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THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 9 (pages 50-55)
THE ORIGINS OF FLUXUS AND THE MOVEMENT IN ITS 'HEROIC' PERIOD
In the summer of 1958 John Cage (born Los Angeles, 1912) began teaching a course in musical composition at the New School For Social Research, New York. This course brought together, as guest lecturers and pupils, a number of personalities who would be crucial to the development of what would later become known as Fluxus. Apart from Cage, those in attendance included George Brecht (born Halfway, Oregon, 1925), Jackson Mac Low (born Chicago, 1922), Dick Higgins (born 1938), Allan Kaprow and Toshi Ichijanagi (Yoko Ono's fIrst husband).
A couple of years later, George Maciunas (born Kaunas, Lithuania, 1931) attended classes in electronic music run by Richard MaxfIeld at the same venue. La Monte Young also attended these classes. Young was simultaneously organising a series of performances and concerts in Yoko Ono's New York studio (December '60 to June 61) which featured a number of the future 'fluxus' personalities. Meanwhile, Maciunas held three lecture/demonstrations, entitled 'Musica Antiqua et Nova', at his own AG Gallery between March and June '61. On the invitation card to these conferences appeared the message "a 3-dollar contribution will help to publish Fluxus magazine". This is the fIrst recorded appearance of the name.
Sometime before this, the poet Chester Anderson had asked La Monte Young to edit an issue of "Beatitude East". Various documents which were to have gone into "Beatitude East" disappeared, along with Anderson. When they eventually reappeared, Young got Jackson Mac Low to assist him in assembling a selection of material representing the new trends in musical and poetic composition. As well as those connected with the group which had met at the New School For Social Research (Henry Flynt and Ray Johnson are among those not already mentioned), works by composers living in Europe (such as Nam June Paik, Dieter Rot and Emmett Williams) were collected. Maciunas did the layout and design for what had by this time been retitled "An Anthology". The paste-up was completed by October '61, but due to delays and financial difficulties the book didn't actually appear for another two years.
Debt forced Maciunas to take a graphic artists job with the US Air Force, and so, in November '61, the government sent him to West Germany to design lettering for military aircraft. The work was not only highly paid, it also enabled Maciunas to use the government resources placed at his disposal to promote fluxus. He became particularly adept at abusing the subsidised postal system which was intended to keep up morale among military personnel by minimising the cost of communication between them and their loved ones. Once in Europe, Maciunas made contact with Nam June Paik (born Seoul, Korea, 1932, and already infamous for cutting John Cage's necktie in two). Paik, in his turn, introduced Maciunas to a number of other avant-gardists resident in Europe, most notable among whom was Wolf Vostell (born Leverkusen, Germany, 1932).
Maciunas was still planning Fluxus magazine, but by this time he was also working on a series of concerts to promote it. Because he believed the avant-garde should present the public with a unified front, Maciunas asked Paik to delay his event "Neo-Dada in der Musik", and Vostell to put off publication of his "De-coll/age" magazine, until plans for all Fluxus events and publications were finalised. Paik and Vostell ignored this request; "Neo-Dada in der Musik" took place in Dusseldorf in June 1962, and the first issue of "De-coll/age" was published to coincide with this event.
Maciunas's plan was for a world tour of fluxus concerts taking in one large city a month. These were to have begun in June '62 in Berlin and ended in New York in December '63. The scheme was only very partially realised. Initially scheduled as the fourth festival in the series, "The Fluxus International Festival Of Very New Music" at the Horsaal des Stadtischen Museums, Wiesbaden, West Germany (fourteen concerts staged over the four weekends of September 1962), turned out to be the first and most ambitious of a series of performances that later became known as the "Festum Fluxorum". During the course of organising the Wiesbaden event, Maciunas fell out with a number of those billed as taking part (most notably the composers grouped together under the New Stylists label); and as a result, this and future fluxus manifestations would consist chiefly of action music verbally scripted compositions which tended to receive attention from those interested in performance art, rather than music critics.
