By John Held Jr.
One of my favorite times with Andrej Tisma was eating pizza with his family and friends in a central restaurant in Novi Sad, Tisma's hometown about 60 miles north of Belgrade. It was in late October of 1994. There was a lull in ex-Yugoslavia wartime hostilities. The cultural embargo that had been imposed on the Serbs by the United Nations in June 1992 had been lifted the previous week on October 5, 1994. I had intended to arrive as an embargo-buster, but arrived the first foreign visitor after it's dissolution. In any event, it was a time for celebration and to be with old friends.
It was my first opportunity to see Andrej, his wife Marta, and daughter Mariana, since my initial visit to Yugoslavia in 1989. As on the previous trip, I had first stopped in Belgrade to stay with Dobrica Kamperelic, editor of Open World magazine, cultural activist, and author of two books on contemporary alternative art. After exhibitions and performances in the Serbian capital, I took the two-hour train ride north to Novi Sad.
The Tismas live in a pleasant apartment house overlooking well-groomed lit tennis courts. It was on these courts that champion tennis player Monica Seles practised as a child. Andrej and I had gone through his collection of Mail Art before dinner. He has one of the most through overviews of the medium in the world. We also looked through his collection of carved erasers, of which he had perhaps a hundred or so. I was surprised by their number. We took a photo, as an art action and healing ceremony, to commemorate our meeting for a planned rubber stamp.
Andrej's English is excellent. My Serbo-Croatian is not so very well. Tisma is an extremely cultured person earning a living as an art critic for the regional newspaper, Dnevnik. He's very well traveled. Despite the deprivations of living in a country with a shattered economy, Andrej had visited New York, Paris, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, before the war in his country made traveling problematic.
When I visited Belgrade in 1989, paper money, worth no more then pennies, floated in fountains. Post-Tito Yugoslavia was still Communist, and so was the rest of Eastern Europe. But Yugoslavia had a reputation as having a lenient regime. Travel visas were not difficult to obtain. There was no evidence of secret police, or a feeling of surveillance. Sex magazines were sold in kiosks, something unheard of in other countries of Eastern Europe. It typified the freedom Yugoslavians enjoyed. When a people are repressed by their government, the first freedoms to fall are those of the press and the right of the people to openly enjoy the sensual pleasures of life.
The artists I met were friendly and eager to meet a foreigner visiting their country. They were my fellow compatriots in Mail Art, fully cognizant of all the current alternative tendencies in contemporary art. Yugoslavian artists became my performance partners, and organized exhibitions and lectures on my behalf. The friendships we initiated through the mail were cemented during our personal exchanges.
None more so then between Andrej Tisma and myself. As both of us are fervent rubber stamp artists, our first visit in 1989 was commemorated with a stamp, which Andrej produced from a photograph of the two of us holding aloft our rubber stamps (they look more like little wieners in the final product), in a show of solidarity.
Five years later, as we sat around a table in the restaurant Oscar eating pizza, the same warm feelings were present. Andrej's family and I were joined by some friends of the Tismas, who were visiting from Austria. They were part of a religious sect. Andrej had met them some years back when he was performing a work of his in a church. I enjoyed this meeting very much because it combined the many facets of Tisma that I found so appealing: his enjoyment and curiosity in meeting people from other cultures, his spiritual inclinations, his love of family, and his skillfulness in intellectual discussion.
Yugoslavian artists have been an important part of the Mail Art network for thirty years. In an introduction written for his Private Life (1986) Mail Art catalog, Tisma writes that, "In the 70s, mail-art was characterized by an already developing network of communication between artists around the world: specialized mail-art magazines came into existence, and some of the big galleries organized mail-art exhibitions. Exhibits arrived from exotic countries of Latin American and Eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia too, in Belgrade, Ljubljana, Novi Sad, and Zagreb individuals or groups engaged actively in this important world movement. In that period several international mail-art exhibitions were held in Yugoslavia (The first major exhibition was held in Belgrade in 1972, in the Students Cultural Centre. It was a section of mail parcels from the Seventh Youth Biennial in Paris.), and there were also a number of publications in this field."
