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How an Underground Mail Art Project Wove Through London in the 90s

Matthew Higgs’ ‘Imprint 93’ incubated a wide variety of experimental artworks.

by DJ Pangburn
06 November 2016, 1:10pm

Imprint 93. Selected publications and editions c. 1993-1997. Courtesy of the artists / Imprint 93

When most people were still logging onto the World Wide Web through modems, waiting for the interminable dial-up connection, a group of London artists were creating their own communication network. Initiated by curator and artist Matthew Higgs, the collaborative correspondence project, Imprint 93, produced and distributed over 50 works using an office photocopier between 1993 and 1998. It challenged existing notions of art existing in physical spaces and hierarchical structures. It was, in its own unique way, something of a peer-to-peer artistic file-sharing network.

Higgs’ circumvention of the traditional art world’s structures calls to mind Trystero, the underground postal service in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. As a recent archival exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery pointed out, Imprint 93 featured a lot of work from artists at the very beginnings of their careers, including Peter Doig, Fiona Banner, Jeremy Deller, Hilary Lloyd and Chris Ofili, amongst others. It was also closely associated with artist-run spaces like London’s City Racing and Cabinet Gallery.

Elizabeth Peyton. Printed booklet, 1998. Valentine’s message in The Guide, printed by The Guardian.
Collection

of Matthew Higgs. Photo credit: Ben Westoby.

Ofili’s imprint Black from 1997 is especially interesting, considering the deep racial divides of our current times. British by birth but Nigerian by descent, Ofili cut a series of clips from a local newspaper that showed crimes attributed to black suspects. On the prankster end of the spectrum was Martin Creed’s Work no. 88. In 1994, Creed crumpled a sheet of A4 paper into a ball and sent it to Tate Gallery, only to have it returned with the paper flattened inside an envelope, along with a letter rejecting it as an unsolicited donation.

Nayia Yiakoumaki, Whitechapel Gallery’s curator of the Archive Gallery, tells The Creators Project that Imprint 93 was significant at the time, because unlike the Young British Artists (YBAs), who immediately entered the art market upon graduating from university, many of Higgs’ collaborators had different artistic intentions. Though they were friends and school acquaintances of the YBAs, these young artists, like Higgs, were interested in alternative modes of artistic recognition.

Imprint 93. Selected publications and editions c. 1993-1997. Courtesy of the artists / Imprint 93

“It was an alternative way of circulating ideas through the art world,” Yiakoumaki says. “This is attested by their activities, the way they approached the Imprint 93, and what they did later with actions and performative projects. So, it started from a very small number of recipients and it expanded by word of mouth.”

Higgs routinely asked artists who he should include in the Imprint 93 circulation. It ultimately grew from a handful of artists, curators, and friends to 200 people in the network.

Jessica Voorsanger. Party Favor, 1994. Collection of Matthew Higgs. Photo by Ben Westoby

“Matthew, at 14 years old, was very interested in fanzines,” Yiakoumaki notes. “So, it was a continuation of that for him—of homemade fanzines circulated through music stores in the north of England.”

Yiakoumaki explains that the only name published in Imprint 93 was that of the artist whose work happened to be circulating. After selecting an artist for an upcoming issue, Higgs issued very basic instructions. The work had to be free, able to fit in an envelope, and reproducible. Higgs and friends used a photocopier to reproduce the artist’s work, then folded it up and mailed it out to the network of recipients.

Items from Imprint 93 archive. Various artists, 1993-1998. Clockwise from left to right: Gareth Jones, Postcard, 1998; Jeff Luke, Dowel and Wire, 1994; Jessica Voorsanger, Baby Shower (Three Minutes of Etta), 1995; Alan Kane, Clare, 1995, with unique miniature version; Jessica Voorsanger, 14.2.95, 1995 and Chris Ofili, Black, 1997

“You just received an artwork, but on most occasions you didn’t know it was an artwork,” Yiakoumaki says. “So many people were opening Martin Creed’s pieces of colored paper, which were falling on the floor, and they weren’t necessarily conceiving it as part of the work. So some of the work would get destroyed because people didn’t know what the work was.”

Jessica Voorsanger put broken pieces of a Partridge Family vinyl record in an imprint,” she adds.“They could be any medium, but most of the artists resorted to text, the printed medium.”

Installation view ‘Imprint 93’.Whitechapel Gallery. Photo Patrick Lears.

Other imprints included cassette tapes, jewelry, artist books, party favors, pins, and other art objects. And like a proto-Snapchat of its time, a lot of the imprints proved ephemeral because most recipients weren’t archiving Imprint 93 works. Luckily, Higgs, along with Whitechapel’s director and curator Iwona Blazwick and the Tate’s curator Andrew Wilson, kept a good number of Imprint 93 issues.

“A lot of the artists still work outside the radar of commercial galleries, and of course some of them have become really big names like Peter Doig and Fiona Banner and others,” Yiakoumaki says.

“They had this informality about them that always made it spontaneous and fun,” she adds. “They were able to do these things, I think, because no one was able to follow them with a journalistic eye. They were being themselves, but at the same time each imprint was interesting.

The Imprint 93 archive exhibition ran until September 28th at Whitechapel Gallery in London.

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Tagged:
London
networking
experimental
communications
avant-garde
YBAs
mail art
readymade
text art
Young British Artists
Imprint 93
Matthew Higgs
mail art project