Fillip 20 — Fall 2015

The Human Letter: Mail Art Exchanges between East Berlin and Northeast Brazil in the 1970s
Zanna Gilbert

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

In this circuit, within the former Eastern bloc and internationally, Rehfeldt was the best known of East German mail artists, acting as a point of contact to the West. His studio became a hub where people would gather to receive news from outside the GDR and to view mail art publications Rehfeldt received through the post. Rehfeldt also distributed his own one-sheet lithographed publications, Contart and Artworker Actual News. These publications carried idealistic sounding slogans such as “HELP OVERCOME THE EGOCENTRIC PART IN ARTISTS BY COOPERATION,”14 “MAKE A CREATIVE WORLD NOW,”15 and “FOR A LIBERATED ART, FOR A HUMANE ART,”16 accompanied by ambiguous images celebrating or parodying the politics of East Germany. Rehfeldt’s slogans must have caused difficulty to those monitoring his work since they ambivalently echoed the ethics of communism. One of the postcards he sent to Bruscky, for example, contained the word “COMART,” which hardly reads as political dissent. However, the ambiguity of his messages coupled with the subversive-looking aesthetic of his work, which was not socialist realist, meant that it was impossible to be certain of his intentions.17 “CONTART,” a contraction of “contact” and “art,” was another term conceptualized by Rehfeldt, which aimed for the existence of a worldwide network of artistic solidarity and interaction. It reveals Joseph Beuys’s deep influence on Rehfeldt, particularly the idea of the creative potential of all people as he articulated in “I am searching for field character” (1973). Rehfeldt’s interest in Beuys may have extended to the notion of art as social sculpture and art as an everyday practice, which Rehfeldt participated in by creating and disseminating mailings.

Bruscky and Rehfeldt seem to have made contact initially in 1975, perhaps in relation to a call for an exhibition of works in Poland.18 The mail artworks and correspondence exchanged by the two artists were gestures of friendship as well as explorations of state surveillance and issues of artistic liberty—including the arbitrary demands the ideology of the nation-state placed on its citizens—and were furthermore a means to interchange ideas and techniques, a process Rehfeldt termed “graphic exchange.”19 There was a high degree of interaction between the two artists, allowing for an analysis of momentary synchronicities and divergences between them. Throughout their correspondence, Bruscky and Rehfeldt exchanged works containing a mass of indexical referents such as rubber stamps, photographic negatives, photographic images, fingerprints, X-rays, and other traces of the body. For example, on the surface of one envelope mailed from Bruscky to Rehfeldt can be found not only postage stamps but works in miniature, reminiscent of the reproductions found in Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–40), created from X-rays taken of Bruscky’s body, which he called his Radium Self-Portrait (1976).

These traces of the body created an animistic missive, a “human letter” that travelled as proxy for the artist, itself acting as a body, through which Rehfeldt’s CONTART could be achieved. On Kawara’s I Am Still Alive (1970–2000) and I Got Up At... (1968–79) postcards can be usefully invoked as a comparison point to Bruscky and Rehfeldt’s exchange. Kawara’s signalling of his continued quotidian existence in time hints at the possibility of the postcard as a carrier of signs of life, but his bureaucratic tone (and his use of a bureaucratic kind of index—the stamp—rather than a handwritten note) evokes the mundane and existential, rather than the immediacy of the body. In distinction, Bruscky’s mail artworks are laden with the most personal of traces, indexes that establish immediate somatic references: photographic self-portraits, sometimes on exposed negative film; X-rays and electroencephalograms of the artist’s body; and fingerprints.

Bruscky’s interest in performance can help explain the way that artists transposed their concerns with the presentness of the body through actions. His early 1980s Xeroxperformances were actions in which the artist created copies (or doubles) of parts of his body using a photocopying machine, afterward sending these copies through the mail. The Xeroxperformances were documented by photographs that depict the artist in action. The impressions of physical distortion Bruscky created by pressing his body against the photocopying machine evoke an atmosphere of claustrophobic violence—i.e., the artist’s mouth is open in a silent scream contained by the frame of the scanner bed that captures this image in a precise instant. Here, the specificity of the instant conveys the possibility of creating a moment of immediacy by attempting to reduce the distance implicit in postal communication through raising bodily awareness, as well as through highlighting the ultimate impossibility of direct contact (here underscored by the lack of sound in the scream and the sense of claustrophobia created by the trapped body). The photocopies became body doubles of the artist and travelled across distances through the mail art network, adding another performative layer to the work.

