The Helsinki Task Force: Communiqués and Mail Art
By Cary Loren
I save all the souvenirs from field trips.
–Cay Bahnmiller, M/E/A/N/I/N/G/ #5
Robert Lebow first met Bahnmiller around 1978, when both were employed as waitstaff at Al Green’s Celebrity Room, a classic “before-or-after-theater” dining experience with live piano, located inside the Fisher Building. By coincidence, they lived in the same apartment building on Jefferson Avenue, one floor apart from each other, and first met in the building’s elevator. “We hit it off instantly,” Lebow recalls. “Cay and I had something she only did with me. It was called the Helsinki Task Force, which was a series of communications between she and I through our alter egos. We worked on spy-related issues and global affairs. The letters and envelopes were decorated mail art and the post office frequently delivered them in plastic bags with an apology for destroying them—but they were in pristine condition. Cay just layered and overpainted the surfaces of the envelopes so thick and heavy they looked run over by a truck.”
Bahnmiller and Lebow remained close friends for decades. The Helsinki Task Force was a side-project few people knew about, with alternative spy names and identities conceived by Bahnmiller. Long, typed letters were exchanged. Bahnmiller’s code name was Piet Prague—a nickname given by Lebow’s partner, Grant, after the artist Piet Mondrian. Prague was added by Bahnmiller—as the hometown synonymous with Franz Kafka and the Baroque cathedrals she loved. Lebow’s code name was Kasmir Switter. Friends, art dealers, and local artists had aliases: Mies Farber was Grant and Egon was likely Bahnmiller’s partner, Gordon Newton. Other names in the network included Raoul, Escodora, Jimmy Rome, Dad Sam, Isolde, and Chuck. Helsinki Task Force had its own logo and rubber stamps designed by the artist, and in the early 1990s her friend, artist Ann Mikolowski, was also a participant, going by various code names: Annah Lollabridgida, Anna Prague, Annahbella Rugosa, Annah Akmatova, and Agent St. Germain des Prés.
Bahnmiller’s keen wit and imagination surfaced in this fantasy spy network, which was both a private amusement, a support for friends, and a unique art production. Newton, her partner for 20-plus years, was a devoted reader of British spy novels, and the task force may have begun around the time of their dating in the mid-1980s, influenced by Cold War plot lines laid on top of the collapsing Cass Corridor scene. The Helsinki Task Force was a flight of fancy—a travelogue of the mind. Initially, Newton may not have been fully aware of the project, and later, possibly even contributed mail art drawings unknowingly.
Helsinki Task Force was an anti-gallery exchange and mini mail art network managed by Bahnmiller. It was linked to local gossip, parodies of the art scene, and national news events. The secret agent intrigue also played off Bahnmiller’s ability to keep friends and collectors apart from one another. In the late 1990s, Newton was becoming more withdrawn, due to a long-developing illness connected with toxic chemical exposure. The task force was Bahnmiller’s social network. Rooted in satire, it attacked the mechanisms of the art world, and was a subversive outlet deriding pop culture, especially class, fashion, and materialism. “The project is completely unorganized, filling several shopping bags,” Lebow says. “It covered decades of work. A few years ago, after a flood, I carefully dried out the papers ... preserving as much as I could—lots had to be tossed out.”
Through the years, Bahnmiller often went to Lebow’s English garden cottage in Huntington Woods to restore herself and recharge. The modest house, barely visible from the street, is hidden by a giant weeping willow, tall pines, and lush flowering gardens. The backyard is home to a half-dozen beehives, producing hundreds of pounds of honey each year. Bahnmiller often relaxed there by herself, sometimes leaving sculptures and artwork around the garden trails for Lebow to discover.
