EROTIC MAIL ART COLLAGES
FROM THE 1970'S
TO _____________ WITH LOVE
Genesis P-Orridge Remembers Erotic Mailart by BENGALA
There was a time in the not so distant past when men and women sent postcards, or even letters to one another, and often this exchange of images and words was illicit in nature. Both love notes and erotic postcards have rich historical pasts. Even today, walking down the street in any major city (especially those situated near a body of water), one undoubtedly comes across a variety of spicy postcards. Bountiful breasts straining against an "I Love New York" T-shirt, sand-covered Floridian asses all in a row, inebriated flashers lost in the over-stimulation of Mardi Gras. Sex to send still runs rampant.
Of course the Internet has done much to kill the exchange of paper and pen, envelope and stamp. Computers have become as accessible as books, if not in every home. Even travelers have no trouble staying connected to their long-distance paramours. Many upper end hotels now offer web access, and e-mail has become the rule in nearly every exchange. The chat room is the new realm of sex if not romance, immediate, vital. More often than not the mailbox is left holding only bills and unwanted offers for credit cards and savings at the local K-Mart.
Another aspect of postal personality left by the cyberdelic wayside is that of mailart. Though it still exists, this inspired trend peaked in the 1970s, as a celebration of correspondence as community, of visual puns and formalist exercises in rubber stamp, of the crossing of borders without the strain of commercial intentions. It was art for an audience of one, a package both personal and unpredictable, yet populist by nature. Mailart contained no curator. Even during the height of the movement's popularity, mailart galleries had an all-inclusive policy. Famous artists such as Ray Johnson and Ken Friedman of Fluxus were shown alongside obscure sendings from joe schmoe. Mailart wasn't even about being an artist, stressing instead creative communication. Judgement was withheld. The same held true for the staple publications, Vancouver's FILE (published by the art collective General Idea) and then later VILE from San Francisco. All things sent were printed.
It was this open-door policy that also allowed censorship no play within the mailart scene. Yet government agencies were crucial to the postal process. The mailman played the crucial third in our correspondents' tryst, the ballast without which the transfer of image or info would prove impossible. And while political powers came into play in some Third World packages, indecency, especially in the case of the postcard, lay with the postman to judge.
Genesis P-Orridge, founding member of COUM, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and countless other art/sound/culture projects experienced these bureaucratic prejudices firsthand. While his work both within and without the postal medium always dealt with erotic material, in the mid-Seventies he'd been combining images of pornography and royalty in his queen postcard series.
"I don't know when I decided to use the queen postcards with [images from porn magazines]. It was very early on. I think it was probably such a ridiculous level of kitsch and the national sense of taboo. Even in the Sixties, criticizing or manipulating respectful royal families was just ludicrous to me. It just fell naturally into place that the two things should go together. I had grown up liking the idea of Dada and Surrealism. I think it was just completely instinctive, just walking along the street in London and seeing queen postcards! I could see the altered versions even before I could pick them up. And it's historically much more accurate to reveal and illustrate the decadence and hedonism and corruption that's always been hand in hand in royal families of Great Britain. And that's not in any way a moral criticism or judgement. I just think it's far more exciting and interesting to actually reveal and illustrate more of the story instead of these completely trite and inaccurate representations. So that was there. And fun. Always the element of fun."
The English authorities found this artist's work problematic, though this was during what some would consider they summit of mailart's popularity. Rolling Stone Magazine had included a two-part article on mailart in 1972, which was soon followed by a cover article on Art in America. Still, the increasing roster of participants did not stop the British government from charging P-Orridge with indecency. In late 1975, he was summoned to appear before the courts. His queen postcards had been noticed.
"They couldn't prosecute me as being obscene because then I would have had a jury trial. At that time in Britain, jury trials on any thing obscene had failed. The public had become more liberal with that type of imagery. So they charged me with indecent mail, and the idea of indecent mail is that if one person anywhere complains that they are offended by what they have seen, it's indecent. One of the people working in the mail sorting office had seen one of my postcards and was offended. Therefor I was guilty. At the trial when he stood up and swore on the Bible and all that stuff. The court asked, "So were you offended by these postcards?" He answered, "No, but I thought somebody might be." And that is what I was prosecuted on. It was an indefensible thing. Then they admitted that they were opening my mail without a warrant."
