On February 19th, 2015, Clemente Padín, the elder statesman of Uruguayan art, replied to an email from his compatriot and young artist Francisco Tomsich with a fateful attachment: a list of email and postal addresses of six Yugoslav mail artists. These were some of the people with whom Padín had corresponded in the 1970s and 80s and 90s as part of a mail art network.

Padín’s list launched Tomsich into a story of surprising discoveries, unintended consequences, and, indeed, Yugoslavia as a cultural space; a story of art and the postal service and the threads that connect us; a story of friendships spanning decades and dictatorships and continents and generations…

Featuring the songs “Eskimo / Koka Kola,” “Fabrika,” and “Žene” by E.P.P.

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

[INTERMITTENT SOUND EFFECTS THROUGHOUT]

On February 19th, 2015, Clemente Padín, the elder statesman of Uruguayan art, replied to an email from his compatriot and young artist Francisco Tomsich with a fateful attachment: a list of email and postal addresses of six Yugoslav mail artists. These were some of the people with whom Padín had corresponded in the 1970s and 80s and 90s as part of a mail art network.

“Give my regards to those with whom you connect and good luck, dear friend,” Padín wrote.

Four years later, Tomsich traveled to Belgrade to track down the now ex-Yugoslav mail artists from Padín’s list. He mailed a letter to each of them with Padín’s regards, a request to meet, and a return address.

Then, Tomsich waited.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Academicismo” by Sea Dragon]

Padín’s list launched Tomsich into a story of surprising discoveries, unintended consequences, and, indeed, Yugoslavia as a cultural space; a story of art and the postal service and the threads that connect us; a story of friendships spanning decades and dictatorships and continents and generations…

Today on Remembering Yugoslavia: Uruguayan artists, Yugoslav mail art, and the power of the post.

As always, this Remembering Yugoslavia story is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up as a monthly supporter of Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated one-time via PayPal.

Today I welcome new patron Megan and extend a special thanks to Sebastiaan for his contribution.

If you like the show and wish to support its production, join these generous people at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia or donate one time at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]

Yugoslav Mail Art: The Back Story

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

[02:01]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: In short, mail art is a form of art which is done through the mail. So all that can be sent through the postal office is included in means of artistic communication.

[02:18[

PETER KORCHNAK: Andrej Tišma is a former [Yugoslav] mail artist and art critic based in Novi Sad.

[02:22]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: It’s an open art movement, where everybody can take part.

[02:27]

PETER KORCHNAK: An artist would send their artwork by post to another artist. The recipient would then decide to respond to the piece by mailing one of their own back.

Mail artists tended to be visual artists. But poets, designers, print workers, and indeed non-artists have participated too.

[02:42]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: And the only limits are the limitations of the post office. So dimensions and media that could be sent through the mail.

[02:53]

PETER KORCHNAK: Lettering. Rubber stamps. Artist postal stamps. Decorated envelopes. Postcards. Letters and cards. Xerographs and photocopies. Cartoons, drawings, illustrations, paintings. Engravings. Stencils. Photographs and photo montages. Collages. Stickers. Zines. Booklets. Found objects. Poems and texts. Cassettes and CDs.

Materials range, too: paper, cardboard, plastic foil, glass and plexiglass, metal, cloth, styrofoam, body parts, film, packaging…

There is no trend or style in mail art; mail art has no program or manifesto; there is no center or structure or leadership.

[03:27]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: There was [sic] no two same mail artists. Every mail artist had its [sic] own style and was recognizable by some symbols, some images, some messages he sent. So every artist in that network tried to be different and genuine.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “The Beach Era” by El Remolón]

[03:52]

PETER KORCHNAK: Artists have exchanged their works through mail since the postal service was invented. But as an organized and conscious artistic movement, mail art emerged in the late 1950s-early 1960s, through the activities of several art movements that explored mail as a medium.

This was the time when communications and transportation boomed, and only improved since then. Television, intercontinental flights, satellites, and computers accelerated connections and shrunk physical distances across the globe. Faster and smaller the world became. At the same time, the postal service network remained the most widespread, available, and organized system of communication.

Also known as correspondence art or postal art, mail art evolved some fifty years ago as an act of communication, art that only comes into existence in the interaction between artists. Aesthetic communication and exchange are the primary components of this art form. Comprising a myriad of spontaneous interpersonal encounters among artists, mail art essentially hacks the post as a global system run by national governments into a democratic medium for art that allows marginalized artists (or artists from marginalized places) to express themselves and present their work on equal footing with their peers. Mail art is not the stuff sent through the mail, it is the communication, exchange, and sharing done with it.

The 1970s was the period of building and spreading the network beyond its origins in the so-called West, including in South America and Eastern Europe. An informal worldwide network of mail artists developed, forming an international community of essentially strangers living and making art in mutually strange lands and cultures.

By this artistic movement’s pinnacle, in mid to late 1980s, some 10,000 participating artists were exchanging countless pieces of art; hundreds of magazines, catalogues, books and fanzines circulated; and tens of mail art exhibitions were held. The idea was to create a global community connected through art and post, free of barriers like national borders, ideologies, religions, money… One mail art practitioner, the Hungarian Géza Perneczky, said the mail art network was the first World Wide Web.

Mail art eliminated the middle man, whether he was the gallery owner or the curator or the critic or, in fact, the patron. Artists were the creators, the consumers, and the exhibitors of mail art works. In other words, everything operated outside and as an alternative to the established structures of cultural production and commercial consumption. The intention was to remove the distinctions between life and art and between high and popular culture.

