THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH A. HOFFBERG 52
Started on: 29-8-1995
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 4-10-1995
JH : It is hard to remember exactly when I did get involved in the mail-art network. I remember visiting with Ulises Carrion & Aart in Amsterdam, working with them on a Stamp Art Catalog -- and talking for hours about everything for days. At that time, I heard about mail art and sending art through the mail, and asked how to get involved. I think that is how it all happened -- in fact, Ephemera was named after a conversation with me -- dedicated to me for that whole year.
I met Cavellini at the ArteFiera in Bologna, and other people involved with Cavellini -- and perhaps with that opening when CCavellini sent me everything he had published, his roundtrips (of which I have many), postcards, stickers, stamps, etc. , and since I speak Italian, it was an easy friendship. From then on, I heard about Anna banana, Dadaland, and much more.
But Ken Friedman had also told me about the Network in the early 1970's and I guess I was involved with that early on-as part of the Fluxus movement. So it is really hard to pinpoint when I got involved. As someone who loved to write long letters on the typewriter, and one who loves postcards, it was an easy transition to become an "artist" without having any real creative skills in that regard.
So, first with Friedman and Frank, then with Ulises and Aart, and then with Cavelinni and the whole network by 1977, when I met Gaglione and Banana, and the whole world changed for me. Then there was my large exhibition, Artwords & Bookworks, including many postcards made by artists from around the world. As a result, I opened a shop which featured those postcards, and I also had a mail art show of Umbrella Art in 1979. So the 1970's was my opening, and Umbrella became my window to the world.
RJ : How did you become interested in Umbrellas?
Reply on 28-10-95
JH : Well, since the name of my business became Umbrella Associates in 1978, thanks to a suggestion from Joan Hugo, as we were sitting in an airport in San Jose waiting for our late plane to Los Angeles after the First Artists' Publication Fair in San Jose in 1977. I had just resigned from the position of Executive Secretary of the Art Libraries Society of North America, which I had founded, and as we were sitting, Joan, a noted librarian and my co-curator in the Artwords & Bookworks exhibition, asked what I would be doing next; I hadn't the faintest idea at the time, but she had been thinking about it, and told me she had done some research. She had discovered that there was once a periodical called Parasol edited by Ricky de Marco, but it was not extant. Then she had looked through the entire list of periodicals and could not find any other periodical called "Umbrella", and so she thought I should start a business as a consultant, called Umbrella Associates, and publish a newsletter called Umbrella, and so I did.
A strong interest in umbrellas had never occurred to me -- except for one print which I had bought in 1966 in Washington, DC which I have in my office. But since my interest in mail art had been growing at the same time I founded my business, I decided that the symbol of umbrella had potential as a logo, an indentifying icon, and perhaps a way for me to send mail art around the world with that image. After learning that my friend Kurt de Gooyer had become curator of a Museum of Photography on the University of California, Riverside campus, he was involved in a group called Art Spies, and he thought it would be a good thing to have a mail art show in his museum, and so I announced to the world that the theme of the show was "Umbrellas" and having contacted just about everyone I knew from the mail art world, I started receiving lots of mail art, actual found umbrellas, etc. With over 400 entries, I began to see the potential for a collection. As an archivist, it was easy to organize this material in notebooks, and so it began. Now I have over 60 volumes of paper ephemera about umbrellas, including handmade postcards and broadsides, advertisements, articles about umbrellas, newspaper photos, photographs both black and white and color, antique postcards and advertising ephemera, and much more.
The collection has grown largely due to my many trips around the world including Australia and New Zealand, and continental Europe. I buy postcards of Umbrellas wherever I go and some summers I came back with 250 postcards of umbrella images. Then, too, I take pictures of Umbrellas wherever I see them, including inside shots and outside shots. So if I cannot buy an item, I take a picture of it. Many artists send me things, including jewelry, clothing, paper items, postcards, etc. As a result, I have learned to live with some of the material but until this year, I have had to store the collection, except for 1984, when I showed the collection as Umbrelliana in the Bumbereshoot Festival in Seattle, Washington, which is held every year on the first weekend of September. I filled 4000 square feet of space, and there still was much material at home. Now the collection has increased a great deal more, but now I live with most of it, having decorated my new apartment with umbrellas everywhere -- in the kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, office, and everywhere else. It is a universal well known item, whether it be protection against the sun (parasol) or protection against the rain (umbrella), and so I even have taken that name on the internet.
