Fluxus as Experience

ART AS EVENT

Compared to the brief flash of the Happenings in New York City, in Europe, Performance Art was a far more important part of the post war experience for artists in Germany and France. Many of the European artists re-connected with the old Dada spirit, going back to art as it existed before the First World War to retrieve avant-garde art in order to play out the final fate of the pre-war art movements. For German artists, it was necessary to go back in time to the decade before Nazi art had polluted all art forms, except for “Degenerate Art” or Modernist Art. For the French artists, the period between the wars was a conservative one, ultimately leading to New York taking the lead. So there is no place to go but backwards in order to move forward. Dada had been a performance based art movement, derailed by New Objectivity and Surrealism and it was with performance that the Europeans could combine their own heritage with the kinetic art of the painter Jackson Pollock.

If the origins of Dada were “disgust” as Tristan Tzara put it, the origins of Fluxus were American. The founder of Fluxus was George Macinuas, a Lithuanian expatriate, an entrepreneur and art dealer who coined the term “fluxus.” Maciunas, who was working as a designer-architect with the American Air Force, discovered the word “flux” as the result of a random search thorough the dictionary, much like Tristan Tzara found the term “dada” in the Larousse dictionary in 1916. The movement was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany in September 1962 at the “Fluxus Internationale Festspiel Neuester Musik,” the first public appearance of the word, “Fluxus.” Although many of the Fluxus artists are still alive and active, the international art movement, Fluxus, dates from approximately 1949 to 1979, and the glory days of Fluxus were between 1962 and 64. When Maciunas, who published the works of Fluxus artists and produced their concerts and exhibitions, died in 1978, it was said, “fluxus has fluxed.”

Just as its prototype Dada was shaped by the First World War, Fluxus was profoundly impacted by the philosophical change in Euro-American culture following the Second World War. The Post-War world was a brave new world recovering for a Holocaust and facing immanent annihilation from the newly invented atomic bomb. Existentialism, a philosophy developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, insisted upon a nihlism—total despair in a world now without meaning or purpose. With all institutions of church and state discredited, the human being could exist only through act or “acting out” a life. The pure act was the only means of self-affirmation and of self-confirmation of individual existence. Existentialist philosophy had influenced the writings of Harold Rosenberg, the famous New York art critic, who used Existentialism to explain “American Action Painting.”

Beyond philosophy, other changes, more material and social, shaped Fluxus. Mass media was becoming a genuine force in society, spreading knowledge of art movements from one continent to another; and economic changes made it possible for artists to travel and maintain close contact with each other. As a result, Fluxus was an international and racially diverse movement, made up of men and women, European, Asian and American. Fluxus members included the Danish musician and artist Erich Andersen, the Korean video artist, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Robert Watts, Alison Knowles, La Monte Young, Jackson Marlow, Philip Corner, and Benjamin Patterson, an African American artist who was a student of John Cage, Daniel Spoerri, Terry Riley, Ben Vautier, the Fluxus power couple, Toshi Iohiyangagi and Yoko Ono, the performance and word event artist and musician, George Brecht, master of the pure word event, painters Georges Mathieu and Lucio Fontanta, Robert Filliou, Addi Kopcke, and Emmett Williams, author of My Life in Flux–and Vice Versa, 1992.

Former enemies, German, Japanese, and American artists, became friends and collaborators. Women artists, Shigeko Kubota and Yoko Ono, were able to create and work as equals in an art world that excluded women from other movements, because Fluxus was outside the mainstream art world and outside of the white cube. In such a movement, a Japanese woman who was an American expatriate, Yoko Ono, could find acceptance and a venue for her conceptual art works and performances. An African-American musician, Emmett Williams, could escape American racism in Fluxus. Fluxus was not placed in museums, was thought to be not object based and, therefore, not collectable, and for many decades was ignored by the art world and its critics.

The post-war mood produced a dialectic of creation and destruction, seen in the performances of Gutai in Japan, and a preoccupation with the temporal dimension of art–the act, the performance. The act or the performance existed only in the moments of time when it was enacted and then it ceased to exist. The emphasis was upon the process of artistic innovation and creation during the performance. Unlike the lone “performance” of Jackson Pollock “dancing” around the canvas, Fluxus allowed and even demanded that the audience participate in the act. Performance Art existed, however briefly, in contrast to the supposed timelessness of solid or material art works, such as paintings or sculptures. Planned but not repeatable, Performance art vanished completely at its conclusion, could only be preserved in documents and in artifacts.