The composers present at Wiesbaden (including Alison Knowles and her artist husband Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, Robert Filliou, Arthur Koepcke, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Thomas Schmit, Ben Patterson and George Maciunas) performed not only their own works, but also many pieces by the likes of Yoko Ono, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Watts and La Monte Young. Sometimes the audience became the performers, as with Terry Riley's "Ear Piece For Audience":
"The performer takes any object(s) such as a piece of paper, cardboard, plastic etc. and places it on his ear(s). He then produces the sound by rubbing, scratching, tapping or tearing it or simply dragging it across his ear, he also may just hold it there, it may be placed in counterpoint with any other piece of sound source."
This, like many other pieces performed during the festival, was included in the - at that time - unpublished "An Anthology", the paste-up of which Maciunas had brought with him to Europe.
The bizarre and destructive nature of some performances - which included the destruction of musical instruments, shaving exercises, and a leap into a bathtub filled with water - attracted a certain amount of media coverage. The festival as a whole highlighted the difference between what Maciunas would later label the 'monomorphic neo-haiku flux-event' and the 'mixed media neo-baroque happening'. That is to say that although the fluxus performances were intermedial, in the sense that they fell between various disciplines such as music and visual arts, each composition focused on a single event isolated from any other action and was presented as an iconoclastic insight into the nature of reality itself. Thus the emphasis in flux-work was on structural simplicity, and its protagonists placed it in the tradition of the natural event, Marcel Duchamp, jokes, gags, Dada, John Cage and Bauhaus Functionalism. The scores on which performances were based were invariably short, even if the actual pieces were often indeterminate in duration. For example, Maciunas's "In Memoriam To Adriano Olivetti";
"Each performer chooses any number from a used adding machine paper roll.
Theoretically, by using these scores anyone was able to perform fluxus works with little need for practice, skill, or preparation.(1) Chieko Shiomi's "Disappearing Music For Face" is one of the best known and most popular examples of this:
"Change gradually from smile to no smile."
Maciunas was unable to attend the 'Festival Of Misfits' in London (Gallery One and Institute of Contemporary Arts, 23rd October to 8th November '62) and critics are divided over whether it should count as an official fluxus event The participants were Arthur Koepcke, Gustav Metzger, Robin Page, Ben Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier and Emmett Williams. Ben Vautier (born Naples, Italy, 1935) lived in the window of Gallery One for much of the festival. Many considered Robin Page's "Guitar Piece" to be the highlight at the evening of action music held at the ICA. Victor Musgrave describes the performance in "The Unknown Art Movement" (Art and Artists, October '72):
"Wearing a shining silver crash helmet and holding his guitar ready to play, Robin waited a few moments before flinging it onto the stage and kicking it into the audience, along the aisle and down the steps into Dover Street. The effect was dramatic, the spectators arose and rushed after him as he ran round the block aiming frenetic kicks at the disintegrating guitar. The night sky was lurid with flashes of lightning; it was also the very day when the world stood poised in trepidation at the crucial point of the Kennedy-Kruschev confrontation over Cuba."
The "Festival of Misfits" was followed by concerts in Copenhagen (November '62), Paris (December '62), Dusseldorf (February '63), Amsterdam (June '63), the Hague (June '63) and Nice (August '63). It was at the Dusseldorf event that Joseph Beuys (born Cleve, Germany 1921) first involved himself with the fluxus movement. After the "Fluxus Festival Of Total Art" organised by Ben Vautier, Maciunas returned to New York where he concentrated on publishing activities rather than the organisation of concerts and other performances.
This first period of Fluxus activity coincided with a split within the movement over the question of disrupting high cultural activities and plans to harass middle class commuters as they travelled to and from work. In the "Fluxus New-Policy Letter No.6" (dated 6/4/63) Maciunas outlined his 'proposed propaganda action' for Fluxus in New York. The use of propaganda was broken down into four main areas:
a) Pickets and demonstrations.
