Fluxus is attitude, anti-art, cultural-social-political revolution, intermedia, renewed Dadaism, art as life and life as art. Fluxus is not a coherent movement, a set form, or a particular style. It is meant to be “grasped by all peoples, not only the critics, dilettantes and professionals,” as George Maciunas put it in his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963.
Maybe for that reason, festivals have always been important to Fluxus. So important, as it turns out, that Maciunas introduced the term “Fluxus” in a pamphlet he handed out at his very first festival in Wuppertal, Germany in 1962. After that, the floodgates opened: Fluxus festivals were produced throughout the 1960s and ‘70s in locations as diverse as Paris, France, and Rutgers, New Jersey. These festivals really did allow a public forum for Fluxus to be experienced by “all peoples.” In fact, the values of Fluxus and the advantages of the festival medium meshed so well that George Maciunas created several art posters that served as an introduction to Fluxus festival production. The first of these was called FluxFest Sale (1966), and the second was titled—even more explicitly—FluxFest Kit 2 (circa 1970). These two documents are conceptually similar (if differently organized), and so from here on out I’ll refer to the FluxFest Kit 2 as a stand-in for both.
It wasn’t a total free-for-all. Maciunas had very specific ideas about how a Fluxus Festival should be. What follows (capitalization, punctuation and all) is taken directly from the upper left hand corner of the FluxFest Kit 2 poster—we can think of these as the Rules with a capital R.
Any of the pieces can be performed anytime, anyplace and by anyone, without any payment to fluxus provided the following conditions are met: 1. If flux-pieces outnumber numerically or exceed in duration other compositions in any concert, the whole concert must be called and advertised as FLUXCONCERT or FLUXEVENT. A series of such events must be called a FLUXFEST. 2. If flux-pieces do not exceed non-fluxpieces, each such fluxpiece must be identified as a FLUX-PIECE. 3. Such credits to Fluxus may be omitted at a cost of $50 for each piece announced or performed.
Lesson learned: credit Fluxus where credit is due. The largest part of the poster, though, is a catalogue of approximately half of the Fluxus catalogue. Not all of the works listed were explicitly or implicitly musical, of course, but I can’t get over how many are performative and how many do make reference in one way or another to musical signs and symbols. A few examples, in list form:
- George Maciunas, Piece for Conductor, 1965: Conductor steps over podium and takes a conventional bow. He remains bowed while tying shoelaces, polishing shoes, rolling and unrolling legs of his trousers, scratching ankles, picking up small specks from floor, pulling nails from floor, etc. etc.
- Joe Jones, Duet for Brass Instruments: Rubber glove is place over bell and tucked inside. Air is blown until glove emerges from bell and is inflated.
- George Brecht, Drip Music (Drip Event), 1959: For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version: Dripping.
- Robert Watts, C/T Trace, 1963: An object is fired from canon and caught in bell of tuba.
So, Maciunas created a document that not only provided specific pieces and scores, but also outlined a general format, and even gave a raison d’etre. In other words, this one poster supplied everything a person (musician or layman, artist or enthusiast) could need to produce their very own Fluxus festival. You could become the performer-producer of your dreams.
What was it like to perform these pieces? I wondered. And who is performing them now? Ian Power was born decades after the height of the 1960s Fluxus festival craze. He has never put on an entire festival dedicated to Fluxus pieces, and he doesn’t follow all the Rules. (Ian, have you paid any Fluxus fees lately?) Even so, he frequently programs Fluxus gems in concerts of his own music—Power takes seriously his role as new music composer-performer-producer-advocate. At the same time, he’s living proof of Fluxus’s reach: Power is the next generation of musician Fluxus enthusiasts.
Archival footage from a 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden
A short digression. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Fluxus is music. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Personally, I find it hard to ignore that its members—many of whom at one point or another considered themselves musicians and composers—pointed to musical forms and instruments in so many of their titles and with so many of their materials and processes. And it’s hard to argue against the fact that so many of these pieces are performance based, that they move through time, and that sound is purposely juxtaposed with the visual. Regardless of whether or not you buy that, though—regardless of whether or not Fluxus is music—I think that musicians and musicologists (with our focus on sound and temporality) have a unique perspective on these performances, and with that comes the potential to understand Fluxus in new and exciting ways: what happens if we suspend our disbelief and treat these pieces as music?
Now back to Power. “If I program the pieces, it’s because I believe in them as music,” he told me in an e-mail interview. (Good, I thought, we’re on the same page.) “These pieces, even ones without much sound, coax me to attend to time and experience in much the same way (and in some important, invigorating different ways) than any other good ‘music’ might.”
True, and while Power hopes that some of this same attention might rub off on his audiences, he also recognizes that his role as performer—and therefore as a kind of translator—grants him certain privileges and responsibilities. A couple of specifics: during a recent concert, Power interpreted Mieko Shiomi’s “Boundary Music for Piano” as the movement of sheet music from the floor to the piano music stand, all accomplished as quietly as possible. That same concert, he set up Alison Knowles’s “Chair Music for George Brecht” in the back of the hall: he chose to provide a reading light, a book of Japanese death poems, and a biography of Erik Satie, all just waiting for Brecht to appear. Or not.
At one point I asked him: How seriously did you take these performances? Did you ever feel silly? “If I did,” he said, “it was likely part of the learning process essential to arriving at a place where I can really understand the music.” Power embraces the self-consciousness of performing these works, and notes that a good performer can make all the difference in establishing an atmosphere of good will and humor in the hall. “Not to compliment myself,” he said, “but if there’s one thing I can do, it’s commit to a Fluxus performance.”
That commitment is key. That commitment is the reason historical Fluxus has made its way through to the present day. Power wants to preserve the uncanniness, the situational poise, the amazement, the empowerment, and the fun of the Fluxus spirit—a big part, I think, of what makes this music (this art) as exciting and innovative now as it was in the 1960s.
Which brings me back around to the FluxFest Kit 2 and the question of performance. In the very early stages of my research, I’ve found evidence that at least one person did, in fact, follow Maciunas’s poster-art instructions (at least in spirit, if not to the letter). Jeff Berner, photographer and conceptual artist, presented his Fluxfest (a festival in two parts) at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco on March 31, 1967. Tickets were two dollars and fifty cents, and absolutely no cameras were allowed inside. “Experimental is not knowing what the results will be,” reads one of his publicity posters.
Berner, though—Berner was a member of Fluxus. His website notes that he has participated in “the international conceptual/performance art group since 1965,” and so we have to consider him an insider, someone more specific than the “all people” Maciunas dreamed Fluxus would reach. What really interests me is who among us non-Fluxans rose to the challenge of transforming the FluxFest Kit 2 into a real-life, realtime festival. Surely somebody couldn’t resist the possibilities of this performative readymade. Was it you, NewMusicBox reader? Please step forward and identify yourself—we all want to hear your story!