John Held Jr: Black Mountain College Museum, Networking Chance

Networking Chance: “A Global Situation Involving the Possibility of People Everywhere and Anywhere”

“Prepared by the author for presentation at “Re-Viewing Black Mountain College 2,” a conference co-hosted by The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center andThe University of North Carolina at Asheville, October 8-10, 2010.

By John Held, Jr.

In 1968, well before the introduction of the Internet, Fluxus artist Robert Filliou expressed interest in an “Eternal Network” of artists replacing the notion of individual genius. With so many branches of knowledge in the modern world, who could keep up with everything? Only a network of people had the capacity to embrace all information and advance our knowledge of it.

In this post-modern era, no one individual was capable of representing the cultural avant-garde. In the future, coteries of conjoined contributors would assume this role. Some would be entering the Eternal Network. Others would be leaving. A perpetual core remained to interpret the history and workings of the network to those arriving.

Entropy is the physical law that ”things run down.” Exhibiting a painting in a cold white cube, playing a set piece of music before a seated audience, performing a choreographed dance – once distributed, the initial energy created at its conception dissipates. Only by coming into contact with other energy sources does the “thing” continue to fuel itself and exert influence.

There are many networks, all with various interests, but all encompass interplay beyond self. That is by definition. An individual is not a network. Networking is a group activity. Interaction is mandatory.

Within this structure, the unexpected is expected and allowed to occur. An open structure anticipates occurrences of chance, generating more possibilities than any one individual.

Networking triumphs over individual genius when all are given equal say and creative expression is allowed to bubble up rather then trickle down from an “authoritative” source. Networking assures that the authoritative voice is the collective expression of all concerned.

“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” is one of the iconic artworks of the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp assembled the glass structure over many years (1915-1923) with great care, to which his working notes attest. In the process of shipping, the fragile work suffered damage, segments of it fragmenting into shards. Undeterred, Duchamp carefully repaired the glass, leaving the cracks visible, in his mind, allowing a chance occurrence to complete the work.

The great zen master of 20th century art, Duchamp allowed not only for chance to complete physical works of art, but their reputations, as well. Duchamp believed that once the works were out of the artists hand, they were at the mercy of the public, that each individual observer of the work would bring to it what they may. In Duchamp’s view, popular appreciation of the artwork was a chance operation.

The cracking and subsequent repair of the “Large Glass” fused not only the work, but the notion that life could intrude on the work of art, and the two –art and life- could coexist and energize each other. Works of art, once so perfectly controlled in the studio, were now subjugated to all the vagaries of life. Chance occurrences could happen anytime, anywhere, as for instance, a dining hall in North Carolina in 1952.

By the time John Cage assembled his cast in the cafeteria of Black Mountain College, he already had a long history with the experimental art college. In 1949, he had produced Satie’s, “The Raft of the Medusa,” translated from the French by BMC instructor M(ary) C(arlolyn) Richards. During the interim, Richards had translated another work from the French, Antoin Artaud’s, The Theater and It’s Double, which had a tremendous impact upon Cage and his colleagues. Artaud stressed ritual over theatrical presentation – a blend of art and life that could have unforeseen consequences both positive and negative.

Cage’s knowledge of Artaud’s work influenced a seminal concoction in the BMC dining hall, described by Carolyn Brown in, Chance and Circumstance (Knopf, 2007), as a “collaborative non-collaboration.” His seating plan for the event echoed Artaud’s directives as well, the audience and actors interspersed. Cage set up chairs in three triangles inverted toward a central point. Cage chuckled when an early audience member requested the best seat for the performance. That was the whole point –every seat was the best seat.

Brown, present at the event, describes the moment:

“Cage delivered a timed lecture, with silences, on a ladder; (M. C.) Richards and (Charles) Olsen read their own poetry from another ladder at different times; David Tudor played the piano; (Robert) Rauschenberg played old records on an antique wind-up phonograph, and his white paintings were suspended at various angles above the audience; (Merce) Cunningham danced in the aisles and around the audience, improvising his material – all the while being followed by a barking dog (whose presence was completely fortuitous).”

