The Post-industrial Condition: The Work of Early Fluxus Artists as a Response to Late Capitalism.

"WaterYam" by Source. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Water Yam (artist's multiple)">Fair use via Wikipedia.

A photograph of George Brecht’s Water Yam (1963) “WaterYam” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

In a 1993 interview, Nam June Paik (Wijers, 1993, p. 9) stated that ‘In a nomadic, post-industrial time we are more experience-oriented than possession–oriented’. Essentially, Paik was positioning Fluxus as a manifestation of changing attitudes towards the function of art and artists among its adherents in the wake of economical and societal transformation from industrial to post-industrial models. Although Fluxus was a loose, international movement spanning multiple decades (Smith, 1998, pp. 14-32), for the sake of understanding the motivations of Fluxus members in relation to Paik’s statement, the scope of this essay is limited to the rough time and location of its conception. The varying ideological strands from which Fluxus artists developed their output, including the concept of  ‘experience-oriented’ art, are perhaps best understood as part of, and/or in reaction to the emergence of what Paik refers to as a ‘nomadic, post-industrial society’. In particular, the experiential elements and wider implications of the work and discourse of George Maciunas, George Brecht and Alison Knowles can be explored in the light of their societal and economic context.

As first hypothesized by Inglehart in 1977, and summarized by Wright (1978, p. 270-273), the economies of America and Europe can be characterized as the result of a slow shift in values from materialist to post-materialist. A ‘satiation of basic material needs’ (Wright, 1978, p. 270) led to the prioritization and, subsequently, the increased commodification and value, of creative and intellectual ideas at the expense of economic and physical security among the educated middle classes. This aspect of post-industrialist society is linked to art-as-commodity; that which is frequently exchanged and accrues value among collectors, critics and galleries according to the status it has been given by market forces (Gimpel, 2000, p. 51).

Lushetich (2011, p. 73) theorizes that artists recognizing ‘the need to get away from… art that privileges aloof spectatorship’ associated the divorce between experience and meaning ‘common to work characteristic of the Fordist era’ with commodity fetishism (in this context, a distancing between artist, as producer, and audience, as consumer). Fluxus, and to varying extents, Experimentalism, Pop Art, and Happenings, movements with which it shared symbiotic relationships, (Higgins, 2002, p. 163) were partially provoked by a move ‘against the artificial separation of producer or performer, of generator and spectator’ (Maciunas, 1962, cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 23).

Brecht’s Water Yam was a series of events published in their first form in 1963 by George Maciunas (Higgins, 2002, p.163). Among them was Drip Music, which ‘may occur by chance or by choice and in accordance with almost any circumstances’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 46). In the presentation and marketing of Water Yam, ‘the high cost of culture is problematized’ through the use of ‘cheap materials,’ which result in ‘low costs’ to the participating audience (Higgins, 2002, p.164). Maciunas’ influence in the publication is clear. The design of the box was in keeping with the ‘principle that the kits should be cheap, disposable and unprecious’ (Higgins, 2002, p.163). Many of Brecht’s event scores (such as Keyhole event, 1962, Higgins, 2002, p. 22) were handwritten, and bore his signature; the printed versions, such as those in Water Yam did not, and sometimes omitted his name altogether (such as the selection in Higgins, 2002, p. 103), paralleling Maciunas’ advice to Ben Vautier: ‘don’t sign anything’ (Maciunas, 1964 cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 133).

Alongside other Fluxus associates, Brecht attended Cage’s class on ‘Experimental Composition’ from 1958 to 1959 (Ouzounian, 2011, p. 201). Shortly after meeting Cage, Brecht wrote the essay “Chance-Imagery,” advocating chance as a method through which an artist is allowed to ‘transcend personality, culture and, ultimately, self’ (Brecht, 1957, p. 23 cited in Ouzounian, p. 208). Brecht’s event scores expanded upon Cage’s concept of the sound event placed in time, with ‘more generalized structures in which sound is one element among many’ (Ouzounian, 2011, p. 206).  Including but not exclusive to Water Yam, Brecht’s ‘event scores’ exemplify this experiential, multisensory model; as ‘psychophysical structures’, (Brecht, 1991– 2005, p. 165 cited in Ouzounian, p. 206) the scores sought to highlight aspects of a ‘unified whole’ arbitrarily arrived at by chance.

Ouzounian (2011, p. 208) refers to Three Aqueous Events as an explicit example, a performance of which reveals the state of the performance material ‘as arbitrary points within a continuous field’, to the performer (in this case, equally an observer) who ‘ideally… experiences his or her own place within this continuum’. Thus, the score in itself does not embody but propagates the text; it serves as a prompt for performance, which in turn serves as a prompt for the perception of an event that already exists outside of the immediate context.

