at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 16


at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, through December 5

Five years ago there was a conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The original leaders were scheduled to attend, and many lectures and symposia were listed in the ads, but anyone who read them carefully had to have been struck by the irony of a line at the bottom announcing that tickets could be purchased through Ticketmaster.

Museums face a related problem mounting exhibitions of the Fluxus artists of the 1960s and 1970s. In commemoration of the (approximately) 30th anniversary of Fluxus’s founding, five Chicago institutions–the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery at Northwestern University, the Arts Club of Chicago, Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois, and the School of the Art Institute–are offering exhibitions, lectures, symposia, and performances, though at $20 for some of the performances, many people will be excluded.

The word “fluxus,” connoting continuous flow or change, was coined by founding spirit George Maciunas in 1961; he planned to use it as the title of a publication. In 1962 performances in Wiesbaden, West Germany, were mounted under that name. Soon a wide variety of artists associated themselves with the term: from the beginning, Fluxus was international, with adherents in North America, Europe, and Japan. The art was improvisational, anti-institutional, antiauthoritarian, often humorous. Fluxus artists worked in a wider variety of media than any other “movement” I know of; the MCA and Block Gallery exhibits include posters, books, musical scores, musical instruments, records of performances, sculptures, installation pieces, found objects, board games, films, videos, interactive displays–there’s even a machine that dispenses Fluxus stamps.

Unfortunately most of the works in these exhibits cannot be experienced as originally intended. To its credit, the MCA has included many “interactive” displays: some works can be touched, and one of them allows the viewer to make music; books and magazines can be picked up and read. But in both shows there are games, books, boxes that were intended to be handled that are frozen in one position and behind glass. This is a practical necessity, but the result is at times alienating–the opposite effect to that originally intended. Then, too, both exhibits are huge–the MCA has over 1,000 objects–and there’s much to read: texts of various kinds, including instructions and scores for performances. If one tries to see everything in either show on one visit, the effect can be a bit mind-numbing.

Still, both shows are very much worth repeated visits: not only is the best of the work superb, but the ethos behind much of the work is refreshing, even inspiring. Influenced by earlier radical innovators of this century–the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage–Fluxus artists generally rejected conventional Western aesthetics, in which a network of relationships between the subject matter and color, line, and space creates beauty and meaning. These artists strove to create instead an art that is simpler in its means, more direct in its appeal to the viewer, often interactive, and closer to daily life.

Most of the original Fluxus artists denied that it was a “movement,” preferring looser terms, such as a “tendency.” Fiercely individualistic, even anarchistic, some of these artists–including a few in these shows–soon disassociated themselves from Fluxus. It’s also been argued that some work made before the official christening in 1962 and after Maciunas’s death in 1978 exhibits a Fluxus attitude. Obviously there can be no rigid definition, though a number of characteristics describe, in varying degrees, much of this work.

Like many art movements before and since, Fluxus had some of its roots in younger artists’ disgust with the current artistic and social order. Thus some of this art explicitly negates established forms. The highly structured, hierarchical nature of past art is attacked in Dick Higgins’s 1,000 Symphonies (c. 1963, at the Block Gallery; works not so noted are at the MCA): three sheets of music paper contain many staffs labeled for various instruments, solo singers, and a chorus, as if for a giant, Mahler-sized work. But there are no notes, and the pages have been ripped (supposedly by a machine gun) and spray-painted gray. Higgins said he was protesting the “imposition of one will over another in the most dictatorial and technical way”–the performance of classical symphonies of course requires a highly disciplined orchestra, who must all surrender their own wills to play the piece.

Similarly, many Fluxus artists were antinationalist. Ken Friedman and George Maciunas’s Visa TouRistE, Passport to the State of Flux (1966, 1977; Block) is an imitation passport in which “the Minister for Fluxfests requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely.” Artists’ references to their own countries were usually negative. Maciunas’s U.S.A. Surpasses All the Genocide Records! (c. 1966; in both shows) is an American flag with skulls and crossbones for stars; its red stripes print facts about the genocide committed by different nations–and the United States comes out on top. But the work doesn’t come across as simply a propagandistic poster because we read it first as a flag, then see that it represents the opposite of what a flag traditionally stands for. Not surprisingly, several other pieces also subvert flags.

