In 1978, British Mail Artist Pauline Smith wrote, in one of her beautiful Letraset compositions, “I’m afraid I don’t know what this is all about” on a work called A Length by Niels Lomholt, or Lomholt Formular Press, as he used to call himself. German artist albrecht d. added: “I can’t speak Danish” and “It’s a surprise for me to read that Pauline Smith has the same problem”. Surely it could not have come as a surprise to him that Smith did not speak Danish?
Lomholt Formular Press published formulae, documents that have all the trappings of the bureaucratic form but function in the exact opposite way. Rather than making information comparable and quantifiable, they are tailored to generate an ever-expanding cloud of responses that radiate from the formula outwards. There are all the usual boxes and dotted lines, but instead of easily answerable questions they are headed by phrases such as “Are you satisfied with not being able to move any part of your body but your feet?”, “The duration of the action … measurement as experienced” and “Describe the point between run and walk”. Surely language is not the only problem, or even the biggest one.
American Mail Artist Irene Dogmatic wrote, “To tell you the truth, I have trouble participating in your projects quite often, (1) because they seem extremely self-contained to begin with (i.e. the idea seems inherent in the forms you send, almost as if they can stand without additions by anyone) and (2) quite often your ideas are over my head”. And Davi Det Hompson, also from the US: “It’s difficult for me to find a place to enter into your formula. Yes, there are plenty of empty boxes and dotted lines, yet, you seem to have already filled the important ones”. These artists have difficulty filling out the forms because to them, they already seem to contain everything that is necessary. The boxes and dotted lines make it clear that a response is asked for, but the general setup – and, to venture a guess, the images and words added by Lomholt himself – indicates that all the necessary ingredients are not there.
Smith’s and albrecht d.’s response does something else. It is critical, but it engages with the work as well. Smith sculpts her words around the words and images that are already present on the page, drawing attention to the form as a visual composition. Albrecht d. responds to the bureaucratic overtones, adding comments such as “Formular paranoia” and “Lomholt shows the crazy world today”. Both respond in the spirit of their own work. Smith’s Mail Art works are immediately recognisable by the beautifully balanced Letraset and collage compositions, and albrecht d.’s work, both in visual art and in Mail Art, thematises the violence and paranoia of everyday reality. Both artists responded on the basis of their own practice.
On the template of A Length, Lomholt wrote a numbered list of what a formula is to him: a process, a practical example of the irrational development of an action or an idea, a way of asking questions, a world that has not materialised yet, a series of material layers, a chance of watching the private as it develops itself, a starting point for change, a mirror, a list of other things and a poem. One thing is to hear him say it, another is to see his contacts enact it. To watch artists such as Smith and albrecht d. as they try to come to grips with the form, as they develop the work in the process, as they respond to the questions posed explicitly and implicitly, as they help to materialise the work, as they mirror themselves in the form and are mirrored by it – as they interact with it as a work of art in their own artwork.
Self-contained? Over your head? Impossible to penetrate? All you have to do is look at the way others have come to grips with it.