For these reasons mail art remained on the margins of art; if you bypass the market, you’ll stay outside it. Conversely, mail art enabled artists working with economic and political constraints to express themselves and be part of a larger, global artist community.

In the 1980s, Tišma called mail art “a new cultural policy” and the network an “immense collective work of art, a pulsating spiritual sculpture that encompasses the world.”

Anybody could, still can, join the network, regardless of their creative capability, age, class, culture, ideology, race, nationality…

[06:56]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Some people could say there is no criteria; if everybody can take part in [the] mail art network, there are no criteria. But it’s not true, because if you send the works with lower quality and some boring things or with very low energy, you will not get replies. So, you will exclude yourself from the network because if you send good works and provocative works and interesting works, you get replies and reactions.

And this is the joy of doing [Yugoslav] mail art, because you’re always expecting some reactions, some discussions. There was [sic] cases that people intervened on my works and send them back to me so they made some input from their selves to my work.

This kind of communications was, I can say, the embryo of [the] internet because in the internet, you have the same principle of interaction and exchange and everything is open and free.

[08:06]

PETER KORCHNAK: That may sound like great hindsight but in 1986 Tišma wrote: “Perhaps the mail-art of today, which uses the postal network, should be seen as the embryo of a future art for which no technical devices are in existence as yet, and which will work by pure exchange of thought and energy, transmitted by means of some kind of waves, which will encompass the entire planet, a big wave sweeping over all those desirous of being included in the exchange.”

Today, paradoxically, mail art survives thanks to websites and social media. You can browse scans of mail art and connect with mail artists at the websites of the International Union of Mail Artists and Mail Art Projects. You can join mail art exchanges in a number of Facebook groups and peruse mail art works on Instagram.

Mail art has not completely disappeared because of the internet—internet has not yet killed the mail art star. Though postal costs have skyrocketed and mail has slowed, especially in the pandemic, perhaps mail art will only disappear if the postal service ever disappears.

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[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]

Clemente Padín and the Uruguayan Mail Art

[09:13]

PETER KORCHNAK: While mail art originated and spread most widely in the so-called West, it was in the peripheries of the two power blocs where it had perhaps the greatest real-world impact.

Born in 1939, Clemente Padín is an Uruguayan—

[09:26]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: —artist, concrete and visual poet, mail artist, performer, etcetera.

[09:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: Riccardo Boglione is an Italian avant garde art critic living in Montevideo. He also oversaw the process of incorporating Padín’s archive in the collection of the University of the Republic in Montevideo.

[09:43]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: Clemente Padín started in the mid-60s as a writer.

[09:48]

PETER KORCHNAK: The pioneer of mail art in Uruguay and in all of South America first started a literary journal, then a few years later another one, and—

[09:55]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: —around this time, he started to look at mail art, which at this stage was pretty early worldwide.

[10:02]

PETER KORCHNAK: Padín first exchanged art via post in 1967, with a number of South American artists.

[10:08]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: In 1969, he published a series of five postcards with basically what we will call now concrete poetry, which was not intended to be exchanged, like usually happens in mail art. Still, I think it’s interesting that he publishes this so early, seeing that the medium of the postcard as a great way to divulge his work.

He didn’t join the network of the mail art until, I would say, the mid 70s, or whatever it may be, ‘73, ‘74.

He exchanged with basically artists from all over the world.

[10:50]

PETER KORCHNAK: After a military dictatorship was established in Uruguay in 1973, Padín’s work became political. Art was no longer just art but a means of communication and its aim and content not aesthetic but political. For Padín, mail art was a form of social consciousness; revolution was a matter of everyday practice, artistic and otherwise, waged with everyday weapons like pencils and envelopes and postage stamps. It was, he once wrote, “a bridge to freedom.”

In October 1974, he co-organized “The Creative Postcard Festival” at a small experimental gallery in Montevideo.

[11:25]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: At the time it self-proclaimed to be the first Latin American mail art exhibition.

[11:31]

PETER KORCHNAK: Among the advantages of the postcard as an artistic medium, he included its “speed,” its “breadth of communication,” its “ease of manufacture,” and its “unprecedented expressive possibilities.”

His 1976 piece “Happy Bicentennial,” sent to mail artists in the U.S., contained instructions on how to make a flower bomb and deliver it to select Wall Street addresses, hosting banks and corporations propping up the Uruguayan regime at the time.

In 1977, Padín published a series of mail art stamps denouncing the military dictatorship. Works like this led to his imprisonment for two years and subsequent house arrest for five. At the time, Uruguay was said to have the highest per capita number of political prisoners in the world. The authorities also confiscated and destroyed his archive.

Just as mail art was behind his incarceration, it contributed to his early release in November 1979. Fellow mail artists mounted “The International Campaign to Free Clemente Padín and Jorge Caraballo,” another political prisoner, with the most powerful tool they had: mail. The campaign gathered thousands of signatures, mailed hundreds of letters to governments and art works to network participants, and organized exhibitions and issued publications.

https://garadinervi.tumblr.com/post/176958386701/card-by-guillermo-deisler-1978-in-support-of-the

[12:44]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: In 1983, in a certain way, he resumed his artistic activities with an exhibition of mail art. The theme was the first of May, the worker day. And again, I think it was one of the first big exhibition[s] in the region.

