Good exhibition titles do not only encapsulate their contents or theme in a pithy, perhaps even catchy, manner; they also indicate how the artworks that constitute the exhibition are to be approached. Such approaching, however, is a matter for both the imagined audience that attends—as well as attends to—the exhibition and also, especially in the case of an exhibition such as Unboxed in Saxmundham, a task for the artists who were invited to produce and submit works. Put together by Clare Palmier and Jane Watt, a number of artists working in the Suffolk region were invited to submit a work of art that could be delivered through the mail. 

            Whilst there is a risk of overly delaying, it is worth paying further attention to the exhibition’s title. ‘Unboxed’ is obviously a past participle, referring to the present state of the artworks in the Unboxed exhibition and thereby also disclosing their prior condition of being boxed (and, of course, being put into boxes). While in our global artworld it is simply typical for artworks to be trafficked from site to site in boxes, the fact of their trafficking, and the distribution network that underpins national and international mobility, is seldom brought to the fore as such. As is usually the situation, what appears as simple and straightforward requires extensive diagnosis. Such simplicity, after all, occludes a chain—or even a constellation—defined by processes of transformation, transference, and displacement; and the opportunities for participating in and being an agent within that chain or constellation is by no means equally shared by all within the artworld. ‘Unboxed’ is also appropriately polysemic, conveying both literal and metaphorical references. If the literal meaning just highlights the prior condition of the artworks having been boxed, then on the metaphorical side of the equation ‘unboxed’ can be thought in relation to confinement and freedom, as well as the box as a unit of categorization. 

            At face value, the exhibition could be thought as a manifestation of ‘mail art’—a procedure that in many respects reached its apogee within various models of art practice, loosely conglomerated under the rubric of conceptual art, in the 1960s and 1970s. There is perhaps a question, therefore, about the status of such procedures within a cultural context whereby the instantaneous flows of email and social media have colonized our quotidian systems of communication. Moreover, the radical transformations in communication have enabled a wholesale dematerialization; the consequence being that messages, more than ever, are no longer dependent upon pen, paper, and envelope, but are instead amount to the transference of encoded data from source to recipient. And yet this immaterial post-Fordist infrastructure is only one side of a total administrative system in which the traditional modes of delivery remain extant. After all, our Amazon purchases are still received in parcels and boxes, delivered by people on precarious contracts driving vans from warehouses and depots.

            Mail art retains a degree of possibility, in that case, even after its moment has passed. It might further be proposed that precisely because its moment has ‘passed’, that conceptual art’s dream of critical dematerialization has nearly been supplanted by post-Fordism’s own dream—our nightmare, perhaps—of consumerist dematerialization, that we are now in a position to revisit mail art’s potential criticality according to our present situation. 

            Given these remarks, it is appropriate that we begin with Emily Godden’s Amazon, even though, technically speaking, it is not the first work in the exhibition. Consisting of an unassuming Amazon box, sitting there almost as if cast to the side, a hidden proximity sensor initially serves to draw one’s attention to it. A sign above exhorts the viewer to open the box and doing so reveals a QR code. Upon scanning the QR with a phone, the viewer is taken to a website concerning the Amazon River. In a simple gesture Godden has woven together several elements: Saxmundham now connects to the Amazon; the ‘snail mail’ of delivery networks conjoins with the immediate reactiveness of web-based information; the geographical Amazon links with the corporate Amazon; the low-tech with the hi-tech. That the packaging itself is branded, thus reinventing its protective function as a communicational medium, is also notable and something that Justin Eagle in his own contribution plays with. Eagle deploys a DHL package that transported a Denby ceramic plate that has been personalized through the addition of smiley facial features. Part of the fun here is the survival of the plate (itself branded and hence subjected to a symbolic value that goes beyond its use value—resulting, of course, in an increase in its exchange value); the silly happiness of the face remains unblemished. To that degree, the humanization of the commodity performs a dual function of both recalling the human labour underpinning delivery networks and also illuminating the inverse of the ‘humanization of the commodity’—namely the commodification, or reification, of the human. 