Performance art could not be “art,” according to Modernist critics because it was not permanent and could not be judged in terms of its formal properties. Any arguments against performance art would be intensified in relation to Minimal Art. Installation art, like performance art, was audience-dependent and temporal or temporary. In a word both movement were “theatrical” or acts of theater. Therefore, Fluxus was a profound challenge to Modernism. In contrast to Modernism’s emphasis on the lone creative artist, Fluxus artists worked together and in reference to one another’s work. In contrast to Modernism’s insistence on purity, Fluxus art was hybrid, a combination of objects, images, sounds, music, theater, and audience participation. Neo-Dada in America was already working with the confluence of art and life and, indeed, John Cage merged easily from Neo-Dada to Fluxus. No clear line separates the art of Fluxus from life’s ordinary actions.

The Fluxus Weltanschauung was shaped by the concerns of John Cage who was interested in redefining “sound” as “music,” Merce Cunningham, who was interested in redefining “movement” as “dance,” and of Marcel Duchamp, the discoverer of the “found object,” or oject trouvé, who was still alive and well as an underground artist in New York City. Cage and Duchamp felt that the effects of personality and taste should be removed from art, which should also be purged of aesthetics. Fluxus exhibitions were about the commonalities of everyday life and of ordinary everyday activities. Slices of life were transported onto a stage where the ordinary was made to look extraordinary. For Fluxus artists, the very environment was art: life flows into art, art flows into life.

Blurring of the boundary between art and life, Ben Vautier, a French performance artist, brushed his teeth on the street, as a Fluxus Happening for the Parisian passers by. Daniel Spoerri, another French artist, displayed the remains of his meals, fixed to a tray, and hung from a wall like a painting. Fluxus, like Dada is also anti-art, meaning that the artists eschewed aesthetics, that is they rejected (like Duchamp) attractive and beautiful art. Fluxus pushed art out of museums and galleries and into the streets. George Maciunas understood Fluxus in social terms and as a stance against wasting materials and human energy. Like Joseph Beuys, who advocated people as “social sculpture” in Germany, Maciunas thought of all people as artists. In his 1963 Manifesto for Fluxus, Maciunas wrote (by hand):

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual,” professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPANISM!” (sic)

Inspired by the early anti traditionalist works by John Cage, such as 4’33”, a performance, which used silence or ambient noise as music, the Fluxus artists proceeded boldly without traditional musical or conservatory skills into a new definition of music. In order to pay homage to John Cage’s Chance methods of production and the indeterminate results that followed, Fluxus musicians and artists produced “Event Scores,” often of a single word, such as George Brecht’s “EXIT.” “Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris” by La Monte Young read: “Draw a straight line and follow it,” and was realized by the late Korean artist, Nam June Paik, in his performance “Zen for Head,” “Destruction in Art,” 1968 symposium and performance by Charlotte Moorman and Paik at the Judson Memorial Church, New York City, in which Moorman repeated Paik’s Word Event by destroying a violin. Because of John Cage’s work on the Prepared Piano, 1941, the piano was the preferred instrument of Fluxus.

The title of Hannah Higgins’2002 book, Fluxus Experience is an apt one, for Fluxus is an experience, difficult to interpret. The historian is very much limited to a description of a fluid and fluctuating event that almost certainly escaped any intentions the instigator may have had. Key to erasing the old-fashioned separation between art (incarcerated in museums) and life (existing everywhere else) was audience participation in the Fluxus experiences. On no account was any spectator allowed to simply spectate. Yoko Ono asked the people who attended her 1965 performance, Cut Piece, to cut off her clothes while she sat still until everyone had had their turn in the acts of “cutting.” According to Fluxus member, Ken Friedman, “The radical contribution Fluxus made (to art) was to suggest that there is no boundary to be erased.”

When the Fluxus artists made objects, they were not called “art” but “Fluxkits.” These Fluxkits were a cross between Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise (1935-40) and a children’s game. One was encouraged to handle, touch, pull, poke, and explore, sometimes at one’s own peril. Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s 2005 book, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, compare Fluxus acts and kits to play or what the authors call “infinite play.” According to the authors, the Fluxus kits were like informal games that are continuous, without beginning, middle or end; play that is “expansive” and as “open ended” as Fluxus discourse that “stresses relations rather than a linear production and discrete pieces of information.” Although there are no particular rules to these forms of free play or activities without purpose, the Fluxus artists had very particular reasons for making these “kits.”

