This essay begins with a little story. Several years ago, on a springtime visit to the New York studio of Alison Knowles, in Soho near the flower district, I brought with me a bouquet of yellow tulips, some of the first of the season. The artist immediately arranged them in a vase, which she set in the middle of the low-slung living room table around which we sat and talked. Deep into our conversation, Alison stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Look! Those tulips are opening.” Indeed the yellow buds, having taken to the water, had relaxed and opened up their blossoms just slightly. It struck me in that moment, more powerfully than ever before, that Alison, like many Fluxus artists, is a first-class noticer of things—everyday things that most people would find trivial or mundane.
To this, I want to juxtapose a contrasting event, for me illuminating as to how Fluxus is understood art-historically today. In 2008, I witnessed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, a historical survey of interactive art accompanied by a catalogue including essays by the museum’s curator of media arts, Rudolf Frieling, and media theorists Boris Groys and Lev Manovich. Installed roughly chronologically, the exhibition began with some of the most canonical examples of postwar experimental art, such as John Cage’s silent piece 4′33″ (1952), and continued with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), Nam June Paik’s Participation TV (1963), Lygia Clark’s Dialogue: Goggles (1968), and examples of Fluxus event scores and multiples. Then came Tom Marioni’s installation, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (1979), a stack of takeaway Felix Gonzalez-Torres posters (1992–1993), and a squat stage outfitted with props where visitors could enact Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures (2007–2008). These works, which in sum provided a range of experientially diverse possibilities for interaction, narrated a history of participatory art that led, finally, to a series of galleries sparsely equipped with computer monitors, where viewers could mostly sit and interact via keyboard and mouse with screen-based new media works by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Warren Sack, Johannes Gees, and others.
The new media art conclusion to Cage and Fluxus was written into the exhibition from its very start. A press release explained the curated historical trajectory this way:
From early performance-based and conceptual art to online works rooted in the multiuser dynamics of Web 2.0 platforms, The Art of Participation reflects on the confluence of audience interaction, utopian politics, and mass media, and reclaims the museum as a space for two-way exchange between artists and viewers.
Originally titled MyMuseum in a nod to the language of social media, the exhibition came off as a project of historical legitimation for recent new media practices that also retrospectively framed earlier practices as prophetic of what Frieling referred to as a contemporary “Internet mindset” of browsing, sharing, collecting, and production in the age of Web 2.0. The implications of this presentist reframing of Fluxus are what I wish to confront here. Do the practices of Cage and Fluxus necessarily lead us to such museum computer rooms? And conversely, what happens to our understanding of Fluxus when we map our present-day “Internet mindset” back onto those 1960s practices?
The emergence of this kind of reading of Fluxus at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not surprising. Today there exists a vibrant and ever-expanding community of internet artists who self-identify with Fluxus, and debates recur as to whether Fluxus is still active as a movement, much as they occurred in the 1950s and 1960s around Dada. (In fact, George Maciunas initially referred to his coterie as “Neo-Dada” before seizing on the name “Fluxus.”) Given Maciunas’s mandate for the democratization of art and Fluxus artists’ critical exploitation of the postal system and available means of travel to build a far-flung, international collective, the internet and other networked digital technologies seem natural sites for artists seeking to evolve Fluxus ideas. I single out The Art of Participation because it is symptomatic of the contemporary reception of Fluxus, often invoked as a kind of art-historical shorthand for legitimating quite incongruous forms of contemporary art—from performance, mail art, experimental publishing, video art, and social practice, to the new media, digital, and internet-based practices included in Frieling’s exhibition.
