Interview with Hannah Higgins
interview by jeff abell
Dick Higgins, Danger Music No. 17, 1962. Photo by Mercedes Vostell. Courtesy the Estate of Dick Higgins.
Hannah Higgins' book, Fluxus Experience, was published by University of California Press in 2002. At a time when most art historians follow the poststructuralist model of "everything is text," her book is refreshingly free of that dogma. Noting that Fluxus artists themselves were all reading American philosopher John Dewey (best known for his book Art as Experience), Higgins focuses on how the artists promoted a sensual/intellectual encounter with things. The following discussion took place in my office at Columbia College Chicago in November 2003.--jeff abell
In addition to being an art historian and a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, you're also the daughter of Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, both of whom were prominent members of Fluxus. What was it like being a Flux kid?
You know, I think the most obvious answer is: whatever a child is born into is normal for that child. If you're born part of the British royal family, that life is a normal life for you. So I would say, at some fundamental level, my life was entirely normal, relative to the parameters that I knew as normal. Now, those parameters included meals where everything was a single color, or watching a friend of your parents lowered out of a helicopter nude. From the point of view of the outside world, that's an unusual background. But don't forget that most of these artists--unlike artists generally, I think--had children, and we were all very good friends, because we always found ourselves together at these events. So not only was it not unusual, it was normal within the social milieu of these young people. Now, where it got funky was if you didn't know not to talk about it around a friend's parents, and this used to happen to me all the time. I was very lucky, because my great-grandparents sent me to a wonderful prep school in New York City--a very fancy little place called Dalton--and I got an amazing education. But I remember in fifth grade just openly talking about my parents' work--I do the same as an adult, although now I know I'm breaching boundaries, whereas then I didn't. I'd be asked what my parents did and I'd say, "Well, they're members of Fluxus, and their friends do this and this"...and then I couldn't go to that girl's house ever again, and she could never come to mine. So there were these shocking realizations that there was a world which was not only hostile to art, but which didn't understand that art of every kind is made by people. And people are fundamentally all the same; they usually have the same sorts of aspirations--for love, security, companionship. It's just that if you're hardwired in a certain funky way, the world treats you as if you don't want or deserve those things. So I remember vividly in high school--and I was never particularly interested in shocking anyone--that the clothes I felt comfortable in, and the music I was comfortable with, were strange. I was sort of defined as a rebel. And I wasn't rebelling; if anything, I was very much conforming to my own milieu.
Absolutely. I mean, the most rebellious thing I ever did was get a PhD in art history, marry a businessman, and have two children. That was rebellious, in my world. So what was interesting about being a Flux kid was its very mundane, normal character. It became harder for all of us as we got older, and I would say many of the Fluxus kids have done the kind of thing I've done. Mordecai MacLow is a tenured astrophysicist at Hayden Planetarium; Bracken Hendricks started the Apollo Alliance, which is a political action group designed to bring together causes of labor and the environment. Most Fluxus kids have tended to desire, profoundly, a straighter life. I wouldn't call it "the straight life," because probably none of us would be happy as--well I can't think of a job...
I was going to say accountants, but then there are some interesting collectors who are accountants, so they express their interesting sides in other parts of their lives. I think what we probably all learned, and took very much to heart, is this notion that you can be an artist in any field. With the creative relationship to the world that Fluxus engenders, there really isn't anything that can't be a kind of artistic or cultural practice--and that could include accounting, or mathematics, or astrophysics, or for me, art history, or for my sister, massage therapy. So I would be loath to say there's any field that a Flux kid wouldn't be happy in. But I could say that maybe there are some sets of restrictions that the kids couldn't accept as a given. I teach pretty much what I want, where I teach, and I certainly wouldn't be there if someone told me that I had to teach these four courses every year, and I had to use these particular textbooks.
Or if there was a canon of artists you had to discuss.
Right. I generally tend to deal in the canon because I like the work, but I feel I can add or take away as I see fit, based on my view of my practice. The other interesting part of it--and this maybe explains some of my interest in Black Mountain College--is that I think most of us were deeply intellectual at very early ages. Not because anyone ever pushed a book toward us, but because there was a kind of natural creativity that was fostered in all of us. So the teachers I did best with were usually the ones who did pretty much nothing--the ones who'd walk into class and say, "This is the book we're discussing. There's no list of questions." Or, "This is the topic for the semester; here are the readings. Now it's up to you." That notion of giving interpretive and creative responsibility over to children--who then become students who then become college professors--is something I feel very invested in. And I think that's probably due to the Flux kid experience. It was remarkable; we're all friends, and now most of us are pushing 40, and we can all tell these stories that'll make us pee in our pants laughing. Like Clarinda MacLow's story about how her mother made her wear a shirt with little colored threads sewn all over it, or the kid whose father used to sew rainbow wedges of different shapes into his pants and drop him off at second grade--the trauma! It's funny.
