Sunday, December 16, 2007

Events, Objects and Cognitive Frames: Events in Fluxus as a lens for making meaning with experience, Owen F. Smith

Events, Objects and Cognitive Frames: Events in Fluxus as a lens for making meaning with experience, Owen F. Smith

The Journal of Mundane Behavior states that one of its purposes is to “ . . .understand how normal, everyday ideas, actions, and interactions go into the construction of some things in life as "mundane" and others as "extraordinary." “ Such an operation is not only the focus of this journal, but also, as some of its authors have pointed out, a basic, although complex, operation of art. [ref here to] Within such a comprehension art is significant not only as a category of things, but also as a view into how we come to know our world and give meaning and/or order to our experiences. This belief is also at the heart of many of the artists in the 1950s and 1960s in their reconsideration of definitions of art, and in particular the separation of art from life. Their insistence on breaking down the barriers between art and not-art is more than just a struggle over a descriptive term. It is instead a concern for a broader, more significant usage, one that is formative in our conception of our experiences

If I were to start this essay with the question of “what is Art?” many of you would stop reading/listening at this point. So to forestall this departure I will ask the same question in another way: “How does Art operate?” This kind of approach allows us to engage in a questioning of operations (how does art work?) without getting hung up on foundational definitions (what is art?). By shifting these questions I am also playing a bit of a game by referring to a way that people often avoid defining art, but still hold tight to a need to define something as art or not. It is common to find or hear people say that they, quote-unquote “do not know what art is, but they do indeed know art when they see it.” This comment should not be seen as some might suggest, only as a thinly veiled excuse to justify subjectivity (although it is that too), but instead as suggesting a basic function of art; more than a category of things and an evaluative descriptor, but also, and most importantly for my argument, as a kind of trigger or event that that establishes distinctions. Although I will go into these aspects in more detail later, seen in this way art is an operative devise, or tool, used to sort data (to mark for recognition or to disregard), tag our experiences (give names) and hierarchically rank them (give evaluative ordering). From such a supposition it is only a short step to seeing art fundamentally as “an event “in computational terms, in common usage, and as practiced by the artists associated with the group Fluxus.

Some Background on the role and function of the artist in Fluxus

Utilizing art as a means of investigation, into either art itself, or into political, social or philosophical issues, was part of a tradition in artistic practice in the Twentieth Century and the activities associated with Fluxus are firmly part of this practice. It should be noted however that although Fluxus seems to mirror numerous practices often associated with the avant-garde, it at the same time rejects them as part of its self-described “rear-gradism.” One of the strongest and most important linkages between Fluxus and other avant-garde groups is their stance towards operative structures and paradigmatic values of the status quo. The critical place Fluxus held in reevaluating aspects of music, art and performance in the1960s has gained increasing recognition. It is my contention, though, that Fluxus played a similar role in investigating the structures and operative aspects of language and meaning. Fluxus has been recognized as having a significant place in the development of, and explorations in, intermedia in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, the nature of these intermedial explorations has often been limited to just media, when in fact the most critical nature of this reevaluation is not media driven but a rejection of media determinism, and more broadly seen a rejection of static frames and perceptions. Instead of seeing the explorations of Fluxus as media centric, they are best understood as a fundamental reconsideration of cognitive processes and their social extensions into cultural frames such as evaluative processes, cultural structures and meaning systems.

The general philosophical attitude which pervades many of the works and activities often grouped under the term Fluxus, and which were repeatedly returned to by Fluxus artists, highlighted three formative questions: What are the materials of art? What is the relationship between the artist and the audience? and What are the process of manipulation/creation available to the artist? Although such questions were considered by many artists throughout the twentieth century the key here in the context of Fluxus is not so much the general nature of the questions themselves, but the nuances of related explorations and particularly the way in which the individual answers for each of the three questions become combined in the act of exploration and creation. In all activities associated with Fluxus there were a number of general, yet formative, aims and concerns that shaped both the nature and the form of the works produced, whether they be in literature, poetry, music, performance or the visual arts. These include but are not limited to the following:

A rejection of the notion that art is first and foremost a process
of production that creates a unique object.

A stress on the non-hierarchical nature of the world outside of
human impositions.

Eschewing the role of the artist as special and as the
principal focus of the work and/or its appreciation.

An emphasis on the primary significance of process, change and
duration in the creation and presentation of works.


