JCM THE MUSEUM LIBRARY
"Mail art as a phenomenon has lost much of its significance..." - Vittore Baroni

Ruud Janssen with Vittore Baroni

TAM Mail-Interview Project

(WWW Version)


Started on: 24-01-1995

RJ: Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?

Reply on: 30-3-1995

VB: I got involved in the mail art net in 1977, when I discovered the existence of mail art through the work of G.A. Cavellini - I had seen an ad in Flash Art Magazine for G.A.C.'s "Free" Art Books - I wrote him, got the books, started a correspondence with G.A.C. (my first contact!) and soon with Anna Banana and all the other late 70's regulars. The rest is history!

RJ: Is mail art itself history, after the death of Ray Johnson?

Reply on: 20-4-1995

VB: As I wrote in the latest issue of Arte Postale! magazine # 69, the sad demise of R.J. in a way is an event/date that signals the end of the "golden age" of mail art, that big phenomenon that Ray was instrumental into originating in the early sixties and that probably had its peak moment in the first half of the eighties. January 13th 1995 also means the completion of a cycle, with fax/e-mail/internet/etc. picking up the inheritance of "snail mail"/ correspondence. It must be pointed out that those learning to travel the electronic highways have a lot to learn from postal networkers (with years of experience behind them) in terms of strategies, share-work practices and open frame of mind. So mail art is a bit more "history", but its teachings will live on.

RJ: Could you explain what you mean with strategies, share-work practices and open frame of mind. What are the teachings you would like to live on?

Reply on 27-10-1995
(printed text and diskette)

(I've sent a few times copies of the question and some samples of finished interviews to Vittore Baroni. His answer came in a large envelope with lots of info's. Also there was a diskette in it, but as I tried to read it, I discovered that it was for a Macintosh computer. Since the file was not transformed to a DOS-file, I could read the printed version and retyped the whole answer)

VB: Dear Ruud, sorry if I disappeared without answering to your latest mailings, I didn't mean to be rude bur really from May to September my work (almost) 24 hours-a-day at the Hotel makes it impossible for me to deal with any kind of correspondence. I don't even open the damn envelopes, sometimes. Now I'm back home and trying to put things into shape, while answering to the latest question of our mail-interview, I also try to put some order in my head regarding what I feel about the network today, and what I want to do from now on (more ramblings in next Arte Postale!).... So here I go, reverting to paper (my last disk was by mistake an MS-DOS translated Mac text, but this is yet again a Mac disc on Word 5).

Question: something to do with what is exactly the legacy that mail art leaves to internet surfers?...

A lot of people approach Internet and electronic networking with a strictly utilitarian attitude, they are looking for financial gains or sexual encounters or whatever. Others enjoy the possibility/power to chat with millions of people, but have nothing to say to them, so it's only a big waste of time and money: to me it is like those Hi-Fi freaks who own incredibly expensive stereo playback systems and use them to hear the same ten records, technology nerds into communication. I hope that some of the "golden rules" of mail art will find their way into the cyber-community, because what I see and read now regarding what's going on in the Net isn't always that free and open. I must first of all admit that I do not own yet a modem and I only used Internet a few times through the courtesy of a friendly neighbor who has an access and University pass-word. But I do read a lot about it in international magazines ( Wired , .net and the like), so I know more or less what is going on, regarding my favorite subjects. I noticed a lot of resistance against the new media from old-time mail artists, especially those who do not use a computer daily. I do not feel like that, I am really enthusiast about the possibilities of the new media, but I tend to be also realist: I will wait till there will be a Internet link also in my town (and by the way, even local phone calls in Italy may become very expensive if you do a long call, so using Internet for hours is not cheap around here!), also I will wait till the jargon and hype surrounding the Net will have vanished a bit, when it will be just another common communication system added to the existing ones, then I will start doing my electronic projects, probably not leaving the postal medium abruptly but little by little. A book like Chuck Welch's Eternal Network I think can be of great help even to people who have never heard about mail art and will never practice mail art (or who are not interested in art altogether), as a sort of preliminary introduction to the spirit of free networking: it's something totally different from the tons of Guides for Internet surfing you find in every bookshop, because it is founded on over thirty years of intensive experiences in the field of free and open exchange-communication. It is a wealth of wisdom that you just can't sum up in a few words or even in a single book, but I believe a mail artist approach to Internet will always be much more free-and-easy than the approach of people who had no previous networking experiences. If mail art arrived where Internet is today, connecting the whole planet in a web of spiritual energy, using a much cheaper medium, at the same time I believe strongly that mail art as a phenomenon has lost much of its significance now that Internet is spreading: it will be just anachronistic to continue using stamps beyond a certain (and very near) point in time.

