Julia E. Robinson on Fluxus and George Maciunas

Posted on Posted in 2007-11 The Avant-Garde: From Futurism to Fluxus, Essays

Julia E. Robinson

George Maciunas: Desigen on Fluxus George Maciunas is best known today as the “impresario” of Fluxus: an international group of artists whose first members came together in 1962 for an inaugural concert series at Wiesbaden, Germany (not far from the epicenter of New Music in Darmstadt). Hardly a regular “concert,” the “Fluxus Festspiele Neuester Musik” – as Maciunas called it, upping the stakes of New Music, by claiming this to be the “Newest” Music – introduced an extensive array of the most radical scoring practices of the day, enacted by a group of young artists from the United States, Korea, Germany and Lithuania. The Fluxus group would come to include more nationalities and more women than any avant-garde since Dada. The first concert series happened at Wiesbaden because Maciunas was based there and he set about to organize it; he gathered the scores to be presented, rallied the artists, arranged the venue, designed the poster, promoted the event and performed in it. In fact, the word “impresario” does little to explain the work the Lithuanian émigré did for Fluxus. Rather, it has mostly been a way for scholars to avoid the difficult territory of how and with what to credit George Maciunas. The unorthodox range of tasks Maciunas undertook to organize Fluxus has generated debate between Fluxus artists as well as historians about his proper title and whether or not he warrants the description of “founder” or “leader.” For simplicity’s sake, Maciunas is often called an artist, but the role he adopted among artists resists this classification. As a trained graphic designer with broad political ambitions, Maciunas’ Fluxus work – designing posters, flyers and labels, compiling editions and multiples, drawing up calendars of activities, writing and circulating “news (policy) letters,” and planning and directing concerts – suggests a complex and hybrid “authorial” model that would suspend the term “artist” or reveal it to be beside the point. Rather than imposing conventional terms onto the figure of Maciunas, as debates about his proper title in Fluxus would do, it is perhaps more useful to examine this hybrid role he devised for himself, its fundamental motivations and its legacy. Re-Presenting History To appreciate what Maciunas brought to Fluxus and how he positioned it at all levels, it is essential to look back briefly at his training and early ideas about the role of history and its (re)presentation. A postwar émigré from Kaunas, Lithuania, Maciunas came to the United States in 1948 settling in New York.1 Over the course of a decade, beginning in 1949, Maciunas studied graphic design at New York’s Cooper Union, architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and finally, art history at New York University’sInstitute of Fine Arts. During this time, he developed a passionate interest in genealogical charts. Producing them became a monumental project running parallel to his studies and informing them.

The charts were a magnum opus for the young Maciunas, a feat of utter commitment, diligence and exhaustive attempts to master a vast body of information. The scale of some of the early charts is breathtaking. The final dimensions of his “Atlas of Russian History,” tracking the major changes in the Russian state up to the Revolution, were six by nine feet, and his “History of Art” chart, from the Visigoths to Modernity, came in slightly larger at six by twelve feet. These were great fields of pasted paper, which projected the information laterally while also extending into three dimensions in towers and accordion structures filled with gridded text (the precursors of the formats for his Fluxus compendia). As movable, architectonic, genealogical models, Maciunas’ charts emancipated the student of history, placing the structuring of knowledge in his own hands and those of every future reader. Through the charts Maciunas acquired a thorough grounding in Art History, which undoubtedly emboldened him to judge the status of art in his own historical moment. He called the charts “Learning Machines” and ultimately considered them among the most important work of his life.2 Some years later, Maciunas brought his passion for charting history to his work on Fluxus, giving Fluxus a genealogy of its own. In addition to drawing up a number of charts positioning Fluxus within a trajectory of 20th century avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes, he continued to use the chart structure for his overall organization of the group’s activities. The rigor with which Maciunas crafted the Fluxus charts framed this seemingly cryptic and ephemeral project in terms of its historical relevance as well as giving it a kind of “readymade” place in history. In an important late interview with Fluxus artist Larry Miller, Maciunas explained one of these charts, acknowledging the central position of John Cage:

So, you see, this chart is just a culmination of other charts I’ve done in the past for other histories…. In the vertical line is shown the years and the horizontal layout shows the style. So you can point on the chart to any activity, pinpoint it exactly with this grid of time and style. Now it could also be… I’ve done charts which… vertically is shown time and horizontally geographical location. This way you could say any activity of the past, you could locate exactly on the chart where it happened and when. Now for this chart I chose rather style than location because the style is so unlocalized… mainly because of the travels of John Cage. So you could call the whole chart … “Travels of John Cage” like you could say “travels of St. Paul,” you know? Wherever John Cage went he left a little John Cage group, which some admit, some not admit his influence. But the fact is there, that those groups formed after his visits. It shows up very clearly on the charts.3 After this, he goes on to fill in the picture at the prompt of Miller’s questions, situating first Cage and then Fluxus with reference to Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and the relevant postwar movements: from the first Happenings (in Japan in the 1950s – the Gutai Group), to French Nouveau Réalisme and then back to the U.S. with figures surrounding Cage such as La Monte Young and many artists who would ultimately join Fluxus. Designs for Radical Practice In October 1960, Maciunas was meeting with a group of compatriots at the gallery of his friend Almus Salcius in Long Island to discuss prospects for a Lithuanian cultural club. In the end, the group decided to make a magazine and “Fluxus” was the name George (Jurgis) proposed for it.4 Maciunas went on to start an exhibition space with his friend Almus, called the AG Gallery (Avant-Garde? Almus & George?) at 925 Madison Avenue in New York City. The idea of presenting Lithuanian culture did not last long and Maciunas took over the programming of the gallery (albeit conservatively at first). After attending composer Richard Maxfield’s electronic composition class of 1960 at The New School for Social Research, and meeting La Monte Young, the program for the gallery changed radically and Maciunas started showing future Fluxus artists and having Young program concerts there. Young not only exposed Maciunas to a whole range of new and exciting work – Yoko Ono, Henry Flynt, George Brecht, Dick Higgins and others – he also gave him a chance to see how these radical scoring practices might figure as an object of graphic design, asking him to be the designer for a new collection of scores he was editing, which came to be called An Anthology. Out of this collaboration, Maciunas discovered much of the work he would gather together under the banner of Fluxus the following year. He kept the idea of a publication called Fluxus for a long time, though the proposed content changed as much as Maciunas’ ideas about art did in this period. “Ever since he had become friends with three Lithuanian colleagues, namely Jonas Mekas, Almus Salcius and Stanley Buetens… he had wanted to become the editor of a journal of his own.”5 The first chance at this was in the designing of An Anthology. Maciunas approached this work with zealous commitment to economy, insisting “contributions were to be copied on colored, almost square copy paper, pasted together and sold as a low cost book.”6 He typed the entire book on his IBM Executive typewriter but within its pages there were many innovative approaches to presentation, including little envelopes containing scores, loose pages with cut-outs, etc. This would be the beginning of many more adventurous design projects for Fluxus, which were part book, part poster, part object. As Maciunas explained to Miller:

We couldn’t include everything that we had collected by then, like it didn’t have Bob Watts and … had very little things by George Brecht and so I thought I would go ahead and make another publication with all the pieces that were not included in Anthology. More or less newer pieces. But La Monte wasn’t interested in doing a second Anthology book. So the initial plan was just do another, like a second Anthology book except graphically it would have been a little… less conventional than the first one, which means it would have had objects and… a different kind of packaging. So really then the idea germinated to use the whole book as bound envelopes with objects in the envelopes. See, we had a couple objects already in the first Anthology, you know, like the loose Diter Roth machine holes, things like that. A little envelope with [the] card of La Monte Young [Composition # 10, 1960 To Bob Morris – draw a straight line and follow it.], another envelope with a letter in it, you know, so things like that. Card that have to be cut up ….7 This format came to inspire the first compilations of the collective works of Fluxus: Fluxus I and the Fluxus Yearboxes. Fluxus I consists of envelopes containing contributions from the artists with foldout parts. It was bolted together and encased in a wooden box. In an amusingly self-deprecating comment on the innovative format, Maciunas stated that the contents were “like an accordion, it just keeps falling out and being in your way.”8 After the prototypes were complete, Maciunas assembled subsequent copies on demand (from 1964-mid-1970s). Maciunas conceived and worked on these first Fluxus publications and others, such as the complete collection of George Brecht scores, called Water Yam [1963] while he was in Germany. Since they were so complex to make, and he did not always have the funds to proceed, he decided to organize concerts of Fluxus scores and contextual work as publicity for the immanent arrival of the published material. This concept initiated the performance practice of concerts and festivals that has animated and defined the Fluxus group from 1962 to the present.9