[13:01]

PETER KORCHNAK: In 1984, he co-founded the Latin-American and Carribean Union of Mail Artists.

Through a bulletin and another magazine, Padín began rebuilding his network of mail artists, including in Yugoslavia.

He was released on parole after serving half his sentence. For the remainder of the dictatorship, Padín could not leave Uruguay, create art, or use the postal system.

[13:22]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: He is a multitasking artist, so while he was doing mail art, of course, he was still doing performances and poetry, etcetera.

But he actually never stopped, I will say until 2003, 2004. The vast majority of his production, at least until the early 2000, has to do with the dictatorship and always with a social and political perspective.

The dates that we talk about with Padín reflects the general state of mail art, I guess. Since the 2000 it lost centrality—centrality we’re talking in the marginal sphere, where we are.

[14:07]

PETER KORCHNAK: Throughout his mail art career, Padín’s work has been published in dozens of publications, translated into many languages, and exhibited at more than 1,200 exhibitions around the world.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]

Yugoslav Mail Art

[14:23]

PETER KORCHNAK: Meanwhile in Yugoslavia:

[14:25]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: We had very good communications with the world in 60s and 70s. Our country was open to all cultural events. And we had big festivals. Many, many foreign big names were visiting Yugoslavia. And with that they brought culture and made their exhibitions. It all influenced the culture in Yugoslavia, which was open to all, and also our people could travel everywhere. So it was [a] very open and big exchange in that time, mostly end of 60s, 70s, it was fantastic.

[15:07]

PETER KORCHNAK: During the Cold War, Yugoslavia enjoyed a unique status among countries: a market socialist state in neither the Eastern Bloc nor the West. The country remained open and from the 1960s on led the Non-Aligned Movement, which struggled against imperialism, colonialism, and all other forms of foreign domination, interference, and hegemony, particularly vis-a-vis the two great powers. This made it possible for artists, including mail artists, to work with much less government interference than in the countries of the Eastern Bloc and maintain connections with the outside world.

[15:38]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: In [the] 80s, it was still open, and all these [Yugoslav] mail art activities were the result of previous contacts and cultural influences. So the mail art was also very, very open and successful.

[15:58]

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslav artists participated in the mail art network from the early 1970s. The first major exhibition of mail art was held in Belgrade in January 1972, featuring mail art works from the Paris Biennale. The exhibition then traveled to Zagreb where the curator decided to protest the commodification and institutionalization of conceptual art by keeping the parcel in which the works arrived unopened and simply exhibiting the postal package as postal package.

[16:26]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: I entered this network in [the] early 70s, when I was studying in Prague, in Czechoslovakia, and I started sending out envelopes with some rubber stamp messages on them, to some friends, mostly in Yugoslavia, because I had their addresses. Because I was far away from home, for the first time in my life, it was my way to communicate with artists.

My real involvement in [the] network began in 1984, or 83, when I got in contact with Dobrica Kamperilić.

He gave me contacts, addresses of some foreign and interesting artists, and invitations to some projects, mail art projects, in exhibitions in the world. So I sent my first works to those addresses and get [sic] back some catalogs from those exhibitions which opened contacts with some more artists, new artists, because in those catalogs were addresses of those artists. So the circle was widening my communication. So I started real networking with hundreds of artists worldwide. So I received the daily for 10 to 20 artworks in to my mailbox. It was very vivid communication.

[17:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: Dobrica Kamperelić was a prominent figure in Yugoslav mail art who died last year.

[18:02]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: He was the big activist and he was linking all of us. He was giving us informations [sic] about events all over the world, announcing our projects, our exhibitions, everything. He very often published my works, my rubber stamps, my postcards, and my articles, and send it [sic] to the world. So he was [a] very important link to the world. He was always open. And I really admire him for that.

[18:37]

PETER KORCHNAK: Tišma used to say his mailbox was a gallery and the postman the curator.

In collaboration with galleries, the media, and companies providing sponsorship-like funding, he organized a number of exhibitions.

In 1984, at the time of the Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, he invited mail artists to mail him works on the theme of the Olympics.

[18:56]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: In Olympic Games, it is important to take part; the same thing is in mail art, it’s important to take part. It’s not important who is the better or is the best, but just this communication and exchange.

[19:11]

PETER KORCHNAK: He received 120 artworks from 20 countries, which he first exhibited on a local television program that was broadcast throughout all of Yugoslavia.

[19:19]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: That was maybe the first mail art exhibition on TV.

[19:23]

PETER KORCHNAK: The exhibition then moved to a local art gallery, the following year to Sarajevo, where it was the first mail art exhibition in that city, and it was later exhibited at the next winter Olympics in Calgary.

Tišma estimates there were some 20 to 25 mail artists in Yugoslavia throughout the 70s and 80s. In the latter decade, some of them even helped revitalize the mail art network with new initiatives.

[19:45]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: The most of mail artists in Yugoslavia were located in Serbia, in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Subotica, Zrenjanin, Sombor, in those cities of Serbia and Vojvodina, mostly mostly I can say Vojvodina.

For example, there is a place called Odžaci—

[20:07]

PETER KORCHNAK: —a multicultural town of 8,800 people in western Vojvodina.

[20:10]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Five male artists were working and sending from Odžaci. Some said this is the biggest mail art center in the world—

[20:20]

PETER KORCHNAK: —on a per capita basis. The [Yugoslav] mail artists here were Serbs, including one Nenad Bogdanović, there was a Hungarian, there was a Slovak…

[20:28]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Also there were some in Zagreb, not so many, and in Ljubljana, also, it was [the] center of avant garde art. And not much in Bosnia.

