"It is always easier to imitate than to be original"

Ruud Janssen interviews Vittore Baroni

TAM Mail-Interview Project


V.B.: Yes, I did participate partially in both the big "decentralized congresses" of Mail Artists (1986) and Networkers (1992). In the first case, it was mostly through mail friends who came and visited me in Forte dei Marmi, where I still lived at the time. I got really very frequent visits from mail artists throughout the 80es, not one month passed away without someone dropping in unexpected, while in the 90es visits are very few and far between (this must mean something: either people has less money and travelling has become more expensive, my image as a perfect guest has changed, we have all grown old and with family ties, "tourism" is no more that exciting, I really don't have an answer for this, maybe it is all these reasons put together). In the second case, I helped H.R. Fricker from the very start to formulate the call for the World-Wide DNC92, so I felt much more directly involved, I travelled to several Congresses in Italy and to a major one abroad, the one held at Hans-Rudi's house in the Swiss mountains. I have many great memories and sweet anecdotes about all my mail-art meetings throughout the years, and not a single bad one, so I definitely think that meeting in person after a long acquaintance through the post is a positive thing, but I would not call it a "logic step" in mail art (it's probably just an "inevitable step"): when you meet, it is no more "mail art", regardless to the fact that you do cooperate "live" on a performance or creative work or you just sip tea and chat, it's a totally different kind of experience. I think meeting mail art contacts now and then is an healthy thing to do, it helps you to put certain things in perspective and to go more in depth and into details in conversation (though, with phone before and Internet now, you can do more of this also at distance), but to meet too many people too often, unless you are unemployed and with all the time in the world in your hands, is just putting an useless stress on your already difficult daily life schedule. Also, a strange thing I noticed is that even if a meeting is very intense and positive on all accounts, usually you tend to correspond less (or even stop corresponding) with someone you have met in person. I guess it erodes the myth we all slowly build around respect and friendships "at distance", a little part of its magic is always lost in the process.

R.J.: Will this magic stay there with the new communication forms the internet brings us? On-line chatting and video-phone... Or the "anonymous" mail art by "snail-mail" shall survive this?

V.B.: Some forms of "magic" will probably disappear with the end of snail mail, in a few years or decades, like this strong romantic feeling associated with the history of love letters (letters to the loved one abroad, at war, in prison, etc.), we will miss the collections of letters by great poets, writers and artists, and so on (or we will start seeing collections of e-mail messages in print). But other forms of "magic" will be introduced by the new media, like the possibility of taking on different identities (and even change sex) in the Internet, while probably you can do the same through on-line dialogue and on video-phone: you just have to alterate your voice or do a good make up job, it is easy to fool everyone! So all in all it will not be a great loss, because it will happen very gradually, people will have time to adjust to it and come up with all sorts of new pranks and "creative" transgressions if they want to. You can remain anonymous even if you meet someone else in person, you can change your looks a bit and just insist that your name is Luther Blissett.

R.J.: You mention "Luther Blissett". I've read the article about yet another "universal" name, like I knew "Monty Cantsin" and "Karen Elliot". Isn't the repetition I see in a lot of mail art initiatives the indication that the mail art network is ready to vanish gradually?

V.B.: I haven't noticed a particularly relevant increase in "repetitiousness" in the mail art network in recent months or years: to my knowledge, it has always been there! That of mindless cloning of ideas or of repetition of cliches is maybe an unavoidable side-effect of all interesting phenomena and exciting activities, it is always easier to imitate than to be original and too many people are just plain lazy (God bless their unstressed lives!), so I guess this only helps you to select the correspondents with whom you really love to trade stuff... Regarding "multiple names", their history goes back a long way before Monty Cantsin was born in the mind of Mr. David Zack, as you can read in a chapter of Stewart Home's 1988 book Assault on Culture (that by the way I am in the process of publishing in italian for the small publishing house AAA I just founded with my ex-TRAX partner Piermario Ciani). I am involved in multiple name strategies since 1980, when I created the ubiquitous conceptual group Lieutenant Murnau: with my present band Le Forbici di Manitù I am assembling right now a retrospective CD of Lt.Murnau's seminal "plagiarist" recordings, to be released later this year on the UK label Earthly Delights. I truly believe the negation of the singular identity in favour of a shared name is a wonderful and radical development of some networking philosophies inherent to mail art (there is no single "artwork", the process or the collective project is the artwork, there is no centre, each cell is at the centre of the net, etc.). I don't believe, though, that much has been obtained by Cantsin, Eliot, Mario Rossi, Bob Jones and all the other "historical" multiple names, especially if compared with what the Luther Blissett Project has been able to accomplish in Italy in just two years. Since the beginning of 1995, for the first time the multiple name concept has really been embraced by a large number of people working secretly in several towns (there are now groups of Blissetts in Rome, Bologna, Udine, Rovigo, etc.), and it would take a whole book to report you all the media pranks that have been successfully played to the italian national TV, to big newspapers and publishers, etc. In fact, there are already three books out in Italy on the Blissett case (and a fourth one will be published in May '96 by AAA: Totò, Peppino e la Guerra Psichica), plus several magazines and pamphlets (a few things are now being translated into english in London), there are also several Luther Blissett radio shows on independent radio stations and tons of articles from the press every month. So this is not the repetition of an old concept, but rather the beautiful big flower that has finally blossomed out of all those minimal old seeds. It is growing fast, you can maybe compare it to the Church of the SubGenius for the kind of fringe people it usually attracts, but it is much more radical in ideology (all Blissett materials are no copyright and the battle against copyright is a favourite cause for Blissett, while the SubGenius is a deposited trademark!), the stated aim being to cause panic into all media, to challenge and sabotage all the centres of Power and Control everywhere. The Blissett Project goes way beyond the problems caused by an enflated ego, so often a burden in all (mail) art circles, and it goes way beyond being simply an "art project" (so maybe I should stop discussing it here!): it is cultural terrorism at work.