This last remark reminds me of a personal experience I had with Mr. Cage. We were seated together (I had conducted a video interview with him earlier in the day) on the first row at a concert of his works performed at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989. The two-year old child of the event organizer left her front row seat and began crawling up low stairs to the stage. The mother went to retrieve her offspring, only to be held back by Cage, allowing the toddler free access to the stage and musicians. Cage saw the unexpected occur and seized the opportunity.

Cage loved the unexpected. He avoided style. Style breed repetition and parody. The acceptance of chance negated sterile similarities. Structuring the event was the main creative imperative. Those participating were independent operators responsible for their own contribution. The work was a collage and Cage the collagist.

Within this collage what possibilities! Although certain boundaries, such as time and location, were fixed, Cage’s independent operators were free to read the poetry they wrote, exhibit the paintings they created, improvise a dance and play the music they composed. Most of the audience saw the action as a joke, at the best, a cultural three-ring circus. What they had witnessed would become a model for the alternative arts during the next half-century.

The energy expanded from that seminal Black Mountain College event coordinated by Cage spread throughout the New York City art world upon their return. Cage composed for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe consisting of Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip and Steve Paxton among others. Rauschenberg joined as stage designer in their tours across America in a Volkswagen minibus. Cunningham drove. Cage was the navigator.

One of Cage’s lectures during this period was on “Nothing,” a theme that would be echoed by his neighbor Ray Johnson, an ex-BMC student trying to scratch out a living as a commercial designer (as was his friend Andy Warhol), who had compiled a mailing list of five-hundred by mid-decade. By the beginning of the next decade, Johnson’s activities would be codified as, “The New York Correspondance School,” ironic commentary on the prevailing New York School of Abstract Expressionists.

There are infamous tales of the Abstract Expressionist painters punching out each other in the Cedar Bar during this period of the mid-fifties. Their struggles were inward, laid bare on canvas and increased by newfound success. Cage and his colleagues, with equal unity of purpose as the macho Ab Ex’ers, felt besieged, misunderstood, and as a result, banded together for mutual support.

Many of these artists, including George Brecht, Dick Higgins and Alan Kaprow, came together at the New School for Social Research in 1956, where Cage began teaching a class on Composition. In a 1988 interview I did with Kaprow, I asked him about John Cage and the class he took with him at the New School.

“He was a kind of train station. People would sort of gather there and wait for the next train. I actually was a student of his. That was not the case with all of them. Many of them were occasional visitors. But I was already teaching at Rutgers by then. That was 1957, and I knew him slightly. Knew his work, of course. But at that point, I was trying to introduce a richer range of sound into the environmental stuff that I was doing parallel with the early happenings that were done. So I went to the class – I had been on a mushroom hunt with him, that’s what it was, with George Brecht, who was a neighbor of mine at that time in New Jersey – and I asked John at that time about the problems I was having with the sounds. There were mechanical gadgets that I had gimmicked up as best I could, you know, those wonderful toys the Japanese made – gorillas that growl, cows that moo, and things like that – and these were interesting, but after awhile they got boring, rather mechanical and expected, so I asked him what to do. And he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the class next week.’

I drove in for the class, and he explained rather quickly that I could use tape decks, a half dozen cheap tape decks, make all the sounds in advance, and put them on in some sort of random order, or program them as I wanted, and then distribute loud speakers around the room, and these things would have a much greater richness, done in a collage fashion, which I could understand readily, having done that, then any of the mechanical toys I had done. So I thought that was – he explained it in five minutes. You just take sticky tape and stick all these things together which you’ve previously recorded and put into envelopes. And he said, ‘Why don’t you stay for the class?’ Fine, I said.

At the end of the class, I was so fascinated with what was going on I asked him if I could attend it regularly, and he said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s where I actually did the first proto-happenings with the participation of the rest of the class members. Everyone was given homework every week and came in with a piece. And that’s where I began doing that sort of work.”

