Way back in the late 1960s a man called Ray Johnson invented mail art. There are of course lots of people that care way to much about this sort of thing that will try and argue with this idea and point to the Futurists and various people from various art movements before him that had a fleeting interest in the concept, but it was Johnson that went the whole hog and dedicated pretty much his whole career to it, put a name on it and made up the rules.
The name was the New York Correspndance [sic] school. The rules Johnson invented are the only real way of defining mail art in a world where 'mail', its form, its function and the way it is delivered, is in such a constant flux. They were that anyone can be involved, there can be no official judge of what is good and what isn't, that everything has to be exhibited and nobody pays for anything or gets to ask for anything back. In a world of increasingly clever marketing and the appropriation of subversive art to sell products and services, these rules represent the thin line between the 'free exchange of art' Johnson was setting out to give rise to and the marketing / junk mail / spam we all ignore on a daily basis.
Traditional mail art reached its zenith during the mid 60s to early 80s. The movement really hit the headlines when extreme performance art terrorists COUM used the medium to enrage the establishment in their inimitable way. Hundreds of pornographic images were cut up to create subversive collages and mailed out to a network of artists across the globe. Of course the inherent chance that someone unexpected could end up with the work led to the group being taken to court by the Post office and a tabloid storm. This of course became a key part of the artwork itself, as the point of mail art was always to garnish a reaction to whatever it was you sent out. Mail art exhibitions would be mainly comprised of what the artist in question received back from what they originally mailed out.
Nowadays the traditional mail art scene has all but died with the rise of the internet and internet culture rendering it all but obsolete. Indeed the mail artists of the 60s themselves had predicted something of the sort happening, mail art was always about creating social networks of artists and encouraging everyone to contribute equally. Even though e-mail art, which would seem to be the obvious route for the movement to take, never really kicked off, online forums and imageboards thrive with artists and enthusiasts across the globe contribute to various community based projects for little more than the 'lulz'. Sites like Myspace and Facebook encourage users to upload images and designs and to share them with friends. Anonymous imageboards like 4chan and the millions of vbulletin boards online encourage the sharing of images and ideas, the creation of memes – popular images made for and by self sustained online communities for their own amusement.
Online mail art, as fun and effective as it may be, has moved on so much from its roots that sending physical art has become a dying form. Around 60% of people will chose electronic communication, such as a text message other than sending physical (snail) mail these days. It's changing the nature of what we can call mail, or mail art. The internet is fine for sending images, music, video and short to-the-point messages but it is impossible to send anything truly hand made, losing something of the quirkyness, personal touch and unexpectedness of traditional mail art. The relative ease it takes to send out thousands upon thousands of emails has resulted in such high levels of spam that people will generally ignore any unsolicited correspondence. Social networks are well and good but with the majority of them comprised only of people we already know or totally anonymous strangers happening upon a certain website, the scene has lost something.
In an effort to boost the use of traditional mail and restore it’s ties to mail art, Tracey Emin has teamed up with High Life, a British Airways periodical, as part of its Save the Postcard campaign with Comic Relief. Emin, alongside a rash of artists and celebrities, has designed a postcard for the campaign to commemorate the mail art movement and to encourage people to take the time to find, purchase or even create themselves and send postcards again.