There were maybe 10 very serious participants, active from early 80s till 90s and after. We were very much respected in the West and in the world.

Our role was even more respected in the 90s when the war started in Yugoslavia.

[21:08]

PETER KORCHNAK: Socialist Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991. One of the successor states was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro. Because of its role in the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, in May 1992 sanctions were imposed on the country. These included an international embargo, bans on scientific and technical cooperation, sports and cultural exchanges, and air travel.

[21:31]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: So we artists who were so active in this international network and the free exchange of everything and building the world with no frontiers, a world of brotherhood between people, artists, and nations, were suddenly disabled to communicate, to make art. One stamp, one postal stamp for United States costed [sic] as one kilo of bread. So you had to choose if you buy bread or send something to [the] United States.

[22:12]

PETER KORCHNAK: The embargo led to a two-year period of hyperinflation, up to 313 million percent per month, and shortages of everything from petrol to medications, as well as the explosion of the black market.

[22:23]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: And we mail artists still continued our exchange with the world. And we were against the war, we organized many actions and projects and performances against the war. And we were collaborating inside Yugoslavia, with all those separated republics, and this was very positive.

I was most active in [the] 90s in this network because it was the only way for me to get out of this international blockade and to show that we still can exist and work.

[23:03]

PETER KORCHNAK: In interviews back then Tišma would say, “culture should never be put under embargo.”

In 1994, since mail was stopped but phone links remained opened, he organized an exhibition of telefax art, with some 200 submissions sent to a gallery in Novi Sad via fax.

[23:19]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: We had many friends in the West who were opposing this embargo and blockade. Most mail artists opposed that.

Although we didn’t have what to eat and to drink, but we got this morale [sic] support, which is the most important, and we felt always that we are not left by those friends.

[23:40]

PETER KORCHNAK: Prominent mail artist John Held said at the time that “Yugoslav networker artists are freedom fighters and are serving as examples to other network artists. They are reminding us of art’s higher purpose. Their spirits have not been defeated, if anything they seem to have gotten stronger. They have done important things with their anti-embargo art actions. I think perhaps this has made their art even more relevant. Certainly it has given them increased respect throughout the world.”

[24:06]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: People in the West appreciated that very much in their articles about us: that we are teaching the morality of art and how to behave in these hard situations, and that we give them examples, how art should respond to war and aggression, and that in these difficult times, we continued our activities, although we were in some danger because in the time when people were drafted for war, doing against war it was a bit, you know, dangerous.

[24:51]

PETER KORCHNAK: Your mail art after the Yugoslav wars of dissolution. Did you continue making it?

[24:55]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: No, no, I stopped. It’s very simple. When I bought my first computer and got the internet in 1996, I stopped doing [Yugoslav] mail art. I stopped going to the post office, because all these years I was crowded with letters, postcards, works, papers, everything. My home is full of these boxes. And in 1996, I started internet communications with even more people, because the communication is faster.

Also some mail artists also became email artists, or electronic mail artists and internet artists. So we continued communication. I continued doing some digital works, digital graphics, videos, music, all in the field of internet art. And this is my way till today to express myself.

[25:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: One facet of mail art was cassette experimentalism, basically do-it-yourself experimental music distributed on audio tapes. It was strongest in the U.S., where it’s known as home taping. In Yugoslavia it only emerged in mid-80s, entering the mail art network from the punk scene; most cassette experimentalists in mail art in Yugoslavia were multi and mixed-media artists.

When I sought music for this episode, I discovered E.P.P., a Belgrade-based duo comprising Katie Woznicki, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and Vladimir Nikolić. E.P.P. stands for ekonomsko propagandni program, or economic propaganda program, which was the term used in socialist Yugoslavia for commercial breaks. Accordingly, the band E.P.P. makes short, commercial-length songs. The band is contemporary but I’d like to imagine that, had they been active in the 80s, they would have been part of cassette experimentalism and their music available via the mail art network.

Buy their music!

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – SONG]

“Eskimo / Koka Kola” by E.P.P.

The YUruguayan Connection: Yugoslav Mail Art and Its Latin American Counterparts

[27:29]

PETER KORCHNAK: In December 1975, the first-ever mail art exhibition in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, featured artists from 19 countries, including two from Yugoslavia. The event marked a turning point in the artistic exchanges, including mail art, between Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.

For Padín and his contemporaries in the two regions, mail art was an expression of a utopian fraternity of artists collaborating not just across but outside national borders. It was also one of the few, if not the only way these artists could gain any visibility outside their countries and particularly in the West.

[28:04]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: He really corresponded with, of course, Latin America, but almost I would say almost all the countries in Europe, and the US of course, and then maybe some other Asian countries.

As far as Yugoslavian artists, I checked the material that I have. And for example, I found a work by, well pardon my pronunciation, Miroljub Todorović.

And then in Participation

[28:37]

PETER KORCHNAK: —one of Clemente Padín’s magazines—

[28:39]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: —appears, for example, a call for works for the journal Total by Nenad Bogdanović, where he’s basically asking for 133 copies of a six-by-six centimeters work for his journal. Then, there’s another call by Bogdanović, in a later issue, 1985, for an exhibition, which is called Imprinted. And then again in 1985, another call this time by Andrej Tišma, for another exhibition called Private Life.