While many American Fluxus artists had socialist sympathies, those from other countries often opposed their governments, too. Czech artist Milan Knizak’s Relic (1970; Block) is a hammer and sickle made out of yellow foam, compressed on one axis to the point of seeming squashed. Especially in the context of approved socialist realist art, this can hardly express a positive attitude toward communism.

Milder forms of protest, common to avant-garde art movements that try to disrupt established ways of seeing, can be found in works that place objects in unusual contexts or strip functional objects of their functionality. Joe Jones’s Violin in Bird Cage (1965) is exactly that. Watts’s printed stamps from mythical countries (both shows) use pictures of mythical heroes or ordinary objects as illustrations, tweaking the established convention of self-important, often nationalistic stamp images. A few envelopes provide evidence that these stamps were used successfully. And the machine that sells little packets of stamps for 50 cents was a delight: now in my own collection is a stamp showing a pair of pliers superimposed over buttocks.

In its attack on the existing social order Fluxus almost inevitably turned to sport. Several “Fluxsports” were performed at Rutgers University in 1970. George Maciunas and Bici (Forbes) Hendricks made Flux-Stilts (c. 1970), which had baby shoes at the bottom, on which participants attempted to play soccer, presumably with little success. In Altered Ping-Pong Rackets (c. 1970) Maciunas modified commercial rackets in ways that undermined their intended function: one has a large hole in it, one has a series of small cups fastened to it, another is covered with thick foam.

Maciunas goes beyond the typical modernist effect of enriching the way we see a thing by defamiliarizing it–he implicitly critiques sports competition itself. Then and now, success in sports has often been tied in the American mind and language to success in politics and business–“Crush the competition,” a certain ex-coach proclaims in TV ads for an electronics store. But for Fluxus artists free, imaginative, goalless play–actions performed for their own sake–are superior to actions meant to achieve a discrete result: struggling to play soccer on stilts is of more interest than a “real” game.

But the main tradition in Fluxus is neither negation nor social critique but rather affirmation. Maciunas’s Manifesto (1962) alternates dictionary definitions of “flux” with a handwritten text: “Purge the world of . . . culture . . . of dead art . . . abstract art, illustionistic art . . . “; it goes on to advocate “NON ART REALITY.” This is a key to the thinking of Maciunas and other Fluxus artists: they not only wished, like many other artists of this century, to blur or dissolve the distinctions between art and life–they wished to use art to help “all peoples,” as Maciunas wrote, to redirect their attention to life.

The mainstream of Western art has never quite freed itself of its sacred origins: images of saints with gold backgrounds representing eternity became Barnett Newman’s solid lines set against huge fields of color, or even Warhol’s fetishized images of ordinary objects. In each case the artist assumes the role of pseudo-priest, creating images that take the viewer out of the everyday or that at least elevate the everyday. This same approach informs our music, opera, theater.

For Maciunas, by contrast, “Rainfall . . . [is] as beautiful and as worth to be aware of as art itself. If man could experience the world, the concrete world surrounding him . . . in the same way he experiences art, there would be no need for art.” The idea, then, is not for artists to bring us elevating experiences but rather for each person to experience in life the intensity, pleasure, and meaning of a work of art. It might be added–though as far as I know, Maciunas did not make this explicit–that the artist-as-priest model mirrors other patterns in our social order, such as the boss-worker and teacher-student relationships, in which one person tells another how to see and what to do.

The anarchistic spirit of Fluxus is perhaps most evident in the performance pieces. The starting points for many pieces were simple instructions, which the performer was free to interpret. In 1960, La Monte Young wrote, “Draw a straight line and follow it”; in 1962, at the first Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden, Nam June Paik realized this idea in Zen for Head (1962) by dipping his head in a bowl of “ink and tomato” and rubbing it along a piece of paper. George Brecht’s Water Yam (c. 1964; both shows) is a box of cards printed with brief, cryptic instructions–“Two Vehicle Events / Start / Stop.” Yoko Ono–a serious Fluxus artist not only well before Lennon but before Fluxus had its name–created in the undated Concert Pieces for John Cage (Block) a series of simple, one-line instructions, each line on a separate page, with more detailed suggestions for the piece offered like a footnote at the bottom. “Wind Piece” is described as “Make a way for the wind”; in the note she describes how in past performances she rearranged the audience into two groups and set up a fan to blow between them, but the footnote style invites each performer to make her own choices.

