back to main page TAM / IUOMA

THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN PERKINS.                                                            61


Started on 23-1-1996


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 30-1-1996 (internet)


SP :      I got involved in the ma-network in 1984 while I was living in San Francisco.  At that time I was doing a lot of xerox posters that I was putting up in the streets, especially in the Haight Ashbury district where I was living.  I would do poster runs at night and plaster selected areas with my lastest response to some world event or in response to a more local and immediate situation.  The mail art network basically offered me another alternative distribution system. I would send these out to different shows and to publications as well. Looking back through my archives I discovered that the first ma publication that I got published in was an assembling call Idle Time put out by a guy called Dixon in Texas. 


It took a while for him to send the publication back and I remember in my rush to see myself in print I wrote and asked him what had happened‑I received an apologetic note saying that it had taken longer for him to put it together than he had planned (my introduction to the periodicity of ma magazines!).  Another inspiration to get involved with the ma network were some friends who were putting out an alternative music magazine called Unsound.  I helped them with writing reviews and other stuff, and they showed me all the great things they were getting in the mail as submissions‑a lot of this material was from mail artists.  I was amazed at what they were receiving and particularly impressed by the internationalism of the submissions.  I had moved to San Francisco from England in 1981 and was very aware of keeping contact with what was happening outside of the states.


Inspired by all this activity I decided in early 1985 to start my own  magazine.  I put out a call for submissions to Box of Water and things just started to flood into my mailbox.  At this point I became well and truly hooked on the whole activity.  I realized that it was more than just a distribution system but a whole alternative culture that had a history and philosophy as well.  Aside from being excited by the visual submissions‑I was particularly seeking image/text work, the other magazines from the network that people sent for review really excited me.  The range of magazines, the different activities covered and the fact that they came from many countries really inspired me and I fell in love with them and with this whole underground publishing culture. The first issue of Box of Water came out sometime in the middle of that year (1985) and I was pleased with the response and immediately started collecting material for the next one.  Slowly I also became aware of other people in the San Francisco area who were publishing work from the same network and I became aware of being part of a local community of publishers and artists as well as being part of a larger international community of like‑minded people. 

RJ :      Is "Box of Water" still alive?


Reply on 6-2-96 (internet)


SP :      Regarding your question as to whether Box of Water is still alive‑it is not alive!  I published four issues, one per year from 1985‑1988.  I was in the process of collecting material for #5 but was disappointed with the visual submissions so was indecisive about doing another issue. However by this time the Art Strike was about to start and I decided that in solidarity with the aims of the strike that I would cease publication of Box of Water.  I wrote a letter to the 30 or so subscribers telling them about my intention to stop publishing and that they could claim back any money that I owed them‑none did, which surprised me.  The Art Strike was a useful occasion to make changes and re‑orient my cultural activities & priorities.  So ceasing the publication was just one of the 'surgical strikes' that I conducted on my activities at that time.


I was also doing another publication that ceased production for the duration of the strike and which, theoretically at least, could resume publishing again. This publication was called Schism and was edited by me under the pseudonym Janet Janet.


RJ :      It seems that -even after the break- publishing is something essential in your life. Am I right? What does publishing mean to you?


Reply on 13-2-1996 (internet)


SP :      I wouldn't necessarily say that publishing is essential in my life,  although it has certainly opened up lots of new worlds for me.  But getting published is something that can become a kind of addiction in its own right.  You ask what publishing means to me.  I would have to say that its a vehicle...a vehicle for contact, communication and exchange.


Its a way of amplifying one's ideas, art works and whatever else it is that one feels its important for people to read and to see.  Its also a way of operating from geographically decentralized points in which you can enter into a dialogue with others who are thinking the same way. For me this is quite important, located as I am far from any large metropolitan area and hence any kind of cultural activity that I am sympathetic to. The other thing that makes publishing important to me is that most of my work is done specifically for the page‑‑page art if you want to give it a name.


For me perhaps the more interesting question is 'what does publishing do' and within the mail art context I feel it's one of the vital means by which a decentered community maintains contact and the periodicals act as sites at which these people maintain that sense of community, amongst a host of other things.


