Mail Art Chro No Logy

Jean-Marc Poinsot: Utilisations of Postal Institution and Long-distance Communications

Poinsot, Jean-Marc: Utilisations of Postal Institution and Long-distance Communications, in: Poinsot, Jean-Marc: Mail art. Communication á distance. Concept, Editions CEDIC, Paris, 1971, pp. 13-18.

That form of communication whose result is to reduce any possibility of investigation either to its object or to the subject which emits or transforms the information, is a particularly fortunate one, especially when its method is conceptualised. In the artistic domain, we usually suppose that comprehension is established in a relatively direct manner, through sensory perception. Many artists are conscious that this a priori assumption is inexact, and endeavour to transpose their investigations to the mechanisms of aesthetic perception. This effort is accompanied by a rejection of psychological notions, producing the desire for anonymity or neutrality, which is translated by a theoretical aspiration producing the notion of concept. The mechanism of postal communication therefore offers various possibilities to the artist. Contrary to widely held notions, there is no impoverishment of meaning and the connotations and semantic wealth of the message are not endangered. Variation is merely produced in the choice of meaning to be communicated. These affirmations may be supported by analysis of the work under consideration, and in a more general sense, we can only advance if certain individuals are to be partially deprived of their meaning. The reason would appear to be the artist’s rejection of a form of humanist and psychological romanticism.

Before arriving at a presentation of the objectives of our study, two elements remain to be clarified, namely the institutions involved and the meaning or existence of communications.

The works we have chosen all imply the same institution, the post office, with its various branches and products, which we will now cite only for the reader’s information: letters, telegrammes, postal checks, packets and telephone service. The institution itself has undergone transformations according to the nature of services required. Indeed, if we go far back enough in time, and consider the transformation from communication by messenger to written communications, we must observe a significant transformation in the substitution of institutional communications for communications between individuals. The present-day system of longdistance communications includes new forms such as the telephone, radio and television. Two sorts of long-distance communications persist, one linked to the transportation of materialized objects or messages, and another of high technical quality whose object is ultimate transformation, although materialisation is not always essential: nothing remains to recall a telephone conversation or a televised image. Although we have insisted in our study on documents relevant to the postal service, some uses of the telephone have been included as complementary examples because of their character as long-distance communications.

Our civilisation is based on particular forms of commodity exchanges, and symbolic exchanges. By exchange we do not mean barter, since this type of system is limited in scope, but it would appear that the simple transfer of goods from hand to hand determines their significance. In a consumer society, objects derive most of their significance from their exchange systems, and an object as such entirely loses its meaning when it is destined to a more or less rapid disappearance. It is through advertising and sales distribution that objects acquire a certain status. If the object is not integrated in the symbolic form of exchange constituted by advertising, together with the criteria and meaning it produces, it ceases to exist. If proof were needed, it might be found in the advertising campaign in France on the role of advertising.

Indeterminate objects, such as boxes, bottles, etc., unlabeled, unmarked and uncoloured, were displayed on a poster whose text demonstrated the power of advertising. The picture symbolised the lack of reality of an object without a commercial message. The object no longer derives the essence of its meaning from its nature but rather from its label. We needn’t disgress farther as far as the postal service is concerned. The post office forms a part of the system it helps to maintain, and from which it derives its raison d’etre. If an object’s status is to depend only on symbolic exchanges, the reason is that modern man, deprived of other forms of exchange, whether social or between individuals, is simply the object of mediaderived exchanges. If our society is to endure, it must continue to create and to satisfy the need for media-oriented exchanges, and not uncover the underlying human desert which it constantly accentuates. Communication is no longer based on man to man contact, but always dependent on objects or intermediaries. In the same way credit artificially multiplies the power of money, public relations and other services which constitute a large segment of the tertiary sector of the economy multiply profits by concealing the shortcomings of the product offered by an impressive performance, thus creating a differentiation permitting competition which is no longer qualitative but quantitative. Modem society has multiplied intermediaries, whether objects, persons, or institutions, to such a point that the symbolic mechanisms of an exchange take precedence on its objects. The post office is an institution which takes charge of a certain number of such exchanges. Modem society could not survive without postal service and telecommunications. The institution is a vital one, and as such takes charge of a certain number of significations interrelated only through institutional character. Thus mail and telephone service demonstrate and reinforce social inequalities: not having a telephone is a handicap, just as receiving a lot of mail denotes elevated social status. Power is in the hands of those who possess exchange and communications systems. It is partially for this reason that by refusing the intermediary role of galeries or museums, some artists undertake to diffuse their work and relevant information themselves. We will have more to say later on about this rejection of the system.

