Saturday, November 14, 2009

Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, George Maciunas’ Charts The Historical Past of Fluxus’ Future

One makes history if one actively intervenes. From the position of stepping back and reflecting, one writes about it. George Maciunas practiced both. As ‘agent-provocateur’ his name became synonymous with the New York Fluxus movement. By acting as the editor of publications both graphically stylized and improvised, the educated designer banged heavily the advertising drum. He coordinated the worldwide artistic activities of the Fluxus collaborators so that the movement continued to be a “new wave”. As many other isms came and went, Fluxus grew to gain international interest, dominating all other contemporary styles. Maciunas tried to impose on it a historical status from inception and from inside the present movement rather than from an outside perspective distant in time. With this vision, Maciunas became the leader of the Fluxus artists.

Despite Maciunas’ engagement, the danger of trivializing this avant-garde movement, which he had developed in the early sixties, was by far not averted. Fluxus deviated between the boundaries of art and non-art and consequently risked being marginalized and, thereby, landing outside of the currently popular Pop-Art scene. Artistic theory leading to an affirmative aesthetics of the consumption culture, is not important to the objectives of Fluxus. Instead, it aimed to reject aesthetics and to introduce ordinary life into the arts. Particularly ephemeral works like “gag-like simple events” or so-called “games” are characterized more by their event character than by tangible results. Therefore, they run the danger of being deemed negligible. This adds a medial fuzziness. Fluxus acted predominantly in combinations of music, performance, visual arts and literature. This mixed form was called “Intermedia”1 . In order to create an understanding for this type of art, new general conditions had to be created. Maciunas wrote in the brochure “Fluxus” (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-garde Movements) that a “borderline be rationally defined” This limit, which on one side should have the effect of being historically legitimized should also, on the other side, be artistically encouraging. He illustrated, with a series of diagrams, how he wanted this to be understood. Diagrams were Maciunas’ life theme2 . Not only did he produce numerous diagrams with scientific diligence, but he also archived selected examples, or redrew them for purposes of demonstration.

Beginning with the first Fluxus charts, it was already clear that Maciunas wanted to record artistic and sociopolitical chronological evolution. He could not imagine the extent to which he was part of a new development. That is to say, with the 20th century, the era of art genealogy began 3. However, Maciunas had no concrete precedence for his Charts. He also entered the multicultural and intermedial conditions for Fluxus in a tabular arrangement. With this, he moved in a clear counter position to the American tradition of Formalism, which reaches back over Ad Reinhardt’s sarcastic art genealogical tree How to Look at Modern Art in America (1961 and 1946), Nathanial Pousett-Dart’s Gestaltiar Chart of Contemporary American Art (1938), and Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s paradigmatic Chart (1936) to Miguel Covarrubias’ Tree of Modern Art-Planted 60 Years Ago (1933).

The heterogenic relations, which Maciunas shows in his charts, mirrors, the tendency of Fluxus-Artists to lend themselves to the entirety of a piece of art. Thereby, Marcel Duchamp, as a representative of art beyond painting, and John Cage, with his experimental music, were each conceded a central position. Diverse influences from church processions to futuristic theater, channeled Maciunas in view of the different performance and action directions within the artistic collective, which let them finish in chronological order of the Fluxus history. The chronology gives the long history of Fluxus a relatively short appearance despite its thoroughness and degree of precision. Maciunas determines time and again, on the basis of these schemes, who belongs to the core of Fluxus and who had been excluded from membership. The diagram, therefore, takes the characteristics of a show trial. In this manner, questions of writing history and art policy are brought newly forward.

Maciunas’ diagrams, relative to the history of Fluxus, were not spontaneously designed. They were preceded by many intensive history studies, which Maciunas undertook at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and New York University. As was usual amongst American students of the fifties, he developed long tables with data and facts, offering him a better overview of larger developments. The written word became the decisive motive for the educated typographer. Maciunas was somewhat of a “Learning Machine”. His widespread interests and his universalistic approach required suitable forms of knowledge management in order for him to retain an overview of the enormity of the material. The diagram offered its services in so far as it sorted the facts, and reduced complexity. Maciunas established very precise and orderly, extensive chronologies of Russian history, ancient history, and the history of art, in which he sometimes also drew miniatures.

Maciunas’ “Learning Machines” are made from paper and glue. Their design followed the comparative time tables. Space and time, and their dissolution into succession, configured together an orderly system in which one can integrate historical and geographical knowledge. Thereby, the parallel between space and time creates a mathematical relation between the individual data and the allowance to make quantitative statements. It is this geo-historical idea, which inspired Maciunas for the generation, distribution, and maintenance of knowledge. In order to create these informative concentration zones, he breaks up the factual scheme by extending his work into the third dimension.

As a self appointed genealogist, Maciunas summarized the essential influences for Fluxus. As a Fluxus chronicler, he kept track of all events by transferring his many experiences with Fluxus into data. Maciunas tried to escape from the silence of facts by changing them into a diagrammatic flow of history, and to process them graphically so that they are accessible for historical interpretation. Maciunas was not a fantasist. With a certain bean counter mentality, he established accurate lists of all Fluxus activities and put them together in a synopsis. Maciunas was an analyst. He tried to explain Fluxus in his charts since he was interested in historical preconditions and backgrounds. Add to that the What, When and Where, and he was also a chronic systematist. Regardless of whether he managed his work week or brought abstract words into correlation to each other, or whether he schematized the history of Fluxus, the anti-narrative structure determined his thinking. Maciunas spread the sequential events of history out in a way that they made spatial order. In the grid, they take symbolic form4. This geometrical figure, whether in its strict form or as a graphic matrix, structures all knowledge pictures of Maciunas.

