"...I would like to be connected to the time I'm in..."
INTERVIEW WITH GYÖRGY GALÁNTAI, THE CURATOR OF THE PARASTAMP EXHIBITION
Being a small country we can't often say about ourselves that an entire collection of a genre, which is significant by any international comparison, can be found here. The artistamp is an exception in this respect since the Artistamp Museum of Artpool Art Research Centre in Budapest has the most complete collection in the world. György Galántai, the founder of Artpool and the "drive" behind it, has for a long time been an active participant of the network whose artists have been using this medium - among others - to communicate with each other for some forty years now. Artistamp has been like a collection of tiny details of information, and throughout the years has developed its own philosophy about the culture that these works mediate. Viewed through his individual philosophy György Galántai, the curator of the Parastamp exhibition brings before us the most outstanding pieces of this rich collection. Why stamps?
I saw an artistamp in use for the first time in 1979 on an envelope addressed to me by the Italian artist Guglielmo Achille Cavellini. The effect these stamps printed on sticker paper with a colour-offset technique had on me was like a virus. At the time I didn't know much about artistamps and although I had already seen an artistamp by Robert Watts in a Fluxus publication, being a reproduction it didn't impress me much. In that same year Ulises Carrión came to Hungary and thanks to him I found out that what I had made for the invitation of my exhibition in Studió Galéria back in 1976 was an artistamp, i.e. I had designed an artistamp before I knew about this genre. This could happen because as a graphic artist I have always enjoyed working with so-called accessory things. At the start it wasn't the stamp but rather the envelope that was a work of art, the stamp itself was just a supplement. The stamp was only valid if it was on the envelope and nowhere else. Thus, there is a work of art with a part of it also being a work of art. It's like a montage or collage, only the approach differs because in those cases you bring together things that in isolation are not valid but here the envelope and the stamp are both valid in themselves. Two valid things meet just like in a marriage and the rubber-stamp mark is like a child which validates such a union. It's a live collage.
At the end of the 1970s the room for manoeuvre was limited since at the beginning of that decade the Balatonboglár Chapel Studio run by you was banned and you were under continuous scrutiny of the "authorities". Despite this, or perhaps because of it, you began to form intensive ties with a communications network abroad that was still in its early days. What form did this take and how did you get started?
Actually, I felt that I was excluded from the so-called art circle because I was always doing things that were unacceptable and my sculpture, pictures and graphics were continually criticised because I went my own way. I would have emigrated if my "lust for adventure" had not kept me in Hungary. For me adventure meant that in this country we had a backward culture and that something could be done here that nobody thought was possible. Hence the Balatonboglár Chapel Studio, and this is also the reason why I saw the magical qualities of stamps: a lot of information in a small space. (Don't forget we were in an environment that was starved of information!) An American female artist who visited Budapest at that time made a deep impression on me. Her name was Anna Banana and she invented bananology for herself. From the word banana she created a fictitious country, Bananaland, and she made stamps, for example, for this fictitious country. This and what she did in general at the time was born out of the spirit of the new Dadaism, which was then flourishing in America. I took part in an interesting joint project with her, too. At this time an exhibition of my sculptures opened in the Fészek Gallery, for which the art critic András Bán had written an opening text, and the idea struck me that in the spirit of the new-Dada Anna Banana should be the one to open the exhibition by reading out András Bán's writing but of course in Hungarian. By the way, there is an overlap between their two names: turned round their monograms are identical. I find such "magical" overlaps especially exciting. This is a coincidence but a kind of metaphysical coincidence at the same time. This event emboldened me to seek out new connections. I made a folding poster-catalogue with the title Antecedent as a way of documenting this exhibition and sent it to the 300 addresses I had accumulated by that point. Then the title "Antecedent" meant that I was preparing for something and this was what preceded it. But of course at the time I hadn't a clue what I was preparing for. I wanted to publish a lot of "antecedents" but in the end only this one was made, although it did become very successful. The aim of the publication wasn't just to inform, as it was chiefly for info-gathering – and that's why I stamped on it "Please send information about your activity." I got an incredible quantity of material in response. Even Arnulf Rainer sent some. At first, I collected what I received on an armchair, but so much material came that I immediately set about building a shelf for it. A huge amount of information also arrived about various different projects, which I then took part in. At the beginning of the 80s hardly a day passed without at least one, but sometimes more mail art exhibitions. I always sent off my best works, which is very important in the network, just like in a conversation in which if everybody says something "good", the conversation can progress because it means that everybody is curious about everybody else. Correspondence works in the same way. You have to send things that will interest your partners and make them happy, thus giving them the urge to send something in response. This communication is the secret of how the Eternal Network works.