Copy Conforms to the Original

In both Brazil and East Germany, restrictions on copying were instigated as part of efforts to contain dissent. As previously discussed, the GDR maintained a strong control over all channels for artistic activity. Reproduction technology, including photocopiers, was also rigorously controlled by the Stasi in 1970s GDR. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the “graphic exchange” between the artists led Rehfeldt to emulate Bruscky’s Xerox copy aesthetic using more antiquated printing techniques such as lithography. In Brazil, the censorship was more ad hoc. Nevertheless, both artists at points struggled to gain access to printing tools due to policies of censorship. According to Bruscky, despite the prohibition of mimeographs during the 1960s, he was able to access the clandestine equipment through his involvement with the student movement.20 Similarly but more systematically denied easy access to reproduction technology, Rehfeldt employed the use of potato printing and children’s stamp kits.21 He also used Polaroid film because the instant development could not be monitored. As the Brazilian and East German governments attempted to limit communication and dissent by restricting the ability to copy, the idea of using the copy itself added an extra layer of dissent for artists. Beyond a rejection of traditional mediums, artistic use of the copy also signalled a rejection of certain values, such as the importance of the unique work of art. And, artists did not simply employ the copy—they exhaustively investigated its possibilities and limitations as a method of communication.

Rehfeldt also used the method of stereotype or cliché printing usually employed for printing newspapers at the time. Through repeated copying he was able to achieve remarkable approximations to the effects of the photocopier (he also used lithography for similar purposes). One serial self-portrait showing the artist in his studio and stamped with the slogan “ARTWORKERS UNITE” was sent by Rehfeldt to Bruscky on November 3, 1977. The images underneath the words were repeatedly copied from the same matrix until the artist’s figure became distorted and difficult to decipher. By contrast, the stamped phrase calling for the solidarity of “artworkers” stands out clearly. In a final ironic gesture, Rehfeldt stamped “Original” on the image most faded by the copying process, a reference to the rejection of unique works in mail art. As a related gesture, Bruscky also often stamped his works with the statement “Original Copy” or “Copy conforms to the original,” lending further credence to the idea that these works might be taken as metaphorical bodies. One might argue that mail art, although identified as a disembodied art practice, did not prevent mail artists from experimenting with ways of making the body the protagonist of their work. More specifically, the act of mailing operates as a symbolic emissary, travelling on behalf of or in lieu of the artist.

In Rehfeldt’s November 3 self-portrait, the distortion of the image may also be taken as the distortion of the artist’s body (i.e., the image undergoes an act of violence in its reproduction), which results in the near disappearance of the figure of the artist. While imploring artworkers to unite, the image beneath suggests that the artist is disappearing, perhaps problematizing the ease of artistic communication achieved through mail exchange. The copies achieve the distortions of a photocopy—the gradual loss of information that occurs through repeated copying thereby achieves the effect of the intangibility of Rehfeldt’s own presence while also responding and replying to Bruscky’s experiments, harnessing the innovations of the photocopier in another medium.

The themes of absence and presence through copying, photographs, and photographic negatives are repeated throughout the artists’ correspondence. In a series of playful mailings found in Rehfeldt’s archive, a collection of empty envelopes on which photocopy self-portraits of Bruscky appear on the inside flap were mailed daily to Rehfeldt over four days, August 15–19, 1975. While one-off versions of this work can be found in other archives, it seems that Bruscky especially extended the adapted project for Rehfeldt, adding the extra detail that each of the envelopes would support a progressively more faded image of himself. Mailed without any further contents, the artist’s body merges with the medium of communication, alluding to the mailed work as a metaphor for the body while also drawing attention to this corporeal intangibility through gradually distorted and faded mailings. Furthermore, during transit or receipt the body could be “damaged.” The violence that might be exerted on Bruscky’s image as a careless recipient tears open the envelope draws attention to the fragility of the body. On the other hand, both works suggest that the envelope can contain and conceal the artist, as if the practice of mail art allows an escape or flight.

