This exhibition is guest curated by the Comox Valley artist Ed Varney who, in 1970, was one of the first Canadian artists to participate in the “Mail Art Network”. The Mail Art Network had it’s origins in the late sixties as artists around the world began to exchange works of art through the postal system. It was an early form of social networking between artists and the transactions took place outside the “art world” of galleries, museums, and the art market. For some artists, Mail Art was a means of meeting other artists through the medium of their work; for others it provided a network of fellow artists in other countries to visit and perhaps spend a night while travelling. For others, particularly artists living under repressive governments, Mail Art provided a window on the world and an opportunity to make their concerns known.
Ed Varney became interested in exchanging art through the postal system in the early 1970s. A loose network of artist began to use these exchanges as an important part of their art strategy – disseminating both personal and political ideas, arranging exhibitions which included each other’s work, and producing publications. This web of associations became known as the Mail Art Network and was a networking precursor of the internet.
With the approaching 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Ed Varney felt this would be a great opportunity to stage an art event which paralleled the Olympics but which was completely egalitarian and based on co-operation rather than competition. He felt that such an exhibition would have many of the qualities which drove the modern Olympic movement before it became distorted by rampant commercialism. In early 2009, Varney sent out invitations to approximately 250 artists on his mailing lists and distributed the invitation through arts journals and the internet. He received work from over 350 artists representing 41 countries, much of it in colourfully decorated envelopes.
For the Mail Art Olympix, Varney picked three “event” categories. The first event, the artist Self Portrait, is a format which has always been interesting to both artists and the public. He felt that this intimate form would be an exciting visual treat focusing as it does on how artists present themselves and the many masks they wear. The second event, Artistamps, seemed like a good choice since many artists around the world worked in this format which parallels and parodies official postage stamps – something which mail artists use a lot. Artists interpreted the Artistamp category liberally and produced not only sheets of artistamps, but designs for potential stamps, collages that used stamps, and rubber stamp art as well. Varney chose Manifestos as the third event knowing that even if there were not as many entries as the other events, it would give insights into the concerns, methods and intent of artists. Surprisingly, many of the manifestos that were sent to him were visual rather than written and most artists participated in more than one event category.
Mail Art is seen as a particularly important form in countries where freedom of expression is limited as Mail Art allows artists to comment on political and personal issues outside their home countries in a completely free and uncensored environment. There is also a Dadaist sense of humour apparent in a lot of Mail Art and a sense that Mail Art exists outside the “art world” of commercial and institutional galleries, art criticism, and an unhealthy concern with money which dogs much of contemporary art. Many of the manifestos address these concerns. Varney hopes that artists and arts animators around the globe will continue to create variations on the Mail Art Olympix in an effort to engage artists of all stripes to participate in what has otherwise become a closed and elitist spectacle.