[Note: If you are looking for the blog post that is a companion to my Spring 2009 Journal of Artists’ Books article on the Pyramid Atlantic Critic’s awards, you can read it here.]

mail

Mail from last week

I love the mail. I don’t get nearly enough of it (at least not of the good kind), though whether that is because I live in Chicago where there’s a good chance that my mail is stuffed under some carrier’s porch, or because email has killed the letter (and with it that marvelously crisp, cockled onionskin paper that people used to type on and which I need for an artist’s book and am dismayed to have discovered is no longer manufactured…) it is sometimes hard to tell.

Let’s start again.  I love mail. Last week, at least, the mail brought all sorts of delights, so despite this week’s hike in the postal rate I want to write a paean to old-fashioned, paper-in-envelope mail.  Now I have to admit that it was primarily what was inside my mail that was so exciting: My friend Tate Shaw’s latest artist’s book, The Placeholders, which arrived out of the blue; a copy of The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press which I had ordered, several old books about color (see last post), and a couple of sheets of onionskin paper (see comment above).  I’ll write about the  two artists’ books in future posts but today I want to focus on how these items took part in an age-old art of exchange of physical objects through a vast, networked, mediated system and why this system has so inspired artists.

Visual Individuality

screen of email

screen of email

Two of these items had the added treat of creative, DIY packaging.  Tate had taken an image from his artist’s book and enlarged it to perfectly fit the front half of one of those soft, brown mailers, transforming the ubiquitously dull kraft paper into a harbinger of its content (see picture above). When you receive something like that, you know it is going to be good.  Which brings me to my first observation: I can mentally sort my postal mail using visual clues in a way that is impossible with email. Compare this screenshot of my email inbox with stack of mail pictured above. Everything in my inbox has been rendered mute through the democratization of the interface. Each message takes up one line in the same sans serif font. I cannot easily distinguish the interesting message from the spam.  Or if I can, it is only through the crudest of distinctions (those spams that are  all in Cyrillic). But I have to actually read the subject and from lines to begin to sort out my email and find what is interesting or pressing. Compare that to the intricate visual clues we have and use to evaluate our postal mail. I don’t have to read any words to know I can throw away the ubiquitous Comcast flyer. Partly it is the size (always a slightly too big rectangle to fit my mailbox and so often torn around the edges); partly the paper (glossy, 70lb cardstock); partly the colors of the logo; all physical elements that conspire to make the piece instantly identifiable. Interesting mail is equally distinguishable—the shape of a holiday card; the bulge of a wedding invitation bursting with its hospitality; anything from my mother, even in a plain white envelope, made instantly identifiable by her handwriting on the address. There is a potential for individuation in mail that mirrors that in artist’s books (see, I’m not straying too far from my book art theme)—the ability to create a cohesive structure that declares itself from first glance and carries through to final read.

Stamps

Another one of the envelopes I got last week was a delightful Egyptian-themed #10-sized envelope (see picture at start of post). It was sent to me by Leslie Cefali, a stranger who had the generosity to respond to my Book-Arts_L call for onionskin paper by sending me some samples of what she had in order to check if they would suit my needs.  Not knowing her, the envelope threw me for a loop at first, even though we had corresponded via email. But despite my inability to immediately divine what was inside, I knew it was something interesting not only because of the vibrant mural that marched around the envelope but because the sender had taken care to match the theme of the stamps to the theme of the envelope.  Or so I thought. Once I opened it up, I realized that the entire thing was made out of an old calendar picture, cut and folded up to eek out a new purpose after it had outlived its usefulness to mark time. Even the stamps had been fabricated – complete with perforated edges to seal the look that had fooled me upon first glance.  A single real postage stamp among the several striking images of mummy’s heads and eyes guaranteed its arrival at my doorstep.

Frank Magnotta's page of stamps from The Book of Stamps

Frank Magnotta's page of stamps from The Book of Stamps

There is a fascination with stamps that has galvanized artists time and time again.  Miniature pictures attached to an envelope guaranteeing delivery of everything from a gracious thank you note to a mundane bill payment to any place around the globe—it is stunning when you think of it.  Serendipitously, in my week of good mail, I stopped by Powell’s Book Store on my way home from work and came upon a book by Cabinet, one of my favorite art and culture journals.  The Book of Stamps was a project that commissioned artists to create sets of stamps all of which are then cleverly reproduced twice – once as pages of perforated, glue-backed, tear-out stamps and once as a permanent page of the book itself. The artists’ responses ranged from an Arcimboldi-style stamp man whose face fills the sheet with each stamp only representing a part, to a set whose pictures all were of materials that cannot be shipped through the mail.

The Radio Post

The Radio Post

The Radio Post

So now that I have my Book of Stamps, I have to decide if I am willing to tear  out these miniature pieces of art and use them on things, which is no easy prospect for someone who loves the integrity of things. Of course I realize the integrity of this publication is to be deconstructed by its reader, but I still hate to tear out the stamps. Conceptually I like the idea but viscerally, I resist. If I do decide to use them, I know the first thing I will do with them: decorate the envelope I will be sending to Denmark requesting a copy of The Radio Post #1.  The Radio Post is a publication which you can get for free, but only if you send your request via the post.  Write them a letter and they’ll send you a publication (it is all about analogue: radios, lighthouses, recording studios, etc.).  Now there is someone who understands the allure of the postal mail.