New media historians and critics including Craig Saper, Christiane Paul, and Charlie Gere have highlighted the dispersed, network-like qualities of Fluxus, claiming that its international reach demonstrates an incipient “network mentality” in postwar art, or that its conceptually driven gestures and objects are fundamentally algorithmic or computational. In a book-length survey of digital art, Paul writes that Fluxus works “based on the execution of precise instructions whose fusion of audience participation and event as the smallest unit of a situation in many ways anticipated the interactive, event-based nature of some computer artworks.” A version of this argument formed the basis of a 2018 exhibition Paul curated at the Whitney Museum on “programmed” art based on rules, code, and choreography, which reinforced and furthered certain dimensions of the narrative Frieling had earlier presented at SFMOMA. When Paul elsewhere defines digital art as “process-oriented, time-based, dynamic, and real-time; participatory, collaborative, and performative; modular, variable, generative, and customizable,” it seems she could easily be describing Fluxus. Saper devotes an entire chapter to Fluxus in his scholarly history, Networked Art, declaring that the collective’s most important contribution to postwar art history is “making networking situations into artworks.” In a scholarly anthology focused on precursors to internet art, Owen Smith concisely encapsulates this line of argument and its willful collapse of the language and ideas of Fluxus with those of the internet when he writes, “Even though much of Fluxus existed prior to the age of the computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web, hypermedia, and hypertext, Fluxus’s activities and attitudes present many of the most important realizations of network culture, many of which we are now only rediscovering.” In such accounts, Fluxus is understood foremost as a group of artists who, despite separation by great distances, constituted a functioning, close-knit community, and historians describe this community in the technological language of the network as a way of indicating these artists’ recognition of “the potential of the systems themselves as art.” Smith furthermore writes, “[I]t becomes clear that Fluxus is more of a virtual space than it is a particular art historical group with a finite set of geographic and chronological parameters.” “This is not to say that there are no boundaries, materials, or objects in Fluxus,” he admits, “but that they are less important and ultimately inconsequential in the processes of change and creation of possibilities.” More recently, Roger Rothman has related Fluxus’s interventionist gestures and dysfunctional commodities to the subversive hacker culture that developed contemporaneously in MIT’s computer labs. Through these accounts, we witness the recasting of the Fluxus viewer as a “user” and the anachronistic application to artists’ practices of terms like “open-source” and “hypermedia” until the entire project of Fluxus is circumscribed by its virtual existence as an incipient worldwide web of creative activity. Following this logic, one could argue that the ostensible breakdown or failure of Fluxus activities by the late 1970s has been finally redeemed by new media practices that are only now able, because of improved technological capabilities, to fully realize the group’s goals.
And yet, against such accounts, and despite my own claims in my book Fluxus Forms for the art-historical significance of Fluxus’s “Eternal Network,” I find it urgent to recuperate the ways in which Fluxus works warned against and were insistently opposed to technological mediation. Fluxus works were for the most part deliberately anti-spectacular, anti-technological, and anti-digital—radically analog. Fluxus strategies, including those directly engaged with technology and emergent network aesthetics and social formations, were developed precisely to critically resist the dematerialization and virtualization of the artwork, the image, and the sign at the earliest moment of the cultural shift we now recognize as postmodernism, often pitting technology and computational processes against the human body and its intransigent fleshiness, excessiveness, vulnerability, ridiculousness, and sexuality. Fluxus was certainly innovative in developing alternative means of organizing creative activities and in distributing work outside the art world’s mainstreams, but this was not the collective’s singular defining characteristic. It may not even be the most enduringly important one, despite our contemporary global politics in which the interconnectedness of economies, societies, and individual people is seen simultaneously as both a profound ontological threat and source of well-being, if not survival.
At the same time that Fluxus’s score-based practice emphasized the work’s fundamental translatability, it also defended the importance of the uniqueness of each material instantiation. In other words, the network is not where the Fluxus artwork or the meaning of its critique ends, for every one of the innumerable tentacles of the Fluxus nexus culminated in an intimate encounter between beholder and artwork, an experience utterly singular and material. We should not consider the circulation of Fluxus works apart from their material specificity and resolutely corporeal address, for if Fluxus practice was buoyed by the utopian ideal of an international network, its works did not find their critical ground of operation in that extensible, virtual space. They were directed at the transformation of concrete experience in very specific, localized temporal domains that were often quite private and resistant to the mediation of still and moving images.
Recall that in Maciunas’s proto-Fluxus manifesto of 1962, “Neo-Dada in Music, Theater, Poetry, Art,” readymade and indeterminate methods and materials were advocated as the best means of resisting the artificiality of illusionism and abstraction. “Anti-art is life, is nature, is true reality,” Maciunas declared:
Rainfall is anti-art, a babble of a crowd is anti-art, a sneeze is anti-art, a flight of a butterfly, or movements of microbes are anti-art. . . . 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, artists and similar “nonproductive” elements.
Certainly there is a fetishism at play here, but it is not a fetishism of networks or of unfettered communication; it is a fetishism of the everyday valued as the essence of concrete experience, the essence of whatever was left in culture after modernism that might constitute “the real”—a fetishism admitted to by the artists themselves. “[T]here was almost a cult among the Fluxus people,” wrote Dick Higgins in 1972:
or, more properly, a fetish, carried far beyond any rational or explainable level—which idealized the most direct relationship with “reality,” specifically objective reality. The lives of objects, their histories and events were considered somehow more realistic than any conceivable personal intrusion on them.
