Utopian Networks and Correspondence Identities
Stephen Perkins, 1997
The artist must realize also that he is part of a wider network, la Fête Permanente [Eternal Network] going on around him all the time in all parts of the world. We will advertise also, as alternative performances such things as private parties, weddings, divorces, lawcourts, funerals, factory works, trips around towns in buses, pro-Negro manifestations or anti-Vietnam ones, bars, churches, etc...
Robert Filliou, 19701
[originally published under the title — 'Artifacts of the Eternal Network', this text was included in the exhibition brochure for the University of Iowa, Museum of Art's exhibition 'Artifacts of the Eternal Network,' Sept., 6 - Nov, 23, 1997]
The first public announcement of the Eternal Network appeared in a poster published in April 1968 by Robert Filliou and George Brecht and subsequently mailed to their network of correspondents. The impetus for launching the Eternal Network and the context in which its conceptual structure was shaped are intimately tied to the closing of Filliou's and Brecht's "non-shop," the Cédille qui Sourit, located in a small fishing village in the south of France and in existence from 1965-68.2 About the purpose of the Cédille Filliou stated "we conceived the Cédille qui Sourit as an international center of permanent creation, and so it turned out to be. We played games, invented and disinvented objects, corresponded with the humble and mighty, drank and talked with our neighbors, manufactured and sold by correspondence suspense poems and rebuses, started to compile an anthology of misunderstandings and an anthology of jokes..."3 The Cédille was never commercially registered and was opened to visitors only upon request.
The manner in which the Cédille's activities were undertaken grew directly out of Filliou's concept of Permanent Creation (1963), an activity he later summarized as "whatever you do, do something else, whatever you think—think something else."4 This model for creative activity and its inherent capacity for self-renewal was grounded in Filliou's commitment to erasing the separation between artist and audience and "joining them in a common creation."5 The Cédille closed on its third anniversary because neither Filliou nor Brecht were able to pay the rent. Faced with the imminent departure of Brecht, both men felt the need to develop a means by which the Cédille's vision of the artist and non-artist collaborating together could be continued. Filliou wrote of this period, "we felt that we did not have to be on the same spot any more, in order to keep this spirit alive."6 Out of their discussions they developed the concept of the Fête Permanente, or the Eternal Network as they translated it into English.
An important feature in the dissemination of the Cédille's activities, as well as the means through which a number of its projects were realized, was the postal system. With the Cédille's closure and its supersession by the Eternal Network, this communication system became a pivotal medium through which this utopian model of creativity could be activated on an international scale.
The challenge that lay at the heart of the Eternal Network was to close the gap between the artist and his/her audience and, more particularly, art and life themselves. Implicit in this challenge was an invitation to participate in and widen this circle of inquiry and interactivity. In a few short years this idea would find fertile ground in an emerging and geographically dispersed network of self-identified correspondence artists. Rejecting the exclusiveness and competitiveness of existing art world institutions in favor of open and collaborative exchanges via the postal system, a community of participants slowly established themselves as a parallel counter-institution during the late 1960's and early 1970's. It is for these reasons that correspondence art, also known as mail art or postal art, has often been referred to by its practitioners, as the Eternal Network.
A defining feature in correspondence art's development was the emergence of the operational guidelines for exhibitions that were being organized with increasing frequency from 1970 onwards. These crystallized around the following: no fees were charged for submission, no jury or selection process, all works were to be exhibited, no works returned and documentation to be sent to all participants. Clearly, the egalitarian ethos embodied in these conditions was formulated in direct opposition to the norms that prevailed when artists sought entry into the established art world.
A practice that characterizes this early period of correspondence art, and which continues to this day, was the adoption of pseudonyms and official sounding institutional titles by individuals and groups. Stu Horn, a correspondence artist active in this early period, wrote about the possibilities offered through postal communication for the construction of network identities.
