KEN FRIEDMAN: EVENT, IDEA AND INQUIRY
By: Carolyn Barnes
Chance and opportunity led Ken Friedman to become an artist. Though he had no formal art training, he accepted the designation of “artist” as a young man in 1966 when the Fluxus impresario George Maciunas suggested that the creative activities he had pursued since childhood could be categorized as art. Friedman’s youthful experiments with objects and situations reflected a key impulse in twentieth century vanguard art, the attempt to reduce art to ideas and gestures. Material form often came into play here, but for radical artists such as those in Fluxus circles, the critical ideas driving an image, object, text, or activity were increasingly the most important element of an artwork.
Ideas inspired Friedman before he embraced art practice in any conscious way and original, interdisciplinary thinking has been the consistent thread in his activities and occupations ever since, their variety challenging the sense of art as a fixed and singular vocation. He has regularly returned to the simple, text-based form of the event score as an economical way to capture ideas and send them out into the world in a form that others can enact without this affecting the underlying premise. Indeed, this exhibition at Stendhal Gallery continues a series of exhibitions of his event scores that began in 1973 with an exhibition at the University of California at Davis. That exhibition built on the legacy of Fluxus books and multiples as an alternative means of disseminating art ideas and provided Friedman with a model for a simple touring exhibit. Between 1973 and 1983, Friedman initiated around thirty exhibitions by photocopying his event scores on standard sheets of letter paper and posting the set of scores to different venues for exhibition.1
The Event Score
The ‘event score’ or ‘word piece’ emerged in New York in the late 1950s as one of several new art practices developed to test the limits of art and renegotiate the nature of audience engagement. George Brecht conceived the term ‘event’ in 1959 to refer to simple acts and situations realized in the world by artists or others; a practice that other future Fluxus artists also explored in their work, notably Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young and Ben Vautier. The event score was a short, descriptive text outlining an action or situation. The new musical notation of composer John Cage inspired the idea of ‘scoring’ interventions in everyday life, as did his classes in experimental composition at the New School for Social Research in New York. Cage’s practice questioned the parameters of music, musical performance, and audience reception by focusing on the principles of sound and silence. His works often drew attention to the richness of ambient auditory sensation, creating a need for new approaches to musical notation. In his composition classes at the New School between 1957 and 1959, he encouraged participants—most of whom were artists—to conceive and take part in diverse performance activities.
Both the event score and Fluxus occupy an important place in the genealogy of twentieth century art and anti-art, building on the efforts of the historical avant-garde to contest modernist ideals of artistic independence and purity. In merging text-based instructions with the deferred performance of simple acts, the event score rejected established art values of craftsmanship, individual skill and talent, single authorship and self-expression. From the early 1960s, a fluid network of Fluxus artists with backgrounds ranging across new music, concrete poetry, and visual art to dance and experimental theatre involved themselves in scripting such activities. Some used the event score to escape the institutional context of art to embed the work of art in the ‘everydayness’ of non-art situations and locations. Some aimed to produce a more democratic, participatory form of art. Some sought to elevate immediate engagement with art over the aesthetic and commodity value of the enduring art object. Others endeavored to eliminate the barriers between established art forms to arrive at innovative, interdisciplinary practices. Beyond the shared proposition of some repeatable action or situation and a deadpan prose style, the form of the event score freed artists to pursue almost infinite paths of investigation.
Despite the reductive form and structure of their scores, this scope is evident in the work of those who pioneered the form, George Brecht, Yoko Ono and La Monte Young:
Composition 1960 #10
To Bob Morris
Draw a straight line
And follow it.
La Monte Young
VOICE PIECE FOR SOPRANO
To Simone Morris
1. against the wind
2. against the wall
3. against the sky
y.o. 1961 autumn
These three works also demonstrate whatLiz Kotz describes as the categorical ambiguity of the event score. Individual ‘event’ scores, she argues, can be variously attributed to the fields of music, visual art, poetry, or performance.3 Kotz contends that the ‘real’ art resides in the realizationof the action or situation, not in the text itself, although she accepts that Brecht and Ono, for example, were often more interested in the conceptual impact of the things they proposed, achieved through the process of reading rather than doing. Some event scores are certainly scripts for intervention in everyday life, prompting the reader to become an active producer. Other scores encourage a psychological response, blurring the boundaries of inner and outer, something seen by comparing La Monte Young’s text with Yoko Ono’s.
