Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hiding in the Woods, Ina Blom

Let us, just for a short while, forget about the packaging. Let's assume that there is such a thing as Fluxus content materially and philosophically speaking, to be viewed independently from all those funny and beautifully designed boxes, sheets, posters and magazine-like editions, manufactured with such magnificently understated humour that their sheer tactile cult-value draws you to them like old Rolex watches or Art-Nouveau mirrors. Practical facts to some extent tell us that this kind of division should not be wholly irrelevant: George Maciunas, a graphic designer fulfilling his own obsession with the aesthetically 100 percent satisfactory, with unity of style, in short, with something almost approaching what is today known as 'corporate identity', was creating his material Fluxus world largely on the basis of the 'raw material' emanating from the idea-work of artists from all over the world, many of them not even present in New York during the editioning of their own ideas. These days, the division has a certain contemporary tinge to it, as well: Among the artists themselves,
there seems to be a certain tendency to stress the individuality of their own ideas or concepts: I have even heard claims that Maciunas 'muddled-up' the basic ideas of Fluxus. Anyway, Maciunas or no Maciunas, packaging of any particular kind or by any particular person was never considered as vital to Fluxus, the real concern being ideas.

So Ben Vautier, sitting in Nice, might for instance decide that, according to his own law of appropriation by which he had already signed 'God', 'War', and 'Everything', any kind of hole you could imagine was from now on to be considered a work of art, by Ben. That (and Ben's agreement) was all the information Maciunas needed to mass produce two small Hole-boxes by Ben Vautier, one filled with drinking straws, the other with various holes cut out in paper and other flat materials. Concept: Ben, material
interpretation: Maciunas.
Certainly, these two plastic boxes, jokey and modest as they are, present a vivid contrast to the rather grandiose conceptual gesture of Vautier. One gets the feeling that had he been more of a Walter de Maria he would have realized his piece by having a silver plaque with date and signature attached to the Swiss side end of the Grand St. Bernard tunnel, gradually blackening with time and weather and thus pointing twice to the ephemerality of the artistic gesture. However, this kind of American minimalist way of acting, by representing one big and beautifully simple gesture by another, slightly more tangible but just as grandiose one, is not the way most Fluxus chooses to go about things. Inherent in most Fluxus work (I would perhaps call it a main characteristic) is the feeling that the work really need not be a 'work' at all: its true realization would be as an idea floating freely up in the spheres somewhere, and not in a platonic sense, either, since the boxes do not
relate to the concept as the shadow (or the shadow of a shadow) to the idea. In the true Americanized Zen-spirit of the Sixties, the concept is just the manifestation, and so the boxes, the objects and the performances are, in the deepest sense, irrelevant; a side order arriving too late to be enjoyed with the main dish.

The least one could demand of the side order is that, upon arrival, it does not impose itself. Which is exactly the kind of attitude illuminating the heaps of what looks more or less like sophisticated versions of desktop clutter and exclusive toys that (due to non-art materials) are rapidly perishing on museum shelves under the increasingly glorious banner of Fluxus Art. Maciunas, intelligent and sensitive as he must have been, did of course get it just right with his use of humour and overly decorated surfaces as a way of understanding the often very outspoken grandness of the ideas he was promoting, but maybe
Dick Higgins as a contemporary theorist and exegete got it even more right: The Fluxus artwork is just an example, he claimed. There is never a finished work to be seen, just ever-changing ways of toying with an idea. On the top of a few centuries of frantic museum-building and art marketing, democratically offering to the public the best and most definite aesthetic statements society has to offer, one could hardly take a more modest stance.

Modest, yes - but otherworldly is maybe more to the point. What I'm getting at here is a very basic search for silence that seems to hang over Fluxus like a gold-tinted sunset (with its ultimate promise of the night of words & signs and the advent of the big nothing). A most concise metaphor of this was hanging on the wall at a Robert Watts retrospective at New Brunswick College, New Jersey in the fall of 1988. It is a photograph of Watts himself resting on the ground on a sunny afternoon at his farm in Pennsylvania. What image of bliss and tranquillity! Sunrays are showering through the dense leaves,
Watts looking as angelic and self-contained as a sleeping cat. However: The scene is not innocent - art is in the making. From the tree above him, numerous marker pens are hanging by threads down to the ground, where the leave bright colour spots on sheets of white paper as the breeze makes the branches move. The picture carries the title, 'Artist Resting - Tree Working'. This, we understand, is the ultimate goal: The artist withdraws into an ideal and 'natural' state of being, leaving to the 'world' to produce and recognize its own art (-ifice). The artistic act of will is no longer necessary, neither is the cognitive will of the spectator to discover and digest art as something fundamentally different from other life experiences. From this point of view, the lesson of John Cage's ''4'33`'' would not be to learn to focus on the aesthetic pleasure that might arise from the sound- patterns of an audience waiting in vain for the piano player to hit the keys (our ear would always search out patterns close to those that animate 'traditional' music), but rather to learn to accept the world, banal as it may sound.