RJ :      What other things do you mean? (ie. what other things do magazines do)

Reply on 31-3-1996 (internet)


SP :      There seems to me to be four important themes that emerge when examining magazines connected to the MA network.




Quite simply they help establish and maintain contact between people with  similar ideas and ideals and they aid in establishing and maintaining a  community of like minded individuals.  The early 'contact lists' such as  the Image Bank Request lists (although strictly not a magazine, they were  however published initially in File) are a concrete manifestation of an  active strategy of contact and collaboration.  Since the early '70s there  have been a number of magazines that might be characterized as 'contact'  magazines‑‑ie. magazines that list projects and shows that people can  participate in.  Klaus Groh's I.A.C. was an early one, Open World by  Dobrica Kamperlic and the more recent Global Mail by Ashley Parker Owen are just three that spring to mind.  These are vital magazines that help support the flow of information and foster contact and collaboration.




Magazines can be viewed as nodes through which people exchange ideas and different viewpoints.  Sites at which dialogue takes places, and dialogue specific to the development and growth of MA culture.  I would hazard a quess that the most important developments in defining a MA philosophy or strategy took place through MA magazines.  Specifically the development of the following ideas: no juries, no fees, documentation to all and broader tenets like MA and money do not mix.


Another important point of information exchange are the publication reviews found in many MA magazines, for apart from personal contact how is one to find out about all the myriad other magazines out there?




I dont think that one can ignore how vital magazines have been within a cultural activity that is inextricably international. They become essential links through which this dispersed community has been able to maintain contact and more importantly maintain a sense of community and cohesion.




Lets not forget that at its most basic MA utilises a communication system‑‑the postal service‑‑and at the heart of this system is the transferring of 'information' from one geographic location to another.


Obviously MA sends a lot of different materials and messages through this system, but first and foremost its a communication medium.  It links people (potentially links everyone on earth), it disseminates 'information' and its a system that invites reciprocity.  An exchange system.


RJ :      Lots of periodicals are developed in the mail art network, and when I read magazines like Factsheet-5 or Global Mail I realize that the network that is really out there is gigantic. The publishing of magazines on the internet has also started, but somehow I am quite dissapointed with the results I got in so far. What do you think of this digital publishing?


Reply on 31-3-1996 (internet)


SP :      I really have not experienced a very wide range of digital publishing, but from this limited experience it seems people are just transposing the publishing strategies/paradigms from 'traditional' publising into a different communication/broadcast environment.  I suppose if one is happy to scroll through screen after screen of very uninviting text then I suppose that is OK. But my gut feeling is that I would, at this moment in time, prefer to have it in hard copy in an attractive layout and in a magazine form. In this way I can read it on the beach, on the train, on the toilet etc...


No one seems to have stretched and used the qualities intrinsic to the world of digital publishing to create a magazine that synthesises the digitial environment with the imperatives of a magazine.. People just seem to be dumping their non‑digital magazines into the digital environment and not building the publication from within the digital environment.


RJ :      At the moment you are researching the 'assembling-zine' if I am not mistaken. What was the reason for you to start with this?


reply on 2-2-1997 (e-mail)


SP :      Ruud,


Thanks for your packet of information recently and updates on the interviews.  I have finally got around to answering your last question. I must admit I am finding this e‑mail interview is turning into a very fragmented experience.  With all the time between question and answer it seems a certain thread and coherence is getting lost. I am also finding your questions to be very broad and generalized, not that I want specificity as such but at least some kind of conceptual approach to this whole area of networking, a kind of critical rigor, something that I can bounce my responses off. You are at the moment really very much relying  on the generosity and largesse of the people you are interviewing.  Have you read Geza Perneczky's book on the Magazine Network, he's the only person up to the moment who has even begun the theorize what it is that takes place amongst networkers, in particular the roles and strategies played out through the magazines.  While I appreciate the enormous task you have taken on, and the importance of these kind of oral histories, it just seems that that is all the publications on networking seem to contain at the moment.  This would include Chuck Welch's double‑spaced monstrosity (a monstrous price it costs too) as well as the beautifully produced catalogue about East German networkers....I'm ranting, I know, but its a frustration that I know is shared by some others at the moment...and is definitely connected to the fact that I am a graduate student in art history!!