I remember your talking about seeing your dad performing Danger Music no. 17.
Yeah. I actually wrote an article in New Art Examiner 10 years ago about those early experiences with performance. The score for that piece reads: "Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!" And the way it's conventionally performed is: you scream as loud as you can until you pretty much lose your voice. I actually did it last week in Amsterdam--twice in one night--and my throat hurt for 10 days. But I remember coming down the stairs when I was about 4, and there was a group of people in our living room. I came around the corner just as my father started the piece, and it was existential. It was like watching a parent being sawed in half. Children of actors and actresses must experience this profoundly--you know, at a child's intellectual level, that this is a performance, yet it's your parent in this situation. It's a really strange combination of the real and the not-real. I remember feeling like I was in a tunnel with a light at the end of it, and all I could see was his face boring into me. Similarly, when I was about 11 or 12, I was with my mother in Canada, and at that time she was working with burning plastic, using these very large vertical sheets maybe 20 feet high. The concept relates to her big book, which was this 8-foot-tall pop-up book of environments she made in 1968--you could walk from page to page. Well, she had this freestanding "page" she was cutting with a blowtorch, and then she would very rapidly separate the two pieces of burning plastic with her hand. And her hand ignited. I remember sitting in the audience thinking, "Oh shit! My mother's on fire!" But then she put it out on her clothes, and continued with the performance. I sat there in a panic, while the rest of the audience went on to watch the piece, figuring she probably hadn't seriously hurt herself. Well, she had third-degree burns--the plastic had adhered to her skin, and she still has a white line down her arm. So there are those extremely strange moments, which any child of a really invested creative professional gets. Maybe that's the difference between being the child of someone who designs books, and being the child of someone who's in performance--the performer's whole body is in it, and at that point, as a child, you're no longer connected to that body. Most kids probably never experience that level of alienation from the parental body. It's so strange. For the last 20 years of his life, my father made paintings. And while he was very absorbed when he was painting, it was more about a connection to the object he was working on, which is a different gestalt. You can come in and interrupt that relationship. You can't interrupt the relationship between a person and a body that's on fire, or a body that's screaming at the top of its lungs. And all the Fluxus kids have that kind of story, to different degrees.
Isn't Beck also connected to Fluxus?
He's the next generation. Beck's grandfather was Al Hansen; he was a fabulous artist who made collages out of Hershey bar wrappers in the shape of Stone Age Venuses, and wrote the primer on Happenings. Al's daughter Bibi lived with him in New York when she was a teenager, at the peak of the Fluxus period. She has hilarious stories to tell, because unlike my parents--who always made sure dinner was on the table and knew when to shop for school clothes--Al was completely oblivious. So Bibi, after being home alone for a few days without food, opened some cans of tomato soup in the kitchen cupboard--and they turned out to be signed Warhols. We all have stories of breaking art that you weren't supposed to be touching. My great story is visiting Hannah Hoch in Berlin when I was 10. She and my father were talking in one room about art and the avant-garde, and I was sitting in the back room, which was her studio. I found this pile of collages and started picking at them, and I ended up peeling apart some really important Hannah Hochs...oops! But to get back to Beck, he's one of Bibi's sons, both of whom are amazing. Chandler is a performance artist in LA--although his last name is not Hansen. And Beck obviously took off with his rock music, which is very influenced by his grandfather. If you read Beck's liner notes, you see a lot of Flux this and Flux that, and how he uses music in a kind of collaged way--which is very influenced by Al's work. There are a lot of links between Fluxus and popular culture. Another important one is Yoko Ono, who's obviously this very problematic figure in Fluxus, because she doesn't really share any sort of social interest in the community of Fluxus people. She's a contested person, but her screaming records with John Lennon profoundly changed the way the B-52s were thinking about music. And there are other places where the move into rock 'n' roll is really intense and fast. I see Fluxus very much at the core of what became punk: the whole notion of destroying instruments onstage came from Nam June Paik. The Who adopted it first, and then the punk bands. Now bands do it all the time--in fact, it has become predictable and not very interesting.