In the late 1990s, Lebow and Bahnmiller had a falling out. The project ended when she broke into Lebow’s house to take back all the Helsinki Task Force letters, as well as artworks previously given to him and the pieces he purchased. “I knew Cay was at her parents’ home after she broke inside,” Lebow says. “So I called and she answered the phone. I said, ‘Put your daddy on right now.’ When Richard Bahnmiller answered the phone, I said, ‘Cay just broke into my house and took items belonging to me. If these items are not back by 7 p.m., I will call the police. I will file a police report and I will tell them she broke into my house. The police will go to your house and arrest Cay.’ Before 7 p.m. Mr. Bahnmiller arrived with everything, except the Tiger Stadium Blueprint drawings. Those were gorgeous and used to hang between sheets of glass in my living room. I have no idea what happened to them. She also had meticulously cut out my name and address from every envelope. She wanted to cancel out our history.”2
Bahnmiller’s communiqués with the task force throughout the 1980s and 1990s include dozens of letters and cards. She used no. ten size business envelopes and large manila enclosures, each thickly illuminated with collage and overpainted. The typed messages were taped or glued onto the front and back. Most letters were stuffed with information: newspaper and magazine clippings, notes, and even small paintings and collages.
From the Private Collection of Robert Lebow
[7/11/85, photo postcard] To: Piet Prague / Incline Car and Station at the top of Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee. / Piet, Picture proof! Mies has purchased this mountain! His private coach carries he and his allies to the summit for bizarre NEGOTIATIONS. Farber eats beef 3 times daily. KAZ
[11/20/85, postcard typed] Herr Kasmir Switter, Vice-Consul / Jet lag, yes, cash surplus funds, no. Piet here, hailing from the upper Adirondacks, minus any greenbacks, Doing my best to nip one of Mies burgeoning, blossoming “Ideas,” I didn’t know he was capable of them, but then you learn something new every day.
[7/9/87, postcard, typed] Piet Prague, Hoffenfeffer Strasse / Bier garten rouladen, Satz, Glockenspiel / Hello Kasmir, Be careful, there are double agents everywhere many of them financed by Mies Farber, ready to sell out their keester if the price is appropriate. HTF must never lose their status as a first-class agent organization, by acquiescing to the constant demands of a said “Mies Mark Mister Farber,” who knows nothing of etiquette, echelon, escalation, or escargots. Annah Prague gives you her best as does her guardian, –Piet Prague, Hoffenfeffer Strasse Rouladen, Speil
[7/13/87, typed on front of letter] Prague Headquarters, And P. on the “lamb” / Pre-L.A. briefing / Did Mies have a facelift by nip and tuck while in Leningrad? Did he take injections to try and raise his I.Q.? Does it matter and who really cares? We the ever-paying taxed up the keester care, I can’t clear his duvotos anymore and neither can YOU, BUCKO!!
Not to mention that in Vienna renting gondolas cost thousands and then insisting on lanterns, gondola boat boys, and swans! Who covers those astronomical fees, Bud? And be careful, once in L.A. he may try to steal your new doggies. Nothing is beyond him. And with his penchant for black market infiltration who knows what […]
[Typed manuscript taped to back of letter] And while I’m at it, be careful with your new shorts and shirts, a hot commodity in L.A.! Everybody out there could use a pair, and especially that lowlife, “why he no work 9 to 5?” Pesky rodent, slimeball greaser, booger!! Annah insists Mies is kosher, of course she enjoyed Vienna, she can’t say no to a free meal, and boat ride, but Piet is trying to talk some sense into her, she won’t listen, keeps crabbing for cake (ha-ha!) and Moet. Just wherever you go wear that bubble suit and you’ll be okay, this applies to any proximity to Raoul, he may try and give you enchilada cooties.
[Typed manuscript taped to back of letter] HELENA RUBENSTEIN / Matisse / pear leaves. Enclosed REMEMBERING ALL DREAMS / WAS CHANEL A FASCIST? / maybe he’s crying for me … I GO OUT WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT UNDER STARLIGHT?? BLUE ULTRAMARINE CHALK ON MY HANDS
[Inserts in oversized envelope] THE HTF CANNOT BE BOUGHT!!! AND THAT GOES FOR THE COMPANY CAR!
[Undated typed letter] Cluj Report / Helsinki Summer Retreat, outside of Budapest, on our way to Odessa, Black Sea beaches!