Correspondence gives the artist the opportunity to create a new, perfect identity for people to relate to. He can be whoever he wants to be; or nobody at all. The majority of correspondents either create corporate names (Image Bank, Daddaland, Dada Processing, Cow Studio, Gross Enterprises) or use aliases by which even their close friends know them (Anna Banana, Monte Cazazza, Arthur Craven, Woofy Bubbles). I like the anonymity of correspondence & the possibility of creating and giving reality to conceptual beings and institutions.7
One of the models for these network identities can be traced to Dada, one of this century's earliest avant-garde movements. Hostile to all institutions and cultural myths deemed responsible for the carnage of World War I, the Dadaists constructed satirical and iconoclastic identities as vehicles with which they attempted to explode these myths once and for all. The appropriation of this Dada strategy, by North American correspondence artists in particular, can be seen in the context of the political and cultural upheavals that had recently convulsed Europe and were continuing in the United States during the 1970's. In 1974, Anna Banana, a Canadian correspondence artist then living in San Francisco, published a 'manifesto' in which she addressed the contemporary resurgence of interest in historical Dada and her perception of the similarities in contexts from which she saw them arising.
Disillusioned masses, dissatisfied with the leadership, the unequal distribution of goods and services...revolutionary activity (S.L.A., for example) oppressive governments passing more and more oppressive legislation, hiring more and more police forces, higher postage rates, general inflation of currency etc, etc, etc. Alienation on the mass scale driving many into group-living situations, where members can clarify and express THEIR identities within an approving environment.8
As evidenced in this exhibition (Artifacts of the Eternal Network, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Sept. 6 - Nov., 23, 1997), many of the individual and group identities adopted were intended to criticize, through humor and satire, the authority invested in establishment institutions and to counterpose these with an array of alternative artistic and social identities. Anna Banana herself and her related 'banana' projects illustrates well the pervasiveness of this neo-Dada activity.
One particularly provocative network identity was the Adolf Hitler Fan Club, created by the British artist Pauline Smith. Initiated in 1974, the project developed because she was "struck by the way Hitler's description of decadent Austrian democracy immediately prior to WWI could equally well suit the last few British Governments."9 Vehemently critical of the government and the gentrification of the inner city in which she lived, the project was terminated with the last edition of leaflets titled Adolf Hitler Lives, when the police raided her apartment investigating a "possible contravention of the Race Relations Act."10 Smith continued her activities with the more neutral Corpse Club/Body Sculpture project. However, through her institutional identity, she demonstrated to her dissatisfaction that the "freedom to express ideas in this country is not as free as all that."11
A consistent feature in correspondence artists' promotion of their network identities has been the use of rubber stamps. This appropriation of an official and bureaucratic imprimatur in order to lend legitimacy to network identities is widespread. More generally, artists' adoption of rubber stamps as a part of their work gained momentum from the late 1950's onwards, particularly among the Nouveaux Realistes and more markedly within Fluxus. Their use divides broadly between the creation of experimental yet traditionally conceived art works and numerous examples which rely upon the replication of texts. It is the latter that predominates in the early years of correspondence art. The preoccupation with texts reflects the conceptual turn that work outside of the mainstream took during the early 1960's. Dispensing with the image, the text becomes the initiator of a mental image as well as the agency through which specific projects, events and instruction pieces were set into motion. Other genres which emerged within this potentially decommodified and multiple based activity include: visual and concrete poetry stamps that examined the construction of words and language and still other stamps created to instruct, protest and authenticate. Later in the 1970's correspondence art expanded the use of image-based rubber stamps.
Another institutional form that was appropriated from its official bureaucratic setting, and which has long been a part of the correspondence art landscape, was the postage stamp itself. Robert Watts, a member of Fluxus, was one of the earliest artists involved in the sustained production of artists' postage stamps. Having produced his first stamp sheet in 1961, he stands out as an innovator in expanding the potential of this ready-made emblem of communication. The development of a medium so steeped in constructs of nationhood and identity, coupled with their simultaneous re-insertion and re-distribution into the very system from which their form was taken, aptly illustrates the Eternal Network's utopian attempts at relocating artistic activity within the sphere of everyday life.
With postage stamps stripped of their official function, artists were at liberty to explore other uses tailored to their own priorities; often these were directly related to their network identities. One artist who personified this approach was the Italian Guglielmo Achille Cavellini. Propelled by his personal wealth and a prodigious ego, he relentlessly pursued his own 'self-historification' project. His aim was to insert himself into the pantheon of famous artists through the dissemination of copious amounts of books, postcards, stickers and artists' stamps, all of which extolled his greatness and individuality as an artist. Whether he had achieved his aim by the time of his death in 1990 is debatable, but without doubt he had succeeded in establishing a unique presence within correspondence art, due in no small part to his use of artists' stamps, all of which bore an endless succession of portraits of himself in various guises and with art historical references.