This kind of attitude in many ways is the beauty and the attraction of Fluxus, the kind of zero spirit that makes Fluxus so conveniently avoid all those close definitions and pinpointings that seems to take the guts out of so many over- explained 20th century art movements. But if the Bob Watts photo expresses a certain desire to purge art of artifice, one cannot help thinking that this desire also hints at the basically moralist suspicion of artifice as a non-pure state of being, and of the elimination of artifice as the only valid road towards wholeness and purity. (Artifice can never be whole - insofar as it cannot escape dealing in aesthetics it will always be formed - elliptical - chosen: Its excitement and tension lies in its allusion to a whole rather tan the depicting of one.) Fluxus tries to make a shortcut to exactly this kind of impenetrable wholeness that manages to present itself as a moral imperative and thus escapes criticism, argument and judgment.

As any Flux-watcher will know, the search for this specific kind of holistic silence is also filled to the brim with ambiguities that contradict the apparent simplicity of it all. Expectations keep blinding the view, aesthetic patterns keep popping up, ritual keeps muddling the non-intentional intentions of even the most non-theatrical of performers. (And yet I haven't even mentioned the rather serious side-effects of an art-market slowly awakening to the sound of silence.) To my eyes, this ambiguity was expressed most succinctly two years ago, during the Fluxus memorial following Bob Watts' death in September. By some strange blessing, this was another sunny day on the aforementioned farm in Pennsylvania: Chilling rainstorms had been soaking the North-East coast for a week, but to the quite nostalgic and humorously art-tinged garden party of an international Fluxus crowd, the world seemed as light as a soap bubble. Towards dusk came the 'serious' part, as people gathered around an artificial pond for a last round of homages to the deceased artist. Sounds were produced, events were executed in the grass and on the small pier, and then came the moment when Alison Knowles was to perform in a small boat on the lake. With her she was carrying one of the small music machines by Joe Jones, and as the boat moved away from the shore, she tried to place it on the very still surface of the pond. It did not float. She tried repeatedly, methodically - it still did not float. There was a feeling of delay. By now, a fine tension seemed to build up in the audience. Something had gone wrong - or had it? Had the object not refused to loat, beauty and simplicity would have continued to reign supreme. Now, however, the non- theatrical quality of this simple action was uncomfortably put into question; expectation and ritual appeated like some vulgar fata morgana. There was only one way of solving the problem: Accept, accept. And by
some wonderful unspoken collective decision, the crowd seemed to relax all at once: 'Let it be. It's only Fluxus." Alison Knowles gave up trying and the boat resumed its meditatively slow ride across the pond. For Fluxus to keep it's anti-aesthetic character does obviously not only depend on the ideas of its individual creators, but also on the spiritual cooperation of its audience. Or - put in the words of the propaganda surrounding the new aleatory arts as they went public in the late Fifties: The division between performers and audience must be done away with. Every man his own artist.

Tod deal with totalities you need the support of believers, not critics. Unless, of course, you really want to create public uproar, which was more in the vein of Dada. Fluxus never intentionally sought this kind of confrontation and generally kep its means of action on such a discrete level as to remain virtually invisible to the uninitiated - including the vast number of contemporary art scribes writing busily on about contemporary pop-art, earth- art, minimalism & happennings. Carolee Schneeman's 'Meat Joy', with its blood, raw meat, naked performers and subsequent media attacks, was highly untypical in a
Fluxus context although quite in tune with what at the time was going on in Happenings: Maciunas did not waste much time in expressing this, before 'expelling' Schneeman from Fluxus.

I have absolutely no clue as to what true Fluxus-critisism would sound, look or taste like (or, come to think of it, it probably should sound, look or taste rather that argue). Because of their literal character, the works shun the in-depth interpretation that is the toll of traditional criticism. Likewise claiming that the performance or material execution of this or that Fluxus work would be a little weak here, a little acking in clarity there, sounds more than mildly absurd.

The same problem to a great extent applies to the other contemporary catagories mentioned above, as there are quite obvious conceptual links between these movements and Fluxus. But somehow, all these others manage to live with the fact that their works, by turning into aesthetic and, by consequence, easily digestable food for thought for galleries and writers, contradict the ideas the seemingly promote (i.e. the question of the angle of the photographs that represent earth art in museums and galleries). Only Fluxus with all its very literal self-effacing discretion, went all the way towards am art dissolving into a greater and mor all-absorbing kind of unity, allowing for a real fusing of the horizons of reality, to use another Dick Higgins-coined term. It was a search for a new kind of perception, the only really efficient attempt at a post-cognitive way of creating & experiencing. The fusion was most of all that between art and life: Making away with this division instead of traumatizing it the way modernest art did, led directly to the much-desired silence of signs, of materials, of intermediaries: The dogma of the new zen-sualism was that things are what they are and should be allowed to remain so for the richest and most un- interrupted fusions of experience possible.

