Art In Conversation
MARK BLOCH with Megan N. Liberty
“I guess I've always had a bit of the archivist in me.”
New York CityFales Library
March 26 – June 30, 2020
For over four decades, artist and writer Mark Bloch has been fastidiously building his archive of mail art, a practice he began in the late ’70s under the banner of the Postal Art Network—giving him his artistic pseudonym PAN. Bloch’s archive documents the early years of mail art, including communications with some of the network’s superstars like Ray Johnson and the Fluxus artists, in addition to being an invaluable record of the events and exhibitions concurrent with this otherwise ephemeral activity. Spanning 1978–2013, this collection of what Bloch calls more broadly “communication art” fills 56 boxes at New York University’s Fales Library. To celebrate this legacy and document this important and still under-recognized moment, Bloch curated “Panmodern!” at New York University’s Fales Library. Including eight vitrines and a standing case, the exhibition is just a sample of this rich and layered history, with sections devoted to rubber stamps, the New York Correspondence School, zines and xeroxing, Neoism, and influential figures such as Buster Cleveland, Bill Gaglione, and of course Johnson. On the occasion of this exhibition, and Bloch’s return to his own archive after making his initial donation in 2005, Megan N. Liberty spoke with him about the history of mail art and its (and his own) connection to performance art, experimental rock music, the early days of the internet, and his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
Megan N. Liberty (Rail): You’ve made performance art, graphic design, mail art, internet art, and even published experimental fiction. Could you tell me about your early work and this multidisciplinary approach?
Mark Bloch: I guess it starts when I was a kid. I loved The Beatles, and then when John Lennon and Yoko Ono got together I was intrigued by this idea of her being an avant garde artist, but I had no idea of what an avant garde artist was. I had been exposed to a little bit of Frank Zappa, and I liked a bunch of musicians from Canterbury, England, this guy Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine were a big influence. My dad owned a bar in Akron, Ohio and they used to give him free records since he had a jukebox. When my dad would bring home those records he didn’t know what he was doing, he would just give them to me. He gave me a Fugs record, and it was amazing but I didn’t understand what it was all about. Looking back on it now I can see all these avant garde pockets that were trying to reach me somehow.
Rail: Even your introduction to this work was through an activity of exchange: people would give your dad these records and in turn he would pass them on to you. There was this movement of objects from one to another in the same way.
Bloch: That’s true. I never thought of that. It’s so subversive because my dad was like a Goldwater Republican, y’know. [Laughter] And The Fugs made all these underground records. When I went to Kent State, I studied painting and drawing and I felt frustrated but I didn’t really know why. I can say all this in retrospect about Soft Machine, Yoko Ono, and The Fugs but, when I was at Kent State I just knew that there was something more to life than what I was experiencing in these painting and drawing classes. Then Joan Jonas came as a visiting artist in 1977—and also Lynda Benglis, but I didn’t really interact with her too much—Joan was my teacher for a drawing class, I think. She just talked about performance art and what was going on in New York at the Kitchen and Franklin Furnace. I realized there was this whole other world. I did some research and found out about Nam June Paik and video art. I switched out of art and became a broadcasting major. It sounds normal now, but back in ’77 a major in broadcasting wasn’t normal, especially for art purposes.
I should say that Kent State—even though I felt like a country bumpkin, or I should say a suburban bumpkin—was a pretty cool school in the sense that they had invited Robert Smithson to come there in 1970 (before the Kent State shootings) and that had a big influence on Mark Mothersbaugh, who was later in the band Devo, which was another influence on me. I recently wrote an article about Mothersbaugh so I could meet him when he had a big show at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU. We got to talk about the things that influenced him, including Ghoulardi, who was the fictional host of a late night movie show on a local Cleveland TV station played by Ernie Anderson. He was this beatnik counter cultural guy who spoke in weird lingo and all the kids in Northeast Ohio loved him. There's this undercurrent of strangeness in that part of the country, and I feel like that washed over me. In 1978, I had another teacher besides Joan Jonas, Takahiko Iimura, a Japanese kind of Fluxus guy who did really meta performances with video. He would show an image of a monitor saying, “This is a monitor,” and he would turn off the monitor on the TV. I saw him do this live, where he says, “This is a monitor.” I got it without really understanding why or how. When I met Joan Jonas and Takahiko Iimura, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.
Rail: You actually did a talk show style performance with Joan Jonas, The Cryptic Pyramid Show.
