McKenzie Wark on Sat, 12 Oct 2002 06:34:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> From Mail Art to (studies in tactical media #3)


>From Mail Art to Ray Johnson and the Lives of the Saints.

McKenzie Wark <>

A review of:
How to Draw a Bunny, directed by John Walter, Film Forum, 209 W Houston st.
Ray Johnson: How To Draw a Bunny, Feigen Contemporary, 535 W 20th st. New 

"Twenty-eight dollars a month -- including utilities." This was the line in 
John Walker's film about the artist Ray Johnson that makes a New York 
audience release a collective sigh. That it used to be cheaper to live in 
the city everyone assumes -- but *that* cheap? It's the moment when you 
realize that the New York art world of the 50s and 60s was a different 

Ray Johnson is the kind of artist who could only come from such a world. 
Some consider him the founder of Mail Art, which in turn might stand as a 
significant but undervalued precursor to But he is much more than 

How To Draw a Bunny documents Johnson's trajectory from Detroit to the Black 
Mountain school to the Lower East Side using an amazing array of photographs 
-- somehow people intuited that he was someone whose life just had to be 
documented. There's even footage from a time when a videographer followed 
him around. (Mercifully, we're shown very little of this, as video does a 
poor job of presenting anyone's legend).

Johnson is one of those artists for whom there is no division between art 
and life. The work that ends up in the frame is a document of a process than 
an artifact. It is not the completion of the creative process but merely its 
medium, its means; art as a verb, not a thing. The challenge for an artist 
like Johnson is to live aesthetically. Cheap-rent New York of the 60s, with 
its remarkable concentration of spaces within which to explore such a 
possibility and people with the wit and sensibility to see it when it 
manifests, is one of the few places this was ever really possible. In the 
wake of the hyper-commodified art world of the present, How to Draw a Bunny 
looks like something from the Lives of the Saints -- an exemplary life from 
another time.

Make no mistake -- I don't mean to propose Johnson as a secular equivalent 
of a saint for ironic purposes. There seems to me a real need to identify 
what might occupy the place of sainthood, in a world in which even art is 
completely dominated by the commodity. By saying there is something saintly 
about Johnson I do not mean he was a moral goody-goody, the kind of vapid 
greeting card veneration that has overtaken all kinds of veneration of the 
exceptional, whether saintly or secular. Rather, the artist as saint is 
someone who manages to reveal the venality of this world through her or his 
method of interacting with it, and in so doing, point toward the possibility 
of living otherwise.

A remarkable range of New York art world luminaries are assembled in this 
film to comment on Johnson, and none really have anything much to say about 
him. The police officer who discovered his body comes much closer to him 
than any of the commentators who knew Johnson when he was alive. He was, as 
a saint should be, opaque to mere psychologizing. He works a different 
plane. Johnson's inner motivations become uninteresting, invisible. It is 
what his actions show of what the world is or could become that matter.

The talking heads who populate the film are called upon as witnesses. They 
tell stories about Johnson which validate his otherness. In some stories, we 
hear of Johnson's ability to aestheticize any and every moment. There is no 
privileged space where art resides. There's a Dada strain to Johnson's 
antics, but at some point they cease being acts of negation, aimed against 
some institution or moral. They become pure affirmative acts that open up 
the possibilities for aesthetic wonder or joy from within everyday lived 

Some stories are about the commodity aspect of the art-work. When it comes 
time to name a price, to bargain, Johnson appears to 'haggle', but not in 
the name of a rational self interest. Rather, he haggles to call into 
question not the value of the artwork but the process of valuation. When a 
buyer counters Johnson's $2000 price with a $1500 offer, he ends up owning 
the work, with a quarter of it cut out. The correspondence about the value 
becomes an art in and of itself.

Some of the stories are about the prestige value of art, and its management 
by the museum and gallery system. Johnson uses the horizontal, networked, 
circulatory possibilities of the US Mail to escape the hierarchical lines of 
control of the art world. But Johnson's mail art is more than that. It has a 
positive dimension as well. It opens up the possibility of a democratic 
aesthetic in which any relationship, between anyone, can be the moment of 
creation and reflection.

One of my favorite moments in the film shows Pop Art master Roy Lichtenstein 
offering patronizing remarks about Johnson. The joke is on Roy, not Ray. It 
is Lichtenstein whose work now seems dated, obvious, merely bourgeois. It 
was a form of novelty that validated the systems of commodity and prestige 
value against which it rubbed its elegant surfaces. At a time when every 
other gallery in town plays out the tedious end game of Pop with banal 
cartoon gestures decorating the walls, it is Johnson's tiny granules of the 
everyday sublime, glued on cardboard and shoved in envelopes, that speaks to 
the possibilities of an art to come.

Johnson hung out with or bumped around with key people in the Fluxus and Pop 
Art scenes. It would not be hard to assign him art-historical precedents, 
whether acknowledged (Joseph Cornell) or unacknowledged (Kurt Schwitters). 
It makes more sense to think of artists like Schwitters, Cornell, Johnson, 
as spontaneously generated by a commodified culture as an alterative use of 
its most devalued resources. They are figures who get annexed to avant garde 
schools or movements rather than being products of them.