Discarding the significance of boundaries between types of
works through the use of new media, intermedia and even

In the new spaces occupied by the artist and their parallel new roles the artists ceases to be located in terms of media or materiality and instead takes a position somewhere between – between thought and deed, between process and product, and between subject and object. Another aspect of this split role for the artist was indicated by Ben Patterson when he wrote that " . . . the central function of the artist [should] be a duality of discoverer and educator: discoverer of the varying possibilities for selecting from environmental stimuli specific percepts and organizing these into significant perceptions, and concurrently as an educator, training a public in the ability to perceive in newly discovered patterns." [Four Suits] Thus for Patterson and many other individuals associated with Fluxus the artist/musician/poet is no longer a person tied to a particular form or existence, but becomes an explorer of perception and a public educator who moves between normative categories and perceptions in a process of discovery, provocation and communication.

Fluxus, example, event and score

Two central aspects of this role and place for the Fluxus artist are, first, a centrality of information modeling and exchange, and second, a primacy of the event (or act) with a correlated concern for free-play as an aspect of direct engagement. Dick Higgins was referring to such aspects of a new mentality when he wrote his "An Exemplativist Manifesto" Although the whole essay is worthy of consideration two short passages are especially relevant here:

Our arts . . . seem always to involve some aspect of performance - we enact, we do, we perform or commit aesthetic acts. We commit an act of education when we teach or when we present our live manifestations. Even our most static works are the result of such acts and, thus, have a performance aspect. . . . - the action of the artist . . . is always sensed in the work and so the work can never be a fixity. Like life itself, our works are impure- always the centers of emanations of experience. [Higgins, A Dialectic of the Centuries, p. 158

Such works can not be ends in themselves. Instead they always participate in the ongoing process of sharing an experience. Among the criteria for evaluating such works must always be the efficiency and force of their suggestion and proposal. Since this processes not the single realization as the work, but the dialectic between any single realization and its alternatives. . . . [p. 159]

The general Fluxus attitude, or what I call worldview, acts as a manifestation of direct participation and a mechanism for engagement. Such forms of participation should be seen as part of a process that emphasizes the creative possibilities of play, its associative powers and the act of cognitive creation. These processes are, however, simultaneously enacted without predetermined definitive characteristics or goals, in a kind of infinite play of possibilities and substitutions. In this form play is important for Fluxus because it stresses participation and breaks down the normal physical and conceptual barriers between categories of things or types of experiences. Infinite play is reflected in Fluxus works in many ways but I will highlight two ways here, first through the nature of the event score and its performative extensions and second through the relation of Fluxus works to culturally determined concepts and the use of language in methods of categorization and understanding.

The nature of Fluxus works with their multiplicity of potential and diffuse references reflects a recognition of meaning as a construct of the particular framework, or situation in which it is placed or occurs. In Fluxus works, particularly in event type works are enacted to establish multiple possibilities containing of what might be called “patterns of opposites.” These opposites, whether they be presence and absence, active and passive or a myriad of other such culturally determined pairs, are brought into play in Fluxus work as a means of creating unstable relations. Additionally, these processes can simultaneously create an ambiguity of meaning as well as simultaneously suggest a very particularized meaning or instance. Let me give an example of how such relational processes work in Fluxus pieces. In the event work "Shadow Piece II" Chieko Shiomi gives the following instructions printed on one side of a small white card:

1. Project a shadow over other
side of this card.
2. Observe the boundary between
shadow and lighted part.
3. Become the boundary line.

As a set of instructions to be enacted as a performance Shiomi's ‘Shadow Piece II’ is specific and imprecise. It is this very dual nature that exemplifies the very best of Fluxus type event works. These works posses or are made from a contradictory range potentials: seemingly to simultaneously suggest contradictory elements such as accepting and critical, or simplistic and complex, or serious and humorous. Here are two more scores to reinforce my point:

Willim de Ridder

The Big Realization

Turn off all water, gas, and electricity for one week.
I wish you a good time

George Brecht
Symphony No. 5
I before hearing
II hearing
III after hearing

In all of the possibilities that these scores suggest what remains a nexus is the modeling of the event as a potential new paradigm. One that uses language as a means of presentation and as a means beyond the traditional confines of a score (as a proscriptive pre-determinant). Fluxus event works are part of a tradition that evolved from more standard forms of musical notation into language forms precisely because of language’s openness, even impurity, compared to musical notes. The nature of interpretation in performance takes on a whole and fuller realization, in Fluxus event works. Where as we often describe a musical, dance or theatrical performance are interpretative we are only in fact referring to a shift in nuance for any more shift from the original score would be a reinterpretation or a rewriting of the original work. In the Fluxus score one must fundamentally interpret the score in order to see its realization.
So how can we make sense of the nature and operation of the event score in Fluxus? Is it an individual or even subjective interpretation of the action or context given in the score? No in fact just the opposite – the score functions to create a responsive/interactive system that is suggestive, even directional, without being predetermined or deterministic. To understand the operation of the event score we can use other mechanisms or systems, in particular language (considered later under the heading of Markedness) and computer code to aid in our consideration. I think part of the answer is to use an analogy to a scripting function in computer code. In code scripting there is an element called OnEvent that has several features that can help us think about the function of the Event score. The OnEvent element in code generally contains both a ‘scope of activity’ and ‘optional uses.’ These aspects are equivalent to what is given in the event score itself, so in Eric Andersen’s Opera Instruction (1961), for example, which reads:
1 Select some objects which address themselves to your acoustic imagination.
2 Play with them according to a predetermined system.

The title of the score acts to set out the scope of activity, in this case something having to do with an opera, and then the text of the score are the instructions, but more generally they act to give the operational uses in the specified event. Event scores additionally mirror another aspect of the OnEvent action and that is that they both specifically indicate that the given event binds a task to a particular element. So in the score we have a nexus of associations and potentials that are bound together (under or in association with the title) with a call for action through specific elements (the specifics of the score). There is thus both openness for multiple meanings/interpretations and specificity for a particular time, place, context, or materials. In operational terms then the event score is unit of code that contains a reference and a set of instructions, this then is dormant until It is enacted, either through thought or action (performance); the specific performance of an event sets the implications and associations in motion in a given or particularlized direction, and these results play out till they engage another event or self-terminate. The score itself is thus a trigger, but not a measure for, or of, a result/action.

Because of this Fluxus works can never claim to be finished or completely original because their meaning and significance change in relation to the context in which they are experienced. The contextual relationships of most Fluxus work is what I have previously called a kind of “plagiarism of a prior discourse,” of life itself. The work creates its own life and meaning from what it defines itself against - its difference to and similarities with our past experiences, our knowledge of art and music and our awareness of the expectations that prior experiences generate.

The language of the score suggests the event to be enacted but the full event work itself must be completed by the performer, the audience or both, for the work itself is incomplete. It is a suggestion, an inference, and a direction held in place by the words of the score, but simultaneously those very same words require the creation of context, associations and a realization not necessarily in the words themselves. They have no independent or fixed existence or meaning. Fluxus pushes the gap between signifier and signified in sign systems such as language in order to take advantage of this space of incoherence. In doing so the aim is to set in motion the existence of a contradiction and/or multiplicity of meanings that become recognized as part of the extended creative engagement, not just interference to our understanding of original authorial meaning. As a result one can argue that the interpretation of works of Fluxus artists should not be based on the source of original artistic conception, or solely on the artist's intent, but occur in the mental realm of the viewers/participants or in the cognitive space that Marcel Duchamp labeled the "art coefficient." In this form event works do not rely upon a reconstruction of what makes thought or experience coherent, but instead seeks to demonstrate the ultimate incoherence of thought and action when removed from its operational contexts, most particularly language and culture.

“Markedness” and the idea of the event as a (re)generative activity.

Markedness is a term in linguistics and semiotics often employed in the deconstructionist analysis of texts and practices. My reason for introducing this term here is that I believe such a concept is crucial in understanding the nature and operation of Fluxus works and the Event as a catalyst for perceptual and cognitive change: what they do, how they operate and most importantly why they act to change the way we understand and interact with the world. Fluxus works, most particularly those that can be categorized as events, recognize the function and processes described by the term markedness and seek to critique it, reverse it or undermine its larger influence on what we pay attention to or “see.”