[29:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: To hear Andrej Tišma recount it—

[29:23]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Dobrica Kamperelić was very much in contact with South America. And he gave me contact with Clemente Padín and gave me some catalogs with his works. And so I was really, really fascinated about Clemente, his struggle for freedom. He made very, very explicit graphics about this situation. I liked it very much, and people all over the world liked it very much and respected him. So very early in [the] 80s, I got much from Latin America, from different countries, but also from Padín. And they’re all very talented artists from Latin America, giving [a] great, great contribution to the mail art network. I cannot, of course, I cannot remember all those names, you know, Latin American names, but Clemente Padín is the most known name, of course, and I keep much of his works in my archives.

In that time, we were leaving relatively normally. And that time, it was something very exciting for me to see how they live and under which circumstances. And maybe they gave us [an] example, how to behave when we were in similar situations, in [the] 90s.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “The Beach Era” by El Remolón]

[31:00]

PETER KORCHNAK: In both South America and Central/Eastern Europe, subjected as they were to oppressive regimes, artists used mail art networks to bypass censorship, counter repression, and challenge the political control of social, cultural, and personal life. For many, mail art became a sort of a survival strategy, one of the few ways to do art. And it connected artists with their counterparts in other countries as well as the broader revolutionary, counter-hegemonic communities. Of course, that it was practiced by using the state-run postal system made it all the more subversive.

In the Eastern Bloc, officials would often confiscate mail art and harass and even arrest artists engaged in the network (many mail artists were also doing conceptual and performance art). There are stories of Hungarian artists, for example, smuggling their works to Yugoslavia in order to use that country’s looser controls over the post.

It’s important to add that, even though Yugoslavia wasn’t as restrictive, it was still a one-party regime that exercised control over the cultural sphere, using art as a soft-power tool. There are instances of the most critical artists jailed for their troubles, for example; and the country’s openness did not mean that experimental artists, including of the mail kind, were able to represent Yugoslavia internationally.

What’s more, in both regions mail artists increasingly questioned artistic trends coming down from their respective reference points, be it New York, Paris, or Moscow, as well as their own marginal positions in the Cold War setup. Whether they supported decolonization or non-alignment, mail art became a prominent decentralizing strategy.

This is why mail art and other artistic exchanges between Latin America and Eastern Europe, including Uruguay and Yugoslavia, flourished in the 1970s and 80s. These were peripheral areas—peripheral to the West and to the East, that is—without a history of mutual colonial domination, cultivating artistic connections outside the cultural centers and institutions, outside the market, outside the Cold War, outside the colonial systems.

[32:57]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: In mail art, the money was not included in any way. So everything was free, the participation in exhibitions was free, you get the catalog for free, but your work stays where you send it. It was very, very open and democratic. Everybody could take part from whatever country from whatever continent. There were no frontiers in mail art: no state frontiers, no political frontiers, no racial frontiers, everything was open and we were all equal in this network.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

“Fabrika” by E.P.P.

The Yugoeslavia Folder: A History

[34:35]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: I’m an artist, a visual artist, and I’m also a writer, a researcher. I work as a choreographer. I work as— well, I do many things.

[34:44]

PETER KORCHNAK: Born in Uruguay, in 1981, Francisco Tomsich has a familial connection to the region of former Yugoslavia.

[34:50]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: My grandparents came from the Primorska region of Slovenia, after the First World War. They traveled via Trieste with Italian passports to Uruguay.

[35:03]

PETER KORCHNAK: In 2013, Francisco obtained the Slovenian citizenship and soon moved to Ljubljana.

One February day in 2015, he went to see an exhibition of the late Croatian multimedia artist Josip Stošić—

[35:15]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: —and I found his works so close to the ones from some artists in 70s and 80s in Uruguay that I wrote immediately to Clemente Padín.

For me and for many artists of my generation in the country, in Uruguay, Clemente Padín is a reference. And I just thought, “Ok, Clemente should know about some artists from the former Yugoslavia, who are maybe not so much in the mainstream.”

[35:46]

PETER KORCHNAK: Tomsich asked Padín for contacts of ex-Yugoslav artists he could meet in the region. It was the list Padín included in his reply that catapulted Francisco into the lost world of Yugoslav mail art.

[35:58]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: When he told me about the project, I was directly thinking about filming the interviews. So I proposed to him that I can film and that I can also make a film out of it.

[36:08]

PETER KORCHNAK: Henrike von Dewitz is a German anthropologist, photographer, and documentary filmmaker as well as Tomsich’s collaborator on the project.

[36:16]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: Filming the material we started in January 2018 when we interviewed Clemente Padin for the first time.

[SOUNDBITE – INTERVIEW WITH PADÍN in em>See You Tomorrow DOCUMENTARY]

[36:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: At the end of that year, Tomsich went to the Clemente Padín Archive at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, then managed by Riccardo Boglione. Tomsich put on a pair of blue latex gloves and opened a black folder labeled “Yugoeslavia.” Out of the folder spilled postcards, envelopes, drawings, photographs, and catalogs Padín had received from fellow mail artists practicing in Yugoslavia. Tomsich’s list of addresses grew from six to eighteen, and “La Carpeta ‘Yugoeslavia’” (The ‘Yugoeslavia’ Folder) project was born.

[37:07]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: The emails included in that list were not useful anymore.