Ken Friedman and the Event Score
Since 1966, Friedman has produced many short, text-based propositions in addition to object-based works, activities in organizing Fluxus projects, and scholarly work in the fields of art history, sociology of art, design, and organization. Like Fluxus practices in general, Friedman’s event scores disrupt established ideas of artistic production and reception, seeking to extend the experiential dimension of art. Friedman’s scores are more typically scripts for producing artifacts and situations or for reflecting on them than for performances. Since Friedman was thrown into art practice before he had a developed understanding of the cultural and social frameworks of the art world, his event scores build on his most formative intellectual experiences.
The prodigious nature of Friedman’s involvement with Fluxus is central to the discussion of his work. It is well known that Friedman became part of Fluxus as a 16-year-old.4 As a student at Shimer College in Mt Carroll, Illinois, he produced programs for the college radio station. Searching for program material, Friedman followed up an advertisement for Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press in the East Village Other, a New York underground newspaper founded by breakaway writers from the already independent Village Voice. Friedman began to correspond with Dick Higgins at the press, developing radio programs around press publications by various artists working in the Fluxus ambit, including Robert Filliou, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Ray Johnson, Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Daniel Spoerri, and Emmett Williams. Friedman used the books as the basis for radio shows. He also began corresponding with Higgins, beginning what would become a lifelong friendship. Higgins invited Friedman to stay at his home when Friedman visited New York in 1966. During his stay, Friedman reproduced one of the objects he had been making.5 It was a box with the words ‘open me’ written on the outside and ‘shut me quick’ inscribed inside, unconsciously inhabiting the territory of the Duchampian readymade with its emphasis on the verbal/visual conundrum. Higgins arranged for Friedman to take the box to George Maciunas, an artist, architect, and graphic designer, who in 1962 gave the name Fluxus to a community of experimental artists working in the United States, Europe, and Japan. From 1962 until his death in 1978, Maciunas was the main coordinator, promoter, and supporter of Fluxus activities.6 He organized exhibitions, performance events, concerts, and festivals, designed, and published a diverse range of publications by the group, arranging for the production of small, multiple art objects by Fluxus artists. Maciunas’s response to talking with Friedman about the things he did was to invite Friedman to join Fluxus. Maciunas also issued the box as a Fluxus multiple in autumn 1966 under the title Open and Shut Case.7
Although Fluxus generated a significant level of art activity, its network of visual artists, musicians, performers, and writers operated to the side of the mainstream cultural sphere, developing alternative works for independent distribution channels. Moreover, many members of the Fluxus community were interested in the sphere of the everyday, frowning on the established art world and its strict disciplinary boundaries. They supported an open concept of artistry, making it plausible for Friedman to operate as an artist while he continued his studies, now at San Francisco State University. Nevertheless, receiving the designation ‘artist’ from Higgins and Maciunas validated his relationship to the things he did. Maciunas proposed that Friedman notate his ideas for objects and activities so that others could engage with them, explaining the nature of the event score.8 Friedman began conceiving new scores, using a form that presented itself as an ideal medium for exploring the vast expanse of possibility lying between the human mind and the world. He also scripted scores for the earlier actions he had undertaken. Open and Shut Case, for example, readily translated into a set of simple written instructions for others to carry out, retaining the conceptual impact of the actual object even though a measure of productive control was removed from the artist. Friedman’s project of knocking on doors in his college dormitory to present the instruction card that became the score to what would become Mandatory Happening (1966), a card bearing the words, ‘You will decide to read this score or not to read it. When you have made your decision, the happening is over.’