Maciunas approached art from a historical perspective. Nonetheless, he developed new ideas for visual expression and the development of art- a testimony to his fascination with the challenge of history writing. Writing history has to do with processes, which in their multilayered appearances, have to be continually re-oriented. The advantage of analytical graphics in the field of art and images lies in its explicative function. It reduces complex situations without many words and makes them presentable in their entirety. By systematizing the information, by means of rationalizing factual relations, it establishes a structure of knowledge.

The art of netted thinking is to simplify and to admit new views. This basis of thinking, which transgresses all areas of science, also determines Maciunas’ artistic practice. Maciunas believed that there would be no real understanding of the evolution of art without visual presentation.

The three dozen history diagrams which Maciunas created between 1953 and 1973 demonstrated historical causalities and tried to draw a historical picture in different ways consisting of data, lines, and vectors. The result is equally fascinating both scientifically and artistically. It opens views to new connections between years on one side and historical events on the other. This results in a completely new form of knowledge transfer.

Maciunas makes clear very complex relationships between political, cultural, historical, economical, poetic, and aesthetic aspects. His diagrams can be read like a “cultural timetable” which, at the same time, predetermine the geo-historical framework of the Fluxus movement. From universal history, the Fluxus chronical is created.

Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt

1 Dick Higgins, „Intermedia“, in: The Something Else Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 1, Febr. 1966.
2 See Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, „Learning Machines“: >From Art History to a Chronology of Fluxus, Berlin: Vice Versa, 2003.
3 See Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, Stammbäume der Kunst: Zur Genealogie der Avantgarde, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005.
4 See Rosaling E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1985, pp. 9-22.

above copied from:


"Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist… Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art… making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." Andy Warhol

The art of criticism
"…the desire for an authentic life serves as one example of where there is a potential of a radical break with the values of this society." Kevin H. 'The Real Thing' in "Here and Now" #2

The desire for authenticity is the most cynical of all the pseudo-needs manufactured by bourgeois ideologists. Capitalism offers up the spectacle of its own inadequacy and then uses this spectacle as the means of reselling itself to those who 'imagine' they have 'progressed' beyond bourgeois values in a 'return' to the 'authentic'. From health food to anarchism we are bombarded with a thousand and one alternative forms of misery: and while those who believe themselves to be 'different' and 'individual' cling desperately to their 'own' pseudo-brand of 'authenticity', there are others who recognise the social nature of (wo)mankind, the necessity of communist revolution and of a radical break with bourgeois values.

The criticism of art
"In art theory those who would avoid a simple inversion of the code raise themselves to a position of superiority that surveys codes." John Young and Terry Blake "On Some Alternatives To The Code In The Age Of Hyperreality"

While those who make a living from the pseudo-criticism of art choose to rise above commitment to life, there are others who take the distinction between the present and its permanent deferral seriously. The latter are committed to the abolition of time and all other social abstractions; in particular the privileged sphere of 'art'. The work of art is never produced but always reproduced from the reifications of bourgeois ideology. Supposedly rising above ideological constructions, the work of art actually descends beneath them to the lowest layer of ideological production; from this point it can more effectively partake in the endless reproduction of capitalist 'social' relations. Spawn of bourgeois mystification, art must necessarily disappear when the social system it supports is overthrown. The successful completion of proletarian revolution will coincide with the abolition of art and all other forms of creativity and 'self-expression'.

Authentic ideology
"Seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time was like awakening from a 14 year sleep. Or so it seemed, but then I never really saw the Pistols, I never saw them live, I only saw tv footage." Mike Kemp "Punk In The Suburbs"

There is nothing that makes seeing a pop group in a club or concert hall more 'real' than watching them on a tv screen. However, under capitalism television is simultaneously promoted as the 'universal' medium of technological society and yet somehow 'inferior' to the very communication systems it has replaced. Thus what should have been rendered obsolete is magically granted a privileged status on the grounds that it is somehow more 'authentic'. But then as anybody who has been on the scene of a disaster knows, these events only gain any real power once they have been processed by the media. The ideology of the 'authentic' is used to sell us the pseudo-alternative of the out-dated; simultaneously it reinforces bourgeois social relations by presenting us with the spectacle of choice under Capital.

The Art of Refusal and the Refusal of Art
"We must liquidate this crazy thing called art to make it possible for all people everywhere to be creative. It is our duty to become self-destructive in a constructive way. We must liquidate not only our own function as artists but we must liquidate the art system as well." From the "Manifesto of The International Coalition for the Liquidation of Art"

To demand the destruction of art in the name of creativity is merely a reform of Power. To trade off art against creativity is to take back with one hand what has been rejected by the other. Those who genuinely oppose alienated social relations will not only break with art but affirm the refusal of creativity.

The Art of Suffering and Suffering for Art
"The arts are a growing concern. They enrich the quality of our lives. And they enrich us financially too." From a leaflet issued by The National Campaign for the Arts

What 'individual' artists suffer in the creation of bourgeois ideology is nothing compared to the damage they inflict on society as a whole. If artists suffer they cannot suffer enough; they deserve all the horrors of hell. It is high time these pathetic excuses for humanity learnt that the world doesn't revolve around them; that it is quite natural that proletarians, who are locked in mortal combat with the bourgeois patrons of 'serious culture', should only take a negative and destructive interest in works of art.