The first events explicitly called “Fluxus” (at Wiesbaden) ranas a series of fourteen concerts (September 1-23, 1962) and others followed at Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and Paris. With the a number of artists there to perform the scores of both present and absent authors – Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, Benjamin Patterson, Dick Higgins and Maciunas – the spectrum of activity was broad enough that the scope for Fluxus was glimpsed. As previously mentioned, Maciunas’ strategy on this occasion, to draw attention to the concert, was to connect it with New Music. This was highlighted in the poster he designed, which read “Fluxus Festspiele Neuester Musik,” with white text on a black ground naming all the scores to be performed and listing their composers. More than mere “publicity” for the forthcoming publications, which ultimately did not come out in these first months, the performances drew scandalous attention and a number of misunderstood impressions from audiences and the press. This may have been due to the selection of scores, which themselves were rather extreme and often performed in somewhat hyperbolic ways. Paik’s Zen for Head, for example, involved dipping his head, hands and tie into a bucket of paint and tracking it along a long scroll of paper, which he did manically, sending the audience into fits of laughter. And the finale, Phillip Corner’s Piano Activities, which called for performers to “play,” “scratch or rub,” “pluck or tap,” “drop objects” on, “act on strings,” “strike soundboard, pins, lid or drag various kinds of objects across” and “act in any way on underside of piano,” ended by an excess of enthusiasm, with the total destruction of the piano. There were undoubtedly aspects of many of the pieces, performed here for the first time, which might have superficially conjured Dada (as the press observed). But Fluxus had almost nothing to do with Dada, and ways were found to clarify this important distinction as the concerts were repeated. The “problem” of Dada, had been identified just one year earlier in Darmstadt, when Theodor Adorno gave his lecture “Vers une musique informelle,” enumerating the contemporary reasons for its critical disqualification. As Adorno saw the situation, any anti-art sentiment expressed, in the postwar period, as a direct action “in contrast to its Dadaist grandparents… degenerates at once into culture…”.10 He explained that “this is dictated by the impossibility today of the politics on which Dadaism still relied. Action Painting and Action Composing,” said Adorno, “are cryptograms of the direct action that has now been ruled out; they have arisen in an age in which every such action is either forestalled by technology or recuperated by an administered world.”11

In Fluxus, however, the intervention of the score was the crucial agent of mediation, the marker of the enactment as indirect action. It was important that the line Paik painted in his animated performance was indeed not a direct action he had spontaneously devised, but rather, an interpretation of La Monte Young’s Composition #10, 1960 To Bob Morris, which instructed the interpreter to “draw a straight line and follow it.”12 Changes in the enactment of Maciunas’ own newly penned score, In Memoriam To Adriano Olivetti, between the Wiesbaden and Dusseldorf performances showed that he had gleaned a great deal from the interaction with his colleagues. In November 1962 he actually rewrote parts of it.13 In Maciunas’ Olivetti score, and in the performances that have departed from it (with Maciunas always as a performer), the influences of Cage and Duchamp seem to meet up with the “administered” conditions to which Adorno referred. The performers stand on stage in suits, which can be military uniforms, business attire, and conduct simple everyday actions based on the numerical cues from “any used tape from an Olivetti adding machine,” their timing dictated by a metronome.14 They may be prompted to stand or sit for several seconds, bow, raise their hat, or put an umbrella up and down.15 If the performance comes off well, it seems less like the anarchic, “direct actions” associated with early Dada, than like the frozen gestures of the “malic molds” in Duchamp’s Large Glass thrown into the context of performance, their subjection projected into the living matrix of scored mechanical action.

