Inside the System: Ray Johnson as New Media Artist
Conventional definitions of digital media posit the ever-expanding interconnectivity between people as the crowning achievement of technology.1 These same definitions often celebrate the Internet as the place where anyone—at any time—can communicate with everyone else. Not only does the Internet enable access to the world in real time, but it also facilitates and improves participation and communication among users. Many of the outspoken theorists who have been instrumental in defining the field of new media make a clear distinction between digital and traditional media—separating the world along technological lines. According to this line of thought, new media began with the development of computers and with the appearance of code, database structures, and online user collaboration.2 This argument suggests that new media is defined fundamentally by interconnectivity and access–to information and to other users. Yet I counter not only that the term “new media” should encompass works created before the computer, but also that the mail art project devised by the artist Ray Johnson should be recognized as a primary example of new media art.
Between 1972 and 1994, Johnson challenged the concepts of ownership and originality by looking to a community in order to produce finished works of art. Johnson’s mail art practice resulted in artworks centered on his personal and shared communication with others. He would send handmade collages to friends, often with directions for the recipient to forward the work to an acquaintance after making modifications to the original object. Among other elements, these artworks included photocopies, found objects, newspaper and magazine clippings, written or typed notes, and detailed drawings. As a body of work, Johnson’s mail art manifests a web of interconnectivity and participation within a community—a practice initiated decades before the development of Internet culture. The series of correspondence currently on view in the exhibition Art=Text=Art: Works by Contemporary Artists at the University of Richmond’s Joel & Lila Harnett Museum of Art reveals how Johnson sought connection with others through a process of creative collaboration.
Johnson’s mail art fostered a collaborative relationship between sender and receiver, occasionally implicating the passive recipient as a creator in turn by asking him or her to add information and send the work to a third party. Through this participatory activity, Johnson highlighted the interface between various subjects and related references, as well as that between participants and subsequent viewers. In this way, his project anticipated the hyperlinks that now direct an online viewer or reader in search of further information. Within computer culture, hyperlinks allow us to search by jumping from place to place, discovering new information as we move through various outlets. Hyperlinks thus facilitate the construction of webs of information based on complex layers of association, enabling users to extend exploration beyond an original or singular object of interest. Similarly, Johnson’s intermixing of visual and textual references encourages the viewer to look past the object. Interpretation of this the work involves accessing external information from mass culture, as well as delving into the dialogue between sender and recipient(s).
Much like contemporary artists who use online resources, databases, community chat rooms, or listservs to create and present works of art, Johnson also located his power in the appropriation of a large-scale municipal service. Rather than relying on a digital system of interconnectivity, Johnson’s work required an analogous system of physical connection, namely the United States Postal Service. Through the USPS, everyone is accessible to everyone else. Only an address or PO box number, along with an intermediary in the form of a mail carrier, is needed to establish a tangible connection. Johnson’s use of the mail service as a creative tool sheds light on how much these connections mattered to the finished product.
Because interconnectivity was clearly essential to Johnson’s mail art, it is instructive to consider its bearing on how the work is interpreted. In order to find meaning in the work, the viewer must examine Johnson’s use of referential media, including script, drawings, abstract found objects, photographs or photocopies. In one work included in Art=Text=Art, Johnson began with a sheet of letterhead, reading “Shelley Duvall Fan Club,” which serves as a base of information on which to build the work of art. This particular piece includes ink-stamped references–hyperlinks in analog–to the Paloma Picasso Fan Club and the Claude Picasso Fan Club. Combined, these three references to popular figures serve to codify this particular work of art, encouraging viewers to make mental connections between the sheet at hand and these exterior subjects. Since Johnson addressed and sent these particular items to an art collector, Wynn Kramarsky, we can imagine that Johnson was additionally commenting on his own fan club of sorts—those who acquired his work.
In this and other examples from the Kramarsky correspondence archive, the participatory aspect of Johnson’s work is clearly evidenced and can be considered within the context of the “shared experience” typically associated with new media. In Johnson’s mail art, the shared experiences are the initial receipt of and the (possible) additions to the object. Yet Johnson’s work is also shared beyond the interaction of the sender and recipient, through the postal service. The mailing of the work facilitates the relationship of the artist to his recipients, and in new media art, this type of relationship has evolved in proportion to the expanding ease of high-speed communication. The shared community additionally relies on an abstract language: that of the nebulous “database” built of mass cultural associations. Passage of Johnson’s work through the postal service leads to the artwork’s manipulation in the physical sense, yet it also effects the decoding of the artwork vis-à-vis each individual’s access to the collective cultural understanding.
Johnson asks the viewer or receiver to “plug in” to a database in order to decode his work. His instructions encouraged sampling and mass-culture mash-ups that reconfigured collective definitions of popular topics, as exemplified by the Shelley Duvall Fan Club letter. The artist often included hand-made logos and symbols, like the cartoon bunny seen in the same collage. (This bunny is often referred to as a self-portrait, frequently serving as Johnson’s signature or commercial insignia.) The information included in each piece is in fact part of a code, a way of accessing the universal language shared by the participants. In order to understand what it means to be in Shelley Duvall’s Fan Club one must know, and be excited by, the work of Shelley Duvall. This means that the viewer must have direct knowledge of what it means to be Duvall’s spectator or must be in a situation such that he or she can understand what fan clubs are about in general. Either way, the recipient must be plugged into the databank: he or she must possess knowledge of the underlying structures that define the text and images used in the collage.
In approaching Johnson’s mail art, the recipient is asked to rearrange the scattered elements of each piece in order to decode the message. This act of decoding—actively discerning links between media and associations—is a primary characteristic of new media technology. When technology is used to combine media and associations, the resulting message is both understandable and presentable to others. The ability to link seemingly unrelated constructions is, from my perspective, what defines a practice as new media. While digital theory tends to place new media exclusively within the context of the computer, a more nuanced definition of the term should also be applied to artworks in traditional, pre-technological media. Ray Johnson’s work is a textbook example of an analog medium–collaged mailings—constituting a landmark technological achievement within a certain period. Digital theorists have commented on the unique ability of the Internet to foster connectivity, yet it is critical that we recognize how Johnson’s mail art achieved quite a similar thing. Once a recipient opens a Ray Johnson envelope, they have the opportunity to dive into a wide range of links in order to access its meaning. Through this interactive process, the viewer becomes a critical collaborator and generator, in that he or she retains the key to a system of understanding shared by a distinct community. Mail art practice is built, in part, on this shared understanding and on the continuous “logging” of the world by artist, sender, and receiver. While Johnson initiates the activity, it is the network that guides the creation of an original work of art. It is within this system that Ray Johnson’s work takes form, thus drawing the artist into alignment with the contemporary movement of new media.
Vaughn Whitney Garland received an M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003. He is a practicing artist and is currently a Ph.D. student in the interdisciplinary Media, Art, and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University. More information about his work can be found at http://www.vaughngarland.com/.