Texts for Manual MACBA – Archive / Mail Art / Unlimited Edition
Texts for Book Manual, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2021
The Manual is a tool that gives visitors insights into the museum from a number of perspectives. It aims to provide keys that make it possible to understand the issues the MACBA talks about and the aspects that define it, thereby ensuring it is accessible to everyone.
The publication includes a selection of important works by 120 artists in the MACBA Collection, as well as a compendium of 52 concepts crucial to understanding the narratives that shape the museum. As a result, the works and concepts comprehensively articulate the various lines of thinking present in the museum.
This is a collective endeavour in which 51 authors have participated, 39 of them members of the museum’s staff, while the rest are regular collaborators.
It is difficult to determine at what point the art world, seized by archive fever, began to question archival practices and to use the archive as material for creation. Many of the numerous attempts to establish a genealogy between art and the archive cite the exhibition Deep Storage, which toured various European and United States cities in 1998, as a symptom of the proliferation of artistic practices that took the archive as a theme. Likewise, the article ‘An Archival Impulse’ (2004) by critic and historian Hal Foster is often mentioned as an indication of the unstoppable growing interest in exploring the relationship between art and the archive. The term ‘archive’, however, had long since been integrated into the discourse of contemporary art.
In the late sixties and early seventies, with the emergence of what has come to be labelled as Conceptual Art, artistic practices not intended to produce objects began to develop. Art as an idea, as an action, as a process, was inextricably linked to the more or less intentional production of documentary records, the natural home of which is the archive. All of these artistic expressions generated by the archival impulse, and reflections on them, are heirs to positions exercised during the period of the early avant-garde movements and recognisable in the work of creators and thinkers such as Eugène Atget, Marcel Duchamp and Aby Warburg. Associated with these practices and their gradual incorporation into the institution, a series of problems appeared to challenge the delicate, slippery distinction between work and document, and to raise questions about the limits of the artistic object and the role of the museum institution and the art market in relation to these limits.
Apart from possible genealogies, attention to the archive in the artistic context was also conditioned by the questioning of the very notion of institutional archives as authority and by criticism of the function they exercised during colonial processes. New archival models emerged from this crisis: the so-called dissident or community archives, or anarchives, which collect, preserve and disseminate memories not represented by mainstream power structures, and highlight the active role of the archive in relation to social and cultural emancipation movements.
Furthermore, the great influence that interpretations of archives by thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben and Boris Groys have had on the latest generations of artists, curators and researchers demonstrates the relevance of the archive in the field of art.The activation of archive contents by means of exhibitions, the appropriation of archive aesthetics, the investigation of archive documents as a starting point for artistic creation, the incorporation by artists of archival practices, the use of the archive as a metaphor and the consideration of the archive as an artwork all point to the multifaceted relationship of documentary and archival heritage with artistic practices, and to the importance of this cultural construct in contemporary society.
The term ‘mail art’ refers to a whole series of artistic practices of an investigative nature that make experimental use of correspondence, the formal conventions of the mail and its distribution system. Some artistic movements from the beginning of the last century, such as Surrealism, Dada and Futurism, used the postal system for artistic purposes, and there were also forays into the epistolary genre by creators such as Joseph Beuys, Kurt Schwitters and the Nouveau Réalisme artists in France. Nevertheless, it was at the end of the sixties, in the context of Conceptual Art and in relation to Fluxus and experimental poetry, that exploration of the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of these creations conceived as exchanges with no economic value between artists was taken to its extremes. The creation in 1962 of the New York Correspondence School by Ray Johnson, a collagist related to neo-Dadaism and early Pop Art, is considered seminal in the establishment of mail art, making Johnson a pioneer of the movement.