Everything reaches a peak and then starts to drop, mail art probably had its peak in '92 with the Networker Congress thing, and now with the death of Ray Johnson the cycle is complete, the only thing that can be done is tell the whole history in a more complete way (like the books by Gza Perneczky, John Held Jr., Chuck Welch are testifying), museums and collectors can enter the scene and eat the remains. Those who where there for the excitement (& warmth & enlightenments) of it and not for the glory, will move on to better occupations. Of course it will take years and years for the big wave to pass completely and dry out, there is still an enormous amount of activity in mail art, and with Global Mail we also have something the Network always lacked (except maybe for the short life-span of Vile and a certain period of Umbrella) and always cried for, a magazine to act as a forum and reference point, a small but reliable solid island in the chaotic mailstream. I do not intend to stop printing my own Arte Postale! magazine yet (at least three issues are planned for this winter, starting with a Baroni-Bleus collaboration), and there are still things that I need to do with the postal system, but I do not feel tied emotionally hands and feet to it: I am a networker at heart, and I use the more satisfying and more affordable instruments I can put my hands on. If I had the possibility to phone all around the world for almost nothing, I would use the phone, if I had a voice strong enough to get over the mountain, I would just scream and scream. Before year 3000 something better than Internet will be invented, and we will all be finally able to tele-transport ourselves P.K.Dick-style wherever we dream to go.

RJ: Some readers of this interview might not know your magazine "Arte Postale!". What is your magazine about?

Reply on 24-11-1995

VB: I discovered mail art in 1977 and the following year I was already corresponding with an ever increasing number of contacts, a hundred or more, so I soon reached the point when you are not able anymore to find the time for elaborate original answers to each and every single mailing. I needed something readily available to trade with other networkers and that could become the focus for my postal activities, so the natural step to take was to create my own magazine, like other mail artists did before me (at the time, I was particularly impressed, even more than by the "glossy" Vile, by an american xeroxed publication called Cabaret Voltaire, that showed you could make a strong original magazine with just a black and white photocopier).

And that's how Arte Postale! (with - often forgotten! exclamation mark, to me a reminder of the excitement of my first encounter with the mail art medium) was born in October 1979, as a totally non-profit publication, distributed only through the postal system and wholly dedicated to the aesthetics and philosophies of mail art.

