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The Roots of Stamp Art - Vittore Baroni - 2004
  Given the planetary diffusion of philately and the spontaneous human propensity for the imitation and parody of formats of daily use, we may come across countless examples of unofficial postage stamps, produced for the most diverse purposes by commercial firms, illustrators, comics artists, or even by people with no artistical background. Fake stamps are often made just for the fun of it, to play a joke or to decorate an envelope, without remotely suspecting the existence of a complex and consolidated tradition with an higher cultural profile for this sort of “alternative philately”. Though it has been around for over forty years, correspondence art or mail art - as it is internationally best known - remains in fact very much an underground phenomenon, snubbed by most art history books. This is principally due to the unpretentious size and ephemeral nature of mail art works, usually small creations that do not move large finantial interests: postcards and letters (but also zines, books, cassettes, videos, etc.) freely exchanged among artists and not primarily intended for sale.
     The practice of creative postal communication emerged in the early 1960’s from the seminal activities of the international Fluxus group lead by George Maciunas and from the playful mailings of Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance School. Illustrious precedents may be found also among the ranks of the Dadaists, Futurists and Surrealists. In the 1970’s and 1980’s mail art assumed a more definite configuration as an eternal network (a term coined by Fluxus theorist Robert Filliou) constituted by thousands of contacts spread in every corner of the planet, a web in continuous transformation that reacted to the impersonal and alienating one-way communication of the mass media and to the often perverse mechanisms of the art market. Mail-artists preferred instead the intimate two-way contact that could be obtained through a simple and unexpensive medium like postal correspondence (in large part replaced today by e-mail), aiming at the total dismantlement of the barriers between art and life. If the personal and unselfish contact can be considered the true beating heart of mail art, shows and publications devoted to this form of expression became also widespread, usually requesting works on a given theme and in a specific format, like postcards, envelopes and artist’s stamps (or “artistamps”).
     From the very beginning, with the pioneering work of Fluxus artists such as Maciunas, Robert Watts and Ben Vautier, the participants in this pragmatic and open network took pleasure in the transformation and satire of the bureaucratic symbols of the Post Office, producing their own fake postage stamps inspired by personal visions and obsessions, and also designing their own rubber stamps to postmark them, pushing the formal and conceptual limits of the postal medium and sometimes even exceeding the legal limits imposed by postal regulations. As early as 1957, the French New Realist painter Yves Klein covered with a blue paint of his own invention a large quantity of regular postage stamps, using them on his show invitations. Artistamps rebel against the monopoly of governmental emissions, claiming the right for everyone to self-produce and issue virtual values in any possible shape, number and subject. The stamps may be unique hand-made pieces, or photocopied sheets in limited editions, or even large typographic print runs. Modest looking or precious, some stamps are hand-coloured, others proud of their stark black and white, others still are multiple laser prints or glowing four-colour offset. The sheets might be simply cut with zigzagged scissors or perforated with a common sewing-machine, making up for the eventual lack of a real perforator with the use of imagination. This homely revolt of do-it-yourself postage stamps has anyway very little to do with the mischievous acts of counterfeiters in search of petty saving. With a few exceptions, artistamps are not created as illegal substitutes for official emissions, but rather constitute an alternative philatelic dimension with its own fantastic nations and imaginary monarchs, where tiny and seemingly innocuous images express their stinging comments on the countries, the rulers and the relevant issues of the real world represented in the official stamps.
     The mail art phenomenon, responsible for most of the stamp art produced in the last four decades, developed simultaneously on various fronts: as an evolution of postal experiences of the historical avantgardes, as a fellow traveller of the underground free press and the intermedia researches of the 1960’s, as a grass-roots new social experiment in aesthetization and extended communication, as a significant forerunner of the d-i-y ethics of punk rock and of the ubiquitous “network culture” made possible today by the Internet. Mail art can also be rightfully seen as part of an international counter-cultural milieu, an antagonistic attitude reflected by the most recurring themes of hundreds of exhibitions and projects organized every year in different parts of the world: calls against death penalty, solidarity with the minorities, ecological issues, anti-globalization, war and peace, etc. It is therefore not at all fortuitous that the stamp format has been chosen as an appropriate medium to explore the mythologies behind Axis of Evil, with the direct involvement of several mail art pioneers and veterans (Banana, Bloch, Blurr, Felter, Fricker, Harley, Held, Higgins, Mancusi, Padin, etc.). Once again and at different levels, these witty and paradoxical miniatures repropose the eternal battle between David and Goliath. An art to be licked and mailed, instead of sold and framed on a wall.
Vittore Baroni ( is an Italian music critic and explorer af the counter-cultures as well as, since the mid 1970’s, one of the most active and respected frequenters of the mail art network. He has published various books on experimental music and radical art.
Text for the 2nd edition of the DVD:

AXIS OF EVIL – Perforated Praeter Naturam (Qualiatica Press/BulletProof Film 2004)


ART AS GIFT (IT’S A NET, NET, NET, NET WORLD) - Vittore Baroni - 2000 Mail art is an happy entanglement of contradictions, an “eternal” and ethereal game of hidden, guessable, imaginary, amusing, poetical, provocative, banal, revolutionary correspondences. Independently from the materials circulating in the postal network, characteristic and specific to each different period of the long evolutionary course of mail art - with a gradual but constant tendency of the net to expand and diversify - the most disruptive and distinctive feature of this form of expression remains its open to all character and above all the fact of being created to be given out as a gift. This is a simple but substantial change in attitude, that may remind us (not accidentally, given the contiguity in space and time in the development of the two disciplines) of a certain kind of avantgarde street theatre of the sixties, like the work of the Bread and Puppet Theater or of the Living Theater: total happenings that did put into practice the art=life equation with a great simplicity of languages and immediacy of communicativeness, but without excluding because of this a touching profundity of contents. Just like the Living tried in its utopian way to put in action a theatre beyond theatre able to embrace the audience in a collective rite, in a similar fashion mail art placed itself from the beginning in a art beyond art perspective, breaking all sorts of taboos concerning the preciousness and sacredness of the work of art as masterpiece (in the mail art practice the materials are often recycled, dismembered, passed from hand to hand like cadavres exquis), beyond the myth of the artist as a demiurge of genius isolated on his/her pedestal.
I wrote of art given out as a “gift” rather than exchanged, because behind the daily barter of materials it is distinctly perceptible in mail art circles a common inclination towards a disinterested offering, a desire to astonish akin to the potlatch of the American Indians, a will to make game of the pretentiousness of official art and to operate in the opposite direction to the dominating market system, to recover a more playful and purely spiritual expressive dimension. The Fluxus adventure outlined a formidable and rigorous  Intermedia programme about the possibilities for art to break into everyday life, carried out by an international alliance of full-time or at least part-time artists. Mail art, as a direct and inevitable consequence of some theoretical assumptions of the Fluxus group, is a heterogeneous and discontinuous aggregation of creative interferences carried out mostly by non-artists in their spare-time. It can therefore afford the luxury of being (in every sense) gratuitous.
Vittore Baroni   -  excerpt from the Bassano 2000 /Sentieri Interrotti catalogue