"Ray Johnson: The Zen Master of the Social Network" (link to article in Utne Reader)

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Comment by Giovanni Bianchini on March 5, 2015 at 2:35pm

Ray Johnson's Web

Long before the Net, mail art created its own virtual reality.
   
Michael Scott
Sun Visual Art Critic
Vancouver Sun, November 11-18, 1999    
If you cast your mind back, way back before "www" inherited the world, you might remember a time when regular mail was the most efficient way to shift ideas quickly between people in different parts of the world. We marvel today at the virtual communities that spring up on the Web - chat rooms where the like-minded gather, electronic mailing lists that blanket their members with crisscrossing messages, Web sites that garner millions of visits - but we forget that long before cyberspace, artists were already building links in a kind of virtual reality known as mail art.    
Chief among these early cyberspatialists was Ray Johnson, the American collage and correspondence artist who developed a loose network of arty pen pals in the early 1960s, an assem blage of folk that became known as the New York Correspondence School. Johnson, who died in 1995, is the subject of major show at theo University of B.C.'s Belkin Art Gallery until Dec. 19.    
As his friend, New York critic David Bourdon eulogized in Art in America, Johnson viewed the world from an oblique angle, "detecting correspondences between words, objects and actions that had seeLed entirely unrelated until he discerned a pattern. He sleuthed his way through a dense, fanciful world of analogies, anagrams, homonyms, rhymes, puns, all sorts of formal parallels and correlations."    
Johnson was prolific, producing a blizzard of paper ephemera in his thousands of mailings. Imagine a pack rat's file drawers, where every theatre program and cocktail napkin and motel bill has been hoarded and annotated and recycled, and then mailed off to another pack rat with the admonition to "please send to" a third person.    
Johnson once said his New York Correspondence School, as exemplified by these hundreds of bits of paper, was "like a fantastic, gigantic Calder mobile ... constantly in motion."    
There is a pertinent Vancouver connection here, because Johnson's work deeply influenced Canadian artists. One whole section of this exhibition is devoted to the material that went back and forth between Johnson and Vancouver artists Eric Metcalfe, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov (back in his days as mayoral candidate Mr. Peanut), General Idea and Anna Banana.    
Johnson began his correspondence art with intricate, hand-scissored missives for individual recipients and progressed to large mass mailings (some of whose commemorative posters, with their rows of stylized bunny heads and Kilroy-like faces, might be prototypes for cartoonist Matt Groening's much later work). His collage works, built of carefully abraded blocks of multilayer paper-board, have an enigmatic worn-out quality, like Louise Nevelson assemblages that have been left out in a desert sandstorm.    
The Richmond Art Gallery has organized a wonderful parallel to the Belkin's show. In The Popular Art of Postal Parody (until Nov. 14), Lower Mainland artist and curator Anna Banana presents a survey of work by artists in the International Mail-Art network. These are artists who create their own stamps and stamp paraphernalia (including cancellation marks, stamp-meter impressions, first-day cover envelopes and so on.)    
The mood here is definitely light-hearted with, for instance, Steve Smith from Florida contributing his 1997 Soles in Limbo commemorative issue, a hilarious sheet of mock stamps featuring pairs of footwear hanging from power lines; or his Y2K issue, with an image of a tube of lubricant surging toward the viewer like a faux-Deco locomotive beneath the inscription "Easing Your Way into the Next Millennium."    
Banana contributes work of her own as well, with a stylized zebra rump as the subject of a 1993 effort: "Zer's more horses asses in zee world zan zer are horses," runs the message on those stamps. Other works critique women's issues, geopolitics and First Nations issues. One of the strongest is Sandy Jackson's series of stamps from the sovereign nation of "Bimbolonia." Her issue commemorates the "Four Elements of Bimbolonian Pulchritude: Collagen, Silicone, Peroxide, Acrylic."


 

Comment by jesse edwards on January 3, 2015 at 1:21pm

 excuse me  . . . there is fuel . . . is what i meant to say . . . .

Comment by jesse edwards on January 3, 2015 at 1:20pm

 exactly . . . . the post office was the machine . . . the gas was supplied by the artists . . . . as long as there fuel / art . . . . the dance will go on . . . . what ever the instrument . . . the participants / clan / tribe . . . . whatever . . . . you call it , just has to burn the fuel . . . . and we get movement / mail . . . . in whatever medium . . . . . 

Comment by De Villo Sloan on January 3, 2015 at 12:53pm

The IUOMA is a good place to share these things, Jesse and Richard.

Some friends know I am continually using the circa 1977 quote of Ray Johnson to John Held, Jr.: "Mail-art is not about the postal system." I take that to mean it is more about a network of people.

William S. Wilson was circulating some mail-art last summer. One of the pieces he sent talked about how Ray Johnson didn't invent mail-art if you take mail-art to mean doodling on envelopes and postcards. He did invent a self-conscious network. I agree. The earlier network anticipated the digital social network perfectly. Fluxus was visionary in that sense as well.

I like the article because it delves into what Ray Johnson was trying to say in all that amazing correspondence. People will eventually have to address that.

Comment by jesse edwards on January 3, 2015 at 10:14am

 thank you for the article . . . . and richard . . . i understand your facebook analogy . . . . the group feature is just like the movement RAY was part of . . . . rather than back down . . . think of TOM PETTY and the HEARTBREAKERS . . . .

DOUBLE DARE . . . . and DOUBLE DOWN . . . or as we say when we watch JEOPARDY . . . . . BET IT ALL . . . . . .

Comment by Richard Canard on January 3, 2015 at 1:49am

02.01.14 Dare De Villo S.,...  enjoyed reading this... many thanks for your awareness & posting here ....Whenever I make such outrageous statements like:  "There would be no "Facebook" without Ray Johnson"...I usually end with funny looks & intelligent challenges ... & I usually end up backing down but I  am still thinking, at  least, Ray Johnson thought of it first. Best to you. Richard C. 

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