I Went to Artpool in Budapest Hungary and All I Got Was This Amazing Experience

Before I went to Europe I sent out a couple feelers to people about mail-art events, or simple meet ups. It was a desperate plea, one that didn’t have any results. No worries I thought, I’ll do my thing and collect trash and if something comes up mail-art related then great, and if not, that would be great too.
A week before I was supposed to leave, I was busy making my “bunny boards” to send to folks. Allan in NYC had sent the first one back so I shared his amazing work. Well, he thought I should be more modest when commenting on what he added to the bunny board, so his work was…good. (I love it!). In the process of moving the image around and the subsequent blog post, Viktor Kotun in Hungary got in touch with me, asking that he would be interested in the project. With a little back and forth I learned that he actually worked at Artpool in Budapest. Although I knew Artpool and “liked” their Facebook page, I wasn’t exactly sure of the influence the place / person / mail-art institution had on this whole thing that I cared about. If there’s one thing I know for sure, is that the mail-art network is large and I know nothing about it. It seems that every day I’m confronted with new information I feel embarrassed I didn’t know about the day before.
A little back and forth and Viktor wrote the following few lines, “What is your plan here? I'm working at Artpool Art Research Center, maybe you could bring some material for our archive? Maybe you are interested to do some research or just a visit here?” Of course I wanted to go to there, of course I wanted to see what was going on. Going to Artpool was the only thing I HAD TO DO on my list of Central European activities. That and eat sausages and drink beers, but I knew I could easily find that almost everywhere. I didn’t have anything to give to them since I had sent out all of my bunny boards. An empty one was supposed to come back to me but it never did. One of the participants decided not to use it after I mailed it to them. Oh well, I went empty handed.
My visit was scheduled for Tuesday May 24th, my first full day in Budapest. Earlier in the day I did our usual morning tour around the city, and then was cut loose at lunch time. Gerald and I went to the big market right by the river and tried a kolbice, a culinary abortion of flavors. That thing had multiple kinds of little hot dogs in it, bacon, a few sauces, sauerkraut, and was wrapped in a sesame seed cone shaped bread. It was just the energy I needed to find Artpool.
I said goodbye to my crew and went out into the streets. I knew I wanted to get there, but I knew I wanted a little time of my own, a little time to get lost and figure out this new city a little bit. The getting lost part wasn’t all that hard considering I didn’t have a lot of info on me. I also didn’t have internet connection and I didn’t have a map. I did have three bits of information. I knew it was kind of near the Operahaus, by a small park named after Franz Liszt, and it was across from a Hooters. That’s right, a fucking Hooters! Not sure if capitalism winning and bringing a Hooters was really worth it for the people of Hungary? The “best of the west” with breasts clad in orange. (I hate us!) From just the earlier three hour tour (a three hour tour) I set out on my journey.
It took me a couple hours of walking around to find the trail. The only drama was when a lady grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her. Yelling “Get off me, bitch” even in English will get you out of a sticky situation in Hungary. I think I scared her. The only way I was able to find the place was using that other beacon of American capitalism, McDonald’s. They have Wi-Fi and pay toilets and a guard at the door to keep you from lingering too long. It seems I lingered too long in there. He came around and bounced me from what has to be the prettiest McDonald’s I have ever seen in my life. Staying in there long enough without buying anything made it feel like I had won, like I had beaten that buff Hungarian strongman. I walked out of there with screenshots of my first real map of the day. Somehow I was only half a miles walk from my destination. Having a wonderful sense of direction can be a plus when halfway around the world in a city you’ve never been to. No, I didn’t ask directions.
The door was locked when I got there. It was a click the button and get buzzed in sort of door. The problem was that I couldn’t find the corresponding numbers on the call box. I got inside the first time when a woman opened the door and I rushed in behind her. In her mind she had to be thinking “stranger danger.” I walked inside the long entryway and saw nothing that I looked correct. It felt like a residential building, a really beautiful residential building with a courtyard in the middle of the structure.
Like an idiot I went outside thinking I was in the wrong spot. To get in touch with Viktor I ran to the Californian Coffee place across the way to steal their WI-FI. On further inspection I found out in was in the right place. “Shit” I thought to myself, “How do I get back in there?” I sent a message to Viktor along with a picture of myself, hoping that he’d be able to identify me sadly sitting outside. For half a second I thought about turning around and heading back to our groups meeting point.
When I got to the door I noticed it had been propped open. This time I walked upstairs, forgetting that the first floor of most European buildings would count as the second floor in America. House Hunters International taught me this, I shouldn’t have forgotten it. I hate when I forget the lessons from terrible reality shows.
Right up the steps and Artpool was there, looking into the courtyard. I tough a few buttons on the door, heard a buzz, some commotion, and then someone appeared at the door. It was Viktor, a tall skinny man with a long beard, a calm affect, and a warm smile. We said hello and he led me into the main office where a few people were sitting around computers. One of the people was Dora Halasi who introduced herself and immediately started taking pictures of Viktor and me talking. When I showed Viktor my Ray Johnson bunny pin on my book bag, she jumped to take a picture of it. I stood still as my host talked about the work going on in the office while Dora tried to get a decent digital image. Obviously I gave them the button.
Shortly the man himself came from the back of the archives, György Galántai. He’s the guy, the one who started it all back in the 1970’s when receiving mail from the west was a tricky proposition. In first encountering Galantai he told me, “No English” in what sounded like really confident English. Artpool cofounder Júlia Klaniczay popped her head out to say hello and quickly went back to work. Showing up in the middle of someone’s work day cannot help productivity.
For the next two hours I walked around Artpool talking with György Galántai and Viktor (Viktor as translator) about mail-art in Hungary, about Artpool, and about the current state of the whole endeavor. I saw the resting place of all of Galántai and Ray Johnson’s Buda-Ray University. I got a change to look through the file of one of my Hungarian mail-art contacts, Torma Cauli. When Viktor said that I too would “have a file here” I got a little emotional. Being on the walls beside such talented folks didn’t feel right to me. I was just some dork in nowhere America and I’m going to be under the work of Ray Johnson? We talked about Hungary in the 70’s, we talked about Cavallini, we talked about Ray, and we talked about their recent audio cassette donation. We talked about how their looking to move into a larger space soon, and how the current government helps keep the doors open and pays for the six or seven people that work there. We talked about Richard Canard, Ginny Lloyd, and Tucker. That’s right, they knew about the Tucker project I had done and had even liked it. While listening to them say Tucker in the middle of a Hungarian sentence I imagined the giant smile the man himself would have on his face. We talked more about Ray. My head was awash with information. I felt stupid for not being able to connect all of the mail-art dots. I knew I needed to learn a lot more.
I was most stuck by the amount of questions György Galántai asked me. This is one of the guys of mail-art, one of the old school correspondence artists and he’s asking me about why I was interested in mail-art, how I got into the whole endeavor myself. He was genuinely interested in what I had to say. I hope my answers came off as somewhat engaging. I hope that in translation Viktor made me sound a lot more linguistically effective than I thought I was being. I told him I did it because it was fun, and that I liked to communicate with people all over the world. That that communication had let me to his door. I told him I was inspired by the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny and my aunt’s incessant postcard sending when I was a kid. I hope I didn’t sound like an asshole.
All the while I walked through the space pointing at the names of people I recognized, György Galántai kept giving me things. He gave me a copy of his book, original add and passes from the 1980’s, work he sent out once Ray died in the mid-90’s, and brochures to a Ray show he put on in the late 90’s. Not only is the man generous with his time he was generous with his things. Most importantly he handed over the Ray Johnson bunny board that I had sent to Viktor.
Although I could have stayed there I thought it would be better if I didn’t. I could have walked around their many rooms, pulling things off the walls, and asking questions all day long. When I felt a lull in the conversation I made noises about leaving. Someone had to get something done and I needed to process everything I had just learned. By the front door Viktor, György Galántai, Dora and I talked about their small illuminated display. When I mentioned I hoped to set up my own mail-art room one day, Galántai said, “That’s what Vittore Baroni has done.” Not sure why that stood out to me but it did. I felt like I was part of this whole thing, something that feels so distant when dropping things in the mail thousands of miles away from many of my mail-art correspondents. I thanked everyone as many times as I could for their generosity. I shook everyone’s hand and told them to come visit me in North Carolina and walked outside.
I stood for a second looking at the courtyard. I slid down the metal steps, through the massive front door, and into the street where people were having late lunches and cocktails. I looked back at the giant door and walked towards the river, my only real landmark. In minutes it had started raining but I didn’t care. My book bag was heavy with all of the paper treasures I’d been given and missing a button on the front side. I smiled as everything became soaked with a chilly rain.


