The Dream of Fluxus, by George Macuinas

The Dream of Fluxus, by George Macuinas

The Baltic’s recent Fluxus show can’t entirely conceal the radical ambition and potential of avant-garde art, finds Tom Jennings.

Avant-Garde Nightmare. Art review – Tom Jennings

The Dream of Fluxus, by George Macuinas, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, November 2008 – February 2009

Following in the footsteps of the original modern art tricksters of Dadaism and Surrealism, 1950s Fluxus – hinting at fluid transience and dynamic change as well as connotations of bodily excretion – began as a loose collection of iconoclasts, opportunists and misfits envisaging a worldwide project subverting the privileging of art as products of individual genius invested in by high culture elites. They strongly influenced Swinging Sixties avant-garde cultural trends, ‘happenings’ and street theatre and laid groundwork for subsequent movements in conceptual and live art, minimalism, installation and multi-media as well as cementing the enduring appeal of DIY ethics. A prime mover was Lithuanian emigré George Macuinas (1931-1978), who devoted his life to mobilising Fluxus groups, events and production in Europe and America. Some of the detritus of his activity is presented in a major ‘historical exhibition’ at the Baltic, borrowing the Detroit collection of the Gilbert & Lila Silverman Foundation for The Dream of Fluxus to tie in with a book by co-curator Thomas Kellein.

The show’s publicity pooh-poohs Macuinas’ efforts as “the funniest and saddest episode in twentieth-century art” but then describes his “global network of influential and vibrant artists who shared a unique, if not united, aspiration to revolutionise the avant-garde. Through the introduction of concept art, intermedia, and radical performance practices, Fluxus pioneered an aesthetic appreciation for the everyday”. These mixed messages exemplify the disdainful fascination of art ideologists wishing to domesticate and exploit innovative methods blurring boundaries between different forms and disciplines, while trying to bury the radical political insights they consistently throw up concerning alienation and the separation of creativity from ‘normal’ existence. Contradictions between grandiose claims and the humble human raw material of daily life used, along with shamanistic inspiration plus a democratic encouragement of general participation, also help explain why Fluxus persists in nourishing collective grass-roots alternative art practices – albeit often accompanied by quietist philosophical or mystical individualism – while also generating celebrity careers with or without political poses from Yoko Ono [1] and Joseph Beuys to many contemporary art ‘stars’.

Of course, the Fluxus artefacts in the exihibition are actually traces left by the ideas and social engagements that preceded (and followed) them. Authorship becomes hazy as the contents of many of these glass cases were made for and not by Macuinas in a gift exchange of free (or at least inexpensive) items often distributed by post (elaborated in later Mail Art networks). Furthermore a substantial proportion are written accounts or visual records of plans and public experiments, or instructions for performances possibly never acted on – the iconic ‘event scores’ first developed by George Brecht influenced by avant-garde musician John Cage. Even the recognisably physical ‘artworks’ usually represent mere documentations of exuberant impulses, playful concepts and passionate interactions rather than themselves materialising sublime ‘beauty’. So whimsically witty and carefully-crafted cheap artists’ multiples, arrays of year’s-worths of household commodities, artfully-arranged collections of ephemera and found objects, and classical musical instruments botched into monstrous twisted functionalism now languish, utterly abject and drained of energy, wallpapering a mausoleum and demonstrating the art gallery’s institutionally murderous commodification of creativity.

Whereas Fluxus festivals and art spaces intended to create “utopias containing more breadth and visualisation of present-day thought than the repressive architecture of bureaucracy and luxury that imposes restrictions on people. Everything is forbidden. Don’t touch! No spitting! No smoking! No thinking! No living! Our projects – our environments are meant to free men – only the realisation of utopias will make man happy and release him from his frustrations! Use your imagination! Join in ... share the power! Share property!” [2] Similarly, according to Macuinas in the early 1960s, the overall political motivations of the movement were to “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 ... Promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art, promote non art reality to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals ... Fuse the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front and action”. And even if these heroically naïve, vexingly superior proclamations seem passé now, the salience for contemporary autonomous social/cultural centre initiatives in particular, as well as left-libertarian thought in general, seems clear.

Nevertheless avant-gardes primarily speak to the establishment and its loyal critical discourses, despite rhetorically addressing ordinary folk – so even effective situationist detournement in Paris 1968, punk and adbusting effortlessly waters-down into advertising, art institution and academic fads and fashions. Fluxus bandwagons likewise flatter latterday followers otherwise talking amongst themselves invisible to the outside world, opting-out from challenging trends in art, culture and society. Its innocuous quirky hobbyism perfectly compatible with commercialised lifestyle taste hierarchies, edgily insipid Fluxus provenance also bolsters community/social-inclusion governance credentials. But at least the Baltic curators gestured towards audience involvement – restaging Knud Petersen’s Three Star A La Carte (‘dinner’-courses of old and new Fluxus event-scores) and performances by Tyneside artists spicing up their recuperation. Sally Madge’s Avant-Guard even explicitly questioned “the official art world’s recognition of Fluxus ... [which valued] the creativity of ordinary everyday activities rather than unique artefacts made by special individuals – but now these revolutionary efforts are fossilised in museum showcases. So, appropriately dressed and accredited in her ‘Fluxuniform’, the artist patrols the gallery and tends to the exhibits, inviting the participation of viewers as a gentle reminder of the movement’s early collective ethos and intention to dissolve artificial hierarchies separating artists from audiences” (3).

Notes
1. whose blockbuster retrospective Between the Sky and My Head, also at the Baltic until 15th March, includes all the expected pretentious lightweight Zen, but also the great Fluxus-phase films Cut (1966; audience members scissoring off her clothes; plus a recent restaging), and Fly (1970; six-screen intimate close-ups of a bluebottle exploring a woman’s prone naked body).
2. Wolf Vostell, in Dick Higgins & Wolf Vostell (eds.), Fantastic Architecture, Something Else Press, 1969. Re: Fluxus’ radical aspirations, see Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, AK Press, 1991, Chs. 9-10; and for standard neo-Fluxus bourgeois triumphalism see, for example, Owen Smith, ‘Avant-gardism and the Fluxus Project: A Failed Utopia or the Success of Invisibility?’ Performance Research, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2002, pp.3-12.
3. The Dream of Fluxus, exhibition leaflet.

Review published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 5, March 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk