years ago, i wrote a small review for a show happening at a local gallery.
Anthrax it Ain’t (c. 2007)
Lets face it: $1.98 will send 8 ounces of just about anything through the US Postal Service. In The Post Card, Jacques Derrida put it this way: “Whether you put one word or one hundred in a letter, a word of one hundred letters or one hundred words of seven letters, the price is the same, this is incomprehensible, but this principle has the capacity to account for everything.” A good mail art show exploits the depth of Derrida’s principle by testing the limits of the USPS and challenging the rarified notion of what can be hung on the gallery wall. This is the story of three accountings happening here in Phoenix: an accounting of emerging gallerists; an historical accounting of mail art as a genre; a humanitarian accounting of American deaths in Iraq; an accounting of one postal worker’s paranoia.
The Trunk Space opened its Mail Art Show on the first Friday of August. JRC and Stephanie Carrico, the former coffee compatriots at The Paper Heart, and owners of the gallery, displayed all 53 submissions they received from places as distant as Italy. Each piece of art in the show was on sale for five bucks with all proceeds going to benefit Arts Link. The exhibit included works by several local artists including Lisa Takata, Dain Gore and the Bledsoe duo: Richard and Michelle. The most intriguing submission to the show came from A. Polk: a scrap book, wrapped around its width with a wide band of vellum and bound closed by fine, strong twine. This fastening, a practical measure to secure the book during its postal passage, became a part of the object. It coaxes the observer to peek between the book pages but defies being undone. The substance of the scrap book was changed when Polk bound it; to snip the brown twine, to slice through that foggy outer slip would be to change it, and that would be a shame.
Like all Mail Art shows, this one was a populist endeavor: if you could go to the post office you could submit work to the show and it would be displayed. The inclusiveness of The Trunk Space show conforms with one of the conventions for mail art exhibition set forward by the New York Correspondance (sic) School. While an exhaustive historical accounting of this aesthetic could probably be traced back to the inception of postal exchange, it was Ray Johnson who formalized the practice by establishing the school in the late 1960’s. NYCS participants deployed their methodology as a medium: if an object passed through the postal system it was considered mail art. Johnson further complicated this practice with the nascent collages he sent through the mail to other artists. These correspondences with instructions to “Add to and Return to…” passed through the mail boxes of Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns and Chuck Close, among many others. Letters that have been preserved are terrific examples of collaboration and a pop sensibility that was sanctioned by the postal systems of several countries.
Johnson committed suicide in 1995, but his “Add to and Return to” instruction has found another life in practices that couple snail mail correspondence with web-based networking. Baghdad Diaries (baghdaddiaries.com) is one Phoenix-based project that thrives on this dual circulatory system. Steve Salik, under the nom de plume “A Concerned Citizen,” was inspired by his participation in 20things.org and 1000journals.com to begin his latest project. Subscribers to Baghdad Diaries sign up to receive, by book rate U.S. postal mail, a handmade journal. Each diary is dedicated to individual American soldiers who died in the Iraq war. This is no small task given the difficulty of discerning an accurate and timely list of the deceased military personnel. Issued in sets of ten, each set with a different cover design, these journals start out blank and each subscriber adds to the book and sends it to the next recipient on the list. Visitors to the site who choose not to subscribe can peruse scans of journal pagess, read Salik’s comments about the project or track the progress of each journal as it travels around the globe.
Salik asks registrants to participate in an “interactive dialog about the war in Iraq, the ‘War on Terror’ and the way that these events are impacting our daily lives at a personal level”. I have recorded the story of my participation in the Trunk Space Mail Art Show in Diary #7.
“It was flat piece of wood with bark around its edge, on one side was a picture of a clown wearing a monocle, on the other I wrote: The Trunk Space, 1506 NW Grand Ave, Phoenix AZ 85007. I handed my parcel to the postal officer and asked him to hand cancel it and send it via first class mail. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. ‘I can’t accept that’ he said, ‘Ever since the anthrax scare we don’t hand cancel anything and we aren’t allowed to send objects without envelopes.’ He wouldn’t touch it. As I studied his face I thought about asking him: ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to put a tainted log slice in an envelope?’ In the end, I decided it made no sense to try to rationalize his reaction to my request. We are fighting a War On Terror after all.”