Any account of the development of correspondence art must take into consideration two important precursors whose use of the postal system has provided lasting and influential models. The first community of artists to systematically incorporate the postal system into their activities was Fluxus. This diverse and international grouping, which included Filliou and Brecht, coalesced during the early 1960's under the tireless organizational efforts of their New York based 'commissar' George Maciunas. The postal system played a central role in providing a medium for the dissemination of text-based event works, the means through which collaborative projects could be undertaken, as well as the development of an independent and alternative distribution network for anthologies of boxed objects.
One Fluxus artist, the Frenchman Ben Vautier, produced a work that is paradigmatic in its use of the internal mechanics of the postal system. Titled The Postman's Choice (1965), it is a blank postcard which bears on both sides the lines indicating where the sender is to write the address and in the upper right corners the rectangles for affixing postage stamps. To initiate the piece, the sender is required to write two different addresses on both sides of the card, accompanied by the necessary stamps for each destination, in this manner the role of the postman in determining the final destination of the postcard is activated.12 The humorous collaborative strategy which shaped this work reiterates the Eternal Network's commitment to joining the artist and public in a "common creation."13
The second precursor, who's presence permeates correspondence art to this day, is Ray Johnson and the postal activities he initiated under the rubric of the New York Correspondance School.14 A graduate of Black Mountain College, Johnson lived from the early 1950's in New York making his home the close-knit art world of that city. From this period onwards he refined his use of the postal system as the connective tissue through which he spun a network of relationships with members of New York's expanding art world and beyond. Typically his correspondents would be initiated into the New York Correspondance School upon receiving a cryptic envelope of collages, drawings, found texts and images which accompanied his letter. This material frequently contained oblique references to art world personalities and occurrences, most often extrapolated from incidents or conversations drawn from real or imagined relationships with his correspondent. A particular feature of many of his mailings was his request that the recipient add to his mailing (often specific items) and forward it to a third party. In this manner his correspondents became active participants in an expanding communicative web of relationships in which Johnson was the initiator and director.
Johnson's whimsical personality is present in many of the works in this exhibition, perhaps most noticeably his 'bunny' motif as well as references to the New York Correspondance School (the name was a pun on the 'New York School' of Abstract Expressionists and traditional Correspondence Schools). Always elusive and unpredictable in his dealings with friends and acquaintances, he was nevertheless able, through the medium of the postal system, to envelop countless artists, and non-artists, into the quirky and ultimately humorous play of chance and association that lay at the heart of his private world of correspondances.
A consistent feature in the topology of correspondence art is the presence of artists' periodicals. As common reference points for its geographically dispersed participants, they functioned as alternative spaces for exhibiting work, places where invitations for projects could be broadcast and coupled with the growing practice of listing contributor's addresses, initiators of community building. Equally important, they provided correspondence art with an image of itself, a momentary snapshot that illuminated the scope and breadth of its activities. Self-published in small print runs, utilizing available print technologies, these periodicals were distributed primarily through informal exchange and circulated almost exclusively within the participating community.
An early periodical that actively promoted and engaged the concept of Eternal Network was the Canadian magazine File (1972-89). Published by the Canadian group General Idea (AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal), it parodied the myth and mass media format of Life magazine. The following statement by General Idea locates File's beginnings.
We began File Magazine in 1972 as a networking publication. It functioned as an in-house organ for an art network of the early seventies, blurring the line between contributors and readership and authenticating fringe art activity as something really happening.15
Over the next two years File disengaged itself from correspondence art and concentrated on General Idea's own projects. Anna Banana stepped in to fill this void with Vile magazine, "I visualized a magazine that would look like Life, but on close examination, would reveal its true nature; subtle put-downs of mass media culture with nasty, dada 'up-yours'-type messages."16 Throughout its eight issues (1974-83), Vile dedicated itself to publishing work from the correspondence art network, as well as being one of a galaxy of similarly oriented 'dadazines' published by the Bay Area Dada group.