R.J.: This news about Luther Blissett is quite interesting for me. I thought to be quite well informed about what is going on in the network, but it seems that this Luther Blissett-idea is especially being developed in Italy, and hasn't reached the network that well yet (I only remember seeing the name on some xeroxes I got from Italy, and then there are the beautiful artistamps that Piermario Ciani designed for his Blissett-project). It seems that in the whole network, Italy takes a special place when it comes to networking within a single country. Any specific reason?

V.B.: There are two main attitudes towards this "mail art" activity as a whole: one attitude consists in escaping the prison of the closed official art system (artist-critic-dealer-gallery-museum-passive audience) just to end up building another (more satisfactory) small ghetto-utopian fairyland (the "network" seen as a circle of "friends", where everyone knows each other and what is going on: mailartists - catalogues - exhibitions - magazines - meetings - more active mailartists); the other attitude consists (and I subscribe to this one) in seeing the mail art practitioners as just a tiny fragment of a global networking phenomenon (including the small and underground press, the tape network, what happens in free BBS, in some areas of the Internet, and then again fax-zines, phone-phreeks, ect.) where no one is physically able to keep trace of every net-focussed thing that is going on in the planet, and where really anything can happen to link human consciousnesses together (without necessarily the need of an "art" tag). Italy is part of the global network just like any other geographical or linguistic area, so if a project is well developed here you can't say it "hasn't reached the network", it simply means that in the case of the Blissett project Italy has become the centre of the network (that will spread from there), just like in the case of the Decentralized WorldWide Congresses of 1992 Switzerland functioned as the originating centre of that project: it's not a dogmatic thing, the centers are always different and shifting places, each one of us is at the center of the whole network, but surely every project must have to begin somewhere... (regarding Blissett, I must point out that there are several English-speaking Luther Blissetts in UK, USA, Holland, Germany, Australia: I can provide several addresses if you want, also see the contacts list and english text found in Internet reprinted in issue 75 of Arte Postale! plus LB has written with Stewart Home the pamphlet Green Apocalypse and published another booklet in UK recently, Bob Black has written about LB in the USA, I included a text in english from John Berndt/LB in the book Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica, etc., but what is really interesting is how the Blissett project has managed to satisfactorily sabotage and infiltrate the big national media: never assume something isn't happening in the network if you do not know anything about it, I was also pleasingly shocked when I first found out about the Blissett project, just because it proved me that so much can be happening before that even a "seasoned" networker like me finds out about it...). Italy has always been at the forefront of mail art activities (just see the number of italian participants to any catalogue, compared to the size of our country!), so it comes as no surprise to me that there is also a number of projects being developed in our own tongue (there are so many more things that you can do when everybody speaks fluently the same language!), a lot of small poetry magazines for example have opened their pages to mail art since the late seventies here, and I doubt a lot of these mags have spread beyond the borders, as they were all written in italian. There are probably many reasons for this, but I guess it depends a lot on the strong background of political awareness of the average italian student, the cultural agitation of the movements of protest of 1969, 1977, and of the early 90's really left their mark on several generations of young people, who got used, among other things, to the mail art and networking ideas through several influential magazines (Amen, Decoder, Neural, Rumore - I wrote for years a "networking" column for the last two of these high circulation magazines, reaching thousands of readers - not to mention the small zines like Arte Postale!, Na, Fuck, Sorbo Rosso, Il Sorriso Verticale, Underground, etc.etc.) and books (Opposizioni 80, No Copyright, Last Trax, to name but a few). I think that besides Italy, maybe only in the USA (through the influential work of Factsheet Five, Global Mail, The Church of the SubGenius, Hakim Bey's Immediatist theories, Chuck Welch and John Held's books, etc.) the networking practice has become so widely rooted and accepted as a relevant contemporary cultural strategy belonging to everyone, and surely not limited to artistical practices. But inevitably this situation will gradually spread to larger cultural areas. Like millions of other people, I was thinking and doing "networking" for a long time before discovering about mail art, and I am & will be thinking and doing networking in and out of mail art also as I grow old.