Kaprow’s happenings defined the era, serving up the first serious salvo against the sovereignty of the Abstract Expressionists. It took painting out of the studio and into an environment mixed with sound, dance, concept, sculpture, paving the way for the inter-medial decade to come, host to a multitude of new movements including Pop Art, Minimal Art, Earth Art, Conceptual Art, Op Art, Video Art, Visual Poetry, Mail Art, et al.

By the beginning of the sixties, experiments with old and new creative mediums exploded. In Cage’s wake, music became sound and sound reduced to silence. Lou Harrison, La Monte Young and others were incorporating Eastern influences into their compositions. Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell began investigating the new medium of television, trailblazing the development of Video Art. Poetry was turned on its head by the concrete experiments of Emmett Williams, Bern Porter and Jackson McLow. Henry Flynt was talking about something called Concept Art. Yoko Ono and George Brecht were touting “events” and “instructions” as art.

With the waning of Abstract Expressionism as a dominate decade long American Art movement, it seemed as if the center would not hold, and something new was slouching to be born. Kaprow’s happenings became a mainstream hit, part of the “crazy beatnik” art scene. Pop Art, with Warhol as superstar, became the darling of media, society and investment firms, alike. Little noticed at the time was the development of Fluxus, an attempt to link the disparate radical underground of cultural New York and beyond.

It’s renovation nearly killed him, certainly hastened his death, but in 1962 George Macunias, a Lithuanian immigrant, renovated and opened the AG Gallery with his friend Almus Salcius. Maciunas had attended a class in 1959 taught by the composer Richard Maxwell at the New School for Social Research, who had taken over the composition course taught by John Cage. He consulted on the gallery’s programming with the assistant teacher of the class, La Monte Young, who had already staged a series of performances at Yoko Ono’s loft.

“He was just a great guy, but as far as art was concerned I had to teach him everything he knew practically. He didn’t know what to present. I remember Henry Flynt and I were telling him one day, he was saying to Henry and me, ‘I want to present (Otto) Luening and (Vladimir) Ussachevsky.’ He said, ‘Why I can’t present something that represents the way I feel?’ I would say, ‘I don’t want to be lost back there in the past with these guys, I want to present the kind of work that I understand is going on today and is the cutting edge of the avant-garde.’

I published Henry’s first essay on concept art in An Anthology, which was a collection of scores, poetry, dance constructions, and other avant-garde work that I had collected on my desk in Berkeley for performances. When I came to New York I continued to collect.”

(An Interview with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela

By Gabrielle Zuckerman, American Public Media, July 2002.)

Macunias used the collection that La Monte Young had gathered as a foundation on which to link the international avant-garde, one of which was the American poet Emmett Williams, then living in Germany.

“La Monte Young had seen some of my concrete poems in a book called Movens published by Limes Verlag in Wiesbaden in 1960, an anthology of avant garde writers, artists and composers. La Monte wrote to me for permission to reprint some of this work in an anthology he was editing in New York. His An Anthology, a source-book of early Fluxus classics, was designed by George Maciunas. And George Maciunas, the Lithuanian-born father of Fluxus, invited me to join Fluxus at the world’s first Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden in 1962. I love the way all these things are interrelated! What networking – even way back then!” (interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2004)

When the poet Chester Anderson, publisher of Beatitude, exited New York for California in 1959, he asked La Monte Young to edit Beatitude East, composed from the performance scores Young had collected in Berkeley and New York. In this he was aided by Jackson Mac Low, who had attended Cage’s composition course at the New School for Social Research and worked at the Living Theater with Julian Beck and Judith Malina.

Mac Low and Young provided Maciunas with connections to “beat” ideology, encouraging him not only to present radical programming at AG Gallery, but to design An Anthology, and as mentioned earlier by Williams, to organize the initial 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany. All of this was contemporaneous.

