"Debris from the Cultural Underground"

By Allen, Gwen | Artforum International, January 2011 | Go to article overview

"Debris from the Cultural Underground"


Allen, Gwen, Artforum International


EVER GOLD GALLERY

This past summer Levi Strauss & Co. launched an experiential advertising campaign known as the Levi's Workshop in a storefront on San Francisco's Valencia Street. Declaring "We Are All Workers," the popup offered free public printmaking equipment and workshops in a hypercurated "raw" space where publishing zines became as banal as buying jeans (which one could also do there). In light of this attempt to marry the DIY producer to the sovereign consumer, "Debris from the Cultural Underground" at Ever Gold was a timely reminder of the radical possibilities of self-publishing and alternative distribution as these forms emerged during the international mail art movement of the 1960s and '70s. Drawn from the collection of mail-art enthusiast and participant John Held Jr. (who altered his name and added the suffix in homage to the late cartoonist), the show comprised nearly one hundred posters, exhibition announcements, postcards, collages, letters, artists' postage stamps, photographs, and publications. Variously hung in cheap mismatched frames or piled unceremoniously in vitrines, the spread of materials gave a chaotic, somewhat slapdash impression that captured mail art's irreverent, anti-institutional aims.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Though marginalized in most art-historical accounts, mail art overlapped with Fluxus and Conceptual art and arguably came the closest to literalizing the participatory, egalitarian ideals of these movements by encouraging "practicing non-artists" to create and disseminate their work in the form of pen pal- and chain letter-like exchanges, photocopied mass mailings, and artists' stamps. Mail art was also distributed through samizdat publications known as assemblings, such as Vittore Baroni's Arte Postale! 89, 2007, included here, that were governed by open submission policies and circulated mainly among contributors. Rejecting class-based definitions of art, along with attendant notions of skill and quality, mail art can appear naive and disposable; even its most dedicated practitioners complained of the proliferation of "quick-kopy krap" and "junk mail." However, the crudely collaged and rubber-stamped surfaces of mail-art ephemera, scrawled with stream-of-consciousness poetry and puns, represented a serious attempt to detourne both the visual forms and the socioeconomic structure of mainstream communication media. …

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