Amy said…
Awesome account! I was right there with you Jon! Thank you for sharing...
mim said…
What an incredible experience. In all my time in Europe, I've never made it to a Mail Art Archive; though, I've made Mail Art with Katerina (while in Istanbul) and in Paris with Dean, Andy, and Positively Postal. I do love them dearly, but your experience was amazing. Wow! Thanks for posting.
Gerald said…
Excellent! I'm glad you were able to have a day like this.
m.fairfield said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
m.fairfield said…
Brilliant article Jon. No, even better...good!
Allan B
zzzzzzzz said…
@Amy - Thanks so much for reading.

@Mim - It was the first experience of that nature I've ever had. I've only met a few mail-artists at all so going there was a dream come true.

@Gerald - Me too!

@M.Fairfield - Thanks Allan!
That sounds fabulous -- thanks for sharing with us.
FinnBadger said…
Fantastic blog post, Jon. Sounds like a great adventure.
Circulaire132 said…
Hey Jon,
Great story! I felt if I was there with you. Thanks for sharing!

Vizma said…
Holy crap! This almost brought a tear to my eye! I had no idea about this place, thanks for sharing this delightful adventure ! How fanfuckingtastic!
Vizma said…
Holy crap! This almost brought a tear to my eye! I had no idea about this place, thanks for sharing this delightful adventure ! How fanfuckingtastic!
Bradford said…
A real treasure trove and what a treasure to have the memory of such a visit.
Planet Susannia said…
Wonderfull story, Jon, i really enjoyed to reading it. Thank you for sharing us. I know the wonderfull couple, Julia and Gyuri too and I know how does it feel a visit at this amazing Archive.
zzzzzzzz said…
@Pamela - you're very welcome.

@FinnBadger - it really was a great adventure. It's a feeling to be welcomed by such nice people so far away from home.

@RF - thanks!

@Vizma - although I knew of the place, I didn't know the extend of it's influence and grasp. Being there gave me a graduate level class education in just two hours.

@Braadford - It was my favorite memory from the trip.

@Planet Susannia - Thanks for taking a look. I figured that you had some direct contact with them considering that you're originally from Hungary. They're treasures and very kind with the time and things.
Unknown said…
I really enjoyed this. Being a newbie to this mail art genre, i live reading about the past,present and hopefully the future through preservation such as this . Thank you for sharing your experience.
Carmela said…
Jon--thanks for taking us along on your mail art adventure. Yes, it is wonderful to think 'outside the mail box' and to get a glimpse of the world-wide phenomenon. Great to get a look at this archive! Lucky you.

PS: check out John Held, Jr on IUOMA. He has a US archive as do a number of educational institutions.


Watch video of his space.

PS: I participated in Held's 'Gutai' exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute, USA. I think that the Collaborative Mail Art book that we made is in his collection, too.