As put by Kotz (2005, p. 12), the event score often provides a ‘linguistic frame that directs attention to pre-existing phenomena’. In this way, Three Aqueous Events allows works to ‘disappear into the everyday’, (Dezeuze, 2006, p. 60) resonating with Maciunas’ aim to remove boundaries between art and life (Maciunas, 1962, cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 23).  However Brecht’s plan to sell Sink (1962) under 3 different guises highlights his acceptance of the multiple modes of perception that might be projected onto a given work (Dezeuze 2006, p. 61). According to Dezeuze (2006, p. 61), Brecht prepared 3 adverts for Village Voice, one advertising the sink as a sink, describing its condition and style, the other as a more possession-oriented sculpture and finally as an experiential prop sold with access to incidental events in which it might participate.

The ‘propositions’ of Alison Knowles resonate with the aims of Brecht’s event scores (Robinson, 2004, pp. 98-99). Each proposition is overtly multisensory, with ‘elements of chance incorporated into the temporal framework’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 99). Knowles was the only artist from within the Fluxus proper to include actual brands in her works (Robinson, 2004, p. 101). Although this draws her aesthetic concerns superficially closer to Warhol in his aspiration to create work transcending class barriers (Grudin, 2010, p. 3), by placing the brand name in a more experiential context, the connotations to which the commodity in question generally apply are subverted rather than framed. In Nivea Cream Piece (1962), the universally recognized product becomes ‘strange or even abject under the intense focus of its enactment’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 203). The sound could invoke squeamishness (Robinson, 2004, p. 203) or even notions of the ‘vaguely erotic’ (Mandl, 2010).

Among Knowles’ most famous ‘propositions’ is The Identical Lunch (c. 1969-1971), which frames the usually public consumption of a very specific meal. Much like Brecht’s ‘Drip Music,’ the performative actions are occurrences from every day life. The performance has both very private and very public aspects; the internal sensory experiences of any performers, and the changing context within which it occurs (Weil and Knowles, 2011).  From its conception, Knowles encouraged performers to record their experiences, which were published in a journal in 1971 (Weil and Knowles, 2011), shifting aspects of the private experience to a broader audience. Knowles’ later screen prints of friends performing the piece in a more isolated setting (Weil and Knowles, 2011) represent a different kind of public exposure to the act, divorcing an observer from immediate experiential elements.  The prints also overlay the performance with  ‘mass imagery’, by way of a prominent Star-Kist logo (Higgins, 2002, p. 157), during an otherwise private lunch, thus exposing the performer to the public in an equally divorced way.

Knowles’ Been Rolls (1963), consisting of  ‘fourteen tiny paper rolls’, with arbitrary bean-related facts, ‘including people named Bean, proverbs and stories and beans, bean recipes and ads for L.L. bean’ as well dried beans, were all presented in a ‘found tea tin’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 103). The tea tin was labelled according to the designs of George Maciunas. The label places it among the Fluxus “anti-commodities” along with many of Maciunas’ Fluxkits (Robinson, 2004, p. 103). Robinson (2004, p. 103) highlights the fact that the beans themselves cannot be replicated or mass manufactured exactly from one instance to another. Not only does this subvert the ‘perfect serial sameness of mass produced commodity’, (2004, p. 103) it also incorporates a kind of chance procedure in the physical properties of each bean, and the subsequent parameters of any given experience. The level of physical engagement Bean Rolls permits its audience (Higgins, 1998, p. 67) is also congruent with the Fluxkit concept.

Maciunas’ Fluxkits are collections of items inviting the ‘private explorations of a viewer’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 31). Subsequently, much like Bean Rolls, and Brecht’s Three Acquious Events, the Fluxkits often create a situation whereby audience and performer are one. Fluxus 1, assembled by Maciunas, contains ‘objects, visual work and essays by thirty-nine artists’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 53). The multiplicity of primary sensory information that the items convey is outlined by Higgins (2002, p. 53); a napkin and medical glove to touch, a tune and words to sing and portraits to view are just a few examples. As in Three Acquious Events, Drip Music, Sink, Bean Rolls, and The Identical Lunch, Fluxus 1 assimilates everyday objects without transforming or framing them in such a way as to impede their normal use; a prime example of Maciunas’ aim to obtain ‘”art” experiences from everyday occurrences,’ (Maciunas, c. 1963-4, cited in Philpott, n.d.) as oppose to creating it using the everyday as source material.