Maciunas supplied the paper, design and some money for the publishing of An Anthology, according to Henry Flynt, and had it ready for printing by October 1961. It was finally published by Young and Mac Low in 1963 as:


The first edition (it was reprinted in 1972 by Hundermark, Germany) contained 67 leaves and three inserts. It included multicolored and onionskin paper, card stock and two envelopes. The text was printed in offset with a heavy paper cover, collated manually with a staple and perfect binding.

Maciunas had fully assimilated lessons learned through Young’s research material, contacting many of the artists, taking their ideas on the road with him to Wiesbaden and planning for a follow-up publication to be called “Fluxus.”

Like Cage’s “collage” of performers at BMC, Maciunas edited from a new generation of experimental artists in New York and beyond to create a functioning cadre of cultural workers. Maciunas gathered them under the banner of Fluxus, more attitude then movement, with a revolving cast of characters allowing Maciunas to present and promote performances, publications, film screenings, street actions, multiples and exhibitions.

Maciunas functioned as the impresario of Fluxus, issuing newsletters to keep the various artists informed of current activities and projects. He was the one who determined which projects would be brought forth and the perimeters of each. At the Wiesbaden Flux Festival, Maciunas continued to compile experimental works for a follow-up to An Anthology. This new publication was published in New York in 1964 as Fluxus 1, a wood box containing works by 24 artists (Fluxus: Selections form the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, MOMA, 1989).

Fluxus I set the tone for future projects by Macunias. He would establish guidelines, and the artists involved would contribute works fulfilling his requirements. The overall countenance of the various projects would conform to Maciunas’ distinctive design style, but the contents reflected individual artists, not the desires of Maciunas. For all the control Maciunas inflected upon “his” artists, he had little say in the content they provided him.

Maciunas acquiesced to their independence of thought, becoming a vessel into which the various artists bestowed their creativity. The assembling was not the work of a singular creator, but the chance confluence of collective contributors.

The collage of personalities, fomented by seminal artists such as Duchamp, Cage and Macunias, became the focus of yet another artistic innovator. Ray Johnson was an artists’ artist, unknown for decades outside the intimate art world of the international avant-garde, but a seminal figure within.

Breed at BMC, taught by Joseph Albers, a neighbor of John Cage in New York, Johnsons’ specialty was performance through the postal system. Having amassing an address list composed of artists, pop culture personalities and coinci(dance), he used it as a distribution system to disseminate his design skills and artistic sensibilities.

Johnson’s mailings could be intimate, letters composed as they were in an earlier age, expressed toward a single person, yet Johnson’s desire was to keep the energy flowing. He repeatedly requested correspondents to “add and pass” to either a known or unknown third entity.

A rippling circle was brought forth, a network of correspondents, many associated with Fluxus, reaching ever outward, first to Canada inspiring General Idea, Image Bank and Western Front, to Europe and South America with deep inroads into Eastern Europe and Asia. Filliou’s conception of an Eternal Network found fertile ground in this new network of Mail Artists.

In an interview I conducted with the artist, my opening salvo was:

John Held, Jr: Do you think people are becoming more appreciative of chance these days? Do you find that people are breaking down their logical thinking and accepting chaos?

Ray Johnson: By people, we were discussing the student body at Hamilton College, but people also encompasses the people who were in the restaurant I just came from, so one would have to apply the question of chance situation in the restaurant, or the streets that I just drove through, in making a left turn instead of a right turn. Going in a wrong direction was a very chance element, but I was a singular person in that case, although I had many quick encounters with other drivers of vehicles. That’s what driving is all about. There are just endless chance encounters with people involving decisions, turns, and estimates as to what other people are going to do. In car driving you are on a very different operation than you are with students in a lecture. So there is no such thing as chance elements. There are chance elements here, chance elements there, here and there. Which is the interesting point that I liked before the tape began in your asking me about community, replying that the correspondence network is logically a global situation involving the possibility of people everywhere and anywhere. There’s a very interesting…can I be heard all right? I guess I can.

(The interview, published as, “Illogical as an Instructive Process: an Interview with Ray Johnson,” took place on December 2, 1977, at the Mid-York Library System, Utica, New York, the day following Ray Johnson’s performance of, Barry White Ecstasy, at the Root Art Center, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, where his work was on display.)

