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By María Paula Varela

After he abandoned a promising career as a writer, Ulises Carrión (1941, Mexico–1989, Holland) became a key figure in Mail Art, a prominent international movement of the 1970s and 80s. He used Mail Art to integrate the visual arts and written words and to investigate how alternative forms of distribution affected the messages themselves. Carrión thought of the postal system as a form of oppressive surveillance he called the “Big Monster.” Consequently, the artistic interventions he made with Mail Art transformed post offices into spaces that subverted state bureaucracies. Carrión termed this destabilization “knocking at the Monster’s door.”[1] 

Ulises Carrion: The Big Monster, installation view, ISLAA Foundation, New York, 2019

Ulises Carrión: The Big Monster, installation view, ISLAA Foundation, New York, 2019

The Big Monster archive is comprised of ten projects he created that engage with this theme. Seven of them are shown in this exhibition. Its title—Post/Master—pinpoints a shift away from art to culture, while simultaneously highlighting the bureaucratic figure of the “Master” of the post office, which Carrión made explicit reference to in his Erratic Art Mail International System (more on this below). Not only does Carrión act as his own postmaster—an organizer of all the Mail Art projects—but my use of the prefix post also qualifies master, alluding to the art historical term “Old Master,” and in so doing referring to Carrión’s probing of artistic originality and authorship.

Carrión’s work operates in defiance of a solipsistic experience: his works are premised on collective exchange. For example, Definitions of Art hinges on a collective reflection of a common theme. Carrión sent postcards stamped with the words “Art is:” and allowed the recipients to fill in their definitions of art. In this way, Carrión surpassed corporeal and geographic boundaries to create a shared dialogue about the nature of art. He received an array of answers that spanned from political convictions to witticisms. For example, as seen in the exhibition, Santiago Mercado proposed that art is “ANARCHY,” while John Baldessari retorted that it is to “LEARN TO DRAW.” Robert Rehfeldt, on the other hand, affectionately maintained that art is “COMMUNICATION WITH YOU.” With a similar proposition in mind, Carrión created Feedback Pieces for his exhibition at the Print Gallery in 1981. The invitations he sent out asked the participants to reconstruct the bottom half of the invitation, which he had shredded. The part that he had destroyed had the definition of Mail Art, which thus became impossible to reconstruct. The participants were asked to sign it and send it back to the gallery. He received a total of 243 responses, many of which were in different formats. For instance, a participant sent a small, embalmed piranha that has the shredded invitation hanging from its teeth.

While the latter projects explored manifold definitions of art, the Erratic Art Mail International System (E.A.M.I.S), which was conceived as an alternative to the traditional postal system, incorporated people’s physical mobility. International travelers functioned as couriers: detailed instructions were given to them about how to deliver a package, which had the official E.A.M.I.S stamp and had to arrive within three years. Carrión made himself postmaster of this alternative system, surreptitiously nestled within the official bureaucratic one. Many items were sent through E.A.M.I.S, bypassing the anonymity of post offices in favor of his personalized method.

For the project entitled A Poem, Carrión sent thirty index cards to his friends. On each, he hand-wrote the sentence “To be (or not to be) erased.” He left a blank space so that participants could clarify whether they had erased part of the text or not; he also included a designated spot for their signatures. If A Poem was premised on manual erasure, Anonymous Quotations added photographic mediation. In this project, Carrión retyped fifty-one letters that he had received; he exhibited them with a photograph of the original letter, erasing signatures and other identifying information. By homogenizing the materiality of each letter, the pure communicational content became the focus of this work.

Finally, Rob and Marta, Carrión’s last mail project, focused not on the content of a letter but on its sender. The artist based the project on first names: participants had to be named either Rob (Bob, Robert, Roberto, etc.) or Marta (Martha, Marte, etc.), “profession, nationality, and place of residence [were] irrelevant.” Carrión’s arbitrarily chosen premise concocted a community of people who happened to have the same first name. He also emphasized diversity within this group, pointing to cultural references and variance, as in the difference between Robert and Roberto. Although he sent 93 postcards, only 34 of the responses respected the rule underlying the project with names such as “Marcello” and “Ana Banana” thwarting the project’s conceptual conceit.

Post/Master aims to highlight the collective and intersubjective dimension of the seven projects exhibited. Carrión’s idea generated the projects, but they would have remained mere notions without the collaboration of others. It is, moreover, essential for this exhibition that the artist believed that “a Mail Art project is never closed. Every human being, even those who will never hear the question, can provide an infinite number of possible answers.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, his strategy also points to alternative ways of making art and engaging community as the current resurgence of Mail Art attests to.[2] Carrión’s work disrupts traditional understandings of authorship and mastery in order to engage with questions of different publics’ relation to art, creating an international community through his alternative distribution system.

[1] Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void Distributors, 1980) 45.

[2] “We Live In Real Time: A Window Exhibition of Mail Art Made During the Pandemic,” Printed Matter, Inc. Accessed October 6, 2020.

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