Anyway to get to your question. What was the reason for my interest in Assembling magazines?  Well it seems to be that community, creating one and the way we create it can be very clearly seen through the the modus operandi of assembling magazines. This is clearly only one example, but since my interest is in artists' periodicals it was natural that I should inquire into this particular publishing paradigm.  At one time I thought I would be doing my PhD thesis on assemblings, but as it happens I have been pursuaded to broaden my scope to looking at artists' periodicals from the beginning of the century up to fairly recently.  This has expanded my work considerably, but I hope the challenge proves worth it.  Anyway as one way of generating information and material about assemblings I organized a show of assemblings that took place in my front‑room‑gallery‑Subspace in September of last year. While I had a good reception to the show and generated some local media coverage, the important part of the show will be the exhibition catalogue.  I am at present about half way through laying it out and I hope to have it finished within the next couple of months.  Most of the editors sent in some kind of texts about their publication and assemblings in general, with some other articles/texts about more specific aspects of assemblings related to particular countries. I have yet to write the introduction and will try and pull together all the various threads that assemblings encompass.  But they are really very fascinating publications, they exist  somewhere between books and periodicals, they overturn a number of established publishing and editorial paradigms, they are a uniquely open process, and they are one moment in which the heterogeneity of the network is made manifest as well as functioning as a microcosm of the larger networking community that the participants are all a part of. I could go on, but I will leave that for the catalogue.


I'm pleased to have been able to present the first exhibit of its kind in the States (not bad for a Brit!).  Coincidentally there is another one planned for later this year at the library at Pennsylvania University, with assemblings from the Ruth and Marvin Sackner archive‑‑that should be a treat.


I think that's about if for the moment. Best to you in 1997


RJ :      It took me some time too to get back to you as well Stephen. Actually this isn't an e-mail interview (I am sending you this next question by snail-mail....), but the whole concept of the mail-interview has also to do with the ways we all communicating with eachother. Of course this interview can get a "fragmented experience", and so be it. Yes, I know the publications you mentioned, but in this interview I like to focus on your views.  You studied art history. A lot of mail artists aren't trained 'artists' or even have talent when it comes to things like painting , drawing , making collages, etc...... Yet they like to see themselves as 'artists'.  Do you think that someday all the mail artists will be seen as artists, or only the few who have been doing something new....?


SP :      Finally I'm back to your last question.  I have no problem with anyone 'seeing' themself, or calling themselves an artist. The proof of the pudding is in the work. From this vantage point I might then describe them as a 'good' artist, 'bad' artist, 'boring' artist or whatever.  In answer to your question as to whether..." someday all the mail artists will be seen as artists."  Well, inasmuch as these people have called themselves 'mail artists' then one has to judge them by the title they have given themselves and for me once again this goes back to the work and whether they have been able to successfully give voice/shape to their original idea and whether this idea was a compelling and interesting idea in the first place.  Lets not forget that even 'good' artists can do bad work, and boring art is boring art whether its on canvas on a wall or sent in an envelope through the mail.


However, this issue of quality is only one aspect of mail art activities and I think the other equally important feature of this activity is the type of communication that is initiated.  For instance Mohammed didnt have to be an 'artist' to have iniated his project, I dont know whether he would call himself one, or even if he was trained as one‑it does'nt matter.  The beauty of the communication strategy that he initiated is self‑evident. The works that people created that filled in this project is something that exists at another level entirely.  Pawel Petasz and his Commonpress project is another example of the setting in motion of a new communication paradigm.  I would suggest that its this level of activity which will be remembered, rather than the particular mail artists and their individual works.


Ruud, I presume you have received the Assembling show catalogue.  Let me know what you think!  Best, sp


RJ :     




Address mail-artist:


Stephen Perkins

(Box of Water)

1816 E. College St.



e-mail :