International campaign for the Abolition of Work and All Forms of Creativity
"Through the production of an art commodity, the artist has become a businessman. In order to market his commodity and increase its commercial value, he must create a mystique about himself and his work. The gallery is the means through which the commodity is dispensed. The museum serves the purpose of sanctifying both the commodity and the artist. The collector is the stock speculator. The corporation patrons use the commodity as a sanctification and sanitization of their image. The art magazines are the trade journals, the financial reports of the art world. And the critic serves the function of whip hand for all." Guerrilla Art Action Group "Toward A New Humanism"

Those of us who will be making a total break with all forms of creativity between 1990 and 1993 are not interested in the new humanisms of individuals who speak so as not to be. For a minimum of three years we will not create art, texts or philosophies. Since we are interested in the destruction of this society, we view the humanists of both left and right - imbeciles seeking petty reforms - as our avowed enemies, whose liquidation will be necessary before we can dissolve this world of appearances.

Stewart Home, first published in Smile #9, London 1986. Reprinted in Neosim, Plagiarism & Praxis by Stewart Home (AK Press, 1995).

The above copied from:

Brian Duguid, The Unacceptable Face of Freedom

No, not an article on Test Dept., for those of you who expected such a thing! Instead, inspired by Thee Grey Wolves, I'd like to take a look at fascist imagery in "industrial" and experimental music.

As most of you will be aware, this kind of music is riddled with such imagery, both overt and covert. Experimental musicians, most notably Throbbing Gristle, have used the symbology of fascism, claiming that they desired to challenge preconceptions and to create a more open-minded audience. The punks made extensive use of the swastika. As part of their nihilistic rejection of society's established values, they felt the need to espouse the unacceptable, in order to adequately express their disgust with the world in which they lived. Victims of what they saw as authoritarian aggression, they responded instinctively by reflecting back that social violence in the form of an anti-social shock.

Yugoslavian avant-garde rock band Laibach adopt the appearance of totalitarianism to explore both our authoritarian society and the authoritarian nature of "rock" music. Often accused of being fascists, their extensive use of ironic humour acts as a reminder that they are not what they seem. They use the symbols both of Nazism and religion, and are clearly of the opinion that to be able to subvert and destroy the state you must first enter and understand it.

Others use not the superficial imagery of fascism but the real ethos of dictatorship in their attempts to provoke a response and expose control mechanisms. One example includes Non, who in the early eighties played concerts consisting of unbearably loud and physical rhythmic music. Audiences either fled from this authoritarian onslaught or accepted and explored the pleasure of submission.

Many of the hardbeat groups look distinctly jackbooted in their espousal of extreme physical discipline, and their replication of fascist chic throughout their presentation. Given that most of them profess to be opposed to the existing social order, they spend a lot of time replicating its style and symbols. Bands like Manufacture, Front 242 and others use hard, militaristic rhythms, coupled with samples of rightwingers and religious nutcases, presenting the raw data of their info-environment without comment. We are "expected" to understand that although these bands look like fascists, they are in fact opposed to fascism. Inevitably, they attract neo-Nazis to their music whether they like it or not. Even socialists like Test Dept have been described as "thugs of the new left" due to their masculine, angry, violent presentation. [see Letters]

Others are even more dubious. Death in June pepper their albums with skulls, runic images and paramilitary style, and have appeared on stage in brownshirts in the past. Their love of seemingly fascist gestures extends to what they lovingly describe as "the European dream", a pan-continental supernation. Depending on your point of view this may seem a noble goal, a right-wing insanity, or just a particularly naive piece of romanticism. Staying in a similar musical clique, Whitehouse and their label Come Org have used sufficiently extreme rhetoric not only in public but also in private for even the most forgiving liberal conscience to shy away from giving them the benefit of the doubt. The blatant racism of Whitehouse's William Bennett appears to have few pretensions to being a sophisticated cultural critique, despite many fans' illusions. Whitehouse's live events frequently involved lavish helpings of racial abuse, alienating many of those who were sufficiently liberal to give them a chance in the first place.

And there are others: cassette artists working in this area include the likes of the AWB group, extreme right-wing racists who have chosen to work in the experimental electronics world, and Con-Dom, a solo project from the British Isles, which attempts to explore themes of control and domination through the use of a primitivist wall of noise. The cassette underground contains numerous examples of artists exploring this sort of territory, and whilst it's certainly a valid expression, it all begins to seem a little samey and unimaginative after a while.

As T.G. made clear, surface Nazism is very stylish. Black and red and silver make a very attractive colour scheme, and fascist insignia are extremely powerful symbols. The imagery can be traced back to the Italian Futurist movement, with its love of striking, dynamic art. Most users of motifs like the swastika, like Jim Thirlwell, of Foetus, explain their use simply in terms of a desire to use visuals that they like, that they find psychically resonant. Even four decades after what the Allies ridiculously claimed to be the death of fascism, the imagery retains its powerful fascination. Extremism of any sort reverberates deep within our psyche: it touches parts of the unconscious that more moderate philosophies are unable to reach.

And of course, the punks reminded us of just how provocative the swastika remained after many years. Throwing the establishment's own excrement back into its throat is sure to result in a nauseous reaction. For groups intent on outraging society, fascism was a powerful weapon. Time at last to stamp in turn on the boot that had stamped on you, even if the only methods you had for doing so were those that the authorities had themselves taught you.