In between the early concerts in the different European cities, subtler deviations from the approach of absent authors also occurred. Maciunas showed how all approaches were equally valid in his performances of George Brecht’s score Drip Music (1959-62), which changed several times in the first few months of Fluxus. Once he exaggerated the piece by doing it from atop a tall ladder in Dusseldorf. Another time he realized the piece a little closer to how Brecht might have approached it, standing calmly on stage and relocating the water from jug to bucket with a degree of reverence in Amsterdam.16 The Fluxus Manifesto For Dusseldorf, Maciunas produced the now-famous Fluxus Manifesto (1963). This was prompted by a request from Joseph Beuys, who was based in Dusseldorf and who Maciunas had enlisted to help out with the organization. Beuys felt the group needed some formal statement to declare the stakes of their project.17 Maciunas’ first response was to mail Beuys a clipping of the dictionary definition of the word Fluxus. By the time the concert took place, he had amended it, cutting and pasting the dictionary text and interspersing it with his own handwriting: the format in which it is now known. This manifesto entered Fluxus performance literally, as hundreds of copies of it were thrown to the Dusseldorf audience. The 1963 “manifesto” has been reproduced and discussed many times but it has rarely been analyzed beyond its overt content. As an intervention into language and representation, it remains one of the earliest and most important documents Maciunas used to initiate and define Fluxus. It did not matter that no one added his or her signature to satisfy the conventional definition of a manifesto. The important thing for Maciunas was that being defined and presented as such, he could project manifesto-like energy onto Fluxus. New York: Designs on Fluxus During Maciunas’ final months in Europe in 1963 as he was working on Fluxus I and Brecht’s Water Yam, he began to set his sights on a much more ambitious project of Fluxus production. At this time, he wrote a letter to Robert Watts saying, “Now… how about… boxes. I mean we could publish a 100 [sic.] boxes each containing objects which you would ‘mass produce’ like in a factory.” Later in the letter he reiterates his idea to “start a factory!”18

When he returned to the United States in late 1963 he did just that. He established what he called the “Fluxshop” as a site for the production of Fluxus objects and the performance of the scores at 359 Canal Street in New York City. Here he once again drew from the most sophisticated aspects of the projects of the historical avant-gardes, deploying his considerable skills at design and typography to frame the politics of Fluxus. Acknowledging the distant realm of the utopian ideals in the formats of the Soviet avant-garde or Dada, Maciunas’ use of design constituted instead an astute intervention into the burgeoning commodity culture of the 1960s contemporaneous with the rise of Pop Art. If Pop Art turned commodity culture into “art” – “representing” it as painting or sculpture – Maciunas used impressive and exuberant design to generate “anti-commodities.” He continued calling for ideas, games and scores from the Fluxus artists, which he then “packaged” and “marketed” under the collectivist authorship of “Fluxus.” As Benjamin Buchloh has argued: “Fluxus artists gave a dialectical answer to Pop Art’s inherent traditionalism and its implicit aestheticization of reification by dissolving both the artistic genre’s and the readymade object’s centrality.”19 The individual labels Maciunas developed turned each artist’s name into a kind of brand. Generated with scrupulous economy, he variegated letters, changing their scale by photostatic enlargement and printed them in black and white. These Fluxus labels thrived on being cryptic, on forcing the “consumer” to have to think and work out their meaning. One example among many is the particularly efficient logo for Yoko Ono, which began as a line drawing of every letter in the alphabet, and ended as a finite set of axial lines superimposed to spell out the letters of the artist’s name. In a manner related to the function of a score, which must be read and enacted, even if only in the mind, this ambiguous lettering addressed Maciunas’ concern to generate an active rather than a passive subject of design. Discussing the effect of Maciunas’ label design, Buchloh notes:

In the typographical design of these name cards, individual subjectivity hovers somewhere between allegorical ornament and corporate trademark, between Fluxus’ utopian abolition of the exceptional artist and the existing rule of corporate culture, which dismantles any form of subjective experience. To have brought out the precariousness of this historical dialectic is one of the movement’s many achievements.20 The impact of Maciunas’ labeling, as the design meets the Fluxus object, is dramatically demonstrated in the before and after views of Ay-O’s Finger Box (1964). Playing upon the subject’s irresistible desire to “touch,” Ay-O’s box features a finger-sized hole with various hidden materials placed inside (different in each, like nylon stocking, rubber or nails) to challenge tactile perception. In its raw state, Ay-O’s Finger Box might ultimately have been dismissed as an eccentric and largely illegible item of Fluxus pranksterism; its unassuming form, proposing an action that seems like a futile one-liner. However, with the addition of Maciunas’ label the object becomes a more complex challenge to the subject. The 1964 label and packaging design for Mieko Shiomi’s score, Water Music adopts the classic consumer culture strategy of combining the esoteric and the mundane (the score for Water Music and bottled water) while introducing a degree of mystification into the prospect of consumption. Buchloh has explained that for Maciunas (hence for Fluxus) “both framing and presentational devices… typography and graphic design [were considered] as languages in their own right, not just separate and lesser carriers of a language that takes the higher form of “art.” [He] thereby equated work and frame, object and container.”21 Fluxus scores and instructions, prescriptions for “art experience,” as Maciunas called it, clearly anticipated the linguistic strategies of Conceptual and Post-Conceptual Art.22 Maciunas’ brilliance was to recognize the conceptual implications of the work and to elaborate upon them through his own “conceptual” design.

The organization through design that was Maciunas’ lifelong project for Fluxus constituted a model of quasi-mimetic resistance to the regime of design culture. His mode of design acknowledged design as a code, one that is accepted by the masses and even enjoyed as entertainment, but a code that can nonetheless be scrambled by oppositional codes that are able to act in similar ways. By putting this insight to work for Fluxus he underscored the politics of the art and made his own powerful political contribution. In his 1992 documentary film on Maciunas, Zefiro Torno, Jonas Mekas makes a connection between Fluxus and Pop Art, stating that “Pop art took a look at the daily banality too – but it seemed to embrace it – Fluxus brought it into critical awareness – in that sense Fluxus is political art.” To this he adds a somewhat more enigmatic statement “Andy/George … George/Andy,” which he leaves hovering. The connection between Maciunas and Warhol is still almost entirely unexplored in the scholarship on Maciunas. It is hardly a coincidence that Maciunas and Warhol conceived of the site of their production as “factories.” Likewise the fact that both trained and worked as graphic designers, bringing this expertise to the context of art. Maciunas’ “performance” of the left wing zealot, proclaiming socialist values and being obsessed with converting art into factory production, can hardly be seen as more eccentric than Warhol’s factory production championed by the statement, “I want to be a machine.” If Warhol’s wellknown “performance” as he redefined the role of artist/author (and art itself), can be characterized as that of the “author as consumer,” Maciunas’ choice, equally as poignantly, was the author as producer. Though Maciunas’ obsessive and idiosyncratic work has still not been adequately recognized for what it was, namely, one of the most incisive critiques of art and consumer culture of the 1960s, some of his contemporaries had understood this: above all, his oldest friend, Jonas Mekas. Echoing the model of Maciunas’ beloved Soviet avant-garde, the full title Mekas gave to this film was Zefiro Torno: Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas. In case we were to think this a coincidence, interspersed with amusing and playful images of all Maciunas’ activities comes the flash card: “This is a political film.

