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Mail Art

          One of my first forays into the art world was a sort of multi-mish-mash of visuals, written word and performance art. Don’t look so surprised. Have I ever done anything the normal way? Besides, I couldn’t paint a picture of anything whatsoever unless it was in a paint-by-numbers book. What happened was that I started a small lending library in the post office, and someone donated a big bag full of romance novels. Randomly flipping through them one day, I felt the urge to highlight all the bodice-ripping passages. After that it was only natural that I should start blacking out everything but the heavy-breathing parts, creating a tome of dripping prose, not much shorter than the original. Then it was inevitable that some of the blacked-out parts should have appropriate (or, just as often, inapproproriate ones…) photos pasted in their place, and finally, I just let loose, and started pasting conversation hearts next to ironic passages, ripped lace over the scenes of unbridled passion and generally tarting the thing up. I probably made ten of these creations.

           At the time I was also involved in a movement called Mail Art, which, you might have guessed, involves mailing art to strangers. People would put out a call for, say, artists’ treatments of a certain subject, like dreams or subjugation, and then mount a show of what they got in a gallery. Or, someone might put out a call for people to mail in confessions anonymously, which would then be posted on line. One of my favorites was an invitation to artists to write a story in one page or less using a whole list of obscure words – like ‘fecolith’, ‘abstruse’, ‘leges’ and ‘gratulant’. The best stories were published in a book. Under the influence of such heady artistic licentiousness, I decided to send my books around the country through the mail. Of course I eschewed the normal wrapping of the books, and just taped the address on the front cover, taped the pages shut and popped it in the mail. Inside I’d instructed the recipients to enjoy (or abhor) the object for a time, then mail it on to someone else. Eventually I hoped they’d make their way back to me, with a list of recipients in the back.

          Whatever is the opposite of paranoid delusions, be it Pollyanna-ism or just plain delusions, I was operating under it when I hoped to get the books back. I didn’t get a single book back. I traced one to an artist in Missoula, and asked a mutual friend again and again for it back, but no dice. She liked it. For all I know she showed it as her own work and even now its in the permanent collection at the Whitney. After a jading experience of this breadth, its no wonder I’m the curmudgeon I am today. But of course everything that goes around comes around, and the boomerang in this case turned out to be Book Crossing. I don’t know who thought this up, or if they were, perchance copying me, but I’m glad to see that their experiment is working out better than mine did. Book Crossing is a system by which people abandon books in public places, and then track where they went online. Each book has a unique number, and an online “journal”. If you “catch” a Book Crossing book, you can look up where it has been, what other readers thought of the book and where and when it was subsequently “released”.

          I caught The Queen’s Fool by Phillipa Gregory this week. I’ve read one of her previous books; The Other Boleyn Girl, which was a pretty good specimen of historical fiction, though it was unnecessarily long, and involved having to know way too much about the Byzantine warren of genealogy that was King Henry the VIII’s court. Before arriving here, the book spent time in Florida and Australia. After I read it, I’ll have to decide weather its more important to me to stick to the script and just abandon the book in a public place, or for it to have an impressive career as a traveler, and send it far, far away. Either way, it’s a curious experiment in sociology, don’t you think? I wonder what it would look like if you plotted on a map all the places in which all the books have been caught and released. Certainly you’d have many more hits in cities, simply because there are more people and public places, but beyond that, I’m only willing to bet that it would reveal something surprising about the readers of the world.


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