As important as their previous contributions have been, the role of the Yugoslavian networker in the current decade has been central to the continuing evolution of the Eternal Network. The struggle in the former Yugoslavia since 1990 has forced international cultural activists to take a closer look at their previous pronouncements of global unity. The cultural embargo placed on Serbia in 1992 deeply troubled those inside and outside Yugoslavia that had developed close ties with their foreign counterparts. Tisma joined his fellow Serbian Mail Artists in denouncing the war and demanding an end to the cultural embargo. As Tisma states in Prevent Civilization Gangrene, "To isolate one country or nation by laying an embargo on its culture and communication is an uncivilized act. To stop the circulation of ideas in the globalized world of today is unnatural. Every single creative voice must not be neglected or silenced, because it is a common good."
Andrej Tisma acts in the common good because doing so can be contagious. He is a shaman who never knows the exact effect he will have as a result of his actions. He performs them because it is the right thing to do. Tisma is ethical. But he is also selfish, because doing right is it's own reward. The actions change him as they influence others.
These performances are then documented, attracting the attention of his correspondents and readers. The means by which he does so - the writings, performances, and rubber stamps - become amulets influencing others. In Encounter Art (1991) he writes, "Using original rubber stamps I immortalized my meetings with numerous other artists. Each impression left by these stamps constitutes an evocation of the meeting...reflections of the actual work of art - which is meeting itself."
That is why the moment at the pizza parlour Oscar meant so much to me.
It was not a big moment, but it was a moment carefully crafted in a particular
time and place. Tisma takes his encounters seriously, but in stride, and
as they occur. That is why a work of art can sometimes be created sitting
around having pizza with friends in Novi Sad.
Like many of us who write about the Mail Art experience, Tisma stresses the universality of the networking experience. Unlike most of us, Tisma's ideas have undergone testing by a civil war close to home. To his credit, Tisma has continued to expound an art of collaboration.
One of Tisma's major themes is that the artist is a "barometer of the traumas of his time, (and) an agent initiating the process of recovery." Written before the outbreak of conflict in his country (Toward the New Art, 1990), Tisma accurately foretold the direction his life would take in the difficult years to follow. He assumed a central position in the discussion of the ethical role of the networker during the Networker Congresses of 1992, a series of events encouraging cultural activists from throughout the world to debated the meaning of artistic cooperation on an international level.
As early as Aspects of Mail Art (1986), Tisma was writing of this international collaboration as a "pulsing spiritual creation." Five years later (in Encounter Art), he was still affirming this conclusion as a consequence of the networking experience. Tisma has repeatedly stressed that while we are not always aware of the ramifications of our thoughts and actions, they are, nevertheless, creations that outlast our immediate conception of them. The ideas put forth in international cultural networking assume a life of their own, which under the best of circumstances, find a receptive chord with other participants. Ideas and art given as a gift, rather than sold in commercial venues, provoke powerful reactions in ways unknown to us.
Thoughts are not merely conceptual fabrications, but physical energy, capable of melding with the thoughts of others and effecting real change. Mail and fax communications are models manifesting these theories. Mail Art projects and exhibitions scatter ideas in the international community, which are often taken up and modified in creative and instructive ways. Fax technology is a new communication tool allowing thought from several directions to conjunct at a common point in space at a specific moment of time. It is the telepathy of the Polish artist Dudak-Dürer, whom Tisma so admirers (Art as Telepathy, Meeting and [Spir]ritual, 1995), come to life.
As a result of my involvement in Mail Art, and my meetings with Tisma in 1989 and 1994 in Yugoslavia, I was resistant to the images of the Serbian people portrayed in the international press during the hostilities of the early nineties. I knew from experience that events beyond their control had overwhelmed them at a pace they could scarcely imagine. The imposition of a financial and cultural embargo on their country by the United Nations was a blow to their previous position of global connectivity. Before the fall of Communism, Yugoslavia had achieved an independence from Soviet rule unheard of in other Eastern European countries. Now, once again, a monolithic consortium of countries attempted to dominate them.
Despite the hurt and disappointment, Yugoslavian networkers stood firm and patiently explained their position and concern. There was no attempt to withdraw from the brotherhood of artists into which they had become firmly ensconced. In the new world of instant communication there is no retreat, only a coming to terms with the consequences of a new reality.
(Foreword to the catalog of Andrej Tisma's rubber-stamps exhibition, Stamp Art Gallery, San Francisco, 1996)