Ray Johnson: The Present of Mail Art
by Ina Blom
“Mail Art has no history, only a present”. These words, written by Ray Johnson, initiator of the international mail art movement, provide a key to one of the most complex and idiosyncratic art projects of the 20th Century. A painter associated with the New York School of painting, Johnson had started it all the mid-1950’s, slowly building up a network of correspondents who would exchange objects and messages through the postal system. Initially it was Johnson himself sending out small collage-like works to a mailing list, urging people to keep them, to add to them, to change them, to send them to others, to return to sender. In time others joined in this activity, and in the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s the network grew way beyond the immediate reach and touch of Johnson’s own mailing activities. The initial network was named The New York Correspondance School (sic) – a spin or pun on the idea of artistic schools and the concomitant idea of art history as a succession of such schools. But then the quip about the history of Mail Art was itself a pun, of the most serious kind. Like so many other avant-garde artists (who left painting and behind) Johnson was eager to cut through the historicist temporality that informed modern art history and art production, with its logic of continual succession and supersession of artistic tradition. Cutting through this logic meant placing the production and thinking of art within the immanence of an eternal present, an uncontrollable present of events, not unlike the eternally present liveness of television – a technology and a communication medium which was just at that moment appropriated for artistic purposes.
But then mail art was seen as one of the new “communication arts”, a form of media aesthetics that evolved alongside video art as well as the new questioning of distribution and public access that informed much of the new performative and conceptual art practices: A collage-like work by Ray Johnson even claims to present a “history of video art”, however idiosyncratic. It is in this precise sense that mail art could be said to only have “a present” – a present of communicational events, of uncontrollable exchanges, of things arriving and departing at unforeseen times and places, thanks to the medium of postal system, which, just like television, could be seen to distribute “signals” across the boundaries of time and space. However, the second (punning) meaning of “present” – present meaning gift – was just as important to the logic of Johnson’s postal system. Mail art had no history, since – unlike a modernist art that seems to reside in an independent realm of ever-evolving formal development – it could be seen to place itself squarely in the realm of social exchanges, that is the realm whose entire principle of circulation and reciprocity is kept in check by the system of gifts. Anthropologists see this phenomenon at work, with different ritualistic expressions, in every known culture: the phenomenon of gift exchanges (whose rules are both uncannily similar to and emphatically different from trade and barter) is what ensures the existence of true collectivity. The association of mail art with the rules and ambiguities of gift giving is present in Ray Johnson’s reflections on his artistic practice from the late 1950’s onwards. It is then also what makes it possible to see his artistic practice as a significant contribution to the 1960’s emphasis on situational or relational art practices, practices designed to intervene in social reality, to question existing social form or to try to form new types of collectives or to rethink collectivity tout court. And the emphatic return to these artistic concerns in contemporary art is among the things that accounts for the actuality of Ray Johnson’s lifelong artwork.
But to engage with this actuality is also to be confronted with the question of what exactly Ray Johnson’s present(s) consisted of, what exactly one got when one received a mailing by Ray Johnson and what it meant to be a part of his collectivity of mailers. The answer is complicated, to say the least. In contrast to the social contract set up by the international mail art movement as it evolved on its own accord (a contract informed by ideals of infinite sharing, of non-competition, of giving without thoughts of return, while resting assured that giver’s receive etc.), Johnson at every twist and turn seems to undercut the social ties seemingly established by his practice of gift giving, in fact to continually question the very concepts of communication, communion and community that are associated with it. Hyper-conscious of the ambiguities of gift giving (the difficult power balance between giver and receiver, the difficult distinction between coercion and voluntary action, between ritual and spontaneity and between gift and mere exchange), Johnson exploited the corresponding ambiguities of the modern postal system – a system founded on the premise that messages always reach their destination, but whose rich mythology is shot through with the anxiety provoked by the idea of non-received, displaced, returned and refused messages. At every level – from the semantic techniques deployed in his writings, to his organization of visual material, to the idiosyncratic pragmatics of his mailing practice – Johnson evokes the same reality of associations promised and associations unmade, ruptured, dispersed. His presents are, in other words, full of nothing, and his non-historical present fundamentally undercut by absence: with Johnson there is never any guarantee of community, of the perfect social immanence of togetherness and understanding. Johnson reciprocates, but only through interruption. He organized meetings and assemblies (of the NYCS members), but these meetings were without content or purpose, as if mere gatherings of names on a mailing list. But then concept of nothing informed his artistic project in so many ways, from his mailings to performance-like activities to his rare exhibitions: it organized his very thinking on art and on the role of art and aesthetics in relation to that entity called the social. Through this means continually opened up of the question of sociality itself, the very meaning of notion of “the social”. At a time when so much artistic work is once again focused on “social action”, on all sorts of community-oriented practices, this questioning is of the highest relevance.
Ina Blom, January 2008
About Ina Blom
Ina Blom is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. She has written extensively on modern and contemporary art and is also active as an art critic.
Ina Blom curated the following exhibition:
2003 The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design Oslo
‘The Name of the Game’ (11 January-9 March, 2003), curator Ina Blom. The exhibition traveled to the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (April 2-18 May, 2003), Museum Het Domein Sittard (31 May-17 August, 2003)
[exhibition catalogue] Ina Blom (ed.), The Name of the Game. Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance / book edited and exhibition curated by Ina Blom (National Museum of Contemporary Art : Oslo 2003).