Whitehot Magazine

A look at three Canadian artists known as the Image Bank: Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov and Gary Lee-Nova

Image Bank (June 18-August 22, 2021) at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Installation view featuring Colour Bar research including Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe's Leopard Realty Triangles, 1971-72, wood and paint. Gift of Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft, 2009. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography. 

Image Bank

Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

18 Jun – 22 Aug 2021

Curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen, Maxine Kopsa and Scott Watson

By MARK BLOCH, September 2021

“The network works on its own. But this artistic network itselfit may help to think of it as being part of the wider network where artistic activity becomes just one of the elements.” —Robert Filliou [1]

A case can be made that it was the three Canadian artists known as the Image Bank: Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov and Gary Lee-Nova, that ushered in the situation in which we, as contemporary artists and art professionals, currently live. The trio helped create not one, but two significant international art networking machines that never stopped churning once their pumps were primed in the early 1970s: one, the international mainstream market-based art circuit sometimes (erroneously) called the “The Art World” and, two, its double: an alternative “Eternal Network” of self-publishing do-it-yourself (mail) art practitioners that have spent over half a century developing an ability to mimic the market-based mainstream, poke fun at it, circumvent it and perhaps most productively, ignore it. 

The Image Bank did this by grabbing the very personal Correspondence Art baton passed to them by Ray Johnson and his New York Correspondence School and running with it—not to the proverbial bank but to a little discussed Image Bank—one of the first and one of their own making.

 The three artists envisioned a non-hierarchical alternative to the world of art galleries and museums, where images and ideas are freely exchanged through a distribution nexus, creating an open-ended, decentralized method of (net)working. Its manifestation and all that followed provided a model for the always-connected but impersonal webworld we live in now.

Image Bank (June 18-August 22, 2021) at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Foreground: Installation view featuring a selection of envelopes, cards, objets d’art and mailings by General Idea 1974, Anna Banana 1973, 1976, A.M. Fine 1973, 1969-72, Edward M. Plunkett 1968, Lil Picard, 1982, May Wilson 1969-72, Geoffrey Hendricks 1978, 1984, Ken Friedman 1972, George Brecht 1981, Dieter Roth 1968. Background: Annual Artists’ Directory and Image Bank Image Request Lists, Published in FILE Megazine, Vol. 2, No. 5, February 1974, vinyl adhesive. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

If it sounds hyperbolic that the Image Bank, a tiny unincorporated Canadian art collective, helped create “The” or one of many “Art World”s, consider that, in 1973, the Image Bank artists generously handed their mailing list over to Giancarlo Politi of the international magazine Flash Art, who parlayed it into Giancarlo Politi Editore and started publishing Art Diary, a landmark occurence for the current art system’s institutions, museums, galleries, art critics and artists. Those who were around then know Art Diary jumpstarted the world of international contemporary art as we know it today. Of course, art insiders had been hobknobbing, if not networking, for centuries but a new generation of upstarts, armed with new ideas in the late ‘60s and gravitating toward the cognoscenti, needed new tools to be in the know. The Image Bank could be said to have provided, not only ways to know and be known, but also ways to eliminate barriers to entry where they appeared for the next half century. Art Diary was user friendly. For the first time, artists all over the globe were suddenly in touch. Thus did the Image Bank help stake out, not only essential turf for a future art world, but, because of what happened next, also for an alternative to it.

Michael Morris said about the Image Bank Postcard Show, “The idea of creating a postcard show and the forming of Image Bank came about in the Fall of 1970. We discussed numerous types of image filing systems, the establishing of archives, of making more efficient communications systems between artists in different parts of the country and the rest of the world. And we realized that to do this efficiently, we had to have a format that a number of people with a variety of concerns could work effectively in; and also a format that was inexpensive that used a communication system, the postal system in this case, that was an easy access to everybody; and provided direct links between artists all over the world. We also felt that it was the kind of trip that we could interest galleries and institutions in exhibiting and put together a comprehensive exhibition that would be a difficult one to do in the normal gallery context. In doing this, in selling the idea of a show to the institutions, we were able to get a budget together which would, in turn, enable us to print, free of charge, for artists interested in these concerns.” [2]

Annual Artists’ Directory and Image Bank Image Request Lists
Published in FILE Megazine, Vol. 2, No. 5, February 1974 (Detail).