Bloch: As a class assignment I made a video and I invited her to be in it. I played a talk show host for a show called The Cryptic Pyramid Show, which is really interesting to me because now there are a lot of performance artists who do stuff like that, but at the time I feel like Joan would have taken me aside—and this is just me making this up—she would have said to me, “Mark this isn’t what performance art is.” And of course it has since expanded to include that.
Rail: You describe this persona of a talk show host, a position that is a mediator and connector between people, which relates to the larger strands of mail art where it’s about the correspondence between people, and bringing people together with conversations. So it seems that broadcasting was like a precursor to your mail art, to its connectivity.
Bloch: I’ve always been into radio and music and, up until that point and since then, I’ve explored every kind of media. I like to think of mail art as belonging to something wider which is called “Communication Art.” And what you’re saying about being a connector, or a curator of people, that’s really relevant to what’s going on with me currently. I’ve been going through my archive at the Fales now to prepare for the exhibition. At the time, I thought I was doing mail art and that I was failing when I didn’t answer every single person and respond to every single request for work. But now, I realize that what I was doing was preserving—for example saving an invitation to a show that I didn’t participate in but kept. It wasn’t about answering, it was about receiving. I made my little magazines and postcards and I did what I did enough to get these amazing responses from all over the world, from mail artists and other people. It was like getting a slice of the avant garde, of which mail art is just one piece.
Rail: What got you going on your correspondence project?
Bloch: It was a couple things. Mothersbaugh started a rubber stamp store near Kent State. He would get old catalogues, like from exterminators, or Roto Rooters. He made rubber stamps out of those sort of ’50s things that look campy now, but were earnest when they were made. When the store went out of business, I bought a bunch. They were just cute little images, but they had an edgy, and definitely retro, feel to them. So I started making art with them using xeroxing and collage. I made postcards—I still have photocopies of them. I was just sending them to people I knew, like my mom and my friends in California.
Rail: You were sending them out and also intentionally saving copies already for yourself?
Bloch: I was, and that’s good of you to pick up on because that was significant.
Rail: Did you know what you were saving them for? Or did you just have a sense that you needed to document what you were doing?
Bloch: That’s such a great question. I had no idea. I have a friend who I met years later who started documenting everything and one time she said to me “Bloch, I still document everything because of you!” and I was like, “because of me?” I hadn’t realized that had influenced her, and that I influenced people in that way. To me it just seemed like a normal thing to document. I guess I've always had a bit of the archivist in me. I was not only documenting those cards, but also fooling around with images from Baba Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now (1971), which had these little cards that you could tear out. I also used to buy stickers in the stationary store of praying hands, or dogs, or jet planes. I was using all that, like collage. It was part of the process of me busting out of painting and drawing. I would color them in with markers, paints, or white-out; I would write on them in handwriting. I made little zines, like Panmag—which has over 65 issues and is still going. The very first were probably around ’77. Then I graduated from college in ’78 and moved to California. At that point I thought I had invented mail art—even though I didn’t call it that.
Rail: Were you calling it the Post Art Network yet?
Bloch: Definitely not. I was going to write comedy out in LA with a friend of mine, but he ended up moving to New York. So out of loneliness I retreated to what I’d known, which was being an artist. I started sending mail to my friends back in Ohio to reconnect. It was a social thing, and then it was at that point that I heard about mail art in this book called The Rubber Stamp Album, written by these two women—Joni Miller and Lowry Thompson—who basically gave a whole history of rubber-stamp art. There was a little, maybe three or four page chapter, on mail art, and you could see on the page people’s addresses. So I wrote to those people and then they wrote back, but my friends in Ohio did not!
Rail: When you would get replies what would you save?
Bloch: I saved everything. I put it back together the way it had been received. There was a time—I laugh at myself now for doing this—where I actually tried to put it back in the envelope the way I received it. So if this was on top of this, I’d put that on top of that. Eventually I got so much I just started to stuff it back in. I was just throwing them into brown paper bags. They’re in brown paper bags now.
Rail: Did you cut things up and use them for new pieces?
Bloch: There was definitely some recycling going on because I heard that was the process. But I never liked it, I liked saving it then photocopying it and reusing what they had sent me in the same way that you would if you had cut it up. When I got things back from other people with my work on it I was always delighted, but then also slightly horrified they had cut it up. But that makes me feel a little too much like a careful ant.