A work such as Mandatory Happening challenged the existing state of art by emerging from a temporary situation in time and space. The event scores developed from activities Friedman carried out before meeting Higgins and Maciunas reflect the productive tension in the Fluxus event score between critical engagement with the world and the reduction of art to idea. For example, Fast Food Event (1964) transforms a mundane daily activity into an intervention that reflects on American cultural reality and the routines of everyday experience in mass industrial society:
Fast Food Event
Go into a fast food restaurant.
Order one example
of every item on the menu.
Line everything up
in a row on the table.
Eat the items one at a time,
starting at one end of the row
and moving systematically
from each to the next.
Finish each item before
moving on to the next.
Eat rapidly and methodically
until all the food is finished.
Eat as fast as possible
without eating too fast.
Do not make a mess.
Another early Friedman event score shows recognition of fundamental problems in art, addressing the issue of aesthetic competence. The Judgment of Paris (1964) instructs the reader to pin up three images of choice, selected from popular sources or art sources, construct a shelf beneath them and place a golden apple under the preferred image. This contemporary re-enactment of a mythic story of the judgment of taste tackles the issue of aesthetic categories and hierarchies, while serving to erode the division between amateur and expert taste in this respect. The Judgment of Paris thus indicates something of the order of intellectual resources Friedman brought to the proposition of scripting actions and situations. By the age of sixteen, he already had a developed interest in political and religious processes and the scientific enlightenment as a result of his wide reading and life experiences, enabling him to make a rapid transition into active art practice.
An Interdisciplinary Upbringing
Friedman was born in 1949 in New London, Connecticut, one of the first towns settled in the British North American colonies. The American War of Independence was still an important presence in Friedman’s childhood town, and Friedman passed by the mill of Governor John Winthrop the Younger on an almost-daily basis. Friedman grew up close to the schoolhouse where American Revolutionary patriot Nathan Hale taught, and he felt a personal connection to the history of colonial America. New London was also a whaling port, which exposed him to the influence of East Asian cultures. For a period of his childhood, Friedman made weekly visits to the Yale University Art Museum in New Haven, its collections of classical art, New England antiques, and some modern works consolidating his interest in the unfolding of history. The museum also hosted a temporary exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s engineering drawings and modern reconstructions of Leonardo’s inventions. These inspired Friedman’s interest in making experimental objects and questioning how things worked. Before George Maciunas and Dick Higgins showed Friedman the possibility of active involvement in art, he had intended to become a Unitarian minister, a plan he kept until the early 1970s. Since childhood he had read about the history of religious reformation, inspired by accounts of groups and individuals willing to undertake great risks to seek a truth of their own, opposing established religion in the process. This extended to an interest in the customs of America’s various groups of ‘plain people’, who worshiped simply and adopted basic ways of living counter to developments in the modern world, while demonstrating a capacity for invention and what we now describe as sustainability.
Some of Friedman’s early events address interests he held in common with John
Cage and the artists of the Fluxus network, notably Zen Buddhism, sound and silence. These references are consistent with Friedman’s existing interests in history, science, and spirituality, interests that continued to drive his ideas for producing objects and situations after he joined Fluxus. For example, Edison’s Lighthouse (1965) invites the reader to place candles between two mirrors and note the effects produced by changing the number and location of candles. The score echoes Friedman’s experiments with light and reflection in his room at Shimer College; activities inspired by a scene in the popular film Young Thomas Edison (1940), which shows the inventor using mirrors and lanterns to enable a surgeon to perform an emergency operation. Scrub Piece (1956) recalls the time in 1956 when he went to the Nathan Hale Monument in New London to give it a thorough cleaning.9 Other early Friedman events have a clear connection to Friedman’s religious interests. Light Table (1965) calls a community of readers to place white candles on a wooden table and light them. Friedman sees this score as merging his twin interests in the scientific investigation of light and the role of light in architectural space in shaping religious experience.