RJ : About the internet I would like to discuss a bit later, but first this magazine 'umbrella'. In lots of publications about mail art it is mentioned. What is so special about your magazine, and how was it to publish this magazine in the beginning of the 80-ies?
Reply on 8-11-1995 (internet)
JH : In the beginning, I intend Umbrella to be a newsletter that would cover the world‑‑about artists' books and artists' publications, about mail art, and about art books, especially those of interest to artists and those who make books, including photography. There would be interviews, profiles of alternative spaces, and the phenomena from 1978 on of an incredible period when anything could happen and usually did.
In retrospect, the 70s were wonderful because it was a period of incredible energy without a market‑driven economy. This means that artists were making art because they had to create, not because they had collectors, buyers and sales every day, month or year. As a result, many experimental works were being created by innovative, ingenious and courageous artists.
Since I had published a newsletter for the Art Libraries Society of North America, I had the skills pre‑computer to create a decent looking newsletter on the IBM composer. As a result, I started out doing a profile of Other Books & So in Amsterdam which I had visited several times; I interviewed Ulises; I talked to Wolf Vostell when he was in Los Angeles; I wrote about Fluxus, Artist Books, and Mail Art. Lon Spiegelman helped me gather all the announcements of shows throughout the world; Ken Friedman helped me with other contacts, and we had four or five issues a year. My newsletter filled a gap, since there were very few English‑language periodicals which listed mail art shows, talked about alternative spaces, discussed alternative media such as books, new periodicals by artists, videotapes and audiotapes, and interviewed fascinating people throughout the world about what they were creating, whether it be books, an alternative space, performances, or whatever. At the same time I was curating a massive bookshow which also had postcards by artists, called Artwords & Bookworks, which clearly showed the alternative, having 1500 items by 616 artists. As a result, I opened up a bookshop with two partners, called Artworks. It opened in June 1979. I had been publishing Umbrella for 18 months by then and subscriptions had quickly increased.
Since I am a librarian, many of my colleagues subscribed through their institutions, and libraries even until today seem to support Umbrella and keep it going. In those years I had tremendous energy and loved all the information that was flowing through my mailbox. Even my post office loved the material that was coming in‑‑especially the mail art. It was wonderful to travel through Europe and stay with mail artists wherever I went. I had a new community of friends throughout the world, and I even came to visit with them, taking pictures of their archives, interviewing them for an issue of Umbrella, and sharing that information with my readers.
Of course, it was a great deal of work‑‑with a IBM composer with only 8000 bites of memory, it meant that there was a great deal of duplication and retyping, but it was worth it! Having built up a subscription list of almost 1000, I felt I was reaching out and making new contacts all the time. And as a librarian and archivist, I felt it was necessary to share the information coming through my mailbox. Now it is almost impossible to keep up‑‑well, I thought it was almost impossible to keep up with the mail that was coming snail mail to me. But I tried to synthesize it and get it out. A whole generation of artists became mail artists because of Umbrella‑‑and the sharing of information made it a nexus for a great deal of alternative activity.
In 1984, I was invited to Australia and New Zealand for two months to lecture, and so I left the publishing of an issue of Umbrella to Lon Spiegelman, who used my publication as a vehicle for protesting Ronny Cohen's diatribe against the mail art network in New York City. As a result, he sent out the newsletter not only to my subscribers but to his list as well. When I returned to the United States, I found that the issue did not reflect either my policies or my philosophy, and since I only had two issues for my archive, the issue was never available to anyone who claimed it after that time. I suppressed that issue as part of Umbrella's production. And because of failing finances, I had to suppress publication altogether for six months. As a result, I lost many subscribers, who never came back when I resumed publication in 1985. I have really never been able to recoup those subscribers and it has really been a struggle to keep on publishing.