            Mail art, as a genre, often betokens and testifies to an imagination of the artworld’s peripheries, momentarily emphasizing decentralization and mapping its dispersed nodes. Here it is worth briefly noting that Suffolk’s ruralness and general lack of an authentic artistic ‘centre’ as a precondition of this exhibition. This geographical and indeed administrative situation, at present, determines the overall dispersal of its art scene, which has led in several respects to that scene teetering on the cusp of invisibility. Against this problem, there has been a steadily growing number of events that appear designed to render perspicuous the critical practices that are at work in this region. We could point, for example, to the activities of the Jugg Foundation (Terry Bond and Karen Densham), Adam Thompson’s Atlas House, and 2018’s Annual Ipswich Art Biennial—all within Ipswich. And further afield we can mention the establishment of Old Jet. Unboxed at The Art Station in Saxmundham, currently in a state of transition, belongs to this context and contributes to the establishment of foundations. Nonetheless, these instances remain more or less dispersed; but it is the fact of their dispersal that facilitates the generation of a network in which contact happens at a distance. One of the principal aims of mail art is to shape and render productive this network. 

            But as items travel through the network, it is undoubtedly the case that they often transform, become decontextualized, and garner new significances. As Jacques Derrida’s writings often allude, it is a condition of the message being received that it risks becoming lost. Mail art is a game of trust. Alex Pearl’s contribution to the exhibition is perhaps one of the most ‘classically’ mail art works in the exhibition. Typed on two sheets of light paper is a list entitled Instructions for a Performance. Each item takes a common English phrase which the recipient ‘translates’ or recontextualizes into an action. Because the meaning of these phrases are no longer ‘at home’—to adopt one of Wittgenstein’s parlances—the recipient is tasked with ‘rehoming’ them within their own context. Ultimately, how the instructions are followed will of course vary from reader to reader. The shape of the network will thus mutate according to the agency of the individuals involved. Just as individuals are constituted by their network, the network is constituted by its participants. Sara Heywood’s and Jane Watt’s collaborative Speaking/Listening Devices, related to their current work with the Alton Estate in Roehampton, are comprehensible in this vein as cognitive mapping an urban space in order to ensure that its inhabitants maintain their agency within this social network. 

            If several of the works attest to the distribution networks, then another thematic emerging in the exhibition is the box as repository. Boxes have long fulfilled a protective function—as is already implied by its use for mailing valuables—by, for example, serving as caskets that can protect delicate or important items. There is also the usage of boxes for housing objects of a particular type and in this role they do not only protect but also categorize. In this regard, what is categorized in boxes varies tremendously, ranging from private to the public, the ephemeral or monetarily worthless to the priceless. Regardless of the objectivity of the value system imposed, it is nonetheless feasible to contend that any item protected in this manner possesses some kind of value. Indeed, the decision itself to protect and categorize specific objects can go beyond reflecting the objects value and instead produces it. 

            Several of the works can be comprehended as more or less personal items that are given a public exposure. The first work that one apprehends in the exhibition is a Super 8 film dating back to 1994 that is played on a projector. Watching Emily Richardson’s film, recorded and projected via outmoded technology, is to peer into a time capsule showing a virtually private performance that has been brought into the public sphere. The past is here unboxed and enjoined to interact with our present world; but such interaction does not abolish the recording’s pastness—on the contrary, it emphasizes it. Sara Heywood’s Viewfinders likewise deploys an obsolescent technology—old battery-operated viewfinders and photographic slides depicting landscapes. Something similar is apparent in Mal Watson’s One Cubic Second, where time is doubly preserved through photography’s power of momentarily freezing temporality’s flow and the additional act of preservation by encasing those isolated and always passed moments. 

            The repository nature of some of these works suggests a mode of personality accorded to objects. Clare Palmier’s inherited collection of eggs, for instance, indicate a family history and the passing of an object from generation to generation. Here we see that family aspect playfully referred to by her those eggs being placed in a box and a film showing a palm tree (palmier is the French for palm tree). The works by Amy Drayson and Marysse Dupin though formally very different, also exhibits an archival quality through their careful preservation and quasi-cataloguing of ephemeral materials. Perhaps the most ‘personal’ of the works is Annabel Dover’s Page 3 Girl (Simone, 23, Southend) that arrived in a matchbox. For the purposes of the exhibition the failed-erotic photograph, originally taken from a tabloid, has been removed from the box and placed on the wall, though one can imagine opening the box and discovering the surprise for oneself. The photograph is distinctly crumpled, redolent of its being folded or screwed up photograph stuffed into a box as a perverse keepsake. But whose keepsake—and therefore the status of the personal here—is uncertain here, as are also the reason for holding onto this particular image. For better or worse, objects become traces of our existence, the archive a non-mimetic self-portrait that we could almost hardly help but create. 

