Exploring Intermedia - James Clegg
(What follows covers a large amount of ground and so I apologise for the current malnourishment of references and quotations)
There are a lot of strange ideological assumptions underlying my question here. Perhaps the most important is that it assumes that time is a singular kind of line towards progress that might allow me to look at an historical movement like Fluxus and say, “you know, given the historical trajectory of such-and-such, Fluxus was amazing!” But this idea of time has been largely discredited, it is a construct that doesn’t fit at all with a reality that is teaming in all kinds of ‘directions’. Moreover, it seems completely inconsistent with Fluxus, which was amazing because it emphasised that reality was teaming in all directions, experienced and fleeting, rather than trying to section off neat little parts of it. But, it was not amazing because it pre-existed a singular development of artistic practices (there isn’t one, outside the fabrications of art history or the particular gloss of certain exhibitions).
My question is ideological for less philosophical reasons too. It allows me to introduce words such as ‘amazing’, which I’ve done here none too subtly. To say something was ahead of its time implies it was not only more advanced, but also better from our standpoint today. This doesn’t help to found an objective study as I’m trying to do here, and we must really think carefully about the implications of the way we have conceived of our standpoint today. Whose standpoint is this? Who benefits from it? What does it include or preclude from what we consider to be ‘today’?
So why ask this question at all? Well, despite the worrying nature of some of these problems, we still need some way of orientating ourselves. Regrettably understanding relies on a certain ability to focus on somethings and ignore others (what we’re wanting to do is find different things to focus on, so hopefully we stop ignoring other important things. A study is always relative to many, many others – and broader cultural ideas too. We don’t need to say how things are, but supplement the picture created by all these other forms of understanding in a way we feel might make up for some omissions.)
An Image of the way we need to stop thinking!
Thinking about trends within contemporary art and we are given a list of adjectives that seem to correspond to a lot of what Intermedia and Fluxus was particularly good at highlighting, so many years ago: Relational Aesthetics, Everyday life, Networks, Global Art, Appropriation, Re-enactments, New Media. And this is why such a question, though problematic, might help lead us on to more helpful questions in the future.
Anna Dezeuze has written a particularly good article about how Fluxus was in many ways more radical than the conception of relational aesthetics advocated by Nicholas Bourriaud (also see Dezeuze 2006). Here Dezeuze highlights the way that Fluxus artists such as George Brecht and Alison Knowles challenged institutional conventions that separate everyday life and art. Brecht’s Three Chair Event for example, raises questions that are still pertinent today (see my review of a recent exhibition in Glasgow called votive).
Fluxus works could also be considered open works, in that the event scores used by the artists require the participation of others. The group of artists making Fluxus performances could obviously be considered a network too, but I think the key point here is that Fluxus works are never supposed to be autonomous works of art. In this way, they are radically different from the way objects are presented in Galleries behind display cases or as untouchable wall pieces – as if complete without the actions of people (though obviously concealing the actions of those who ‘perform’ the works autonomy into being by not touching it, guarding it, cleaning around it, labeling it, speaking about it in particular ways etc.)
Here also, there is more than a passing connection to globalization (reference to be added). The work of Nam June Paik, for example, seems always to be discussed in relation to the speed of Global relationships, and indeed the artists aspirations are always to transcend local cultural boundaries. Paik was himself indicative of the migratory types of artist making up Fluxus, which we might remember was an International Movement. Allan Kaprow was also (later) keenly interested in the work of Marshal McLuhan, who was important in opening up discussions on The Global Village. McLuhan’s excentric work, written with Bruce A. Powers, made a strange argument about the changing of humanity’s brain orientation towards a state less rational and more creative – an interesting but somewhat strange study compare to the ludic activities of Fluxus.
Finally, as the Intermedia programme pursued in Iowa and for a long time led by Hans Breder, and considering Paik and Knowles pioneering of Video Art, attests, Fluxus was also open to media, including new media. Not being defined by products Fluxus didn’t really discriminate art forms and therefore opened up opportunities for an exploration of new technologies. This can be seen in the work of Pat Badani who is one of the few artists to openly acknowledge the important influence of Fluxus on her own work.
So, how many ways was Fluxus ahead of its time? Well, as you can see, it seems to link to many of the art-worlds current obsessions, and in many ways it remains more complex and challenging that a lot of what preceded it (and my long term commitment to it must be able to expand on this and explore it much further). I’m certain that my list here could also be expanded in lots of different directions. For now, let’s think about why Fluxus was ahead of its time in so many ways. And here, I think we must return to our acknowledgement of the ideological assumptions our guiding question made… and here is a speculative answer:
What if Fluxus seems so ‘ahead of its time’ because it broke with so many rules of art? Because art doesn’t progress in any simple way these rules weren’t broken and broken for good, but were more subtly reinstated (and never really disappeared anyway) by practices which require art to conform to certain ‘rules’, or lets say models, in order to form a system that requires a cultural, academic, social and aesthetic economy to be in place. It requires the trading of objects, and here I don’t mean ‘objects’ in a strict sense of material things, but also objects of thought, objects of style … relatively solid units that can be exchanged. How many times have you read a gallery blurb in order to find out the ‘idea behind’ a work of art. Isn’t this to establish the terms of your relationship with it? Isn’t it to help you confirm (even if by completely disagreeing with it) what looking at the artwork can give you? Mmmm… well as I borrow techniques for studying these questions from fields like Anthropology I might be able to offer a much richer account of this process (peoples’ actually very complex relationship with things, with art). But this seems like a reasonable model, something to work with. Fluxus seemed so ‘ahead of its time’ because it traversed so many boundaries that the tangible ‘ideas’ and physical ‘untouchable’ artworks that institutions (and not just galleries but places of art instruction and education) keep restoring. We’re not going forward, or backward, but territories and objects are constantly being marked out against the liminal reality Fluxus tried to highlight. I think Fluxus seems so ‘ahead of its time’ because it remains a relitively open pool of ideas to which we can return (and hopefully in order to re-enact rather than simply historicise) that help to expose restrictions in artistic practices and ways of thinking that might always be there as part of the general economy that is art.
(I might be idealising Fluxus here. I’m conscious of that, but need to do a lot more before I can make a more subtle and informed series of claims.)
•Dezeuze, Anna (2006) Everyday life, ‘relational aesthetics’ and the ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’. In Journal of Visual Art Practice, 5, 3. pp 143-152.