It's debatable whether such tactics were ever productive, however. Certainly, they didn't change the system, only reinforcing its repressive desires. The desire to shock seemed frequently to be born more out of a rejection of society than out of any embrace of a positive alternative. Mummy won't let us play so we scream and shout - this is all that provocation often amounted to. It was based on the same emotions as those of the screaming child. Our environment is unpleasant and destructive, but we do not feel we have the power to do anything about it. In such a situation, nihilism is the only viable option, but it rests upon a false assumption. We are not powerless, and to accept that we are, and do nothing but complain, can only further set back our chances of realising our true desires. Nihilism is counter-revolutionary, disempowering, and to this extent the widespread adoption of fascist imagery as a shock strategy was doomed to miserable failure. Additionally, in adopting the violent tactics of the oppressor, punk and the other protestors were admitting that they had no alternatives to offer, thus validating the initial oppression. The authoritarian state thrives on violent rebellion, using it as its own justification.

However, many scions of industrial culture would claim that their attempts to shock were more than just screams of outrage. They would claim, as for example S.P.K. did when exhibiting violent sexual imagery in their work, that the intent of the shock was to jolt people out of their everyday slumber, to awaken in them the idea that perhaps all this extreme material could be treated objectively, not just the subject of a knee-jerk reaction as was usually the case. Personally, I find this pretty doubtful, as the repetition of any image tends only to reimprint the associations that it already had. In other words, people who found the imagery disgusting in the first place are unlikely to change their minds just because they see the imagery again. I'm going to leave a consideration of the adoption of an aggressive, possibly fascist, style by groups like Laibach, Test Dept and the various hardbeat bands for another time. Instead, we have in front of us an example of the use of extreme imagery taken towards one logical conclusion: Thee Grey Wolves. By now, a century after literature and art experienced various outbursts of taboo-breaking extremism, all this may seem to be a case of retreading paths that have been walked too many times already. It may seem fair to criticise those who are still exploring the dark side of humanity of substituting the use of originality with a formula known to be good at attracting attention. Is this a fair comment on Thee Grey Wolves? Named, if I'm not mistaken after a right-wing Turkish terrorist group (much as fellow extreme electronics outfit Terre Blanche adopt the moniker of South African fascist and head of the terrorist A.W.B. commandoes, Eugene Terre-Blanche; or as S.P.K. claimed the name of the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv), Thee Grey Wolves began life in 1985. Its two members have also worked on solo projects as Tactical Aid Group and Nails ov Christ, and run their own cassette labels Artaman Tapes and Strength Through Awareness.

Claiming to be manifestations of the "Cultural Terrorism Network", Thee Grey Wolves try to adopt a uniformly extreme attitude to what they release. Their crude mail-order catalogues are peppered with crypto-fascist symbols, pictures of terrorists, Nazis and the like. Their cassette releases include "Red Terror Black Terror", "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Legion of Hell". Amongst the current projects of David Padbury (alias Crystal Knight) is "120 Days of Sodom" a planned exhibition of extreme (and probably illegal) mail-art. The intent of this last seems to be to test the limits as much as possible - to break taboos and air issues by the use of shock treatment - but whether or not this bears much relation to the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel of the same name is debatable. There was far more to "Sodom" than the desire to shock and test boundaries. The music? Oh yes, the music! Like many other groups producing "extreme electronics", their sound is that of the inside of the experimental animal's head, the scream of the gas chamber and the agony of civilisation collapsing. At least, that's one interpretation. Alternatively, I could succinctly describe it as "unlistenable noise". In reality, the music falls somewhere between the two. Harsh, painful, chaotic noisescapes, not sufficiently disjointed or extreme as to be really unlistenable: amidst the sonic sludge there is a latent structure lurking somewhere. Out of the chaos you feel almost able to pick out subliminal themes and elements - but it's possible that this is aural hallucination.

Although primarily designed, it seems, to repel the listener, the music is listenable enough that it can seem almost beautiful once you've reeducated your ears. As atmospheric music it's fine, if a little crude, if the kind of atmosphere you like is that found inside an abattoir. As a soundtrack to apocalypse it's a failure, coming nowhere near to reflecting the horror that hides in real life. To a certain extent, it could be argued that if you've heard one wall of noise, you've heard them all, but this isn't fair. Noise music contains a far greater array of possibilities than might seem immediately evident. It can be mindless, violent, serene, obnoxious, beautiful. As far as noise = music is concerned, other artists have explored that idea far more than Thee Grey Wolves have done, a personal favourite being the American musician PBK, who has succeeded in his attempt to develop an attractive noise aesthetic. And, as I said above, as far as noise = statement is concerned, I believe music of any kind is never capable of presenting anything other than a debased form of real extremity. It's easy to react to the group's imagery on a simple, instinctive, and immediate level. The imagery is repellent (to any reasonably socially aware conscience) and so why should anyone bother to look further into it? If you are opposed to fascism and are unable to decide on the basis of what the group is saying whether or not they are fascists, shouldn't you err on the side of caution? Even if you believe they are not, why should you be interested in all this unpleasant imagery anyway? If, as they claim, Thee Grey Wolves see it as their role to present us with information which we would rather ignore, to remind us of the true face of fascism, doesn't it seem sensible to say: "Ok, that's the true face of fascism - I know what it is, and I don't want anything to do with it"? And if I want to see what fascism's about, I don't need Thee Grey Wolves to tell me: there are plenty of real examples to choose from without needing their secondhand representations. Taboo-breaking is usually acknowledged to be a worthwhile activity. Groups like Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth promote it as a means of ridding ourselves of social indoctrination and rediscovering our "true intuitive will". As far as most taboos are concerned, this is fine, since most taboo actions are not in fact anti-social. Taboos against violence are another matter, since they crystallise what even many taboo-breakers would consider to be useful principles. How far do you go in your search for your inner self? Can you justify behaving in a "bad" way because you feel it is necessary to explore both the dark and light sides of your personality? Are the results of such self-exploration so important as to outweigh the effects on others of that exploration?