We mounted an evening of reconstructed Fluxus pieces at N.A.M.E. in the mid-1980s here in Chicago, and I did Ken Friedman's Fruit in Three Acts, in which, among other things, I dropped a watermelon out a third-story window. I'd gone in beforehand to scope it out, and knew there was a fire escape about 10 feet directly below the window. So there was no way this falling object was gonna kill somebody--they might get glooped, but no one was going to get injured. But it made everyone very uptight. And there were several other things on the program that were on the border of being transgressive, and could have potentially upset people. Someone else was doing Robin Page's pull-toy piece, and the performer got this bright idea to use a guitar--only he tied it to the back of a truck, climbed onto the guitar, and rode it round the block. He's so lucky he didn't get killed. But nobody was upset about that! Meanwhile, I drop this watermelon out the window and suddenly everyone's freaking. So 20 years later, this piece was still vividly transgressive--which, to me, was all the more reason to do it. But on the other hand, it's the kind of thing Dave Letterman does all the time.
And that's the point. It's interesting that popular culture is ready for this work, while the art world still really isn't. You see that over and over again. Last year, there were those people living in the Sears windows--I can't remember the name of the performance group--but that's a notion that started with Ben Vautier in 1962 at the Festival of Misfits in London, was taken up without proper credit by Yoko and John with the Bed-In for peace in Amsterdam in 1968, and now here it is in pop culture. But you'll rarely see it in the art world, in any sort of meaningful way.
Well, with things like the Internet, and websites, and video games, the average person is perfectly comfortable with the overlap of image, text, and sound; they have no problem with intermedia. The art world is still struggling over what to do with it.
Well, the art world can't figure out how they're going to make money on it. And one of the hardest things to reconcile, for me, is that I earn a living working on Fluxus, and writing and teaching about art, while most of the artists themselves are still struggling to get by.
Left: Jeff Abell (with Brendan deVallance, foreground) hosting an evening of Fluxus performance at N.A.M.E., Chicago, 1986. Right: Alison Knowles with Augustin Dupuy at the opening of Loose Pages, Emily Harvey Gallery, 1983. Photo by Melanie Hedlund. Courtesy the artist.
For the sake of our readers who don't have personal memories of Fluxus, how would you synopsize it?
You want the two-sentence version of Fluxus?
It resists definition; we both know that. But can we come up with a short way of defining it?
I would say that Fluxus is justifiably defined in very different ways, depending on when, where, and how people learn about it. That would be one non-answer--the Flux answer. Most Fluxus artists all over the world were doing Fluxus-like work before there was something called Fluxus. So if you were in Denmark, you learned this through Eric Andersen and his experience of Bewogen Beweging, or "Moving Movement," which was an historic kinetic art show from the 1960s. If you were in Germany, you found it among the students of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Darmstadt circle--who were talking about serialism and experimental musical structure in a way that a student of Cage never would. If you're talking to one of the Japanese Fluxus artists, there's a good chance they met at the University of Tokyo, and had some relationship to Group Ongaku, which was another experimental musical group. Most of these scenes had some connection to music: some of the artists were training to be involved in music professionally, although most of them were actually discovering music as an "other"--a structure or practice distinct from forms more traditional to the art world, such as painting. Now, I'm the daughter of two New York Fluxus artists; Dick was in the historic John Cage composition class of 1958 at the New School for Social Research, which included most of the future practitioners of Fluxus in New York. For me, Fluxus is predominantly a social entity--it marked the need of a group of experimental artists to have a context, and they found each other in the Cage class. The "event," which is this Minimalist performance form where you have a simple instruction like "dripping" or "polishing"--some very reduced action--was invented in that class by George Brecht. George Maciunas first engaged with this group of artists in 1961 through his gallery, AG, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; he later invented the Fluxus Kit, which were these objects for handling and using, and which I think of as a materialization of the event. He also gave concerts to La Monte Young and many key figures in the avant-garde, and began publishing Fluxus scores and objects. So my definition comes from that New York context, which actually allows one to say quite a lot about Fluxus. But a definition of Fluxus should always hinge on the position from which your practitioner, writer, or thinker speaks about it.
That's a good definition.