The result was The Image Bank Postcard Show and a number of other endeavors that followed, each demonstrating how a new art of networking might actually work. For instance, they first let artists know about their show through an American artist living in Canada, Dana Atchley and his “Space Atlas” publication that came out at the beginning of 1971 via his “fake” institution, the Ace Space Company. Prior to that, Johnson and his own fictitious organization, the New York Correspondence School, had begun distributing mailed art in a personal way to his own network of friends and creative contacts, establishing a genre of correspondence as art in 1943 and continuing thereafter in experimental art circles. He stated in the first ever issue of the Village Voice, in 1955, “I always cut up their letters and send them something different,” indicating a role as the essential node and conductor of his private network. He used his personal protocols for weaving a web hands-on—from his high school years, through Black Mountain College and his move to New York, and until his apparent suicide in 1995. The collagist personally connected himself and his methods to each of his hand-picked participants. When John Wilcock added, “There are 200 people on his mailing list so far, including Elsa Maxwell and the Museum of Modern Art's James Barr,” he hinted at a largesse the Image Bank would take a step further 15 years later while overlooking the personal touch Johnson's work employed. [3]

Indeed, the Image Bank seemed to be interested in a different kind of networking whose time had come, with all three members finding resonance with anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the Structuralist voices popular at the time. In 1962, on page 10  of his book La Pensée Sauvage (or The Savage Mind) he mentions: “The decision that everything must been taken into account facilitates the creation of a ‘memory bank.’” Meanwhile, Beat initiator and influencer William Burroughs, on page 18 of his 1964 novel Nova Express, mentioned an “image bank” verbatim: “And he breaks out all the ugliest pictures in the image bank and puts it out on the subliminal so one crisis piles up on the other right on schedule.” Nova Express was written using the 'fold-in' method, a version of the “cut-up” that Burroughs developed with Brion Gysin. It enfolded clippings of different texts into larger works, just as the Canadians would fold Johnson’s Correspondence School into a wider “Eternal Network.”

Vincent Trasov and Michael Morris at the Image Bank Postcard Show, And/Or Gallerry, Seattle, 1974. Photo: Alan Lande.

According to the curator Scott Watson, Johnson’s correspondence “exfoliated” new possibilities. In retrospect, when Johnson reached out to Morris, he became the catalyst for a trend waiting to happen: the crowd-sourced auto-construction of two international networks: one mainstream and market driven, the other offering a more democratic alternative to it.

The stage had been set for a thriving matrix of mass image exchange that cascaded a few years later via the minds, hands and mailboxes of Trasov, Lee-Nova and Morris into an international language of pictures that manifested the Zeitgeist, which, unlike Johnson’s personal meshwork, was controlled by no one and that became a multi-media message itself in the spirit of not only Levi-Strauss and Burroughs but also a fellow Canadian who seemed ubiquitous in those heady days: Marshall McLuhan.

In the words of a popular TV program of that time that was produced by the BBC and broadcast on PBS,  “When paintings are reproduced they become a form of information which is being transmitted and so there they have to hold their own against the other information which is jostling around them to appear on the same page or the same screen. The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it… reproduction makes the meaning of works of art ambiguous… reproduction of works of art can be used by anybody for their own purposes… images can be used like words. We can talk with them… everything belongs to the same visual language, used for describing or recreating experience. What so often inhibits such a spontaneous process is the false mysticification which surrounds art.” [4]

Left: Michael Morris, The Problem of Nothing (detail), acrylic, 152.40 × 137.00 cm, 1966. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Right: Ray Johnson, First letter to Michael Morris, 1968, ink on paper.

This important exhibition reflected on the myriad manifestations of this self-referential Image Bank, officially and otherwise, as well as other organizations and spaces the group touched, framing a prescient 1968-78 window of activity that changed contemporary art in several ways. They utilized networking strategies and structures remaining fundamental to a Mail Art network that continues today, as well as the social media landscape that has swallowed up almost everything else on Earth.