Rail: When did you come up with the Postal Art Network and PAN name?
Bloch: When I was in California I was corresponding with the mail artists and not my friends, and I conceived of PAN as an answer to Fluxus. I read about Ken Friedman who was younger than the original Fluxus crew. He started Fluxus West, with George Maciunas’s blessing. I told my friend in Ohio, Kim Kristensen, “You’re going to be PAN Midwest and I live in LA so I’m going to be PAN West, and [Michael] Heaton lives in New York so he’s going to be PAN East.” I thought that I was inventing mail art, I even called what I did “PAN,” which stood for Postal Art Network. I see things now where my sister wrote me a letter and said, “Send me some PAN.” It was like the people I was indoctrinating into this activity were referring to it with my terms.
This is cracking me up now as I’m going through my archive, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was writing letters to everyone I knew asking for them to send me names of their most interesting friends. And that was enough. They would send me addresses and I would send them my mail art. Then I was just being deluged with mail art. They were from people I didn’t even know, or from people who didn’t necessarily care about mail art. But then I got more involved with what we eventually called The Network. Robert Filliou, the Fluxus artist, called it the Eternal Network. It was sort of like when punk was starting, it was just in the air. In the late ’70s DIY communication was going on. And in the late ’80s DIY communication via online technologies was in the air.
In 1989 I joined up with ECHO, the East Coast version of The WELL, both modeled after The Whole Earth Catalog network. It had all these different threads with different conference topics and around 1990 I started one about mail art called “Panscan.” I brought up all of the issues of mail art: Cavellini, Ray Johnson, superstars, rubber stamps, postcards versus envelopes, neoism, penpals. The people were mostly scientists and non-artists, so I was getting away with murder in terms of being able to kind of spread my experimental art/Dada gospel to all of these incredibly smart people who were very open.
Rail: Eventually you did connect with some famous mail artists, like Ray Johnson.
Bloch: Well I was reading something about Nam June Paik, and he called Ray Johnson the “first communications artist” and himself the second communication artist. So I thought, “I want to be the third communication artist!” But then I got an idea that instead I should make Willoughby Sharp the honorary third communication artist. He was a really interesting artist and he shares my birthday, too. I realized that all these other people were born and mostly died on my birthday. Dalí died on my birthday, and Joseph Beuys died on my birthday and then Jonas Mekas just died on my birthday. January 23rd. Anyway, I decided I'm the fourth communication artist, and Willoughby Sharp holds the third slot, and he represents, really, all the hundreds or thousands of artists that came between Nam June Paik and me. All those ’70s artists like Joan Jonas and all the performance artists, and all the happenings artists. Really, I’m not fourth, between you and me.
I think one reason Ray and I hit it off was because I understood something about what he was trying to do, and he spotted in me—or I’m grandiose to believe that he spotted in me—something that he recognized was special. Many of my fellow mail artists, who were doing it at the same time, really grabbed onto the mail art thing and fetishized it a bit too much for my taste. And maybe for Ray’s. That’s why I made a rubber stamp that said, “The Address is the Art,” as a statement on widening it out to a broader view of what we’re trying to do, as opposed to the minutiae of the post mark and stamps and envelopes. Mail art is not visual art, because to me it’s not about the stuff. It’s not about an aesthetic or a style and maybe it’s not even a medium, and then that brings in the question of whether or not it's a movement. And I think it is and it’s not all those things at the same time. It’s something wider, and that is what I got from Ray Johnson, and that’s what I think he may have seen in me. Remember when I said I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t keep up with all the mail?—I realize now that wasn’t such a bad thing. Like Ray didn’t answer everything. Like mail art has this reputation of being very anti-elitist, so therefore it’s anti-superstar, and its anti-whatever—almost like anti-academic.
Rail: So how did you meet Ray?
Bloch: I was just corresponding with those mail people that I found through the Rubber Stamp Album book and then it started to mushroom out. Part of my country bumpkin attitude was that I never knew you could correspond with somebody like Ray Johnson. What I did was I started corresponding to a guy in Canada, saying my real name was Ray Johnson, but I’d changed my name to Ray Jones. I moved to California at the only time in history in the past 50 years when surfing was not cool. So I made up this thing that I’m Ray Jones, and that I’m part of the “God Jones Surf Club.” I said I used to be Ray Johnson, and I was using my typewriter to write these letters to people, not knowing that Ray used his typewriter in a similar way. In retrospect it looked a bit like Ray Johnson, although I didn’t do it intentionally. A few years later I get a phone call from Ray one day and he says, “I hear you’ve been impersonating me in California.” I said, “Yeah, I guess I was.” I explained it all to him and we just became friends from that moment on. Other people have copied him and encountered difficulties with him where he’d get angry with them, but he never took issue with me.
