Friday, 3 July 2009

The Joys and Pains of Organizing a Mail Art Project

When trying to explain what this strange beast called mail art is, I usually point out that mail artists (like zine makers)strive to build a network of contacts with whom to share friendship, ideas and good vibes, at the same time bypassing those institutions (public agencies, corporate media, art galleries, etc.) that want to control and dumb down their values. Well, if you like the idea of feeling part of something bigger and more meaningful, you may want to try your hand at organizing a mail art project. Be warned, though, that if properly done, a mail art project takes a lot of time, energy AND money (unless you want to keep it very small) and could be the source of more than one headache. This said, it can also be – and usually is – an exciting and rewarding experience.
The first thing you have to do is to make up your mind about what you really want to achieve. You can do something really big, spread the word about it like mad and end up with hundreds of works. Or you can do something more simple and intimate. Also, you have to decide why you are doing this. You can show all the works sent in (in which case, of course, you have to find a venue for your exhibition) or you can just produce a zine-catalog to document the project. In other words, it can be as big or as small as you want (in my last column, you will find two cases in point illustrating the big vs. small approach). But – sorry if I repeat myself, but it’s very important - remember that a big project is pretty much expensive, so my advice is to start with something smaller, unless you are a group of people who can share in the work and money needed to pull it off.
After that, you have to decide some other important things: 1) a theme; 2) the size of the works you want to receive; 3) a deadline by which people have to send their contributions.
The theme you choose should be, of course, the main reason why you do a project. It can really be whatever you like; as serious (politics, human rights, etc.) or silly (Hello Kitty) or weird (art about feet) as you want. Pornography or such topics as racism, sexism, etc. are usually not welcome, but nobody would stop you from doing something like that – even though I doubt you would receive a lot of feedback, apart from hate mail… My advice is to choose something you really care for, and about which you hopefully have your own opinion, because the participants love to read/see what the organizer has to say about the subject (this, by the way, is unfortunately missing in too many documentations).
The size of the works can be free, but I find it’s always better to put some limitations, otherwise you’ll end up with strangely shaped or very big contributions. This is not a bad thing in itself – indeed, it can be a lot of fun to find this stuff in your mail box, or see the puzzled face of the postman who carried it to your door – but can be a problem when you plan the exhibition, or when it’s time to reproduce the works in the catalog. Anyway, the most commonly chosen sizes are (up to) A4 (11” x 8 1/2” in US; 29 x 21 cm in Europe), A5 (8 1/2” x 5 1/2”in US; 21 x 15 cm in Europe) or postcard size.
The deadline must be chosen carefully, especially if you are going to show the works somewhere. First of all, you have to give people the possibility to know about your project and plan their participation. It’s never a good thing to put the deadline too early. In my opinion, you should let at least six months pass from the time you start spreading your invitations. Not few people make that one full year. Also, many mail artists like to participate to a lot of projects, but at the same time are busy people who have a life outside networking, so they probably won’t start working on the contribution to your project as soon as they see your call. For the same reason, several participants invariably send their contribution after the deadline has expired. Therefore you can’t put the opening of the exhibition too close to the deadline. At the very least, you should put one month between the two dates.
Now that you have decided these details, you can actually start the planning process. The first thing to do, of course, is to make and spread the calls. The four main tools you can use are flyers, zines, the e-mail and Web sites. If you have many correspondents, you can make a lot of flyers (postcard size is enough) and send them out. A good idea is to send a certain number to each contact and ask them to distribute them with their mail. The same thing of course can be done even more quickly and cheaply via e-mail, even though the mass of messages one gets electronically is often so great that many people regard even these invitations as SPAMs. This way, your call is soon deleted and forgotten. Zines are in theory an excellent way to reach a lot of people with a minimum effort – even though, for my experience, not many zine readers contribute to these projects. The only publications I know that has a space for these calls is “Zine World” and, on a smaller scale, Xerography Debt. On the contrary, if you want to be sure to reach as many people (especially as many mail artists) as possible, your best bet is to place your call in the Web sites devoted to mail art. For better or for worse, nowadays these are the most sought sources of information, particularly by people who are looking for new projects to contribute to. Depending on the site, you either have to send them an e-mail with the text of your call, or you just do everything yourself, by filling out a form provided by the site.
Having completed this task, you only have to sit back and wait for the works to come in. As I said, don’t worry if at first you only get a handful of contributions, because most of them will probably arrive in the last couple of months before the deadline. In any case, if you are planning an exhibition, you better catalog the works as soon as they come in. This way, you can always keep an eye on the way things are progressing, and at the end, you’ll find yourself with the address list ready.
Speaking of the address list, we have now reached the last part of the project. After receiving, it’s now time to give back – in the form of a documentation – and it’s very important that you do this right, because you will be judged by what the participants get for their effort. The unwritten rules of mail art state that the contributors give away their works for free and don’t expect the organizer(s) to send them back, but they do expect to get something in return. That means you will have to send a copy of whatever you produce as documentation to each and every one of them. If, for example, you have opted for a big project and have received 400 works, you have to send out 400 copies of your doc. Considering that more than half of the participants will probably be foreigners, you are going to spend a lot of money in photocopies and postage. That’s why, as I said before, your two best options are a) to do something not so big, or b) to do it with other people.
If you have a Web site, you may decide to put all the works received online and consider that your documentation. For obvious reasons, more and more people decide to proceed this way, but you can be sure that many - if not most – participants will not be happy with your choice. Personally, I never contribute to these projects.
Another increasingly popular support used these days is the CD-Rom. This one has the great advantage that you can put hundreds of works in the CD, and the mail artist get to see all the contributions in full color. On the downside, not all the participants may have a computer, and I know for sure that not few people (including me) hate to read or look at things on a computer screen. Of course even in this case you are going to spend a lot in postage.
The last and most traditional option you have is the paper catalog/zine. This is by far the most expensive, even though you don’t have to produce a thick publication to satisfy the contributors. Every mail artist and zine maker perfectly understand that most people are not rich and don’t want to see you go bankrupt. For this reason, you don’t have to reproduce all the works in a paper doc, and of course you can do everything in black and white (you may hand-color parts of it, if you have the time and energy for that). What everybody usually includes is the above-mentioned address list of all the participants, and then you are highly recommended to add an introduction/comment on the project. All the rest is an optional. Anyway, whatever form you choose to give to your doc, it’s always better to be honest and declare your intentions clearly in your invitation.
There are no time limits to produce and send out the doc. Only the more efficient mail artists manage to do everything soon. I often get catalogs one full year after the end of the projects. As a general rule, it’s always better to take your time and do something you can be proud of than to rush things and do a crappy job.
Before starting to work on your theme, you may want to participate to someone else’s project, so that you can see how other people actually work. If you want to see an actual doc, you can have a copy of my Trattato di anatomia patafisica for US$15.00 or 10.00 euros postpaid worldwide. You can find the mail art calls in the following places (by checking these sites, you will also have the opportunity to see how other people wrote their invitations):