This show, originally planned for the summer of 2020 to coincide with Image Bank’s 50th anniversary, was postponed due to COVID-19. It was first presented, pre-pandemic, at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin from June 22 to September 1, 2019.  This second and final Vancouver installment closed August 22, 2021 after a successful run that explored the history of the avant garde in this city and how the Image Bank specifically influenced it via activities manifested locally with implications internationally. Both Image Bank shows were curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen of Berlin, Maxine Kopsa of Amsterdam and Vancouver’s hometown hero Watson. Their beautiful 320 page illustrated book/catalogue that accompanies the exhibition lays out this fascinating story.

In the Vancouver exhibit, comprised of three large rooms and a pre-gallery entrance, the three curators unpack this familiar tale whose time has come. “We’re all image banks. We all live in an image bank, carry an image bank, and have the power to intervene in that image bank,” said Watson, curator, echoing Michael Morris, artist, whose unpublished notes from the late 1960s declared, “Each of us lives in an image bank.” And in artscanada in 1971, Morris called their activities “artistic expression and… an experiment with creating an image filing system.” [5]

Vitrine installation view: Glenn Lewis and The Great Wall of 1984, begun in 1973 and commissioned by the National Research Library, Ottawa, was a monumental object request project that came out of a 1972 Image Bank request. The Great Wall of 1984 is a mural-calendar composed of 365 plexiglass boxes each representing a year between 1620 and 1984; each box contains an item sent by a different participant. All items are from the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery Archive, Glenn Lewis fonds except where noted.

He and Lee-Nova, both gifted painters in their late 20s, were riding national reputations but they both stopped painting to turn to other activities in the waning years of the 1960s, eventually teaming up to create an “Image of the Month” exchange list that later became a strategically-distributed Image Exchange Directory used by artists around the world united in a common cause: deconstructing the going conception of images themselves and fostering the feverish distribution of visual information through the international postal system.

Their subtle adaptation to what Ray Johnson was doing with the mail (and others pursuing parallel paths in Europe) leaned toward Fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s “Eternal Network,” a term he coined in the ‘60s, then adjusted after ‘70s visits with the Image Bank and other Canadians.

Regardless, in March ‘68, the “image bank” idea met its path to realization when one of Morris’s paintings attracted Johnson’s attention, whose one-man operation entailed instructing recipients to “add to and return” to him or to add to a piece of mail to then “send to” someone else as indicated. Morris’s 1966 painting “The Problem of Nothing” appeared on page 70 of Artforum, inspiring Johnson to send two postcards in care of the gallery it was credited to: “Find your Problem of Nothing very interesting since I have performed ‘Nothings’ during the years of ‘Happenings’ and now am concerned with ‘meetings’ of New York Correspondence School letter-writers,” he scrawled. Morris, Trasov and Lee-Nova and others around Canada soon were corresponding with Johnson including three more in Toronto who would eventually take on pseudonyms: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson and their collective title General Idea. They are important here because their File Megazine would become the vehicle through which the Image Bank distributed their all-important address lists. [6]

Image Bank (June 18-August 22, 2021) at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

How they got to that point is what this show was about. In the Summer of ‘68, up and coming visual artists Morris and Lee-Nova, doing paintings that wanted to be something more, showed a seven-sided mirrored room environment called Prisma, a stand to up-end some of the conventions of art history.

Slightly before that show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vincent Trasov had knocked on Morris’s door campaigning for his father, then running for federal office as a New Democrat. Ironically, Vincent later etched his way into public consciousness running for mayor, himself, in the whimsical Mr. Peanut persona he would thoroughly exploit with the Image Bank. 
Following their initial introduction, Trasov visited Russia, then upon his return, became Morris’s studio assistant, romantic partner and finally Image Bank co-founder.

Meanwhile, from March 28-April 19, 1969 Morris masterminded a concrete poetry show at the University of British Columbia Fine Arts Gallery that was an early foray into the genre that sees not image as text but text as image. In a rare trip off U.S. soil, 
Detroit native Ray Johnson showed up before the opening then departed abruptly, wiping his cut hand on the wall and writing “Death of a Concrete Poet” in blood.