Rail: Do you remember what the first letter he sent you said?
Bloch: It was long. I loved the long letters and I have some in my collection, but I don’t have too many. He said he went to a place where there was a beekeeper, and they were going to go see bees. So in the upper corner of the letter he wrote, “the bees, the bees!” But that very first letter I can’t find.
Rail: Is it in your archive at Fales?
Bloch: No. I got to the end of my archive at Fales and found these letters labeled “miscellaneous” and I’m looking through them and they were so random. They were clearly things that had just been at the bottom of a box, and it’s so great to me because that’s how my mind works—and I doubt this will ever happen—but my fantasy is that someday every letter will be matched up to its proper envelope. I want everything to find its home. That’s the opposite of Cage. That’s really who I am. I’m the guy who wants control. I want to stick things in proper envelopes.
Rail: It's the archivist in you.
Bloch: Meanwhile I’m studying under John Cage and Ray Johnson and they’re telling me to quit worrying about it. The music doesn’t have to match the performance. Ray really trusted the forces of chance. He used to tell me that he would take the mail that he didn’t want, and put it in a garbage bag and drop it off on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. I can find no evidence whatsoever that he ever did that, but he told me that he did.
Rail: I was struck by the humor in your writing about Ray Johnson, that kind of playful tone. Is that something that you see as part of mail art more broadly, something that connected you two?
Bloch: I think it definitely drew us together. When I was looking for something more than painting and drawing, it took five or six years, but I eventually found my way to Duchamp. I was seven years old when Ghoulardi was doing this very irreverent stuff, and it was hilarious. Playing Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). Then there was Mad Magazine, and cartoons. Just pop culture. I’ve always loved humor, and valued irreverence and slapstick. So when I first found Dada and Duchamp and became friends with Ray it made sense. Mail art is about rebelling against the seriousness of the world, the straight capitalist world, the art world, and academia can be pretty serious: deadly serious. Plus, when I was making all this early mail art in the ’80s that's when Artforum was thriving. They were unreadable, and I thought I was just stupid! Meanwhile Ray and I used to riff on art world gossip, but it was old art world gossip about the Surrealists and that sort of thing and I think he appreciated that, which made me feel appreciated.
What I’m excited about in this show is the limitations. I want to tell the story about mail art, and I have very limited real estate to tell it. So I’m only going to be able to tell a small portion of the story. I’m working with eight different vitrines and I’m realizing that each should be it’s own different show. I shouldn’t try to cram the whole story into eight vitrines. You know? For instance, one vitrine is just for rubber stamps. That could be a whole show by itself and the subject of a lot of research.
Rail: When did you develop your relationship with the Fales?
Bloch: I previously had an agreement with Alex Gildzen, the former Head of Special Collections at Kent State University, that they would take my mail art. But when I finally started to get it ready to send, it was the Reagan years, so there wasn’t as much money for the arts, and Alex had moved on. Around this time I agreed to be on the thesis committee for a student working on mail art, Marya Triandafalos—her initials are M-E-T, so I call her MET and she calls me PAN. MET told me about Marvin Taylor and the Fales Downtown Collection and asked me if I was interested in donating materials. So in 2005, I made my donation. To find a home for this stuff is so very important and I feel very honored and lucky to have a place for it to all go. It makes a huge difference.
Rail: And so what was that conversation with Marvin like? How did you decide what to give? What was that process like?
Bloch: I was just living with boxes. In 1984 I created The Last Mail Art Show, and asked people to send me statements about mail art. I saw the value in having mail artists write about mail art. When anyone sent me a text it got thrown in a box, but the texts about mail art I would put it aside to include in this show. It just became the LMAS (Last Mail Art Show) box. Anything that referred to mail art I threw into this box. I had shows that I was in, or projects where my name was mentioned, so I threw those in the “shows I’m in” box. There was a personal box of things from family members, friends, girlfriends, and erotic correspondence I was engaged in. That became a category too. Another category is all the paste-ups for my magazines, which I was publishing at the time. And there was a box for superstars, like Ray Johnson. I thought if I just tossed that in with all the mail art, then they’re going to get lost and they might be very valuable. I knew Ray Johnson was important way before he even died. Even though I knew that mail art has no superstars—you can have a kid in Poland scribble something on a paper plate with a crayon, fold it awkwardly, and staple it so it fits in an envelope and sends it to you, and then you can have the most sophisticated Ray Johnson letter talking about Sol LeWitt or making a joke about Marcia Tucker. In mail art they’re both equal.