These archival impulses suggest, once again, a special concern for the revenant materiality of old technologies within a social framework that assumes that their supersession by digital technologies. Notice, then, the engagement with materiality, both ephemeral and resolute in several of the works here. Here we can simply point to examples in order to suggest the contrasting forces at work: Helen Rousseau’s delicate cardboard box, graphite, and inkjet print, Small Stage 1 is spatially close to Srin Surti’s jesomite cast New Carbon Relic. Both use the form of packaging, of containment, but contrasting materials. Both are minimalist in appearance. And yet both differ in their relation to permanence and the future. Adam Thompson’s Untitled collects and joins together used mobile phone—that networking tool par excellance—covers, designed to increase the phone’s longevity and protect its visual appeal, that become a distinctly modern sculpture.  Or take Alice Andrea-Ewing’s Material Test, a wonderfully horrendous blob made from lead and steel nails, a fluid form that has become irrevocably solid. 

Material objects are often perceived as surfaces that face of us; we positioned to only see their exterior facet (surface, face, and face are of course etymologically interfaced here). We are aware, nevertheless, in a mostly hypothetical manner, that they cover over an interiority that we cannot see in much the way that the human visage can hide a person’s thoughts and emotions. Boxes are themselves defined by an interior and exterior, but the position that one occupies to the other is not always clear. Abigail Lane’s Nature Reserve is a box filled with packaging, but from its interior emits the sounds of a nature reserve, the outside world has entered the boxes interiority. Although quite different in how they approach the issue, there is a relationship between Lane’s work and Phoebe Pryor’s Tour Guides, which is also on show in the exhibition. But where nature is recorded in Lane’s work, in Pryor’s the work is collected in the guise of elm seeds, thereby indicating the continuation of the archival/repository metaphor of the box that runs through the exhibition. And here we see in Pryor’s contribution the same concern for bringing outside space into the interiority of the gallery space.   

            Srin Surti’s second work in the exhibition generates or opens a number of reflections that reflect back upon the exhibition as a whole. Titled Market Stall—Modular Structure for Social Interaction #1, the work is a market stall borrowed from the local market presented in the gallery space that has been placed next to Abigail Lane’s work Nature Reserve. Stripped of its cladding, what is disclosed here is its underpinning structure or architecture, its skeleton, so to speak. The gesture is essentially Duchampian insofar as the work is exhibited ‘readymade’, but where Duchamp was circumspect about nominating his readymades as either art or anti-art such circumspection is suspended here in favour of demonstrating how the discursive and institutional framing of an object necessarily establishes its existence as an artwork at any given specific conjuncture. This demonstration is a familiar one, to be sure, long developed in ‘Institutional Critique’ practices such as Daniel Buren. And yet, if Buren’s work and discourse, his reference to the gallery/museum as any artwork’s frame, is indebted to his complex engagement with painting as a theoretical practice (thus, the institutional frame and painting’s frame is conceptually intertwined). Here, though, in Surti’s work, the frame in question is the framework of the market stall.  