Although a lot falls outside it. I was in Baltimore giving a biographical lecture about my father's life, and I took a question from the audience which I think was spot-on as a criticism both of my book and of the way I think about Fluxus. I was asked, "OK, you talk about Fluxus as a community, but what is the social structure of that community? What are the politics of that community? What is the identity of that community like?" And those are issues I haven't really addressed. They're parts of someone else's Fluxus, and necessary ones, but they're books for other people to write. My book is not exhaustive. It's not a perfect account--I don't think you could have a perfect account--but it's useful. I think my book does say, at least, that Fluxus is something besides a group of artists circled around George Maciunas. That has been the predominant message in the past, and it's really historically inaccurate. There's almost no basis for that in the way the artists saw it, with the exception of Henry Flynt and Emmett Williams--both of whose work I love--and Maciunas himself. Now, the collectors love that model--they love an art movement to have a center, because then value accrues as you get to closer to the center. It's like any other capitalist model: you want to get to the source of production and own it. And if you own Maciunas, you own the source of production, and everything he produces has value.
And a greater value than the people who are farther out in the circle.
Right. Which just doesn't make sense historically; it's not how it worked, or continues to work. Fluxus is a group of people who love each other passionately and hate each other passionately--they're like a family that way. It represents 45 years of this productive friendship, and to say Fluxus is an idea that's completely divorced from the personal, or from the individual, is to lose a sense of the value of that love and that friendship. So I would say there is this thing "Fluxus," which is quite precise, and then there is something called "Fluxism," which is also quite precise. They tend to overlap, but they don't always. So you have artists who work in a Fluxist sensibility who are not actually Fluxus artists, and you have much work by Fluxus artists that's not actually Fluxus work.
So where would you place somebody, for example, like Öyvind Fahlström? He was from Sweden, of course, but he was in New York at that key moment in the early '60s, had affiliations with Cage, and was doing sound, performance, and politically oriented work that seemed very much akin to what Fluxus was doing. Yet I've never really seen his name crop up as someone who was part of the group. Would you then call his work Fluxist?
Well, I wouldn't even call it that, because I think to do Fluxist work, you have to choose the name for yourself. It would be like calling a Surrealist who was interested in light an Impressionist. I would say the similarity has to do with something almost like a zeitgeist--there was this notion of needing to resist Expressionism and painting, and the monolithic American control of culture, in the postwar period. So you have someone like Dieter Roth in Iceland, or Öyvind Fahlström, producing books and music and all kinds of things that are interventions. Neither of them particularly chose to be associated with Fluxus. But there, you're starting to talk about a very broad band, a kind of cultural dimension. I would almost call that conceptual art, in the very broadest sense, in that the concept can be held not only in a book but also in the body, or in a piece of music, or in Fahlström's case, in an ideogram. Actually, I'm interested to know if Fahlström's in the Fluxus Codex--can I take a look? OK, here we go: "It was announced in the tentative plans for the first issues of Fluxus that Öyvind Fahlström would contribute Possibilities of Electronic Television for Fluxus No. 2 West European issue." So he apparently knew Maciunas, and was very specifically aware of the work, and of the possibility of participating in it. But it looks like the work never actually materialized, so maybe he decided not to.
Yeah, that wouldn't really surprise me too much. I don't know if I ever told you this, but I did a performance piece once, and as part of that work I destroyed a book. I actually tore up a copy of Daniel Spoerri's The Anecdoted Topography of Chance--
You did tell me. Why that book?
Because tearing the book up needed to hurt.
It's such a good book.
It's such an important book, and such a hard one to find. And indeed, there was somebody from the Museum of Contemporary Art in the audience, and when he saw me start to break the book's spine, he yelled "No!" at the top of his lungs. He was horrified I would take a book that rare and tear it to pieces.
So that's the Jeff Abell version of Paik's One for Violin Solo, where the violin is broken. But why do that?
In the context of the piece, it seemed to me to be essential--it was a piece about loss overall, and how we come to terms with loss.
But you have another copy now.
Actually, I have two more of them.
Wait: I want to know how many copies you had when you destroyed that one.
I had four.
So you had backup copies? Oh Jeff--that's very slippery!
Well, two of them went to pieces during the run of that performance. And one that's left actually belongs to someone else--it's visiting me right now. So I actually really own just one copy.
It still hurt to tear the book up!