The Validation of an Art Context
In their collective activities, Fluxus artists saw that the codes and disciplines of established art closed artists and audiences to possibility and to the world. They offered artistic experimentation as an alternative pathway to new ideas and understanding, creating an intense, interdisciplinary setting for the exploration of radical art practices. They were interested in ways of thinking that they perceived as challenging the modern Western aspiration for an ordered, rational, and predictable world. These included Eastern wisdom traditions and critical writings in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. For Friedman, encountering artists with diverse intellectual interests and approaches to art that dismantled established cultural concepts both validated and extended his interest in the history of paradigms and knowledge systems. Friedman has written that when Dick Higgins and George Maciunas introduced him to the proposition of contemporary art practice, to the idea of the event score, and to the value of working across and between media, it provided him not only with ‘a reasonable frame within which to conceive and carry out’ future projects, but also a basis for understanding the kinds of activities he had done for most of his life.10 Aside from reading, the majority of Friedman’s youthful activities focused on conceiving, doing, and making. As an example, he describes his childhood practice of using sturdy, simple tables—from the school his parents ran on the first floor of the family home—to make towers and multi-level cities in the evenings and at weekends.11 This activity is recorded in the event score Table Stack (1956). Tables also feature in various other scores by Friedman, as do other useful objects such as bottles, bowls, glasses, and hand tools. In fact, from the later 1960s, Friedman’s event scores reveal an increasing interest in design-like activities or they describe actions and situations involving everyday manufactured objects, advancing a sense of design as it constitutes the world.
On one level, such event scores dissolve the productive divisions between artist and audience, advancing what has been referred to since the 1960s as a ‘do-it-yourself’ aesthetic. Yet they also highlight processes of inventing, making, and visualizing, which are intrinsic to design. Two notable events scores in this respect are Paper Architecture (1968) and Precinct (1991):
Hang a large sheet or several
large sheets of paper on the walls
of a room.
Inscribe the sheets with full-scale
architectural features, such as doors,
windows, or stairs, or with objects
such as furniture, lamps, books, etc.
Use these drawings to imagine,
create, or map an environment.
The drawings may create or map new
features in an existing environment.
They may mirror, double or
reconstruct existing features
in situ or elsewhere.
To create relatively permanent
features with the drawings,
apply them directly to a wall.
Construct a rough slab, cube, or table
of natural stone or wood.
Invite people to place hand-made
models or objects made of wood
or clay on the table.
25 August 1991
Paper Architecture points to the relationship between conception and visualization
in design, specifically addressing the role of drawing in the production of architectural space that Henri Lefebvre highlighted. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre, having established the political nature of space, argues that the ‘reduction of three-dimensional realities to two’, through ‘any kind of graphic representation or projection’ is part of a distancing processes whereby the tangible qualities of actual space are rendered abstract and homogenous, priming space for economic and political exploitation.12 Although there is no direct link between Friedman’s two event scores and Lefebvre’s text, following on from Paper Architecture, Precinct appears to re-establish the importance of the tactile in the production and experience of things, echoing Lefebvre’s opposition to the emphasis on the visual in Western society and its influence in reducing things to image, thus making them ‘passive’, with no social existence outside their appearance.13
A Life In and Outside Art
Friedman’s intellectual life since 1966 has taken a winding path between social and cultural fields, reflecting the idea of disciplinary hybridity modeled in Fluxus art. Taking Dick Higgins’s early advice not to attempt to make a living from art, Friedman gained formal qualifications in psychology, social science, and education.14 Although not averse to Higgins’s and Maciunas’s ideas of social regeneration through culture, Friedman’s academic studies reveal a wish to be equipped to make a tangible contribution to society and to better understand its workings. In 1976, Friedman earned a doctorate in leadership and human behavior for a thesis on the North American art world as a social entity, reflecting vanguard artists’ concern for the institutional conditions that have framed art since Romanticism while exploring them from a sociological perspective. Friedman’s sociological interest in art expanded into a curiosity about the economic structures and organizational dynamics of post-war art worlds, leading to academic posts in organization, leadership, and strategic design at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, and the Danish Design School in Copenhagen. Design, of course, had a central part to play in the dissemination of Fluxus production through the influence of George Maciunas. Owen Smith explains that although individual Fluxus artists supplied the ideas, ‘it was Maciunas who designed and produced the array of [Fluxus] objects, publications, and multiples.’15 Fluxus reliance on text as a medium saw various artists, including Friedman, produce a range of printed material that experimented with vernacular forms of graphic design, though often from a distinctly anti-design perspective. Friedman’s role as manager of Something Else Press (1971) and director of Fluxus West in California (1966-1975) likewise focused his attention on the mediating function of design.
