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George, what is Fluxus?

A Fortnightly Review

George: The Story of George Maciunas and Fluxus

Written and directed by Jeffrey Perkins

2h | Documentary | US release February 2018, first UK screening at the London Film Festival October 2019

By SIMON COLLINGS.

GINGER ISLAND IS a modest, rocky outcrop in the British Virgin Islands overgrown with tropical vegetation. In 1964 it was up for sale, and the uninhabited islet caught the attention of George Maciunas. Macunias had for some time been dreaming of founding a colony of artists, which would be an independent country with representation at the UN. Maciunas even drew up a map of the island, divided into plots, each assigned to a particular person.

In the company of two fellow artists, Milan Knizak and Yoshi Wada, the actor Robert De Niro, and Igor Demian, a friend of Knizak’s, Maciunas made a reconnaissance trip to the island. The group planned to stay a week. Upon arriving they thought the place a paradise, but when they woke the next morning the visitors found their eyes so badly swollen they could barely see. A gentle rain in the night had covered them with a poisonous sap from the umbrella trees under which they had slept. They were rescued after two days, and the effects of the poison wore off, but the dream of founding a colony came to nothing.

This combination of imaginative ambitions and practical naiveté is characteristic of Maciunas. It’s one of a number of sides to his character faithfully presented in Jeffrey Perkins’ meticulously compiled documentary about the artist.

This combination of imaginative ambitions and practical naiveté is characteristic of Maciunas. It’s one of a number of sides to his character faithfully presented in Jeffrey Perkins’ meticulously compiled documentary about the artist. The film includes original interviews with many of those who participated in Fluxus, artists who both admired and fought with Maciunas. The contributors offer sometimes contradictory evaluations, and Perkins lets this stand without comment. It’s an approach which mirrors that taken by Emmett Williams and Ann Noël in the ‘collective biography’ of Maciunas they edited, Mr Fluxus, published in 1997.1 Like the book, Perkins’ documentary follows a chronological sequence, beginning with Maciunas’ early years and ending with his death from cancer. Like the book, it presents examples of Fluxus art, and includes archival footage of Fluxus events.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

THE VOICE OF William Woods asks: ‘George, what is Fluxus?’ The response each time is a series of incomprehensible sounds, accompanied in the documentary by an image of ping-pong balls cascading down a flight of stairs. Woods interviewed Maciunas for KRAB radio in 1977. 2 His question and the ‘answer’ were repeated at intervals during the interview, and the same happens in Perkins’ film, functioning in both cases as a structuring device.

Drawing a clear boundary around Fluxus is, as many commentators have noted, an impossible task. Maciunas’ international network of Fluxus collaborators included musicians, visual artists, film-makers and writers, many of them experimenting with mixed media forms. Most of the artists had a life beyond Fluxus, and practices diverged significantly. Maciunas tried to impose discipline, but was frequently ignored by practitioners who had their own ideas. The Dutch artist, Willem de Ridder, describes Fluxus as ‘a nice piece by George’ that everyone agreed to ‘play’. Another Fluxus member, Ben Patterson, summed it up this way: ‘The final truth is that Fluxus was never much more than a pragmatic episode (not even a collective) which floundered into a circumstance rich enough to accommodate a very wild, but also a very focused bunch of 1960s radical artists.’2

Performance was at the heart of much of the early Fluxus activity, and a number of Fluxus artists were pioneers of what came to be known as ‘performance art’, including Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Carolee Schneemann, and Ben Vautier. Fluxus events initially took place in a concert setting, but later also moved to the streets.  Concrete and sound poetry, avant-garde music, experimental film, and mixed media installations were all part of the Fluxus mix. These were practices the artists brought to Fluxus.

Aside from the core Fluxus group, there were other practitioners who passed through the Fluxus orbit. The Fluxum Festorum in Paris in 1962, for example, included works by the surrealist writer Gherasim Luca, and by Brion Gysin, the artists who famously introduced Burroughs to the cut up method. Both men also featured in a similar Fluxus event in Düsseldorf the following year, and some of Gysin’s work appeared in the magazine Fluxus One, published by Maciunas in 1964.

Text-based work by Fluxus core members circulated in the small press magazines of the time alongside texts by Beat writers and other counter-culture figures. Edition 23 of Klacto, for example, a US-based magazine which ran from 1965 to 1967, included work by Fluxus artists Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell and Dieter Roth, next to contributions from Charles Plymell, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Diane di Prima, and British radical poet Jeff Nutall.

