Sunday, July 15, 2007

,Mail Art and Politics
One thing tha many mail artist always like to stress when talking about their activities (although many others don't seem to agree) is that the communicative aspect is far more important than art for art’s sake, and collaboration is one of the key words in the Network, whose ultimate goal is building a sort of alternative approach to culture. This is a practice that the advent of the Internet has amplified to enormous proportions. All these different but often overlapping networks share many strategies and the common principle that “if the Establishment ignores us, we can easily do without it.”
One notable consequence of this approach is that many mail artists are socially and/or politically committed and strive to include these issues in their activity. Here are two examples of the innumerable projects that are constantly being organised. Both of them where started by me (you will excuse me for showing off a little bit …).
Fighting Back - Stop Violence against Women was born because I’m a member of Amnesty International, the worldwide voluntary activist movement working for human rights. At the end of every year, AI Japan reports on its state of health, and the recurring theme in recent years has been that we are constantly losing members and in this country, AI has become more or less an invisible entity. So we felt the need to enhance our public image, trying, in the process, to lure more people into our ranks.

When another member pointed out that the 2004-2006 worldwide campaign would have focused on domestic violence against women, as well as violence in conflict and post conflict, we decided to ask mail artists for help. This, by the way, is by no means the first time that AI and the Network have joined hands to address specific problems (other topics tackled in the past have been torture and the death penalty). A task group was formed, with me concentrating on the mail art part of the project (writing the call, spreading the word, and instructing the others on how to collect and catalogue the incoming works) while other people looked for a suitable venue for the exhibition, invited experts and activists to talk, and organised other collateral activities.

All in all we were able to gather more than 250 contributions from all over the world, including postcards, collages, drawings, photographs, etc, and even local artists, who usually are not active in the mail art network, lent or donated paintings, sculptures and embroidery. The show was a huge success and it travelled to several cities.
Now that this part of the project is over, we are left with hundreds of copies of the catalogue. This is a beautiful, full-color, full-sized 24 page booklet, printed on glossy paper, containing a wide range of the works received, plus brief introductions to Amnesty International, mail art and the theme of the exhibition. If you are interested in visual arts and/or violence against women, or you simply want to help AI Japan to recover at least a part of the expenses, please contact me ( One copy costs $5 to $7 on a sliding scale, postpaid worldwide. Please pay what you can afford and remember that it’s for a just cause.
Mail artists usually interact either by participating in big international exhibitions or on a one-to-one basis. The AI project was an example of the first type. The next project I’d like to describe belongs to the second and is a perfect example of what I like most in mail art: the many possibilities to collaborate and interact with a wide network of like-minded people.
It all started in 1998, when – as a contribution to Vittore Baroni’s Year of Incongruous Meetings – I made a couple of fake election campaign posters (it was election time in Japan) and briefly put them on the same billboard near my house where all the local candidates had put their ugly faces. The idea behind this action was that political elections have become a farce and are almost useless to really change society. It’s a rat race in which every candidate only aims at joining the elite and share power and money. The election posters they make in Japan are particularly cheesy and phoney and you can often see the horrible truth behind the candidates’ smiling masks. After that isolated performance, I decided to start a project, that I called The True Face of Politics, in which I invited some of my friends to make and send me their posters. I collected several works, but once it came to put them on the billboards, I realised I couldn’t do everything by myself, and the people who had offered to help, suddenly became unavailable. I can’t really blame them: after all, what I wanted to do was illegal, and to challenge authority while you live in a foreign country isn’t really a sane thing to do.
This way, the project became a sleeper, and has been kept on hold until now. A couple of years ago I finally found the time and energy to start working on it again, and was lucky to find a group of networkers who were all too happy to collaborate. So I made copies of the posters and sent them to Australia, China, Uruguay, and the US, where each one of my friends did what he or she wanted (or could do: the Shanghai part of the project was for obvious reasons a more private/secret thing).
When everything was over, my collaborators sent me the documentation they had produced (reports, photos, etc.) and now I’m finally putting everything together and producing the final doc, that will be included in my zine KAIRAN. Let me know if you want to order a copy of the forthcoming issue #13.

Do you like horror stories? Lately I find it increasingly difficult to find good ones, especially when it comes to movies. It seems that coming up with engaging, original plots is getting harder and harder. Even so called J-Horror (the recent new wave of films from Japan that became popular worldwide thanks to The Ring has reached a cul-de-sac. Oddly enough, some of the people who have recently provided me with the best bad vibes are sound artists…
Take, for example, Mark Sonnenfeld. Many of you should at least know his name because his booklets are often reviewed in a number of zine review zines. Mark has been very active in the mail art and experimental poetry circuits for many years now, but I recently discovered a new side of his creativity, when I found in my mailbox Experimental Tape New Jersey #2 that he produced together with the mysterious Ghostly Bus. ETNJ#2 is a slow-burning piece of suspense. Mark & GB avoid any loud noise, instead insinuating themselves into your ears with muffled sounds, strange voices, ringing telephones, and a robotik funk riff. This tape was the ideal soundtrack while reading the truly dreadful Gerald’s Game by Stephen King, one of the few writers who can still make the hair on my neck stand.