My Dear Kasmir, Needless to say, a vacation for yours truly does not entail Brazilian bikini clad youths, but dossier after dossier on our “schulden.” I am laden with duvotees galore, warrants issued by heads of state, and more black and whites than Zanuck ever shot. I may need a real vacánce by the time this last episode is cleared, an episode incriminating the very heart and soul of the HTF.
Just last night I received a cable from Stockholm, my bags were packed and I’m off to Cluj, to try and save a sinking ship. Someone has loose lips and it’s none other than our little SCHULDEN! He’s all over like a fly, throwing around caviar and kippers., escorts on every limb, diamonds and sables, seal and rubies, fox fur and fake! (well what do you expect with a penchant for dacron and celanese), I have called Armani and Valentino to meet me at Bucharest where we shall try for the umpteenth time to set this wayward chap straight … but those beautiful silk suits only stayed on him for 24 hours the last time, when he sold them in Marseilles for a cheap buck. Or was his name Chuck? The gourmet bills are astronomical, equaling his gastronomical gargantuan panting and grueling. “Wideruff” is nothing he can fathom. (revenue)
Egon is quite upset this time around, and he is threatening total expulsion, says we don’t need a base in L.A. anyways, says the future is in the Jerusalem area, and says we’ve worked hard enough to have earned both our design compounds as we so desire. I can’t bicker with that, although Dad Sam will go crazy if Mies is dispensed from the group. But I have waited long enough for my villa, and so have you. And what’s wrong with a Peugeot or two? I don’t see the shame in a couple of BMW’s and if you want that German Motors subsidiary, who am I to say nien? I feel the duvoto situation has got to be dealt with swiftly and Mies must clear up these mistakes PERSONALLY.
I don’t care what Edith Head says, he’s not the next megabuck star, and the illusory scam must stop. Isolde only laughs now when he calls, Annah also. Hank says that even in Muncie and those packing houses in Chicago, they dismissed Mies with the salami and pork chop slough. Says he couldn’t hold a candle to a good shank. I feel we have had the “wool” pulled over our dark shaded eyes. I say twenty hail Mary’s but he’s still on the goddamn phone when I turn around. Do you think we should take away the Bloomingdales charge? And Neiman Marcus to boot? I’m thinking a good diet of cheese whiz and chips may be the only way to go. Biftek and patisserie have spoiled the lad. He couldn’t find his way out of a black forest torte if his palate depended on it. And speaking of papacy, the prelate says even Mecca has a preference for deportation than risk further knee bends over such an infidel. More later, be careful, he is monitoring all communications. –Piet
[Torn letter fragment in blue crayon with sketch and rubber stamped in blue ink] PIET UND ANNAH PRAGUE / HELSINKI TASK FORCE / PPF / PROJECT DAUMIER, WIEN / Marcel Breuer stopped by for Lunch. I served him salmon croquettes, a dry white Bordeaux, poached.
[Jan. 12, 1997, handwritten letter on accounting paper] HTF Command Post / Dear Comrade, Enclosed is a special couture decision issued only to the most elite area of intelligence for the Helsinki Task Force. I am happy to announce HTF will communicate to Annah Lollabrigida her new post. Please notify her internationally at: Annah Lollabridgida Meekohlowqski, 1207 Henry St / Ann Arbor, MICH 48104. The letter that wraps your Fendi knockoff Ferragamo, Dior! Valentino vs Versace has on my Backside my first cityscape of Tel Aviv. Will sell Mussolini beauty when you’re ready but she pricey. This I only do to stay alive. But don’t spend all yous shecky in one place. Also recent photo of us walking Hannah T who says we don’t walk the dog ala early Rolling Stones 1961 records Uh. huh. Girlfriend I can’t wait to see you. Love, Piet
[On the back of an envelope addressed to Tel Aviv, Israel, date unknown, circa 1990s, abstract painting encapsulated in clear tape with a poem centered] PIET SITS IN BARCELONA, READS HER NEWSPAPER, DREAMS OF JUJOL, ANDALUCIA, EVERYTHING IS SUBTROPIC, THICK COCA COLA, BOULEVARDS, STUCCO DOORWAYS, COBBLED SIDESTREETS, LEMON TREES.
