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Sharing is Avant-Garde


Long before it was common to exchange, share, and remix all kinds of things on the Web, a small group of artists challenged the norm of artistic production by encouraging people to freely draw, write, expand on and repurpose their work. Theis has taken a dive into the archives where he discovers interesting congruencies between the 1960’s mail art movement and contemporary strategies for sharing and remixing digitised cultural heritage.

Exploring the mail art archive

In KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art’s storage room is a messy, unordered mail art archive. In the files, I once stumbled upon a mail art piece by the Danish artist Mogens Otto Nielsen. The piece is a picture of an “asphalt igloo”, the word “Supertanker” meaning either “super tanker” or “super thoughts” in Danish, and one of the artist’s recurrent rubberstamps that reads:


The mail art movement began in the late 1950s as an attempt to change the production and distribution of art. Mail artists used the common postal system to exchange and collectively produce artworks, thus creating an international network of art, artists, and amateurs working outside the official art institutions. Outside the galleries and museums, the artists shared an understanding of art as something that should spread, change, and re-change.

[1] Supertanker, Mogens Otto Nielsen (undated).  CC BY 4.0 KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg.

[1] Supertanker, Mogens Otto Nielsen (undated).
CC BY 4.0 KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg.

Mail art was a centaur, not “half materials and half words”, as Harold Rosenberg called the artworks of the 1960s*1, but rather half materials and half system. Firstly, mail art had to be posted, thus becoming a part of the modern postal system and thereby succumbing to the rules and regulations of this system. Secondly, mail art was an exchange involving at least two artists, a sender and a receiver. There was no audience, only participants, using or misusing a common system of communication. [1]

Mogens Otto Nielsen’s rubberstamp is a parody of the postal and governmental bureaucracy, but it is nonetheless a sincere statement. By stamping it, the artwork is open for change, copying, additions etc., thus spelling out the mail art network’s intention to create and facilitate open-ended, ever-changing works of art. So, Mogens Otto Nielsen’s small “Supertanker” is one of these ideas meant to be circulated, copied, and absorbed into other people’s work.

Today, many of mail art’s ideas and principles are part of everyday culture, at least in the Western part of the world. The principles of mail art are reminiscent in peer-to-peer networking, hypermedia, creative commons, crowdsourcing, and open-source, not to mention a growing group of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums concerned with sharing content and knowledge. Consequently, findings from Mogens Otto Nielsen’s mail art archive might give us an insight into non-digital avant-garde experiments with sharing, including the risks and costs.

Learning from mail art sharing strategies

Exchanging artworks was not a risk-free business. Firstly, the postal system’s bureaucracy would have its way with the envelopes and packages, stamping, bending, scratching, and in other ways adding a kind of postal patina to the artworks. Stamps and other bureaucratic marks were part of an overall “mail art aesthetics” or “bureaucracy aesthetics”, but a noteworthy part of the exchange was also the potential loss and halt in the postal system as in “lost in the mail” or “return to sender”*2, not to mention the risk of prosecution and imprisonment for the artists working in South America and Eastern Europe.*3

Secondly, mail artists couldn’t charge people. Exchanging artworks in a gift-exchange economy involved a possible break of the etiquette-of-giving. Sending out artworks was no guarantee of receiving artworks in return as merchants would in a barter economy. At least momentarily, mail artists abandoned the traditional way of producing art, i.e. creating a single and autonomous work of art to be exhibited to an audience. The gift-exchange economy meant that mail art pieces had no commercial value, and the exchange became “an act of ritual generosity”, as Ina Blom writes about American artist Ray Johnson’s postal performance. Sending and responding to mail art would mean giving it away, letting go, potentially having your work altered or destroyed by the postal system or a fellow artist.

This does not necessarily mean that the mail art network was a powerfree structure. Despite the anarchistic spirit in mail art, the recurrent “no rules” stamped or written in manifests, invitations, and on envelopes, there was nonetheless a social contract when sending, receiving, and sharing: “To engage in the principles of the mail art system is to agree on a number of musts and must nots (do not judge, get rid of your vanity, try not to think about work after you have sent it, do not expect any returns etc.) [...]”*4 and these principles are written in various stamps and leaflets like Nielsen’s ten mail art commandments. [2] Though these rules and anti-rules are a spoof of the official and “real” bureaucracy, the gift-exchange economy and the self-understanding of being a counterculture nevertheless generated a complex set of unwritten rules within the mail art network.

Thirdly, mail art is related to the broader contemporary problem of chaotic networks and “information overload”. The mere quantity of mail art pieces was and still is a double-edged sword. No doubt that mail art was a release of concealed artistic force, but using the common postal system, disregarding the traditional hierarchy of the art world, creating exhibitions with “no rules”, “no jury” etc. also meant that the network was flooded with mail art pieces of varying quality. In front of a mail art archive, one must find a way to make sense in the chaos, without losing sight of the enormous creativity in the chaos. As with many other messy collections of art and cultural heritage, one must find a way to organize and navigate in these large quantities of information.*5

Today, trying to create a new culture of sharing between museums, one needs to acknowledge that sharing is not a risk-free or power-free endeavor. The benefits of sharing are enormous and observable – as can be seen elsewhere in this publication – but if the history of mail art can tell us something about the potential creativity in working peer-to- peer, the same history tells us something about the risks and costs of sharing. If we want museums to open up, museums should agree on a set of ground rules and write down the unwritten rules. Then museums might start stamping their digitized texts, pictures, data, and metadata like Nielsen; thereby enabling their digitized items and collections to be spread, reproduced, modified, and – in the end – improved.

Mogens Otto Nielsen’s Ten Command- ments for mail art. CC BY 4.0 KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg.

Mogens Otto Nielsen’s Ten Commandments for mail art.
CC BY 4.0 KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg.


*1  Harold Rosenberg, The De-Definition of Art, Horizon Press 1972, p. 55.
*2  Ina Blom writes more in-depth about this “halt” in The Name of the Game: Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Norway og Ina Blom, 2003.
*3  In the East, the threat of political prosecution was very real. During the Cold War, circulating mail art was monitored, scrutinized, censored, and sometimes the reason for imprisonment of artists. Presumably, the Stasi archives in Berlin holds the world’s most comprehensive mail art collection thereby making it the best documented art movement in the history of art (“Mail art in East Germany”, a panel discussion at Transmediale 2013.)
*4  Ina Blom, The Name of the Game: Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance, p. 12.
*5  This is the basic idea of my presentation“Mapping the Messy Archive”, at Sharing is Caring 2012.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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