In 2011 the Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles explained that the Fluxkits and mechanized objects were part of an effort to combat “the work of art” hung on a wall with a multimedia and multi-art, as it were, combination of creative encounters. These Fluxkits were extensions of art books which within Fluxus became cans, like containing objects which, unlike unique sculptures, for example, can be replaced. One of the best known Fluxkits was the Finger Box by Ay-O, a wooden box with a set of instructions on the front: “Put your finger in the hole.” The player would insert finger…at his or her own peril. Of course, as soon as Fluxus became encoded into official art history, these playful, toy-like objects became “works of art” and the viewers were discouraged to keep their distance. Sadly, playtime was over.

The humor and the wit of the well-crafted objects in well-constructed boxes are a visual signal that Fluxus was an anti-art movement that sought to make “art” more inclusive. In contrast to Dada, whose surviving members denounced Fluxus, Fluxus did not emerge from the Second World War with the intent of rejecting the entire premise of Western civilization. As the activities of Joseph Beuys would demonstrate, Fluxus was a social and often a political activity the aim of which was to change the world for the better. In 2010, Dorothée Brill argued in Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus that the difference between neutral and passive position of Abstract Expressionism and Fluxus was the political activism of the decade of the sixties. There are powerful examples of Fluxus as social critique such as Yoko Ono who worked with John Lennon to end the war in Vietnam but ultimately Fluxus was mild-mannered and benign. As one of the pioneers of Fluxus Dick Higgins wrote in his 1979 A Child’s History of Fluxus,

…Fluxus has a life of its own, apart from the old people in it. It is simple things, taking things for themselves and not just as part of bigger things. It is something that many of us must do, at least part of the time. So Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live. It is beyond words.

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Dada and Chance

INNOVATIONS OF DADA: CHANCE

One of the key tasks of Dada was to undermine the foundations of art by eliminating the notions of artistic “talent,” studio training, and academic means of making art, i.e. planning and composing, or in other words, thinking itself. The artists stumbled upon the means of ending traditional art by chance, as it were. The anti-art anti-movement was christened “Dada,” a word discovered supposedly by chance in a German-French dictionary. “Dada” was a nonsense word, more of a sound than a noun. To the artists’ ears, the absurd word/sound seemed “primitive,” like a child’s babbling. “Dada” implied a re-set, a new beginning at zero for art. The ridiculous word reflected the meaningless of the War to End All Wars.

The role of chance became a central experience for the Dada artist and was developed in two different sites, in Paris, before the War when Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool in a chance encounter, and in Zurich when Hans Arp ripped up a failed drawing and saw that the pieces of papers had formed a “composition” on their own. Arp’s gesture born, like Duchamp’s, out of disgust, was close to the Zurich experiments with poème simultané, a poem written for three or more voices, indicating that a work of art has its own organic destiny. Chance destroys the soothing notion of cause following effect and admits anarchy into art making, foregrounding process. Duchamp, even more than Arp, removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance. He ceases to make (for a time) and merely “encounters” readymade objects, appropriates these unoriginal artifacts, and anoints them “Readymades.” The original meaning or intended use of the bicycle wheel or the stool is disrupted: one knows intellectually what each object “does” but understands that what Duchamp called “a new thought” has been created.

Whether the process is that of Duchamp arbitrarily encountering manufactured objects and randomly putting them together, or Arp finding that chance could expressive on its own, these gestures rupture the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making. The results are transformative and unexpected and a work of art that could not have been made according to the rules comes into being, on its own, organically. As Jacques Riviérè noted, “The Dadas consider words only as accidental: they let them happen. Language for them is no longer a means, it is a being.”

The central component of chance is taking one thing out of context and placing it into another context, demonstrating how meaning is fixed to a site and how meaning is unfixed when location is changed. The result is free association—what does the object mean in its new situation? What does this word mean now that it has been torn out of context? Tzara cut words out of newspapers and placed this motley collection into a bag. He then shook the words out of the bag and let them flutter to a surface. The juxtaposition of word-to-word engendered new meanings for the individual words and for the unexpected combination of words brought together by chance. The viewer or the listener or the reader is now in charge of making meaning out of meaninglessness.

For these artists, an important precursor was Stephane Mallarmé, the nineteenth century poet who first investigated the role of chance. His famous poem, Un coup de des n‘abolira le hazard works with the reader’s/viewer’s senses on many levels. First the words are scattered across the many pages of the long poem, changing positions, changes fonts, leaping and fall, tumbling as if the di were rolling uncontrollably across the surface. The reader must follow this random course with active darting eyes, and, more amusingly, the title itself has a nonsense sound: in French de and des sound the same—very close to “da” ”da.” Although the poem was written in 1897, it was not published until after death of Mallarmé in 1914. Although Martin Puchner in Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes, states that his poetry was read during Dada performances, I am not trying to make a direct link between the Dada artists and Mallarmé, but merely to point to an important precedent and to a similar mind set already in evidence in the concrete poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and in the “words in freedom” of Futurist poetry.