A year later, Dana Atchley and his Ace Space Co. in nearby Victoria created one of the first Correspondence Art documentations for 59 participating artists in notebooks redistributed to them in what later became known as an “assembling” method of publishing. Then, in October, he issued a call to a second project realized in 1971 as his “Space Atlas.” This was where the Image Bank spread the word about their initial postcard show. Just as General Idea would later provide assistance in distributing the address lists, the artists were utilizing friendship to expand their influence.

Vitrine installation view: 1984 Mailing project with several submissions including Image Bank’s request for Inventors of Today are Planning for Tomorrow / Your Image of 1984, 1972.

Also by Spring ’70 Glen Lewis, Eric Metcalf and Kate Craig (students of Atchley) had jumped into the nascent Image Bank mix. As General Idea in Toronto developed their aliases and accented the queerness of many of the participants, now engaged in constant correspondence, Michael Morris became Marcel Dot and then Chairman Dot, Trasov first donned his Mr. Peanut costume and Lee-Nova seized the moniker Art Rat. Expanding the local network, Glenn Lewis became Flakey Rrose Hips as well as the NY Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver (sending up Johnson) as Metcalf and Craig became Dr. and Lady Brute.

Spring of 1970 was when the Image Bank did their first official mass mail outs, too, beginning with an Image of the Month Club. Their iconic initial work featured a woman with a swan and their second a tattooed man. 

They next began their influential Colour Bar research in the Fall of ‘70, well-represented in this show, led by Lee-Nova’s important “Drawing of Object to be Photographed,” indicating that the words painting and sculpture were soon to be replaced by interactive “props” in the collective's practice. The color bars landed Lee-Nova on the Fall 1970 cover of artscanada magazine.

Morris and Trasov later followed up, participating in the Colour Research and employing Dot Depth of Field works. Rainbow-colored objects would be employed in studios, natural environments and communal settings for the next several years.

 From 1972–74 the larger local group executed The Endless Painting: 1,000 blocks in monochrome, full spectrum and greyscale combinations. Using extra paint, for instance, Dr. and Lady Brute worked with leopard spot motifs and the color bar spectrum to create an interactive artwork for use outdoors. Following the first thousand hand-painted bars completed in enamel by Fall 1972, the next summer Image Bank turned out a second set of 1,000 Colour Bars, also for documentation on film, slides, photographs and video.

Prior to this time, in 1971, Morris, conceiving of grants, created his historic First Annual Report, distinguishing Image Bank, then called Project C, within an umbrella artist-run collective called Intermedia that the group had been part of since 1967. Morris’s proposal pushed the progressive but Modernist organization toward MacLuhanism and a rising global mindset that merged time-based performance works into physical space and positioned traditional artists as producers of events. Morris wrote about alternative forms, free circulation and filing and archiving to be included within Project C as well as the sharing of common knowledge, collaboration and an  “Image Bank consciousness.” Ironically, while they would eventually help create many official and unofficial artist-run entities and led a trend toward government-financed art, the Image Bank or Project C itself was never lawfully incorporated and a few years later this brought them face to face with unexpected legal difficulties.

Front cover of artscanada October/November 1970 issue with two versions of Gary Lee-Nova;s Drawing of Object to Be Photographed, 1970.

Nevertheless, the Intermedia organization provided a means for the Image Bank to be founded by this younger generation of artists with immediate notions of social change in the Spring of 1970, transforming it into a community resource, a performance space, event producer, and a grant fund administrator.

