Personal Worlds or Cultural Strategies?
Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil: 10th July 2002- 7th October 2002
Curators: Martha Hellion, Claudio Goulart (Video), Martha Hawley (Audio)
Text by Donna Conwell (Coordinator of: Personal Worlds or Cultural Strategies?)

Ulises Carrión was born in San Andres Tuxtla, Veracruz, Mexico in 1941. He studied literature and philosophy at UNAM (The National University of Mexico) and went on to become a successful and respected writer; his books of short stories, La muerte de miss O and De Alemania, were published in 1966 and in 1970 respectively.

He received grants to study language and literature in Paris (1964), Germany (1965) and Leeds, England (1972). Whilst in England, Ulises Carrión discovered the work of the Beau Geste Press. He was very impressed by their publications that included ideas, free texts and images and were produced using mimeograph, offset and flat press.

In 1972, Carrión finally settled in Amsterdam. There he began to work in a more visual way, employing colours, textures, forms and sequences. In 1972 he produced his first artist's book, Sonnets. This was followed by Arguments, About Poetry, Tell Me What Sort of Wall Paper Your Room Has and I'll Tell You Who You Are, Dancing with You and Amor, la palabra in 1973.

The work of Ulises Carrión is distinguished by two common denominators: communication and distribution. He employed diverse techniques and media in order to create a complete cultural product. The tools of his trade were the means he appropriated: postage stamps, television, the radio, mail, among others. He expertly manipulated and reinterpreted these appropriations within an art context. He claimed that he was "using 'culture' As a much more broader concept than 'art' (...) the utilisation of various media -visuals, mail, sound- is not considered anymore to be a determining factor in the art activity, but it is rather, the coordination of a complex system of activities occurring in a social reality and including as well, non artistic factors: people, places, objects, time, etc." In spite of his death in Amsterdam in 1989, and in contrast to so many other artists, has maintained its intensity and contemporary relevance.


Concrete and visual poetry played a determining role in Carrión's break with literature in the traditional sense. He insisted that poets were responsible for opening up the way to artist's books. Poesías from Ritmos, Rimas, Puntuaciones, Plagios, Derivaciones, Asociaciones, Repeticiones, Funciones, Palabras y Sinalefas (1972), demonstrates this influence and his interest in the spatial, structural and visual potential of both text and the pages of a book as a time-based medium.

With reference to this change of direction Carrión said: "I began as a man of letters, but a time came when I realised that this arena was too confining for me and I could not continue writing stories and tales in the traditional sense. Now language continues to be my raw material but nothing more than that."

Carrión used and represented all manner of grammatical and literary forms in his work -punctuation, metaphors, dialogues, rhymes, poems, refrains, graphics, plagiarism, derivation, associations, repetitions, functions, words, sonnets, synaloephas, conjunctions, prepositions, arguments, etc- not only, in textual form but also visually and audibly.

His involvement in the general movement of the creators and publishers of artist's books was to lead him to organise exhibitions and to write various essays such as, The New Art of Making Books (1975) and Bookworks Revisited (1979) These theoretical texts provided a much needed means of contextualising, conceptualising, defining and exploring the art form. Carrión coined the term "Bookworks", which he defined as: "...books in which the book form, a coherent sequence of pages, determines conditions for reading that are intrinsic to the work (...) they are books that incorporate as a formal element the sequential nature of books and the reading process."


In Amsterdam he became part of the In- Out Center (1972- 1975). He later went on to found Other Books and So (1975- 1978). This space served as a vital cultural centre for exhibitions, collaborations, performances and the making and publishing of artist's books. Later, Other Books and So became an archive. With regard to the archive, Carrión commented that: "Traditional art involves a great number of specialists: the artist, the gallery owner, the art critic (...) whereas here the artist is responsible for all these elements. For me, an archive is the attempt to make that reality possible, which is why I consider an archive to be a work of art (...) It doesn't have a time limit, an archive survives indefinitely..."


Carrión's involvement in Mail Art came into being with several projects such as, Definitions of Art (1977); Erratic Mail Art System (1977), Ephemera (1977-78), Box, Boxing Boxers (1978); Artist's Postage Stamps and Cancellation Stamps (1979); Anonymous Quotations (1979); among others.