[postcard, undated, handwritten] I saw Picasso on the island today / Throwing rocks at Man Ray
[postcard, undated, handwritten] As I walk through these streets / Of broken dreams / I have visions of happiness / And visions of many dreams / But for me they come through / Only as illusion
[postcard, undated, handwritten] Helsinki Task Force, Front Office / Dossier: Mr. Mies Mark Farber, Agent Kazimer Ludwig Switter Lebow, Agent Piet Prague / Haffenpepper Strasse beer garten glockenspiel / Dear Agent Kazimer, It has come to the attention of the Helsinki Task Force that Mies has deliberately syphoned funds from the Zurich account.
[postcard, undated] Dearest Kasmir, Well, I’m hurriedly getting this update off to you as I board a little learjet to the Arctic Circle, and then onto the Orient, for god’s sake, he’s franchised half of Tokyo and Shanghai is next, and do you know what he has committed us to? Video-danceterias—kick off those mules and “network” the latest pony game or pit bull fight, with a sideline of mens casual loungewear and sports gear, with an additional investiture in a “stud” farm of sorts. When Egon got the news on this he blew sky high, and if I don’t dis-invest our little keester pronto, the axe is not going to fall gracefully. Please wire the second Swiss emergency funds to my Singapore suite, and from there I’ll try and wheel and deal until our securities are back in the monied enclaves of Manhattan. And as for Mies, when I do catch up with that little shyster, it won’t be the Copa for him or Sardi’s, Please wire my paper sandals and kimonos, Valentino says the monsoons soon/ so arrivederci, More later! Best, Piet-on-the-lamb-overseas.
Ann and Ken Mikolowski
Letters from the Collection of The Alternative Press Records
Painter Ann Mikolowski was a close friend of Bahnmiller and member of the Helsinki Task Force. Ann, along with her husband, poet Ken Mikolowski, ran The Alternative Press for 30 years. Beginning in Detroit in 1969, The Alternative Press was created to bring better exposure and attention to Detroit artists and writers. “We purchased the letterpress for $100 from the Detroit Artists Workshop,” explains Ken Mikolowski.3 At first, the letterpress cards and broadsides were given away free, and later were produced as quarterly packets sold by subscription for $10 a year—barely enough to cover expenses. The project expanded to include well-known beat generation artists and writers.
In 1974, the press moved into a general store in the small town of Grindstone City, at the tip of Michigan’s thumb. After Ann was diagnosed with cancer in 1988, they moved to Henry Street in Ann Arbor, where Ken became a lecturer on creative writing at the University of Michigan. The archives of The Alternative Press, including the letterpress itself, was purchased by the University of Michigan Special Collections in 1996 and afforded the couple time and funds to travel. After Ann was diagnosed with six months to live, she sought alternative health care at a Rudolf Steiner anthroposophical clinic in Switzerland, which helped extend her life another three years. She passed away in 1999 at age 59.
“The mail told it all,” Ken says. “Ann and Cay had a strong love for Country and Western music—Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Tammy Wynette. Cay also listened to a lot of Blues. We crossed paths when she became involved with Gordie [Newton]. I don’t think Ann or Cay ever considered the Helsinki Task Force an art project—it was just Cay being Cay and Ann being Ann.”4
Cay Bahnmiller’s Helsinki Task Force letters to Ann Mikolowski reside in The Alternative Press archive in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan Library. The following are excerpts from these letters.
[1990s paper scrap] An agent’s work is never done! –Love Cay, more birds Big Reds
Monsier et Madame Meékohlowski et Mille Lollabrigida, A BIG HELSINKI Hello! To our comrades across the great sea. Soon we set out on Beeeg voyage la marchesse, le chat, le Bow-wow et Papa, Le grand chat. Nosotros sent plus heurêus. Avec amoré Buche noél et la comers plus rouges—mi Corazon á su Corazon –Piet, nana, Nosey &. Gordon
Lola Xray Soul Meekolowski, Lola—one hot tamale, Helsinki Task Force opened a new Copacabana. The night club is doing well. Judy Garland graces our stage. Pierre Legrain chairs. Can you straighten out that goddamn maitre’d on proper club attire? –Irate Piet
This is the new Helsinki cable extension: 368-6801 (313)—Like 1968 when the Tigers did it all. HTF
Dear Ann, Just a hello to you and Ken. I hope to be up near you in the next week or so—apples and Roadside asters and color—will call –Love, Cay Hope all is well.