A contrasting Fluxkit, which contains a single, purpose-made object, is Maciunas’ Smile Machine (1970-72); a sprung metal contraption forcing the wearer to ‘smile’ while enduring the taste of ‘blood and metal’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 50) and physical discomfort, inducing a phenomenological experience unique to anatomical attributes of the mouth of the wearer. The work perhaps also serves as a political statement; a commodity sold to force a distorted external symbol with incompatible inward associations, fitting Robinson’s (2004, footnote no. 17) definition of a Fluxus ‘anti-commodity’. Fluxpost (smiles) (1978) is a series of stamps depicting unflattering smiles (Higgins, p. 48-50). Higgins (2002, p. 50) views Fluxpost (smiles), experientially in the light of Smile Machine, invoking an awareness of the inside of the mouth. Other readings of the work view it as a critique of Capitalism, ‘betraying specific class, cultural or racial associations’ (Higgins, 2006, p. 282) with regard to the condition of the teeth relative to their bearers, an observation Higgins does not outright dismiss. The former component of the work is perhaps triggered by foreknowledge of Smile Machine; the latter by foreknowledge of Maciunas’ political angle and the cultural landscape from which the work was conceived.

Fluxiosity (1966) is demonstrative of Maciunas’ ‘ambivalent relations’ towards Capitalism (Sell, 1998, p. 6). The work outlines a ‘Fluxus HQ,’ in New York, multiple international centres from which the former might disseminate it’s ideals, a list of commodity goods, ‘like a bill of sale’ and, finally, a list of participating artists (Sell, 1998, pp. 6-8). The ‘Fluxus HQ’ to which Maciunas referred didn’t literally exist, but was rather an ‘imagined centre’ (Sell, 1998, p. 6). ‘Fluxshops were set up in the US, France, and the Netherlands’ (Smith, 1998, p. 29) and the multiplicity of distribution outlets, with mail order warehouses in the US and Europe (Smith, 1998, p. 29) may be, in part, what Paik was alluding to with his use of the word ‘nomadic’. Through its mail order system, Fluxus and associated publishers attempted to subvert the ‘highly centralized distribution system of the art world’ (Paik, 1978, cited in Smith, 1998, p. 29). Paik could have also been referring to the locational independence of Fluxus pieces from art galleries, concert halls or, in many cases, any particular geographical location, that made this method of distribution more viable.

Prior to Fluxioity, Maciunas’ works had employed ‘more straightforwardly leftist rhetoric’, (Sell, 1998, p. 6) which resonated more closely with the aforementioned views of Lushetich on Fluxus as a reaction to commodity art, and on Maciunas’ original conception of Fluxus as, in part, an attack on it (Saper, 1998 p.150). The Purge Manifesto of 1963 was more outwardly iconoclastic, calling on his peers to ‘purge the world of bourguois sickness… professional and commercialized culture’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 95), as was Fluxus news-policy No. 6 (1963), calling upon Fluxus artists to commit acts of cultural violence from ‘sabotaging museums’ to ‘creating mayhem’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 95) during rush hour.

The most overt display of iconoclasm to the outside world in Fluxus was the 1964 picket of a concert, within which Fluxus members were billed as performers alongside Stockhausen (Higgins, 2002, p. 72). Although Stockhausen was previously involved in several earlier concerts at the behest of Nam June Paik (Higgins, 2002, p. 71), Piekut  (2011, p. 68–71) suggests the picket was as a result of the anti-bourgeois Jazz background of influential Fluxus associate Henry Flynt, combined with continuing events outside of the avant-garde leading to a general increase in anti-art sentiment. Higgins (summarized in Piekut, 2011, p. 68) has characterized the event as the culmination of an ongoing dispute within the Fluxus movement; Maciunas, Flynt and other picketing members viewing it as a ‘politically-motivated anti-art critique’ against those taking part, who saw Fluxus as ‘a socially elastic aesthetic based on individual experience’ (Piekut, 2011, p. 68). Sell (1998, p. 8) offers a more reconciliatory understanding of Higgins’ dichotomy through his reading of Fluxiosity as a manifesto ‘defining…a shared matrix of conceptual paradoxes and structural contradictions within which an individual artist might work’.

At the time of its conception, Fluxus can be understood to have been a multi-faceted umbrella under which artists with some common interests operated. It is not enough to ignore the wide-ranging and contradictory political implications, both overt and connotative, of the body of work generated by Brecht, Knowles, Maciunas and other Fluxus artists, operating within the ‘nomadic, post-industrial society’ Paik refers to: subversion of the art market through alternative models of production and distribution afforded to the Fluxkits, various anti-commodities and artists books such Water Yam as well as the dogmatic, iconoclastic sentiments of the Purge Manifesto and Fluxiosity  are to name a few. It is also not enough to consign Fluxus to the status of political movement; not only due to the lack of straightforward ideological consensus, but also because the experiential models that arose, in response to traditional art, invite a more concise analysis of the Fluxus movement. In short, Paik’s statement in relation to the conception of Fluxus describes a displacement from one prioritized mode of perception to another, in reaction to the prevailing cultural and economic norms of the art world as a microcosm of late capitalist society.

[1] It is worth noting that the experiential aesthetic is far older than Fluxus and associated movements. The aesthetic concerns highlighted by philosophers such as John Dewey, who wrote as early as 1934 on experiential modes of perception in art were, however, explored and developed by Fluxus artists (Higgins, 2002, p. 17).

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