            ‘Framework’ is a word that can be pushed to various conceptualizations, especially if we take the ‘work’ in ‘framework’ in its most active connotation—however, this is best left to one side for the moment.[1] But what should be proposed is that Surti’s Market Stall indicates a play of interiority and exteriority that, once noticed, becomes apparent in several of the works exhibited. After all, Market Stall completely lays bare the interior structure of the stall itself, thereby exteriorizing that which is normally interior in such a way that its previous status as interior is not forgotten. Thom Trojanowski’s also utilizes its framework that renders inside and outside significantly porous. Lest this sounds an awkward proposition, think again to the frame (of ‘painting’) that we find in Buren’s art: if Buren conjugates institutional frame and painting’s frame, then at first glance we are led to the conclusion that the institutional frame surrounds and delimits artworks in a manner resembling how a frame surrounds and delimits a painting. Generally, in everyday experience, Buren argues that we do not focus upon either of these frames; therefore, their discursive function is rendered invisible and, if noticed, merely extrinsic or exterior to the artwork cognized. This not paying attention to the frame is a mode of ideological blindness and to be ignorant of the frame is not to be free of it. In order to counteract this situation, Buren tries to produce an art practice that: firstly, draws attention to the fundamentally ideological operation of the exterior frame; secondly, theorizes that the frame’s exteriority necessarily entails that the artwork becomes or is positioned as the interior element of that exteriority (the artwork is ‘contained’, ‘boxed-in’ by its institutional frame); and, thirdly, seeks to displace the spatial relationship between frame and framed, exteriority and interiority, by inventing strategies by which the artwork can ‘frame’ the institutional ‘frame’. Recognizing that all representations of exteriority are irrevocably entwined with interiority, it is a matter of deconstructively submitting the frame (exteriority) to both an exposition and to an ex-position.[2]  

            It would be wrong to contend that the works in Unboxed are examples of the kind of radical ideological critique that Buren’s work aspires—or aspired—to be. Though, one might consider that Callum Palmier Robertson’s Untitled, a freestanding column of nestable plywood boxes does carefully observe, and enjoins the viewer to likewise perform this observation, its institutional or architectural framing by precisely filling the space from floor to ceiling.Rather, my point is simply (‘simply’) that several of the works in Unboxed demonstrate a similar operation of exposition and ex-position in which the ‘positions’ of interior and exterior become mutually scrambled and displaced so that they no longer occupy their customary relative positions. (And what is perhaps also shared by Buren and the artists in Unboxed is the conviction that hard discursive labour can be done in, or as, material activity.) S.E. Barnet’s Part and Parcel watercolour painting depicts the tube that it was delivered in, meaning the artwork that was interior to the tube makes the tube’s exterior(ity) surface its visual subject matter. Likewise, Ann-Marie James’ Unboxed (After Dürer) similarly engages this issue by drawing attention to both the box’s exterior and interior. Indeed, in literal terms, James’ work cannot be ‘unboxed’ insofar as the stamped print—appropriated from Dürer’s work—is printed onto (into?) the inner surface of the box, and the opened box itself becomes part of its necessary condition of display. It would surely, then, not be excessive to imagine that these works answering to Hegel’s description of art as a fundamental interchange between interior and exterior facets (more akin to ‘content’ and ‘form’ as indissociable facets in Hegel’s philosophy than ‘kernel’ and ‘shell’). For instance, we can hear something like this proposition from the lectures on aesthetics given by Hegel echoed by this exhibition: ‘The inner shines in the outer and makes itself known through the outer, since the outer points from itself to the inner’.  

            Mentally bridging the diverse practices on display here, we can identify provisionally three strands operating in dialogical tandem: first, works that can be said to revisit histories of mail art in light of contemporary concerns; secondly, works that address the notion of self-curation and the personal collection; and thirdly, works that re-examine boxing from the perspective of the essential comingling of interiority and exteriority. Yet we can, if we adopt another hopefully fruitful pun, envision these three strands less in terms of ‘dialogical tandem’ than of correspondences (after all, this word conveys dialogue in person or through mail as well as connections and parallels between discrete phenomena, whether these connections are contingent or essential). Working in correspondence, these three elements contextualize, recontextualize, displace, and touch each other at a distance; and in doing so the works comprising this exhibition become irrevocably restless, shuttling between numerous possibilities within a network of elective affinities, and ultimately refuse to be re-boxed.    

[1] Telegraphing in the most summary fashion what one might say in this regard, it seems plausible to think of ‘framework’ in relation to Martin Heidegger’s writings after Being and Time. This relation is double in character: firstly, the ‘work’ in ‘framework’ can be thought in conjunction with the notion of ‘work’ explored in his important essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’. And secondly, ‘framework’ potentially resonates with the discussion of Gestell, ‘enframing’, that determines so much of Heidegger’s later thinking, as exemplified by the essay collected in The Question Concerning Technology

[2] In effect, the sentences that close this paragraph amount to a reading of the topmost row of diagrams that Daniel Buren designs for his essay ‘Critical Limits’.