As it has become more expensive to publish because of paper and postage, I had decided to publish less frequently, even sometimes only twice a year. Now I seem to be publishing four times a year, but I still like to keep it irregular, meaning it gets published when I can get it all together. This year, international rates went up, so that snail mail really costs a great deal of money, even here in the United States. Of course, it is nothing like other countries, but it still takes a big bite out of the budget because of airmail rates. And I feel my readers should get the news as soon as it is published. That is my philosophy. Of course, I may turn to the Net for publishing but I cannot do all that work and do it for free. I have published for 18 years and really want to continue, but giving it away is out of the question for that much work that I must do. Perhaps I can find a way soon, but right now, we are still printing the publication, Umbrella, three or four times a year. There have been changes in Umbrella‑‑since I do not publish regularly, I cannot always make the deadlines of some of the Mail Art exhibitions, but between TAM and Guy Bleus and others who seem to be more connected and distribute that information through other means than a formal publication, the news gets out. Right now, I do not get notices regularly from everyone and must search for Mail Art shows more and more. Perhaps it is an indication of what is happening with fax, electronic mail, etc. I haven't had time to analyze it. But Umbrella is still around, perhaps not as vitally important as in the days when there was no e‑mail or the Internet, but it still is being read by librarians, artists, curators, book dealers, etc.
RJ: Some say that with the death of Ray Johnson, the mail art period is coming to an end. Some others say that mail art is more alive than ever because of the enormous amounts of projects and exhibitions that there are all around the world (see e.g. the magazine Global Mail). Is mail art still what it used to be?
Reply on 14-2-1996 (internet)
JH : Even four years ago, I was concerned with the change in what was happening with Mail Art. With the growth and development of so much innovative technology, I knew that the Post Office was going to be the choice of last resort for communication, even before I had email or could get on the Internet. I just used common logic that change is part of the end of the 20th century, and a whole generation grew up not knowing who Ray Johnson is, has been, or will be. But Mail Art never depended upon Ray Johnson; it has always depended upon those curious, innovative, experimental, or adventurous. Getting something in the mail that has been stamped a number of times by the "system" as well as the creator is exciting. Even the postal clerks where I have lived have been excited by what has appeared in my postbox, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. There is less time to look at mail now as a clerk in the psotal system, since the emphasis is "how many pieces" in "how much time", so one hardly sees what whizzes by, since there are optical scanners and fiber optics which govern the distribution of the mail (or at least the sorting of it).
Then there is a younger generation that is sometimes stimulated by a librarian or a teacher who has been doing "mail art" or "networking" for a while and wants to embrace a whole new group of people in doing it. Not once, but as a habit. And that's why the rubberstamp industry in the United States has burgeoned into a big business. Teachers especially have taken it up, but there must be something in being "independent" and perhaps not being an "artist" that allows one to use a rubberstamp and use it aesthetically to create imagery that is innovative and ingenious. That is why some people think that Mail Art can be used as a project in the public schools. Perhaps that is also why listings for Mail Art appear in journals more diverse than any of the alternative zines and publications by artists which were the norm in the 1970s and 1980s. Mail Art still hasn't grasped the imagination of most people, but it certainly is nourished by ancillary industries which distribute the correspondence in an aesthetic way.
There may be more shows announced, etc., but I have seen a great deal less documentation than ever before. I love how people cite the rules--no jury, no returns, any medium, any size, documentation to all--and what happens but you wait years and you may never see a list of participants, let alone remember what show it was and when, when suddenly to your surprise comes an envelope with a list of people who participated in a show two years before. The "community" has not grown that much, but many of my friends have been disenchanted by the novelty of mail art. Not because of Ray's death, but in spite of it. Between the faxes, the email, and all the other forms of communication that rush through the system like magazines, periodicals, books, artist books, newsletters, and generous forms of communication called letters, well, it is almost too much to respond to whether in just the reading of it, or the answering of the mass of it all.
I believe in email for short messages, but email messages are ephemeral, and even if they are enhanced by good graphics, or the Internet creates sites which are graphically dynamic, good solid information is not part of the tool called email. Quick and neat, but not deep. And I really do not think that email and fax art should be considered Mail Art. Mail Art has to go through the international postal system and have been stamped and delivered by the system in order to come under the category of Mail Art. The other means such as email and the Internet as well as fax art comes under the larger umbrella of "Networking" which is not necessarily Mail Art.