[37:11]

PETER KORCHNAK: The .yu country code top-level domain was discontinued in 2010. So Francisco asked himself:

[37:17]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: What happens if I use this list, the postal addresses from this list, and I go to these places and try to meet these people not using any any of the social networks we have now, any of the digital channels we have now, but trying to stick into this to this addresses this physical addresses.

[37:37]

PETER KORCHNAK: The following summer, in June 2019, Tomsich traveled to Belgrade.

[37:42]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: I decided to start in Belgrade because most of [the] artists represented were from Belgrade or from the northern part of Yugoslavia, in the northern part of Serbia, in Vojvodina, close to the Hungarian border.

[37:56]

PETER KORCHNAK: In Serbia’s capital, he frequented the Center for Cultural Decontamination and attended events around Belgrade. Some of the people he met helped him expand his list yet again, to 25, and track down the people on it.

Plan A was to simply go to the addresses on the list and meet the artists there.

[38:15]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: Well, you know, when you go to Belgrade, every taxi driver will tell you, I mean, it is impossible to find anybody here because the streets change names, so many times, there are even books written about it.

But in fact, you know, this is a very paradoxical thing, which I think applies to the whole former Yugoslav sphere: sometimes the discourse of the change is more important than the reality of the change itself. In fact, these artists were living more or less, all of them in the same places.

[38:46]

PETER KORCHNAK: But the plan backfired. He could not get anyone to talk to him.

[38:49]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: Yeah, but you know, I mean, if you do it Uruguay, it could work.

[38:52]

PETER KORCHNAK: Initiate Plan B.

[38:54]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: So I sent letters to all of them. But the main reason of this first was sending the regards of Clemente Padin because, so to say, to bless the project. He asked me, “Okay, please send my regards to those people.” People he never met in life, but they were corresponding in the world of sending letters to each other for many years.

[39:16]

PETER KORCHNAK: Then he explained what he was doing and asked to meet them.

[39:20]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: And I wait[ed] for the answers.

[39:22]

PETER KORCHNAK: Three weeks later, responses started arriving. The first to mail back was Andrej Tišma.

I can just picture it: Here he is, doing his thing in Novi Sad, in the 66th summer of his life, and out of nowhere a letter from a stranger turns up in the mail, like a blast from the past.

How did you feel when you received Tomsich’s letter? What went through your mind?

[39:41]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Oh, well. First, some nice memories, you know, because for me [Yugoslav] mail art is a memory, very pleasant time and my activities and interesting people.

When I received this letter from Francisco, I was very pleasantly surprised that some young person is interested in that history. And of course he mentioned Clemente and that he’s the source for his information. And of course I accepted to talk with him.

[SOUNDBITE – ANDREJ TIŠMA INTERVIEW IN See You Tomorrow DOCUMENTARY]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: It was not allowed to send letters to Yugoslavia from Croatia when it separated because they did not allow it…

ANDREJ TIŠMA: And it was very nice for me, like a memory, like someone from the past calls you and wants to talk about that period. And although I forgot much from that time, the names and…

[40:38]

PETER KORCHNAK: Tomsich and von Dewitz visited and interviewed a number of artists on the list. They chatted about personal histories of the artists’ engagement with mail art, about their archives, about their linkages to South American artists in general and to Padín in particular…

Dobrica Kamperelić gave them what may have been his final interview. And they also visited Nenad Bogdanović, he of the two calls for entries Boglione located in Padín’s magazines.

Bogdanović was active in the mail art network in the 1980s and early 1990s and has since been a prominent performance artist. He’s one of the artists working in Odžaci, that dense Vojvodinan hub of [Yugoslav] mail art.

[41:13]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: We met him, he was waiting for us in [sic] the train station, we went to his house, he opened his archives to us.

[SOUNDBITE – NENAD BOGDANOVIĆ in See You Tomorrow DOCUMENTARY]

[41:21]

NENAD BOGDANOVIĆ: I know Clemente. We corresponded many many years ago, maybe from [the] 80s.

[41:30]

PETER KORCHNAK: By then Tomsich was planning an exhibition of documents and artworks related to the project. Bogdanović—

[41:35]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: He said, “Okay, this is a nice thing, what if I go to Montevideo.” So I said, Okay.

[41:41]

PETER KORCHNAK: Bogdanović got some funding from Serbia’s culture ministry to travel to the opening of Tomsich’s exhibition.

[41:47]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: And he came, he came to Montevideo for the first time in his life. He also met Clemente Padín at his house.

[SOUNDBITE – NENAD BOGDANOVIĆ VISITING CLEMENTE PADÍN IN See You Tomorrow DOCUMENTARY]

[42:02]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: I think what was the most incredible part was that—and this is also in the movie now—that Clemente Padín and Nenad Bogdanović, finally also because of the exhibition, were able to meet each other and for me this was very, very incredible because they wrote to each other many, many years ago and not some years but yeah, decades. So maybe they don’t even know each other so well, but something they were very deep [sic] connected. And they were very happy to meet each other and think about the old times how it was.

[42:38]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: When I saw that, I realized, something was going on with this research project. It’s something which would help to keep building the network somehow. And this was also related to friendship, it was connected to affinities.

These things are very, very hard to articulate, rationalize. But these things are the most important aspects, the things which are related to the interpersonal— to create an interpersonal possibility.

[43:08]

PETER KORCHNAK: On December 13th, 2019, a Friday, the “Yugoeslavia Folder” exhibition opened at the Museum of Memory in Montevideo. Exhibits included photographs, objects, prints, texts, and documents related to the project, including a contribution from Andrej Tišma’s archive.