Did this communication only work by post?
We started the international correspondence in a very dynamic way, which also helped to build personal connections. At that time, in 1979, my wife Júlia Klaniczay's father was teaching at a university in Rome so he was able to send us a letter of invitation allowing us to go there. We made a detour to Milan and paid a visit to the people there whose response to our circular letter was that they would be happy to receive us. One interesting thing about this trip: it was then that we got to know the poet Ugo Carrega, who had his own gallery for experimental poetry in a converted garage. When we made this visit Peter Frank happened to be there too, and although we didn't know who he was at the time, we were nevertheless drawn to each another. (In 1981 he wrote the first and ever since one of the most important studies on artistamps.) How interesting it is that we stumbled into each other before the story of artistamps had even begun! These are the kinds of coincidences that help us on our way and it is also interesting that we experienced loads of cases like these. If you do your things well, these kinds of coincidences will help you. That's why you just have to let things happen.
At the same time we visited Cavellini, whom we invited to Budapest, and in 1980 we organised an exhibition for him in the Young Artists' Club, and we organised a joint performance in Heroes' Square entitled "Homage to Vera Muhina", which has been infamous ever since. With this and with other things I strived to make sure that something is looked at from several viewpoints and what I was doing wouldn't be only about stamps or mail art but many other things.
Would mail art have meant a limited medium?
I didn't really regard myself as a mail art artist but rather as a fine arts artist, who may actually be the most important factor in mail art in Hungary, but I would rather say that I (as Galántai–Artpool) represent Hungary in mail art. However, I think that I'm not a mail art artist, and not even an artist – because these labels just annoy me. Cavellini, who has made a huge amount of mail art, also rather regards himself as a fine arts artist, and Ray Johnson, the "father of mail art" and the inventor of correspondence art, didn't regard himself as a mail artist either. Mail art is correspondence art en mass. When it's no longer a matter of small groups corresponding with one another or when the correspondence is not so creative as Ray Johnson's was, i.e. when it's already becoming a mass product it is already a different dimension since you cannot keep up creative contact with seven hundred people. It wasn't mail art that thrilled me, or how many works of art you can collect together through contacts – what interested me much more was what the real world is and the present in which I live, in which we live, with all its antecedents and opportunities.
So for you did this correspondence art activity open a window from a confined world to a free world?
No, no it wasn't important in that regard, because if I had only wanted to look to the outside world, I would simply have gone to the library at the Fészek Club and read the foreign publications and exhibition catalogues that they had available there. For me it was the connection that was important. Because if I had just started browsing through what was in the library, I would only have come across information that had been filtered through other minds and I would only have got a picture of what happened to be important for somebody else for whatever reason or other. The kind of artists represented in the publications and magazines were discovered and managed by gallerists. Of course they were good and of a high quality, the hardest workers and capable of great accomplishments, but they represented money. This kind of art is selected and kept in motion by money. These artists are not in contact with anybody, or at most with a few friends and the galleries. They are not accessible and are hermetically sealed, and I wouldn't know what to do with such people. I can't get into that world and the most I can do is peep in from the outside as if I were watching a football match through a fence. In contrast, the people I got to know through correspondence art revealed a world to me in which money plays no role. A network is built from connections in which the participants are able to exchange the information they have made themselves. Here a work of art has no value that can be expressed in money but it has informational value since we keep one another informed. What reached me then as information in a world before the Internet was first-class information about the reality of the world that I couldn't see anywhere else and which could only open up like this through this channel. That's exactly why mail art exhibitions were so successful all over the world.
If this network works by itself, why are exhibitions, which are a totally different forum, important?
The mail art network doesn't work by itself, and is not a closed (hierarchical) system but is rather an open self-constructing, self-assembling (heterarchical) system. The ideal of the individuals building the mail art network is an "ideal society", the Eternal Network. In this network discourse and dialogue keep each other in balance. The dialogues store discourse and the discourses provoke dialogues. Every individual can be the motor and node that starts up the network, that brings projects, exhibitions, archives or e.g. museums into being. Thus, individual productions become part of societal communication and the exhibition is one manifestation of these.