Those of us who met during the Age of Cavellini certainly became a community, a group of friends who could visit each other through the mail, and sometimes even in person. I met many people who had archives already well established in the 1970s such as Anna Banana, Bill Gaglione, and many Europeans. I admired the system of order which most of my friends in Belgium and Holland had in order to archive their Mail Art. Ulises Carriƒn opened a space just to exhibit his archive and make it available to any person who was serious. And how often messages were waiting for you as you arrived, since it was a conduit of networking as well. Those days are gone--we have lost the touch of being part of a community. Of course, Peter and Angel Network are certainly exceptions to the rule. That dynamic duo has made it a life's work to be human networkers and the epitome of what Mail Art can and should be. But who am I to say what "should" be! Other than defining Mail Art as what goes through the international postal system, I believe that networking is totally something else. Certainly Leonardo and Michelangelo had their differences, but their form of writing letters was to take the back of drawings and write to each other or other artists--and keep notes and make notes when an idea popped into their heads. Frederic Remington used to send the most wonderful illustrated letters to his friends! And there are so many people who communicate with each other without feeling or knowing they are a part of a "movement". They just communicate visually and verbally with their correspondents.
So if there is a difference it is because we are bombarded with too much information--and too much labor to make the same amount of money. I remember being told that this was going to be a life of leisure what with the labor saving devices of computers, etc. But instead, I think we are all working harder for alot less. At least, I speak of the United States...and some of my friends in Europe.
RJ : Time seems to an essential thing in life and art and also mail art. The more one wants to do, the less time one has for every single piece of work. I have noticed in the last years this bothers me more and more (I probably get older too....) and that I hardly react anymore to xeroxes, stupid invitations, and also the hastly written e-mails without any content. How do you deal with all the mail that you get in?
(Because of the incident that Judith's computer & diskettes were stolen from her place, it took some time for her to get things started again. This explains the short break in the sending of the answer and the getting of the reply)
Reply on 7-6-1996 (e-mail)
JAH: I find that with the tremendous flow of snail‑mail, email, and faxes, it is difficult to write even a good letter to anyone. I find I write great letters to my friends when I am abroad‑‑but never at home. It just doesn't stir the soul to communicate at length when I can get on the phone and call anywhere in the world‑‑and hear that voice and talk at length. It is not like a letter, which is composed and seemingly more emotive because there is time to think‑‑but it gets the message across. Then there is a fax machine which allows one to send a facsimile document to anyone in the world too‑‑so there is no mystery anymore about communication‑‑at least, instant communication. The occasional piece of mail art that comes in the mail moves the soul‑‑but it is not a constant anymore. Yet, a whole new class of students is learning what mail art is‑‑they are excited and delighted and creative‑‑and you cannot complain about that too!
My time is divided into so many segments that I am seldom moved to do mail art‑‑even when requested. It has to be a heavy invitation‑‑and much time to think about it before I am moved to do it‑‑so it is not a priority for me. As for quick answers to quick questions, I use email, fax mail and the telephone‑‑and all that means is communication and nothing else.
I flit between the world of art and libraries, archives and mail art, book art and trade books‑‑so it is difficult to sort it all out even daily. I prioritize the mail‑‑and deal with the important stuff (money, business, etc.) first and then try to leave some room for fun‑‑but oftentimes, that gets waylaid to a later date, or never. I am sure that for some people I am a zero, because I do not respond to their mail. I do not automatically answer unsolicited mail, although I feel a burden and responsibility to do so. My intentions are noble, but oftentimes my actions do not match my intentions. Alas! As I said before, I thought we were going to have more time to do creative things what with the invention of electronic technology, but ironically enough, we have less time to do what we want to do‑‑and less time to do what we have to do. Too much information, too many people, too much to do.
RJ : This "too much to do" sounds very familiar to me. But a lot has been done by the network. In the last decade also lots of publications have been written about mail art. The major books mostly done by male mail artists by the way. Do these books give a good idea of what the network has been all about?