The exaggerated reference to “the original” in both Bruscky’s and Rehfeldt’s works also makes a claim for the aesthetics of reproduction, in which the technique of copying, whether through the modest mediums of the Xerox or photographic print, equalizes the copy and the original. Bruscky’s 1977 work Eu Comigo (Me with myself) comprises a photograph depicting the artist alongside his photocopied body double, which he created by photocopying his body in its entirety. The photocopy is here staged as a replica of the body, indistinguishable from the referent. Cristina Freire describes how the performance was recorded as “photolanguage”—a performance carried out only for the camera—noting that the “artist photographs himself in an encounter/confrontation with the xerographic copy of his alter ego.”22 Bruscky investigates the limits of the relationship between his body and the photocopy of it, leading curator Cristiana Tejo to ask, “Should we be able to make contact with the real Paulo?”23 Tejo’s reading suggests that Bruscky’s double obscures the “real” self; however, Bruscky intends his replica to act as a substitute for him. It is a record of the “real”: the photocopied image is created through a process in which the artist’s body was impressed directly onto the copying machine. The copy conforms to the original. The notion of contact is also found elsewhere in Eu Comigo: Bruscky is not only pictured alongside the paper double, but he shakes its hand, referencing one of the rubber-stamped symbols depicting a handshake that the artist often used on his envelopes. Therefore, here he seems to be announcing the paper-Bruscky as his emissary and equal.

Deterritorialization and Anti-nationalism

While Bruscky’s performances were enacted both in public spaces and in his sent works, Rehfeldt made his performative self-portraits at home, recording them with a Polaroid camera and subsequently sharing them with his correspondents. In a series of humorous works the artist masquerades as military figures or national icons from different countries and periods. If Bruscky’s broader work indicates that his mailings to Rehfeldt were musings on the violence done to the body by technology as well as by the nation-state, Rehfeldt’s replies betray a figure much more sensitive to the problems of identity. Responding to what Benjamin Buchloh refers to as “the highly overdetermined cultural identity of postwar Germany,” Rehfeldt’s hopes for a postnational cultural identity appear to be invested in his participation in the mail art network. According to Siegfried Salzmann, mail art provided for Rehfeldt a “wide world of commonalities evolving on an international scale.”24 

Throughout his life, Rehfeldt experienced almost constantly shifting borders: he was born in Stargard, Pomerania, which was part of the German Empire, but in 1945, when Germans were expelled from the area, it became part of Poland. Rehfeldt lived through the rise and fall of the Nazis, the triumph and celebration of the Allies’ victory, and the subsequent division of Germany. In an ongoing series of self-portraits, the artist took three-quarter-length photographs of himself wearing over fifty different costumes in which he took on guises ranging from an American GI to a German National Volksarmee officer.25 Rehfeldt sent one postcard from this series to Bruscky featuring the artist wearing four different outfits, which is undated and stamped “Impress your stamp on the future.”26 In it he appears in East German army garb, as an astronaut and as a pilot, and wearing a large army coat that covers half of his face. Rehfeldt’s disguises satirize the ways in which citizens of countries are expected to change their political affiliations on demand, reflecting on the arbitrary nature of “belonging”; he ironically displays the ease with which one “disguise” can be changed for another, a reflection of the varying political climates he experienced during his lifetime. The use of Polaroid photography and photo booths, which did not need to be taken to a third party to be developed, was advantageous in a context in which the mere ownership of film was considered subversive.27