The more important link is between Marcel Duchamp and Stephane Mallarmé on the basis of linguistic play with words noticeable in both artists. Many of Duchamp’s Readymades show evidence of the artist’s love of visual puns and manipulation of language. In Advance of a Broken Arm is a random title given to a random object. Without any relationship between the title and the object the juxtaposition between two “objects” is a chance one. During his New York period, he often worked with his patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who shared Duchamp’s love of semiotics. Codes, readable only by those two, appear on the Comb of 1915 and on Box with Hidden Noise of 1916. Although the source of the “hidden noise” is not confirmed, nor will it ever be (only three persons knew what made the sound, Duchamp, Arensberg, and Walter Hopps, all of whom are dead), it is more than likely that it is a die rolling around inside the ball of twine, a homage to Stephane Mallarmé.

 

Marcel Duchamp took a wooden board studded with hooks for coats and removed the hatrack from its usual position, the wall, and nailed it to the floor of his New York studio. On the floor, the curves of the hooks ceased to be useful and became menacing, leading to the free association of renaming the object as a Trebuchet, or a Trap (1917) that the unwary could trip over. What has been removed by all of these artists, Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp, is the hand and mind of the artist and the making of art has been redirected towards a process that is out of the control of the maker. Man Ray “invented” the Rayogram in order to arrange objects of light sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun with the result that the objects disappeared into their own negative shadows, freeing Ray from the preconceived notion of what a “photograph” should be.

Francis Picabia allowed other artists to “make” L’oeil cacodylate, a painted non-painting shown in 1921 in the Salon des Indépendants, with their own inscriptions and signatures. Without composition or any concept, except that of random collection, this collective work was a redo of an early version and would be redone again and again during the next decade, not because Picabia was attempting to regain control but to continue an arbitrary process without any artistic motive. What all these artists attempted to do was to make an anarchistic anti-art that would, nevertheless, lead to a new way of making a new kind of art. Chance became a way of (not)making art, a means of (not)making an object and substituting a carefully planned and crafted work of art with a new concept, called for lack of a better phrase, the objet trouvé, the found object, “encountered” by chance.

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Dada and the Great War

DADA: 1916 – 1922

History of Dada

“In Zurich in 1915, losing interest in the slaughterhouse of the world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all out soul, we searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times.”

Hans (Jean) Arp, from Alsace-Lorraine

Founded the midst of the Great War, Dada was an anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art. Dada as one of its founders, Tristan Tzara explained, “is nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything is Dada.” He elaborated: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but the beginnings of disgust.” Dada cannot be understood without understanding the context of a war that was destroying the fabric of a social and political system that had existed for hundreds of years. The last of the Empires were disintegrating and an entire generation of young men lay dead on the battlefields of Belgium and France. With the dead lay the end of hope and faith. The disillusioned young generation felt that it had been lied to. They had been promised that war would be a grand and glorious adventure, over in a few months but with ample opportunities for heroism.

But the Great War was a psychological catastrophe. With cultural myths and norms undermined, a certain segment of the population simply refused to participate in what seemed to be a monstrous waste of human beings, all at the the whims of would-be despots. It wasn’t just the entire nation of Russia that dropped out of this War; it was also the intelligentsia. True, some artists and writers served bravely, such as Georges Braque, some even died, like Wilfred Owen, but others went into exile. Dada was composed of artists in exile, in nations that were either safe, like America, or neutral, like Switzerland and Spain. German artists, who were horrified at the slaughter on the Western Front founded Dada in Europe. One by one came to Zurich to express their disgust with the twentieth century and came together by 1916.

The first to arrive in 1915 were the husband and wife theatrical team, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Ball, a German, had worked in the theater in Berlin where he had met Richard Huelsenbeck. In February of 1916, the pianist founded Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spieglgasse, an entertainment district of the city. Although the Russian exile, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street in Number 12, the Swiss authorities were more suspicious of the growing group of anarchic artists, including visual artists, Hans (Jean) Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, writers Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco, than they were of an exiled Russian rabble-rouser.