Anne– These poems have gotten me thru the summer … That and driving around the city (7 Mile, Nevada, Davison, McNichols to Mt. Elliot. Mound) Looking, Looking, Looking, Thank heaven for the deep red light of August. –the Prairie Piet
[From Robert Lebow, Tel Aviv, 1990s] Dear HTF agent Annah Lollabrigida Meekohlowski, Welcome to the elite corps of HTF. Certainly, agent Piet Prague has briefed you and certainly you are aware of the pitfalls, pratfalls, spitballs. Your first assignment from HTF international Tel Aviv: As you know, for nearly twenty years heinrich has been on the lam. His personal litany of tragedy is too much to get into, suffice … Heinrich is nasty. To capture and try Heinrich is HTF priority #1. GET HIM. Do whatever you need to do. Cost is absolutely no consideration. Agent Piet Prague has carte blanche authorized by me. Agent Meekohlowski, this is the only surviving photo of Heinrich. Guard it with all your strength. Just look at him standing there over one of his victims—smug, arrogant, conceited—Get him! And now—good luck—be careful—watch your back, watch your front. Watch your ass. Agent Prague and I are the only ones to trust. Good luck agent and welcome to HTF. P.S. Traitors are not dealt with … they are eliminated. HTF BERT
 Dear Ann, To get such a beautiful package in the mail. I am more than lucky, looks like divine stars glow between you and I … Gordon and I found this abandoned house with a sumac ravine, lichen, and acre of moss. Big oaks, maybe eighty years or so, and a twisting bluff of birch with cedar droppings untouched, untrod for I’d say ten, twenty years. Felt like a sky-high cushion of eiderdown. Then we saw a hawk. The house had an old cistern and a compost screen sunk in a bed, northern edge of the property, before the crick. In another life, I’m sure that’s how we lived. With black cherry trees and Siberian iris. Spruce and woodpiles, blackberry shield. I said to Gord that it made you want to live, to really be alive, dream again, see light and clear air and dream … I think I have little daily conversations with you in my heart, about the work, or light, or shadow, or big green and blue. Gordon found me a starburst sprocket clock from the sixties with a good old Seth Thomas, tic tock, I am happy. Now I go to sleep. Much love to you and Ken, Cay / June 8, 1935, the day the “King” was born. Elvis, Oh Elvis, let’s rock. / Is that our retirement home verandah on the 1997 calendar??
Ann, I’m past really worried with Gord. It’s serious. Now he’s getting the opinion from Beaumont [Hospital], (which is a good step) I think Susanne will be helpful. Maybe you could let Bob know how serious it’s got and that Gord will probably not answer his door. But I can’t go through this alone. Duffy is a dumb box of rocks. The aluminum poisoning and lead and arsenic (olé) and tin and titanium. He’s got a hot rash at times. Maybe we will all be in the land of Oz when we wake up. Last night I dreamed about black velvet eyelet steeples gothic, Chartres—steeples, but they went by so fast. I wanted to linger with them, touch them but they were fleeting. Santoria where are you when I need you? Inside the church, where the crutches are and side chapel, I dream of my German ’50s teapot and Gordon and a yellow paper bag with red print, a smiling boy. That’s Gord. Ann, he’s starting to not remember. It’s very upsetting. I think he at times does not now who any of us are. Then, he’s crystal clear. He loved the ocean. Hope I haven’t been morose. Just honest. Hello to Ken and Ginger. Ma Rainey (and Dinah Washington) Love Piet
[2/19/97] Dearest Agent Lola-XRAY-SOUL, Agent Double-o-soul, I or is it we at HTF have been saving this couture decision for years, and we think you can do mucho avec ça. We adore, je t’adore, Mmlle. Browning Birthday Book, it made our day much better. Perhaps we can meet at the “Garden de Finzi-Continis” and walk among the bromeliads and water lilies, jasmine and oleander. Bis meadows, fir and lake! Dis vinter very hard on Task Force. Papa Bear very ill. Mama sad. Papa Bear very much appreciate his Valentine too, ’till tomorrow, and Paradise! –Piet
[July 7, 1997] Ami, It’s late on a hot summer evening. Honeysuckle walls, roses and grape arbor peonies, Thyme woolly thyme, petunias, snowflake dandelion blanket and heat. I’m gonna finish those Berrigan paintings with Lorraine and the Ship to Argentina. Last night I dreamed of a big hurricane and deep blue green tourmaline Lake Huron water, the kind way out in the lake where you dive in. Swimming water. The cat has come in from her silent nightly walk. New words to paint. Gordon saw a good doctor—Kinesiologist who seems to be a great influence, aka Adele Davis influence. Sad, I can’t find the book you mentioned, will continue the search. Bertholt Brecht, early diaries, Thomas Carlyle (English mystic, poet.) Like E.D. with the caps and old Buckminster Fuller (circa 1961) and I quote, “Verticality is to live, Horizontal is to die.”