Bruscky also played with stamps and rubber stamps as markers of nationalistic icons in his mailings. He affixed “personalized” stamps depicting the interior of the artist’s body, as if to contrast the most unreachable part of a subject with the state’s all-encompassing domain. Furthermore, the low—the bodily—appears as a kind of infestation of the state’s orderly realm. At the same time, Bruscky’s stamps could also be seen to equate the violent intrusion of the state into the subject’s body, since torture and disappearances were carried out systematically in Brazil after 1968’s Institutional Act 5, which suspended habeas corpus. Certainly the ghostly X-rays Bruscky sent to Rehfeldt of his own skull on March 20, 1976, evoke this violence. The stamps’ position in the top-right corner forces a contrast between official and non-official representation of the state. Bruscky adopts yet another language of state bureaucracy on his envelopes—the rubber stamp—but employs it in repetitive overdrive, divesting it of its authority and meaning and replacing it with chaos. This compulsive stamping creates a visual effect that could be compared to the excesses of the body, such as stains, which conjures up the presence of bodily fluids, but it is also a literal index of a frenzied active body since the stamping requires physical exertion.

Rehfeldt, like Bruscky, plays with the bombastic imagery of the nation-state with intimate representations of the body. He takes up the insignia of the state military—army uniforms—to explore the implication of the personal within the public. In each of his self-portraits he adopts different expressions, at once calling into question state servants’ usual subservient anonymity and at the same time revealing the postures adopted by individuals at the behest of the nation. This operation contains an implicit critique of the kind of ordering imposed upon the populace by the state and of the contortions required by nationally inscribed identities, especially in repressive regimes that invade the private realm through their diktats on behaviour and beliefs.

The critical attitude toward these imposed communal attitudes can, on the one hand, be contrasted by both artists’ ready identification with the mail art network and attempt to promote and solid­ify it both by contributing to it and by imploring others to do so. One sheet of paper sent by Bruscky to Rehfeldt reads as an advertisement for mail art—“The Post Office has 6000 agencies for you to send Art by Correspondence”28—while Rehfeldt’s repeated imperative slogans, such as “HELP OVERCOME THE EGOCENTRIC PART IN ARTISTS BY COOPERATION,” cajole recipients to participate. This push for participation is accompanied by reflection and reciprocation of each other’s work, situation, and ideas. On January 11, 1975, in what was perhaps the first direct contact between the artists, Bruscky sent a postcard bearing the phrase, in capital letters and in English: “Art in Contact. Its [sic] Life in Art!,” mirroring exactly Rehfeldt’s own slogan. As noted above, they also communicated visually in a process Rehfeldt aptly named “graphic exchange,” with Rehfeldt emulating the Xerox effects of Bruscky’s mailings. In another example, Bruscky sent photographs of dismantled walls to Rehfeldt in the hope that Fallen Wall (1977)29 would resonate with Rehfeldt’s dreams of a postnational politics beyond the Iron Curtain. The artists’ disidentification with their national affiliations was concurrently subsumed by a strong investment in the community of mail artists reachable via the network.

Nevertheless, this communication and exchange was compromised. It is worth noting that Bruscky’s “advertisement” for “Art by Correspondence” (and the Brazilian post office) mentioned above was printed on the reverse side of an invite to contribute work to the International Exhibition of Mail Art in Recife in 1976. The exhibition was to be held in the Central Post Office of Recife. However, the exhibition was closed before the opening could take place, and the organizers (Bruscky and Daniel Santiago) were imprisoned in solitary confinement for three days. As Santiago recalls: A representative from the Federal Police (Sir Rutigliana) closed the exhibition saying that there were some mailed works that were an affront to common decency and other mailings that were criticising the government. The same representative invited me to go (“The following Monday”) to the police station, to give some clarifications.... In the same building as Recife’s main post office, where the mail art exhibition was, was an agency of the SNI (National Service of Information). When Recife’s SNI saw the mail art exhibition being closed by the Federal Police, the SNI sent a telegram to the SNI headquarters in Brasilia informing them of the closure. The SNI in Brasilia immediately sent a telegram back instructing them to “take the necessary steps.” Then there was confusion. The following day, Saturday, Paulo Bruscky was arrested; they came to my house and took me too. They also took all the mailings to the police station. They didn’t give them back to Paulo Bruscky. We were imprisoned throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday, kept in separate cells, isolated, giving successive and unabated testimonies. We were released on Tuesday.30

One of the most striking things about Santiago’s testimony, beyond the disproportionate treatment of the artists, is that the location of the exhibition in the post office was what led to the escalation. Just as the artists used the mail system as a method of efficacious information exchange, so the state apparatus based within this hub of communications was able to immediately mobilize its repressive structure from the same location.