Fluxus artists were not alone in their allegiance to the concrete, although their methods were singular. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the turn to everyday, common objects was a key tactic in neo-avant-garde efforts to challenge the alienating effects of modernist aesthetics and mass culture. This focus on the object was an assault on two linked phenomena of the time: the mass-production of waste incurred by the industrial strategy of planned obsolescence and the establishment by mass media of a virtual reality of spectacle and simulation. Jasper Johns incorporated into his work the detritus of the newly wasteful postwar consumer culture, Robert Rauschenberg appropriated remnants from historic architecture being razed for modern urban developments, and Claes Oldenburg fabricated pathetic sculptural replicas of household goods to sell from his chockablock marketplace The Store. But these gestures were not radical enough for Fluxus artists, who set off to press further the limits between the production and appearance of art and the materials and experiences of life.
Accounts of new media that celebrate the virtual space of intermedia artistic networks for initiating a break with modernist mediums and practices repress the fact that a certain notion of virtuality had already defined the high modernist artwork and its concomitant viewing experience. Specifically, the mode of experience privileged within modern art discourses—transcendent, disembodied, purely optical—anticipated qualities characteristic of contemporary experiences of virtual space in the digital realm. For Clement Greenberg, the successful modernist artwork presented the illusion “that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage.” Likewise, the attendant subject of this modernist virtuality was described as being disembodied and wholly, eternally, immaterially present. As Rosalind Krauss has argued, modernist art’s transcendent zips, targets, chevrons, and sprays instated a mirroring “reciprocity of absence” between artwork and viewer. “What we have here,” she writes, “is . . . not exactly a situation of non-presence but one of abstract presence, the viewer floating in front of the work as pure optical ray.” This mirage-effect has been carried forth from the high modernist field through the image worlds of Pop art to contemporary forms of screen-based new media in which the subject becomes a function of the image, dependent upon and either subsumed or alienated by it (possibly both). It was against this encroaching mirage-effect, whose presence was already felt in art and mass culture of the 1960s, that the neo-avant-garde’s counterspectacular practices were positioned. In the wake of modernist transcendentalism, tendencies such as New Realism, Happenings, Fluxus, and minimalism amounted to so many efforts to thrust the viewer ever back into an awareness of the here and now.
The embrace of Fluxus by new media artists, curators, and historians stems from art-historical accounts that position Fluxus as a dematerialized proto-conceptual art of unfettered communication, whose ostensibly anti-art stance was equally anti-object. However, the Fluxus turn to language—an admittedly abstract, symbolic material—was primarily a means for the artwork to incorporate the material conditions of each situation in which it would appear. Along these lines, Maciunas’s 1962 “Neo-Dada” manifesto called for an art that would be like an “automatic machine,” enabling form to be created independently of the artist-composer. The Fluxus event score—the collective’s most basic technology—was precisely this. It harnessed language in order to disconnect aesthetic form from a definitive, enduring material existence, instead rendering it transitive and ambiguous—qualities owed as much to the operations of musical notation as to the poetics of the written word. This turn to the medium of language, both textual and graphic, was a necessary means for the artwork in flux, whether performance or object, to materialize more individually and concretely in varied contexts. As Higgins explained, “In its most extreme manifestations, Fluxian intermediality dispenses with media. For Fluxus, reality is the medium, experience the utensil, and language the means of distribution.”
Perhaps more than any of Maciunas’s statements, Higgins’s concept of intermedia, introduced first in the manifesto-like tract “Intermedia” in 1966, has been embraced as a prescient defense of new media art due to its call for an untrammeled approach to combining and integrating diverse mediums. Higgins took up the term in order to describe the myriad work he had witnessed since the late 1950s that fell “between media,” work that occupied the “uncharted land that lies between” existing categories of practice. Among Higgins’s examples are Joe Jones’s kinetic, self-playing mechanical instruments, situated between music and sculpture, and Robert Filliou’s object-poems, situated between poetry and sculpture.
By the early 1980s, however, Higgins reflected that intermedia “shortly acquired a life of its own,” and “the term was mis-used and it became chic”—its meaning expanded and diluted in ways that ensured Higgins’s political ambitions for it would fall short. On the one hand, intermedia in popular culture had come to signify an offshoot of expanded cinema characterized by all-encompassing, disorienting mass spectacles of multisensorial media collage incorporating architecture, sound, projected light and film, strobes, and sometimes tactile and olfactory stimuli as well. Quasi-commercial touring enterprises such as the media art collective USCO and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable sought to merge the experiences of the nightclub and art gallery through total synthesis on all levels: between artistic mediums, subject and world, subject and subject, and even intra-subjectively, as participants were thought to access untapped regions of consciousness through a kind of aesthetically induced intoxication akin to an experience otherwise provided only by LSD. With this work, the connotations of intermedia’s expanded approach to the conceptualization and categorization of artistic mediums was overwritten by a preoccupation with “media”: a proliferation of new technological apparatuses and combinations thereof that the beholder was newly challenged to navigate.
On the other hand, intermedia entered academia as a new disciplinary track vaguely defined by an experimental, post-Happenings combination of performance and video, as in Hans Breder’s first intermedia MFA program founded at the University of Iowa in 1968. These two veins of intermedia rapidly, increasingly merged. Many of USCO’s performances took place on college campuses as part of the touring Intermedia ’68 festival, organized and managed by the young MBA and entrepreneur John Brockman, which also included projects by Les Levine, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Carolee Schneemann, Trisha Brown, Terry Riley, Ken Dewey, Allan Kaprow, and even Dick Higgins (although the intermedia work that Higgins himself promoted was much more modest in form). By 1970, Gene Youngblood had reported in his genre-defining book Expanded Cinema that USCO had partnered with behavioral scientists at Harvard to form the Intermedia Systems Corporation with the goal of developing technologically sophisticated forms of “entertainment as education.” In the contemporary digital realm, these fantasies have returned in the guise of new media works’ shared basis in numerical code, which is thought to allow for infinite possibilities of “transcoding” and “programming.” All forms of media are seen to converge through a unifying tissue of computer languages that effectively erases their underlying distinctions.
We should remember, however, that Higgins’s concept of intermedia described a dialectical approach of working between discrete existing mediums, achieved by mapping the language, structure, and/or ways of thinking of one medium onto another. To demonstrate this, Higgins’s score Intermedial Object #1 (1966) proposed fantastical objects whose characteristics are determined along a continuum between two poles represented by two quite dissimilar objects (fig. 1). Elsewhere, Knowles and George Brecht referred to their objects as books, pages, and footnotes; Brecht referred to an encounter with any of his works, whether text, object, or performance, as an event; Filliou produced sculptural assemblages he called poems; and one Fluxbox after another provoked the beholder to reconsider the stuff of everyday life under alternative rubrics such as time, food, and medicine. Numerous Fluxus works address boundary conditions where one thing meets another, transcends a limit to become something else, or is exchanged with a proximate yet unlike thing.
Above all, Higgins’s notion of intermedia supported an aesthetic of “simplicity” and a return to “basic images” as a counter-experience to or escape from mass media. This he argued in a companion text, “Statement on Intermedia,” published in Wolf Vostell’s journal Dé-coll/age in 1966. In this text, the political stakes of intermedia were made overt, as Higgins characterized its in-between position as being motivated by a sense that existing categories of artistic production were inadequate for responding to a moment in which, due to new media technologies, “our sensitivities have changed.” Modern art, Higgins felt, had simply not kept up. With manifesto-like zeal, he sets his sights beyond modernist aesthetic quarrels, calling to mind the backdrop of the Vietnam War (at that moment in its eleventh year) and emergent labor, civil rights, and feminist struggles as he poses questions about the collective ambition and future direction of contestational neo-avant-garde practices:
Due to the spread of mass literacy, to television and the transistor radio, our sensitivities have changed. The very complexity of this impact gives us a taste for simplicity, for an art which is based on the underlying images that an artist has always used to make his point. As with the cubists, we are asking for a new way of looking at things, but more totally, since we are more impatient and more anxious to go to the basic images. This explains the impact of Happenings, event pieces, mixed media films. We do not ask any more to speak magnificently of taking arms against a sea of troubles, we want to see it done. The art which most directly does this is the one which allows this immediacy, with a minimum of distractions.
The viewing experience Higgins characterizes is not one of omniscience and transcendence but rather an active, highly physical, and immanently material spectatorship called into being by the artwork itself. Far from an optimistic fetishization of the technological, Higgins’s vision of intermedia meant to engage political and social contexts in a more direct or concrete, that is to say less technologically mediated, fashion. It could be a Fluxus mantra: a taste for simplicity, immediacy, basic images, most directly, with a minimum of distractions. We want to see it done.
Of course, it is Nam June Paik’s work with video, television, and broadcast technologies, the earliest examples of which were coincident with his participation in Fluxus, that has provided historians with the strongest link between Fluxus and contemporary new media. Yet Paik imagined his work with electronics from the beginning as a humanizing, critical “anti-technology technology” that depicted mass media technologies as dysfunctional and alienating. Paik’s first significant body of work incorporating televisions was presented in March 1963 in his Exposition of Music—Electronic Television at Galerie Parnass, the same venue where Maciunas had presented his proto-Fluxus “Neo-Dada” manifesto nearly a year before, and where prototypical Fluxus objects were now on view in a small display in the villa’s basement kitchen. In one room of Paik’s exhibition, eleven TVs were cast seemingly randomly about the space, including many on the floor, their broadcasts made illegible by manipulations to their circuitry (fig. 2). One set was laid screen-side down. Several were made interactive by means of pedal switches, microphones, and external sound sources as a way to transform viewers’ typically sedentary encounter with television into a full-body experience. Following the example of Cage’s prepared pianos, which treated the piano as a whole, concrete object to be played on any of its surfaces, Paik presented the television as a three-dimensional object rather than merely an image projection device metonymically identified with its screen. Paik furthermore took a microscopic, materialist view of television electronics, calling attention with his manipulations to the physicality of a TV broadcast’s energy particles and waves.
David Joselit has argued that in Paik’s work, the “‘dematerialized’ mobility of the network was stabilized as an object of spectatorship.” But that was not all—Paik’s objectified apparatuses were to be interfered with, fondled, worn. Paik referred to his TV works as “physical music” and “time art,” another mode of accessing the concrete to which he readily compared very low-tech works like his event score Fluxus Champion Contest (1962), a performed pissing contest. His pianos, TVs, and manipulated electronics explored the “possibilities of combining many senses; touching, blowing, caressing, seeing, treading, walking, running, hearing, striking, etc.” An altered record player, Listening to Music through the Mouth (1962–1963), was rigged so that beholders had to insert the turntable needle’s arm, dildo-like, into their mouths (fig. 3). Calling for a bodily incorporation of technology, listening in Paik’s works necessitated touching, and aural experience crossed into orality.
Paik pursued a technological art of the concrete that rendered mass media spectatorship highly material and phenomenologically rich. His work was poised against the reality of a scene he once recounted having witnessed at a New York dance club:
[I] was stunned . . . there were more than 1000 young people . . . mostly with their dates. 90% of them neither kissed, nor danced, nor . . . even touched . . . hands. They were just looking [at] a big TV projector, which . . . [showed] . . . banal pictures, such as old movies or Rock Roll music or Elvis, which they have seen most of their lives in their home TV set or movie house.
In response, Paik exhibited wrapped TVs, burned-out TVs, organic materials fashioned into TVs, TVs eviscerated and overtaken by nature. By the late 1960s, he was known among his peers for working specifically with outmoded and obsolete devices in ways that emphasized media technology’s tendency toward rapid obsolescence. Allan Kaprow wrote in 1968: “His pianos . . . were old and irreparable, and his television consoles are cast-off derelicts from Canal Street.” Cage described Paik’s work as simply “Wires and more wires”; an “image of utter collapse.” These qualities accorded with the handmade aesthetic that characterized many Fluxus objects, even when they incorporated the readymades of advanced industry. As Higgins reflected, Fluxus “does not seem to participate in the age of technology, with the exception of the material substances on which works are printed or in which they are packaged, which are often chemically very sophisticated [e.g., plastic] but handled as if they were—wood.”
Paik himself conceived of his work as complementing that of his more Luddite Fluxus peers, writing in a 1966 manifesto, “Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important, and the latter [cybernated life] need not be cybernated. Maybe George Brecht’s simplissimo is the most adequate.” Indeed, Brecht’s event scores were a kind of Fluxus anti-technology, an automatic machine designed to produce unmediated experience, to re-create the artwork anew, over and over again, for each and every now. Likewise, Liz Kotz has described the logic of the event score as a two-part process, in which “a ‘general’ template or notational system . . . generates ‘specific’ realizations in different contexts.” In this logic of specification, “the template, schema, or score is usually not considered the locus of the work, but merely a tool to produce it.” Purposefully evading a definitive, fixed form, the Fluxus work materializes again and again, with each appearance revealing yet another dimension of the work’s potential, as if it were an infinitely faceted jewel.
