A strong whiff of nostalgia escaped from the mailbox the other day: There was a postcard inside. Of course, it wasn’t a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Grand Canyon. When did anyone last travel anywhere? Or send a postcard when they did? No, this was an intriguing blue-toned image of a cracked wall with a stain that looked like a waterfall. On the reverse, there was a poetic message about rainwater washing away the wall, and my address appeared to have been typed out by an old typewriter. It was the most interesting thing I had received in the mail in weeks.
Paul Roorda, an artist who lives in Waterloo, Ont., had sent me a sample of his current art project: hand printing limited-edition postcards from his own photographs and mailing them out to his contacts.
“It’s a novelty to get anything personal in the mail these days,” Roorda agreed when I phoned. “I like the whole idea of the analogue. Going back to something that is obsolete really appeals to me.”
Roorda is not simply reviving postcards, he is reviving mail art, a form that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s and persisted into the ’80s before it was eclipsed by e-mail, social media and the easy transfer of large digital files. Artists locked out of galleries by the pandemic are returning to it, although Roorda cautions this is only a mini revival: “Most people are finding ways to present their work on digital media,” he said.
But for those who like the old and the analogue, mail art has an interesting history as an underground practice. Pioneered by the U.S. artist Ray Johnson in the 1940s, it was taken up by the international Fluxus movement in the ’60s, and became a way for artists to exchange work around the world. Mail art might feature graphic designs, cartoons, drawings or collage, and offered a democratic art form: cheap to produce and distribute. There was also something a bit subversive about the movement which spread to oppressive countries where art was censored. Artists shared work through networks of like-minded correspondents, but they could also send art to anyone without warning: The best mail art never really explained itself, it just showed up.
“There’s a real egalitarian sense about it; you are free to do what you want,” said Trisha Lavoie, a Hamilton artist who has organized Postcards from Anywhere, a subscription service that will deliver a “boring” postcard to your mailbox very month. Inspired by the lockdown, the images, provided by 12 artists, are purposefully banal scenes shot locally. Lavoie’s inspiration is her collection of vintage promotional postcards; she is amused by ones that are less than picturesque, images of local diners or highway flyovers.
Like the earlier mail artists, Lavoie and Roorda turn the whole process, from making the postcard to ensuring its delivery, into a performance of sorts.
“I really like the tactile nature of the art object,” Roorda said. “When I put the postcard in the mail, it’s an object. The stamp, the postbox, arriving in the mail, is all part of the art.”
Roorda turned to his project because of a cancelled show. He creates photographs in which cracked walls read as landscapes suggesting horizon lines, water or clouds and prints them as cyanotypes, a simple 19th-century chemical process named for its blue tones. He was supposed to be showing these prints at a commercial gallery in Germany in June but when the show was postponed indefinitely in December, he decided to mail out smaller versions instead.
As they say at the Propeller Art Gallery: “Mail can travel while we cannot.” The Propeller, an artist-run centre in Toronto, is currently exhibiting a large collection of mail art on its website. Propeller asked artists to mail in their contributions for a group show back in August, knowing the show might have to move online by the time it was scheduled to open in January. Propeller did not stipulate subject matter, size or media, and 84 artists responded to the open call with 121 works of art. A few artists mailed their work in envelopes – including one drawn on a latex glove – but most put the art straight in the mailbox whether it was a postcard, a piece of textile or, in one case, a small box made of birch wood, which made it to the gallery unscathed.
“For us, part of the mystery of it was: What can you mail?” said Janet Read, the volunteer who helped organize the show.
Whether it is to be viewed online or it arrives at the door, mail art seems particularly suited to the lockdown: Nobody need enter a gallery to install it nor to view it. But it also speaks to a longing for the tactile and the physical at a time when all culture is being presented online.
“Everyone is happy to be connected digitally,” Lavoie said, “But there’s something tangible about getting a piece of mail.”