Isn't the personal touch lost in a museum environment with the works being displayed before an audience that knows nothing about the existence of this network or its operation? In a better case scenario they might see a form of communication which takes or took place with the help of these works but what can they understand by merely looking at these works? Isn't it as if two people were talking two different foreign languages in a company that only understands its mother tongue?
The mail art exhibitions, which always take place in communal places, are statements to just that effect that mail artists do not want to form an isolated group. If we consider it more closely, this kind of communication is not so personal that nobody else would be able to understand it. It's only as personal as any work of art. If somebody doesn't understand it but is interested, then they can read about it, ask questions, get information or simply read the exhibited works in the sequence they follow each other. Anyway, art does not need to be understood straight away since art is not like a maths exercise, in which you can learn the technique and then understand it. The first Hungarian exhibition of our artistamps didn't happen in the way that we wanted to exhibit mail art but I (not Artpool) got an invitation, to exhibit my private collection. In 1987 Judit Geskó organised a series of exhibitions in the Museum of Fine Arts with the theme of contemporary art in Hungarian collections. From the point of view of the museum artistamps represented an exciting genre that could be placed after ex librises. That's why the exhibit was streamlined. The show was a success so the issue of understanding didn't even occur to anyone.
As you see it, artistamps can be viewed like so-called "traditional" works. However, this is a problem for many. What's the reason for this?
I think that artistamps are pictorial pieces of information just like a Rembrandt or Van Gogh picture, or an ex libris. However, there is another opportunity that is peculiar to stamps: you come across stamps much more often than you come across a Rembrandt. So in order for this not to represent a problem from the standpoint of understanding the concept of art has to change. Not from the standpoint that a work of art should be made of some sort of precious material or that it should be unique. Reproductions are just as good as unique pieces. Of course everybody puts their signatures on them but anyone is free to reproduce them, apply them to something and send them on. However, as I perceive it, in general there are two approaches taken to artistamps by those that come across them for the first time: one from the side of philately and the other from the perspective of fine arts. Stamp collectors collect stamps because of their value. If there are too many stamps in circulation, they hardly represent any value to the collector, but if a special mark appears on a stamp – for example let's say a 20-forint stamp has 50 forints stamped on it because the old one has to be used due to a temporary shortage of 50-forint stamps – then this worthless stamp again becomes valuable by virtue of its being special and rare. The stamp hasn't changed into something beautiful but from the point of view of philately aesthetic quality does not represent any kind of value; only rareness counts, thus the collector is value- centric. I think that this value-centric approach is an obstacle to people's sensitivity to aesthetic qualities. Thinking in terms of money wipes out our sensitivity to art. Whoever treats stamps as graphic art has less of a problem understanding artistamps.
However, those people can make a mistake too because what we have here is not graphic art but information – an alternative stamp and an information element of a parallel culture, thus they cannot decode it.
As a collector do you have some kind of criteria or do you just keep everything that arrives by post?
I am not a collector in the sense of being an art collector because I do not collect works of art. What I collect is pieces of information that have come into being through special tools of art. This does not mean that a "work" in the traditional sense of the word is not important for me but I regard the information that is coded through it as more important. With this approach I can spare myself the trouble of having to form a value judgement about the fresh material I receive. Since all the information comes to the Artpool because it is connected to some information published by Artpool, I have to keep everything, so I sort it out and keep a record of it. It's only later, during the processing, that the value of the works is formed thanks to users' demands.
An important element of collecting is that you are continually sending out announcements in relation to exhibitions and projects. Do these work as a kind of summons?
In the early 80s I sent out a call to various parts of the world, as well as to about two hundred of my Hungarian acquaintances, to fill out a stamp form. Out of the addressees one hundred and fifty, ranging from György Kozma to Géza Sáska, did as I had asked. Most of them were not artists but rather creative people, who I had called on because I wanted to test their approach to such a situation. As I have said already I was curious about the state of the world, i.e. that parallel state of the world that can manifest itself in such parastamps. The reason the whole idea was so successful – in my opinion – was because I had the assumption that people are too busy and I thought that if I give them too big a task, they won't do it, but if I only try to get them to do some minimalistic activity, say they are given a blank surface with a stamp imitation which they only have to fill with something, then they will do that. The other requirement in the task was that they had to make a commemorative stamp. Everybody has at least one memory that's important to them. These two things were the secret of this project's success, which I named World Art Post, but a crucial element of a call is that it must be well timed. You must have a feel for what people need to think about in 2007, what doesn't need thinking about, and what's good to think. You know I would like to be connected to the times. This thing, the interpretation of existence, is an old mania of mine. Since the Balatonboglár events I have felt that I am connected to the time I'm in, and it was perhaps there that I began to perceive that what must be done is when it must be done. If I don't do now what I have to do, I will miss it, and for that I'll be "punished".