Other performance pieces were a bit more rigidly planned but also seemed likely to call attention to things not normally noticed. Al Hansen’s undated Car Bibbe (Block) consists of three sheets of paper with a long set of instructions of things to do with a car: “Enter Car / Toot Horn 3X / Count to Fifteen / Toot Horn 1X . . .” The instructions for Alison Knowles’s Identical Lunch (documented in both shows) require the performer to consume the same lunch–“a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce and a glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup”–every day.

The Fluxists’ interest in simple performances and cheap, reproducible objects comes from their democratic, antielitist spirit; they wanted to subvert the process by which artworks are anointed by critics, curators, and collectors as precious objects. Maciunas wrote that “Fluxart . . . forgoes all pretension toward significance, rarity, inspiration, skill, complexity, profundity, greatness, institutional and commodity value.” But never underestimate the power of the art establishment to put a price on things: the Arts Club is advertising a four-hour bus tour of several of the Fluxus shows, together with the Alison Knowles tuna-fish lunch, for $20 (advance payment required). Not only is their prebagged lunch in direct contradiction to the whole do-it-yourself spirit of the Fluxus performance, the brief time available to see each show ensures the most superficial, uninvolved contact. This art has to be looked at, studied, and looked at again; one must not only read the performance instructions thoroughly but imagine how they might be carried out. Viewing the shows on a brief, prepackaged tour is like having Knowles’s lunch bagged for you, and like placing interactive art in glass cases.

The same spirit that resisted commodification of art also often invited viewers to participate in the work. A wall from Ay-O’s Rainbow Tactile Room (1969) is made up of a grid of rainbow-colored boxes, each with a hole covered by a rubber disk with a slit in it. The viewer places his finger in the slit–the sexual reference is hard to avoid–to feel various surfaces. A few of the slits produce sounds, providing an experience at once visual, tactile, and musical–and thankfully at the MCA this work can be touched. Also available for touching is Knowles’s Portal Page (1989), which invites the viewer to make diverse sounds on a wood frame. Larry Miller’s Accord (Conductor’s Suit) (1981) is a man’s suit with six speakers sewn into it that play tapes; accompanying them is a photograph showing a man performing in the suit (for money) on an Amsterdam street.

Works that invite creative participation and that combine several media break down the boundaries between viewer and work common to Western art at least as early as the idealized figures of Greek sculpture, or the sacred forms of the Christian altarpiece. The way the Fluxists blurred distinctions important to an earlier time is also characteristic of the “anything goes” spirit of the 1960s. However, some art is only apparently anarchic. While in the popular misconception John Cage was reducing art to utterly random mindlessness, in fact–as Knowles has remarked–Cage’s chance music sounds very much like Cage and no one else. Similarly, though Fluxus may have advocated continuous change and attacked social and artistic hierarchies, the nutty charts that Maciunas drew up–Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus (etc), (c. 1973)–show an obsessive concern not only with historical precedents but also with who does and does not qualify as a Fluxus artist. (Not surprisingly, Maciunas also charts Fluxus as almost the only art of any interest in the 1960s.) While personalities and politics may be behind some of Maciunas’s inclusions and exclusions, a careful examination of those shows reveals that despite all the antiart rhetoric, there are good, mediocre, and bad Fluxus artists.

One of the best is poet Emmett Williams. He described Four-Directional Song of Doubt for Five Voices (1962) as “a concrete poem, a song, an instrumental quintet, instructions for dancers, and a picture.” The MCA displays five grids of 100 squares each; some squares have dots and others are empty. Each performer was to take one grid and say one of the words in the phrase “you just never quite know” when “reading” a square with a dot and nothing when the square was empty. The performers were free to hold the card in any of four orientations, but they were supposed to proceed from one square to another at the click of a metronome, “set at any desired speed.” What I like about Four Directional Song is its mix of precise control and chance, which relates so well to the doubt in Williams’s phrase. A short excerpt from an actual performance can be heard on a nearby video, from which it appears that the precision of his concept carried over into performance.

