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)

1 comment:

  1. This article was very helpful- thank you!