You have been cultivating connections with collectors for a long time now and the meetings and correspondence with them have been important for Artpool. The Silvermans, an American married couple, purchased two of your sculptures. It is thanks to them and the German Hans Sohm that you have the early pieces of your Fluxus stamps in the collection. However, the most important ensemble came to you from a Canadian estate. How did this happen? What inspired the collector to make such a gesture?
The Silvermans and Hans Sohm were collecting Fluxus pieces in the present, i.e. when they were being made, so it was natural for them to help in building a new collection. Mike Bidner, Canadian artist and philatelist, left a very important collection to us indeed. He sought us out in 1982, when he received the World Art Post catalogue of our exhibition, and he got a new impetus from this and the fact that we were pursuing such active work here. Not long after this I made the Stampfilm, which I sent to him for one of his exhibitions, and he actually exhibited it. Making a film about stamps was a novelty and I don't know if a similar film has been made since then. Bidner was working on a huge artistamp catalogue and already at the time had made lists with a computer, etc. In order to make the list accurate, a lot of correspondence was also needed. Once he sent us a photo of one of his acquaintances wearing a T-shirt with a stamp pattern on it. The stamp pattern of the T-shirt that had been bought in Paris was from stamps in our World Art Post catalogue. It came as a surprise to us when at the end of 1987 Bidner wrote in a letter that his health had drastically deteriorated and he asked if we would accept his collection, since with the exception of Artpool he hadn't been able to find a museum that would have been happy to accept his artistamp collection and handle it in with the respect it deserved. We regarded his offer as a great honour. Bidner died of AIDS in 1989. We got his collection and its documentation in 1990 after the change in the political system in Hungary.
The works in the Parastamp exhibition are not organised chronologically or even according to geographical locations of origin, as we have become accustomed to with other genres, but rather according to your own idiosyncratic system. What made you decide to follow this particular concept and what is the essence of it?
When it was decided that the exhibition shouldn't just be about the last twenty years but rather that the museum wanted to use parastamps to display representative material from the last forty years ranging from Fluxus to the Internet, I could then only think along these lines. The artistamps produced over forty years could not be put together according to earlier approaches because the only result would be a meaningless medley. If we think of the world in a linear sense, we won't get any further forward, because the world does not work in a linear way – it's constantly changing and there's always some new "trick" coming into play.
From the point of view of the artistamp, the two concepts in the exhibition's title – Fluxus and the Internet – are abstract notions pertaining to the history of art and technology. That's why I came to the decision that I would create a sphere of concepts which is also abstract but which in itself includes the two other concepts and is able to fill in the entire space between the two endpoints defined by these two concepts. These are: humourism – erotism – time – place – artist – material – structure – function – form – science – art – politics – global – local – glocal – telematic. At first glance these concepts have nothing to do with the artistamp, and even if they had any connection, it would be a vague one. The new function artistamp has in this exhibition is to convey the explosively changing worldview at the turn of the millennium with the help of perspectives offered by these interrelated but at the same time distinct concepts.
I was finally able to decide to use these concepts as an organising principle when I found two convincing antecedents. One of these was Henry Flynt, who says, "I can now return to the question of why concept art is 'art'. Why isn't it an absolutely new, or at least a non-artistic, non-aesthetic activity? The answer is that the antecedents of concept art are commonly regarded as artistic, aesthetic activities; on a deeper level, interesting concepts enjoyable in themselves, especially as they occur in mathematics, are commonly said to 'have beauty'." The second antecedent was George Brecht, from whom I found out that "There was a very interesting book which came out near the end of the 1950s called The Field Theory of Meaning, in which it was shown that the meaning of a word, rather than being related to the structure of a sentence, for example, was related to a field."
As suggested by its title the exhibition begins with Fluxus, with humour, gags and jokes being its most important features. Hence the starting concept of the exhibition: humourism. According to George Maciunas, the frontman of Fluxus, "films, everything, concerts, sports events, food, whatever we did, even serious things like a Mass ended up to be humorous." Ben Vautier wrote of Fluxus, "It would not have come into being without Cage, who carried out double brainwashing. First in contemporary music, through the concept of indeterminability, and the second through his theses conceived in the spirituality of Zen and teaching to impersonalise art."