One of Williams’s poems, ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ (1963; Block), is on a long white strip of paper like a scroll. The top line is the complete alphabet, while the rest of the page repeats the letters, clustered together in various patterns with increasing amounts of white space in between. To view it is to see letters freed from words, usually but not always in alphabetical order, becoming abstract visual designs.

Neither piece is “beautiful”; neither seems to have any clearly definable “meaning.” But beauty and meaning are qualities important in traditional art, which offers itself up as some suprareality for the lowly viewer. For Fluxus, there is no transcendent beauty or meaning in the world; what is sought is a deepened awareness of physical objects, even letters, which become objects of pleasure.

Similarly successful are two of Williams’s recent Twelve Portraits (1992). Large laminated panels are mounted on the wall like paintings–but these are not painted portraits. Instead objects attached to the panels describe the person’s life. Included in the portrait of Nam June Paik are a comic on the Vietnam war, some plastic Korean ideograms, a toy jukebox. These bright, colorful, interesting objects are arranged in what appears to be no special order: the arrangement isn’t aesthetically pleasing or expressive, nor does it force on the viewer any particular idea about the objects.

It may sound, given conventional aesthetic values, as if I’m not crediting Williams with much. And I must admit that I find here none of the intense pleasure I associate with the best art. But he’s accomplished more than it might seem at first, creating works that are neither chaotic nor too stuffed with meaning. Bad artists frequently fill their work with “aesthetic” design and lots of meaning, and as a result the materials are choked, as if by weeds, by the “personality” behind the art. Williams, by contrast, has set his materials free.

Adjacent to Williams’s portraits is an installation by Yoshimasa Wada, What’s the Matter With Your Ear? (1991). It’s hardly dominated by the artist’s personality–something Fluxus artists tried to avoid–but it does seem to repeat patterns from the mass culture in ways that are eventually dulling. A huge array of musical instruments, household objects (a fan, a radio), and a large sheet of metal can be activated by pressing one of several buttons (“Percussion,” “Domestic”) to produce a preset sequence of movements and sounds. This is a lot of fun, and humorous–bring the kids–but on repeated viewings the sequences seem to fall into easily grasped, unsurprising patterns: we’ve heard this tune before. Each new sound intrudes rapidly on the last with the attention-getting predictability of a circus barker announcing another new act.

Similarly unliberating were several installations by Ben Vautier. Ben’s Window (1962, reconstructed 1992-’93) is a store window he lived in while offering himself for sale as an art object, asking 250 British pounds (there were no takers). Filled with objects, the window features Vautier’s characteristic white script on dark surfaces, proclaiming various slogans. Looking at this piece and his other pieces is like peering into a dark, ornate cave: each has concave spaces and a cluttered appearance, both decorative and self-assertive, calling attention to its overall “look.” It’s as if a single personality, expressing itself in a superficial preference for certain shapes, dominates the whole piece. The effect is the opposite of that of Williams’s Portraits, belying all the antiart slogans Vautier has placed on the walls.

Nam June Paik’s TV Cello (1971, reconstructed 1992) is marred by the self-conscious cuteness that informs so much of his work. Three TV monitors are shaped with some wood and strings into the form of a cello; the TVs all play the same tape, which cuts rapidly between images of real and pretend cello playing and other images, mostly of war. One gets the self-referential joke after a few seconds, then notices that the rapid cutting in the tapes is rather assaultive and that this assaultiveness seems to have little to do with the concept. The mixed media in this work don’t reinforce each other, as in conventional art, or free each other, as in successful Fluxart; rather the videotape and the constructed object cancel each other out, and the viewer’s perceptions are not intensified but muddled.