Though maybe not as much!
But that piece was about what I called "distressful objects," which to me resonated off of some of the Fluxus ideas--for example, that one's encounter with an object is not necessarily a happy encounter. I'm thinking of some of the Ay-O boxes where you put your finger into a hole--
And it turns out to be full of pins.
Or rusty razor blades, or something nasty like that. So for me it's more of an emotional notion--if someone gives you something, it continues to resonate with that person, and you can't really remove that resonance from the object. And at a certain point in time, if the distress over that person is enough, then you can't retain the object anymore.
So did someone give you that book?
Yes. And it was the gift copy that got ripped up.
OK. That's a little different from the Paik, then, because in that work the violin is generic, whereas you're talking about the right one has to terminate or eliminate the physical refuse of a relationship that's lingering in one's life.
Well it's interesting, because in the first chapter of your book you talk about how in handling things--
--they reveal themselves to us. Yeah, that's Heidegger.
You quote David Michael Levin: "The things we handle will always reciprocate the treatment they receive in our hands. Thus, when our gestures become very caring, they receive back from things we have handled with care a much deeper disclosure of their ontological truth." That's the idea I was trying to understand, get rid of, or cope with in some way.
Actually, for me, that's a really crucial concept, because ontological truth is so unfashionable. The notion that there is truth at all is completely debatable in the poststructuralist universe. And yet I think it's a kind of faith in that relativity that's allowing us to go to war, and kill people, and be so flippant about it, because human suffering itself is totally abstract. Even the most naïve television viewer is cynical about the truth of the news. But it's almost a religious conviction for me that we inhabit a universe that is real at some fundamental level. And even if we accept the limits of our ability to communicate that reality, it does not mean that reality doesn't exist. There's some level just above that reality that I'm very interested in, which is where you touch something and it touches you back, or you break something and it's broken in terms of your own body, and your own self. I think, culturally, we've really lost a sense of that reciprocality. The Ay-O boxes, for me, are the place where that's most clearly manifest. But I think much of the work in Fluxus has that dimension to it. And that's where I got interested in experimental education.
Yes, I wanted to ask about that. In your book, you talk about how Fluxus was influenced by John Dewey--someone typically read these days only by art educators--and his whole notion of art as experience, which is also out of fashion at the moment.
Yeah. I feel like I walk through conferences in some sort of Victorian neckline, you know? And I hope it's not because I'm intensely repressed! I don't think it is, but you can't quite be sure. Anyway, Dewey was someone who went out of style with poststructuralism, but he was very important for many of the artists of the 1960s, at the time they were making their work. Allan Kaprow was reading Dewey, and making Happenings, and studying with Cage. Daisetz Suzuki, when he was teaching at Columbia University, kept a picture of Dewey over his desk. And Suzuki is crucial for Cage. So Dewey was at the center of how these artists understood their relationship to materials. He was also on the board of Black Mountain College, where Cage and Merce Cunningham taught and became sort of grandfathers to Fluxus. Many of the people who were experimenting with materials in that '60s way--this sensual way that I'm interested in--had a connection to Dewey, although it was completely obscured when the challenges this work brings to verbal discourse became exploited by poststructuralism and political discourse. So Dewey is written out as some sort of crazy idea the artists were into, and then we get this poststructuralist balloon of theory telling us what the artists were really doing. Now, I love to read a lot of that theory, but I read it like a drug, because in understanding it, my brain is literally so stimulated it's like firecrackers going off. I enter some sort of ether that has nothing to do with--
The real world?
Or the world that artists inhabit, which is a dumber world. And I mean that in the most flattering way. My mother's always saying, "I'm so dumb." And she doesn't mean it to be a putdown to herself; she means it in the sense that, at some level, things really are that simple. And it's true: it's our excess intelligence that generates this sort of frothy foam on top of our coffee of life.
So we get the cappuccino of life.
