Mail art is a worldwide cultural movement that began in the early 1960s and involves sending visual art (but also music, sound art, poetry, etc.) through the international postal system. Mail Art is also known as Postal Art or Correspondence Art. The term networking is often used to describe Mail Art activities, based on the principles of barter and equal one-to-one collaboration.
After a peak in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mail Art phenomenon has gradually migrated to the Internet, whose “social networks” were largely anticipated and predicted by the interactive processes of postal collaborations. Nevertheless, Mail Art is still practiced in the new Millennium by a loose planetary community involving thousands of mailartists from the most varied backgrounds.
"Out of the reasonable assumption that the commercial gallery system is limited and perhaps corrupt, many artists emerging in the 1970s and 1980s around the world decided it would be more feasible to exhibit their work not through galleries and ancillary museums but through the postal system, especially if they lived in areas where galleries and other artists were scarce. For the production of imagery, they drew often upon xerography (photocopying) and the earlier technology of rubber stamps. They would also announce exhibitions in venues previously devoid of art, such as city halls in remote parts of the world, ideally accepting everything submitted and issuing a catalog with names, usually accompanied by addresses and selected reproductions. While such work had little impact upon commercial galleries (and the “art magazines” dependent upon galleries’ ads), one result was a thriving alternative culture, calling itself ‘The Eternal Network’, as intensely interested in itself as serious artists have always been." 
Some mailartists claim that Mail Art began when Cleopatra had herself delivered to Julius Caesar in a rolled-up carpet , others consider early avant-garde experiments with the postal system to be the origin of the movement, but the term Mail Art was coined in the 1960s. "The Futurists already had taken an interest in 'mail art', but the official birth of the phenomenon dates to the early sixties. Its main promoter was Ray Johnson who, with his New York Correspondance [sic] School, institutionalized the free exchange of postal messages between artist and artist or between artist and audience." 
Ray Johnson's Correspondence Art provided Mail Art with a blueprint for the free exchange of art, as opposed to its commercialization. The New York Correspondance School Show organized in 1970 by Johnson and Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum in New York is considered the first important public exhibition of the genre and helped set the ground rules for future shows. In his renowned diagram of 1973 showing the development and scope of Fluxus , George Maciunas included Mail Art among the activities pursued by the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou (who coined the term “the Eternal Network” that has become synonymous with Mail Art). Other Fluxus artists have been involved since the early 1960s in the creation of artist's postage stamps (Robert Watts, Stamp Dispenser, 1963), postcards (Ben Vautier, The Postman’s Choice, 1965: a postcard with a different address on each side) and other works connected to the postal medium. "Indeed, the Mail Art Network counts many Fluxus members among its earliest participants. Although Ray Johnson (1927-1995), considered by many as the founding father of Mail Art, never joined Fluxus, his work is aesthetically close to that of the Fluxus group... Johnson’s work consists primarily of letters, often with the addition of doodles, drawings and rubber stamped messages. The work is lightweight and humorous; rather than being sold as a commodity it is usually mailed to friends and acquaintances. Although much of Johnson’s work is given away, this hasn’t prevented it attaining a market value. The late Andy Warhol is quoted as saying he would pay ten dollars for anything by Johnson." 
In spite of the many links and similarities between historical avant-gardes, alternative art practices (visual poetry, copy art, artist’s books, etc.) and Mail Art, what sets the creative postal network apart from any traditional artistic movement, school or group (including Fluxus) is its complete openness, an absence of hierarchies, and a disregard for the rules of the official “art system” and the commercialism of the art market. Anybody can participate in the postal network and exchange free artworks, and each mailartist is free to decide how and when to answer (or not answer) a piece of incoming mail. Participants are invited to take part in collective projects in which entries are not selected or judged, and while contributors might be asked to submit work on a particular theme, work to a required size, or send work by a deadline, Mail Art generally operates within a spirit of “anything goes”.
The Mail Art philosophy of openness and inclusion can be summed up in a few “considerations” of networking etiquette that are usually explicitly stated in the invitations (calls) to postal projects: a Mail Art show has no jury, no entry fee, there is no censorship, and all works are exhibited. The original contributions are not to be returned and remain the property of the organizers, but a catalogue or documentation is sent free to all the participants in exchange for their works. Although these “unwritten” rules are sometimes stretched, they have generally held up for four decades, with only minor dissimilarities and adjustments, like the occasional requests to avoid works of explicit sexual nature, calls for projects with specific participants, or the recent trend to display digital documentation on blogs and websites instead of personally sending printed paper to contributors.