Trasov explained, “To be recognized, that’s how we started.” It was their inclination to establish themselves with government funding that not only transfomed Image Bank and Intermedia but the Canadian cultural community at large. It was their eventual success that led many other artist-run centers across the country to apply for grants. “You would run your whole program... to get the people to be at our place... ” Morris told me about the next few years. “We made a video... everybody was wanting to come stay with us and do something on their way to Los Angeles and they did... we would put them into the art school there to talk.” Many important artists made the journey to Vancouver to take advantage of the local colleges, institutions, videography and performance opportunities and more, including Robert Smithson,  Yvonne Rainer, Allan Kaprow and Robert Filliou among others. Speaking about the powers that be in Ottawa the pair stated, “They started a grant called ‘Explorations’ where centers could apply for $10,000 for... whatever... and that’s where everything started.” Morris added, “All of a sudden every little town wanted to start their own artist center.” [7]

Various events in the history of the Image Bank, all covered in this exhibition, had consequences for and within the larger network. Michael Morris’s effete pose in a photo for an annual General Idea event in Toronto extended the queerification and dedication to experimentation not only by the Image Bank but the whole mail art network. The Toronto group, generally credited with pushing this process forward, also seized upon an art object found and mailed by Trasov for the 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant that they parlayed into a grandiose branding opportunity. The stylized, arched hand made of Plexiglas, mounted on a wand-like handle and called The Hand of the Spirit, set the stage for future uncanny image-centric art activities.

Image Bank (June 18-August 22, 2021) at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Installation view featuring Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov's Colour Bars, 1972-73, paint and wood. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

Gary Lee-Nova said about his Dead Letter Funeral in September ‘72, “it was my farewell to correspondence/mail art and to the Image Bank concept and the personalities involved.” It led to his quitting mail art in 1972, dropping out off the collective, and leaving it to Trasov, Morris and company, who then created their all-important international Image Exchange Directory containing 270 names and addresses that was instrumental in spreading the mail art network idea as we know it today. 

What happened was that after Morris’ Problem of Nothing appeared in ‘68 in Artforum and Ray Johnson sent an introductory letter, the Image Bank suddenly had a means to their desired end, a way to get to the networked place they wanted to go. Lee-Nova was an important piece of that puzzle, influenced early-on by the experimental films of Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage and the cut-up method of Burroughs and Brion Gyson. Lee-Nova “saw any large volume of accessible imagery an opportunity to observe and explore patterns.” He said, “Data arranged into mosaics become….like spoken language and patterns emerge…which can tame chaos by engaging emotional intelligence with cognitive intelligence.” [8]

Morris and Trasov, similarly interested in the “semiotic equivalent of some of the ideas about language structure identified by… Saussure, Jakobson” and others found, in the international postal system, a way to put their ideas into practice. But “mail art” was never a precise goal as the pair articulated: “We definitely do not think about Image Bank activities to be limited by calling at Mail Art… By the early ‘70s, artists began to determine their own cultural ecology as initiatives like Intermedia, Image Bank, General Idea and artist-run centers like Open Space, Western Front, A Space and Véhicule began to create new networks to address their work to new audiences locally, nationally and internationally… The postal service was the cheapest, easiest available means to communicate, keep in touch, network. Image Bank was inspired by Ray Johnson‘s New York Correspondence School, but ‘inspired’ doesn’t mean ‘copied.’ The Image Bank projects—request lists, artist directories, postcard shows and editions did help us to create networks but making ‘Mail art’ was not our intention. Our plays on personae… the collaborative projects… were not limited by defining our activity as ‘Mail art.’” [9]

Vitrine installation view: Ray Johnson correspondence featuring an invitation to participate in his 1970 Whitney Museum exhibition, 1970; Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov’s submission to Whitney and other Johnson mailings including The DEAD School, c. 1970 at lower right.

In 1973, watching the explosion of the Mail art network and retro-fitting his theories about the obsolescence of the avant garde, Robert Filliou rethought the “Eternal Network” (aka “La Fête Permanente”) that he had described in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the Cote d’Azur, France when he and fellow Fluxman George Brecht ran their “Center for Permanent Creation” for three years in the early ‘60s. He now took the Image Bank and others into consideration when considering the dematerialization of the art object that was increasing at that time, an idea to which he was an early adaptor.

Filliou said in his “Research on the Eternal Network” in File Magazine September 1973,  “Information about and knowledge of all modern art research is more than any one artist could comprehend… The concept of (an) avant-garde is obsolete. With incomplete knowledge, who can say who is in front, and who ain’t?” Thus  did his “Eternal Network” become a metaphor for a collective spirit of the times that was too big for any one individual to fathom. 