The nature of messages transiting through the postal system is not irrelevant to the form of the objects transmitted. On receiving one’s mail, one quickly sorts it out, separating less urgent from more urgent mail, and doing this sorting for a single category of mail, namely letters. In other words, certain information or messages* (* We use both terms, since information does not have a predetermined recipient, while message implies communication between a sender and a receiver.) employ particular channels, and the arbitrary and institutionalised character of certain postal exchanges is incontestable. If the artist is to use postal institutions to his own ends, he is obliged to take into account all the rules and limitations of the system he employs, even if he derides it. Divided as he is between the urge to take possession of the power of information and the desire to contest the very form of the means employed, the artist must accept this contradiction. We will have more to say later on about the particular forms of artistic intervention through the mails, but it is important to point out that the artist performs within a system that is repressive from the start and highly representative of the laws of our civilisation.

Returning to the question of the existence of artistic communication, we are confronted with various notions of differing nature and importance. We observe in fact that the postal institution regulates in an exact way the indications of the origin and destination of mail. It is up to the sender to choose the appropriate form of mail for the sort of message he wishes to transmit, and supply information relevant to the origin of the object mailed. It is impossible to send an anonymous telegramme, while a letter may easily not have its exact origin indicated. By this choice, the artist may determine the nature of the communication he wishes to establish. One must also note that a certain number of artists undertake projects whose final destination is either themselves or a museum — or galery-going public. For these artists, the intervention of the mail acting on an object accomplishes this objective, but there is no relationship with the sender, if not its very negation. These utilisations of the postal institution are very diverse- since the significance and effects produced are themselves multiple. By repetition or succession of messages, the artist may intervene to establish real communication through the creation of precise mechanisms of consciousness and the arrival of mail. (See for example the work of Charlier or Le Gac). Postal action remains an incomprehensible phenomenon if isolated from its context and reference to a manifestation, exhibition, or personality known to the addressee, or simply a logical sequence in the arrival of mail.

The only genuine problem concerning the aesthetic existence of such exchanges, enters into consideration when the object mailed is anonymous or addressed to unknown individuals. An individual chosen at random in a telephone directory cannot grasp the significance of the message received. He may read it; observe it, and then forget it, and, if the phenomenon is not repeated or diffused in some other way, it is very difficult for him to consider it as an artistic activity, since the mailing is not identifiable as such. By this observation we return to what appears evident in the sociology of art, namely that an object which is not designated or recognised as aesthetic cannot be observed as such. This situation is applicable to any little-known artistic activity, and only an avant-garde sociologist could attempt to explain its workings to us. However, we must not lose sight of the problem of communication, which is in fact central idea behind the artistic activity described in our study. From collage to what is usually called conceptual art, the artists in question are concerned with the mechanics of communications in general, with aesthetic communication in particular, and especially with the aesthetics of communication. Returning to the source so often quoted by the avant-garde of the past decade, DuchampDuchamp, many indications bring us to believe that our preoccupations were not alien to him. The series of drawings, works and texts related to his "grand verre", known as "La mariée mise á nu par ses célibataires mérne", present from the start a complex system of language and formal symbolism. A form, such as the "Moules maliques", assumes meaning through reference to another form, or to a ciphered or enigmatic text: in short, form is often difficult to grasp, to such an extent that the interested observer will take satisfaction from his efforts to decode it, even more than from the visual result that he initially attempted to apprehend. Duchamp, in this series of works, relocated aesthetic activity. He elaborated a system that referes to itself only through multiple rebounds and attempts at explanation. It is quite useless in our view to study the significance of the "grand verre" without surpassing the definition and historical development of each of its formal elements. This self-enclosed world of form and meaning appears to be a reflection on the mechanisms of communication and the production of knowledge. One might object to our proposition that art has always been a means of communication and at the same time a study of the mechanisms of communication. But between the study of purely visual means of communication and that under consideration, there is a gap: namely the fact that Klee’s painting, for example, has always had all painting as an implicit frame of reference, whereas some currently-produced works, while still in the domain of art, refer to systems of communication outside that domain. We may clarify this explanation by recalling that Klee’s and other painters’ research was concerned with possibilities of creating a picture on a canvas covered with coloured pigments. Although Klee was an innovator in the field of art and, like his contemporaries, affirmed the speculative character of art, his objective remained (and not in any pejorative sense) the picture. We are now experiencing in fact a transformation of the object of artistic research. Painting and art in general in Renaissance times was concerned with appropriation of the world through knowledge, representation, enumeration and classification. This enormous effort was linked to the vital character of the utilisation of painted, sculpted or drawn images. Pictures in general were one of the privileged forms of expression in the hands of the artist alone. The important thing was not to question the value of plastic art media, but rather to investigate the elements of knowledge elaborated throught art.