Ulises Carrión
Definitions of Art, 1977
original idea by H.W Kalkmann, mail art project, Other Books and So, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
(slides of original postcards)

His work with mail art allowed him to develop interests that he also explored with artist's books: the desire to extend the distribution of an artwork as far as possible and to incorporate its distribution as a integral functional element of the work. Mail Art constructed links between artists and automatically provided mechanisms for artistic communication and distribution.

Feedback Pieces (1981), consists in 242 replies to an invitation to participate in the project in which the artists involved employed the invitation itself to create an artwork. Anonymous Quotations (1979) is a work created from a selection of letters from his correspondence with notes.

Ulises Carrión
Feedback Pieces, 1981
242 answers to a mail art project, sent to the Pieter Brattinga Gallery
(close up)

As well as these projects Carrión also came up with the Erratic Art Mail International System (1977), which was an alternative to the official postal system, in which he stated: "By using the E.A.M.I.S you support the only alternative to the national bureaucracies and you strengthen the international artists community." His essay, Mail Art and the Big Monster (1977), also reflects the way he saw Mail Art as a cultural strategy and a "guerrilla war against the Big Monster". Table of Mail Works (1977) was originally intended to accompany the text Mail Art and the Big Monster, but for various reasons it was never published. It is a schema for mail works, reflecting Carrión's passion for lists and structures and includes a section on mail anomalies.

With his rubber stamp projects Carrión again intervened and appropriated an existing system of communication and transformed it. He was interested in finding a way to organise a communication system, how to create his own system and how to expand or modify this system or create parallel systems.

Concerning his work with rubber stamps he said: "Among the many genres that artists have created, identified and developed, Stamp Art is a democratic one if there is any. The materials are simple, the format small, the appearance discrete." In his Cancellation Stamps Project (1979) Carrión invited artists to provide a design that could be made into a rubber stamp. The resulting contributions formed the basis of an exhibition at the Stempelplaats in Amsterdam. These kinds of collective projects questioned ideas of authorship and originality and emphasised collaboration.

Ulises Carrión
Artist's Postage Stamps and Cancellation Stamps, 1979
Mail art projects with 50 participants
Stempelplaats, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Once again Carrión's essays, including Rubber Stamp Theory and Praxis (1978), Rubber Stamp Art (1976) and Mail Art and the Big Monster (1977), all served to conceptualise and define the practice of Mail Art.


As well as publishing his own and other artist's bookworks, Ulises Carrión was also involved in printing and collecting periodicals, flyers and other diverse publications, often of an ephemeral character.

Between 1977 and 1979 in collaboration with Aart Van Barneveld, Salvador Flores and other artists Ulises Carrión published Ephemera, a tabloid which consisted in 12 issues and included a selection of the mail he received everyday: postcards, stamps and various documents. He also published The Stampa Newspaper (1981), a tabloid printed with rubber stamps made by artists. By means of these publications Ulises Carrión was further able to disseminate his and other artists' innovations within the field of Mail and Stamp Art.

Ulises Carrión
Newspaper Art-Art Newspapers, 1976
Invitation to participate in the Stampa Newspaper
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
(close up)

His contributions to Rubber, a monthly magazine concerning the use of rubber stamps in art, edited by Aart Van Barneveld, also reflect his continued interest in communicating and distributing artistic ideas internationally.


Ulises Carrión was involved in countless projects, which form a large part of his creative legacy. Some of these projects were not what you would traditionally call artworks, however, Carrión was interested in exploring and bridging the divide between high art and the wider territory of culture. His was also interested in finding new ways of communicating and distributing his ideas beyond the gallery/museum network.

Trios and Boleros (1983), is one such project. The artist's contribution to a 1983 series of artists' programmes on the Dutch Radio Station (VPRO) was a documentary in which Carrión explored the origins and development of bolero music. It doesn't really differ from a normal documentary, except in the slightly unprofessional approach where not all the musicians are mentioned by name, sometimes simply saying: "this is the greatest trio ever". However, by employing the radio as his medium, Carrión continued to explore new ways of communication and distribution. In discussing the evolution and mutations of boleros, Carrión also reflects his ever-present interest in structures and their development.