In August 1976 Filliou illuminated that rather than him influencing Image Bank, they influenced him. “Young artists we didn’t know, mainly in Canada, groups like the Image Bank in Vancouver… were considering their activities manifestations of the Eternal Network. In 1973 I decided to go visit these Canadians, whom I’d been corresponding with.
 I went to Canada. I met them, and when I returned… I proposed that the Eternal Network could effectively replace the concept of the avant-garde, which we considered obsolete, dated.”

Vitrine installation view: Annual Reports, Image Bank correspondence and first Image of the Month at right.

Around that time, Ray Johnson similarly declared the “death” of the New York Correspondance School in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times while continuing to use the mail under other rubrics.

The tendency to apply for grants and to parlay any available funds into starting new organizations led Morris and Trasov, with several others, to buying a building that then housed  The Western Front (today still a vibrant Vancouver-based arts institution) and later to buy shares in Roberts Creek, an idyllic natural retreat (known still as Babyland, a spot where many operations, including Colour Bar research, took place over the next several decades, continuing today).

Robert Filliou visited Robert’s Creek in 1973 (and again in 1977)  and the three General Idea principals visited during the summers of ‘73 and ‘74, leading to resulting spikes in activity for the two Canadian collectives and as a result, attention to queer playfulness in their work and therefore in the network as a whole while continuing the seriousness of their intentions. Work on the color bars ended in ‘74 starting as props for photos and becoming part of their collaborative art-lifestyle. The rainbow gay pride flag would not happen for another couple of years and any similarity to the Colur Bars is purely coincidental. But it remains an interesting bit of foreshadowing.

To broaden things out a bit in the mail art network, the Decca Dance took place in Hollywood, USA in 1974 as a celebration of the 1,000,011th anniversary of art, an evolution of the Miss General Idea pageants and other imaginative spectacles including the “Eternal Network” itself. The fall of 1973 was spent in preparation for this momentous occasion. The Decca Dance corralled much of the activity and many of the people that had participated in the blossoming mail art network up to that point and the event was highlighted by a video and documentation in this exhibition. In addition to representatives of the Image Bank and the Western Front, those attending the event in the ballroom of the former Elk's Lodge on MacArthur Park in Los Angeles included Lowell Darling, Willoughby Sharp, Ant Farm and General Idea.

Left: Vincent Trasov, Endless Peanut Column, 1978, wood. Right: Vincent Trasov, Mr. Peanut Costume, 1970, papier mâché and paint. Both purchased with support from the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program and the Morris and Helen Belkin Foundation, 2000.

Also documented in a separate room is the 2nd Image Bank Post Card Show, 1977, featuring 48 artists who read like a who’s who of up and comers in the simultaneously developing international contemporary art scene of that period including Vito Acconci, Les Levine, Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainier, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ed Ruscha and Eleanor Antin. Michael Morris’ graduate studies at Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1965 contributed to his subsequent travels in New York and California and strong connections to the international art scene. Their beautiful “exhibition in a box” aligned perfectly with Conceptual Art in circulation at that time. But it was at this point that the failure of the Image Bank to trademark its name in 1969 caused creative hardship for the collective when a stock photography company with the same name—The Image Bank—sent a cease and desist letter, forbidding them from distributing their Image Bank Post Card Show in 1977. They complied, distributing the images as best they could with their internationally known work increasingly growing as a force to be reckoned with.

Despite other landmark events such as two major requests for images in 1972—one called Piss Pics, a homoerotic homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain and another call for 1984, which imagined a dystopian Orwellian future, with the results for both appearing in the pages of General Idea’s File. From 1981 to 1999, Vincent Trasov and Michael Morris both relocated to the DAAD program in then-West Berlin, West Germany, where they continued their practice in new ways. In 1990 they founded the Morris/Trasov Archive, housed here at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, to research contemporary art. Morris returned to Canada at the end of the century while Trasov continues to live outside Berlin today.