[43:24]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: I am glad that this exhibition was realized. Later, I seen [sic] the show in my Private Life catalog there, some pages with Uruguayan artists. This mail art show, Private Life, was my biggest success. It was shown in 14 cities in Yugoslavia.

[43:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: So sheets of art from the exhibition that had solicited entries from Uruguayan mail artists in Padín’s magazine back in 1985 made their way to Uruguay more than thirty years later.

The vernissage, attended by more than a thousand people, featured a performance by Nenad Bogdanović, an experimental silent short Tomsich had made in Belgrade while awaiting the mail artists’ responses, and a draft of von Dewitz’s documentary.

[SOUNDBITE – INTERVIEW WITH PADÍN IN See You Tomorrow DOCUMENTARY]

[44:15]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: I have seen this video that they shown [sic] in Montevideo, and I see Clemente first remember[ed] my name, from Serbia. Francisco ask[ed] him, “Who do you remember from Yugoslavia, from those mail artists?” “Oh, Andrej Tišma…” Oh, I was so glad I was the first who he remembers because you know with the time you lose memories of names in your head.

[44:43]

PETER KORCHNAK: The room where the exhibition took place—

[44:45]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: —is very special in the Museum of Memory, because it’s devoted to the memory of the dictatorship and how the people get to produce some kind of resistance to the dictatorship.

[44:54]

PETER KORCHNAK: In the middle of the room, pots and pans hang from the ceiling. Uruguayans banged on casseroles like these on balconies and streets in protest against the oppressive government.

Tomsich first wanted to remove them for the duration of his exhibition. Then he learned that Serbs in the 1990s banged pots and pans from their windows and balconies to drown out the sound of the main evening newscast on the government-run TV channel. So the pots and pans stayed.

Unlike Bogdanović, Tišma doesn’t like to travel so he has only been following all this from his home in Novi Sad. He’s in the documentary; his exhibition was part of Tomsich’s; he has in a way reconnected with his [Yugoslav] mail art days, with fellow mail artists, with Padín… So I ask him for his take on Tomsich’s project, how it feels to be a part of it.

[45:38]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: Oh, just so nice.

I was really really surprised how nice it was done. And the audience was studying our works and reading and watching and this video and it’s very interesting, huh.

This is a great physical distance between Serbia and Uruguay but it seems that we are very close.

We from Yugoslavia were very active and protesting this war and everything, similar to Latin American artists. So maybe we have something in common in our nature, to resist, to fight. So it shows that the physical distance doesn’t mean nothing.

[46:26]

PETER KORCHNAK: The project—

[46:25]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: —is not finished yet, actually. So we are thinking about going on. We don’t know yet how long we will go on.

[46:33]

PETER KORCHNAK: For as long as it takes, I guess. Tomsich told me that some of the ideas for the next phase include publishing a book about the Yugoeslavia Folder; organizing exhibitions in Serbia to replicate the one in Montevideo; and expanding his scope to other former Yugoslav republics.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

“Žene” by E.P.P.

[47:55]

PETER KORCHNAK: When I first learned of this story on Tomsich’s Instagram, I immediately knew I had to look into it. Padín’s list launched Tomsich on a journey of discovery, and I found that fascinating. Little did I know that Tomsich’s instapost would do the same to me. Step by step, stop by stop, I ventured further and deeper into the narrative labyrinth than I first imagined. I haven’t made it to the center yet.

In elementary school, in Czechoslovakia before 1989, everyone in my compulsory Russian language class had to correspond with a pen friend in the Soviet Union. After the Velvet Revolution, as a high schooler, at the time Tišma and other Serbian mail artists fought against the war and the embargo with their art, I was exchanging light-hearted letters in English with a network of pen pals all over the world, from Canada to Argentina, from Iceland to Greece, from Japan to the Philippines.

I remember—and, I realized, kind of miss—the thrill of opening my mailbox and collecting a stack of letters from all corners of the world, even though most contained the written equivalent of small talk. To this day, to my wife’s amusement, I open my mailbox with traces of excitement and anticipation even the daily disappointment can’t quite quash.

I can only imagine how mail artists must have felt in those same moments, retrieving from their mail boxes all kinds of art from all over the world, responding to their own works.

What’s more, they were part of something bigger than themselves, something they helped build, something that was doing the political work they were not otherwise allowed to do in the authoritarian, dictatorial, or totalitarian regimes where they lived.

[49:22]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: I’m a big fan of mail. As an anthropologist this exchange was interesting and also this mail art exchange was very interesting because it was very political. Normally post is used as a personal thing that somebody informs somebody about something but it’s not so much used about politics and I think this was very different in the mail art project.

It was stronger because it was very physical.

[49:53]

PETER KORCHNAK: No politics exchanged hands, so to speak, in my little pen pal exchanges, and little stickers and doodles in the margins were as art-y as it got. But I made a few what I thought of as somewhat close friends and I even visited one in Hungary and one in Portugal.

For Tomsich, too, the friendship piece was central to the mail art exchanges.

[50:11]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: The most important thing now is related to friendship. Because the word friendship was very present from the beginning. So to say, it’s a red thread, going through the whole thing.

[50:24]

PETER KORCHNAK: Friendships cultivated over the years of exchanging artworks; friendships fostered through the hardships of living and working under oppressive regimes; friendships that endured even after the exchange stopped… Friendships that got revived through a stranger’s intervention.