And so there is indeed a notion of the virtual operative in Fluxus, I would argue, although it is not the virtuality of networked space. It is rather the temporal virtuality of the artwork forever in-becoming through time. The plain language of most Fluxus scores, chosen for its affectlessness, keeps the work’s form radically uncircumscribed such that the general-specific dualism Kotz describes might better be named in terms of philosopher Henri Bergson’s dualism of the virtual-actual, which he proposed in place of the possible-real. For Bergson, whose work at least Cage and Brecht knew, the relationship of possible-to-real assumes a situation in which the real is simply one scenario that wins out over a set of predetermined possibilities, whereas the idea of the virtual-actual entails the possibility for the actual to unexpectedly diverge from the known. The former is limited to relationships of identity; the latter contains the possibility of spontaneous difference. It is a subtle differentiation, but it has everything to do with the way we exist in, understand, and interact with the world. Gilles Deleuze, writing on Bergson, has well defended this point:
It would be wrong to see only a verbal dispute here: it is a question of existence itself. Every time we pose the question in terms of possible and real, we are forced to conceive of existence as a brute eruption, a pure act or leap which always occurs behind our backs and is subject to a law of all or nothing. What difference can there be between the existent and non-existent if the non-existent is already possible, already included in the concept and having all the characteristics that the concept confers upon it as a possibility?
Instead of deriving the real from a finite set of predetermined possibilities, this notion of the virtual gives us conceptual access to that particular quality of Fluxus works which maintains the potential for ushering forth the utterly new. This projective, temporal virtuality of the Fluxus work—always in-becoming through its appearance as multifarious versions of the concrete—could not be further from the spatial and phenomenological virtuality of digital forms of communication and participation, in which, as Boris Groys admits in his text for The Art of Participation catalogue, “the body of the person using the computer is of no consequence. . . . One falls into a state of self-oblivion, of unawareness of one’s own body.”
Hannah Higgins, who has considered Fluxus in relation to early computer art, reminds us that in the early 1960s, “most computers were real people,” that is, a person employed to make calculations. In this sense, Fluxus work “could be characterized as ‘computer’ art of the human kind.” But it is also an art that immediately registered how the body always exceeds the technological. Both score and Fluxbox are a kind of container for corporeal experience, establishing a temporary commons of interpersonal, multisensory presence activating not just vision but also touch, taste, and smell. In scores by Maciunas, Higgins, and Benjamin Patterson, the body’s limitations and frailties, its awkwardness, its resistance to dematerialization or fungibility, are exaggerated, not mitigated, by rigorous tabular and diagrammatic structures of organization, drawing our attention to the dynamics of Fluxus being about both flows and stoppages (fig. 4). If anything, Fluxus algorithms or codes, materialized in the rules of an event score or the rationally compartmentalized container of a Fluxbox, worked as a foil to illuminate what cannot be contained: the shit of life (sometimes quite literally). (fig. 5)
To take another frequently cited example in new media–focused histories of Fluxus, in 1967, Knowles worked with James Tenney at Bell Labs to produce a computer-generated aleatoric poem, The House of Dust. The poem employed FORTRAN to combine in every possible permutation prewritten phrases that describe a house in terms of its materials, site, light source, and inhabitants. But the poem was not an end in itself. Nicole Woods has detailed how Knowles treated one quatrain—“A House of Plastic / In a Metropolis / Using Natural Light / Inhabited by People / from all Walks of Life”—as a score for constructing several small structures at CalArts in the early 1970s, which became a temporary hub for experimental performance. The poem was also dropped from helicopter over the campus, making of the dot-matrix printout an array of paper ribbons that elegantly twisted their way through the sky (fig. 6). According to Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn, “The key to Alison Knowles’s going beyond the technological limits of digital computing was her placing of the dedicated output, i.e., the printout of the text, amid the ever-changing contingencies of social and poetical practice.” To my mind it is absolutely not a coincidence that Knowles’s poem—an homage to different ways of cultivating domestic space—emerged in a transitional moment for Fluxus, when collective energies became focused increasingly on ritualistic events, banquets, and housing projects—all various retreats into spaces and experiences of relatively private, yet still communal, interpersonal encounters.
Fluxus objects and gestures were recalcitrant to an art market that demanded (and continues to demand) unique, precious, individually authored things and to an image culture that demanded (and continues to demand) continuous circulation of consistent, recognizable images. Fluxus’s rejection of abstraction and illusionism was at first pitted against an art world dominated by modernist aesthetics epitomized by abstract painting, which seemed unwilling to engage the rapidly changing culture to which neo-avant-garde artists felt an urgency to respond if not reject outright. The counterspectacular, immanent quality of Fluxus’s everyday objects and gestures opposed the disembodied, transcendent, purely “optical” viewing experience upheld by modernist institutions and discourses. Fluxus artists’ artworks in flux also resisted a popular culture of mediated images and commodity fetishes. In our desire to read Fluxus as a portent of contemporary new media art, we may misapprehend the collective’s most important lesson for the present, which I take to be its model of iconoclastic rejection of telepresence, in favor of experiences of intimate, face-to-face communion. Figuratively speaking, the art historical and curatorial narrative that I propose ultimately turns away from the museum computer room and toward that modest vase of yellow tulips set on the living room table.