In 2019, Trasov called their endeavors “a bank that would accept deposits” with membership belonging to anyone who made a deposit by mailing something in. The Image Bank kept those deposits and the collective holdings of their archive have became an important voice, a treasure trove of the international networking activity of the time. 

Vitrine installation view: featuring Glenn Lewis and Trajectoires project, 1973, in which Glenn Lewis requested visitors to “send French letters, French kisses, French ticklers and French toast” to the New York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver, care of Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. All items are from the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery Archive.

What are some of the ideas that might have spread from Ray Johnson to the Image Bank to the “Eternal Network” and then to the contemporary art market at large?

1- People, not technology, create networks through connectivity. Citing McLuhan and Marcel Duchamp’s The Creative Act speech in Houston in April 1957, the Image Bank embraced art history as being collaborative—not a single artist working alone but art as a prop and its relationship to people, including the general public, who, together, create the art history of the future.

2- The Image Bank realized something as simple as a  postcard provides a simple structure eliminating barriers to entry. Postcards are epistolary as well as a declaration, both public and private— semi private and semi public. There is no such thing as a completely private postcard. The Image Bank also realized a series of postcards in a box as an exhibition. Finally, adorning envelopes takes them public while concealing a message inside.

3-  Image Bank’s use of Mail art focused on an interest in process—not result-, not object-based productivity. A Correspondence Art network as a gift economy stands opposed to an alienated capitalist society that churns out products while ignoring the human cost. The Image Bank is the story of a journey rather than a thing.

Vitrine installation view: Correspondence, a selection of envelopes, cards and mailings deposited in the Image Bank by Ant Farm, 1971, General Idea, 1972, Monte Cazazza, 1972 and Robert Fones, 1973 as well as Image Bank 1970-72.

4- Image Bank’s interest in free circulation via the mail provided easy access to everybody, artists and non artists. They wanted to erase the distinction between ”practicing” and “non-practicing” artists. Free circulation— direct links between artists internationally— meant ongoing collaboration vs. the history of art as a string of geniuses extolling sole authorship.

5- Communicable codes— the network access and direct links between artists internationally led Image Bank to discovery of an auto-generated new pictorial language that was equal parts clarity and cryptic. As even text, via visual poetry and concrete poetry, became part of the larger holographic picture, individuals were set free to decipher the ambiguous code according to their own understanding and needs. A dedication to cutting edge experimentation transcending national boundaries became the common cause that held the network together.

6- The interest in art as information opened a world of conceptual aesthetics—ideas as art including mimicry of existing information systems. This led to various forms of phantom identities including faux organizations, bureaus, offices, administrations as well as pseudonyms “that sprang up at the edge of conceptualism.” The Image Bank was an example of such a borderline mythical entity as were Babyland, Western Front, Intermedia and others.

Colour research props, 1970. Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Morris/Trasov Archive, University of British Columbia. Photo: Michael Morris.

7- Extending Duchampian aliases, avatars and pseudonyms such as R Mutt and Rrose Selavy created not only identity ambiguity but gender ambiguity. The Image Bank and General Idea overlapped this with the well-established world of gay code — eroticism cloaked in camouflage and camp. Such nuances in multi-leveled language and images also had precursors in collage: Rauschenberg’s Combines, combinatory Cagean innovations and others inherited from Pop, the New York Schools of painting, poetry and music as well as Modernism—from Kurt Schwitters to the experimental Black Mountain College (which Ray Johnson attended after WWII.)

8- The focus on images shined a spotlight on a Warholian exploitation of celebrity and glamor, of two dimensionality, of emptied-out, hollow personnas floating in a world of appearances and the superficial. Image Bank’s Lee-Nova said of his moniker Art Rat, “During the late 1960s…pseudonyms were experiments with identify and perhaps a pro-action…to the incoming waves of exception coming from the marketplace from artists to behave like celebrities…something to be rejected….I thought that if I was going to be invited to live in a corporate maze I might as well become a sort of rodent.”