Fortunately, much of the art community came to his aid and the charges were dismissed. P-Orridge lent to the absurdity of the proceedings by sending invitations to the event to other mailartists, music magazines such as Melody Maker and N.M.E., and even Charles Manson. But this was not to be the last time mailart would cause trouble. P-Orridge continued to work with sex and death as subject material.
"I used to send a lot of things that included maggots, used tampons and pieces of dead animals along erotic images for a while. I sent one to Monte [Cazazza, American artist and musician] and he had gone away somewhere for a couple of weeks. So [the package] started to rot and stink at the post office. And when he finally came back he went to get his mail and was asked, "Do you know someone named Genesis P-Orridge?" "Yes." "Right well, we have a real problem here. Do you know what's going on?" Then they brought this stinking thing out. "What kind of person would send this to someone in the mail?" Monte said, "My friend."
This incident led P-Orridge to have a rubber stamp made bearing the statement, "Unsolicited Pornography" so that his correspondents would not get in trouble for his mailings. Sexual material was the exception rather than the rule in mailart. Looking through the Image Request Lists of old FILE Magazines, this is evident.
"FILE was a spoof on LIFE Magazine. Originally they used to have a yellow pages. It was called the Image Bank Request List and it was just yellow newsprint in the middle of the magazine. It was literally hundreds of names and addresses and you would put what it was you wanted to collect, what images you wanted people to send to you. There weren't categories. You could say anything. You just had your name and address and then typed up to twenty words. So people might say just wanted pictures of dogs. This woman called herself Irene Dog. Anna Banana wanted anything to do with bananas. William Burroughs was in it and he wrote "Camouflage for 1984".
"I used to just go through it and pick out mainly people who were mentioning things that had some kind of erotic or sexual connotations. It was actually very few, surprisingly few. There was a certain coyness to the whole thing, and quite a lot of post art college cleverness, which really wasn't very interesting to me. I was crusading right from the beginning with COUM with the idea that street culture and popular culture should be raised up to the level of or treated as fine art and fine art should be reduced to the level of popular culture. It was one of my basic ideas from the very beginning to use the tools that were already lying around in the street: graffiti, postcards, magazines, pubs, pavement, the park, anything like that. I was aware of the idea, originally, of postcards, flyers, rubber stamps, and so on being a quick way to contact people and generate curiosity or manipulate curiosity. It's always good to take something that exists and then corrupt it rather than trying to erase it with something else. I was aware very early on that stickers, magazines, flyers, posters had far more impact than people gave them credit for in terms of people assuming a) that they knew what it was or b) that it must be to some extent well organized and well financed otherwise it wouldn't be so public. You could give the effect of being many people when you're only one. You could also develop a retroactive link with people you haven't met. Put stuff out there so they could contact you. I only used [porn] magazines I could buy at newsagents: ones easily available. Only things you could buy on the street.
"And then it became even more simple because Cosi [Fanni Tutti, member of COUM and Throbbing Gristle] started modeling for porno magazines and what were then known as glamour magazines, which meant they had no erections. It was simulated. I decided to archive them whenever I could. I would always buy three copies so that I had the fronts and the backs if I wanted to frame them, and one extra to play with for collages. But I still had all the extras from the other two as well. So it was opportunist or pragmatic. There was all this stuff piling up in my collage room and I was compulsively buying queen postcards and the two just went together. That was the raw material that I had at hand. And I always thought that one should improvise with that which was at hand."
P-Orridge is also an avid believer in Brion Gysin's theory of the cut-up, where the true meaning of things is only revealed when disassembled and re-assembled. The collage technique found throughout his postcards and correspondence art in general cannot help but fall in this category. However, this theory applied to sexual content adds yet another possibility:
"The exploration of the erotic in a different medium. I didn't think the magazines were particularly erotic or sexy in themselves. They were very formulized. I was curious about what happened when you took one thing out of that context and placed it in a completely inappropriate one. Does it become more interesting? Does it regenerate its erotic quality? The naked body or sexual activity in an unexpected location or background without the usual context in terms of how things evolve. Would that surprise? Is that unexpected quality really the essence of what makes sex exciting?
