Mail Art Chro No Logy

Shozo Shimamoto: Three Overtures to Networking

Shimamoto, Shozo: Three Overtures to Networking, in: Eternal Network. A Mail Art Anthology, University of Calgary Press, Calgary, 1995, pp. 130–135. (Ed. by Chuck Welch)

I: The Tropical Forest is an Archetype of Art

The tropical forest is a living, torrid zone of grass, ferns and moss, of thick ivy and vines climbing ancient trees. A variety of creatures from large mammals to small insects and fish swarm within the forest. Animals feed on ants living in dead trees, plants feed on insects, and bacteria thrive in an organic cycle that produces oxygen for the sustenance of life on Earth. The ecosystem of a tropical forest is an epitome of the laws of the Earth in that every creature living in it has a role in its growth.

But since the dawn of our species, we have dichotomized nature into useful and harmful elements. We have created various tools and devices to consume Earth's natural resources and have driven out or destroyed the natural order of plant and animal life. In this alteration of nature, humankind has created a comfortable society and habitat. We have also carelessly and unnecessarily harmed ourselves and our environment.

This dichotomy of nature may be true of almost everything. When we devise, produce, and improve something we are apt to end up with disadvantages. If nature is not damaged seriously, the Earth can recover; however, the destruction of nature, such as the continuing depletion of rain forests, is far beyond Earth’s self-curing capacity. This is a sinful act. Such foolish sins can also be seen in the world of art.

In the past, a number of artists created superb works and enriched humanity’s spiritual life, but we should not forget the fact that such art relies on small art that is analogous to small insects living in the tropical forest. Moreover, these small insects are doing their host to survive. A Japanese saying has it that even a worm has its own will. However small it may be, a thing has its unique value.

The situation of mail art can be compared exactly to the tropical forest. There are some cedar groves in Kyoto, Japan, where upright trees called kitayamasugi grow, and these places are often publicized as beautiful forested areas. But in my opinion, they actually are dead groves with trees that are considered useful only for human beings. What we should keep in mind is that the beauty of the kitayamasugi groves depends entirely on the existence of the tropical rain forest.

Mail art has various forms. Individual artists create and mail their own art. This mailed art isn’t to be collected in one place to be ranked and priced. Some pieces of mail art are beyond my comprehension, while others would seem meaningless to my spiritual life. But all the varieties of mail art are equally valuable. The way mail art is sent through international networking channels can be compared exactly to the workings of the rain forest.

Now people are aware of the foolishness of the destruction of nature and begin to realize the value of the rain forest. Under such circumstances, we have come to appreciate the significance of mail art networking, which challenges the hierarchical realm of post-modernism in art.

II: The Development of Networking

On August 2, 1990, Ryosuke Cohen, Mayumi Handa, and I participated in the “Sacred Run” led by American Indian activist Dennis Banks. In his fight for Indian rights Banks played a leading role in the 1973 battle of Wounded Knee on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The battle was televised worldwide and won the support of many people, including the American film star and celebrity Marlon Brando.

Shozo Shimamoto: “Sacred Run” for Peace, Japan. 1990. Shozo Shimamoto: “Sacred Run” for Peace, Japan. 1990. (Left to Right) Dennis Banks, Shozo Shimamoto and Tom Lablanc gather at Art Space in Nishinomiya, Japan. Unusual mail art objects hang on the wall in the background.

As a leading figure in the American Indian Movement, Banks in recent years has organized support for the environment and Indian rights with teams of runners from across the United States and Japan. The August, 1990 “Sacred Run” was planned as a relay from London, England, to Moscow via the Baltic States. Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The total distance of the relay was about 8.000 kilometers. “Sacred Run” was conceived as a way for people from various countries to meet one another and to exchange views. Each person could wish for their own survival as well as for that of the diseased Earth. While running with other participants, I invited local mail artists to join usm and together we tried to devise new ways of networking.

On August 5. an event was staged at Milton Keynes in the suburbs of London. The next day, on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we started “Sacred Run”. One of the London-based mail artists. Barry Edgar Pilcher, wrote music for the run and played it on his saxophone together with his group. Conspiracy. Just before the performance started, Dennis Banks began explaining the idea behind the run as he had done in Paris, Berlin, and in many other places. I thought this was a really nice way of attracting other people’s attention. Native Americans appeared before us with plenty of leathers on their heads and backs. A number of families picnicking nearby flocked to the event to see them drumming and shouting. Later, hundreds of local people took part in the dancing.

Mayumi Handu, Kinami, Ryosuke Cohen, and Shozo Shimamoto during “Sacred Run”, August 10, 1990, Paris, France. (Left to Right) Mayumi Handu, Kinami, Ryosuke Cohen, and Shozo Shimamoto during “Sacred Run”, August 10, 1990, Paris, France. Photograph by NATO.

The French mail artist, NATO, organized our networking activities in Paris. He told me that he became a mail artist after being impressed by my art. It would seldom happen in any other world other than mail art that a contemporary French artist would be influenced by Japanese art. NATO wanted to make a plastic figure of me in celebration of “Sacred Run”. He applied a coat of silicone resin to my head as he began a performance of nude women moving around me. One woman sat on my head during her performance. Mail artworks were posted on the nude women during the performance; a rather unique form of art display.

We drove a remodeled truck from London to Warsaw that was covered with paintings and messages sent by mail artists from all over the world. I shaved my head and had many slides projected on it. I also had mail artists draw pictures and write messages on my head. In Belgium and the Soviet Union, local artists were so meticulous in their pictures and messages on my head that I realized what delicate national traits they have.