Many of the earlier "industrial" artists explored these areas: Throbbing Gristle and Monte Cazazza are amongst the best examples. It's arguable that their exploration of the extreme went further than Thee Grey Wolves would ever go since as well as just flirting with the imagery, they privately experienced and publicly performed any number of sadistic and taboo activities, of which, Cosey Fanni Tutti's exposure in pornographic magazines is probably the best remembered. And they're far from the only ones.

Outwith the musical ghettoes, artists like Rudolf Schwartzkogler have explored extreme areas in depth. Schwartzkogler, an Austrian, died in 1969 after a series of performances involving self-mutilation. His compatriot Hermann Nitsch is particularly well known for his 1970s projects, in which the public participated in cathartic rituals involving real animal sacrifice, attempting to communicate with instincts generally anaesthetised by Western social alienation. [see Letters]

Time after time those members of the experimental music underground with an interest in Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Hitler and the other popular icons of extreme evil, seem to justify their interest in such things with the simplistic and idiotic "it's what I like, so it must be all right", appealing to the anarchistic belief that everyone should be allowed to follow their innermost desires. When those desires lead them to express fascination with mass-murderers, I begin to wonder exactly where we can draw the line. Knowing your enemy is all very well, but the interests shown by people like Boyd Rice (Non) frequently seem to cross the border that separates morbid from obsessive and dangerous. But it's not just a question of how you or I or the groups themselves react to fascist and violent allusions. How do others react upon coming into contact with these bands? Some people are attracted by the simple clarity of fascism expressed within the style of bands like Front 242, Last Few Days and many others. Fascist rhetoric attracts fascists - a simple equation. If you don't want to attract such people, then you shouldn't use their rallying imagery in your publicity. This implies that anyone who uses such imagery is happy to associate with fascists, and willing to be labelled as such. Clearly, they don't find this insulting, or presumably they would do something about it.

Others are repelled. If you have suffered the effects of racism at first hand, then you may find it hard to find any liberal sympathy for those supposed sophisticates who plaster their album sleeves in swastikas. You may say this is just the result of their inability to challenge and overcome their conditioned preconceptions. I agree. I also suspect that anyone saying this would be showing a complete inability to understand exactly what it is that has produced this conditioning in the first place. If I had learned to associate the carving of NF on my door with the pushing of burning rags through my letterbox, I don' think I'd have much time for anyone asking me to challenge my preconceptions when presented with a pseudo-Nazi record cover.

It is perhaps reasonable to claim that it is desirable for the audience to reach their own conclusions about the information a band presents, rather than having the band's "right on" opinions shoved down their throats. Nobody likes to be preached at after all, and the mutual back-slapping that is the essence of a socialist band playing to a socialist audience is never going to provoke any thought in either party, only reinforce their prejudices. But should bands be so afraid of expressing their own opinions that they have to shelter behind the expression of supposedly "objective" information instead? I'm happy to accept a bit of subjectivity from the group's I listen to. If I want pure facts I'll go to a library. This particular problem is acute for Thee Grey Wolves, who do try to present their material as simple documentation. Their own opinions are rarely expressed, as they feel it is better to let the information speak for itself without any distorting subjective coloration.

Nonetheless, even Thee Wolves have been forced to declare themselves opponents of fascism, as it has become clear to them that if they do not make their position clear then their audience will err on the side of caution, and stay away. This means that, like Laibach with their irony, they have had to temper their deliberately confusionist stance with a certain disclaimer, and as a result what they present can never again be so challenging. If we know that they are not really fascists, then the ambiguity of their presentation is removed - we know that they disapprove of what they are releasing, and we know how we are "expected" to react. The necessities of real life prevent them from adopting the absolute statement that they seem to desire to make. Confusion as a revolutionary tool has a long history. Within the present century it has been well documented, from the dada art movement (and others) onwards to fluxus and beyond. In Zurich and Berlin, the Dada movement hurled abuse at its audience, shat on the art of the past, and gleefully espoused every paradox it could find. While Kennedy and Kruschev faced off in 1962, flux-artist Robin Page turned what seemed like a rock gig into a potent experience when he kicked his guitar out of the building and down the street, the bewildered audience following close behind. Never let the audience know what is going on, since that way lies certainty, safety, and the end of anything challenging. This motto has served large numbers of artists well in the past, and, applied particularly to controversial and ambiguous politics, it creates a vigorous and interesting result. If people are sure of what you are saying, then it can be argued that they will accept it at face value without thinking very deeply about it. If your statement is not clear cut, then they have to decide what they think it means, and this immediately forces them to give it deeper consideration. In other words, confusionism is a tool for provoking thought. In this arena, Thee Grey Wolves succeed, despite the seeming lack of originality of their subject matter. Unlike the various industrial bands who have dabbled in extreme areas, (with the possible exception of Whitehouse), Thee Wolves make it the sole focus of their art, and in doing so focus on all the questions which surround the area. It is also fair to say that extreme situations demand extreme responses. And surely anyone who still believes that we do not live in an extreme situation has had their eyes and ears tightly shut for most of their life. Increasingly complex formal social organisation has created an environment where the stresses and strains of everyday life that would be easily dissipated by a more flexible and responsive political system are routed into artificial outlets. These stresses accumulate in the gaps between the hierarchical lines of communication, unable to be dealt with by a fixed system that cannot adapt quickly enough to new problems. As a result, the cracks begin to show more and more often, as our entire social structure suffers a nasty form of stress fatigue. The problems are there, as everyone knows, and as everyone knows the problems are not being dealt with, but wallpapered over in the hope that some future generation will have the ability to deal with them.