For Johnson, there was no chance, only “the possibility of people everywhere and anywhere.” These possibilities – anticipating and accounting for these various possibilities – is the “appreciation” of chance, upon which I queried Johnson thirty years previous.

This acceptance of unknown consequences in one’s correspondence has become a given in Mail Art. One of the cornerstones of Mail Art enabling it to remain such a dynamic force is the credo to – expect nothing yet remain open to anything – “everywhere and anywhere.”

Johnson’s directive to “add and pass” his enclosures to other correspondents “logically” created a “global situation,” which at the time of our interview had become an international network of individuals exploring the ways in which aesthetics could be communicated in the modern era. A number of methods were devised to explore this “global situation involving the possibility of people everywhere and anywhere.”

Mail Artists with divergent interests gathered under a banner all could benefit from (similar to Fluxus) and began initiating projects benefiting from long distance communication. By the beginning of the 1980s, a Mail Art show could attract some 300 participants form 30 counties.

Begun as personal exchange, by the end of the 1960s, Johnson took the New York Correspondance School public with an exhibition so named at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1970. Doing so, he established an enduring model of “call and response” in the Mail Art network invoking not only alternatives in exhibition, but in publishing, expanding upon the collective publications and multiples of Fluxus, seizing the postal systems of the world as a distribution system for a new global cultural constituency.

Let us linger on some representative publishing activities in Mail Art and how they were perfectly attuned to Johnson’s call for the acceptance of “the possibility of people everywhere and anywhere.” By doing so they heeded Filliou’s advice that no one individual could grasp all things, but that a cadre of individuals could contribute formidable information to communicate a significant truth.

This truth was impossible to create with a singular voice. By entrusting contributors to submit work of their own choosing, contents became chance occurrences. The “editor,” having no control over the contributed texts and images, became an “assembler.”

Commonpress, a periodical conceived by Polish artist Pawel Petasz, typifies the publication possibilities inherent in networking practice. With a deep pool of international artists to draw upon, new collection and distribution methods were developed to take advantage of a wide sampling of artistic voices, leading toward a deeper understanding of global culture unfolding in our time.

“COMMonPress is a conception of the periodical edit by common effort. Possible realization of this conception would let to overcome such difficulties as print and distribution expense, nothing to say about the danger of commercilization. Apart from providing materials for the particular edition (according to definite technical criteria), each of the participants would be obliged to at least ONCE to collect materials, to edit and print as well as to distribute the edition among the other artists taking part in his edition at ones own charge.”

Petasz original idea for the periodical was to have everyone who contributed to the magazine edit their own number of Commonpress. This proved impractical. Instead, Petasz became a clearinghouse for various Mail Artists and international cultural workers, who wanted to edit a periodical on a specific theme. Petasz would assign his volunteer editors issue numbers, requiring only that they send a free copy of Commonpress to all their contributors.

The first Commonpress was issued by Petasz in 1977, and during the thirteen years it was published forty-eight numbers were issued. Most editors announced an issue in advance with theme and deadline stated. Once contributions were received, they were photocopied, pasted up, bound in some manner and mailed. Some editors requested a certain amount of original pages for the issue, then binding them together in an “assembling” of original works. This was another strategy in alternative publishing that became commonplace in Mail Art.

Due to postal irregularities experienced under Polish martial law, Petasz was forced to hand over editorship of Commonpress to Gerald Jupittar-Larsen, who coordinated eighteen issues of the periodical until its demise in 1990. In all, editors from thirteen countries had volunteered to participate in this experiment in publishing. Jupittar-Larsen summed up the experience in a statement given to Commonpress historian Guy Bleus:

“Commonpress isn’t just an alternative magazine of art, but a kind of ongoing international performance. A performance in which each participant is encouraged to edit & publish an edition of the magazine with his own theme in his own format. It is a collective performance; created, produced, & shared by its many contributors.”