Fluxus practice overlapped with conceptual art, with much of the impact of the work residing in the idea, and skill in execution being secondary or even irrelevant. There were also overlaps with pop art. Perkins’ documentary makes extensive use of Jonas Mekas’ 35-minute portrait of Maciunas, Zefiro Torna, made in 1992.  In one of the clips Mekas comments: ‘Warhol and George, Warhol and Fluxus, somewhere there, very deep, they were the same. They were both Fluxus, both dealt essentially with nothingness. Both dismissed the current life civilization, everything that is being practised today, everything is the same, didn’t take any of it seriously. Both took life as a game, and laughed at it, each in his own way.’

MACIUNAS STUDIED AT New York University with Alfred Salmony, an expert on Chinese art. Salmony had also known the German Dadaists in the 1920s and he had a big impact on Maciunas, acting as a ‘second father’ to him. Dada and Daoism were both important philosophical influences on Maciunas, Dada itself having a Daoist lineage, according to Tzara. The end (i.e. goal) of art, Maciunas believed, was the end of art, its absorption into the everyday practice of human beings. If we could experience the world around us in the same way we experience art, there would be no need for art.

The Soviet avant-garde group, LEF, was an early model for Maciunas. In January 1964 he wrote to the artist Tomas Schmit, saying: ‘Fluxus objectives are social (not aesthetic). They are connected to…the LEF group of 1929 in Soviet Union (ideologically) and concern[ed] with: the gradual elimination of fine arts (music, theatre, poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture – etc, etc).’ It was a doctrine not so much of anti-art, but something more like Duchamp’s idea of ‘anart’, of promoting ‘non-art reality’ to use Maciunas’ term.

Many Fluxus artists did not share Maciunas’ more radical views. They were quite happy to self-identify as artists, and had no problem with exhibiting in galleries. Jacob Proctor, in his essay ‘George Maciunas’ Politics of Aesthetics’, says that Maciunas was ‘almost, if not entirely, unique’ in his insistence that ‘artists should be actively trying to work themselves out of a job, demonstrating the self-sufficiency of the audience by speaking not from a position of authority but from a position of radical equality.’3

Fluxus artist Ken Friedman describes Fluxus as a ‘community’ rather than a ‘collective with a common political programme.’ The group, he says, ‘did on the whole share certain values’, of which he identifies 12: ‘globalism, the unity of art and life, intermedia, experimentalism, chance, playfulness, simplicity, implicativeness, exemplativism, specificity, presence in time, and musicality.’ His list adapts an earlier inventory developed by the artist Dick Higgins. For some the Fluxus group wasn’t radical enough. Gustav Metzger, the UK-based proponent of ‘auto-destructive art’, though attracted to Maciunas, was ‘put off’ by his encounters with Fluxus artists in London4

Perkins’ documentary suggests at one point that Maciunas was quite naïve about contemporary art at the beginning, regarding the whole thing as comedy. The participating artists, it seems, had to educate him. There is no doubt some truth in this, but Maciunas also had his own take on things. Humour was clearly central for him, a ‘value’ which, interestingly, is not reflected in Friedman’s list. In the final interview he gave, Maciunas described Fluxus, as ‘a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.’ In the KRAB radio interview (inset above) he laughs repeatedly as he describes gag after gag enacted by members of Fluxus.

But Maciunas was more than a mere prankster. Born in Lithuania, Maciunas came to New York as a refugee after the Second World War, having experienced both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The artist Larry Miller, who conducted the final interview with Maciunas, has described how he: ‘started to see through GM’s carnival persona and into wider situations beyond the art world that he considered ripe with material for any artist’s use. Once I saw this man as not just a joke, but as a critical forum with deep irreverence for the given order, he had won my attention.’5

PERKINS GOT TO know Maciunas through Yoko Ono who he met in Japan in the early 1960s while stationed in Tokyo with the US Air Force. Ono was then living with her first husband, the American artist Tony Cox. Through them Perkins learned of developments in the New York art scene, and was involved in a performance piece conceived by Cox. In 1965 he participated in the first Hawaiian Fluxfest, organised by the ethnomusicologist Fred Lieberman. John Cage and Toru Takemitsu were among the featured composers.

After his discharge in 1966 Perkins returned to New York, where Ono and Cox where then living, and moved into a spare room in their apartment. Ono introduced Perkins to Maciunas. A Fluxus film festival was being organised and he contributed a short film Fluxus Film No. 22, Shout. He was also the camera man on Ono’s famous film of naked bottoms, Film No. 4.