Given the enduring nature of the idea of artistry as an inner force dedicated to self-expression, the reorientation of Friedman’s career towards organization and design may seem curious. Yet there are important intellectual underpinnings for the transition, and from the perspective of the present it appears a prescient shift. Certainly, Fluxus art, with its stress on programmatic experimentalism and a strategic approach to the development and use of art works, had a significant role to play in attacking modernist mythologies of the artist. Today, however, the contiguity of art and design is widely recognized. It is now understood that both works of art and design have inherent socio-symbolic value, in addition to functional uses in the case of design. Human beings encode art works and design works with meaning at the stages of production and distribution and human beings decode them at the point of reception and ongoing use, often against the intended purposes of the artists and designers who create them. The text-based form of the event score suggests this process.16 Friedman addresses the contiguous condition of all human-made objects in the event score Flow System (1972), which invites ‘anyone’ to send ‘an object or a work of any kind’ to an exhibition, where ‘everything received is displayed’ and anyone attending ‘may take away an object or work.’
For Friedman, design, especially in its connection to the corporate sphere, is constitutive of the world. As such, it is an important site for positive, critical intervention. Critical art practices such as the event score reflect a lineage of oppositional art tracing back the nineteenth century, when radical artists first challenged the attributes of emergent modern societies—capitalism, materialism and rationalism—in the aim of protecting values of independence and individuality. Eve Chiapello argues that for nearly two hundred years artists’ aspirations for authenticity and freedom of expression forged an ‘intuitive opposition … between art worlds and business worlds, between profit imperatives and those of artistic creation.’17 She notes, however, that since the 1980s, areas of business have increasingly looked to art for alternatives to Fordist models of management in the belief that this will enhance the creativity of organizations, and make them better able to offer products and services that are singular and unique. The business world also has an increasing need for the skills of artists and designers, especially their capacity for creative autonomy, given the rising economic importance of entertainment, fashion, and information industries, which constantly update their offerings and require inventive ways to promote them.18
Everywhere today, the heterogeneity explored in the new art forms developed by twentieth century vanguard artists is becoming a cultural and social norm, often as a result of economic influences. Traditional distinctions between art, craft, and design, for example, are breaking down to be replaced by the nomenclature and discourse of the creative industries.19 In a more positive sense, the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that ‘creativity is a process that can be observed only at the intersection where individuals, domains, and fields intersect’.20 In many government and university circles, interdisciplinarity is seen as having better potential to tackle the contemporary world’s increasingly complex problems than knowledge and expertise developed within single fields.21 Encountering the intense, mixed art scene of Fluxus in the 1960s gave Ken Friedman an insight into the creative potential of integrating divergent ideas and practices. His activities since the 1970s have not only ranged across varied fields, many have been developed from divergent intellectual perspectives, combining seemingly unrelated ideas and practices like art history and economics or organizational theory and military history. Finding out about the event score afforded Friedman a pliant vehicle to explore the flow of ideas that fills a human mind, unencumbered by the demand to conform to some transcendent purpose or rationale. Although his main involvement is now in design and organization, he continues to value the event score as an alternative way of exploring experiences and situations and for its potential to forge intuitive connections with the mind of the reader.
About the essay author
Dr Carolyn Barnes is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, where she is involved in a range of research projects investigating the role of art and design in public communication. Carolyn holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. She is an assistant editor of the International Journal of Design and book reviews editor for Artifact. Craftsman House published her monograph on the Hong Kong Australian artist John Young in 2005.