Through perseverance and a few weird ideas that did hit the mark, it has become one of the most well known and long-lived magazines in the whole Eternal Network. The title is simply "Mail Art!" translated into italian, as I wanted it to be from the start a "pure" mail art publication, totally rooted in the correspondence milieu. There never was a fixed size or periodicity, though in the first three years I was able incredibly to maintain a monthly pace (I was a young student and single then, with a lot of free time in my hands!), now I am lucky when I am able to publish more than two issues a year. After five or six issues completely printed on cheap paper-plate off-set machines (I later turned to photocopies for a better resolution quality), always produced in 100 numbered copies, the magazine gradually turned into an "assembling" publication, gathering together original pages contributed by various international networkers, while I still printed the cover and a few "home pages". I don't remember exactly from where I got the idea in 1979, but probably I was aware of the Assembling magazine by Richard Kostelanetz (though at that point I still had not actually seen one) and I had received some collective mail art publications (though they looked more like artistic "portfolios" than magazines, with loose pages and minimal editorial work). From the beginning, I wanted Arte Postale! to look like a "real" magazine, not an arty multiple, so I always stapled all the pages together, never mind the "preciousness" of some of the works, sealing sometimes the smaller bits into bags or envelopes glued to the pages. Though there were often themes to stick to, participants were usually totally free regarding the size and medium of their contributions (often someone would send a hundred totally different pages), so I also got several tridimensional oddities, like plant leaves, glass beads, ping pong balls and bee-wax bas-reliefs. This forced me sometimes to adopt unusual formats, the most bizarre issue being the "boxed" N.24, with mostly 3D works and resembling a marriage between a mail art mag and a Fluxus box. To do a "gathering mag" is big fun only if you deeply and sincerely love the mystic side of the self-publishing experience. Each time you are confronted with a different challenge of finding the best way to bring into harmony an array of disparate works, so it is never a mechanical practice, it is like stitching together a Frankenstein creature and trying to infuse some life into it. The boring aspect is of course the actual work of collecting page after page to put all the copies together, once a scheme and order of assembling is decided, but I usually did this in the late evening, while listening to music or watching films on TV with an eye, often with the help of my mother (!) who was also sitting in, so with only 100 copies to go it never took more than two or three very relaxed working sessions. I think one reason why some of us just feel a sort of orgasm when they finally hold in their hand the first finished copy of a self-publication lies in the fact that we are a generation raised in a global media environment, we are used to get most of our views on the world from the printed page and to assimilate magazines since we are born (I'm talking of people born in the fifties or sixties, younger generations are much more video-centered): the fact of actually editing and publishing a mag is for us the (often inconscious) accomplishment of a cathartic reversal of roles. It is like when a video-recorder first entered into your house, making you feel that you no longer depended on what "they" wanted to show you: now you could decide what movie to watch and at what pace and which scene you wanted to see again and again. But it is even more than that, now you can star in the movie... Well, anyway, as even the best games tend to become tedious after some time, I decided to stop collecting original pages starting with issue N.52 (it was supposed to be N.51 really, but a lot of people kept mailing things in a hundred copies even after I discontinued the call for contributions - I still get the odd accidental package now after ten years, so unforeseeable are the network circumvolutions!). This change left me free to vary and experiment with the number of copies produced, ranging from the single copy of the special "homage issue" (N.53, this was put together by Mark Pawson as a terminal tribute to the "assembling days" of Arte Postale! , with unique pieces by fifty-some different networkers, it came like a total surprise and I liked it so much that I decided to give it a proper AP! number) to the 600 copies of issue 63 (with a 7" vinyl record by my group Le Forbici di Manitu inside, singing the Let's Network Together hymn) and the "unlimited" issues N. 60-61-69 (xerox-copies always available). The most successful and fun to do issues have been the "mail art show catalogue" N.47 (I organized a project requesting fake mail art invitations, to be diffused to short circuit the net!), the bumper N.5O "silver issue" (a real silver knife sent from Canada hidden in one of the copies), the "mail art handbook" N.55 (a sort of half-serious synthetic guide to happy networking), the "mail art & money do mix!" N.56 (I sent money out to networkers with optional requests on how to use it and I glued a real coin to each cover: not only a free magazine, but a mag that pays you to be read!). Differently from several mail art bulletins and publications that consist mostly of reproductions of adds and lists of invitations to projects (these may be useful as a source of information, but I find them really boring as magazines, if not done with the craft and passion of a Global Mail), I always wanted each issue of Arte Postale! to be a sort of personal/collective little art-work in itself, with many hand-interventions in each single copy (folded pages, blots of colour, small glued inserts, rubberstamped images, etc.), like a miniature "artist's book" minus the pretentiousness of priced gallery art. So instead of using the small space available (lately, I try to keep AP! under the weight of 20 grams, to save on trees and postage) to reproduce invitations and lists of addresses, I prefer to focus each time on a single theme, selecting the most inspired contributions and arranging them so to make a collective statement on that particular topic (of course also all the contributors not reproduced in the mag - to include always everything would be economically and technically impossible! - do get a free copy).

In sixteen years, over 500 networkers from approximately 35 different countries, ranging from elementary school kids to well respected artists like Ray Johnson and Ben Vautier, participated into Arte Postale! . In pure mail art spirit, no form of censorship or selection on the original "assembling" contributions was ever applied. Each contributor always receives one or more free copies of the issue he/she is featured into. Up till issue N.63 the magazine, though 99% distributed or traded free in the network, was also made available at a low cover price to interested non-mail artists, through the diffusion of small mail order catalogues, but given the difficulties of such a minimal form of distribution - sales never repaid even the cost of printing the catalogues! - since issue N.64 it has become totally free: you cannot buy the new issues anymore, and I decide who is going to get them for trade or as a gift (only a few back-issues are still available in a very limited number of copies). A complete (or almost complete) collection of the magazine is housed in several international archives, such as the Administration Centre/42.292 Networking Archive in Belgium, the V.E.C. Archives in Holland and the Sackners Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami Beach, USA. And yes, I have spotted recently some deleted early issues of AP! already offered at high prices in specialized catalogues for collectors of avant garde publications: I don't know if I should be proud or angry about it, for sure there is nothing I can do (and unfortunately I don't have a secret stash of back-issues under the roof!), I guess it's inevitable that such ironic turns of events may happen... One thing I've been ruminating about for quite some time now is if I ever want to stop doing Arte Postale! , and I just made up my mind to reach at least issue 100, that would be a nice point to stop (or to turn into an electronic publication, who knows - but then the name will have to change definitively). This still leaves 28 issues to go, and that means that Arte Postale!, like mail art itself, will still be around for quite a few years...

