of the postal service. Odd, I thought. I had been participating in this practice for years, creating segmented postcards with artwork including collage and rubber stamps on the back (I was obsessed with rubber stamps for some reason). I had never suspected that there was a name for what I was doing, let alone a whole group of people who did these things.
For one of my classes, 2D Design, we had an actual mail art project, to create a piece that was to go into an exhibit, and eventually into a time capsule which would be opened 100 years in the future, supposedly. It was kind of a neat idea that sparked my interests in such pursuits.
A few years later, I started ASKalice, which began as a series of collages, changed into a T-shirt company and finally a sort of recording label, before changing into it's current manifestation. I posted flyers and sent out dozens of postcards to get people to exchange "collages, drawings, photos, Xerox, etc.", but success remained elusive. Some artists seemed so attached to their ideas and artwork that they wouldn't send me any for fear that I would exploit them for fame and fortune, and others had no concept of what I wanted them to send me at all. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I finally found the network, via a guy named Oliver Squash who puts out his own tapes, and was a rather enthusiastic network participant. Oliver put up these little slips of paper in music stores at Penn State. I found one and gave it to my friend Herr Brine, who sent Squash a tape. To make a long story short, Squash sent Brine a chain letter, which Brine (after letting it sit around for six months) sent to me.* It had the address of one Ashley Parker Owens, mail art goddess and all around central hub of a large percentage of networkers. I sent Ms. Owens two stamps and a letter about my mail art woes. She responded with a postcard that said "the mail art scene will surprise you beyond your wildest dreams", and she was right. There was an ever-changing network of people who were doing exactly what I had wanted to do. The fact that I had remained ignorant of it for so long led me to believe in the possibility of any number of other networks, outside of this one.
So how do I define "mail art"?