New York

“Fluxus: A Conceptual Country” and “Fluxattitudes”

Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. / New Museum of Contemporary Art

Strongly influenced by Dada’s rebellious spirit and John Cage’s radical experimentalism, the artistic counter-movement known as Fluxus celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. George Maciunas, and a host of artists, writers, musicians, photographers, poets, performers, and filmmakers (including George Brecht, Robert Watts, and Dick Higgins) who passed through the philosophical filter of Fluxus during the ’60s and early ’70s, sought to “democratize” art by provoking the spectator to interact physically and intellectually with the work, requiring the viewer’s self-conscious participation in the construction of meaning. When viewed against the backdrop of the emergent and infectious counterculture of the ’60s, Fluxus’ quasi-utopian embrace of a general notion of “collectivity” suggests a rather provocative fusion of Dada’s anarchic playfulness and the revolutionary tenor of the Soviet avant-garde.

Yet it is not altogether surprising to discover that the history of Fluxus remains somewhat remote and inaccessible. Not only does the heterogeneity of the work produced, and its willful sabotaging of “traditional” distinctions in media, render attempts at stable definitions elusive, but the desire to undermine the notion of the artistic object as sacred cultural artifact produced works that were often of a temporary nature. Fluxus “attitudes” stamped themselves, albeit invisibly, upon virtually any ordinary object. Some of these materials have been archived, others were destroyed or lost; much of what we know has been transmitted through a plethora of photographic and written documentation.

Franklin Furnace and the New Museum have mounted exhibitions designed, in the case of the former, to broaden our understanding of Fluxus’ multiple manifestations and the period in which it thrived, and in the latter case, to demonstrate its lasting influence upon certain tendencies in contemporary art. The Franklin Furnace show, “Fluxus: A Conceptual Country,” 1992—a traveling exhibition organized by curator Estera Milman—offers an impressively comprehensive sampling of Fluxus materials: books, drawings, music scores, poems, notations, performance instructions, photos, objects, artifacts, and documentation of events and environments. Although the exhibition reflects extensive research, it also reeks of the stale odor of archival bureaucracy: the preservation of the subversive spirit of Fluxus within a vitrine seems, at the very least, contradictory.

By contrast, “FluxAttitudes,” 1992, organized by guest curators Cornelia Lauf and Susan Hapgood for the New Museum, suffers less from the soporific effects of insitutional administration: it was designed to be interactive and participatory, thereby remaining faithful to a central tenet of Fluxus production. Jam-packed with a mixture of work by “original” Fluxus participants and younger artists supposedly infused with the “fluxattitude,” the exhibition includes a videotape of a recent Wolf Vostell performance in which the artist flagellates a piano, LeCri, 1990, and Nam June Paik’s ever-popular magnet televisions. Of the more recent work, Danny Tisdale’s performance/installation Transition, Inc., 1992, a project addressing issues of racial identity, and Marc Travanti’s perversely playful breathing and utterance-prone fan, Stratagem, 1992, stand out from the rest. The curators also made the clever, if somewhat gratuitous, decision to unveil the usually concealed institutional procedures of exhibition-making by displaying their letter of invitation to the artists, the exhibition guidelines for participants, as well as letters of acceptance and rejection from invited artists. Ironically, this strategy indicates the extent to which the utopian impulse of much Fluxus production to resist or subvert institutional co-option can now be understood as its Achilles heel: Fluxus courted its own disappearance, and ended up being recuperated as archival material.

Joshua Decter