Old Mail Becomes a Museum Show In conjunction with the Center for Book Arts exhibition "Mapping Correspondence: Mail Art in the 21st Century," avant-garde artist Martha Wilson discusses why mail can be art.
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Old Mail Becomes a Museum Show

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Old Mail Becomes a Museum Show

Old Mail Becomes a Museum Show

Old Mail Becomes a Museum Show

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In conjunction with the Center for Book Arts exhibition "Mapping Correspondence: Mail Art in the 21st Century," avant-garde artist Martha Wilson discusses why mail can be art.

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Let's stick with this theme of things you could put in the mail, interesting things, sometimes beautiful things, and sometimes odd things. People have addressed deflated footballs or stuck cameras in cardboard and told the postal clerk to take their pictures. And you know what? Those things actually do go through the mail. The post office will also mail nice drawings or just funny little ditties.

An exhibition at Manhattan's Center for Book Arts pays homage to an early form of email, pre mail. Actually, it's called mail art. The show is called "Mapping Correspondence: Mail Art" - that's M-A-I-L art, it's non-gendered - "in the 21st Century." Martha Wilson is an artist and founding director of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc., an artist-run space that preserves ephemeral art, and she hosted a version of this exhibition on mail art back in 1984. Hello, Martha.

Ms. MARTHA WILSON (Artist; Director, Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.): Hello. Good morning.

PESCA: What sorts of things - what are the biggest categories of things that wind up in this exhibition of mail art?

Ms. WILSON: The category of mail art itself is a subset of a larger category which Franklin Furnace was founded to collect and exhibit, which came to be known as artist books, a misnomer, because we think of a book as an object which has information that refers outside of itself to Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, you know, art history or whatever the subject of the book is. But artist books are works of art that happen to be in book form and are usually published in editions, maybe 100, maybe 1,000, maybe 3,000 if you're an artist like Ed Roche who has enough money.

So within this big tent of artist books there's mail art, there's conceptual art, there's Fluxus, there's concrete poetry, there are now zines, which a lot of people are familiar with. Mail art would be important because it was the first interactive art form that, I believe, preceded the Internet itself, the thing that we're using today right now to broadcast this show.

PESCA: And one of the rules or unwritten rules is that when you send mail art, you should also receive mail art. It's a two-way street?

Ms. WILSON: Yes. Yes. The idea behind mail art is you originate a work - perhaps it's a postcard - then you send it on to somebody else. They alter it. They're allowed to change it. Then they send it on to yet somebody else. This practice is a networked practice that defeats the model that we think of, of the solo artist standing on Mount Olympus casting his brilliant ideas down the slopes to the hoi polloi below. No, this is a democratic form.

PESCA: So when we go and see the exhibition, what mostly will we be seeing?

Ms. WILSON: Well, first of all, it's chock-a-block full of stuff. There are just, I don't know how many - the curator Champ Smith borrowed 65 works from Franklin Furnace's collection, which is 40 boxes. And then she went around the country and borrowed works from every - I mean, I don't even know how many works are in the show. It's thousands.

PESCA: And so, I mean, is it mostly pictures on postcards? Is it sending weird things to the mail? Give me a couple of concrete examples, if you could.

Ms. WILSON: OK. Rubber stamps, collage, watercolor or painting on paper. There's a famous mail artist who lives in Canada named Anna Banana who designs her own stamps, and those stamps are little pictures.

PESCA: Well, don't you need a real stamp to sell it - to send it?

Ms. WILSON: I believe that some things have gotten through the mail without a real stamp on them.

PESCA: You mean if they just look enough like a stamp...

Ms. WILSON: They look pretty good. Yeah.

PESCA: That they get a postage mark on it.

Ms. WILSON: Hers - Anna Banana's are very professional looking with the perforated edges and the works.

PESCA: And is there - what about sending - I've seen some pictures where they try to - they sent almost - it looked like maybe a backscratcher, and attached to it was a tag and that had the address, and they would send that through the mail?

Ms. WILSON: I've heard of a chair being sent through the mail.

PESCA: A chair? And not wrapped in a box, they just put the address on the chair?

Ms. WILSON: No. Somehow they got the chair to be accepted. Today, I don't know if that would happen.

PESCA: Yeah. I guess the Unabomber ruined things for unusual art, but is there - do some people say, oh, let's try to send the most aesthetically pleasing thing through the mail, whereas another camp says let's try to send the wackiest thing through the mail?

Ms. WILSON: That would be a function of your taste. Do you think this is wacky, or do you think this is aesthetically pleasing?

PESCA: Well, let's hope both in some cases.

Ms. WILSON: And the beauty of - it's a little bit like the Exquisite Corpse drawings that were done by the Surrealists, where one person had a section of paper and they would fold it down, and the next person didn't know what the first person had done. It's every person for him or herself.

PESCA: An artist who you may be familiar with, because I've seen his names come up, Sticker Dude, do you know this guy? He says mail art is more than just image-bearing mail passing along in the governmental stream. It's a person-to-person attempt to redefine our cultural heritage, the way we see and think and feel about the world around us. Since it's been going on, the first show was 1984, how do you think mail art has redefined the cultural heritage?

Ms. WILSON: This is really the function of art. This artist has identified what it is that artists do. And mail artists, people who use mail art, may also make film, video, do performance works, do street works, do installation works. It's a great big world out there, and they're all trying to broadcast their ideas. And they're all trying to change the world in some incremental way, knowing full well that it's probably not going to happen, and enjoying that absurdist position that the artist is always in in relation to society.

PESCA: While I have you here, tell me if I'm right, I think I read something that you specialize in impressions of presidential first ladies?

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

PESCA: Was that you?

Ms. WILSON: Yes. That's me.

PESCA: So who are you looking at? Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, are you working on both of them?

Ms. WILSON: I don't think I could be as hot as Michelle ever, and I'm white, that's another little problem.

PESCA: But do you, I mean, maybe you...

Ms. WILSON: Cindy is pretty hot, too, actually.

PESCA: Right. She has eyes that look like a husky - a beautiful husky, according to Katie Couric. But let me just see how good your Michelle Obama impression is. If I do this - all right, we fist bumped. So you got that down. That's a pretty good little niche.

Ms. WILSON: Well, Martha Wilson as Barbara Bush is up on YouTube if you want to check her out.

PESCA: All right. She says speaking in the third person because Martha Wilson is founder of Franklin Furnace Archive, a self-proclaimed femail artist, femail, M-A-I-L. Get it, get it? And a performance artist who does first ladies. Thank you very much, Martha. Coming up on the show, we'll be doing voice-recognition software on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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