Ruud, I'm not sure if I have sent it to you already, anyway here is a complete list of the AP! editions so far (please note that some of the issues appeared with a different "fake" logo, still retaining the Arte Postale! numeration): view list. And the following one is a short essay I wrote for the recent exhibition of the whole Arte Postale! collection organized by Guy Bleus in his mail-art gallery space in Hasselt, Belgium - it was not used in the catalogue-magazine so it's still unpublished: view essay.

RJ: Thanks for this extensive overview of your magazine and the philosophy behind it. In all those years you must have received lots of mail art. Is it all still at your place? Do you keep an archive or do you recycle a lot?

Reply on 27-12-1995

(With his answer Vittore included a diskette with the text as he had written it on his computer, Unfortunately it was a MAC computer, and since I use a DOS machine, I could not read the disk nor the text. Vittore also included some photos of his archive which I will use as illustrations when possible, and some small hand-made postcards).

VB: In the past fifteen years or so I remember very few days without a piece of mail in my mailbox. When that happens, I know that the post office might be on strike or that it must be a very special day indeed (with a mild sense of relief built in the very experience!). This means that yes, I have received a tremendous amount of mail, but luckily I have never been a compulsive collector and I always recycle a lot of what came in. My room as a young student was not that big, and it had to function as studio and archive of mail art besides containing all my books, records, clothes and stuff. There was no way I could save everything, so my line in action from the very start was to throw the most useless trash-mail in the bin, save the books, catalogues and zines for the library, keep only the "artworks" (classified in alphabetical folders and files, arranged under authors' names and geographically) and the envelopes that contained enough meaningful drawings, artistamps or rubberstamps. This means that most of the personal messages, envelopes and trivia has been recycled as new envelopes, submissions to assembling publications or material for collages. This still leaves a LOT of paper material and 3D pieces.

When I moved to my new house in 1988, I had to pack everything into dozens of crates, it took me one year to put everything back into shape in the new E.O.N. (Ethereal Open Network) mail art studio-archive, that is now located in two small rooms under the roof at Via Battisti 339, Viareggio, Italy. One room is just a storage space, with boxes containing the works belonging to single projects, theme exhibitions, series of panels of my own work, etc. The other room has a library-wall with all the catalogues and magazines, plus all the folders and larger file-cabinets for the contacts with whom I have long-standing relationship, and files with the other mixed authors, divided geographically.

Downstairs I have a small "home gallery" space with temporary exhibitions by single mail artists, of materials culled from the archive. I must add the archive is in a perpetual state of "orderly disorder", I am a very orderly type and I like everything to be neatly arranged, but I never seem to be able to keep pace with the upcoming mail.

At the time of writing, there are at least ten big cardboard crates full of answered mail that need to be subdivided into the various files, but who knows when I will be able to perform this lovingly boring task. I usually sneak up into the mail art room at odd times, very early in the morning before everyone wakes up or late at night when everyone sleeps, so I rarely spend there more than one hour a day, and that's just time enough to answer a few letters and develop some new ideas. Right now the archive would need at least another room, as it has become really full up to the brim with materials. I am thinking right now of an unheard of manner to deal with the space problem, you'll read all about it in a future issue of Arte Postale! .

RJ: This space problem is something I hear from a lot of active mail artists. I am very curious about your solution, but I will wait till you publish it in your future issue of Arte Postale! . Let's focus on something else. In 1986 there was the "tourism" and in 1992 the "DNC-year". Were you active in those events too? Is meeting the artists, you are in contact with by mail, a logic step in mail art?

Continue with Interview . . .


Reproduced with the permission of
TAM
Further reproduction without the written consent of
Ruud Janssen and the Artist is prohibited.

Mail-artist: Vittore Baroni, NEAR THE EDGE EDITIONS, Via C. Battisti 339, 55049 Viareggio, LU - ITALY

Telephone/Fax: + 39 - 584 - 963918>

Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, NETHERLANDS

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