The second concept of the exhibition is erotism, which originates from Marcel Duchamp, who said, "I believe firmly in erotism because it's actually generally present in the whole world, and is a thing that people understand. It can replace, if it wants, everything else that other literary schools call symbolism and romanticism."
The protagonists of the exhibition are the artist, the work and art. Most concepts are related to these. For example, the artist appears in a way far from the general concept of an artist: he is not a creative genius but rather a communication partner, or networker. If somebody is an artist – as it has been believed for a couple of hundred years –, that person is supposed to be either a genius or a madman. The concept of art is about what can be seen on the exhibition poster: art recreates that which already exists; thus, changing the Mona Lisa destroys the Mona Lisa but it also recreates it. Actually, in addition to E.F. Higgins III's sheet many others are exhibited on this theme as a small Mona Lisa "section".
Three factors determine whether a work is real: the artist who creates it, the place where it comes into being, and the time when it is produced. Determining what is real belongs to the realm of self-determination. For a work to be not only authentic but also true the unity of four additional factors is necessary, these being: the material, the structure, the function and the form.
The next three concepts – science, art and politics – originate from Vilém Flusser, who said, "It is becoming more and more obvious that it makes no sense to draw a sharp line between science, art and politics. Let's accept it that in science, fictional, artistic and poetical momentums are at work alongside the political-normative elements, and that there is a search for truth in the arts and politics. We have to stop making a distinction between valueless reading (science) and interpretive reading (art and politics). Along with Rilke we have to admit that we have been making the mistake of finding too successful a distinction. If we prove to be good at learning, however, surprises await us. If ever science, art and politics form a unified method of reading, things we have not even begun to suspect about the world and ourselves will be read."
The concepts global, local and glocal are interpreted in the background of telematics. It is here that we can continue our exhibition tour on the Internet. The web pages, which form part of the exhibition, begin with one worded page as well as sixteen pages with pictures arranged according to themes i.e. the exhibition has that many entrances, but every page is accessible from every other page. Earlier sites dealing with stamps have been developed and have a link to the homepage of the Artpool Artistamp Museum, from where the whole network can be reached in just a few steps, and not just in Artpool but in the whole world. The interesting thing about the Artpool network is that one can walk between the pages in many different ways, e.g. in the form of a museum tour. In the present exhibition this means that we are modelling the exhibition so everything that is here can be seen on the other side of the world.
Finally, I would like to quote Heiko Idensen's vision: "Travel routes, departure and arrival points draw tracks, paths, and traffic routes, mark nodes, bases and cities in the landscapes of telematic networks. With each journey, each on-line adventure, the network of interconnections expands... If these communicative connections, communication acts, up and down-loads, acts of sending and receiving ... combine with object oriented hypertext programs, then the most disparate data forms, information carriers, cultural production forms mix on a communal surface: the utopian vision of a comprehensive telematic network, in which the forms of individual production change into social communication."
 Henry Flynt: Concept art..., 1961. In: An Anthology. Ed. by La Monte Young. Georges Maciunas and Jackson MacLow, New York, c. 1962, reprint: 1963, Heiner Friedrich, Cologne, 1970
 Michael Nyman: George Brecht: Interview (1976). In: Studio International, Vol. 192, No. 984, November/December 1976, p. 258. (Art & Experimental Music)
 Transcipt of video interview conducted by Larry Miller on 24 March 1978 with George Maciunas. In: Ubi Fluxus Ibi Motus 1990-1962. Ed. by Achille Bonito Oliva, Mazzotta, Milano, 1990, p. 231.
 Ben Vautier: Tout cela est difficile. In: Ubi Fluxus Ibi Motus 1990-1962. Ed. by Achille Bonito Oliva, Mazzotta, Milano, 1990
 Marcel Duchamp: Ingenieur du temps perdu. Entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne. Paris, Belfond, 1970
 Vilém Flusser: Die Schrift. Immatrix Publications (Andreas Müller-Pohle, Volker Rapsch), Göttingen, 1987
 NET-WORK-UTOPIAS, PooL Processing (Heiko Idensen, Hannover & Matthias Krohn, Cologne). In: ON LINE, Steierische Kulturinitiative Graz, 1993, p. 34.