Mail Art has been exhibited in alternative spaces such as private apartments, municipal buildings, and shop windows, as well as in galleries and important Museums worldwide. Mail Art shows, periodicals and projects represent the “public” side of postal networking, a practice that has at its core the direct and private interaction between the individual participants. For many mailartists, the process of exchanging ideas and the sense of belonging to a global community that is able to maintain a peaceful collaboration beyond differences of language, religion and ideology, is valued above the aesthetic merits of the artworks that are swapped or created together. It is what differentiates the Mail Art network from the world of commercial picture postcards and of simply “mailed art”.
Typically, a mailartist has hundreds of correspondents from many different countries, but also tends to build a smaller core circle of favorite contacts. Mail art is widely practiced in Europe, North and South America, Russia, Australia and Japan, with smaller numbers of participants also in Africa, China and other countries. As a result of its unique openness, it is a global grassroots activity, carried out by all kinds of amateurs and novices, and professional artists (often as a side activity), of different ages and backgrounds. The work received is either collected, and in recent years Mail Art Archives have attracted the interest of museums and collectors, or it is ‘worked into’ and recycled back to the sender or to another networker. "The purpose of mail art, an activity shared by many artists throughout the world, is to establish an aesthetical communication between artists and common people in every corner of the globe, to divulge their work outside the structures of the art market and outside the traditional venues and institutions: a free communication in which words and signs, texts and colours act like instruments for a direct and immediate interaction." 
With its inclination to break down the barriers between art and everyday life, and trying to bring to the surface everybody’s creative side, Mail Art has much in common with the utopian and libertarian philosophies of the Hippie counterculture. The magazines self-produced by many mail artists can be seen as a logical continuation of the “free press” of the 1960s. In the 1970s the practice of Mail Art grew exponentially, providing a cheap and flexible channel of expression for cultural outsiders and demonstrating a particular vitality where state censorship prevented a free circulation of alternative ideas, as in certain countries behind the Iron Curtain or in South America.
The growth of a sizeable Mail Art community, with friendships born out of personal correspondence and, increasingly, mutual visits, led in the 1980s to the organization of several Festivals, Meetings and Conventions where networkers could meet, socialize, perform, exhibit and plan further collaborations. Among these events were the InterDada Festivals organized in California in the early 1980s and the Decentralized Mail Art Congress of 1986, a project comprising events that took place “any time two or more mail artists met in the course of the year”. Even if “Tourism” was proposed satirically as a new movement, Mail Art in its purest form could also function without the personal meeting between networkers that some felt diluted the appeal and the aura of mystery of this “art at a distance”. "The best part about mail art is that you don’t have to be there in person to be in on the action." 
Ray Johnson suggested, with an ingenious pun, that “mail art has no history, only a present”, and with characteristic playfulness, mailartists have created their own mythologies. Parody art movements like Neoism and Plagiarism have challenged notions of originality, as have the multiple names Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot, proposed for serial use by anyone. Semi-fictional organizations have been set up and virtual lands invented, imaginary countries for which artistamps are issued. Furthermore, rigorous attempts have been made to document and define the history of a complex and underestimated phenomenon that has spanned five decades. Various essays, graduate theses, guides and anthologies of Mail Art writings have appeared in print and on the Internet, often written by veteran networkers.
By the 1990s, Mail Art’s peak in terms of global postal activities had been reached, and many mailartists, aware of increasing postal rates, were beginning the gradual migration of collective art projects towards the web and new, cheaper forms of digital communication. The Internet facilitated faster dissemination of Mail Art calls (invitations) and precipitated the involvement of a large number of newcomers. Mail Art blogs and websites became ever more frequently used to display contributions and online documentation, even if many mailartists still preferred the surprise of a catalogue found in their mailbox. The thrill of ripping open an envelope to find out what is hidden inside remains stronger as an experience than the click of a mouse.
"Correspondence art is an elusive art form, far more variegated by its very nature than, say, painting. Where a painting always involves paint and a support surface, correspondence art can appear as any one of dozens of media transmitted through the mail. While the vast majority of correspondence art or mail art activities take place in the mail, today’s new forms of electronic communication blur the edges of that forum. In the 1960s, when correspondence art first began to blossom, most artists found the postal service to be the most readily available - and least expensive - medium of exchange. Today’s micro-computers with modern facilities offer anyone computing and communicating power that two decades ago were available only to the largest institutions and corporations, and only a few decades previous weren’t available to anyone at any price." 
The ethos of Mail Art is one of inclusion, both in terms of participants ('anyone who can afford the postage') and in the scope of art forms beneath its big umbrella. Although there are materials and techniques which are commonly used and frequently favored by mailartists for their availability, convenience and ability to produce copies, Mail Art’s potential to surprise and delight is in part due to the unregulated wealth of media and styles employed by myriad mailartists.