The relative ease with which North American correspondence artists could access affordable printing technologies, and within a climate that tolerated their publications, was not enjoyed by all members of this international community. In Uruguay, Clemente Padin published Ovum (1973-77), under very different circumstances and in direct response to "the needs of communication provoked by censorship and outrage at the dictatorship imposed in our country since June 1973."17 Similarly, Pawel Petasz in Poland started Commonpress. From its first issue in 1977, this collective project was premised on having different editors publish individual issues. After consultation with Petasz, prospective editors were given an issue number and were then free to choose the theme and format of their issue. By the time of its demise in 1990, fifty-one issues had been published by editors from fifteen countries, firmly establishing Commonpress as a new collaborative publishing paradigm possible only through a community of common effort.18
Another collective publishing strategy that was embraced by correspondence art was "assembling magazines." Named after a well known American example called, appropriately, Assembling (1970-87), this periodical relied upon contributors submitting a specific number of pages of original art work, which the editor then 'assembled' to create an edition. Particularly well suited to countries where access to print technology was restricted, such as Latin America and the former Eastern bloc countries, these periodicals with their open and participatory strategy had a mobilizing effect in literally 'assembling' the correspondence art community.
The continued existence of correspondence art, and the wider application of its communication model within present day computer networking is evidence of the endurance of the concepts underlying the Eternal Network. The artifacts gathered here are the most visible residue of ideas that took form in response to the Eternal Network's invitation for collective dialogue and exchange.
It's not incidental that Filliou was trained and worked as an economist, for it's clear from his writings that economic theory confirmed his conviction of the interconnectedness of everyday life and economic and political systems. It was this conviction that led him to research in the nature of creativity and it's resolution in the utopian, and essentially poetic and spiritual concerns, of the Eternal Network. The correspondence art community, through the most accessible of communication systems, embraced this collective attempt to forge a new ecology of human exchange. Art, Filliou believed, was to be incorporated into the "fabric of everyone's life, so that it becomes an art of living."19
1. Robert Filliou, Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts, Köln/New York: Verlg. Gerbl. König, 1970, p. 204.
2. A cedilla is a pronunciation symbol used in French and placed under the letter ç. Translated La Cédille qui Sourit means 'The Cedilla that Smiles.'
3. Filliou, Ibid.; 198. Equally involved in the Cédille was Filliou's wife Marianne and Brecht's partner Anna Lowell; although their participation is not detailed in documentation from the Cédille, their presence is evident.
4. Robert Filliou, "Transcript: The 'Gong Show' Tape," Centerfold, 2(4), 1978, p. 29.
5. Filliou, Ibid.; 7. On page 191 of this book Filliou describes how the idea of Permanent Creation came to him.
6. Filliou, Ibid.; 203.
7. Stu Horn quoted in: Carolyn Pinkston, "Correspondence Art," MA thesis, California State University, Northridge, 1973. Ken Friedman papers, Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts archive, University of Iowa, p. 37.
8. Anna Banana, "Manifesto," Intermedia, 1(1), 1974, p. 6.
9. Pauline Smith, "Corpse Club," in: Anna Banana, About Vile, Vancouver:Banana Productions: Vancouver, 1983, p. 59-60. Smith was born in Kenya in 1993 and passed away at the age of 83 on March 19th, 2017.
10. Smith, Ibid.; 60.
11. Smith, Ibid.; 60.
12. In 1978 the University of Iowa Museum of Art sent out a bulk mailing of this postcard in association with the exhibition Dada Artifacts. The reaction from the Iowa City post office was swift, the postcards were returned and the museum's non-profit mailing permit was temporarily suspended.
13. Filliou, Ibid.; 7.
14. The term, The New York Correspondence School, was coined by the artist EdwardPlunkett in the early 1960's to describe his correspondence art activities. Johnson adopted the name but changed the spelling of 'correspondence' to 'correspondance.' He did not, however, use this particular spelling consistently.
Source: Edward Plunkett, "Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings, and Objects...," Art Journal, Spring 1977, p. 234.
15. General Idea: 1968-1984, (exhibition catalogue), Kunsthalle, Basel, 1984, p. 38.
16. Anna Banana. About Vile. Vancouver: Banana Productions, 1983, p. 2.
17. Clemente Padin, "Assembling Magazines: Ovum's Saga," in Assembling Magazines (exhibition catalogue), Subspace: Iowa City, 1997, p. 29.
18. These figures from: Géza Perneczky, The Magazine Network, Köln: SoftGeometry, 1993, p. 121.
19. Filliou, Ibid.; 24.