To accept the world on this level is also to a certain degree to renounce it: to deprove objects and actions of their character as combersome stimuli, to refuse to fight or to take part in a dialogue. From this point of view (and, more particularly, from a western point of view), Fluxus will at worst seem like Utopia (nostalgic), at best as good teaching. And still, the teaching part, much cherished as it is, needs further investigation. Take for instance a piece like George Brecht's 'Drip Music': 'A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.' A Fluxus 'classic' on stage and in
exhibitions, it is presented with varying degrees of sytlistic tension (the source placed absurdly high above the vessel, a performer pouring water from the top of a ladder) but its essence is a simple description of an activity that takes place unnoticed and free of charge in most homes every day. Will reading this (or any other George Brecht score) help us notice what is going on in our immediate surroundings? Or, to be more specific, will it help us move on to a higher stage of consciousness, to regard all details of life with greater spiritual attention, to stop making stupid and arbitrary decisions about non-important and important, non-spiritual and spiritual, simply on the basis of notions such as usefulness versus redundancy? Or, seen from the other side: Will it help us participate directly in art by doing away with representation and distance (the way we saw it happen in Alison Knowles' performance at the Bob Watts memorial)?

To support the view that is and always will be redundancy, a way of acting intended to compete with life rather than fuse with it, is a bit hard to accept at face value, considering the kind of multi-layered, complex and highly stylized realities we find ourselves in: On all levels of daily life, we are being attacked by a multitude of ever-changing images and stagings, dealing with every shade of a degree on the scale from usefulness to redundancy. Consequently, our minds are tuned to taking aesthetic pleasure/ displeasure from all kinds of situations, and here I am talking about processes far more subtle than the
much-discussed levelling of high and low (with camp as the 'intelligent person's intermediary). Still, the kind of total fusion that Fluxus seems to suggest, breeds scepticism as well. Most of all because nothing should be that ambitious, unless you aspire to the status of a religion: The common observation that art in our century tend toward the religious could, of course, be seem to apply particularly well to Fluxus. But being continually reminded of the largest of questions in such a literal and outspoken (however modest and humble) way is in fact also what makes Fluxus potentially boring, leading not to silence, which could be truly desirable, but to the fatigue of blankness. In art-religion no morals and few consistent rituals are offered as salvation for the tired soul.

This problem particularly struck me when visiting the house of Ben Vautier: Everything surrounding this man in his quite fantastic house (all surfaces outside and inside not only being covered by layered with fantastic objects and images of all possible kinds) told the story of an easthetic collagist par excellence, of the extreme pleasure of signs, imagery, rythmn and structure. And still, his official artoutput has been one single long, bitter, brilliant and verbal quarrel with art and The Big Why, continuallu ending in suicidal conclusions.

However, there should be alternative ways of experiencing Fluxus: At least, there should be an answer to why the works manage to resist time and the threat of Fluxus' pwm wprst tendencies, and somehow continue to intrigue. What is maybe the vital point of Fluxus (seen from the un_exited point of view of a non-participant 30 years later) is the notion that a fusion can exist, as a beautiful metaphor of transcedence and nothingness. Despite the non-aesthetic, Fluxus-as-philosophy is no stranger to the use of metaphorical imagery. It can hardly be coincidental that music won the contest as the most popular
fusion-word in the history of intermedia: 'Music' simply evokes maximum transcendence and ephemerality. All you have to do is compare with other artistic terms, such as 'painting' (useless) or theatre' (a bit more versatile), to see that no other term carries this kind of metaphorical denseness. Experiencing Fluxus/fusion in a metaphorical sense faintly echoes the 19th century romantic poets and their metaphorical (but oh, how futile) longing for wholeness and unity, but the extremely contemporary manners and context of Fluxus stop us from taking this comparison too far. Most of all, Fluxus uses an
inconsistently large variety of surprising and pleasurable means to animate the same kind of discrete juxtapositions, contrasts and paradoxes that is, literally and metaphorically, the essence of both music and hearing: Maybe the most subtle kind of perception there is.

And so, by stressing manners, contexts and means as well as agreed-upon essences and intentions, we have returned to the packaging: It appears as an agent provocateur in the interesting Fluxus-play between different realms of understanding, it gleefully uncovers the play of the hiding of the artistic will, versus the reinstallment of that same will, it demonstrates how the play of non-consequence and non-involvement fights the play of total control and total interest. It is not a betrayal, but a game of perception: The artist (or the ART) hiding in the woods , from time to time appearing from behind a tree. 'Look at me. Don't look at me. Here I am. You'll never catch me.'

above copied from: http://www.nutscape.com/fluxus/homepage/ina1blom.html (5 of 5)3/10/2004 4:57:18 PM

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