Rail: It’s a very utilitarian movement in that way.
Bloch: But it also raises the question, “How are they equal?” And this gets to your original question about my relationship with Fales, I basically would end up giving the one from the kid to Fales, and keeping the Ray Johson letter. I did want to have a democratic mentality, everyone gets into Fales, so I did include at least one letter or example from each person in what I gave to Fales.
Rail: In planning the show, what has the process of revisiting these boxes of your materials been like? How has it been to see these materials after all these years?
Bloch: It’s so moving. I really feel like I performed a beautiful task for mankind. We're all flailing around in the dark. What do we do? We sort of hold stuff up and say, “Look mommy I made this!” We want that little pat on the head. I just feel like that’s what everybody’s doing and most of it gets sent all over the place, but I saved it all. So if somebody made 100 copies and they gave them to their friends, I might be the only one who has a copy that still exists. I performed this amazing service by just preserving this postcard. It’s sort of like this beautiful equalizer where the playing field gets level and you can start to see that there is no difference between the crayon drawing by the kid in Poland and Ray Johnson’s letter. It’s just pieces of paper that might be of interest to somebody someday for god knows what reason. I’m really glad that I was a mail artist. My big stack of xeroxes are filled with references to Dada and Arthur Cravan and avant garde jokes of all kinds, and stupid drawings I can’t stand to look at now. What strikes me now in returning to it, and to see it all carefully put in these different folders by the NYU professionals, the real work is the archive of other people’s art.
Rail: It’s interesting to think about the relationship between the two parts of archiving. You described this fetishizing of the object, but on the other hand a sort of push against that in the sense that archiving requires you to acknowledge—it’s sort of morbid—that we won’t be able to house these things forever. And in accepting that we give them an afterlife, to think about what new audiences they might reach in this archive at Fales, who might request these papers in the future.
Bloch: I really hope people do. I’ve been thinking about it myself, and I think the show’s going to serve that purpose, but there needs to be more things like this. How can I promote the value of these things?
Rail: The flip side though, when imagining future readers and users of an archive like yours that includes a lot of personal correspondence between individuals, is issues of privacy. There are mail artists and they had always envisioned a sort of public audience. But in other cases, maybe someone didn’t because they were just writing you a letter and wanted to make this connection with you but never imagined that they would now be in a library at NYU, or in an exhibition space. Did you think about that as you were entering people’s letters into the archive and the show?
Bloch: When I was sorting for Fales, there was a box of personal correspondence and it was all the old girlfriends, family members, and friends. That mail is not in the archives at Fales. I thought about that beforehand. I tried to do them a favor, but maybe I did them a disservice, maybe they wanted to be in there too. [Laughter]
Rail: It is an interesting tension. Right now there is such a return to archives, to this private material. Maybe they would want to have their letters be in this show, but it’s strange as a curator to have to make that decision.
Bloch: I can give you an example that’s funny. I found a hot and heavy letter from an old girlfriend and it was very sexy and beautiful. This woman is now a minister. So I wrote to her to ask how she felt and she said to leave it in.
Rail: Tell me about the organization of the exhibition?
Bloch: It’s eight vitrines and a showcase. The beginning is “Welcome to Mail Art” to create a context. Communication Art is everything from drumming as signaling and smoke signals, to telegrams and the history of radio. But how do you put all of that into a freakin’ vitrine?
Sometime between when I met Joan Jonas and when I started reading about Duchamp and Ray Johnson, and first heard about Dada, I read Adrian Henri’s Total Art (1974) and learned the word “gesamtkunstwerk” and realized that is what I have been doing. It was magic because it was ritual, it was performance art, it was mail art. Now I have the documentation to look back on as well. My correspondents have been so generous and the last four decades have been filled with abundance. But the show is small. It is painful to not be able to mention and acknowledge everyone. This kind of show goes against the very grain of the inclusivity of mail art. But it is also important to tell this story, even if it is just a slice.