Three Months of Mail Art for Hyperallergic HQ: An Interview With Co-Curator Hrag Vartanian

by Paddy Johnson on June 16, 2011 · 1 comment Events

A work by Bernard Klevickas for the Mail Art Bulletin.

Tomorrow marks the dawn of a new era in mail art: Presents, Three Months of Mail Art for Hyperallergic HQ, an opening that promises booze AND epic results! At least, those are my predictions. As many readers will have already noticed, Hyperallergic has been collecting mail art for three months, posting the submissions from far and wide. Come tomorrow, no more tantalizing JPEGS: the mail art show opens!

Selected from over 100 submissions, the show includes artists such as Bo Bartlett, J.D. HastingsTim McCoolAustin Thomas, Audra Wolowiec, and many more (a full list of the participating artists can be found at the bottom of this post).  Storefront’s Kate Wadkins and Hyperallergic‘s founding editor Hrag Vartanian are responsible for the curation of the show. Yesterday, I drilled Vartanian on the connections of this show with the blog Post Secret. That didn’t go very well, but I got an interview out of it regardless.

Paddy Johnson: So, you’ve been collecting mail art for three months now. What inspired you to ask Hyperallergic readers to create and send in art via snail mail?

Hrag Vartanian: It came from frustration. I was sick of checking my mail box and finding bills and generic mail. I tweeted that I didn’t see the point of checking my mailbox anymore since it was always the equivalent of going to the dentist. A Twitter pal challenged me that maybe the issue was I wasn’t engaging with the medium (that’s not exactly what she said, but that’s what she meant), and then an artist in Illinois offered to send me mail art. When his work arrived I knew there was something there. I also like to see images of other people’s mail, there’s something voyeuristic in that, so I posted it on the blogazine and sent out a call for entries for our newly created Mail Art Bulletin.

PJ: And how did you start working with Kate Wadkins, the co-curator of Mail Art show?

HV: She applied to our summer internship program and I knew her from her work at Bushwick’s Storefront Gallery and the Brain Waves zine shop in the back and I thought she was a natural ally. She brings experience in the field and a love of the medium that complements my need to understand the medium. I started this thing as fun but now I’m getting really into it. Did you know there’s a thesis that was published a few years ago making the case that mail art was an important part of the Surrealist project?

PJ: That’s interesting. Wikipedia — the source of all knowledge — cites Fluxus art as the roots of the international movement but also mentions Dada. It seems like something many artists would be interested in by pure virtue of purpose. If art is about communicating, than mail art can facilitate different kinds of exchange.

Kaprow and Acconci were the first artists I thought of when you announced the show, though they were both less community-based efforts. Acconci collected his mail at MoMA, and Kaprow’s letters were exchanges with curators. Both artists were using mail in a very performative way.

HV: There’s also the case that the Futurists were the first to create conscious mail art, specifically Giacomo Balla’s postcards to Fortunato Depero, who was in New York at the time; it seems, though, that the art historical research is only being done now. The last decade or so is when the most fruitful research has emerged. Like many things about American art in the middle of the 20th Century, we’re quickly realizing that the US was often just good at promoting themselves as the center of the everything, when in fact they were just the loudest. Many attribute the “birth” of mail art as a medium to Ray Johnson, who fully embraced it, but it seems that it was part of a dialogue that had been going on for a while. The Surrealists collected postcards, the Victorians collaged images that they mailed to one another, and yes, the 1960s and 70s saw a real flowering of the medium. Part of the reason that the period really loved it, in my opinion, was its transnational nature. It’s a way to look beyond the gallery system and share aesthetic experience globally.

Regarding the Kaprow letters, I have spoken to a few older curators and critics who found those mail art works as irritations. Sometimes a conceptual artist in Vancouver would discover the name of a critic in New York and send them mail art periodically. I remember working in the Clement Greenberg archive at the Archives of American Art in DC and finding a few examples like that. I don’t think Greenberg ever wrote about mail art.

PJ: Well, as a curator I might find them irritating too. Art that requires administrative time to be completed can be very demanding! As for Clement Greenberg, I’m not surprised he never wrote about mail art. It doesn’t seem like that would be his thing.

HV: Agreed, I don’t think he knew what to do with it. He probably thought it was crass self-promotion.

PJ: Do you think there’s truth to that in some cases?

HV: Absolutely, but it’s not limited to mail art. Josh Smith essentially makes giant paintings about his signature and Shepard Fairey’s Obey label often creates work with the word Obey as the primary content of the work.

PJ: Right. I guess my question is to what degree do you find that engaging subject matter? And if so what threads in the show illuminate uses with positive ends — (if the binary is even useful.)