Distance and Doubt

To return to the ideas of mail, contact, and distance: Eugenio Dittborn, an artist whose Airmail Paintings (1983–) rely upon mail transport for their meaning, has reflected on the process by which his work travels from “periphery” to “centre,” asking: What is the price we have to pay to cross this distance, to reach the other side of this fragile bridge? It is as though it might collapse under a person’s weight at any time. So, one has to jettison everything heavy: first the rucksack, then the clothing, and finally, even one’s own flesh. One has to cross the bridge stripped of everything, like a skeleton, and a skeleton is by definition a stereotype. That is the price one has to pay to cross this bridge of distance. So I would insist that distances persist, even if their location has changed. To recover one’s body, to put flesh back on the skeleton, requires a really interminable return trip.31

Dittborn’s postcolonial critique of art-world systems is a damning evaluation of the relationship between “centre” and “periphery” as the artist perceived it in the 1990s. In contrast, by focusing on dialogical relationships between individuals rather than a one-way interaction between “peripheral” artist and “mainstream” institution, mail artists felt they were able to travel on a more egalitarian basis, even within an inequitable world order. Dittborn may be right to stress that putting flesh back on the skeleton requires an interminable return trip—a trip that might correspond with the French artist Robert Filliou’s idea of an Eternal Network, a fellowship of artists participating in an ongoing festival or celebration, which resonated strongly with mail artists. In 1968, Filliou stated: The network is everlasting.... Each one of us artistically functions in the network which has replaced the notion of avant-garde. It means there is no art centre in the world now, nobody can tell us... where the place is, where we are is, where things are taking place.32

This alternative version of the trip from one place to another could be read in the enduring dialogue that is found in the correspondence between Bruscky and Rehfeldt. Notions of centre and periphery are here jettisoned in favour of translocal communication, which disrupts this tired discourse based on an understanding of one-way, rather than multidirectional, transmission. The process of communication, even if flawed, could be understood as an attempt to put the flesh back on the skeleton through sustained contact, attempts at exchange, and embracing the contradictions that this communication implies.

Art historian Ian Walker points out that the index’s physical relationship makes it a distinctive kind of sign, since the extremely close connection between the sign and the object constitute a quality of realism, which in turn achieves the effect of immediacy in an image, creating an “extra authenticity and magical charge.”33 Long-distance communication posed an intriguing contradiction for many mail artists; that is, while participation in the network usually signified a wholehearted adherence to a belief in the democratic potential of reproduction and a connected rejection of the “aura” of the artwork, artists also retained a need for the artwork’s “magical” quality, since through this immediacy they were able to figuratively “touch” the recipient. Despite the artists’ earnest attempts to close distances between themselves in time and space through communication, Bruscky and Rehfeldt also recorded the limitations of their communication across distances.

However, despite the animistic character of the mailings described above, in order to travel—to communicate—the artists’ experiences and the body itself must be codified as icons, symbols, or referents. In his text “On Communication,” Vilém Flusser notes that human communication relies “on symbols ordered into codes.” He further notes that it is “an artificial process: It relies on artistic techniques, on inventions, on tools and instruments.”34 Bruscky and Rehfeldt’s correspondence registers this doubt about the artificiality of their communication, made all the more apparent by the distance between them. The fact that the artist’s body must be reduced or essentialized in some way in order to make contact with another person provokes questions—still relevant today—about the limitations of what can travel and be translated through communications media. In this in-between sphere, the body can also be conceived as a translocal entity; what is local might be thought of as presence and the trans through degrees of absences, traces, or indexes of that presence.

