Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Still Making a Salad: Ecology, Yoko Ono and the Fluxus Score, David Berridge




In 1964 Yoko Ono self-published Grapefruit, a collection of short texts she called “instructions.” In an exhibition currently at the BALTIC in Newcastle, Ono has made objects and performances that interpret some of those instructions, as often in the last forty years she has written new instructions, or re-interpreted old ones in a variety of forms. But if the “instruction pieces” - or scores as they are often known - have been a valuable medium for Ono throughout her career, is there a broader contemporary relevance for the form itself? In the context here, is there something ecological about scores, or something of use when it comes to approaching ecological issues?
Art that speaks directly about ecological issues is clear about its intent, even whilst its structures and methods of production might be decidedly un-ecological. If we shift “the ecological” onto the level of thought and attitude then we run the risk of becoming general and vague. But something about the form of the score suggests the connection with ecology each time I encounter it, on the page or in the gallery, and it is this intuitive connection that this essay will explore.
So what were scores and why do I claim there is something ecological about them? Here is a score by Ono, dated Spring 1964:
PIECE FOR NAM JUNE PAIK NO.1
Water.
What strikes me immediately is how the score focusses on the environment, our relationship to it and ourselves, as well as addressing issues of distribution, resources, and invention. But there are broader issues of what such a piece of writing is, and how to read and respond to its puzzling form.
Ono’s scores were only one example of a whole range of work often known as “event-scores”, whose practitioners included LaMonte Young, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, George Brecht, Alison Knowles and Ben Vautier. Ono’s relationship with John Lennon and ensuing super-celebrity gave her work a prominence not experienced by other Fluxus artists - the initially self-published GRAPEFRUIT was later reissued by Pantheon. But the last few years has seen a range of other score-practitioners getting their book and exhibition dues.
For example, parallel to the Ono show, BALTIC also has a show of Fluxus impresario George Macunias, whilst a self-styled “heterospective” of George Brecht filled the galleries of MACBA in 2007. Last summer Alison Knowles performed her score MAKE A SALAD at the Tate Modern when she, yes, you guessed it. There was also a somewhat riotous night of fluxus films and scores at the Rio Cinema in London’s Dalston and, most comprehensively, FLUXUS SCORES AND INSTRUCTION was exhibited at Roskilde in Denmark, and has been made into an excellent catalogue by Jon Hendricks, who is compiling a catalogue raisonée of scores in the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection archive in Detroit.
It is to the various essays in this catalogue that we can turn for some basic definition of the score form, all the time remembering that different artists often had varying definitions of the score - even about what to call it - and that the act of definition was itself an anathema to many fluxus practitioners. From the following descriptions what do you imagine scores to be?
Alison Knowles: Event Scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life recontextualized as performance. Event Scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores can be realized by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation... [p9]
Jon Hendricks: There are sound scores and graphic scores (which might or might not involve sound). There are recipes for trouble and recipes for solutions. There are in-structures, and event scores. There are propositions, and compositions. There are examinations, reading works, and commands. There are instructions for set-ups, or just a thing to do in your mind. In fact, some scores are not possible to actually do, but are easy to do conceptually. [p15]
Eric Anderson: Somewhat roughly you can divide Scores into 3 sets: the ones that instruct you to do something, Event Scores that are both an object and an activity ,and the ones that carry a maximum of implications. The first ones are pretty conventional, relying on established notation, interpretation and perception. The Event Scores still to some extent carry the orthodox apprehension of the oeuvre while the third set rather tells you nothing. A fine point of departure. [p22]
Robert Watts: Some events are just things to think about. Others are actions that can be carried out, sometimes before an audience or persons. Some are actions to be performed in private. Some are instructions for actions, for attitudes, positions, or stances. Some are impossible, some inconsequential. [p34]
The scores by George Brecht, for example, are minimal texts that Brecht often hand wrote on blank postcards and mailed to friends who might perform them. A few examples:
SIX EXHIBITS
• ceiling
• first wall
• second wall
• third wall
• fourth wall
• floor

WORD EVENT
• EXIT

FIVE EVENTS
• eating with
• between two breaths
• sleep
• wet hand
• several words
Ono’s scores were also often minimal and postcard- fitting, but tended to unfold into a series of actions that comprised a small narrative. The catalogue for Ono’s BALTIC show reprints scores from the painting section of Grapefruit. Two examples will give a flavor of how Ono used the score to utilise, disrupt and expand existing categories of art, such as painting, often hoping to instigate new social encounters, thoughts, and objects:
PAINTING TO BE CONSTRUCTED IN YOUR HEAD
Look through a phone book from the
beginning to end thoroughly.
List all combinations of figures
you remember right after that.
1961 winter