R.J.: The expanding of the network is mentioned by other mail artists as well as an important goal in networking. Do you think that everybody can be an artist? Do you think that everybody can be a networker?

V.B.: Of course everyone can be an artist (good or bad, it does not matter), but this surely does not mean that everyone should be an artist! Luckily, we have all a different brain and a slightly different idea of what is good for us. As the old saying goes, differences are what really spice up the world. At the same time, a little bit of creativity surely makes your life more complete, just like a little bit of sport makes your body feel better. Those who never consider exploring their own creative potentials (and I don't mean they necessarily have to paint a picture, it can just be arranging the flowers in a vase, or making up a lullaby for your son, etc. etc.) surely are missing a good reason to live up to be 100 yrs old. The same applies to the fact that everybody can be a networker, with the difference that, strictly speaking, everybody already is a networker (of one sort or the other), unless he has always lived alone in a desert island with no form of communication available, not even with the birds and bees...

R.J.: Another topic that seems to be very vivid at the moment in the USA is the mail art & money issue. Lon Spiegelman introduced the sentence "money & mail art don't mix" more then a decade ago. What are your thoughts on this subject?

V.B.: I just wrote a very long and detailed letter on this subject the other day, to an American networker called Joy who gave an university lecture on Fluxus & mail art: in that occasion the issue was raised of the fact I did offer in a recent issue of Arte Postale! magazine "slices" of my archive for sale (that was my provocative solution to the "space problem" discussed earlier in this interview). I reproduce here my letter (minus some personal remarks) that I think can sum up well my own position on the money issue.

"(...) Going straight to the "money & mail art do not mix" affair, I guess every generation of networkers is confronted with this same issue and reacts more or less in the same way. I was very active myself in the late seventies, campaigning for the unwritten "golden rules" of mail art (no jury, no rejects, no prizes, no prices of admission, free catalogue to all, etc.) whenever I found someone trespassing the line of fair conduct by asking an admission fee to a mail art show or money for a mail art catalogue, etc.. At the time I even got myself into a little bit of trouble (by writing a provoking "purist" mail art leaflet in the mock-shape of a Red Brigades message...) and surely into endless postal debates, that sometimes spilled onto the pages of Umbrella and other network-related zines. What is nice but a bit boring at the same time is the fact that (misinterpretations aside, which anyway always abound!) my position was and is very much alike the one outlined in your letter, that is in turn very similar to the conclusions that any sensitive and judicious networker will get to with just a little pondering: the exchange is FREE, for each show or project (or magazine) ALL participants should receive a free copy of the documentation (surplus copies of catalogues and magazines can be sold to general public, of course, on a generally no profit basis), it is ethically very UNFAIR to sell archives (or single pieces of mail, for that matter!) you accumulated as personal gifts (though there is no law that can prevent you from doing it, if you really want), much better to donate them to interested institutions, and so on and on and on.
As I just said, this is all very reasonable and very simple to understand by everybody, but I just happen to have already lived the whole dispute a few times during my experience that spans several "generations" of networkers, so it is just getting a little more boring each time around... (I should simply reach back in my old papers and photocopy ten years old leaflets and articles, then circulate them again to show that nothing is changing - but I just don't have the time to search through my very chaotic archive... it's so much easier to think up something new!). Fact is, I don't like to play the networking game with a "boy scout attitude" - to quote an appropriate expression once used by my friend Al Ackerman- and instead of writing politically correct "netiquette" manifestos I much prefer to stimulate reactions on a given topic by playing pranks and hard-to-tell jokes (if it's too easy to spot, it is no more a good hoax), acting absurdly and (in my intention at least) "creatively". In the early eighties I devoted one whole issue of my Arte Postale! magazine to the Mail Art & Money dilemma, titled provokingly "Mail Art & Money DO Mix!" (a real coin glued to each cover) and documenting the reactions to a mail project for which I had sent several real banknotes, with amounts ranging from 1 to 50 dollars in different currencies, to contacts around the globe, with humorous requests attached like: "buy me a gift with this money or drink it to my health" or "you are a wonderful artist, keep this money as payment of the mail you just sent me" or "you are a terrible artist, keep this money but please stop mailing me stuff..."

