Mail art is something which a person makes, considering it art, and then sends to someone through the postal service. The term can also refer to the process of making the artwork. The sent object can in theory be of any size or dimensions, although certain postal services have arbitrary size limits and most mail art is sent in envelopes (often themselves decorated) or on a postcard (10cm by 15 cm). People also make ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) which are homemade versions of the football club or Cabbage Patch Kids cards swopped by children. Zines can be considered a form of mail art when traded by post.
Mail artists work with many techniques which can include pencil drawing, charcoal, collage, oil paints, computer imagery or watercolours. Found art is often employed as a base material. There are also subgenres of mail art such as rubber stamp makers who collect stamps from various sources and even make their own, or artistamp makers, who make fake stamps (which have been known to be sent through the post on letters performing the function of real stamps).
Certain types of project have become common, such as send and return when an artist sends out a piece of art, which the receiver modifies and then sends back, or send and pass on when an artist sends out for example an A4 sheet, asking artists to add a contribution and then send the sheet on to another artist. Ryosuke Cohen has created his own variant of the former with his Brain Cell project: he asks artists to send him something they have made in 150 copies. This could be in the form of stamps, drawings or stickers. He then produces 150 copies of an artwork collaging all the contributions and sends the completed piece back to every single contributor. The project began in 1985 and so far he has made hundreds of editions.
Mail art has certainly been going as long as people have been sending each other mail, but in the 1960s it became a recognised phenomenon. The prolific Ray Johnson with his New York Correspondence School is regarded by some as the father of mail art. Avant garde groups such as Fluxus in the 1960s and the closely connected network of artists involved in the 1970s industrial movement (such as Genesis P-Orridge from Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions) frequently made mail art.
Despite fears that the internet and increased electronic communications would lead to the death of mail art, there are still many mail artists making and swopping objects through the post. In fact, the internet can be a useful tool to find out about new projects to swop with (see addresses at bottom of page). Simon Dwyer was probably wrong to state in Rapid Eye 3 that "as a subversive information conduit (rather than an Alternative Art Movement) the Mail Art genre has long been forgotten amid the plundering of new technologies", but he also makes an interesting comment: "I have always been in two minds about such mail art. It epitomises a central problem of much 'alternative art'. That is, in individual, creative terms, it may all be very healthy and fun, in that some people are encouraged to communicate and produce rather than solely consume. It may also give isolated minds the feeling that they are not alone, and give artists who are too extreme to be popular in Cork Street or the galleries on Melrose Avenue a slightly 'subversive' avenue of expression, but -ultimately- that's all it usually does. It's not exactly going to change anyone's world"
Although one must spend money to send the item, mail art is never sold and normally swopped. There is a network of traders and the way to enter it is simply to make something and send it out to people. It is more than likely that these people will then send back something which they have created. Occasionally artists make a mail art call - this is when they request to be sent mail art on a certain theme. An example of this was the Visions of Utopia project, which also featured an accompanying zine as documentation. These calls can be found on the internet or are included in mail art packages.