Contemporary art, on the other hand, has turned its interest towards the mechanics of understanding and communication, and as we have noted, research performed by painters has opened up the possibility of considering art without a plastic basis. In speaking of art’s new objectives, we don’t mean that art may be supposed to have scientific ambitions. As a speculation on particular forms of communication, art is concerned with knowledge, but once again the method must take precedence over the object under consideration. Logically, the artist must reconsider his conditions of existence according to the condition of knowledge and communication in general. The status of the artist must be redefined. His quest for a genuine role is echoed in the perpetual reevaluation of successive avant-garde movements, which are in a sense a means of a contradictory and unstable social situation through internal art solutions. The artist also uses his own contradictions as aesthetic finality. Present-day work is in fact often concerned with problems of communication, and in the light of their analysis, the meaning of the whole of current production becomes clear.* (These affirmations cannot be considered as definitive. They constitute at the present moment a wosking hypothesis, still to be developed, and which we are ready to abandon if it does not turn out to be operational.) Producing work whose sole explanation and motivation derives from undecipherable commentary and resulting imaginary activity, as in the case of Duchamp, serves to pinpoint the inner workings of communication and to divert them to aesthetic ends. Among the collection of texts, objects and documents linked to Duchamp’s "grand verre", we encounter four postcards attached to a common backing. The work involved is the "Rendez-vous of 6 February 1916", which the artist presented to his then neighbours, the Arensbergs. On one side, the postcards tell about the rendez-vous, while on the other, a more or less ciphered text tells us about the "grand verre" and adjoining works.

Just as Duchamp maintains an ambiguous relationship with the genuine comprehension of his work, he plays with the means of communication by mailing a message which he might have more easily transmitted orally. This was to our knowledge the first artistic phenomenon to derive its meaning from the use mails, and it is remarkable that it is in contradiction with the habitual means of utilisation of the postal service. The meaning of the item is derived from the communication function of the institution employed, as well as from its nature as a complementary relay; this final information complicating by its existence the deciphering of the "grand verre". It is therefore by coming to grips with an institution that the works in this book take on meaning, whether in their preparation or in the chosen conditions for their exposure to the relevant public.

We have rapidly demonstrated where our activity is situated as concerns art in general and also as concerns the institutions of the modern world. We shall now proceed to analyse the object of our research and to clarify the criteria used in the choice of documents.

