The (Mail) Artist as Networker: On Pre-Internet Network Aesthetics


In “Escape Attempts,” the preface to the revised edition of her book Six Years (1973/1997), one of the defining accounts of the emergence of conceptual art, Lucy Lippard writes that “conceptual artists gloried in seeding past the cumbersome established process of museum-sponsored exhibitions and catalogues by means of mail art, rapidly edited and published books of art, and other small-is-better strategies.” (xvii) In the decade following those titular six years, mail art grew from a mere strategy into an international movement. Also known as postal art and correspondence art (with historic links to Futurism and Fluxus), mail art achieved global participation in the 1970s and ‘80s, cultivating a variety of non-commercial collective “cultural strategies” that put communications at the center of its aesthetic. These include pass-and-add projects, instructions to carry out simple actions, no-jury exhibitions, and other inherently collaborative projects founded upon an exploration of network aesthetics. This self-described “Eternal Network” also compiled and disseminated address directories and newsletters, allowing for decentralized communication and dialogue with a variety of artistic scenes and media (visual and sound poetry, collage, underground comics, experimental music). The network thrived through the development of practices that directly challenge notions of institutional authority, objecthood, authorship, and originality while largely resisting canonization and commercialization. Mail became foregrounded as a mean of communication allowing for direct collaboration and exchange decades before internet culture. While some went on to fame in art (Maurizio Cattelan) or music (Merzbow), most of the participants were simply people empowered by the lack of gatekeeping institutions.

The practice of mail art allows for a temporally bounded analysis of a pre-digital experiment in network aesthetics, a bridge between the dematerialization of conceptualism and Net Art. I take as my object of analysis Arte Postale!, an international and collaborative mail-art zine project which was available only to participants. Initiated by Vittore Baroni in 1979, many of the participants in its early years came from Italy, the UK, and the USA, as well as from Japan, Korea, and Latin America. The first 50 editions (published from 1979-84) allow for a window into a period known in Italy as the Reflux, often characterized as a return to the private sphere following the violent political extremism of the previous decade. Coincident with Thatcherism/Reaganism, this was a period in which the bonds of identity—worker solidarity, regional dialects and cuisines, local goods—were being deterritorialized by neoliberal reform and the acceleration of global communications technologies. Drawing on archival research and interviews, I ask if the more individualistic aesthetic and ethical projects of mail art should be considered a desertion of the political projects of the previous decades or the pursuit of radical politics by other means.