9- A non-hierarchical network open to all with egalitarian and effective communications between artists-curators led to an alternative to galleries and museums and predictable institutional exhibits of white- and male-dominated narratives: centuries of institutional framing, both literally and conceptually, of art objects presented in white cube spaces within top-down, insider organizations with insider administrative rules created an invisible class of un- and under-represented artists. When offered by the Image Bank and others, the open-ended proposal for an alternative system was instantly embraced.

Colour research at Lake Yogo (Mixal Lake), 1973. Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Morris/Trasov Archive, University of British Columbia. Photo: Vincent Trasov.

10- Finally, the Image Bank glimpsed into mass visual culture and archival systems and made the recycling, collaging and queering of mass media images as well as original snapshots and staged photographic images, their art form. They expanded what was possible with mailings, events and zines. Network structures absorb the comings and goings of individual nodes in favor of the whole, reducing the importance of any specific individual participant and their singular works. They took what Ray Johnson was doing on a personal scale and created a context for doing it differently on a decentralized network level.

Speaking about the Correspondence Art network that emerged in the ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond, University of Oslo art scholar Ina Blom has pointed out that, “...the agreed-upon principles of the international mail art movement – its social contract – display all the double binds that mark any attempt to organise utopia in actual social space. Each and every one of its techniques to engender new forms of social unity expresses a utopian desire to be released from the ordinary constraints and power relations of the art system... ” She is correct in suggesting that “the implementation of such freedom is in fact based on a closely policed system of ethical rules that essentially express the fear of all-too-likely falls from grace.” But the Image Bank worked, in fact, within a grace period, before the “unwritten rules” of the Mail Art—and indeed other networks—were written.

Today we can see that the network that Image Bank imagined was a hard copy, mini-version of Instagram. They attempted to manage the circulation of a large volume of images that made their art form not painting, drawing or photography but the exploration of pictures and typography or both, in patterns, playing off of each other, that were now accelerated into an active, constant, living information flow that magnifies new challenges, one of the first studies of how an open-ended, collectively-created pictorial language might function in a wired, mass media society. Is it possible that if the results of their research had been more widespread and well-known, some of the ensuing dystopia we now find ourselves in might have been prevented? Perhaps we should assume that was their mission and we should take them up on it. WM


[1] Video: Robert Filliou Defines the Eternal Network, 1977 Posted Jan 16, 2013 Video clip from PORTA FILLIOU (1977) Produced by Robert Filliou, Clive Robertson and Marcella Bienvenue, Calgary, Canada. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BgOfsG7J0Q&t=4s. Retrieved 9/10/21.

[2] Video: Michael Morris - The Image Bank Postcard Show, 1971 Posted Sep 18, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSwz0Pi4898. Retrieved 9/10/21.

[3] Wilcock, John,  “The Village Square,” The Village Voice, October 26, 1955 (first issue), p. 3.

[4] Video: John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972)  Posted Oct 8, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk. Retrieved 9/10/21.

[5] artscanada (Dec. ‘71-Jan. ‘72, page 133).

[6] For more about General Idea please see my article, Bloch, Mark, General Idea in Perspective,” Brooklyn Rail, December 2017-January 2018. https://brooklynrail.org/2017/12/art/General-Idea-in-Perspective.

[7] Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, Interview with the author, July 15, 2021.

[8] Watson, Scott, “Interview with Gary Lee-Nova,” (Feb 2019 email exchange) in Image Bank, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2021. pg 88.

[9] Kopsa, Maxine, “Interview with Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov,” in Image Bank, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2021. pg 83.

[10]  Eternal Network, “Excerpt of the conversation between Robert Filliou and Irmeline Lebeer, Flayosc, France, August 1976,” M HKA Ensembles, http://ensembles.org/items/eternal-network?locale=en. Retrieved 9/10/21.

[11] Blom, Ina, “‘Every letter I write is not a love letter’ Inventing sociality with Ray Johnson’s postal system,” Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2010. https://www.macba.cat/en/learn-explore/publications/every-letter-i-write-not-love-letter-inventing-sociality-ray-johnsons. pp. 8-9. Retrieved 5/12/21.


Mark Bloch

Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at bloch.mark@gmail.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.



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