Soon after this Ono and Cox moved to London, and Perkins relocated to the west coast, where he focused on performance art. With Fred Lieberman and Joseph Byrd he co-founded the multi-media group Single Wing Turquoise Bird, performing psychedelic light shows with the Velvet Underground, Yardbirds, Cream, and Grateful Dead, among others.

In 1981 he returned to New York where for 20 years he worked as a taxi driver, earning money to support a family and his art. Perkins recorded interviews with his passengers and used these in a project ‘Movies for the Blind’. The Fluxus video artist Nam June Paik dubbed him ‘the Fluxus cab driver’.

Perkins’ long association with Fluxus artists, and his insider knowledge, make Maciunas a natural subject for his latest film.

During his time in Los Angeles Perkins became acquainted with the abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis, shooting unique footage of Francis working in his studio. A documentary portrait of Francis, made with the support of Jonas Mekas, was released in 2008, attracting international attention. Perkins’ long association with Fluxus artists, and his insider knowledge, make Maciunas a natural subject for his latest film.

‘The pedagogical function of Fluxus artworks,’ says the curator Jacquelynn Baas, ‘is to help us practice life; what we “learn” from Fluxus is how to function as an ever changing self in an ever changing world.’6 Fluxus artist Alison Knowles’ documenting of her daily consumption of a tuna sandwich for lunch, for example, or Daniel Spoerri’s book of anecdotes about the 100 objects captured on a particular day on a table in his apartment, seek to shift out perceptions about ordinary-seeming events.7 Knowles’ lunches are never ‘identical’, and Spoerri shows how even the simplest objects are connected with memories of events, places, and people in his life.

The academic Michael Sheringham, in his book  Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (2006), traces the conceptualisation of the ‘quotidien’ in post-war French thinking, in particular in the work of Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Georges Perec and Michel de Certeau.8 ‘The everyday cannot be reduced to its content,’ says Sheringham. ‘We can…make lists of objects, situations, activities, and other attributes that seem to typify the everyday, but they will not tell us anything about lived everydayness until we grasp their part in a wider configuration, the ensemble or process from which we are inseparable.’ It’s the sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary that Fluxus artists aimed to highlight.

Another academic, Andrew Epstein, in his book Attention Equals Life, relates preoccupations with everydayness to the work of a number of post-war US poets including James Schuyler, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Silliman, and Brenda Coultas.9 ‘It is the paradox of the everyday, its indeterminacy and fluidity,’ which Epstein says, ‘drives artists to break with convention and experiment with unusual and challenging new forms of representation.’ This is often motivated by the writers’ concerns with social and economic injustice. ‘If the everyday remains naturalised and mystified,’ Epstein argues, ‘then spectacle and alienation triumph, and those forces that benefit from our distraction – usually aligned with the dominant social order, with power and capitalism – continue unchallenged.’ While Fluxus artists generally sought to avoid being pigeonholed, many shared these concerns.

IN PERKINS’ DOCUMENTARY, the trip to Ginger Island is recalled by Knizak and Wada, and illustrated with footage shot by Knizak at the time. The SoHo housing cooperative, also described in the film, was another manifestation of Maciunas’ quest to create an artists’ community. This time the venture left a lasting legacy, albeit in a somewhat different form from what Maciunas had envisaged.

In the 1960s, the section of Lower Manhattan known as Hell’s Hundred Acres was a decaying area of small manufacturing businesses. An expressway was scheduled to be built through the quarter and property prices were depressed. Businesses were keen to sell and Maciunas developed a plan for buying buildings and converting them into lofts where artists could live and work. There were plenty of artists interested in the project, but raising finance was a major challenge. The venture also faced serious legal obstacles as the area was zoned for industrial use. An exemption existed for artists living in a studio which was also their place of work, but not on the scale Maciunas was contemplating. Real-estate development had its rules.

Maciunas employed various legal dodges to get around the restrictions. He also cut the cost of renovating the buildings by doing a lot of the work himself, and involving prospective tenants in the activity. Work was not necessarily carried out to a standard which met building regulations. Money was scraped together for deposits and mortgages. Maciunas managed the whole operation as a cooperative, keeping meticulous accounts and publishing a newsletter.

He bought his first buildings in 1966 at 16–18 Greene Street and 80–82 Wooster Street, helped by $20,000 in funding from the J. M. Kaplan Fund and the National Foundation for the Arts. Eighty Wooster Street became the location for Mekas’ Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, the construction of the theatre financed by donations. Maciunas also used a room in the basement of this building as his operating base. In total Maciunas purchased 16 SoHo buildings, but lost control of the cooperative as residents took over management of their own buildings. Maciunas also lost an eye when he was beaten by two thugs hired by an electrician whose work he hadn’t been satisfied with, and who he’d refused to pay.