[5/22/03] Ken, for your archives, Ann took this photo that one glorious evening we spent a day, 1997 laughing loudly in front of faded (?) department dollar store, thinking, “aren’t we a couple of fools being painters.” Such absurdity, then adding that we needed much more comic relief. Sigh, looking at our reflection under streetlight at night in front of an old five & dime. I’m sorry if I hurt you, but you hurt me. Going back to dentist in two hours, never been in such pain in my life. Why won’t God take me now? Cold breeze up off River. Ann liked Patsy Kline and Johnny Cash, we lost Nina Simone and June Carter, Cash, Hank, Joe Turner, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Tammi Wynette— / all the little lily of the valley’s & Sawtooth Dogwood are for Ann. Other important things: pheasant feet tracks in the snow. Shadows that wire fences and chicken wire give off. My red wing blackbird. Ciao, CB.
Structo-vision: A Manifesto
Structo-vision was an undated typed page found inside Bahnmiller’s file in The Alternative Press archives. It reads as an almost comedic theory connected to her artistic production, and also as a biological and physical idea. There was no published date, but it seemed to be written sometime after the landscape project in the early 1980s.
“STRUCTO-VISION: Setting forth an Introductory Theorem of Structurally Integral, Visual Phenomena, Drawing Deeply from the Reservoir of Sub-conscious Human Imagery
What is this thing?!? This thing of STRUCTO-VISION!?! Be it animal?! Mineral?! Vegtable?!?!??
An innate, somehow benign sense of recurring questionable awareness. A woven combination of physically relevant, visually analytical, singular assemblies.
This shifting suggestion of strategic elements, co-existing upon pre-set cognizant points, can only be understood through the competent and measured use of STRUCTO-VISION.
In nature, STRUCTO-VISION is a stimulus, triggered by a physically inherent visual factor, a pre-conceived, integral rationalization of how something is seen. The depth of this realization is felt suddenly. This recurring phenomenon may reach such a high level of physical absorption that a sense of visual disorientation takes place, leaving on with deep biological repercussions, which do—in time—become growing neurological necessities.”5
Read next: Photography, inside Doom and Glory in the Cass Corridor: A Dossier on Cay Bahnmiller by Cary Loren
Lead image (at left), Courtesy The Alternative Press Records, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan Library. Lead image (at right), Courtesy private collection of Robert Lebow.
Fig. 2 and 3, Courtesy private collection of Robert Lebow.
Fig. 4, 5 and 6, Courtesy The Alternative Press Records, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan Library.
1. Robert Lebow, interview, Aug. 28, 2021.
2. Robert Lebow, interview Sept. 2, 2021.
3. Ken Mikolowski, interview, Nov. 19, 2021.
4. All preceding quotes as well from Ken Mikolowski interview, Nov. 19, 2021.
5. Cay Bahnmiller, “STRUCTO-VISION,” unsigned, typed statement dated 1983, found inside Bahnmiller’s folder, in The Alternative Press Records, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan Library.