In the beginning this group was a literary organization without organization or a leader. Borrowing strategies from the Futurists, the Dadaists provoked and assaulted their bourgeois audience, even copying the idea of Luigi Russolo’s famous noise-organ—make noise, not music. The artists treated their public to a form of bruitism—cow bells, bells, drums, etc. and granted them simultaneous readings of poems “composed” for the noise of multiple voices used as instruments. The writers also borrowed the Futurist concept that language had to be rewritten and literature had to be interrogated to reveal its inherent meaningless. Ball, who had been impacted by the ideas of Kandinsky in Munich, wanted to use his performances to create a total work of art, gesamtkunstwerk, connecting music, literature, and art and, of course, life itself into an overall theatrical experience.

Defining Dada

In its attempt to merge life and art and to dissolve the boundaries that kept art separate, Dada could best be described as a state of mind. The first two years in Zurich were marked by experimentation and play, but the group was altered by the arrival in 1918 of Francis Picabia from New York City. Picabia, who was associated with New York Dada, was far more radical in his complete rejection of the idea of “art” and his dismissal of the Western heritage. Hugo Ball had left Zurich in 1917 and moved on to Bern for a more traditional occupation, editing a newspaper. In response to the absence of the founder and by Picabia’s extreme reductivism, Tristan Tzara (Sami Rosenstock) stepped into the “leadership” position and issued a Manifesto in 1918.

The Dada Manifesto was deliberately nonsensical. Sentences would begin logically enough but would trail off into illogic.

“A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead; it should be neither gay nor sad, neither light nor dark to rejoice or torture the individual by serving him the cakes of sacred aureoles or the sweets of a vaulted race through the atmospheres,” Tzara wrote.

As well as writing the Manifesto, Tzara also edited the group’s periodical, Dada, but Dada had no specific program, no goals, and no aims. Essentially nihilist in intent, Dada writings always begin with what Dada is not, rejecting all that has gone before it. Nothing could rescue the world from bankrupt ideas and nothing was left except for a celebration of buffoonery, blague, and bleeding verse Tzara commented bitterly.

In an age of no sense, Dada presented nonsense and in doing so challenged and subverted the ways in which art and the artist are defined and the way in which art is made. After the War was over in November 1918, the Dada artists scattered and spread the seed of dissent to Berlin and Paris and Hanover. Tzara remained true to Dada and presented a more complete description or definition of Dada (if such a thing is possible) in 1922:

“I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.”

The Manifesto ends with these sentences,

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust…as Dada marches it continuously destroys…Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing…Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Dada strategies included mockery and parody and sarcasm. The artists mocked and rejected the naïve ideas of the old men who led the young men off to a certain death. For the Dada artist, “art” is a metaphor for all that Western civilization has built, so proudly. But a civilization that planted Flanders Fields and that ordered Gallipoli must be rejected. “Art” was a part of the natural order that had to be destroyed and replaced with actual nature which acts for itself, is senseless, indifferent to the plans of humans, and is direct and relentless, a genuine force.

In some ways, the performances of Dada, fleeting and ephemeral, presaged the breaking of the Fourth Wall seen in the Epic Theater of Bertold Brecht a decade later. Like the Dadaists, Brecht the dramatist sought to alienate the audience and used techniques, which distanced the viewer from the play in order to prevent the immersion of identification. The goals of both the Dadaists and of Brecht were similar—to wake up the complacent theater-goers who sought entertainment but who found a political message hurled their direction.

Most important to the Dada artists was the need to start over, to get back to a ground zero or a tabular rasa. If they could re-set society, then perhaps the next world would be better. Laced throughout the anger and pain that characterize Dada was a latent idealism that a regression into infantile behavior would lead to a new adulthood. “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order,” Arp explained.

After the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the Dada artists scattered and formed Dada colonies at different locations: Hanover, Cologne, New York, Berlin and Paris. Each sub group had its own distinctive group of artists and its own goals and ultimate destiny. Like some of the Dada artists in Paris, Tzara and Arp shifted into Surrealism, which incorporated many Dada principles, particularly chance. Dada was gradually absorbed into New Objectivity in Berlin and was carried on in New York City by the underground artist, Marcel Duchamp. Although the impact upon the visual arts took decades to understand and incorporate, in its refusal to believe that life had a meaning and a purpose, Dada paved the way to Postmodernism in art.

Read more posts on Dada:

“Innovations of Dada: Chance”

“Innovations of Dada: Photomontage.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 38 Painting 4: Cubism to Dada

When Art Became Code

If Expressionism was a temperamental predilection, then Cubism became the basis for a new artistic language that would dominate the rest of the century. But during the Great War, a younger generation of artists rebelled against the artistic tradition of the avant-garde. Dada artists positioned themselves as “anti-art,” but, like the Cubist artists, Picasso and Braque, they attempted to re-define art and its mode of communication and production.

 

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