The use of envelopes, postcards, letters and stamps as creative supports, appropriating the language and aesthetics of the official mail service, was enriched by photocopies, engravings, stickers and collages in a mixture of official and artistic information that generated an alternative form of stamp collecting among its followers, mostly active participants in the network. A decentralised community of artists self-managed for artists sprang up around mail art, a collaborative network of international connections by means of mailing lists in keeping with the philosophy of bartering and of communication outside the institutional circuits. Collective projects were announced, in which a topic was suggested with the aim of making compilations that took the form of exhibitions and publications in which all the proposals received were included without prior selection, thereby questioning the dynamics of galleries and museums. In edited zines, magazines and catalogues it was common to find directories with the postal data of all the participants, each of whom received a copy of the publication, in order to facilitate the continuity of exchange and the life of the network.
The divergence from institutional logics together with the domestic nature of mail art, which did not require major investment, as well as the opportunity it offered to circumvent censorship, favoured its consolidation on the fringes in countries such as Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Canada, Switzerland, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Argentina and Brazil, particularly in contexts subject to repressive political regimes, where it was used to disseminate critical thinking. In Latin America, artists such as Horacio Zabala, Edgardo Antonio Vigo and Paulo Bruscky, and curators like Walter Zanini, gave mail art an identity of its own, combining formal experimentation and activism. Artists such as the Canadian Anna Banana, the German Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and the Russian Ry Nikonova concentrated much of their practice around mail art from the early seventies onwards, and any reference to mail art in Spain necessarily includes the work of the Zaj group and the exhibition Black on White, held in 1978 in Segovia and promoted by Atelier Bonanova.
Although it is difficult to proclaim the end of mail art or to affirm its continuing existence, since it is not strictly speaking an artistic movement, these practices, between the absurd, amateurism and activism, have had an evident influence on a number of contemporary disciplines and their way of seeing creation outside the establishment.
The process of the resignification of the artwork and of the aesthetic experience that occurred in the context of the artistic avant-gardes was largely prompted by the questioning of the uniqueness and originality of the work of art as essential conditions of its existence. Walter Benjamin reflected extensively on this transformation of the concept of art brought about by depriving the artwork of its singularity in the context of industrialisation, with the introduction of photography and cinema and their unlimited capacity for reproduction. The loss of the auratic value of the work and its detachment from tradition collided with the commercialisation of art and the bourgeoisie supporting this market, even as the ability to disseminate images was conceived as a weapon for social revolution against capitalism.
Mass-produced art emerged in this context, taking advantage of the replicating capacity of different techniques to make identical copies. The creation of multiples in limited, numbered and signed editions has become a common practice motivated by the desire to democratise art. However, a number of creators have used their practices to take these issues to the limit, generating open, unlimited editions as a form of institutional criticism that questions the concepts of authenticity and authorship, and proclaims the emancipation of the artwork.
The German artist Charlotte Posenenske, who worked in the sixties, was influenced by Constructivism and developed series during the principal part of her career consisting of geometrically simple sculptural modules that could be made industrially in unlimited numbers, establishing a system of an architectural nature of infinite combinations adapted to suit the space. Posenenske’s open, replicable model illustrated her radical way of understanding both artistic production and authorship; she sold her works for the cost of their industrial fabrication and gave the public the function of installing the pieces in the space. The elitist status of the work of art was thereby questioned, along with the notions of originality, exclusivity, financial value and authenticity.
Continuing with this genre of works whose price was set strictly according to the cost of producing them outside the boundaries of art, mention must be made of the work of the Spanish artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, noted for his active criticism of the commercialisation of art. In 2007, the artist was invited to create a work for the MACBA Collection, and he responded to the commission with a work that could not be collected, by painting a wall white using a small brush. The price of the work was equivalent to what a house painter would have charged for doing the same job. In 2012, Valcárcel Medina published ilimit, an artist’s book in which he explored the concepts of unlimited and limited in relation to the production of editions in series.
The Argentine artist León Ferrari, known for his rebellious nature and his outspoken criticism of war and the Catholic religion, worked with mechanical techniques to reproduce architectural plans, creating unlimited series of no commercial value that he later sent out by mail. This was yet another example of the use of endless mass production with the critical intention of challenging the value of the artistic object, the attribution of cultural value and meaning to the work by the historical context, and the very idea of authorship.