Previously published as Zanna Gilbert, “Productive Distance: Paulo Bruscky and Robert Rehfeldt’s Translocal Collaborations,” OEI, no. 65 (2014).
  1. In an interview with the author (February 2010), Bruscky recounted that he spent the evening drinking with Rehfeldt, finally passing out, thereby failing to make it back to the West before the curfew. The artist reports that he was chastised by the GDR police and let go without punishment.
  2. Two recent initiatives have developed different approaches to this issue: Meeting Margins, a project undertaken by the University of Essex and the London-based Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN), focuses on ideas of transnational exchange, whereas the Red Conceptualismos del Sur (Southern Conceptualisms Network) has concentrated on the fine detail of specific local histories while at the same time trying to foster links between Latin American researchers and artists and revive the political potential of conceptual practices in the present moment.
  3. TrAIN defines “transnationalism” in the following statement: In an increasingly complex period of globalisation, established certainties about the nature of culture, tradition and authenticity are being constantly questioned. The movement of peoples and artefacts is breaking down borders and producing new identities outside and beyond those of the nation state. It is no longer easy to define the nature of the local and the international, and many cultural interactions now operate on the level of the transnational. “About,” TrAIN, accessed December 10, 2014,
  4. See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Appadurai defines “locality” as “a variable quality constituted by a sense of social immediacy, technologies of interaction, and the relativity of contexts, with the maintenance of its materiality or place-ness requiring ongoing work.” Arjun Appadurai, “The Production of Locality,” in Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, ed. R. Fardon (London: Routledge, 1995), 204.
  5. In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods; individuals with something unnameable in common have simply naturally coalesced to publish and perform their work. Perhaps this common something is a feeling that the bounds of art are much wider than they have conventionally seemed, or that art and certain long-established bounds are no longer very useful. At any rate, individuals in Europe, the US, and Japan have discovered each other’s work and found it nourishing (or something) and have grown objects and events which are original, and often uncategorizable, in a strange new way. George Brecht, “Something about Fluxus,” Fluxus Newspaper, no. 4 (June 1964).
  6. Estera Milman, ed., “Fluxus: A Conceptual Country,” special issue, Visible Language 26, nos. 1 and 2 (Winter/Spring 1992).
  7. Magdalena Moskalewicz (December 16, 2013), comment on “Poema Colectivo Revolución & the International Mail Art Network,” Post: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art around the Globe, December 12, 2013, She further comments: the term “revolution” was at the time completely appropriated by the communist revolution, and to many did not mean anything else than a hollow ideological cover for the totalitarian measures pursued by the supposedly democratic-socialist government. To a Polish artist active in the early 1980s, who had probably spent most of his adult life in the USSR-dependent People’s Republic of Poland, the very idea of making art on the topic of revolution must have sounded ridiculously outrageous. There, art about revolution denoted the props and decorations produced for all the farcical anniversary galas regularly held at offices and schools, and official state-organized street manifestations, that all citizens were forced to participate in, where the slogans of the communist revolution were continuously repeated, but devoid of meaning. Other than, in fact, being the signifiers of oppression. This was the appropriated and bureaucratized “revolution” that the majority of the Polish art world wanted to keep away from since the break from the socialist realism in the mid-1950s.
  8. Anne Thurmann-Jajes, “Playing with the System: Artistic Strateges in the GDR from 1970 to 1990,” in Subversive Practices: Art under the Conditions of Political Repression/60s–80s/South America-Europe, ed. Iris Dressler et al. (Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 512.
  9. Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989 (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 268.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid, 269.
  12. Cordelia Marten reports that most of Rehfeldt’s letters were intercepted, opened, photographed, documented and saved in the folders of the so called “post-control-files.” In the GDR, more than 90.000 private letters were read secretly every day. After German Re-Union, many Mail-Artists took the opportunity to inspect their Stasi files. They noticed that many addresses on foreign letters had been ripped off the envelopes and were preserved while the rest of it was destroyed. Thus, the Stasi’s postal system can be accused of demolishing art works deliberately. Cordelia Marten, “Conceptual Art in East Germany: Robert Rehfeldt and His Network of Artists,” Vivid [Radical] Memory, September 2007,, 9.