The concept of markedness, is defined in different ways, but it originally developed from phonology where phonetic symbols were literally marked to indicate additional features. As a theoretical concept its source is to be found in the work of Nikolai Trubetzkoy, who distinguished between types of “oppositions” in relations within phoneme pairs and Roman Jakobson, who adopted Trubetzkoy's notion of mark and applied it to oppositions of lexical and grammatical meaning as a means of creating a specification for a semantic distinction, or "semantic markedness."

More recently others have suggested that Markedness is a general property of human cultural manifestations. (note # ) In all of this the key point for our considerations is the idea of pairs of concepts or terms that express a relationship between constructions, rules and features that consist of potential binary opposites. These elements, described as marked and unmarked express semantic and semiological significance as well as cultural values and emphases. In this relationship of paired signifiers, the marked concept follows the unmarked one, they are often seen as possessing differing values in which the marked concept is presented as different, even negative, and the unmarked concept, typically the dominant member of the pair is often prioritized by being seen as normative or “natural.”

The most basic operation of Fluxus works is to reverse the relations and emphasis often present in our operations of markedness. By presenting the unremarkable as remarkable and the unimportant as important Fluxus reverses the traditional priorities vested in markedness and it cultural extensions. The works manifest a concern for the ordinary (marked) and disregard that which is traditionally presented as exceptional (unmarked); in a variety of Fluxus works we see this over and over again when boredom becomes entertainment, noise becomes music, the mundane becomes exotic and non-art becomes art. The call associated with Fluxus to abandon art (unmarked) and enjoy life (marked) is fundamentally a first step to questioning our process of categorization, evaluation and hierarchical sequencing. Events and event structures in Fluxus act to replace our normative marking processes with what might be called attentiveness, or even counter markedness. In George Brecht’s Drip Music why is water being dripped from one vessel to another on stage? Or in Tomas Schmit’s Sanitas No. 22 why does the performer read aloud an entire newspaper, advertisements and all? Or in Alison Knowles Proposition why does the performer make a salad? They do so to destabilize the operations of markedness; reversing or calling into question the traditional value we give something by our attentiveness. These works turn something uneventful into an Event. The normative process of marking, in order to devalue, is supplanted by a reversal of order, in which all can and is elevated to the status of an event worth of notice. In this process of counter marking Fluxus events do not offer a supplanting of one hierarchy for another, but instead suggest a different type of ordering. This is a contextually driven shifting system of potentials; a peripatetic perspective that shifts along multiple vantage points of the markedness/unmarkedness continuum, rather than highlighting either the marked or the unmarked. Ultimately this is the first step of Fluxus’ ambition to move to a system in which everything becomes both marked and unmarked as a way of countering the process of judgment, attentiveness and consideration. This process then should be seen as a primarily a destabilization of our patterns of dichotomies, whether they be subject/object, figure/ground or more specific evaluate ones such as important/unimportant or art/not art.

My contention then is that the event, in the way Fluxus makes use of it, sets in motion not just a series of activities or thoughts, but most significantly creates a series of counter or reverse possibilities from those normally encountered in our system of markedness. In general, If the concept of markedness is expanded to include cultural operations, the unmarked is seen as more natural, possessing a greater significance, usually given great accord and much more heavily weighted as something of value or possessing power. What this is indicating is that such paired marked/unmarked terms are rarely symmetrical, but are instead culturally hierarchical. A positive/negative basis for this relationship is expressed by designations, such as non-or un-, and the secondary marked term is often treated as other and even suppressed and excluded as an ‘absent signifier.’ By shifting the focus an the action of the event in Fluxus works we are not however just caused to reorder the pairs of term and related associations, but instead given to question the whole system of marking/ordering. Fluxus recognizes that the logic of binarism does not allow for either of the concepts, aspects or terms to exist one without the other. Thus dripping does not replace music in Brecht’s work Drip Music but the terms are recombined to suggest a counterbalance to the prioritization of music over sound, art over non-art and in the end a recombination of two as a paired, even unified, whole is the result. This combination recognizes the constitutive power of the ‘secondary’ term that although it is represented as marginal or inconsequential is in fact constitutive of the unmarked ‘primary’ term. Art cannot exist with out non-art, the unmarked term/idea is defined by what it seeks to exclude. Thus the Event in Fluxus interjects the dynamic relationship back into our stultified system of marks, priorities and values, part of a whole cycle of shifting potentials. The Event as a gateway to infinite play

George Brecht
Event Score (1966)
Arrange or discover an event. Score and then realize it

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