June 12, 2021•1,971 words
Random people can come together and make great things, things that will outlive them and inspire others.
My series about art manifestos, starts with Fluxus, the anti-art, interdisciplinary collective that built on top of what Duchamp and John Cage taught: experiment, use mundane objects and techniques, take art less seriously.
Fluxus was described by its members as a tendency, a laboratory, a meeting place without a defined artistic program. The key aspect that made them successful was the informal way of association based on ideas and the premise of fluid transformation.
"Fluxus rejects the idea of Fluxus as a specific group of people. It identifies Fluxus with a frame of action and defines Fluxus as a cumulative, aggregate of Fluxus activities."
Framing themselves as a way of doing things, instead of identifying by a specific name or a limited denomination, they created practices that shaped our culture and how we perceive art and the world today. And they did it by coming together, setting intentions, experimenting, collaborating and documenting. By doing all of this intentionally.
Between 1957 and 1959, the musician John Cage taught a class in experimental composition that brought together a myriad of characters that eventually will become one of the greatest scenes in music and experimental art. Dick Higgins (Fluxus co-founder) took the class in 1958, and George Maciunas (Fluxus co-founder) also took the class in 1960, when Cage was away and Richard Maxfield was the teacher.
About his course, Cage says “I wasn’t concerned with a teaching situation that involved a body of material to be transmitted by me to them.” His idea was to create a space for students to conduct experiments in different formats: music, performance, poetry. That later on they will discuss their practical and philosophical implications, and make presentations in the classroom. Many of the class attendants began a series of concerts, happenings and events in art galleries that shaped a generation of artists. With the compilation and publication of An Antology in 1963, they collectively created a landmark for the era.
This article by Gerard J Forde compiles what happened between 1959 and 1963, how many people knew each other and the events and artworks they created together. John Cage was the center of it, most of the events started after a class he took in Zen with Ray Johnson, Earl Brown, Morton Feldman and Jackson Mac Low. There was always a private reunion afterwards and it was a huge inspiration for the experimental composition class. Some of Cage's most important notions, like absence of sound, came from the lectures in Zen.
A remarkable amount of things came out of those years: artworks, dance companies, music, compositions, events, new concepts, friends. Mostly because "the course attracted a mix of visual artists, writers, and musicians and provided a space to explore ideas in an atmosphere of unbridled experimentation".
The aura of creation and collaboration, of people coming together to create with music inspired Dick Higgins to start the New York Audio Visual Group with Al Hansen and Larry Poons. And later on, will inspire George Maciunas to start the AG gallery, which will fail shortly after for lack of funds, making him move out of NY and go to Europe. There, he would work as a graphic designer and decided to start a magazine called Fluxus.
Like many other ventures that start as one thing to eventually become another, he started a festival called "Festum Fluxorum" to promote the magazine, then many festivals in various cities that will eventually become an art movement that was also a way of being.
Maciunas organized the first festival in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the presence of Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles and Emmett Williams, this was the official starting point of Fluxus as a movement. Higgins writes about how they usually stayed up late, figuring out what they were doing, discussing the implications, mapping the next steps and talking about the precursors and the historical references they were borrowing from. Like Hellenistic Greek visual poetry or Quirinus Kühlmann, a german visionary poet.
There was not an expectation for the group when the name came out. Dick Higgins notes: “this depended upon a fluid conception of group identity: anyone who wanted to do that kind of thing was Fluxus. (...) They stuck together to do Fluxus kinds of things, even when they were also doing other kinds of things at the same time.”
The name was important for coming and staying together, but it wasn't a description, it wasn't a defined identity. For Ken Friedman, Fluxus was "more valuable as an idea and a potential for social change than as a specific group of people or a collection of objects." It was more of a way of identifying with the ideas that the word "Fluxus" embodied. And those ideas were clear:
the unity of art and life,
presence in time, and
They may have had differences in approach or opinions. But they embodied these ideas and created things in collaboration with each other.
Maciunas wrote the manifesto, in 1963, to set the intentions about what Fluxus (now a growing movement) was trying to achieve. He was a key role, a chairman and organizer, but Fluxus was beyond the manifesto. According to Higgins, the manifesto wasn't signed by most of the members, "It was already several years too late to write a proper manifesto setting out our program, as most movements have done. Maciunas later drafted one, but only a few people signed; we were too far along in our work and too diverse for that.". It still remains as a piece of writing and graphic art worth looking into. It was a tipping point, an object, something tangible and stable in the midst of constant change. The importance of the manifesto does not lay in their definitions, but its existence means there is something important to be said.
"Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, "intellectual", professional and commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — purge the world of "europanism"! (...) Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be ~fully~ grasped by all peoples, not only critics (...) FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action."
Experimentation and collaboration
Eventually, a network of collaboration was created among the people that worked in Fluxus Festival. With small centers in different cities, they created many other festivals based on the same premise. Fluxus was the result of the coming together of artists from all over the world into conceptual community. Their activities and ideas were decentralized and the process of experimentation and collaboration was key.
"In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods; individuals with something unnameable in common have simply naturally coalesced to publish and perform their work. Perhaps this common something is a feeling that the bounds of art are much wider than they have conventionally seemed, or that art and certain long-established bounds are no longer very useful. At any rate, individuals (...) have discovered each other's work and found it nourishing (or something) and have grown objects and events which are original, and often uncategorizable, in a strange new way"
The dynamic spirit of Fluxus gave artists a low stakes place to experiment. There were no mistakes or search for perfection, it was funded under the principles of creation, transformation and searching for new ways to build. The artwork was the process instead of a perfect final piece:
"The fixed-finished work began to be supplemented by the idea of a work as a process, constantly becoming something else, tentative, allowing more than one interpretation"
They did events and concerts of experimental music, exhibitions of found objects, where they shared the things that they liked, independent of who the public was. It was cheap and simple, focused on the everyday living art heritage from Duchamp and the experimental compositions of Cage. They rejected traditional standard studio practice and engaged in a multiplicity of techniques. Integrating each other in the practice and actively choosing alternative spaces for showing their art instead of traditional art galleries.
Even with the openness of the Fluxus community and their activities, the work can be described in three main categories: concerts, exhibitions and publications.
Documenting the process
In 1963, Dick Higgins funded Something Else Press. Using this platform to publish concrete poetry, intermedia texts and artworks, their intent was to develop a context for fluxus and intermedial art forms, so they could grow and reach the largest possible public, without losing their ethos.
There were differences between Higgins and Maciunas about their activities in relation to society, but they agreed on the goals of the publication. They both wanted to get ideas outside of their immediate circle and reach a larger public. Something Else Press was meant to be an alternative to the commercial publications and art galleries of the time.
The publishing allowed them to have a framework, but in order to achieve their goals they had to print different areas of writing and be experimental only in content, sticking to printing and binding in the traditional book format. They included new forms of fiction, novels and other works from past avant-garde artists, curating and understanding the goals of the initial Fluxus ideal. Higgins believed that "cultural innovation is cumulative, that each innovation adds to the store of possibilities and does not simply replace some earlier mode forever".
Something Else Press had to close in 1974 for lack of proper management, but Higgins continued publishing under a new name, Printed Editions. In this new press, books were produced by each author and sold through their existing network.
Dick Higgins was groundbreaking because of his many ways of creating art. He was a pioneer in computer art, mail art, thinking and creating with technology. He also created a theoretical base and coined the term Intermedia, related and unrelated to Fluxus. He wrote and edited multiple books. About documentation he says:
"It is important that the documents of the time be available somewhere besides in my own files. Too, my writings are complex and full of allusions; this is not to create mysteries but to enrich the fabric and draw on reality. It can be useful therefore that my files be open to anyone who needs them, and this would be impossible if the files were here in my church."
Because of Higgins writing, most of the Fluxus origins, ideas and events can be traced back. Hannah Higgins, daughter of Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, continued writing and published a book called Fluxus Experience, collecting words, objects and performances directly from Fluxus artists. The nature of Fluxus was to change, but through written documents, we are able to trace back and understand how they did it.
How can you define intentions in a type of art that wants to escape categories? You define a vibe, an idea, thoughts and practice grouped together that can apply to everything. As an activity of defining and never defining areas of participation.
In the end it was about taking themselves less seriously. Setting clear and loose intentions, Fluxus showed us that it is possible to delimit and escape labels at the same time. Possible to create meaningful movements, rooted in open experimentation and yet, traditional documentation of the process. Fluxus was light and had a sense of humor; the creation of serious art can only be done by the ones that never take art seriously.