Opened in 2008, The Art of Participation could not yet take stock of the post-internet aesthetic of an emerging generation of artists whose work celebrates fluid, self-made, augmented identities and realities, a new wave of new media art that has already claimed its roots in Fluxus. But the promiscuous position-taking of much post-internet art, while typically read as generous and open-minded, can be frustrating in its elusiveness, an embrace of multipositionality that avoids committing to any position at all. Digital natives (myself among them) ought to recognize as 1990s nostalgia the fantasy that digital communications and networked images allow for a post-identity society, especially at a time when identity categories—their rights, visibility, protection, and security—are in reality becoming more entrenched or under attack in frightening ways.
In light of these arguments, I will conclude by proposing two possible alternatives for locating Fluxus’s legacy within contemporary art, which run counter to what has been offered in the discourse around digital, new media, internet, and post-internet art. The first alternative trajectory would be an art that seeks to eliminate mediation entirely, as in the performance work of Tino Sehgal, which is foremost invested in direct encounters between human bodies in real space, even at the point of the artwork’s transmission from artist to collector. Sehgal’s works consist of moving bodies, speaking bodies, bodies that ignore us, avoid us, or proposition us. As a rule, he does not allow his works to be photographed or filmed, though admittedly there are illicit exceptions. Symbolically, at least, and in critical recognition of the machinations of the art market and life in general under globalized capitalism, Sehgal’s work values human beings and unmediated intersubjective experience above all. The second alternative would include practices that utilize the internet as a means of launching relationships and experiences that ultimately exceed that platform. I am thinking, for instance, of Los Angeles artist Adam Overton’s website UploadDownloadPerform.net (2008–2014), a once active open-access wiki repository of performance scores meant to be downloaded and performed in real space-time. Overton’s instructions for how to use the site constituted a kind of performance instruction in and of itself: “in any order, all, some, or [n]one of the following: upload [something] / download [something] / perform [something] / repeat if desired.” Or the work of David Horvitz, which lays bare the contradictions between the internet’s promise of infinite space and instantaneous connectivity and the real-world limits of the human body in lived space-time. The ways in which these contemporary practices—among many laudable others—continue the investigations begun by Fluxus artists more than fifty years ago is beyond the present discussion, but at the very least I want to propose that in today’s world they urgently and effectively signal a taste for simplicity, immediacy, basic images, most directly, with a minimum of distractions. We should want to see it done.
Reprinted, in slightly altered form, with permission from Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network by Natilee Harren, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Natilee Harren, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Houston, is a scholar of modern and contemporary art history and theory with particular focus on experimental, interdisciplinary practices after 1960. She is author of Karl Haendel: Knight’s Heritage (LAXART, 2017). Her most recent book, Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network (University of Chicago Press, 2020), examines the work of the international Fluxus collective amid transformations of the art object instigated by score-based practices of the 1960s. Harren is co-editor of a media-rich digital publication, forthcoming from the Getty Research Institute, which surveys and theorizes a range of 20th-century experimental notations from the fields of visual art, music, performance, poetry, and dance. Harren’s essays and criticism have appeared in Art Journal, Art Journal Open, and Getty Research Journal, and she has been a regular contributor to Artforum since 2009.
2 “SFMOMA Presents Major Overview of Participation-Based Art,” press release, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 15, 2008, https://www.sfmoma.org/press/release/sfmoma-presents-major-overview-of-participation-b/, accessed July 7, 2020.
3 The term “network mentality” comes from Owen Smith, “Fluxus Praxis: An Exploration of Connections, Creativity, and Community,” in At A Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, ed. Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 126. See also Craig J. Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), xv, 43; Christiane Paul, Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003); Charlie Gere, “The Digital Avant-Garde,” Digital Culture (London: Reaktion, 2008); MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Networking: The Net as Artwork (Aarhus: Digital Aesthetics Research Center, 2008). In tandem, there is an active community of internet artists who explicitly identify as latter-generation Fluxus artists.
5 Co-curated with Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Paul’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was titled Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018 (September 28, 2018 – April 14, 2019).