PAINTING TO SEE THE SKIES
Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of hanging.
Try both the front and the rear
windows, to see if the skies are
different.)
1961 summer
Ono’s scores could also deal explicitly with the connections of violence, the body, anxiety and trauma that recurred elsewhere in her work. The score offered a way of working with strong emotions, containing them within the neutral, objective appearance of the score form itself:
BLOOD PIECE
Use your blood to paint.
Keep painting until you faint. (a)
Keep painting until you die. (b)
1960 spring
Fluxus Scores and Instructions - both exhibition and catalogue - sought to broaden the understanding of scores beyond such tiny, postcard-fitting texts. Some scores were more maximal than minimal, as in the detailed, temporal specificity of Robert Filliou’s Poi-Poi Symphony No.1, France Drawn and Quartered (ca. 1962), one movement of which reads:
5th Movement:
The three musicians slowly shake their containers that are now almost empty, and finally, completely empty. The diminishing noise is soon followed by silence.
1- (alone) 1 minute
2- (alone) 1 minute
3- (alone) 1 minute
Then:
The musicians, at least dead tired after handling such a weight (53 kg.?) for 20 minutes fall to the ground;
don’t move. [p77]
Scores, of course, were intended to be realised as performances or sculptures. Ono’s BALTIC catalogue shows a variety of responses to her own scores. So a recent score Wish Tree for Bielefeld (2008) - “Write your wish/ Hang it on a tree” - appears alongside a black and white photo of Ono doing exactly that. Visitors to the BALTIC will also be able to experience a somewhat abbreviated version of 1962’s Riding Piece: “Ride a coffin car all over the city.” Scores such as Sky Event for John Lennon, meanwhile, gain poignancy from the way their initial proposals for social events - where people gathered to look at the sky - have become silent, static, peopleless agglomerations of ladders in the gallery.
So why do I think there is a connection of all this to ecology? It is because of what scores do to our understanding of activities such as writing, reading, responding, and performing: collapsing the divisions between different activities and setting up a web of ever-changing relationships and interdependencies that position the self as both constituted by and constituting the environment.
Take the act of writing a score such Ono’s Piece for Nam June Paik No.1 and its one word “Water.” Such a piece embodies a host of contradictions. It’s a written text, and a visual art work; a performance in itself and a script for a performance that will follow. It is precise, but not prescriptive; a gift for a friend that also asserts an ecological dependency transcending the particular.
A similar web of possibilities effects the reader of the score. The text is self-contained and complete, yet such cryptic minimalism seems to invite a response to complete it. That response is subjective, yet also seems an objective response both to a word - water - and a substance. Here a text seems to be becoming its own organism, both word, nature and not.
All of which, I suggest, parallels the kind of expanded relationships and identities proposed by, say, a whole range of eco- disciplines in economics, literature, economics and philosophy. Furthermore, a history of the context in which fluxus originally emerged would have to touch on ideas and figures central to an emerging (American) environmental consciousness, be it systems theory and cybernetics, the writings of Gregory Bateson, early American naturalists, Thoreau, Buddhism, the Whole Earth Catalogue, or, even, Marshall McCluhan.
Of course, a far more direct connection is the environmental focus of many of the scores themselves. Ono’s work, for example, as in Sky Event for John Lennon, often playfully returns to human relationships to the heavens. For forty years, Alison Knowles has written and performed scores as a way of researching beans, outlining a suggestive model of how scores can be part of an artist’s method of researching the natural world.
Knowles’ 1983 artists book A Bean Concordance presents the most comprehensive collection of this work, by herself and others, drawing connections between the score, beans, and a variety of other forms including recipes, shopping lists, nursery rhymes, newspaper cuttings, and folklore. Take, for example, her bean-derived Mantra for Jessie (some help in sleeping) which begins:
Brown, brown, brown
Red, green, green, green, green
Green, green, white, white