HV: I usually find it interesting when it’s a dialogue with the nature of advertising and publicity. Some people have essentially sent us postcards of their work, and that’s dull. But I think most people have been very genuine about trying to communicate something using the medium in an interesting way. I try to ignore the douchebags.

PJ: Ah, don’t we all. You received over 100 submissions for the show. Can you talk about your selection process a bit?

HV: Yes, it has been pretty incredible. We are having a tough time figuring out how to organize the show so we’re starting with works that Kate and I like. From there we’re developing ideas about what works and what doesn’t. There are some pieces we’re in complete agreement with. Then we’re also publishing a ‘zine catalogue that will feature other work that won’t be displayed prominently, as we’re limited to the aesthetics of the photocopy and some things just don’t work in high-contrast black and white. If you’re looking for a common thread through the whole show, I think it’s about wrestling with the medium. It seems we have lots of artists who don’t normally work with mail art so there’s a big range.

PJ: What can a mail artist do to subvert the system? If the work is hand-delivered to you, do you still consider it mail art? Or rather, where’s the most interesting place you’ve received mail from?

HV: I don’t think hand-delivered counts, but maybe I’m being a purist about this. I think the democracy of the postal service is crucial to the medium. National postal services censor things, they lose things, there’s a leap of faith you have to make in order to mail something. I think that’s important. We received two videos from an artist in Prague, Cristina Maldonado. I wasn’t expecting video work, but they are about mail art and the act of creation. They will be displayed prominently in the show. It made me wonder why I’ve never seen video about mail art, I mean, am I just not leaving the house enough? I do love the work we’ve received from Trinidad and Tobago — that’s a scene I know soooo little about and it’s good to see work by artists there.

PJ: What happens to the work afterwards?

HV: It becomes an archive, I guess. We want to continue this. I like the fact that people are having their voice heard and displayed. We try to write something about every piece we post. I think it’s important to show that we’re thinking about the work and not simply posting it. Kate is working at developing an archive system for the work.

Hyperallergic HQ is located at 181 N 11th Street, Suite 302, Brooklyn, NY 11211.

Participating artists are: Abe’s Penny, Gail Anderson, Patrick Anderson-McQuoid, Larry Angelo, Lynn Aquaheart, Bo Bartlett, Amy Bassin, Samantha Beverly, Kyle Blauw, Jonathan Bohm, bread crumb, Peter Brock, Dave Byrd, Nick Canterucci, Celso, Tiberiu Chelcea, Nathalie Chikhi, Laura Cohen, Vincent Como, Fred Cray, Carla Cryptic, Curly, Daniel DeCulla, Dewi, Han Dogan, Brian DuPont, Jeff Evans, William Evertson, Luc Fierens, Tiffany Ford, Valerie Fuchs, V.L. Fuller, Mira Gerard, Shana Goetsch, Jessica Gowling, Jonny Gray, Jeff Haas, J.D. Hastings, Jennifer Pei Huang, Laura Isaac, JRD, Adamandia Kapsalis, Dimitri Karakostas, Bernard Klevickas, Diedra Krieger, KURV, Dave LaMorte, Luis Vasquez LaRoche,
Liz Layton, Rejin Leys, liketelevisionsnow, Cristina Maldonado, Russell Manning, Steve Martinez, Gregory Maxim, T. Mayo, Tim McCool, Marina Miletic, Alicia Milne, R.E. Mingst, Leah Needham, Theo Nelson, New Mediator, Michael Orr, Clemente Padin, Stephen Perkins,  Brenda Petays, Brian Piana, Cole Pierce, Peri Lee Pipkin, James Prez, Allison Putnam, Sheree Rensel, Allan Revich, Kate Rhoades, Mary Rork-Watson, Maritza Ruiz-Kim, Frocc. Santiago, James Schickler, Julia Schwartz, Andrew Scott, LaVona Sherarts, Joe Singleton, Louise Sloane,
sneezestar, M. Stolte, Harry Swartz-Turfle, Austin Thomas, Seon Thompson, Lynda Jo Thornbrugh, Ann Tracy, Amy-EllenTrefsger, Ben Valentine, Guido Vermeulen, Don Voisine, Joshua Weibley, William Wilson, Michele Witchipoo, Ben Wolf, Audra Wolowiec, Wreck & Salvage, Tamara Wyndham, Joseph Young, Rainer Zamojre + some anonymous artists

RSVP to the show on Facebook.

{ 1 comment }

William S. Paley June 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Can’t wait to see the zine ‘geared’ to showing all the pieces that were selected. There was a similar type show earlier in the year,at SHAW Studio in Memphis. However, they didn’t do
a zine-or-publication highlighting the mail art,etc selected,as well as the artists..

Looking forward to seeing the ZINE!!!!

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