More than 1,000 envelopes of mail art were hung as an exhibition by Belgian mail artist Charles Francois. Joki, a mail artist from Minden, Germany, piled up over 1.000 pieces of mail art, and I buried myself in this pile, scattering mail art over my shaved head.

Banks’ “Sacred Run” was a magnificent event that included mail art as an important, collaborative element. In the future, he plans to continue the relay across Africa, North and South America. “Sacred Run” is networking that enables participants and spectators to think about dealing with social problems, wars and the environment. Here, networking mail art releases art from the frame ol'tradition into the outer space surrounding the frame.

III. Networking in Worlds Other Than Art

In the last networking overture, we described how networking was combined with Dennis Bank's “Sacred Run”. Networking, however, is also possible in worlds other than art. Historically, “networking” is a term that was developed in the 1970s by artists hoping for the liberation of art. It isn’t the invention of one brilliant artist, but rather an invention that comes into being through the exchange of mail art. The networking of art has been advanced by artistic feeling, but I happen to know of another world where networking has been theoretically discussed.

In December 1989, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, a couple researching networking, came to Japan from the U.S. They argued that there is no need for superstars in political or economic activities in the world. They said that politics or economies should be maintained through networking. The Japanese version of their book, “Networking”, was published in 1986 and created a sensation in Japan. I bought the book and found a key idea in it that advised people not to “speculate”.(1)

I thought that the fundamental difference between mail art networking and conventional art was an attitude toward the concept of speculation. I have never written or talked about it, but I have always held the view that conventional art is full of speculations by individuals seeking wealth, importance, and opportunity. Artists who are engaged in creating such art are competing with each other and have plenty of speculations in mind as they reach for the top of the ladder of success.

I had pictures taken of my shaved head that were printed on paper, and for two years these sheets were distributed to mail artists around the world. As a form of collaborative mail art networking, I printed instructions on these sheets asking mail artists to intervene by placing their pictures and messages on my head and returning the altered work. While this networking project was making progress, Cor Reyn, a Dutch artist, begun creating the same networking strategy with the same prints I had mailed. S.P.E.A.T., an American mail artist, was asked by Cor Reyn to draw eleven small pictures of my shaved head in the prints. Now S.P.E.A.T. is networking with this variation of my original idea. Ironically, he sent one of the prints to me and asked me to participate in his networking strategy. Crackerjack Kid modeled handmade paper castings front a plaster life casting of my shaved head and sent several dozen foam-filled sculptures of my head around the world. If any of these kinds of things happened in the conventional art world, grave consequences would be inevitable. In the worst case, a lawsuit could he filed for plagiarism. But I am grateful to these artists because they are expanding a shared networking concept. My sides shook with laughter when I found these artists using my shaved head for their networking. The world of mail art networking is full of humorous events and stories.

At the time when Lipnack and Stamp's “Networking” was the talk of the town, I was sending mail art as the shape of the first letter in the Japanese alphabet. This first letter in the Japanese alphabet is a character imbued with creative meaning, and I use it in my artistic activities because it is very beautiful. The letter was made from corrugated paper covered with seals or stamps and sent through the mail without an envelope. I mailed this corrugated paper symbol under separate cover to Lipnack and Stamps with a note explaining the aim of mail art networking. At that time, they were about to publish their magazine. “Networking Journal”, and they seemed surprised to find that there was another form of networking, other than business, in the world of art. They took a keen interest in my mail art and used the Japanese symbol on the first issue of their magazine.(2) The fact that mail art, politics, and business can all share the world of networking stimulated me.

In November 1989, Ryosuke Cohen, Mayumi Handa, and I had dinner with Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps and talked about networking:(3)

Shimamoto: I have read your book, “Networking”. The book has nothing to do with art, but I found your principles of networking described in it very interesting and stimulating when they are applied to art.

Stamps: Americans have so far thought that their culture is the most advanced. As such, the idea of cooperating with other peoples in the world through networking is very innovative. In japan, people tend to put emphasis on a spirit of cooperation in a group, and their culture distinctly reflects such mentality. The reverse has been the case in the U.S., but a desire for cooperation in a group is now being aroused among Americans. This contrast between the two countries is intriguing for networking.(4)

Jessica Lipnack told us that the most advanced networking is now being carried out by those in business circles, not by those engaged in social service. I think this is a most suggestive phenomenon. Now people in various worlds are reconsidering the methodology of networking. How might a new paradigm of networking in business and art evolve with less competition and more global cooperation among individuals? I, working and belonging to the world of art, take delight in striving toward furthering new-networking concepts and hope that through creative projects such as “Sacred Run” individuals are empowered to heal the Earth. A new networking consciousness, as suggested by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamp, may allow for the imagination and vision that will bridge worlds in collaboration and cooperation. These overtures to networking are humankind's bold future and destiny.

* * * * * *

(1) (Ed. note:) Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps. The Networking Book: People Connecting with People, New York and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Here, Shimamoto is comparing “speculation” with ambition and competition. Interestingly, I could not find this “key idea” in the English edition of The Networking Book. On calling Jessica Lipnack about Shimamoto's reference, she replied that the Japanese translation of their book had been incorrectly translated in several passages.

(2) Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps. “Creation in the Mailbox”, Networking Journal, Spring/Summer, 1985, I: 1. 5-4.

(3) The networking conversation among Jessica Lipnack, Jeffrey Stamps, and Mayumi Handa was interpreted for Lipnack and Stamps by Kyoto Journal reporter Dave Kubiak.

(4) From notes by Shozo Shimamoto with Jeffrey Stamps, Jessica Lipnack and Mayumi Handa on November 25, 1990 in Kyoto, Japan.

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