What is extraordinary in Johnson's art is the capacity to detach any and 
every appearance from its everyday relations, seize it for a moment, draw 
out the infinite threads of its possible connection to other moments, fix 
the trace of those connections in the image, and reinsert it into the 
everyday flux to which it tends -- that is Johnson's practice. One could say 
this was 'genius', if one could detach that word from its commonplace sense, 
and revalue it as precisely this practice. It is not that Johnson was 'a 
genius', rather he offers the possibility of freeing that old shopworn word 
from its complicity in prestige hierarchies and commodity value. Genius 
might not be what the great artist 'has', a personal property. It might be a 
revealing of the spirit of things, outside their capture in the routines of 
power and value.

There's a small show of Johnson's work at Feigen Contemporary. It's a 
gathering of traces, of letters, collages, photographs, tucked away in the 
basement, away from the wall decorations on sale upstairs. Feigen himself 
appears in the film, making an asshole of himself. He complains of how 
difficult Ray Johnson was. How hard it was to deal with him when you "have a 
business to run." It's another precious moment, in which one sees the saint 
as the one who reveals the everyday folly of others, their attachment to 
trivial or passing things. And does it, what's more, as an act of love. It 
reminds me of nothing so much as Pasolini's Teorama, in which a bourgeois 
family witness the sacred but are completely unable to appreciate it for 
what it is.

There is no positive doctrine at work in Ray Johnson's work. It has no 
message. It has nothing to declare. It attaches itself to what others value. 
Johnson's collages are populated by a whole pantheon of celebrities, from 
the art world, Hollywood -- from anywhere. This has nothing to do with Pop 
deadpan, postmodern irony, Situationist detournément. It is -- and yet isn't 
-- camp. It is more a matter of gathering the most profane detritus of what 
other people value, and pausing over it, lingering over its fallen glory. 
Johnson is always resuscitating the faint pulse of desire, finding a context 
within it may breathe. Johnson's style is camp abstracted, camp made both 
more secret and more open.

There is a politics to Johnson's various practices, but it is not the 
capital-P Politics of the avant gardes from Dada to Art & Language. It is an 
everyday, quotidian politics of quotation as a material act, a free indirect 
speech, a packet switching of the raw material of the connections between 
perception and affection. Here hints a world in which the aesthetic is a 
practice, as Henry Flynt says, of "just liking", but also of attempting to 
communicate the fleeting, solipsistic experience of liking in the particular 
as an abstracted love of experience in general, beyond the commodity form.

One of the Johnson photocopies on display at Feigen Contemporary shows two 
of Johnson's bunny head drawings, side by side, which say:


Here is where his work makes explicit its intimations of, as a 
practice that will take the splitting of the image from its material support 
as a route out of the commodification of art as object. Conceptual art still 
had too, too precious a notion of the artist's vocation, as grand designer 
of the rationale that others would execute and experience. It dematerialized 
the art object, but not the artist. If anything the artist becomes more 
valued in the late 20th century avant gardes precisely through the devaluing 
of the object. Johnson subverts the problem. His work is all craft, not 
grand design. The conceptual dimension to his work arises out of the 
practice, rather than being imposed upon it. His is a tactical, rather than 
a logistics of art as media.

The usher at Film Forum -- also a witness -- told me this story: When How To 
Draw a Bunny premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the filmmakers 
distributed buttons with Johnson's distinctive bunnyhead emblem on them. 
Some of these soon turned up on eBay, either as Johnson 'originals', or 
passed off as the work of the seller. Consequently, the buttons later put on 
sale at Feigen Contemporary have "Copyright the estate of Ray Johnson" 
stamped across them. It's a telling sign of how far away we are from an age 
in which Johnson's art might have been possible. When artists are paying 
thousands a month -- without utilities -- to live and work in New York, that 
rare coincidence of concentration and poverty that made Johnson's early work 
possible disappears. There can be no art in any put the most banal sense 
when art is immediately branded as "intellectual property". This is why it 
matters to tell and retell the stories of the "lives of the saints", such as 

Of course it wasn't all fun and happenings. Johnson moved out to Long Island 
in 1968 after a particularly nasty mugging. From this point on, mail art as 
a means of dispersed connection becomes significant. Perhaps the whole 
history of the avant gardes is a history of mail art. Perhaps just as there 
is no capital-A Art without a gallery to hang it, there is no avant garde 
without a mail system to circulate around it. Perhaps we are obliged to 
think of as what escapes the museum or the gallery without 
necessarily being opposed to it. It can take from Johnson a quite new 
practice for the avant garde. Most avant garde movements are built on 
members whose identity is known, in opposition to others, also known in 
advance. Johnson's New York Correspondance [sic] School is a practice that 
can address itself to anyone with a zip code.

How To Draw a Bunny begins and ends with the question of Johnson's suicide 
in 1995. It appears that he arranged his affairs and staged his death as one 
last artwork. Rather than pondering how extraordinary this seems, one might 
try to imagine why it is that it should seem extraordinary at all. In what 
other way can an artist 'Return to Sender' a package with no address?

McKenzie Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto

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