Fluxus at 50
Artists commonly fall into the category of self-ascribed autonomists. More than most working practises; the traditional notion of the artist is one who works alone, behind the closed doors of their studio, grappling with their own creativity. The desire to channel it can enrapture an artist for most or their entire career. By default, this can leave little room for interdisciplinary experiments, collaborative efforts or even an awareness of the context of their work within a wider socio-economic framework. In the early 60’s however, a young and politically charged generation was emerging and New York saw a confluence of artists from a multi-disciplinary background, starting to work in parallel – generating a series of ‘happenings’ and redefining the way in which art is made, presented and perceived. The redistribution of art, from the hands of the elite to the general public, had begun. The central movement that was to evolve from this new democratic approach was ‘Fluxus’: an international network of avant-garde artists, architects, composers, and designers – noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines, and promoting their work in the format of multiples or ‘artist editions’. The affordable and portable publication became the Fluxus Edition vehicle of choice and enabled artists to show their work on an international scale, and to a much wider audience. At the helm of this community was George Maciunas – a Lithuanian born, American artist – who had been inspired to found Fluxus after attending John Cage’s Experimental Music Composition classes at the New School for Social Research. A forerunner in the art of subversion, Cage’s most controversial composition was and remains ‘4.33’, three movements of which are performed without a single note being played. The content of the composition is entirely made up of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear throughout its duration. In the visual arts, a similarly provocative piece of work might be attributed to Marcel Duchamp who dubbed a urinal art and named it ‘Fountain’ in 1917. This radical interpretation of art – largely ushered in by Dadaism, and of which Cage and Duchamp are just two of many examples – was highly influential and provoked people to question conventional art practises. By the time Fluxus came to fruition 35 years later in 1962, subversion as a theme was in itself nothing new, but the social changes at the time at which it arose would be reflected and captured in much of its output, making Fluxus a defining moment in the history of art.
Fluxus was born during a period of rapid advancement in mechanical production, when the relationship between maker and object was becoming increasingly dispensable. At its core was the re-appropriation of production and an integral involvement with material: analysing objects and actively using technology to their own artistic end. Examples of this include Joe Jones’ ‘Mechanical Violin’, Yasunao Tone’s ‘Anagram for Strings’ and George Maciunas’ ‘12 Big Names!’ 1975, and ‘Flux Cabinet 1975-77’. In their output of printed matter, Fluxus artists juxtaposed the making of multiples in the hundreds and thousands alongside the retention of a handmade ownership; this is what makes Fluxus work so engaging: art for everyone, the promotion of the ‘readymade’ and the physical multiplication of a singular artistic idea without diluting quality or succumbing to consumerist ambition.
To coincide with the 50 year anniversary of Fluxus, the past 12 months saw New York playing host to exhibitions and performances that paid tribute to the seminal art movement. Performa, the biennal festival dedicated to performative works staged a ‘Fluxus Weekend’, NYU’s Grey Art Gallery had an exhibition dedicated to ‘Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life’, and currently on view at the MOMA is ‘Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962-1978’, a concise but comprehensive collection of works that emerged from Fluxus Editions. Presenting work by George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young, Peter Moore, Yasunao Tone, Yoko Ono and George Brecht among others, the MOMA exhibit presents one of the largest collections of Fluxus work of its kind and highlights the use of art multiples and their primary medium of printed matter. The work is visually arresting and exciting, exploring ideas of politics and pop culture with a playful overtone.
When looking at and understanding Fluxus art, its political and social context cannot be ignored. Though prevalent in Europe and made up of many international artists, Fluxus was founded in America and at the time, Americans were going through a uniquely tumultuous period. With John F. Kennedy as President, 1962 alone saw a near total embargo against Cuba, the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the tripling of U.S troops in Vietnam, the first black student, James Meredith, registering at the University of Mississippi, escorted by Federal Marshals (the Civil Rights Act, declaring segregation illegal did not come into effect until 1964), and in popular culture, a tragedy which came to epitomize the vacuity of celebrity culture: the suicide of Marilyn Monroe.
American life was in a state of transition, trying to find a foothold between the old and the new. More so than today, young people were acutely engaged in ‘movements’; everyone wanted to be a part of something. Fluxus undoubtedly absorbed a lot of the energy of that period and it is reflected in the interplay between media (dubbed ‘intermedia’ by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins), as well as the artistic collaborations it promoted. The scope of the Fluxus outreach was vast and directed not to the art world but to the general populace.
Performa’s ‘Fluxus Weekend’ nicely balanced out the object and print-heavy content of the MOMA show with its reflection on the performative aspects of Fluxus. The intensive weekend included ‘The Ginger Island Project’, a group exhibition at the Emily Harvey Foundation, based on George Maciunas’ desire to start a community of Fluxus artists on a Caribbean Island and Guido van der Werve’s 30-mile jog from Manhattan to Valhalla in upstate New York, as well as performances by Bibbi Hansen, Lumberob, Haribos and countless others. Anthology Archives, a jewel in the crown of NYC’s independent film scene, screened Jonas Mekas’ latest film, ‘Fluxus Cabaret’. Mekas, a godfather of avant-garde cinema and one of the leading members of Fluxus art also founded Anthology and so the lo-fi aesthetics of his film, reminiscent of a home movie, seemed quite at home in Anthology’s humble surroundings. The film was a comprehensive collection of works performed by Nam June Paik, Ben Vaultier, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono and several others; a sort of director’s cut of Fluxus. Mekas himself was at the screening, and afterwards fielded questions in the lobby, revelling in the enthusiasm of the young crowd that had turned out.
The exhibitions and events that paid homage to Fluxus over the past few months were able to evoke the energy and the originality that encapsulated Fluxus. The sheer number of events staged, served to introduce a new generation to a movement that paved the way for much of the artistic license and expression of contemporary art. The question remains however, has Fluxus come and gone? A retrospective falls closely in line with a sense of finality and looking back with nostalgia is the antithesis of the Fluxus philosophy, which propagated the need to move forward and embrace the new. However, Fluxus was just a facet of a greater awakening of creative expression. It was the centralized body, a spokesperson as it were, for a strand of artistic innovation that was only representative of a greater whole, embodying themes of social and political change which are as relevant today as ever. The essence of Fluxus is there to be redefined and re-purposed, as the artworks themselves were intended. As New York finds itself celebrating 50 years of Fluxus, it continues into a new era, gifting young artists with an open-mind, a collaborative spirit and a sense of innovation that will no doubt reap artworks that will be celebrated in the 50 years yet to come.