1. A new biography on Maciunas gives an extensive account of previously unpublished information about his background, see Thomas Kellein, The Dream of Fluxus: George Maciunas-An Artist’s Biography, (London and Bangkok, Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 2007).
2. For further information on Maciunas’ charts see Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, Maciunas’ Learning Machines: From Art History to A Chronology of Fluxus, The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection (Berlin: Vice Versa Verlag, 2003). Schmidt-Burkhardt’s path-breaking scholarship and the Berlin exhibition for which this catalogue was made (mounted with the support of Jon Hendricks, curator of the Gilbert & Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Foundation), are an invaluable contribution to the Maciunas literature.
3. Maciunas, interview with Larry Miller, March 24, 1978. Reproduced in Jon Hendricks, Fluxus, etc. Addenda I (New York, The Gilbert & Lila Silverman Collection, 1983), 11.
4. For a detailed account of this story see Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, edited by Emmett Williams and Ann Noël (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 33-35.
5. Thomas Kellein, The Dream of Fluxus: George Maciunas – An Artist’s Biography, op. cit., p. 37-38.
6. Ibid, p. 38.
7. Maciunas, interview with Larry Miller, March 24, 1978, op. cit., p. 15.
8. Interview with Larry Miller, op. cit., p. 17.
9. A rich compilation of Fluxus performance over more than two decades can be seen in the 1991 film Some Fluxus, by Larry Miller (distributed by EAI-Electronic Arts Intermix).
10. Theodor Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle” [1961] in Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, Rodney Livingstone transl. (New York: Verso, 1998), 316.
11. Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle,” op. cit., 316.
12. The La Monte Young score is reproduced in An Anthology, op. cit., (unpaginated).
13. At the time of the third Fluxus festival Maciunas revised the score for In Memoriam Adriano Olivetti. For the sequence of these early festivals see my chronology in Julia Robinson, George Brecht Events: A Heterospective(Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2005), 312. The date of the revision is November 8, 1962; in other words, before the key festivals of Paris (December, 1962) and Düsseldorf (February, 1963). The revision date appears on the score, reproduced in see Susan Hapgood, Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-1962, (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1994), 88-89. 164 165
14. The score calls for “performers to be formally dressed,” later mentioning the use of a “bowler hat,” with one performer “No. 9 in military uniform.” See reproduction in Susan Hapgood, Neo-Dada, ibid.
15. These details are taken directly from the score, see Hapgood, op. cit., 88.
16. I have discussed in greater detail the implications attending the gap between score and performance, with particular reference to Paik and Brecht, elsewhere; see Julia Robinson, “The Brechtian Event Score: A Structure in Fluxus,” Performance Research, Vol. 7.4, (U.K., Routledge, Fall 2002). For photographs of Maciunas in the two different approaches to Brecht’s Drip Music, see George Brecht Events: A Heterospective, op. cit.,134-135.
17. I thank Joan Rothfuss for informing me about the details of this and sharing the associated documentation (email exchange, April 2007). See also, Rothfuss, “FluxBeuys,” in What’s Fluxus? What’s Not! Why, Jon Hendricks ed., (Brazil: Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil/Gilbert & Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Foundation, 2002), 57-65.
18. Letter reproduced in Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Addenda II, op. cit., 149.
19. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “1962” (Fluxus chapter), in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900, Vol. 2 (New York and London, Thames & Hudson, 2004, 456-463.
20. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ibid. 166 167
21. Buchloh, Art Since 1900, op. cit., p. 458.
22. The first entry in Lucy Lippard’s foundational Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973), (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 11, is George Brecht. Lippard states that: “Independently, and in association with the Fluxus group, Brecht has been making “events” that anticipate a stricter “conceptual art” since around 1960.” For a more recent discussion of this topic see Liz Kotz’s articles, “Post- Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score,” October 95, Winter 2002, and “Language Between Performance and Photography,” October 111, Winter 2005. Speaking of the effect of Maciunas’ work, particularly the ubiquity of the recognizable font from his IBM typewriter, Buchloh show what Maciunas added to Fluxus’ proto-Conceptualism: “This machine imbued all Maciunas’ typographic designs – from La Monte Young’s An Anthology … onward – with an administrative rationalism and immediacy that would become compulsory under the reign of Conceptualism.” Buchloh, ibid.


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