These ”collective performances” run rampant in networking practice, born from the “correspon(dance)” of Ray Johnson, the LEF inspired musings of George Maciunas, the rejection of individual style espoused by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s acceptance of life’s intrusion upon art.

Another project in the Mail Art Network begun about the same time as Commonpress, was the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, directed by Turkish artist Plinio Mesculium. This was a very mysterious project, which most people could only know a part of. But one of the sponsors of the project was my mentor Jean Brown, a collector of Dada, Surrealist, Lettrism, Fluxus and Mail Art, who received every “unit” Mesculiam would mail out.

Each unit was the product of an artist who had somehow obtained a letterhead (they were circulated in the Mail Art network) from the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, who then composed a work on it, adding a separate list of twelve persons the participating artist would like the unit sent to. One could either announce the mailing was originally from the artist, or he could designate to Mesculium that he preferred to remain an “unknown sender.”

Mesculium color photocopied the work in an edition of fifteen –sending one to the originator of the work, twelve to the recipients designated by the originator, one for Mesculium, one to the bank that photocopied the works and one to Jean Brown.

Normally, one would catch only a glimpse of this project. You might receive a “unit” from someone you knew or might not have known. It arrived indirectly through a third party (Mesculium), but by way of the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, mysterious in it’s own right.

Mesculium was not only a master distributor of aesthetic information, but chief documentarian of the process. Yearbooks were issued listing the names of all the senders and all the receivers who had participated, either intentionally or not, in the Restricted Communication system. A casual reading of the documentation reveals an intertwining of international cultural workers active in Fluxus, Mail Art, visual poetry, conceptual and photocopy art.

Mesculiam established a system of Restricted Communication, but no restrictions were placed on the contributed content of the participants, other than size requirement. Within this framework, contributors chose their submissions without editorial guidance, Mesculiam accepting all contributions. Each contributor acted independently, accepting the unexpected consequences of collaboration.

I will end citing one last example. Commonpress lasted short of fifteen years. The Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication lasted from 1976 to 1982. Some of these opened ended structures erected by Mail artists have gone on for long periods of time. Most are periodicals of one sort or another. Pascal Lenoir of France coordinated and distributed a long running assembling magazine, Mani Art, that went on for more than 130 numbers. Dobrica Kamperelic of Serbia, continues editing the Mail Art info-zine Open World since the mid 1980s. Vittore Baroni’s, Arte Postale! has been published since the mid-1970s.

Japanese artist Ryosuke Cohen, began his Brain Cell project in 1987, issuing it continuously over a twenty year period. Like the Mohammed Center for Restricted communication, unit numbers are assigned distributed sheets. By July 2010, Ryosuke Cohen had issued 770 unit numbers.

Each unit is composed of the received images of between fifty and sixty individuals arriving from as many as twenty countries. Cohen then isolates images received from his correspondent/contributors, lays out the black and white images, and prints them with the aid of a goccho printer.

Goccho printing is a common printing method in Japanese homes and schools (by day Cohen is a high school teacher), usually for the printing of birthday and holiday cards. The black and white images are inserted into a light box with a sheet of multicolored paper, resulting in the original black and white images transformed into a third and final sheet of various colored images. One hundred and twenty five copies are then produced and distributed to the contributors, with others held back to make collected sets of twenty-five distributed units.

When contributors are mailed their copy of the Brain Cell unit in which their work has been reproduced, they also receive a listing of the other artists that have contributed works and their addresses. The artists can then expand their own networking by corresponding with others in their “unit” outside of Cohen’s framework. Brain Cell thus becomes fraught with unknown possibilities occurring outside the original project, adding to an even wider dispersal of the Eternal Network.

Like Ray Johnson’s “add and pass” works, Commonpress, The Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication, Ryosuke Cohen’s Brain Cell project is constructed upon a framework allowing for the possibility of chance content from “people everywhere and anywhere.” These “open systems” modeled on the ideals of an international coterie of cultural workers blending art and life, allow for the unexpected, fueling new directions in works distributed globally.

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