Film Por Vida is a print exchange started by Jai Tanju about five years ago. During that time the exchange has grown from Jai trading photos with a couple of his pals to an international network of folks throwing stamps on photos and making life a lot more interesting for mailmen all over the world. On Saturday Jai is showing off a bunch of the mail he's gotten in a show curated by Angela Boatwright called Film Por Vida: A Print Exchange Program at Fuse Gallery. The number of photos will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500, and they will all be displayed on long pieces of string running through the gallery. There will also be a few in fancy frames from people like Tobin Yelland, Ed Templeton, and Dave Schubert. I've been an exchange contributor for a couple of years now, but had only had an epistolary friendship with Jai until I called him up to talk about Film Por Vida.
Vice: Hey Jai, I get a lot of photographs from you in the mail. For those who haven't heard of it, what's Film Por Vida all about?
Jai: The Print Exchange is an international exchange of photographs through the mail. You basically put a stamp and somebody's address on the back of a photograph, send it away, and hopefully they'll send you something back.
It must be nice to get things in the mail besides credit card offers and bills.
It is. I'm a skateboard photographer, and a lazy one at that, so I used to spend all my time waiting for checks that would never come-- my mail was just junk, junk, junk. It was like, why am I even checking this? I wondered why I didn't get any good mail, but why would anybody send anything to me if I'm not sending anything out? Once I started sending things out I put "print exchange" on the back of the photograph just to say "hey, send me something!" and it happened pretty quick. I started getting stuff back and people started sending stuff to each other. It was really cool--it's been going on about 5 years now.
How much mail do you get?
I actually just went through all of the mail I've gotten and sorted it, counted it, and got it ready for the show. There are about 200 people who I've gotten mail from, and about 1,400 or 1,500 individual photographs that I've gotten in the mail. There's about 50 or 60 people who consistently exchange and I get mail from them all the time.
So you get art in the mail everyday?
I get at least one to five photographs in the mail a day. It's a very rare occasion that I don't get something.
How did you come up with Film Por Vida? It's certainly not the first exchange, so what was the inspiration?
I actually got turned on to the idea from Ray Johnson. He was a semi-famous artist in New York in the 1960s, around the Warhol time, and he liked to send what he called "mail art." That evolved into a thing called the The New York Correspondence School, where the people he sent art to started exchanging amongst themselves. When he died, everyone got the art he had sent together for a big show. That was the inspiration. There's a documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, about Ray Johnson. Around the same time, Joe Brook was sending me photographs randomly in the mail, and I soon got other people on board like Sam Milianta and you, who I've been sending stuff to ever since.
What does your mailman think of all this?
Oh he likes it. He definitely asks me about it. I've moved a couple of different times, so I've gotten to see different mailman deal with it in different ways. They all eventually ask me about it like, "Hey what's going on? What is all this?" So I get to explain it and get to know them, which is a cool thing. Sometimes they come to the house like, "hey, check out this one!" or, "you got a really cool one today!" Especially if I get something from someone like Dave Schubert, some crazy photo of his they might end up stealing, whatever.
Yeah, my favorite exchange photos are ones I've gotten from Dave Schubert, so good.
Yeah, he's amazing. He's a nut, but amazing. I have like 45 pieces of his mail and he's an artist who you can't even find 45 of his photographs online.
Do the photos ever get mangled in the mail? Do you think the little scars and stamps add to the aesthetic?
Yeah, I love it. They don't really get that messed up in the mail though, surprisingly. A few times I've gotten something where some part got fucked up or ripped off or whatever, but then I get mail from people like Ken Nagahara who sends an 11" x 17."
Yeah, I've gotten 16" x 20" darkroom prints from Ken, no envelope, just a stamp and an address!
It's not like it's shipped special, it's just sent like that. As I've been going through the photographs and mail the past couple of weeks and getting ready for the show, I find I can't even deal with the ones in envelopes so I'm leaving them out of the show. It just doesn't register with me the way it does when I get a photograph with a stamp on the back. I like it when the mail gets a little mangled, or you get the stamp that says "not enough money" or "insufficient funds."
Getting a junked-up photo in the mail with stamps on the back is nice, but are there any other reasons you're doing this through the mail instead of just getting a Tumblr account or whatever people who are too impatient for the postal service are doing these days?
Well, I'm just a little older and I'm someone who works with negatives and prints. Stuff on the internet, and even digital photographs themselves are a mysterious thing to me. It's like they're not real almost--you can look at all kinds of stuff on the internet, and when you turn off the computer it's gone! Just having photographs you can physically hold, stick a pin in, tack to your wall, and see everyday without having to look at your computer is pretty cool, you know?
How did this show at Fuse with Angela Boatwright come about?
I just got hooked up with Angela though the Print Exchange. She came across it in some way and thought it was cool, so she started sending me a little bit of mail and I sent her some back. You know, Angela is really smart and picks up on things, and I think they were asking her to do a show at Fuse gallery and she was like, "Let's do this instead of having my own show, I'll help Jai get out here and curate a show." It's just like how I met you, through the Print Exchange, which is really the cool part of it. I have all these friends now all over the world. People like you and Sam and people that I've never met--I've never met you before but you're my friend, and when we converse through the mail it's like we're friends… it's weird!
I totally agree. I feel like I have places to stay in all kinds of cities and countries now because of it. It's a lot like meeting people through skating growing up.
Yeah, and it's rad to see everyone grow. I watch their work and watch the photographers evolve into better photographers and have shows and open galleries. It's really rad to watch.
How is this whole deal going to work? Are you just going to let everyone sift through your giant sack of 1,500 photos?
I'm gonna try to show all my mail. I've basically separated all the mail and strung it up on little pieces of thread so it will all sit on the wall. When you walk in it'll be a huge wall of mail and you'll be able to see the front of each piece, pick it up, and flip it over to see the stamp and where it's from and who sent it. It will be a very interactive show where you can come in and look at everything. We're also gonna have a wall with framed pictures from some of the heavy hitters in the Print Exchange, so that will be another part of it. That will be really cool because we have people like Ed Templeton, Tobin Yelland, Greg Hunt, and Dennis McGrath--some pretty good people there. I've seen some of the framed work they're sending and it's really rad. I'm looking forward to everyone coming in and checking it out.