Good luck with your projects!

PS: In case you want to read more about mail art, you can order a copy of KAIRAN – Mail Art Forum, available for 500 yen or $5.00 postpaid worldwide. For more information contact bero_berto(at)

Thursday, 2 July 2009

For those who haven't understood what this is all about yet, this is it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Dear readers,
Here's a question for you: Why risk to lose even one of my surreal posts when you can easily keep track of what I write, and when?
I mean, WHY?
I suggest that you click on that little "Post" thing in the upper right corner NOW. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The National Art Center, Tokyo (The Bermuda Triangle of Art #2)

Imagine a huge, gargantuan building specifically designed to showcase art in the best possible way. Light, space, materials, everything is perfect. The building itself is ideally located in central Tokyo in order to attract hordes of art-starved (and meat-starved, as we will see) patrons of any age, sex, and social standing. Now imagine that you – yes, I mean YOU – can actually show your little insignificant watercolor in this art cathedral. If you think that I’m making fun of you and your crappy painting, think again. I am no liar, sir, and you can really see your pseudo-artistic effort hanging from one of the movable walls of the recently opened National Art Center, Tokyo – provided that you have enough money to pay for the honor, that is.

This is the fifth national art institution to be created – the first in 30 years – and it’s a jewel of a building. It was designed by the late architect Kisho Kurokawa, a founder of the avant-garde Metabolist movement, who died in October 2007 soon after running in the Tokyo gubernatorial election (probably for the shock of losing to the evil Shintaro Ishihara).

The Japanese government exaggerated a little bit and the result is the largest exhibition space in Japan. Now, using all of its 14,000 sq. meters is not easy. Even a particularly big exhibition can use less than half that surface. Therefore in order to put the remaining space to good use – and earn some yen in the process – the museum’s bosses have decided to rent it to the many amateur art associations that infest the country. So back to my opening statement, if you are a member of such groups, your works may end up on the wall of the NACT… Or maybe not, as these associations have already reserved the majority of the NACT’s exhibition space for several years. But I’m not here to judge the goals and intentions of the fine people who run the NACT. I’m here to report on my visit to the museum, and specifically to its grandiose opening exhibition, “Living in the Material World: “Things” in Art of the 20th Century and Beyond.”

The best way to approach the NACT is coming from exit 3 of Nogizaka Station or, even better, exit 7 of Roppongi Station, so you can admire its striking front side all the way from afar. Nogizaka’s exit 6 is actually more convenient because it takes you directly inside the building, but this way you lose the chance to see it from the outside, so I recommend this latter option only to the lazier among you. I chose this one, by the way.