These were to serve a dual purpose, "action against what H. Flynt describes as 'serious culture' & action for fluxus". Flynt, despite his bizarre and unorthodox Leninist leanings (for an example of these see the pamphlet "Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership In Culture" - World View Publishers, New York, 1965), had already established himself as the most politically committed of the Fluxus circle. In February '63, under the auspices of 'Action Against Cultural Imperialism', he'd held public demonstrations outside the Lincoln Center and the Museum Of Modem Art, New York, to protest against serious culture. Flynt (born Greensboro, North Carolina, USA, 1940) was one of the first white political activists to perceive that American high culture - due to its bourgeois European ancestry - was both racist and classist, and that its falsely assumed superiority was simply one aspect of its imperialistic nature.
The Fluxus aesthetic of unpretentious simplicity was by implication an assault on serious culture. It is therefore not surprising that Maciunas believed those adhering to his 'movement' would welcome some no less bizarre, but somewhat more practical, attacks on class society. In "News-Policy Letter No.6", Maciunas uses Flynt's example as a role model for organising pickets and demonstrations.
The next set of suggestions dealt with ideas for 'propaganda through sabotage and disruption'. These were divided into nine sections, with three main headings. The transportation system was to be disrupted with pre-arranged break-downs at strategic points on the city road system during the rush hour. The communication system was to be disrupted by the dissemination of false information and, most ingeniously of all, "stuffing postal boxes with thousands of packages (containing heavy bricks etc) addressed to various newspapers, galleries, artists etc, bearing no stamps & bearing as return address various galleries, concert halls, museums". Although Maciunas was being over optimistic in assuming that either the 'sender' or 'receiver' would be bound to pay for these, there is no doubt that the plan could have caused a good deal of disruption. Since any given postal worker can only carry a limited weight when delivering mail, if enough packages had been sent simultaneously to a single district this could have caused considerable delay in the distribution of mail. If the district selected was a business district the tactic would have been particularly effective with virtually no adverse effect on ordinary workers. Finally, there were plans to disrupt cultural life through the use of stink and sneeze bombs, the mailing of fake announcements, and using telephones to direct emergency and delivery services to museums (&c) on opening nights.
In a letter to Maciunas dated 25th April '63, Jackson Mac Low describes these tactics as approaching the "unprincipled, unethical and immoral". Mac Low, who had edited the anarcho-pacifist magazine "Resistance" from 1945-54, came out on the side of reaction by declaring that he was not concerned with demolishing the edifices of his enjoyment of the past. For similar reasons Brecht, Knowles (born New York, 1933) and Higgins sided with Mac Low, - while Flynt criticised Maciunas' s plan as being over artistic.
The dichotomy between those with a pan-disciplinary perspective and those who were unable to perceive anything beyond minor aesthetic concerns reached a head in August '64. Allan Kaprow (who had already disassociated himself from fluxus) organised and directed a performance of Stockhausen's "Originale" at the Judson Hall, as a part of the 2nd Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival. Maciunas and other fluxists (A-Yo, Takako Saito and Ben Vautier) who agreed with Flynt and Tony Conrad's condemnation of Stockhausen as an active supporter of Amerika's white racist elite, picketed the concert under the auspices of Action Against Cultural Imperialism. Other members of the fluxus movement decided to cross the picket line. Dick Higgins angered both pickets and scabs by joining the protest before going into the concert hall.
After this incident, Maciunas eventually gave way to the demands of the scabs and removed political issues from the fluxus agenda. Flynt distanced and disassociated himself from the movement Fluxus, like the Situationist International before it, proved incapable of sustaining itself as simultaneously a political and cultural movement The heroic period was over, fluxus could do no more than slowly degenerate.
1. Fluxus never dealt with the problem of exactly who the audience should be for these performances. Perhaps the performer acted out the script for their own, rather than anyone else's, amusement. However, the fact that Fluxus staged public performances of these events would indicate that the intended audience was wider than the individual performer(s).
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