Right. And cappuccino's too fancy. But I got into Dewey because I kept seeing casual mentions of him in people's writings. Then, when we were looking at schools for my oldest daughter, we got very interested in Montessori. I read Marie Montessori's writings, and she talks a lot about the ability of materials to communicate mathematical and scientific truths. She developed these boxes with balls of different sizes, and they looked freakishly like the Fluxkits. And I thought, "Is this just Montessori, or is it also true elsewhere in American progressive education?" So I started to look at Dewey's work on education, and found a photograph of another educational kit that looked exactly like a Fluxkit. The place where you really see the ghost of Dewey at work is when the artists use the term "experience" in their writings of the '60s. So that necessitated going back to look at other theories of experience, which is how I found David Michael Levin and Martin Heidegger, whose Being and Time is really a theory of experience. Subsequently, I learned that many of the artists were also reading Heidegger--albeit on the sly, because Heidegger then...well, I still get in trouble for using Heidegger now, because he's thought of as a Fascist. Well, he became a Fascist, but he still had some pretty amazing ways of thinking about experience. That's what made him such a great Fascist, in a sense, because Fascism is all about experience taken too far, to the masses, into this most dangerous place in the human soul. Nevertheless, Heidegger's enormously informative, and you see how both he and Dewey fit in with Fluxus. Of course, there are important distinctions between Dewey and Heidegger, which Fluxus Experience doesn't get into. Dewey's experience is in the service of democracy, and Heidegger's is definitely not. His is in the service of group feeling, which later became Fascistic.
It's interesting, though, that they go to opposite political ends starting from a similar set of basic concerns.
Well, one way to think about that is: experience, as I understand it, is a kind of connective tissue. It's the thing that connects me to you, because this cup is hot, or this nail is sharp, and all the associations with that nail or that cup are essentially issues of culture. At some basic level, there's a shared social experience. The difference between Heidegger and Dewey, I think, is what you do with that shared experience. In Dewey's case, you and I share a relationship to our physical environment, and when we develop empathy for each other through that shared experience, there's the possibility that we learn to care about each other as individuals. It's in the development of empathy, which is linked to experience, that we have democracy. Whereas in Heidegger, there's this notion that the tool reveals itself to you when it doesn't work--it has this kind of ontological truth, but that truth is immediately separated from itself. So our decisions to have the same relationship to that hammer that's not working are based on consensus--society is built on a shared view of itself. That sense of bringing the whole group along with you is completely absent in Dewey. So there's almost a religious affinity between these two philosophies, but from that point it really moves in very opposite directions. Certainly there were many ways to survive in Germany in those years, and there's a lot of debate about the extent to which Heidegger was or wasn't completely invested in National Socialism. To my mind, there's no reason not to read Heidegger, but it is interesting to think about these issues.
I'm thinking also of Wittgenstein, and how language fits into this business of the shared experience. For instance, we can say the cup is hot, but what does "hot" mean? How relative is that word, in terms of what it means to me, and what it means to you? We develop a sense of empathy through language, without a real certainty of what that language means.
Well, Wittgenstein was widely read by all those same people who were reading Dewey, and sneaking Heidegger in through the back door. And more work needs to be done on Wittgenstein and conceptual art; I don't know why we always go to this rigid semiotic model. Maybe it's a taste for clarity in some sense, because what was interesting about language for the artists of the '60s was its ambiguity.
My sense is that French theory in the '60s was simply more appealing. I think there was this hesitancy to go toward anything too Germanic--as the controversy over Stockhausen, in relationship to Fluxus, demonstrated.
It's interesting you mention that. I hadn't thought about Stockhausen that way, and it's fascinating. For people who don't know what we're referring to, we should explain that there was a big protest by Maciunas and some other members of the New York Fluxus group, including Flynt and Ay-O, against Stockhausen in New York in 1964--ostensibly on the grounds that he represented an egotistical, racist mindset. Until this moment, I hadn't really equated that with the fact of his being German...and of course it's connected. But all those people knew him in Germany--that's why he was so bowled over by that demonstration. They were friends; they worked together. Then he gets to New York and this hits the fan: "We hate you; you're racist!" He was very, very hurt by that; he couldn't believe it.
I can see why he was taken aback by that, because ostensibly Fluxus is such an international movement; it seemed as if it was bringing people together from so many countries in this harmonious communal effort. Yet in other areas of the art world in the 1960s, there was this nervousness about Germanic culture being too profoundly expressed. Pierre Boulez, for example, wrote his article "Schoenberg Is Dead," in an effort to divorce any of that musical practice from its German roots. I would bet some of that was lingering in the Stockhausen incident, as well.