Once inside, you first get to ooh! and aah! at the entrance lobby, a spacious, high-ceilinged public area where people can wander around, do some healthy people-watching, and sit in one of the many multi-shaped comfy chairs provided for free. You can relax and read, bring your lunch box and even doze off, as not few people seemed to do when I was there.

You will undoubtedly notice the massive inverted cone in raw concrete that dominates the lobby. Three floors up is the place that is currently attracting all the name-brand-starved ladies in the city: Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musee. I couldn’t care less for such hip places, and nobody would pay me for checking out the expensive menu (if you need a restaurant reporter, please contact me NOW) so I don’t have a personal opinion, but judging from what the food gurus in other English-language publications have written about the Brasserie (big prices, small portions, so-so quality) there are many other better places where you may want to spend your hard-earned yen.

If you really want to stuff yourself, you should leave the food aside and go straight for the art, because with so much space to use, I’m sure there will always be more things to see than one can actually take in. In this sense the inaugural exhibition, “Living in the Material World,” should be a preview of things to come. It was so huge that I actually had to see it twice. The first time I could barely cover the first half. Admittedly, I like to spend an unhealthy amount of time on each work. So if you were like all those people who barely devote a few seconds to each item, you may even finish your “art promenade” in just one afternoon. But all in all it was overwhelming, even because they managed to amass over 500 works into one place. According to the curators, “Living...” “explores materialism in modern art,” a most-apt theme considering the current commodification of art and the way artworks are generally treated as a simple financial investment. Of course, being this a show devoted to “objects,” it was perhaps inevitable that certain areas of the exhibition space would look more like a warehouse than a museum. They didn’t forget anything: stainless steel plates, rocks of considerable size and weight, slabs of cloth, galvanized iron sheets, plywood, tubular steel, concrete, cork, felt, Plexiglas, lead, zinc, burned plastic, metal pipes, colored polyurethane, several totem-like poles made from Oregon pine, porcelain, and then windows, urinals, bicycle wheels, tea sets, snow shovels, bronze flower vases, fountains… at times it resembled an interior studio or gift shop.

The above mentioned Oregon pine totems provided for some fun when I unconsciously managed to break one of the many rules governing art-viewing. I’ve been known for being a trouble-maker at museums. Well, sort of. Stepping out of bounds; walking around art object on the wrong side (that’s what I did with the totems, that were arranged on the floor like bicycle spokes); they seem to go to great pains to ruin the fun.

At this particular exhibition I even found a couple of works that were supposed to move to be better enjoyed. Man Ray’s “Perpetual Motif (Indestructible Object)”, for instance, features the round photo of an eye glued to a metronome. The left-right movement makes it apparent that the eye opens and closes depending on the angle at which you look at it, but in this particular occasion the metronome didn’t move. Maybe they were afraid it would break…

In such circumstances, one has to look for fun wherever he can find it. So I’m very happy to say that I found not one but three – I repeat, three! – big-breasted women among the black-clad staffers who make sure that everybody behaves – not a small feat, considering the rather sad lack of curvaceous women in this country. I even thought about asking them whether I could take their picture, but as you know, I’m a very shy guy. This said, those ladies were true masterpieces.

The first day, something funny happened while I was leaving the exhibition. The second half wasn’t very interesting, and I was briskly walking toward the exit when I saw a copy of the catalogue lying all alone on one of the benches the museum had provided to people with sore feet. On another bench next to it a young Japanese lady was sitting, browsing another copy of the heavy book. Maybe my stop-and-turn was too sudden, maybe the young lady was suspicious of my bomber jacket and unshaven face, but when I sat next to her, she immediately proceeded to move her bag on the other side of her bench, away from me. Later, my wife confirmed that yes, sometimes I look a little strange.

PS All the pictures of the exhibits were taken illegally by yours truly.

(Do you want me to write for your fabulous publication? Let’s talk about it. You can contact me at bero_berto(at)

Monday, 8 June 2009

... That Is the Question

An artist friend of mine is always lamenting the fact that nowadays art is uselessly complicated. Too complicated and ultimately too unappealing. Once upon a time the artwork itself was the focus of attention, and traditional skills were generally valued. A painting was a painting was a painting, so to speak. Then the artist introduced endless ranting on, around and beneath the art work; the more the thinking and ranting took up the artist's time, the more the actual work shrank, sometimes to the point of... pointlessness; and voila! conceptual art was born.
This does not mean, of course, that contemporary art is always boring or obscure. And anyway going to a museum is always a fun experience; something that people should do at a leisurly pace (not rushing through the displays as if they were about to miss the last train), taking in the place, its distinctive atmosphere, and of course the other visitors.
This is what I will try to convey in my field reports.
I will be clear-eyed and fearless.
Please don't take it as a threat.