  13. In other cases, the Stasi not only faked envelopes by means of purpose-made postal and rubber stamps, but wrote letters to play people off against each other. For instance, Leonardo Duch received a letter from Robert Rehfeldt with an attached flag of the GDR, which caused Duch lots of trouble with the Brazilian military police. When Duch asked Rehfeldt not to put any propaganda material in his letters anymore, it emerged that he never put the flag inside the envelope. Ibid., 10.
  14. Robert Rehfeldt, ARTWORKER ACTUAL NEWS (1977).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Robert Rehfeldt, ART IN CONTACT (1978).
  17. Piotrowski notes: Eugen Blume observed that the East German STASI studied communiqués sent out by Robert Rehfeldt, with great scrupulousness and seriousness. Rehfeldt, playing with those hidden readers, would write on his stamped cards: “do not think about me,” “I thought about something that you completely did not think about when I was thinking about it,” “I am sending you an idea—please keep thinking.” Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta, 269.
  18. A postcard from Rehfeldt found in Bruscky’s archive points out Bruscky’s work on display in the exhibition. It is unclear whether Rehfeldt sent the postcard to register his admiration or to show Bruscky that he had seen it. If the former, this could have been the first correspondence between the two artists.
  19. Anne Thurmann-Jajes, “Robert Rehfeldt and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt: Their GDR-Based International Network,” Setup4, April 2013,
  20. Cristina Freire and Ana Longoni, eds., Conceitualismos do Sul (São Paulo: Annablume, 2009), 78.
  21. Marten, “Conceptual Art in East Germany,” 10.
  22. Cristina Freire, Paulo Bruscky: Arte, Arquivo e Utopia (Recife: Companhia Editora de Pernambuco, 2006), 242.
  23. Cristiana Tejo, Paulo Bruscky: Arte em Todos os Sentidos (Recife: Editora de Pernambuco, 2009), 137. My translation.
  24. Siegfried Salzmann, quoted in Thurmann-Jajes, “Robert Rehfeldt and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt.”
  25. Marten argues that Rehfeldt’s interest in playing with disguises arose from the political climate of Nazi Germany in which he grew up as well as the subsequent political changes he lived through. In 1945, for example, at the age of fourteen, he was obliged to join the mountain infantry, but was apparently pleased when the US helped bring an end to the war. Marten maintains that despite being an “avowed socialist” he was also an admirer of the US and a collector of American steel helmets. She further relays that, in 1982, Rehfeldt was permitted to visit his mother in Hamburg for the first time. Also, he wanted to seize the opportunity to attend the Documenta 7 in Kassel. Unfortunately, at that time, he physically resembled a member of the RAF (Red Army Faction). When Rehfeldt arrived at the station, the whole area was blocked and crowded with policemen who arrested him immediately. Marten, “Conceptual Art in East Germany,” 5 and 10.
  26. In the original German: “Drücke der Zukunft deinen stempl auf.”
  27. In the GDR the medium of film in particular was considered to harbour potential as a subversive medium that might well be successful in spreading criticism of the state in unforeseen dimensions. Artists frequently developed their films themselves in order to avoid detection by the Ministry for State Security at the DEFA film laboratory in the Johannisthal district of Berlin. Thurmann-Jajes, “Playing with the System,” 514.
  28. In the original Portuguese: “Os Correios tem 6000 agencias para você mandar Arte por Correspondencia.” Printed on the reverse of an invitation to send work to the International Exhibition of Mail Art held in 1976. Robert Rehfeldt archive.
  29. The work is inscribed “O Muro Caído” on the back. Robert Rehfeldt archive.
  30. Daniel Santiago, e-mail to the author, August 26, 2012. My translation.
  31. Eugenio Dittborn, Mapa: Airmail Paintings/Pintura Aeropostales, 1984–1992, exhibition catalogue (London: ICA, 1993), 16.
  32. Robert Filliou, “Robert Filliou Defines the Eternal Network,” YouTube video, 3:07, posted by Clive Robertson, January 16, 2013,
  33. Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surreal Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 12.
  34. Andreas Ströhl, ed., Vilém Flusser: Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 3.
About the Author

Zanna Gilbert is a postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and is co-editor of 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).

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