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You’ve Got Email (Art)

(all images courtesy the artist)
Jeffrey Scudder’s email art (image courtesy the artist)

A new web-based project will slide art directly into your inbox once a month, with each iteration representing a digital solo show by a different artist for your own private viewing. SCREEN_, organized by artist Ada Wright Potter, launched this January and will continue to circulate works to its subscribers every last Friday of the month. It kicked off with the work of Jeffrey Scudder, who created a series of graphic prints he then integrated into a text-messaging layout to form a cryptic conversation between absurd characters. Scudder often works with digital art, but the forthcoming artists whom Potter invited — Dina Kelberman, Cecilia SalamaCristine Brache, Vanessa Thill, Will Rahilly, and Lizzy DeVita — work in a variety of mediums, with the only uniting factor being that their work is meant for the screen. Rather than curating the emails, Potter provides the platform (MailChimp) for them to explore the possibilities and limitations of email art.

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(screenshot via the artist) (click to enlarge)

The project naturally considers and is informed by the history of mail art, which emerged in the 1950s and ’60s from the Fluxus movement. Email art itself isn’t a novel concept, with roots in the 1990s: Chuck Welch, for one, who was part of Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, was exploring connections between physical mail and the internet in his project Telenetlink. Mail art has long been appreciated as an alternative way to view and distribute art without relying on a physical exhibition space and dealing with the regulated structures of the art world; Potter notes that these benefits are also relevant to email art, describing how SCREEN_ “allows us to circumvent the commercial art world, the institutional art world, the scene-y art world.”

Email is still an update to physical mail, of course, most obviously in cost and efficiency. The former was a huge appeal to Potter in the practical sense of avoiding financial charges attached to brick-and-mortar white spaces; the latter she values not just for the instantaneousness of email but also for its ability to rapidly provide additional context to an artwork that exists outside an inbox’s real estate.

“Email is less precious than mail,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s also much, much faster. It can lead recipients down the web’s rabbit hole. Links and Google searches give instantaneous context. If you want to learn more it’s as simple as pulling up a new tab.”

What Potter considers precious, though, many mail artists would say are the gems that make mail art such a cherished method of communication. The physical aspects of delivering mail — from the stamps to their deliverymen —  are part of the gesture even as they introduce inconvenience.  Guy Bleus fondly describes these in his 1994 text, “Mail-Art: A Dialogue between the Postman and his Electronic Shadow” (in which he also declares electronics as “the guillotine of the mail (as a system of information),” writing that technology dehumanizes the ties between sender and recipient. Without such details, email art also changes the notion of place that is so vital to mail art; we have no idea from where emails are coming from, delivered with just an email address and a timestamp. 

Still, our private inboxes are often very intimate spaces. As Potter noted, we are usually alone when we open our emails, creating a “private moment of immersion,” she said. “It’s a sort of a digital one-on-one.” While some may consider it less personal than mail art, the digital platform also introduces some hurdles, some restraints that challenge SCREEN_ artists’ creativity. Inboxes and web browser borders, for instance, create framing constraints, but so does MailChimp itself, which can sometimes be inflexible. The adoption of the newsletter generator was a deliberate one, as Potter has extensive experience formatting MailChimp emails for work but never had the chance to design one completely on her own terms.

“I thought it would be fun to mess with expectations and subvert slick PR style,” she said. Inviting artists to now hack the layout and override standards with their own codes, SCREEN_ plays with more than just one of our familiar modes of communication to insert bites of surprises into our daily routine.

(screenshot via the artist)
(screenshot via the artist)
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(screenshot via the artist)
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(screenshot via the artist)
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