The Human Letter: Mail Art Exchanges between East Berlin and Northeast Brazil in the 1970s
During the 1970s, the artists Robert Rehfeldt and Paulo Bruscky exchanged an array of experimental works by mail between East Berlin and Recife, Brazil, respectively, meeting face to face only in 1982, when Bruscky took an eventful trip to East Berlin.1 Despite this distance, Rehfeldt and Bruscky established an enduring friendship through their exchanges, which served as proxies for the body and through which an unconventional intimacy developed. This essay explores communication over distances as an instigator of unique experiments in artistic collaboration. Examining how Bruscky and Rehfeldt exchanged ideas about printing, reproduction, and the copy as well as the nation-state, identity, and citizenship, I trace how the artists struggled to establish an intimate contact by exchanging “human letters” across borders and thousands of miles. In particular, their work highlights state restrictions on mechanical reproduction and the artist’s body, as well as both the possibility and impossibility of sending and receiving transmissions from afar. Although the artists’ attempts to connect with one another drew on many points of commonality in their methods, similar political views, and shared ideas about networked art, their correspondence equally reflects ambivalence about the ability to transcend the vast distance between them.
Mail Art and Translocality
Great emphasis has been placed on the concept of the transnational in recent years as an approach to understanding how artists articulate their experiences of space and place within a globalized artistic economy.2 The term “transnational” is an alternative for the more familiar “international” (which implies fixed notions of the nation-state), aiming to transcend interpretation based upon national boundaries. The rise of the term “transnationalism” has accompanied rapid changes in global communications, and it registers a sense that borders and boundaries no longer strictly define how communities are formed.3 While national frontiers remain strong today, the presence of virtual communities, social networks, and communication processes that extend far beyond the formulation of national identity gives the impression that space is compressed and place no longer necessarily refers to specific geographies. Greater connectivity between individuals and groups through social media and networks, advanced forms of global power structures (such as increasing multinationalism in corporations), and an increasing sense of interconnectedness contribute to the transnationalism (or globalization) of the artistic domain. The transnational, then, denotes a highly integrated sphere in which place is not only rapidly and repeatedly transcended but also constructed by multiple identities and localities.
But what of a mode of exchange that is not electronic or digital, but analog? To be in one place and at the same time somewhere else is becoming more and more familiar to contemporary experience, but before the hypernetworked real time of the Internet, how did distance play out across time? To answer this question, it is worth considering mail artworks that pre-date the Internet, thinking of them as translocal cultural phenomena. Circulating across borders, mail art can offer a closer look at the contexts its artists were working within. In the case of Rehfeldt and Bruscky, their geographic contexts were significant—East Berlin in the German Democratic Republic and Recife in Northeast Brazil—as both were affected by insidiously repressive systems of government while at the same time they worked in a non-specific place; that is, they created a new locality between themselves, a locality in a different sense of the word, one constructed by sentiment or shared interests. The backdrop of this locality was constructed by the mail art network as a whole, a community that spanned continents but constructed a virtual space for relational exchanges—as Arjun Appadurai reminds us, locality is relational, not spatial.4 Just as the group of artists affiliated with Fluxus had “something unnamable in common,”5 according to George Brecht, or constituted “a conceptual country,” per Estera Milman,6 Bruscky and Rehfeldt’s exchange relied upon a common lexicon of references and values of the mail art network. This “forum” is perhaps comparable to what we today call hyperspace in relation to the Internet. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that community relations in this virtual space were not always unproblematic or merely harmonious; for example, in response to a 1981 call for poetic responses on the theme of “revolution” from the Mexican artist group Colectivo 3, Polish artist Zbigniew Jeż sent the response: “Revolution = Rubbish! ... I shit on the revolution! ... You stupid dicks!!! ... Live at least one year in Poland or the Soviet Union, please, and then we can talk about, and make, the revolution.”7 Given such an example, Bruscky and Rehfeldt’s communication across conflicted political contexts was therefore also susceptible to potential misunderstanding or mistranslation.