But extreme responses do not necessarily mean an extremely violent or nihilistic response. There are other forms of extremity. If our only desire is to draw people's attention away from the television set back to reality, to expose the civilised world as a sham, then nihilism is a good way of going about things. In the dark form favoured by many industrial artists, it represents an expression of discontent that cannot be easily repackaged and resold by the establishment, as punk was, for example. However, it's debatable whether it achieves anything else. Negative criticism is never enough on its own. Many of the groups frequently lumped in under the "industrial" banner appear to have recognised this to some extent. Test Dept, whose original performances and records were brutal expressions of anger, have softened their work as they have progressed, attempting to put out a more mature statement of their position. On their album, Terra Firma, they adopted a "green" awareness, but in general they have remained most comfortable as critics of oppression rather than attempting to offer solutions to it. To a great extent, this is a fear of becoming didactic, of telling the audience how they are expected to respond instead of leaving them to make up their own minds. Equally, it's because the group have no real political programme to offer, only a rather simplistic form of socialist consciousness.

Similarly, Nocturnal Emissions have moved away from the tactics of information overload, and from their aggressively presented reaction to their world, adopting in the last few years a more atmospheric musical style. Having decided that their is no future in just shouting against injustice, NE have tried to explore a more personal field, using instinct and the unconscious as their route to a more positive philosophy and a less reactive source of strength.

So clearly, there are problems with trying to create a more positive response to post-industrial society, with everyone who has rejected the extreme approach shying clear of preaching their personal solution. Maybe they just don't have the courage of their own convictions, and so are afraid to lay them on the table, open to criticism. Or maybe they appreciate that there is little point moving into a situation where both performer and audience explicitly share the same opinions, becoming trapped within their mutually reinforcing ideology.

But can replicating fascist ideology ever lead to its destruction? Are the supposed liberals only doing the Nazis' dirty work by creating a climate where the expression of fascist desires is deemed somehow made acceptable? Doesn't violence only breed violence?

Many, including the Grey Wolves argue that violence is the only solution we have left to face up against the Godzilla state. Anyone who believes that a rebellion in this country wouldn't be met by the armed response familiar from Tianamen Square, Jerusalem, Kurdestan and elsewhere is living in a fantasy. Riots in Philadelphia, USA, led to the military being called in to "restore order", with tanks on the streets to keep the populace submissive. The only difference between that and China is a linguistic one: we call it "rioting" if it happens here, and "rebellion" if it happens anywhere else; "terrorism" if it happens here, and "guerilla warfare" elsewhere. Investigations into the P2 masonic conspiracy in Italy uncovered links with the Italian extreme right-wing Gladio organisation, in turn linked to paramilitary forces in Britain which train regularly to ensure readiness for any "communist" takeover. The world we live in is a far more violent and oppressive place than the dailies would have us believe, and the argument that such a state can only be fought by using its own tactics is a powerful one.

Violence is inevitably authoritarian and repressive: it is the forceable destruction of another person's freedom, even if only their freedom not to suffer pain. The question is not whether use of violent imagery is "good". It is not. It is a question of whether or not the ends desired justify the use of such means. And still there is the unspoken assumption that there is no alternative: we can only destroy the state by taking on its mantle. Is this the only choice we are left with or are there other alternatives? Comment on any of the above is very welcome. I think it's only fair to finish with a response from Crystal Knight to a letter I sent:

"In your letter you seemed to suggest that the Grey Wolves hold a basically nihilistic outlook on life - this is not the case at all. Whilst basically our approach is anarchic we deal in the ambiguity that you spoke of for several reasons: if anything we do makes just one person think "What the fuck is the point in them doing that?" it has all been worthwhile, because it has made people question. If people are questioning then they are alive and thinking. Confusion is the key issue. It was recently pointed out to me in an indirect way that the majority of our work deals with the subject of control.

"If I could use the example of control and how we use ambiguity in a positive way, it may make things a little clearer. There is a poster we did showing some bloke being arrested by plain clothes cops - his arms behind his back, face shoved to the ground, cops with pistols drawn - the caption over this picture reads "Say No to Democracy". Anyway, the point is that some people thought we were advocating a totalitarian state whilst other people thought we were being ironic in as much as we were trying to say "Look, this is what democracy is really about!" Either perspective we are quite happy to live with, as the objective of the poster was to make people think about democracy, even if it was only for a few seconds ...