If friendship is the thread, the path serpentines through many curves and corners. Reminiscing about the way things used to be, in terms of mail and, in this case, mail art, unseals the realm of memory. Rediscovering friendships in the archive of ages. Reconnecting, at life’s sunset, with old friends, even though you’ve never met them, through mail, through art…

Recall the first thing Tišma said when he received Tomsich’s letter.

[51:02]

ANDREJ TIŠMA: For me [Yugoslav] mail art is a memory.

[51:05]

PETER KORCHNAK: It’s all about the things we used to do, the people we used to be.

[51:08]

HENRIKE VON DEWITZ: What is very interesting, but this is something which anthropologists always also like to investigate, and this is memory, like what do people remember? Maybe what is the most important thing they remember from these times?

Because of this mail art, they made newspapers and exhibitions. So when we interviewed them, everybody said, this guy made this newspaper and this one made this and then we had an exhibition there. And yeah, like the memory, what they remember from these times and also things which, yeah, which are not so clear anymore for them, because it’s many years ago.

[51:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: Mail art was always on the margins of the art world. Aside from its political impact, it has been “inconsequential,” as Steward Home has put it, adding that it is precisely the democratic nature of mail art, the sheer number of practitioners, that prevented it from becoming an established and valued art form.

An additional reason: it was the act of exchange that was the goal, not the artwork itself. In the process of postal communication, the art retreated into the background. Sometimes works were exhibited or collected in magazines, but the principle of No jury – No return – No fee meant that anything went as long as it was mailed.

Here’s the art critic Riccardo Boglione’s observation.

[52:26]

RICCARDO BOGLIONE: Now it’s more than, I guess, 25 years that I’m working on visual poetry and concrete poetry and experimental literature etcetera. And I’ve seen that basically, for example, from the academia, almost all those fields are studied. And even at a commercial level, all the magazines and books of the era has risen in prices.

But that doesn’t apply with mail art. There are no— I’m sure there are papers about mail art but there are no books for example, that really try to reconstruct the history of mail art. And there’s not a market yet I think, which is something that happened with with all the other experimental fields of the time.

[53:19]

PETER KORCHNAK: Indeed, operating outside the market by default, on purpose, too, contributed to mail art remaining outside the realm of commercial exchanges.

Clemente Padín has written that “the capitalist system deepens the alienation of the artist” by forcing them to express themselves in a way that fits the profit impulse rather than their essence as artist. “In other words,
the artist sees himself obliged to work for art rather than to live for his art.”

Not everything needs to be commodified, and this is perhaps one additional reason for my appreciation of mail art.

In mail art’s decentralized structure I also see parallels with popular education, whereby everyone teaches and everyone learns, and with open space technology whereby participants create the meeting agenda. If a conference, for example, is an event where the program is decided by the organizers, an open space version of a conference, also known as an unconference, is an event where sessions are decided by participants. Everyone’s an expert in something and so everyone can lead a session. Only topics important to the group at the time are raised. And whoever comes to the sessions is the right people.

Mail art follows similar principles of debate, decision making, and deliberation. Anyone can participate. Whoever does participate is the right people. And participants decide the agenda, the topics of projects, of exhibitions, of publications. As the Hungarian mail artist György Galántai put it, mail art is “a sort of brain-storming that makes it possible for us to find out what people are interested in and what the answers are.”

The self-managing, self-financing, and self-promoting aspects of mail art also find echoes in the practices of Yugoslav self-management. In fact, and this is perhaps the biggest-picture piece of this story, Tomsich’s work to reconnect Uruguayan and Yugoslav mail artists speaks to the persistence of Yugoslavia as a cultural project.

[55:04]

FRANCISCO TOMSICH: If we say, there are so many important issues to be thought about Yugoslavia as a cultural project, then it becomes very interesting. Because in fact, the culture project was the one less developed, but for some reason, and maybe because of that, it’s the one which persists [the] most.

What do I mean by that: as a political project Yugoslavia disappeared. A cultural project takes more time. For me, the Yugoslav cultural project is persisting in many more levels than the political one. It’s very persistent. Even if you want to hide it, if you want to destroy it, it’s very hard to destroy this.

These people who were born in Yugoslavia and who start[ed] their career in Yugoslavia, they are alive and they are not so old. And they are still working, many of them. And this is a persistence of the project, which goes much much much behind the political narratology of Yugoslavia.

[56:04]

PETER KORCHNAK: To quote Vesna Goldsworthy, “Just because Yugoslavia is no longer there, it doesn’t mean that it has gone away.” Indeed, Ranko Bugarski doubles down when he says, “a closer look at the larger scene may even leave the observer with the impression that in purely cultural terms Yugoslavia never really disintegrated.”

This, after all, is what this podcast is all about.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC]

[56:30]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:

ELENA ČEMERSKA: I said, Okay, enough, I’m taking control of this. And I looked at it as sort of a gesture of resistance. I think that it was quite a healthy way to, to take this agency and use it into something that would be that would make you feel happier.

PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, a story of a monument bringing people together again thanks to one exile who decided she had enough.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

[57:10]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, samples of mail art, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

If you like this podcast, become a monthly supporter at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia, or make a one-time contribution at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Sea Dragon, El Remolón, and Petar Alargić and sound effects by agaxly, CarlEwart, and sethlind licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

¡Adios!

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