Maciunas issued a number of Fluxus anthologies, which he sold, along with publications and individual objects, in a few stores and by mail order. Such an anthology–sometimes placed in a box–might include publications, photographs, magnetic tape, film loops with hand-held viewers, used typewriter ribbons, performance instructions, games. But by their nature such works were meant for individual handling. Fluxus 1 (1964), the first major Maciunas anthology, includes over 50 items, which the MCA has laid out in a glass case. Though I appreciated the opportunity to see them, the display has a certain morguelike, dissecting-table quality. I’ve had the opportunity to handle a much less elaborate but similarly praised Fluxus work, a book called An Anthology (1963), displayed with the cover closed in a case at the Block: it has varied graphics, inserts, envelopes to open, a card intended to be cut up and used in a performance. Simply turning the pages, not knowing what to expect next, is a far more lively experience than reading something behind glass.

Even more obnoxious is the display in cases of George Brecht’s Game and Puzzle Boxes and Jeff Berner’s 1967 board game Cosmopoly–a Monopoly spin-off in which you might be required to “change sexes with another player.” Perhaps, if asked, the artists might have approved facsimiles that could actually be used to accompany this now-commodified original art. Certainly enshrining these works under glass not only contradicts the Fluxus ethos but falsifies the works’ genuine value–Cosmopoly is interesting to look at, but not as interesting as a Vermeer. Any pleasure it provides is likely to come from actually playing it. (George Brecht’s Universal Machine II (1976) is an even more ambitious game: “instructions” on the inside cover suggest it can be used to generate “a novel . . . [a] new language . . . new sciences . . . travel itineraries”–possibilities that seem laughably unlikely when one views the game itself, with its balls and shells on a playing board.)

Most of my favorite works in both shows are by Maciunas: at its best, his art enriches one’s sense of the physical world. Stomach Anatomy Apron (1973; both shows) is a white mat on which is printed a numbered diagram of the human digestive tract. On the one hand a slightly sick joke, especially if worn while cooking, this piece also does something very pure and childlike: by revealing what is under the clothes and the skin, it gives one a more complete sense of the body, uniting inside and outside.

While Maciunas’s skill as a graphic designer informed many of his publications and posters, perhaps his best work was in a genre he invented, the “Your Name Spelled with Objects” boxes. Each box in these exhibits was made for a friend, and in each the letters of the friend’s name were represented by objects whose names begin with the same letter. I couldn’t always match the object with the letter, but it made for an engaging game. In Gift Box for John Cage; Spell Your Name With These Objects (c. 1972; Block), I could identify the egg and the cone but couldn’t name the seeds or grain. This and some other name boxes have one compartment; other boxes are divided into compartments and the objects are arranged in order of the letters of the name. Name Box for Jonas Mekas (undated; Block) has two rows of compartments; it begins with juniper, which I couldn’t identify on my own, and ends with a screw, which I could.

The catalogs for both exhibits are heavier on essays than on pictures; most are interesting, but a few have a taxonomic, almost forensic academicism that reminded me of the works-under-glass. Several of the most revealing comments come from the artists. In the Block catalog Alison Knowles speaks of a successful performance: “What happens is that . . . an emptiness opens up. Members of the audience are watching almost nothing going on. The action must be done exactly, precisely and modestly to allow the emptiness to appear.” In the same catalog John Cage speaks of Maciunas’s art: “It was not an art based on two plus two equals four, or even upon I love you or I hate you. And those are common conventional views of art–that you should have something to say that can be expressed in numbers or in emotions and say it. . . . But his own work was very elegant and beautiful.” Cage goes on to remark that some others have taken Fluxus “as an excuse for not doing their work carefully,” and that he doesn’t think art should be “careless”: “I think that a definition of art could be ‘paying attention.'”

Knowles’s and Cage’s comments apply to the precise work of Emmett Williams, who strips letters and words and objects of their usual associations and intensifies their uniqueness, or to Maciunas’s boxes. Each object he’s selected is beautiful; one plays the game of identifying them and spelling the name; one appreciates the personal quality of the works, the fact that they were made for friends. And after all that, the objects have no symbolic resonance; their arrangement produces no expressive form or rhythm; they are sufficiently different in color, texture, and shape not to blend into a single image. By not doing what would come naturally to most artists–by not making the boxes into unified self-expressions–Maciunas frees art both from the prison of the artist’s individual mind and from a hierarchical relation to the viewer. Instead we have an egg, a screw, a stone radiant in their separateness, seen as they could be by anyone, as if for the first time, at the beginning of the world.