The never-resting Sonnenfeld even collaborated with Ken Miller, another mail artist who likes to play (with) music. Miller added a catchy bass riff to a street recording of Mark’s A Red Shirted No Friends. The quiet main theme blends wonderfully with Mark’s plain recitation. Only in the mid-section things go a little crazy, when Ken juxtaposes two different vocal tracks and starts experimenting with music, but always in a very soft way.

Miller’s usual stomping ground, though, is his almost one-man-band SinDex Industries – formerly (un)known as Sinister Dexter – through which he explores and sometimes abuses American musical tradition. Particularly good is the anthology Fifteen Years (1984-1999) in which you will find, among other things, weird blues songs; rock songs whose lyrics were pulled at random from a car repair manual; a couple of more atmospheric tracks; great versions of Beatles and Clash songs; and an effect of Ken’s invention called “Miracle Earache” which according to Mr. Miller, “along with producing the worst feedback imaginable, picks up several channels of AM radio. The album’s notes, by the way, are as hilarious and good as the music.
As every horror fan knows very well, the best stories often are the ones that deal with everyday life and ordinary people. In this sense one of the best recent projects I stumbled upon is the Quotidian Assemblages 3-CD series edited and produced by Hal McGee.

For those who don’t know him, Hal is a senior member of the huge D.I.Y. tape network that originated in the 70s and developed worldwide with more than a few contacts with the mail art community. Hal had the brilliant idea to invite a wild bunch of Mad Professors to create audio works based upon ordinary everyday sounds. Loren Steele, for example, shows you how a not-well-oiled window can upset your nerves. G..X. Jupitter-Larsen's plain field recording of the Paris metro acquires new sinister tones after the terrorist London bombings. Mystified’s “Pan Pan Pot Spoon” is all in its title, but the overall effect is as spooky as a Tibetan thriller. And then you have evil washing machines, undigested breakfasts, dog-walking gone wrong, apocalyptic radio news…
Perpetually house-moving mail artist and poet Jessy Kendall is another person who likes all-round playing. As Marcel Herms wrote in the third issue of his excellent zine Rigodon regarding Jessy’s CD Rough Ride of Crafts, “It’s always a good thing when you can’t immediately pigeonhole a record. Like this one.” Jessy uses a bunch of fairly conventional instruments on his release, but the end result is quite unconventional – not as creepy as I would like though… It jumps from voice-experiments to a synth-bass-based psychedelic jam to some weird loops. But its experimentation is always soft, and quite entertaining.

Among other things, Jessy publishes a couple of interesting zines: a monthly collection of his poems and Answer Shirker, which features other people’s works, some in color [above left you can see a collaborative work he made with Jim Leftwich). His letters are very interesting too.
When not working on Rigodon (US$ 7.00) (a publication mostly devoted to noise & experimental music), Herms himself loves to torture your ears and brain with his usually very loud productions. Check them out at your own risk.
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to escape into the realm of ghosts and monsters to get your daily dose of horror. In this respect, the best CD that recently found its way into my mailbox is without doubt Franetta McMillian’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (US$ 10.00).

Among these very well produced songs (actually more poetry with music) you will find scathing condemnations of past and current American politics, and of contemporary society; a sad, moving tale of domestic violence; a clever send-off of fanaticism, fundamentalism and terrorism; and a piece that could be defined as pro-euthanasia (see below). Actually there is much, much more in this excellent album, including seven instrumentals, and not everything is as bleak as I make it sound. Indeed, the overall mood is one of hope.

Okay, back to the classics, let me mention quickly a tape I made some time ago. The Overlook is a reworking of The Shining (yes, King again). A friend of mine recorded excerpts from the novel, which I mixed with old music from my own collection – nothing original – mostly alternative rock (e.g. Cassiber and Art Bears) and other strange music (Pierre Henry, Negativeland). It’s quite rough around the aural edges, but all in all it’s satisfyingly dark. If you want to give it a try, send me US$ 4.00 or an equivalent trade.
Thank you and good night.

Mark Sonnenfeld, 45-08 Old Millstone Drive, East Windsor, NJ 08520, USA
Ken Miller, P.O. Box, 101, Newtown, PA 18940-0101, USA <> <>
Hal McGee, 1909E SW 42 Way, Gainesville, FL 32607, USA <> <>
Jessy Kendall,
Marcel Herms, Postbus 6359, 7401 JJ Deventer, The Netherlands
Franetta McMillian, PMB 170, 40 E. Main St, Newark, DE 19711
Gianni Simone, 3-3-23 Nagatsuta, Midori-ku, Yokohama-shi, 226-0027 Kanagawa-ken, Japan