Tucked into MoMa is an exhibition written almost as an obituary. Mail art, which began life under the parentage of the Fluxus movement in the 1950s, has become a global phenomenon. The gallery is as much a celebration of the analog era as it is an epilogue.
Mail art begins as a group of artists establishes a network. A piece of mail becomes art when it is mailed. As this network of correspondence grows, it becomes looser, though it is still defined by mass responses to themes. Subgenres, including home-made stamps sprouted up naturally to support the movement. Networks grow organically, and much of the beauty in the art is from the sheer variety of people reached. Each piece consisted of all its contributors from all reaches of the postal service.
With such a network of independent identities sharing information so freely, mail art often found itself the outlet of political and societal frustrations. During the analog era, media was much easier to control, but this rebellious spat of correspondence flew in the face of regulation, free to express opinions not mandated by the state.
While many artists wanted to nail down a definition for the practice of mail art, many were opposed to placing any labels of the sort on what they did. Some plans for the medium were quite ambitious indeed, such as Jarolaw Koslowski and Andrzej Kostolowski’s NET, which they described only as “open and uncommercial.” NET, they said, has no central point and no coordination. It was ambiguous yet ubiquitous.
In the later years of its life, Analog networking began to find itself struggling against its digital counterpart. As the internet began to blossom, many found themselves with access to electronic BBSes, e-mails, web browsers, and other ways to contact their fellows. As correspondence with these new systems was more or less instant, mail art found itself at a hefty disadvantage. Artists began to evolve with technology, and adapted their ways to fit the new landscape of communication. The art of communication is now so common that anyone with access to the internet likely engages in it.
Mail art is not dead, though. It has simply transcended the physical limitations that once restrained it. It has evolved.
1. “Analog Network: Mail Art 1960-1999,” MoMa.org, accessed December 4, 2014, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2014/analognetwork/.
2. “From the archive,” Mail Art Archive, accessed December 4, 2014, http://mailartarchive.com/.