There's this perception that because Fluxus was international, individual nationalities didn't play a role in how the artists dealt with each other. But it did, and continues to. You'll hear them saying, "Oh, you're so French" to Ben Vautier. When I was in Holland last week, a group of us were taking the bus back to the Utrecht Hilton; Takako Saito was there, and people were openly talking about her being Japanese. And I sat there thinking, "Omigod!" In today's art world, a roomful of artists simply would not talk about the ethnicity of one of the people present in the way these people were. It was appalling and refreshing at the same time--very strange. But all of these issues do come up in Fluxus: Wolf Vostell was considered too operatic, too German, to be a Fluxus artist, yet he's making work with Fluxus. So is he in, or is he out? It looks like a plurality, because the group has such incredible diversity built into it--there are gay, straight, and bisexual artists; there are Caucasian-American, African-American, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Czechoslovakian, and Lithuanian artists. I do think there's some sort of leveling effect where the artists get to a kind of commonality, but the notion that ethnicity, sexuality, or gender are non-issues within Fluxus is wrong. They're profound issues, and issues of quite a bit of debate and contestation among a group of people who love each other enough to stay together and duke it out for 40 years. So it's a contested social domain, and quite different from the sort of happy pluralism of postmodernism. That's an important missing piece of the puzzle, in how people see Fluxus. Yet it's all over the artists' letters to each other; the correspondence has a lot of material on this.
I'd be interested to know where your relationship with Fluxus comes from, because it's profound and long-term. I know of your performances going back to the 1980s.
Yeah, it's funny; I was thinking about that earlier today. I remember, as a freshman in 1971, telling the dean of my college that although I was getting a degree in music, I was really interested in the gray areas where the arts overlapped. And he just gave me this cold look and said, "Then you're going to be a dilettante." And I thought, "FU, buddy!" But for a long time I felt I had to keep my diverse interests on separate, parallel tracks. Then in around 1974, I read Cage's Silence, and started coming across all this work like your dad's and your mom's. And as it happened, one of my teachers lived in Vermont, and used to encounter your parents up there during various summers. So one time, this teacher came back with your father's 1969 anthology foew&ombwhnw [eds. note to trivia fans: an acronym for "freaked out electronic wizards and other marvelous bartenders who have no wings"] which was filled with these conceptual art pieces and bound to look like a Catholic missal, with the ribbon down the middle. I was just panting over it. And suddenly it dawned on me that I didn't have to keep these interests and disciplines separated; that there was a group of people out there who were willing to let these things overlap and intersect.
So that's why you like my father's essay "On Doing Too Much."
Exactly. As well as his whole notion of intermedia, and the "Boredom and Danger" essay. Anyway, for years I carried that book with me any time I traveled, because people would leave me alone if they saw me reading it. They just assumed I was praying! But discovering that book was great, because it gave me this unified sense about what was real and what wasn't. It was very liberating for me, on a personal as well as an artistic level, to realize these separations between disciplines are artificial; they can be taken down and the whole world will not collapse. It allowed me to do a lot of things I otherwise wouldn't have done, and to look at things like sound poetry, and text-sound work, and all this other stuff that fell right into the cracks.
But, you know, it still falls into the cracks. One of the most striking experiences for me has been the extent to which young artists are fundamentally free of these distinctions, but the art world still can't handle it. It's amazing. It's as if the whole past history of intermedia is erased from the critical discourse, so you wind up with wonderful artists--Ann Hamilton and all these people whose work I adore--who appear to come out of nowhere. Well, they don't come out of painting in 1995; they come out of this squirrelly '60s world of intermedia and mixed-media work. Yet you really don't have any sense of that--though, usually, through no fault of the artist. There are some exceptions, but most artists have a pretty fair-minded sense of acknowledging their debts to Fluxus. It just seems to have been written out by the scholars.
Alison Knowles (pregnant with twins) and Ben Vautier perform Two Inches by Robert Watts, New York, 1964. Photo by George Maciunas. Courtesy the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection.
Earlier, you mentioned your interest in Black Mountain College. As someone who teaches in an interdisciplinary program, Black Mountain has always been a model for us. Somebody was asking me recently to discuss the whole notion of collaboration as it related to that place, and eventually we came to the conclusion that the sloppiness of the whole situation--the fact that it was this organizational mess--allowed the most brilliant, coincidental things to happen there. Had it been a better-structured organization, it would not have generated the work that it did.