As the New York Attorney General’s office closed in on Maciunas, he turned the conflict with officialdom into a game, describing it as a Fluxus event. Maciunas did not try to engage with other groups lobbying against the expressway and for changes to zoning regulations. He operated outside the system, creating a series of working and living spaces. His public battle with officials, and his refusal to play to their rules, opened up space for thinking differently about ways of making change.

The actions of Maciunas…paved the way for shifts in planning policy and regulation which later led to SoHo developing into a thriving artistic neighbourhood.

The actions of Maciunas, and the artists who first took up residence in the lofts, paved the way for shifts in planning policy and regulation which later led to SoHo developing into a thriving artistic neighbourhood. Had the independent nation of Ginger Island ever become a reality we no doubt would have seen Maciunas engaged in similarly irreverent activities at UN general assemblies.

Maciunas’ dream of founding a Fluxus community did not die with the end of his involvement in SoHo. At one stage he thought of buying an old US Navy mine sweeper and sailing with his fellow artists around the world. In 1976 he bought a former stud farm in rural Massachusetts, again with the idea of creating a living community of artists. But the project never came into being. Maciunas died in 1978, two years after moving to the property.

There’s no doubt that Maciunas was central to Fluxus, as the art historian Hannah Higgins says in the film.10 His organisational skills were critical to the development and life of the group. Maciunas brought many of the participating artists together, establishing relationships and creative collaborations between practitioners from Europe, North America, and Japan, who otherwise might not have met. Many of the artists involved went on to build successful careers and in some cases global reputations.

Maciunas was the important driving force behind the various Fluxus festivals and events of the early 1960s. Fluxus materials, posters and publications all had a distinctive style, benefitting from Maciunas’ training in architecture and design. Later, with the shift to the production of Fluxboxes, annual collections of small pieces by a range of artists which were made in multiple copies, Maciunas provided a vehicle for the circulation of work.

He could be irascible and controlling, but also highly supportive towards members of the Fluxus network. At Fluxus events he was usually the one in the background, directing activities. Self-promotion was never Maciunas’ aim. The egotism characteristic of the commercial art world repelled him. It’s wholly appropriate, therefore, that Perkins includes in his film a clip from Fluxus member Robert Filliou’s ‘Whispered History of Art’: ‘Who that man was is not important. He’s dead, but art is alive. I mean, let’s keep names out of it.’ Maciunas would have enjoyed this. As the credits roll, the final image we’re left with is Maciunas’ voice, in the KRAB radio interview, reminiscing about Fluxus gags, laughing and laughing.


Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.

NOTES.

  1. Mr Fluxus: a collective portrait of George Maciunas 1931–1978, Emmett Williams and Ann Noël (eds) (1997); Hansjörg Mayer.
  2. Quoted in Mr Fluxus, chapter XII.
  3. In Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  4. See Friedman’s essay in Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life.
  5. Quoted in Mr Fluxus, chapter IX.
  6. See her Introduction to Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life.
  7. Alison Knowles (1971) Journal of the Identical Lunch, Nova Broadcast Books. A facsimile copy is available here. See also Daniel Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, originally published in French in 1962 in lieu of a catalogue for Spoerri’s exhibition at the Gallerie Lawrence in Paris. Later editions include additional anecdotes. The most complete version of the work was published by Atlas Press, London, in 1995.
  8. Georges Perec, as a number of scholars have noted, shared the aesthetic preoccupations of radical visual artists of the 1960s, including Fluxus members. Tania Ørum, in her essay ‘Georges Perec and the avant-garde in the visual arts’, says Perec’s ‘attempt to capture the reality of everyday life in as raw a form as can be perceived by means of mechanical rules and constraints…is clearly affiliated to the visual avant-garde of the 1960s. His Lieux project…is remarkably close to, for example, the project recorded in a book called La Topographie anecdotée du hasard [An Anecdoted Topography of Chance] published in Paris in 1962 by the Romanian-French artist Daniel Spoerri’. Ørum discusses a number of parallels between Perec’s work and Fluxus. Tania Ørum (2006) ‘Georges Perec and the avant-garde in the visual arts,’ Textual Practice  20(2), 319–332.
  9. Bernadette Mayer, listing her ‘Top Ten’ in a 2013 issue of Artforum has Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance at number five.
  10. Hannah Higgins is the daughter of Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins. She is the author of Fluxus Experience, University of California Press, 2002.

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