A large number of the artists in our book view the postal service as a means of expediting messages and objects, thereby creating a network for the exchange of works of art, parallel to and distinct from the generally prevailing system. By mailing collages, theoretical texts, and objects to various addressees without asking for remuneration, the artists concerned have upset the laws of the market-place. It is evident that a form of exchange does take place, but not a quantitative one. A particularly interesting example is that of Ray Johnson’s correspondance school, with its large network of correspondants, which performe individual mailings or takes part in coordinated action based on the initiative of a member of the group. When, one day, an individual or an institution finds itself submerged by a large volume of mail, it is time for him or it to take note of the situation. Of course, a fascinated collector might well preserve, buy or sell such objectifs if the fancy struck him, at the risk of distorting their meaning. This' is hardly the question, however, since statistics prove up to now very few consider such objects, as works of art worthy of being distributed, published, commented and sold. This situation is necessarily linked to the nature of the goods involved, their small size, and their multiplicity, so that contrarywise one might do well to establish the minimal status of an object that might be defined as a work of art. Today, as monetary instability provokes reinvestment of capital in land and real estate, as artistic speculation groups form and prosper, as the art market becomes more and more integrated in the general capitalist system of exchange, this sort of activity remains outside the system and partially undermines it, since it affirms the viability of a system opposed to the dominant system in our world. Some may disagree, and object that the products under discussion are of such small importance that they cannot have any repercussions on the general market system, but that is hardly the problem. This type of artistic production demonstrates how even on a symbolic level, aesthetic activity can be engaged in economic and political problems without going into ideology and setting up revolutionary programmes.

Concerning this sort of exchange, there remains an important use for the postal institution and material in the realisation of certain works. Using a means of transmitting a message or an object implies being able to effectively transmit the message by the means employed, but the intervention of the institution may also be employed as a means to give meaning and form to the message or the object to be realised. This is the case of Douglas Huebler, whose work could not exist without the use of the mails. But what are we to think of all those stacks of objects and pictures taken from postal or related material and used as plastic elements? It is this question which leads us to clarify the real subject of our book. We have in fact excluded the work of Ruth Francken and K. P. Brehmer, for the simple reason that we are concerned with means of communication and not with pictures. The postcards, stamps, and other objects which we have reproduced were made to be used and correspond to post office norms. Postal communication is a form of long-distance communication, and thereby the aesthetic object is modified both in its form and in its presentation. We have sufficiently developed the notion of media-based communication to be able to affirm that what the different works reproduced here have in common is the relationship between objects and the means by which we become conscious of them. We might also mention other very different artistic activities whose significance also derives from the way the public becomes conscious of them. Earth Art, recently renamed Ecological Art, and Body Art raise the following question: why do we become conscious of events, environments or objects only through photographs, explanations, publications and exhibitions? The comparison is established in the method chosen by the public to become conscious of a gesture, an object or an event performed by the artist. This is a theoretical question situated between the idea of information and the applications of current research on perception analysis, on the science of sign-language and on semiology. We must not be deceived however, because it is only at this very general level these different activities intermesh, and an overly rapid identification would precipitate us into the trap of humanist art history, where everything is explained by eternal human nature and fuzzy universal notions derived from insufficient analysis.


One last word on the title of the book. It isn’t entirely satisfactory, but it does indicate some of the main points.


This expression underscores the use of postal material, while not neglecting the specific characteristics of the institution. It designate mailing, by which we mean sending a simple object or document through the postal system, as well as the system of exchange and the particular form through which the message is expressed. We have preferred the term "mail art" to "postal art", since it seems richer in connotations.


This is the common denominator of all the activities we have mentioned, the use of an intermediary which, by creating distance and additional difficulties, enables one at the same time to establish real relationships between strangers. The work sent through the mails is necessarily read, while it might be refused in other circumstances. This form of communication fits into our reflection on the nature of relationships established between individuals, and between the individual and artistic production.


By the word concept, which we have only rendered hazier than before, we want to point out certain works which use the post office as a means to pursue a demonstration begun elsewhere. Kawara, Dibbets, Buren, Huebler and some others pursue theoretical or conceptual work, and, through the use of the postal institution, encounter the means to clarify their analysis.

Mail Art Chro No Logy

new projects | artpool | archive | center
| library | collections | search | contact