"I would disagree with you though when you say that violence perpetuates the structures of oppression. I believe the exact opposite to be true (i.e. violence is a legitimate weapon of change). I would quote the Strangeways uprising here in Salford last April, and the recent prison reforms as an example of where violence has resulted in change for the better (also the poll tax riot, and on a larger scale the Gulf War)." [see Letters]

Very Selective Bibliography:

Fräctüred #2: "Panorama", excellent article on Laibach by Norman Jope.

Vital #14: Interview with Con-Dom.

Tape Delay: very wonderful book published by SAF and edited by Charles Neal. Interviews with bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Test Dept, Laibach, Non.

Re/Search: Various books including the Industrial Culture Handbook, with material on Monte Cazazza, SPK, Throbbing Gristle and others; Burroughs / Gysin / Gristle, featuring an interesting bio of T.G. by Simon Dwyer; and Pranks, which amongst other things documents a number of very extreme performance artists. Performance Art: by RoseLee Goldberg, published by Thames and Hudson. Some material on Fluxus, Dada and Viennese 'actionism'. Lipstick Traces: by Greil Marcus, published by Secker and Warburg. Shock tactics as used by the Lettrist International and by punk.

Thee Grey Wolves can be contacted at: Artaman Tapes, 62 Saxby Street, Salford, Manchester M6 7RG, England. The Cultural Terrorist Manifesto

(C) Brian Duguid 1995

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Interview | Gustav Metzger

“I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art”

Emma Ridgway, curator of The RSA Arts & Ecology Centre, interviews Gustav Metzger
Born in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Gustav Metzger is an artist known for his radical approach. His work responds directly to political, economic and ecological issues. Creating manifestos and events in the UK since the early 1960s, he developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art and Art Strike movements, which addressed destructive drives both in capitalism and the art industry. He still makes challenging work and his ideas continue to be influential.

Before we recorded this interview, we watched the short film, Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009), by artists Jane and Louise Wilson. "That, was brilliant", he said afterwards. The film is a sensitive portrayal of the actress that Stanley Kubrick intended to use in a 1990s film about the holocaust. After his rigorous research, Kubrick felt emotionally unable to make his film. For Gustav Metzger, a holocaust survivor, work by younger artists addressing events of political importance is vital — it adds to the ways we understand contemporary society and each other. We also discussed the successes of Jeremy Deller’s provocative project It is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq (2009), for which he toured a bombed car from Iraq around the USA.

This interview focuses on Gustav Metzger’s "appeals" to artists to engage with contemporary political developments.

Emma Ridgway: It’d be good to start with a quick overview of some of your recent projects. Flailing Trees is a large commission for the Manchester International Festival in July. And in the autumn, the Serpentine Gallery will hold a substantial survey exhibition of your work. Our last interview focused on your Reduce Art Flights project (RAF, 2008) – could you give a brief description of that project please?

Gustav Metzger: Well, that is connected with the art world. It came out of a concern that I felt with the transportation of artworks and people all over the world. And in particular with the art fair, which is held in Basel but also in Miami in the United States. A similar organisation organises these two fairs. And in the Basel fair it was announced that people who want to attend the Miami fair would get half price aeroplane tickets. And that really upset me and got me started with the proposal to appeal, (as that’s all you can do), to "appeals" to the art community not to travel too much and not to go from place to place as they tend to do. It was two years ago that I made this proposal.

There are other "appeals" in your work to the artistic community. One was Years Without Art, suggesting that people should give up making art for a period.
For three years, 1977 - 1980, that was the term I proposed. And that was put forward in the ICA catalogue, Art Into Society — Society Into Art: Seven German Artists, in an exhibition that took place in 1974.

Your Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto (1959) proposed a new way of making art. Art that would de-materialise through its making, so the art object would be destroyed as it was being created; the intention was that nothing would remain that could contribute to the art market economy. Is that account about right?

Yes, that’s a good summary, yes.

A while ago we watched a re-creation of the light projections of the Acid Action Paintings (1963 onwards). It was at the Self-Cancellation event held at Beaconsfield Gallery, London (2008), which was in response to your Auto-Destructive Art Manifestos. The projection showed acid being painted on nylon slides and included amplified sounds of the disintegration process. You commented on the beauty of it, comparing it to a Rothko painting, so it wasn’t just the concept of the work you found compelling.
Yes, it was astonishing because colour came through. When I originally projected acid on nylon, beginning in February 1963, all the images on the screen were black and white — and here, for some reason or other that I could never understand - they had colour on the screen and it was indeed breath-taking and startling and a completely fresh experience for me and for the audience.

Yes it was very striking. And would you talk specifically about your appeals to artists to be more open about the personal position, as regards ethics and politics?

In the broadest sense it is a question of artists being part of a much wider community — a world community — and facing up to the world-wide conditions that may make future life impossible. To oppose those world developments that are extremely destructive. Taking moral standpoints and from there moving into political activities, however modest, to affect the world.

And we have talked about doing an informal event with artists on UN World Environment Day on 5 June at the Whitechapel Gallery [photo above from left: Jeremy Deller, Emma Ridgway, Gustav Metzger, Cornelia Parker - Whitechapel Gallery, London, 5 June 2009] to discuss this question of responsibility. As part of the brilliant re-opening of the Whitechapel gallery there is a beautiful David Bomberg work from the beginning of the 20th century — he taught you didn't he?

