Topologie und Funktionsweise des Netzwerkes der Mail Art. Seine spezifische Bedeutung für Osteuropa von 1960 bis 1989

TitleTopologie und Funktionsweise des Netzwerkes der Mail Art. Seine spezifische Bedeutung für Osteuropa von 1960 bis 1989
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialRöder, Kornelia

book. Title translated:
The Topology and Functioning of the Network of Mail Art. Its specific Meaning for Eastern Europe, 1960 - 1989

PublisherBonn: Salon Verlag
ISSNISBN 978-3-89770-280-6
Full Text

Topologie und Funktionsweise des Netzwerkes der Mail Art sketches the founding and functioning of several Mail art networks in East Europe under Socialism, discusses their subject matter and pays attention to their international historical antecedents as well. Kornelia Röder analyzes these topics based on previous theories of networking, art and communication. Her work derives from the renowned and acclaimed traveling exhibition Mail Art – East Europe in the International Network1 of the Museum of Schwerin, and was presented as the author’s doctoral thesis to the University of Bremen, which holds a large archive of East European non-conform art, in 2006.
First, Röder introduces the basics of her analysis, such as the geopolitical definition of East Europe (in which she includes Yugoslavia, too), and explains her work’s relevance; she identifies a gap in research and her cognitive interest while also surveying the already existing literature. The fundamental elements of Constantinos A.Doxiadis’ Delos-Meetings (p.28), Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizom theories (p.31), and Manfred Faßler’s notions of social nets (p.37) constitute the author’s methodology. Yet, it is rather Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global village’ and R. Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Spaceship Earth’ that serve as the backbones of her analysis.
Outlining the historical predecessors of Mail Art constitutes the book’s strongest argument. Röder will return to the question of artistic lineage in her summary, whereby creating a cogent, enlightening and praiseworthy chronology that runs through the 20th century. The author underlines the comparability to and trend setting impact of the classic interwar period avant-gardes for the network of Mail Artists half a century later. Among these, she mentions artists’ correspondence, the elevating of rubber stamps as art and the bohemian artist communities in particular. Furthermore, she highlights the immediate precursors, e.g. Ray Johnson’s Correspondence School and Robert Filiou’s Eternal Network of the 1960s and 70s. Moreover, Röder succeeds in briefly pointing out the pace making influences of some controversial yet revered Fluxus artists like Joseph Beuys and George Brecht. Fluxus, she argues, re-defined the social role of art and artist alike (p.88), and liberated postcards, rubber and postage stamps from their marginal role in the art world (p.83). Additionally, Fluxus invented means of production, distribution and communication anew and paved the way for Mail Art.
Together with Mail Artist and fellow historian Géza Perneczky, Röder assembles a table of mail art events according to the year and place of origin, with columns devoted to the USA & Canada, Europe and Latin America (p.89). She then describes events in Northern America where Mail Art first emerged.
Only rather late (p. 117) does Röder narrow her survey to Europe. Cognizant of the network’s ability to surpass the Iron Curtain, she does not separate East from West Europe. Poland, both German states and Yugoslavia appear as the countries most active in organizing exhibitions or initiating international Mail Art projects. Röder singles out several projects in particular and presents their respective initiators, contributors, thematic focuses, duration, function, actions, etc. Members of these various networks informed each other about events, developments within the artistic community and about their societies at large. Mail Art has never been a one-way communication as it demands responses and reactions from the recipients, members and strangers alike. Characteristically, Mail Art is not restricted to a single style but welcomes diversity, and thus, implements its theoretical negation of hierarchy and authority in practice. From here, it required only a small step to link this network to civic engagement, alternative movements and oppositional organizations in the 1980s.
Chapter 5 summarizes the findings and extends the artistic and social scope of the study to online networking and the potential of art on the internet. As already noted, Röder excels at describing the lineage of Mail Art: she successfully embeds it in a larger story, relating it to its predecessors and pointing to possible successors. Topologie und Funktionsweise des Netzwerkes der Mail Art is an essential contribution to the history of alternative art and an indispensible work on Mail Art, so far a marginalized topic in German academic literature.
On the other hand, the prolix theoretical explanations probably restrict a broader reception of this intriguing book. Arguably, the academic requirements of a dissertation feature too strongly. Furthermore, the differences between Mail Art in Northern America and East Europe are insufficiently emphasized: While Mail Art on both continents created sub-cultural networks and alternatives directed against the official establishment, artists in the Eastern Bloc had to live and act in very different circumstances. Censorship and state control of the postal system would have deserved more scrutiny, while reference to American Mail Art might have been shortened, without perhaps thereby incurring major losses. In sum, Röder deserves praise for the unearthing of details, its specific insights and also her enlightening overall approach. However, concentrating more on East Europe, the actual focus, and making the consequences of academic requirements less visible would certainly widen her audience. Slightly shifting the emphasis could raise the attention that this study otherwise fully deserves.
1 Kornelia Röder contributed to the curating of the exhibition under the supervision of Prof. Kornelia von Berswoldt-Wallrabe, the museum’s director.