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Alice in Mail Art Land/Traveling Light with a Pinhole Camera

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Message Carola Von Hoffmannstahl
January 27th is/was Rabbit Hole Day. Birthday of Lewis Carroll. Thanks to Lew, Alice saw the real world. For those of us who get lost in uffish thought of slithy pols and frumious government, Carroll is a beacon of better. To heck with the Jabberwock and their Bandersnatch bailouts. May the Jubjub bird fly up their nose! Time to leave town on the Alice Express, seated in the car marked “Mail Art”.

Say wha?

Quoting Wikipedia: “Mail art is art which uses the postal system as a medium...An amorphous international mail art network, involving thousands of participants in over fifty countries, evolved between the 1950s and the 1990s. It was influenced by other movements, including Dada and Fluxus.”

Paraphrasing PEEP, my own private art mag, Mail Art started simply. A handful of artists, when sending each other mail, made the envelopes and post cards an extension of their work. They played with the process, adding fantasy postage stamps issued in imaginary countries, sending serial image postcards and building elaborate visual jokes. Some projects worked like chain letters, traveling from artist to artist-- mass collaborations that crossed thousands of miles and took years to complete. Some never ended. Meanwhile, Mail Art kept growing and growing and growing.

Mail Art was a traveling show, visible to all along the way. It wasn't imposed on walls or halls for the good of the public nor paid for with their confiscated dollars. Yet it leaped out of galleries and into everyday life. Careerism was never the point of Mail Art. Love moved it. Mail Art was fun, free (except for the stamps) and a refuge from greed-o-rama. Another plus: Mail Art didn't require residence in artist neighborhoods where art serves as a fashion accessory and real estate sales tool. Mail Art gentrified nothing and displaced no one. Mail artists could live in hot nabes or cold ones, in cities or suburbs, on farms or in trailer parks. Artists from all over the world met and created in free mental space. With its decentralized network structures, playfulness and resistance to commercial models, Mail Art was a prefiguration of the best of the Internet.

The Now

Despite the decline of snail mail, and post 9/11 suspicion re unusual envelopes and packages, Mail Art has not disappeared. (They don't call it the Eternal Network for nothing.) The beautiful paper keeps coming. As do the Alice-down-rabbit-hole concepts. Consider the Pinhole Parcel Project, an ongoing event launched some six years ago by UK-based Jamie House and Mike Thompson According to its website “the pinhole project is an exploration of the journey of a parcel”. As seen from within the parcel. House and Thompson send pinhole cameras through the post. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to travel by mail, this is your chance to discover the secret life of letters, bills, and holiday fruitcakes. The experience is illuminating.

Pinhole cameras (also called camera obscura) are simple devices, essentially a lightproof box with a single small hole. Light passes through the hole and projects an inverted image on the opposite wall of the box. If the light strikes photosensitive emulsion the image is recorded. The naturally occurring, pinhole optical effect was noted in the 4th century BC by the ancient Greeks. The first pinhole camera (sans film) was invented in the 10th century by Ibn al-Haytham, the Arab physicist, astronomer, and mathematician. During the same century Chinese scientist Shen Kuoi established the geometrical and quantitative attributes of camera obscura. In 1850, Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster took the first pinhole photograph. (Brewster also invented the kaleidescope.) Experiments with camera obscura continue to this day.

In 2007, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, exhibited an enormous (108' by 85') print taken by the world's largest pinhole camera; a converted F-18 hangar at the abandoned El Toro fighter base in Irvine. The negative was developed in a swimming pool-sized tray. This experiment could become a model for communities seeking new uses for ghost malls. Empty box stores would make dandy pinhole cameras. Their vast parking lots would be crowded with tourists. Visit Camera Obscura Land! Be photographed with Mammoth Pinholes! Dine and dance around the developing tray! (Sorry-- no swimming allowed.)

While Camera Obscura Land doesn't exist (yet) Internet tourists can visit the Pinhole Parcel Project. Images from the project's first 18 months were exhibited a few years ago at euroart studios in Totenham, London. A selection from the exhibit, plus newer images, can be seen at the Pinhole Parcel site. Where “every parcel and its image reveals its own story.” The Alice Art Travel Guide (2009 edition) puts it this way: O frabjous day! The world as seen from within a peripatetic pinhole parcel is a wondrous place. Who'd have thought that our mail leads a life of such mystical abstract vision? Where light shatters and refracts ad infinitum, revealing and concealing the mystery of what some call “reality”?

Also on display-- the self-recorded death of a pinhole camera by fire. Tragic, yet transcendent.

As said, the Pinhole Parcel Project is ongoing. Expanding into the Pinhole Balloon Project. Then there's the interactive Pinhole Litter Project. Send Pinhole* a discarded can with return postage. It will be converted into a pinhole camera and mailed back to you. Place can where it was originally found. Open shutter for a brief snicker-snack, then shut and return to Pinhole for processing. If the secret life of litter proves as beamish as that of the mail, we may never use the word “garbage” again.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Mondo QT

More info about pinhole camera aficionados and their creations and experiments can be found at Pinhole Visions.

*Pinhole Litter Project, 1 Oxford Villas, St Stephens, Cornwall, England PL12 4AP

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After several years of NYC go-go dancing and wacky radical fun (including a trip to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) Carola Von H. became a No Wave band leader and Mail Artist. Picking up change as a free lance writer. Her pen ranged (more...)
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