Yes, I was in his class in the autumn of 1945 until the summer of 1953 when Bomberg retired from teaching and then planned to go to Spain. Of course, I wasn’t there all the time, I would also be going to other classes, I spent one year at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. But Bomberg, throughout those study years, was the central figure whom influenced me and encouraged me and taught me a great deal.

He was counted as part of the Vorticists group at some points — is that right?

Well he was on the edge of the group; he never joined and he never wanted to be part of it. He specially refused to sign the Vorticists manifesto, which Wyndham Lewis urged him to do, to sign. So it's a complex relationship. Certainly Vorticism and Bomberg’s work at a certain time, around 1914 or so, was going in a similar direction.

You were an activist before you were an artist. Was there a particular moment, or was it through Bomberg, that you decided that contemporary politics was going to be a core part of your work?

Yes, my interest in politics was there from the age of around 17. That was in wartime, around 1942 – 43, when I was living in Leeds and there I almost completely converted to the idea of becoming some sort of revolutionary figure –art at that point had no place in my conception of the future. It was only in the late summer of 1944, when I felt I would move away from the ideal of becoming a political activist to becoming an artist. So moving into art was a way of moving forward without giving up the political interest; because I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art. For example, the writing of Eric Gill who was both an artist and a craftsman and politically involved was a kind of inspiration to me. I could see this possibility of using the ideas of social change within art, with art and not simply through political, economic activity.

Sometimes we visit exhibitions together and discuss the work. On a number of occasions you have been disinterested in the work because it lacked any political bite or ethical aspect. Is this something you feel artists work must contain?

Yes, I think that is inescapable and the more the world changes, is changing, in the direction of more speed and more activities. And the more that happens the more necessary it is for people to stand back and, not merely in the art sphere but in every sphere of intellectual activity, to stand back and distance oneself and come up with alternative ways of dealing with reality than going along with a direction that is essentially catastrophic and consuming itself and turning itself into a numbers game. Where the technology, especially the technology of the mobile phones and this endless sound machinery that people force into their biological mechanism, seems to be unstoppable; and the more it goes on, the more we need to stand aside and distance ourselves from this rush towards destruction.
I know you’ve spoken many times about the rush to destruction; the destructive drive that’s part of people. But there’s also, in the 40s, Erich Fromm’s writing, such as his "Humanist Credo" and his writing on the love of life. I’m thinking of his concept of "Biophilia", the love of living things, of ecology (be it people or plants, for example), which creates and generates in people a great positive surge in life and love in a very profound way. Do you think that the positive living drive is as big as the destructive drive?

I would imagine that if it is in terms of numbers I would think it would be bigger than that destructive drive. Otherwise we would have gone by now. And so I think the drive towards life is overwhelming, yes, I would say that.

An area that repeatedly comes up in contemporary culture and in the field of art is a particular form of cynicism toward politics and ethics; an inverted attitude towards social change and the idea that you could have any impact. Would you talk about your position on this trend of cynicism and disinterest regarding politics?

Well is it a great problem. And that people adapt to the general direction, that is driven by politics, by the current political parties, and by the system in which we live — which is all about producing and consuming and making and keeping on making. The term growth is at the centre of it all and growth is all to do with numbers rather than values.

Growth leads towards self-destruction and towards machinery breaking down, and towards machinery made to break down so that you can replace it so that you can go on borrowing money, spending it, and accumulating. That is what we know as the capitalist system. This system is inherently cynical, it is inherently throwaway — and damaging in all conceivable directions — in the production of food and transport systems. And artists go along with it, reflect it and that means they then support it — and this is what I have been criticising now and all my life: that people should bow down to the main direction of society, which is crippling. Only recently we have seen how capitalism can be extremely self destructive, barely surviving – but I would like to add to this current discussion: I believe capitalism will come out of this crisis and will actually be stronger than before because they will have learnt lessons, and they will apply these lessons in order to maintain the system and maintain their power. So the idea that because of this so called credit crunch, and because the weakness of capitalism has been so damagingly exposed, that’s not going to stop the system. It will learn new tricks and I would suggest that in 10 years time capitalism will flourish as never before.

But do you hope that within that there will have been lessons learnt?
Yes, lessons learnt on how to protect the system how to make it work even better, that is what they are going to do. They are intelligent enough and determined enough and they have so much at stake, to make it survive.

But in terms of state systems of governance, for example within the UK, public services like the NHS, clean water, education — infrastructures that are set out to provide a better quality of life for the largest number of people,these are within the capitalist system. Erm, what point am I making? Oh yeah — any governance system should set out to do that, to my mind. So are you fundamentally against the idea of centralised government?

No I’m not, I think one has to have centralised government, and the police to protect people, so it’s a question of a government that is wiser and that is prepared to stand up for people rather than for financial systems.

And we were talking before about Raymond Williams, and this beautiful quote "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing."

Yes, I think that art, if it is practiced genuinely, is certainly away from the destruction that is in us and away from the destructivity in society. And so I remain certain that the drive towards art, the possibility of art is of the utmost importance, and is inherently sound. The criticism that one has of a certain type of art of today is that is that there is not enough inner energy towards life in that art. That is one of my concerns that the art and the artists don’t give themselves sufficient opportunity to drift into the depths of humanity, the depths of nature, and from those depths come out like a swimmer, coming out from the depths and breathing deeply. Art, I believe, needs to sink into the centre of a human being, come up, and that will be hope - the art will be hope. The art will have the energy and the wisdom out of the deep entering into oneself and into nature.

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