Carrión also employed film and video. His involvement with film was both as an avid viewer and collector as well as a maker. The Death of the Art Dealer (1982), was Carrión's only film work. It was originally a performance that consisted in Carrión holding a little monitor that was showing parts of a movie. The film involves a lot of movement. Every time there was a cut in the movie, he would quickly turn the television off. He moved around with the monitor so that it paralleled the original camera movements of the movie. This meant that if someone was walking he would walk with the character in the same direction. The Film, The Death of the Art Dealer, was made in collaboration with Danniel Danniel, as a means of documenting this performance. He believed that "as an artist, the medium of film provided him with the frame-by-frame possibilities that in many ways corresponded to the pages of a book." (Annie Wright, from the exhibition catalogue We've won haven't we?, Amsterdam, 1992, Guy Schraenen)


Carrión's interest was in communication, rather than in video, video art or film itself. On the contrary, he aimed to confront television, the media and its use of language, as we can see in Lilia Prado Superstar Film Festival (1984).

In 1984, Carrión organised a film festival based on the legendary Mexican actress of the 1950s, Lilia Prado. Carrión went to Mexico in order to negotiate the loan of four of her films and to persuade Prado to come to the festival, which was held at Amsterdam's Kriterion cinema and three other locations. There were cocktail parties, receptions and interviews and out of all Carrión's projects the festival received the most publicity. According to Carrión the main idea of the project was to "transfer a celebrity from one culture to another with completely different values". He compared the festival to a ready-made, claiming: "My idea as an artist is to become invisible." The festival was regarded by some as demonstrating the social and political mechanisms that are employed by one culture to impose its values on another. It gave the Dutch public the opportunity to examine its cultural values and reflect on the mythologies that are created by the mass media, in this case the film industry and the economic and cultural implications of these mythologies.


The fact that video is a time-based medium that imposes a serial or sequential way of 'reading' the work, greatly appealed to Carrión. As with books, video provided him with a means of emphasising structures. His early video work, such as, Chewing Gum (1983), To Be or Not To Be (1978) and Playing Cards Song (1980) demonstrate this interest with exploring structures. In Playing Card Song sound is the structuring framework: four pairs of hands shuffle four packs of cards. Each player places his or her pack face downwards in a horizontal direction, creating a square out of the four packs. The pairs of hands then play their cards in succession. When the score is higher than the previous one, the player responds with an "ahhh", when it is lower the player reacts with a "ohhh", and when it is exactly the same the player is silent.

Ulises Carrión
Playing Cards Song, 1983
(video still)

In Chewing Gum (1983) we see a group of people, alone, in pairs or in a group, chewing gum. A particular visual rhythm is established with the succession of faces. The chewing mouths interrupt the otherwise formal and posed shots.

Carrión's later videos include video essays, narratives, registers of events, performances and projects, and documentaries that question the "truthfulness" of television programmes. He claimed: "Television is a frame that makes everything equally real (...) If it is on TV it's not art, it's real."

Aristotle's Mistake (1985) was commissioned by Talk Back to the Media and was broadcast on Dutch television. The video concerns the Onassis/Callas/Kennedy triangle explored from the point of view of seven different cultures: Dutch, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Polish and Israeli. Here Carrión appropriates and experiments with the television genre of documentary. Each of the seven interviewees recounts their love of Maria Callas and her music and their disgust at Onassis for leaving her for Kennedy. This video explores, deconstructs and critiques 'reality' as conjured up by the mass media. This is made all the more pertinent and effective by its insertion into mainstream television programming.

Ulises Carrión
Aristotle's Mistake, 1985
(video still)

In The LPS File (1984) Carrión once again appropriates the genre of documentary. This video deals with Carrión's attempt to put together the film festival: Lilia Prado Superstar Film Festival; his search for films in Mexico and his efforts to convince Lilia Prado to attend. Whilst this video has the appearance of a documentary, the apparent "truthfulness" of this genre is turned on its head: Carrión has substituted all his Mexican contacts for his Dutch friends and nearly all the conversations take place in English.

In other works, such as Love Story (1983), and Gossip, Scandal and Good Manners (1981), the genre of documentary is also appropriated, although these videos are also registers of events and projects. Love Story is a direct record of a tour bus, organised by Carrión, as part of the Festival of the City in Arnhem, Holland, which recounts a love story that occurred in the city.

TV- Tonight Video (1987) and Bookworks Revisited (1986) are examples of Carrión's video essays: The former deals with the quality of television as a mass communication medium in opposition to the individual and independent character of video; in the latter Carrión discusses his ideas about artist's books and his archive.