Reply on 23-8-96 (e-mail)
JAH : Both John Held and Crackerjack Kid have produced volumes which are a tribute to their passion and their dedication to the field. When I entered the "network" it was strictly mail art and I participated not only as an "artist" (which I am not, but I feel I can make it in the Mail Art world by using techniques and media which allow me to do something aesthetic) but also as an admirer of the freedom that Mail Art allowed to everyone from any walk of life, any ethnic or racial denomination, any background at all. I appreciated that freedom. The intermediary was the International Postal System, which functioned fairly well except for a few select sites such as New York City, Washington, DC and especially Italy--all of Italy! Technology certainly changed the language and the techniques--and now the "network" means more than mail--and includes fax and email. I am a firm believer that Mail Art means Postal Mail Art--and that is the mystique of it all. If it is fax or email, it is NOT Mail Art--it is something else, perhaps even "networking".
When Anna Banana had her Fe-Mail Art Show producing a marvelous catalog in addition, I felt it was a tribute to those women in the Mail Art world who get short shrift. The volumes that have subsequently been produced in the 1990s seem to pay small tribute to the women in the network, never emphasizing their differences, but certainly not producing great testimonials to their contributions to the field.
I feel there are many women in the field who will never get recognized for their long-time participation, such as Pat Tavenner in California and Pat Fish in Santa Barbara. For a short moment, their 15 minutes ð la Warhol, they were appreciated, but there are still chapters to be written about ALL the artists in the network--not just some. The books that are being written now are much better researched than before, and because of new technologies, they can be updated and corrected shortly before being committed to the press. As a result, they are much more respected. The last chapter has not been written in this field, but at least some chapters have been written, and very well indeed.
RJ : Any chance that you will be doing a book on mail art in the future?
(On October 26th 1996 I had a short meeting with Judith Hoffberg when she attended the talk I did at the Stamp Art Gallery in connection to the exhibition I had there about the TAM Rubberstamp Archive).
reply on 3-2-97 (e-mail)
JAH : As to the bibliography that been generated from the male mail artists, I can vouch that Crackerjack Kid's book is invaluble‑‑some of the essays are so brilliantly written that they can serve as essays for other disciplines as well. I cite David Cole's essay, for instance, on collaboration that makes such a poetic statement that I have just read it outloud for audiences in universities. I would say that as soon as the Academy gets a hold of these alternative movements, the language becomes rarified, the illustrations become portraits, and the book becomes obsolescent before its time, since it takes so long for university presses to agree to do such books. The information, therefore, is dated as soon as it is published. But it is a start‑‑and by being paperback (and by the way, expensive) not everyone can buy these books, but at least they are in libraries and faculty members buy them‑‑so it is a big leap forward.
I am sure that because Americans have a problem with languages, they are missing out on many volumes which are printed in Dutch or German or French or Polish and we hardly get word of them unless the network distributes them. As a result, I too have been left out of that list, since I am not as active a mail artist as I used to be, and as such, have been informed most of the time by Stamp Art Gallery, since they seem to be on the cutting edge of information about the Network, thanks to the assiduous interest of John Held and Picasso Gaglione.
There never is enough information around‑‑and well informed articles are few and far between. Now that interests of mail artists seem to veer toward fax, computers and artistamps, there seems to be less mail art by the "old guard" and much more interest by rubber stampers, young students, and those just discovering what mail art is about. At any rate, the younger people really love the whole concept, and see it as another venue for barter, exchange and cooperation.
RJ : The Postal Museums here in Europe have been focussing on mail art in the last years a lot. Exhibitions were held in Postal Museums in The hague (Netherlands) Brussels (Belgium) , Bern (Switserland) , Copenhagen (Denmark) , and just today -- as I write this on 19-6-97 -- the Poostal Museum in Berlin opens a mail art exhibition. Some museums have also started with building their own archives by buying up archives from some mail artists or just by starting their own mail-art projects. What do you think of this development? Where does it lead to?
Judith A. Hoffberg
P.O. Box 3640
Santa Monica, CA 90408