The same "absurdist" approach I adopted recently with the text ironically titled "The big sell out" included in a micro-issue of Arte Postale! #74. I had just read news of Ray Johnson's letters starting being marketed and of people selling or venting the idea of selling their archives, so I had this very instinctive guts reaction of coming up with a paradoxical idea for "selling out" my own archive as well (the cheapo "sharepiece" concept is an obvious parody of digital shareware), just to see how NetLand would have reacted to this move. I didn't really expect many hot reactions though, there seem to be less and less people in the mail art circles who really care about these issues, and in fact until today your phone call was the only hint of somebody taking my "molest proposal" seriously: I got no reactions at all in the mail, maybe people are too shy to point out that I am doing wrong and they prefer the back-stabbing gossip-spreading technique (my shoulders and conscience are large enough to take in a lot of eventual bad vibes!), except for just one polite order in cash from a NY publisher/networker (I spent more than 50 dollars to assemble andmail his "share-piece", and he already thanked for it, I'm not sure he got the joke though). Of course, I knew very well that (almost) NOBODY would have spent 50 dollars to get a bunch of old battered letters artistically arranged by me, and even if I DID get an handful of orders, I could manufacture a few "archive share-pieces" by using some of the semi-junk mailart I receive daily and I always end up recycling into my works anyway. It should be clear to you by now that I am not an anal retentive archivist, I always loved to PlAy with the stuff I receive, I recycle most of the envelopes and useless xeroxes so I never have to buy envelopes and stationery - this saves trees, by the way - there are pieces I receive that I treasure and others that I throw away and others that I play with, I believe it is my right to do so, just as others con do what they want with what I send them.

One key concept here I think is the "no profit" bias of what you do with your mail art archive, not HOW you use it. Not all of us are collectors at heart or have the time and energy to file orderly thousands of pieces. I have often tried to print top quality issues of my zine Arte Postale! or of other networking-related projects (like the TRAX series) and I always lost A LOT of money in the process. I always mailed free (expensively by air mail) copies to ALL the participants-contributors to ALL my projects, and then I tried to sell the remaining copies to cover at least part of the printing costs, but I soon learned that people who are in the mail art network just plain don't like to buy stuff (it's totally OK for me, and that's why since 1993 my mail art zine has become smaller and with no price attached), while distribution through other underground or official channels just proved not to work at all (very few copies sold, and two distributors out or three will not bother ever paying you back, I still got credits pending all over the world...). I was never inclined nor lucky in getting funds for my projects from any kind of organization or institution, I always preferred to work independently with no pressures or hustles from anybody, this also means that when I have done a good publication or a small hand-assembled catalogue I always paid from my pocket, giving what I believe is a fair "gift" in exchange for the materials submitted to my projects. I sure wish half of the projects I enter into every year would do the same, but usually it's just a two pages xeroxed list of addresses you get, which I find most of all a very un-artistic practice. Even with just two photocopies you can do wonderful mini-books... Though I have a good "normal" job, helping out my father in his Hotel business from May to September, plus another low-income job all the year round as a professional rock journalist and freelance writer, I find more and more difficult to keep up with the cost of running a family and at the same time communicating with hundreds of friends, that's why sometimes I have to keep silent for months or why I haven't been able yet to save enough money to buy me a modem, a bigger computer, a subscription to a server and start up using E-mail, as I'm sure I will do in a not too distant future. But I assure you I never intended to become rich by selling pieces of my history, I'd rather starve or sell my record collection than part ways with letters like yours, that have touched a nerve of my being (and that's the essence of NETWORKING to me)."

R.J.: Well, maybe this interview will touch some more nerves of other networkers when it hits the network. I guess with the Summer that has already started, it is time to end the interview unless I forgot something important to ask you?

V.B.: I really enjoyed answering to your questions and I am a bit sad that this is the last one, as I am sure there are numberless things worth discussing about mail art that have been left out (memories of Cavellini, the Neoist Camps and APT fests, the TRAX saga, marriages arranged and broken through MA, etc. etc.). I believe that a project like your "mail-interviews" is very important to the spirit of mail art, exactly like the Decentralized Congresses of past years, because it activates on a (semi)public level A COLLECTIVE REFLECTION on a phenomenon that tends naturally to remain invisible and private. Yours was a very simple idea, but that will surely be fertile of positive results, and for this I must thank you enormously. As this seem to be already a very long interview, I will end up very briefly with the hope that other projects with the relevance of your "mail-interviews" will continue to appear now and then unexpectedly in the mail art net, giving back strength and voice to a warm sense of community that often seems to dissolve into "silent" and mechanical exchanges. DO KEEP IN TOUCH!


17 July 1996


Mail-artist: Vittore Baroni, NEAR THE EDGE EDITIONS,
Via C. Battisti 339, 55049 Viareggio, LU - ITALY

Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 10388, 5000 JJ Tilburg, HOLLAND