Twin Butlers (1984), demonstrates Carrión's passion for narratives. A 1930's B movie, Twin Husbands, is edited so that a marginal character, the butler, becomes the central figure. Carrión inserts himself into the narrative, as the butler's double, in order to comment on the development of the plot. His editing completely transforms the original film's narrative structure and perspective. Twin Butlers was originally a performance consisting in two monitors: one showing the edited version of Twin Husbands and another closed circuit television recording Carrión comments about the narrative of the film, thus extending the performance space to include the space of television and introducing real time into the narrative.

Ulises Carrión
Twin Butlers, 1983
(video still)


Lectures and performances formed an important part of Carrión's work as an artist. In addition to his performances involving film, television and video, he also gave sound performances, for example, The Poet's Tongue (1977) and Amsterdam Phone Calls (1978).

In 1981, Carrión decided to use gossip as the basis of an artwork: The Gossip Scandal and Good Manners Project (1981). The project covered a period of three months and consisted in Carrión introducing gossip about himself with the help of a group of friends in Amsterdam. He kept accurate track of the evolution of the gossip and as a conclusion gave a lecture about the whole process at the University of Amsterdam. Carrión then made a video about this project.

The Gossip Scandal and Good Manners Project once again explores Carrión's interest in communication, in this case the marginal communication of gossip; distribution: the spread and evolution of gossip; and structure: the structural differences between gossip, scandal and slander. Concerning the project Carrión said: "Gossip can be used as a scientific model for artificial chains of communication which will reveal something about the chain's users and something about the chain itself."


The Robbery of the Year was supposed to take place at the Drents Museum in Assen, Holland in February 1982. Ulises Carrión invitingly placed within the confines of a pitch-black room, a diamond on a rotating cushion, which was illuminated by a single suspended spotlight. The only element of deterrent was a photographer who wandered around or within the space. The diamond was not stolen until much later when it returned to Carrión's house. The event was for Carrión, an exercise in organising space. The diamond, as a highly valuable object, structured the space in terms of power relationships, mirroring the relationship between the public and the precious art objects that museums so commonly protect and display. As with his other work, the event depended to a large extent on the role of the spectator, not in this case as reader, but as performer.


Carrión's passion for language, its structures, sounds and meanings is reflected by his intense interest in grammatical forms and concepts. He greatly enjoyed grammatically dissecting languages and trying to understand and explore their structures as well as learning new languages. Carrión's audio works clearly reflect this passion. In Hamlet for Two Voices (1977) two voices read out the names of the characters in the Shakespearean play as they appear in the script, audibly representing the structure of the roles the characters perform. With reference to plays he claimed: "A play is a structure. The elements of this structure are speeches and actions (...) The characters are not what they say they are. The characters are what their function within the structure of the play tells us they are." Poema (1977) orally represents the structure and spatial characteristics of a poem, by listing all its structural elements: words, paragraphs and verses, etc.


"Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time. A Book is a space- time sequence (...) Books existed originally as containers of (literary) texts. But books, seen as autonomous realities, can contain any (written) language, not only literary language, or even any other system of signs (...) A book can also exist as an autonomous and self-sufficient form, including perhaps a text that emphasises that form, a text that is an organic part of that from: here begins the new art of making books."
-- The New Art Of Making Books, Ulises Carrión (1975)

"The most striking thing about rubber-stamps as they function in our social reality is, that they are a symbol of power- their role is to validate or invalidate something (...) In contrast with other means of reproduction- photography, for instance- rubber-stamps are associated with power. Artist's rubber-stamps remind us of those other rubber-stamps that actually control and direct our lives."
--Rubber Stamp Art, Ulises Ulises Carrión (1976)

"As I have said on other occasions, Mail Art shifts the focus from what is traditionally called "art" to the wider concept of "culture". And this shift is what makes Mail Art truly contemporary. In opposition to "personal worlds", Mail Art emphasises cultural strategies. This radical shift gives birth to quite a number of theoretical and practical questions, the most evident of them being, where does the border lie between artist's work and the actual organisation and distribution of the work?"
--Personal Worlds and Cultural Strategies, Ulises Carrión (1979)

"As with books, videos, and film, mail art is spatial and temporal. It extends randomly throughout the world and covers an undetermined period of time (...) By mail art I understand complex projects involving an artist's unique or serial mailings (...) It includes therefore, not only the material support of the artist's message but also the complex mechanisms (the postal system) that allows for the transmission of messages."
--Bookworks Revisited, Ulises Carrión (1979)|

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