San Francisco

Ben Vautier, Total Art Match-Box, 1965, matchbox with offset-printed paper label, 1 3/8 x 2 x 1/2“. From “Debris from the Cultural Underground.”

Ben Vautier, Total Art Match-Box, 1965, matchbox with offset-printed paper label, 1 3/8 x 2 x 1/2“. From “Debris from the Cultural Underground.”

“Debris from the Cultural Underground”

Ben Vautier, Total Art Match-Box, 1965, matchbox with offset-printed paper label, 1 3/8 x 2 x 1/2“. From “Debris from the Cultural Underground.”

This past summer Levi Strauss & Co. launched an experiential advertising campaign known as the Levi’s Workshop in a storefront on San Francisco’s Valencia Street. Declaring “We Are All Workers,” the pop-up offered free public printmaking equipment and workshops in a hypercurated “raw” space where publishing zines became as banal as buying jeans (which one could also do there). In light of this attempt to marry the DIY producer to the sovereign consumer, “Debris from the Cultural Underground” at Ever Gold was a timely reminder of the radical possibilities of self-publishing and alternative distribution as these forms emerged during the international mail art movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Drawn from the collection of mail-art enthusiast and participant John Held Jr. (who altered his name and added the suffix in homage to the late cartoonist), the show comprised nearly one hundred posters, exhibition announcements, postcards, collages, letters, artists’ postage stamps, photographs, and publications. Variously hung in cheap mismatched frames or piled unceremoniously in vitrines, the spread of materials gave a chaotic, somewhat slapdash impression that captured mail art’s irreverent, anti-institutional aims.

Though marginalized in most art-historical accounts, mail art overlapped with Fluxus and Conceptual art and arguably came the closest to literalizing the participatory, egalitarian ideals of these movements by encouraging “practicing non-artists” to create and disseminate their work in the form of pen pal– and chain letter–like exchanges, photocopied mass mailings, and artists’ stamps. Mail art was also distributed through samizdat publications known as assemblings, such as Vittore Baroni’s Arte Postale! 89, 2007, included here, that were governed by open submission policies and circulated mainly among contributors. Rejecting class-based definitions of art, along with attendant notions of skill and quality, mail art can appear naive and disposable; even its most dedicated practitioners complained of the proliferation of “quick-kopy krap” and “junk mail.” However, the crudely collaged and rubber-stamped surfaces of mail-art ephemera, scrawled with stream-of-consciousness poetry and puns, represented a serious attempt to détourne both the visual forms and the socioeconomic structure of mainstream communication media.

Spanning the past four decades and refracted through the lens of Held’s own involvement in the mail-art scene, the show featured works by artists associated with a group known as the Bay Area Dadaists, including Dada itself wants nothing, 1974, a nihilistic manifesto typed on an index card by mail artist and industrial musician Monte Cazazza; a 2010 stamp sheet retrospectively surveying costumes and performances by Anna Banana (who published the mail art magazine VILE in the 1970s); and works by better-known Bay Area Conceptual artists such as David Ireland and Tom Marioni. However it also witnessed the more pressing political significance of mail art’s decentralized, accessible information system in countries where printing was restricted and censorship enforced, as represented in this show by Polish artist Pawel Petasz and Uruguay’s Clemente Padín (the latter imprisoned for his subversive mail-art activities in the late 1970s).

In its heyday, mail art was a utopian effort to challenge the asymmetrical social relationships of modern communication technologies. The political potential of its continuation today—highlighted here by means of two large cardboard boxes of recently postmarked correspondence, which viewers were free to rifle through—is less clear. Characterized neither by the collective potential of public messages nor by the intimacy of private letters, these cryptic, forlorn missives suggested that the mantra “senders receive” risked an unbridled subjectivism that privileged the quantity of mail exchanged over the meaning of any single message. Perhaps, like many practices from the ’60s and ’70s, mail art is most interesting where it failed to achieve its stated aims—where it troubled and interrupted the very mechanisms of communication upon which it depended, ultimately giving way to new and more complex understandings of these models. In this sense, the movement’s influence on current alternative publishing and distribution practices merits a second look. What is needed, however, is not the celebratory insistence on the unabated perpetuation of mail art intended here, but instead, that which this show clearly called for: a critical history that at once marks our indebtedness to these practices and throws our distance from them into relief.

Gwen Allen