In Ked Friedman’s historical overview of mail art, mail art is not defined by its use of a specific medium. It is defined by the fact that the piece must be sent as a piece of correspondence, which is to say through the postal service or the Internet.
Mail art is a long distance dialogue that allows an exchange of political and ideological views (Padín). It crosses aesthetic as well as geographic boundaries, breaking down the association between location and artistic style.
In the 1960s, Ray Johnston, an American artist, was one of the first to use the exchange of ideas between artists as an art form itself (Friedman 4). The Nouveau realist group in France then adapted this idea and mailed a fake stamp through the postal system causing a huge scandal (Friedman 4). The new art form was then adopted by the Fluxus movement who wanted to push the boundaries of the definition of art (Friedman 6).
It was the New York correspondence school that shaped the practice of mail art by mailing to hundreds of people at once instead of a select few art intellectuals (Friedman 5). By the 1970s, mail art was a developed art form within Latin America. The first documented mail art show took place in 1974 in Montevideo, Uruguay (Friedman 16; Pianowski 212). Clemente Padín, Paulo Bruscky, Daniel Santiago and Eugenio Dittborn all figure prominently in the development of mail art in Latin America (Pianowski 212, Dittborn 40).
Clemente Padín is a artist, poet and art critic from Uruguay, his involvement with mail art is mostly known with his production the art magazine OVUM; he continues his mail art practices through a website called International Union of Mail Artists. Paulo Bruscky and Daniel Santiago are Brazilian artists, they opened the Exposição Internacional de Arte Postal in Brazil showcasing 21 countries and 3000 works of mail art, the exhibition was shut down and they were imprisoned only hours after the opening.
In Clemente Padín’s article, “Mail Art In Latin America,” mail art is defined as an artistic and multicultural document sent through the postal service by means of the use of collage elements, stamps, hand-writing, typing, photocopies or stickers. Like many other art forms associated with Conceptual Art it has an anti-commercialist and anti-consumerist character.
According to Fabiane Pianowski mail art in Latin America was used as a political tool to condemn the dictatorial system (212). Because they art was used as a means of transmitting information and building awareness, during various periods of dictatorship in Latin America mail art was suppressed (Pianowski 211). Many mail artists were imprisoned for producing in making art, for example, Jesus Galdamez, an El Salvadorian mail artist, who was imprisoned for speaking up against the government (Pianowski 211). He escaped death by fleeing to Mexico and living there in exile (Pianowski 211).
Michela Rosso explains mail art as an always evolving and changing art form; in the 1950s and 60s mail art was mostly a closed circuit where art intellectuals would share ideas (205). Now the mail art movement has opened up and mail art can be sent to anyone by anyone (Rosso 205). Many artists embraced the idea of mail art being open to a larger network of communication; this network became an alternative culture called the Eternal Network (Rosso 205). The Eternal Network did not believe in the exclusiveness of art institutions and put on shows that included all kinds of art works (Rosso 205). They promoted counter culture and anti-bureaucracy globally through the postal service by establishing a network of contacts that would eliminate the barriers between art and the public (Rosso 205). They would hold art exhibitions with three goals; “no fees are levied for participation; there are no juries nor selection processes and all pieces, sent by mail, are exhibited”. With these exhibitions a list of names and addresses of the participating artist would be sent out to increase numbers within the network (Rosso 205). Mail art separates itself from more static forms of art with its flowing network because anyone can enter and exit the network at anytime (Rosso 206). Mail art continues to transform itself and develop with the use of social media and other technologies (Rosso 206).
Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn commented on the technical-social stratification and the delay between Latin America and Metropolitan cultures through mail art (Richards 60). Dittborn made his first works called Airmail Paintings in 1984 (Dittborn 40). These works are mixed media pieces that are folded and sent through the postal service disguised as letters to be unfolded and hung with their envelopes by their recipients. (Dittborn 40). Much of Dittborn’s work documents Latin American visuality in various ways, for example, by incorporating images of local handicrafts, images of faces, child drawing, and images from other Latin American artists as subject matter (Richard 50). Dittborn made use of old photos and drawings to trigger Chilean memory through the content of his works, because pre-1973 material censored following a military coup in his native Chile (Richard 48). In Chile in 1973-1974 there was a shift in government; this was the year that military dictator Pinochet came into power. This changed the way Chile had been for decades as it was previously a democracy; a repression in freedom of speech and a fear of being tortured and killed for such speech became a part of everyday life. During Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, Dittborn’s work commented on power and mocked the established system by camouflaging itself, in the form of a letter it slipped into the system undetected (Rchard 61).
In Latin America the introduction of mail art began in the late 1960s and continues to flourish today with artist such as Eugenio Dittborn who has become an internationally known. Mail art encourages communicative exchanges between people from different cultures who may otherwise not have found each other in any other way. It enables the exchange of ideas and everyday problems. Mail art can be used to promote social justice and express political views (Pianowski 214). Mail art also functions as a mechanism for social commentary. In Latin America mail art has been used historically as a means to effect social and political change.
 The Nouveau realist was a group from in France in the 1960s that explored new ways of perceiving the real through different forms of art.
 Fluxus is an international network of mixed media artist who explored the boundaries of art by combining media and considering objects and ideas as art that would not have previously been accepted. Since mail art was used as a network where artist could share ideas and aesthetics, there became less of a sense of where each aesthetic style came from as the styles would be produced and transmitted globally.
Dittborn, Eugenio. “Roadrunners.” Remota. London: Publica Editores, 1997. 39-59. Print.
Friedman, Ken. 1995. “The Early Days of Mail Art: An Historical Overview.” In Eternal Network. A Mail Art Anthology. Chuck Welch, editor. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press. Pp. 3-16.
Padin, Clemente. “Mail Art in Latin America.” Clemente Padin’s Art and People.. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.concentric.net/~lndb/padin/lcpma1.htm>.
Pianowski, Fabiane. “Mail Art: the Net Out of Control.” Arte y arquitectura digital netart y universos virtuales:MAQUETA PADRAO 17 Sept. 2008: 210-215.
Richard, Nelly. “The Others.” Mapa: airmail paintings = pinturas aeropostales. London: ICA ;, 1993. 47-63.
Rosso, Michela. “Mail art as a forerunner of net.art: Clemente Padín.” Arte y arquitectura digital netart y universos virtuales:MAQUETA PADRAO 17 Sept. 2008: 205-210.