This brings up a very interesting thing I've been pondering lately: the power of Black Mountain came out of the fact that all the professors had been trained in traditional schools where they weren't allowed to do what they wanted to do. So Black Mountain College was this kind of liberated other. Many of the faculty were refugees from Europe, so they found themselves there as a kind of new community. They didn't know anybody in the United States and they were perfectly content to sit in rural North Carolina--for no money. It bends the mind; I mean, these people came from places like Berlin in the 1920s--maybe the most vital cultural context of the 20th century! But I think a lot of that creative spark came from their being somehow restricted in one place, and then brought into this place of collaboration. And I wonder whether that can be duplicated when you're bringing students in and having those freedoms at the outset, because then the students have nothing to reject. Maybe what you'll wind up with in your interdisciplinary art program is a bunch of fabulous painters! That's the reactive nature of young people, and the reactive nature of art: it's what you can't do that somehow stimulates you to do it.
Well, we've had graduates from the program go on to painting careers--and that doesn't bother us.
It doesn't? OK, that's interesting. Then is the objective of an interdisciplinary program strictly pedagogical?
I think it's as ideological as it is practical, and that has always been the case. It has always been a conceptually based program. We're interested in having students learn how the concepts manifest themselves in a variety of material forms, and as long as they get the concept part, we don't really care what the material output of their work is.
That's interesting, because this next book I'm working on is a history of experimental interdisciplinary arts education through a series of case studies on Black Mountain, the New School, Rutgers, and Cal Arts, each of which focuses on teacher-student relationships where an idea essentially jumps from one medium to the next. So you have Cage as a composer influencing poets, collagists, and performance artists at the New School; then Kaprow, who's in that class, translates this experiential notion into a whole interdisciplinary program at Cal Arts in the 1970s. One of the things I've been trying to understand through the work of Howard Gardner, who's an education theorist at Harvard, is the idea of multiple intelligences. As our society is expanding, we're producing more of these diverse intelligence forms, so that we have a musical intelligence, a kinesthetic intelligence, and so on--each essentially associated with different art forms. I've been trying to figure out what happens when those different intelligence forms cross-pollinate--that cross-modal brain activity you get when someone with verbal intelligence acts in the area of painting, and begins bridging these forms. I haven't got the answers yet, but it's interesting to me to think about interdisciplinary programs as places where the human mind is actually changing, where we're at the forefront of an almost biological, evolutionary leap. So instead of moving culture forward through the comparatively linear intelligences of, say, the visual, verbal, or mathematical, our minds are becoming more like a computer network where information resides in multiple points. Our intelligence now has to do with connecting those points, rather than inhabiting one of them. It's an almost cyborgian notion of the brain. It seems to me that these fundamental changes in intelligence have a place in art schools, because the creative use of the senses is what produces art; as our sensate intellectual worlds change, creativity marks those changes. A change in the style of painting is not something that happens only in the rarified realm of painting; it actually marks a shift in the way human intelligence relates to its world, and structures it materially, or practically. You can see this occurring in the Renaissance, so it's an issue that's not new in the modern era.
Well, one of the ways I've thought of it--and this is why I like your approach in Fluxus Experience--is that when you put that emphasis on experience, it grounds art in these sensual realities, rather than just the visual-verbal prioritization that western culture's locked into. One of the ways I think about interdisciplinary work is that it allows you to engage multiple senses, and each of these senses throws open a different window into consciousness.
And those senses never operate in isolation from each other, even though the western model of creativity has historically separated them, so that painting is seen, food is tasted, and music is heard. We're in a place now where we recognize that every sense is stimulated by every encounter, whether it's with a meal, a website, a performance, or a painting. Paintings are not purely visual, contrary to what Clement Greenberg would have had us believe. You stand in the gallery and you smell them; you see the artist's touch.
And you want to reach out and touch them--which of course is forbidden in museums.
Right. Yet it's a very basic, basic impulse. My daughter's terrible this way. We have a pretty big collection at home with all kinds of art--abstract painting, Pop, Fluxus, conceptual photography--and the kids are allowed to touch all of it. So when we go to the museums, my daughter goes right up to something and puts her finger on it, and the guards go out of their minds! But it just shows you the difference between living around art and artists, and having to encounter artworks in these proper containers that culture has devised for them. I understand that the velvet ropes are necessary, because you can't have 500,000 people touching the Seurat in the Art Institute. But what kid doesn't want to go up and touch that painting?
And see whether they can lick off those dots! Can't get much more experiential than that!
That's a wicked thought!