Unsurprisingly, Mail Art has adopted graphic forms associated with the postal system. The rubber stamp officially used for franking mail, hardly an established or esteemed art medium but already utilised by Dada and Fluxus artists, has been embraced by mailartists who, in addition to reusing readymade rubber stamps, have them professionally made to their own designs, and also carve into erasers with linocut tools to create handmade ones. These unofficial rubber stamps, whether disseminating mailartists’ messages or simply announcing the identity of the sender, help to transform humble postcards into artworks and make envelopes an important part of the Mail Art experience.
Mail Art has also appropriated the postage stamp as a format for individual expression. Inspired by the example of Cinderella stamps and Fluxus faux-stamps, the artistamp has spawned a vibrant sub-network of artists dedicated to creating and exchanging their own stamps and stamp sheets. Artistamps and rubber stamps, have become important staples of mail artworks, particularly in the enhancement of postcards and envelopes.
Some mailartists lavish more attention on the envelopes than the contents within. Painted envelopes are one-of-a-kind artworks with the handwritten address becoming part of the work. Stitching, embossing and an array of drawing materials can all be found on postcards, envelopes and on the contents inside, where genuinely personalized stationery adds real character to the letters and notes that often accompany mailartworks.
In addition to appropriating the postage stamp model, mailartists have assimilated other design formats for unique and printed artworks. Artists’ books, banknotes, stickers, tickets, artist trading cards (ATCs), badges, food packaging, diagrams and maps have all inspired individual and collaborative work.
Printing is ideally suited to mailartists who distribute their work widely. Many forms of printmaking, in addition to rubber stamping, are used to create multiples, and copy art (xerography, photocopy) is a common practice, with both mono and color copying being extensively used within the network. Black & white copies of artwork have sometimes been regarded as too easy and impersonal, and ubiquitous ‘add & pass’ sheets that are designed to be circulated through the network with each artist adding and copying, chain-letter fashion, have also received some unfavorable criticism. However, Xerography has been invaluable to the many short-run periodicals and zines about Mail Art, and for the printed documentation that has been the traditional project culmination sent to participants. Inkjet and laserprint computer printouts are also used, both to disseminate artwork and for reproducing zines and documentation, and PDF copies of paperless periodicals and unprinted documentation are circulated by email. Photography is widely used as an art form in itself, to provide images for artistamps and rubber stamps, and within printed and digital magazines and documentation.
The wealth of materials, techniques and formats available ensures that mailartists routinely mix media. Collage and photomontage are hugely popular, affording much Mail Art the stylistic qualities of Pop Art or Dada. Mailartists often use collage techniques to produce original postcards, envelopes and work that may be transformed using copy art techniques or computer software, then photocopied or printed out in limited editions. Printed matter and ephemera are often circulated among mailartists, and items that might seem mundane in one country become fascinating and extraordinary when relocated. Small assemblages, sculptural forms or found objects of irregular shapes and sizes are parceled up or sent unwrapped to deliberately tease and test the efficiency of the postal service. Wit and humor permeate a lot of Mail Art.
Lettering, whether handwritten or printed, is integral to Mail Art. Visual poetry is well represented within the movement. The written word is used as a literary art form, as well as for personal letters and notes sent with artwork and recordings of the spoken word, both of poetry and prose, are also a part of the network. Although English has been the de facto language, owing to the movement’s inception in America, an increasing number of mailartists, and mailartist groups on the Internet, now communicate in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian and other first languages.
Having borrowed the notion of intermedia from Fluxus, mailartists are often active simultaneously in several different fields of expression. Music and sound art have long been celebrated aspects of Mail Art, at first using cassette tape, then on CD and today as sound files sent via the internet. Performance art has also been a prominent facet, particularly since the advent of Mail Art meetings and congresses. Performances recorded on film or video are communicated via DVD and movie files over the internet. Video is also increasingly being employed to document Mail Art shows of all kinds.
Recent years have witnessed a meteoric rise in Mail Art’s online presence. Mailartists’ websites, blogs, and the use of social networking groups for discussion are considered by many to be a natural development, and just as it has become standard to display the documentation of Mail Art projects online rather than to mail printed documentation, so an increasing number of projects include an invitation to submit work digitally by email, either as the preferred channel or as an alternative to sending contributions by post. Mail Art continues to transform itself with the times.
“Cultural exchange is a radical act. It can create paradigms for the reverential sharing and preservation of the earth's water, soil, forests, plants and animals. The ethereal networker aesthetic calls for guiding that dream through action. Cooperation and participation, and the celebration of art as a birthing of life, vision, and spirit are first steps. The artists who meet each other in the Eternal Network have taken these steps. Their shared enterprise is a contribution to our common future.”