Mail art demands an approach that can focus both on the particularities and specificities of its originating context as well as its parallel operation beyond and across national borders. Mail art is quite literally inscribed with translocality in that it bears markers of place (i.e., in the stamps affixed to envelopes and the addresses of sender and recipient), but it also travels—or transports—these markers from a point of origin to a different location. Thus mail art is rooted and pertinent to the local context; it responds to the specific political and social conditions of place while it also transcends those same conditions and categories. If meaning is made in a moment of exchange, where exactly does the mail artwork happen? If the work circulates internationally, can the geographical location of the artist be taken as a definitive way of interpreting their production? Mail artworks present us with an unstable, or destabilizing, understanding of space—one in which the moment of the artwork happens at various points: upon being made, upon travelling, and upon being received. Furthermore, if mail art’s flux contests fixed notions of place and refuses to be conclusively situated geographically or within art-historical categorizations, it also suggests the development of alternative approaches to thinking about art’s histories.
“CONTART”: To Touch
Known as a pioneer in visual poetry, video, sound, mail, fax, and Xerox art, Bruscky has been active in Recife, the cultural capital of the Brazilian northeastern state of Pernambuco, since 1966. Alongside the medium of mail, the photocopy also plays a strong role in Bruscky’s production; he explored the possible use of the medium for art exhaustively, calling his works “Xerox art” or “art with no original.” In the early 1970s he became deeply involved in the mail art network, corresponding with artists such as Edgardo Antonio Vigo and Horacio Zabala in Argentina; Guy Schraenen in Belgium; Diego Barbosa in Venezuela; and Robin Crozier in England. He also organized publishing projects and exhibitions. In parallel, Bruscky organized interventions and cultural events in Recife, making the city’s public spaces another arena for his work. His practice in performance and interest in the insertion of the body into public space finds expression in his mail artworks, despite the medium’s reception as a disembodied artistic practice. Recife’s art scene was conservative at the time, and although the city was the stage for a number of interventions by Bruscky and his longtime collaborator Daniel Santiago, through mail art the artist was able to find other interlocutors and like-minded collaborators further afield.
Like Bruscky, Rehfeldt used mail art as an antidote to his sense of isolation in Cold War Berlin and to make contacts internationally. According to Anne Thurmann-Jajes, the “ideological liberalization of the 1970s made it possible for artists to take part in the international mail art network and to participate in the graphic arts biennials held in Ljubljana, Cracow, and Fredrikstad.”8 As Piotr Piotrowski has observed, “in East-Central Europe mail art appears to have been much more popular than in the West because the region largely lacked other means of communication.”9 While correspondence was surveyed by government bodies, it was less easy to control than exhibitions.10 Nevertheless, Piotrowski notes, “the awareness that the police was intercepting and reading letters and postcards and copying, archiving them and using them for further infiltration sometimes caused self-censorship.”11 Unlike artists arrested by the Stasi in the early 1980s, Rehfeldt never suffered open interference from the secret police, although he suspected his mail was under surveillance.12 And, indeed, the Ministry for State Security did intercept and document Rehfeldt’s mail, photographs of which were saved in the “post-control-files.”13
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About the Author
Zanna Gilbert is a postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and is co-editor of post.at.moma.org. She completed her PhD with Tate and the University of Essex in 2012 and curated the exhibitions Felipe Ehrenberg: Works from the Tate Archive (2009); Intimate Bureaucracies: Art and the Mail (2011); Contested Games: Mexico 68’s Design Revolution (2012); a retrospective of the Brazilian artist Daniel Santiago with Cristiana Tejo (2012, 2014); It Narratives: The Movement of Art as Information with Brian Droitcour (Franklin Street Works, Stamford, 2014); Edgardo Antonio Vigo: The Unmaker of Objects with Jenny Tobias (MoMA, New York, 2014); and Home Archives with David Horvitz (Chert Berlin, 2015).