19 Dick Higgins, “Intermedia” (1965/6), republished with commentary by Hannah Higgins in Leonardo 34, no. 1 (2001): 49–54. See also Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” (1966), Dé-coll/age 6, ed. Wolf Vostell (1967), reprinted in In the Spirit of Fluxus, 172–73. I deal at greater length with Higgins’s notion of intermedia and its relationship to the spectacular and educational initiatives discussed in this chapter in my essay “The Crux of Fluxus: Intermedia, Rear-Guard,” in Arts Expanded (1958–1978), ed. Eric Crosby and Liz Glass, vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014), http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/art-expanded/crux-of-fluxus, accessed July 7, 2020.
22 Critical histories of this vein of intermedia include Branden Joseph, “‘My Mind Split Open’: Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” Grey Room 8 (Summer 2002): 80–107; and Felicity D. Scott, “Acid Visions,” Grey Room 23 (Spring 2006): 22–39. See also Elenore Lester’s early reports, “So What Happens After Happenings?,” New York Times, September 4, 1966; and “Intermedia: Tune In, Turn On—and Walk Out?,” New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1968.
23 Gene Youngblood, “The Artist as Ecologist,” in Expanded Cinema (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970), 348. There are further instances of artists and critics adopting the term “intermedia” early on that I can only list here: from 1967 to 1970, Gene Youngblood wrote a regular “Intermedia” column for the Los Angeles Free Press; in 1968, Elaine Summers founded the Experimental Intermedia Foundation to support and promote the work of artists deemed to be working in that mode; and Harvey Lond published an arts magazine titled InterMedia from 1974–1979 in Los Angeles. Intermedia also took root internationally with the 1969 Intermedia Art Festival in Tokyo, Intermedia ’69 in Heidelberg, Germany, and the founding of Galerie Art Intermedia in Cologne.
28 Nam June Paik, letter to Rolf Jährling, December 22, 1962, cited in Susanne Neuberger, “Terrific Exhibition: ‘Time Art’ alias Music in the Exhibition Genre,” Nam June Paik: Exposition of Music Electronic Television Revisited (Cologne: Verlag König, 2009), 31; and Nam June Paik, “Afterlude to the EXPOSITION of EXPERIMENTAL TELEVISION,” fLuxus cc fiVe ThReE, no. 4 (June 1964).
37 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 211. Deleuze engaged Bergson throughout his career, but his two major works that deal with the concept of divergent actualization are Difference and Repetition and Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Brooklyn, NY: Zone, 1988). See also Gilles Deleuze, “Bergson’s Conception of Difference,” in The New Bergson, ed. John Mullarkey (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). In Branden Joseph’s essay “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” which draws on Bergson’s virtual-actual dialectic in different ways than does my present argument, he notes that Cage and Deleuze were working through Bergson’s ideas at roughly the same moment. See Joseph in Julia Robinson, ed., The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009).
39 Hannah Higgins, “The Computational Word Works of Eric Andersen and Dick Higgins,” in Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts, ed. Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 283, 279.
42 According to new media curator Christiane Paul, “All the networked art forms from the 60s onwards—Fluxus and mail art, projects using fax machines and Minitel—can be seen as proto-post-internet in that they used networks or network technologies for creating work that would take physical, embodied form.” Paul, quoted in Paddy Johnson, “Finally, a Semi-Definitive Definition of Post-Internet Art,” Art F City, October 14, 2014, http://artfcity.com/2014/10/14/finally-a-semi-definitive-definition-of-post-internet-art/, accessed July 7, 2020.
43 Other alternative accounts to new media framings of Fluxus include Anthony Huberman, “Talent Is Overrated,” Artforum 48, no. 3 (2009): 109–10; Martin Patrick, “Unfinished Filliou: On the Fluxus Ethos and the Origins of Relational Aesthetics,” Art Journal 69, no. 1–2 (2010): 44–61; and Bertrand Clavez, “Fluxus: Reference or Paradigm for Contemporary Art?,” Visible Language 39, no. 3 (2005).
44 UploadDownloadPerform.net was founded by Adam Overton in 2008 and went offline in 2014. http://uploaddownloadperform.net/, accessed August 21, 2014. Now offline, partial captures of the site are available via http://web.archive.org.
45 David Horvitz uses the internet and a personal e-mail list to advertise and sell works and projects related to highly localized gestures and performances. For example, for his work #VadeMecum (5992. I will, with Pleasure, Take Letters for You), commissioned by Creative Time in 2011, Horvitz invited the public to submit Twitter messages which he wrote out by hand and personally couriered from San Francisco to Washington, DC, following the route of the first transcontinental telegram; see http://creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/tweets/?p=118 (also archived at http://web.archive.org) and http://davidhorvitz.com/, accessed August 21, 2014.