"The actually grinding and wriggling around of naked bodies is ungainly and ludicrous more often than not. There are exceptions of to that. I would argue that if you could spend a great deal of time and beautiful lighting and ended up taking pictures where you couldn't see the penetration, so that what you didn't see were the ridiculous parts. What you are left with is this amazing smooth sculptural landscape in which you know the fucking is happening. That's the way that it becomes really beautiful. When it's abstracted by one. But once you make it purely graphic, the odds are high that it becomes ludicrous and far more animalistic as well,"
P-Orridge sees his work, as well as most of the more interesting work of the 20th Century, as deeply indebted to the cut-up technique.
"My belief is that the artist is really the explorer on behalf of the rest of society and the species that the job of the artist is to go to the moon first, so to speak, or to climb the mountain first, or to go to the bottom of the sea to see what's there. That's the job of the artist or the poet: to find out what's coming next, what it's made of and what it might mean. And the actual art itself is just metaphors aimed at describing the research and the discoveries that we've made. That's why I call it cultural engineering."
And how does this apply to the sexuality aspect?
"I think we're going through a huge change in terms of sexuality. People are misunderstanding what is happening now that we have the world wide web and probably more so-called pornography available and live sex and sexual images and images of desire and even cameras inside dildos. I think that this actually is the last throes of a misconception of what sexuality actually is, and, in fact, a desperate attempt by a lot of people who have been mislead about the nature of sexuality to convince themselves that the material is actually reality. That if you see enough cocks and you see enough cunts then that must mean it's sexy. You see more people doing more things and somehow that maintains the status quo, the old way of looking at the world and looking at the body, but like all revolutionary changes they happen regardless of what the previous generation wanted. So I see that all as a Nietszche death throe of the old way of seeing sex. And similarly with the magazines. More graphic and more color and more variety does not new information make. It 's the classic problem of consumers, which is addiction. Addiction in and of itself is meant to never satisfy. That's the whole point. People don't get something twice if they are satisfied the first time. So the whole premise of pornography and society's projection of sexuality is that it has to be false in order for people to keep coming back. So the whole image and the precept is to trick people into being forever dissatisfied and incapable of satiation.
"My proposition would be on several levels. First, the real purpose of sex is to believe in the possibility of union with the divine. That it's a magickal and spiritual metaphysical act. In a sense it's poetry. Poetry is about leapfrogging consensus reality to some more incredible place where the world is revitalized and the vision is renewed. It's very sad that people don't get taught at school concepts of sexual magic and guided orgasm and plateaus and techniques and concepts of looking and being and behaviors that are about being something more than human.
By re-posturing these images within mailart or other mediums, the artist is in effect bringing the mind back into the erotic process.
"Re-activating the mind and re-activating the whole concept of sexuality and sex and sex acts and the body and de-mystifying it and at the same time enhancing it in a metaphysical way. All are small messages, small pieces of propaganda that in and of themselves I see as triggers and I call the whole process "Thee Seeding Ship." I think that's how culture works, and I think that's how culture gets changed, too. So while I'm happy to be seen as silly and fun, I also believe that there's an innate invisible impact that enables one to become actively involved with the direction that culture moves. And I would argue that the fact that I was suppressed and so attacked vehemently so many times purely because I chose to work with sexuality and erotic images all the way through all the things that I've done would suggest that the authorities actually know about it. And that's why they control and manipulate and inhibit people's sexual expressions Because they are very very aware of the hidden power of the knowing use of the potential of sexuality. And one of the greatest services we could do for mankind would be to push them towards a place where they had a candid spiritual respect for the incredible potential and power of sexuality. It's very possible that the entire universe is breathing in a sexual way."
These images are from Genesis P-Orridge's various correspondents who dealt with sexual material, as well as his own. His new work, a collaboration with Eric Heist entitled the Candy Factory, will be shown in February at Team Gallery in New York. For more information, check out: http://www.genesisp-orridge.com/