White, green, red, red, red
White, green, brown, brown, brown
White, white, brown, brown, brown
Or compare Ono and Brecht’s short, somewhat gnomic scores with some of the short folklore fragments Knowles collages into Bean Concordance, such as:
On Ryuku Island the Shamen are all women called “Miko.” They study ecstasy for the benefit of the community.
Some travel some don’t.
Or, too, the found text poem of Knowles’ Bean-see also Bein for George Macunias, with its careful listing of the all the Beans in the 1978 New York City phone book.
Or the four lines of arabic calligraphy, contributed by Patria Ramsey, with its accompanying poem-translation:
he knows beans
full of beans
full of beans
music
Knowles’ wonderful book is a collection of scores; of sources for scores; of performances; and a performance in itself. Ongoing bean-fascination found another form when friends and family sat around a table laden with just such slips of scores and folklore - as well as homemade musical instruments comprising bean filled rain sticks and shakers - to improvise her 1982 radio piece Bean Sequences.
These, then, are some examples why scores, on the page and performed, always suggest to me their ecological relevance. And yet... and yet... there’s always the risk of forcing a link, or making the connection too tidy. Unlike the slick art world professionalism of Ono’s BALTIC show, events like Flux Night at the Rio Cinema make clear that, forty years after its appearance, Fluxus retains a strange, awkward, troubling presence through its combination of Dada vaudeville and the neo-monastic. Attempts to claim for it a contemporary relevance should prioritise this awkwardness to avoid turning scores into a bland form of workshop exercise.
Two other points are worth highlighting. Whilst the score has not been written about in precisely ecological terms, it has been thought about in terms of its radical pedagogy, and this, too, links into ecology. Hannah Higgins, for example, concludes her 2002 study Fluxus Experience by focussing on the experiential qualities of Fluxus works as a model for a particular kind of pedagogy. Higgins quotes Howard Gardner and his model of multiple intelligences - linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal - seeing the score, and Fluxus work more broadly, as engaging all of these. As Higgins concludes:
The pedagogical model offered by Fluxus... includes direct experience, conversations, collaborations, and a liberation of means. Fluxus encourages us to look at, to listen to, and feel the environment, to learn from that experience and to remain open to new perception.[p206-7]
More broadly, the current re-assessment of fluxus, along with a broad range of other sixties art practices, has prompted a desire to connect the methods and assumptions of avant-garde art to the those of radical educationalists such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, thinkers often connected to environmental education.
In their 2008 book Spectacle Pedagogy: Art, Politics and Visual Culture, Charles Garoian and Yvonne M.Gaudelius suggest that using avant-garde methods and techniques can be a way of critically engaging with the environment around us:
Because the postmodern condition is pervasively mediated by visual culture, our awareness of its dominating assumptions and our ability to expose, examine, and critique the spectacle of visual culture make the critical pedagogy of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art all the more imperative. When students understand the critical and paradoxical relationships between their art-making activities and the habitus of institutionalized schooling, between the images and the ideas that they create through art, and the spectacle pedagogy of visual culture, then a liminal in-between space opens that enables the potential of art-making for transgressive and transformative experiences.[p1]
But can the score really obtain contemporary relevance? One recent project that answers in the affirmative is Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Formulas For Now (2008). Obrist asked a range of contributers to “contribute an equation for the twenty-first century.” The resulting Thames and Hudson book is very much like what a catalogue raisonée of scores would look like: a rag bag of short gnomic phrases on postcards, diagrams, texts scribbled on napkins, mathematical formula, cartoons, detailed prescriptions, instructions, and comic asides.
Take a few examples of the most score-like: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster contributes a photo of a gallery wall on which she has roughly scrawled the phrase "TROPICALISATION!" Liam Gillick, meanwhile, provides a bare white page at the foot of which is a text that reads:
Seven tons of industrial production divided by eight weeks of management stasis multiplied by two days of complete stagnation added to twelve months of reduced demand
...whilst Carsten Höller contributes a cryptic, funny note that reads:
Dear Habil,
I don’t think doubt has a formula.
Ever,
habil
Whilst sharing many techniques and forms with fluxus scores, Formulas for Now highlights some of the differences between 1968 and 2008. Firstly, the idea of culture has transformed with Obrist’s contributers no longer impoverished, largely Manhattan-based experimental artists but a more globe-spanning mix of high profile architects, scientists, mathematicians, and artists. The texts they create resemble scores, but, partly because of the nature of Obrist’s invitation, no longer have the same simple sense of being for performance, and perhaps this tells us something about our historical moment.
Many texts, too, are both prescriptive and descriptive, and who is being addressed is deliberately ambivalent. Scrawling “TROPICALISATION!” on a wall, for example, is a direct form of address, but who or what is supposed to be tropicalising, and how and when and where? Perhaps it already happened. Perhaps it only happens in the gallery. Perhaps it is supposed to be impossible.
Nonetheless, like their sixties counterparts, the work here is “ecological” in the way it asks us to re-think relationships of writing, reading, self and environment.
It suggests the score as a contemporary practice, a way of processing information, embracing not removing contradiction, and a cottage industry of sometime-romantic philosophers re-buffing learning outcomes amidst a blizzard of policy documents.
None of Formulas for Now contributers would be identified directly with environmental issues. It’s noticeable, however, that in their grapplings with the contemporary, many use the score/formula to explore knotty interconnections of science, urbanism, language, and the environment. Many align with what Sanford Kwinter - in his book of essays Far From Equilibrium - has written of as an urgent contemporary imperative:
... to conceive of human subjectivity, the body it is formed in, the ecstasy it is capable of, and the trajectory it is moving along, within a broad ecological model still sensitive to the untapped revolutionary possibilities that remain enfolded within past worlds and objects.
If nothing else, such a model would at least permit us better to see and to judge the unprecedented mediocrity of our present aspirations, and indeed as well, the possibly dire importance of what we currently seem all too willing to give up. [p19]

So where does all this leave us? This essay proposes the score as a form appropriate for the exploration of such possibilities. This might involve instructions on postcards, text messages, or “formulas for now.” It might be a private or public form; argument or doodle. It might, like Emmett Williams, prefer the term “language happenings” to “score,” although it will likely not be that bothered about using either term. Whatever, it will be a way of re-configuring relationships of reading, writing, thought and action; self, environment and community; in ways playful, urgent, trivial, and perhaps also slightly crazy and incoherent.
Ono, meanwhile, continues to offer her own brand of scores for our consideration. This New Year she provided an opinion piece for The New York Times, comprising some white space in the middle of which was a single handwritten word:
DREAM

Above copied from: http://www.artsandecology.org.uk/magazine/features/david-berridge--fluxus



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