Thursday, July 22, 2010


Conceived of as one video environment, the landscape created by Shigeko Kubota’s magical video sculptures in the show, My Life With Nam June Paik, at once disorients and transfixes. Using a myriad of materials, Kubota creates a world out of inorganic matter that feels like a natural environment, physically expressing her notion of video as a new frontier of art and reality. In this exhibition, Kubota has created a stimulating atmosphere that depicts massive crystalline mirrors, dynamic metal sculptures, and video screen projections that pulsate colorfully like living organisms. A beautiful musical piece composed by Nam June Paik—renowned video artist and Kubota’s late husband—at a mere thirteen years, lends an important audio component to this ethereal environment.

When Kubota began using video over 30 years ago, the idea that a medium associated solely with science and technology could be accepted as an art form seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, it became evident early on that she was doing something totally original. For Kubota, video has been a means of distending and distorting, even negating time. As a pioneer of the video sculpture genre, Kubota has, throughout her career, been on the cutting edge of video art techniques: integrating television monitors into her sculptures, combining the organic and the inorganic, and exploring notions of a collective consciousness. Kubota’s work has come to expand the philosophical scope of art. Her novel activities became especially important within the context of the feminist art movement of the 1970’s, a time in which past methods of interpreting and valuing art were being challenged. Kubota’s work singularly combines the conceptuality of Fluxus, the formality of traditional sculpture, and the unique ability of video to engage and entrance.

Background and Early Career
Shigeko Kubota was born in Niigata, Japan in 1937. She studied sculpture at the Tokyo University of Education and went on, after a brief period of teaching, to become a mixed media artist in the Tokyo avant-garde scene in the 1960’s. After World War II, the role of art in Japan was beginning to change, becoming increasingly integrated into and influenced by the international art world from which it was previously isolated, due to historical circumstances. Avant-garde movements, such as Gutai and Jikan-ha began exploring new mediums and challenging traditional artistic paradigms. Kubota became involved with Group Ongaku, a collective, who were exploring avant-garde performance, music and visual art. By this time, Japanese artist Yoko Ono, a prominent figure in the New York art scene, had introduced Fluxus and other American avant-garde movements to artists in Japan, during a brief time spent living in Tokyo. Inspired by Ono and Korean artist Nam June Paik, who was also living in Tokyo at this time and who Kubota would become briefly acquainted with, members of Group Ongaku, including Kubota, decided to send proposals for happenings, or performance pieces, they had written to Fluxus pioneer George Maciunas.

Kubota held her first solo-exhibition at the Naiqua Gallery in Shinbashi, Tokyo in 1963. Kubota’s first public work was entitled Make a Floor of Love Letters, and was an installation piece that encouraged members of the audience to engage with a pile of love letters on the floor. After the exhibition failed to receive any critical attention from Japanese media, she came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for her to receive any recognition as an experimental female artist in Japan. This insight would come to influence her decision to leave her homeland and move to New York.

A few months before her first exhibition, Kubota had seen avant-garde composers John Cage perform during a visit to Tokyo in 1962. Kubota felt an instant connection to John Cage and his use of obscuration in his approach to music. She remembers thinking to herself at the time, “If this music is accepted in New York . . . I should be accepted there too.” George Maciunas, who was friends with Ono and interested in other Japanese artists, wrote a Fluxus letter, encouraging Japanese artists to come to the United States. On July 4, 1964, Kubota flew to New York where she was immediately welcomed into a world of Fluxus happenings, publications, and exhibits at galleries.

Shigeko in New York
Kubota met George Maciunas shortly after she moved to New York. Through Maciunas, she also met avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who she would later work with, holding the position of curator at Anthology Film Archives, which Mekas co-founded. Kubota became Maciunas’ close friend and confidante, seeing him often and assisting him with whatever he was working on at the time. She would eventually earn the title “Vice President of Fluxus.”

In 1966, Kubota enrolled in classes at New York University with the intention of obtaining a student visa. Eventually, she too would become an important international link for artists living and working in Japan. She also worked as a corresponding journalist and photographer for a Japanese arts magazine. Later that year, Kubota enrolled in the New School for Social Research where she met experimental musician David Behrman, to whom she was briefly married.

Kubota’s own Fluxus work from that time exemplifies her remarkable wit, and the subtle yet powerful way in which she conveys her ideas. Her first Fluxus object, Flux Napkins (1965), a series of paper napkins with cut out facial features, which were used at Fluxus dinner parties and later advertised in Fluxus publications. When George Maciunas, who was always taking various medications, fell ill, Kubota made him Flux Pills (1966), hoping to cure him. Maciunas was delighted.

On July 4, 1965, at the Summer Perpetual Fluxus Festival, Kubota staged a performance piece of her own; entitling the work Vagina Painting, Kubota affixed a paintbrush between her legs and made markings with red paint, on white paper which had been placed flat on the stage. The Fluxus performance marked the one-year anniversary of Kubota’s arrival in the US. Vagina Painting proved to be an important piece, signifying Kubota’s independence as a woman and artist, outside the strict creative confines of her native Japan.

Emerge: Shigeko Kubota Video Art
It wasn’t until the late sixties, with the introduction of the Sony Portapak, the first truly portable video recorder, that Kubota’s unique style began to emerge as something distinct from the Fluxus movement. Marcel Duchamp, Dadaist and progenitor of the Fluxus movement, inspired much of this early solo work. In 1967, Kubota visited and was inspired by a Duchamp installation at the Stockholm Museum in Sweden. The following year, she met him, serendipitously, when the airplane they were both taking to Buffalo, New York, to attend the opening of Merce Cunningham’s “Walkaround Time”, was rerouted to Rochester because of a storm. Duchamp died later that year.

In 1972, Portapak in tow, Kubota took a trip to Normandy to visit the site of his grave. The experience inspired her to make her first video sculpture, a groundbreaking work entitled Video Chess (completed in 1975). Duchamp’s tombstone, which Kubota describes as a cube coming out of the ground influenced her the formation of Video Chess. Video Chess was the first of several video sculptures that pay overt homage to the modern master.

Fluxus’ supportive, creative environment allowed Kubota to fully explore her artistic curiosities. Fluxus also brought her in contact with one of the group’s core members, Nam June Paik. Kubota and Paik’s growing closeness would eventually surmount to their marriage in 1977. The early seventies were financially difficult for the pair, who Kubota describes as a “Fluxus couple.” Paik’s work was gaining more esteem abroad than in the United States. Kubota finally received significant public recognition with Nude Descending a Staircase (1976), a video sculptural interpretation of Duchamp’s painting from 1912. This work would come to create a new audience for video. Nude Descending a Staircase was the first video sculpture ever acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection.

When discussing her early life with Paik, Kubota talks about their relationship as something natural and inevitable, “We were yin and yang, input and output. It’s magnetic,” she has said. When she showed her work, Europe On 1/2-Inch A Day, a video travel diary, at the First Women Video Festival at The Kitchen in New York in 1972, Paik readily offered his support. This would become the standard for Paik and Kubota’s long-standing relationship – one lending support to the other in each of their artistic endeavors. Consequently, Kubota and Paik each developed a unique and personal style, in the new medium of video art. The two are largely credited with video art’s acceptance as a legitimate art form.

In her later work, Kubota began to use nature as a direct inspiration for her video sculptures, blurring and redefining the distinction between the natural and the technological. Rock Video: Cherry Blossom (1981) draws on the Zen aesthetic of Kubota’s homeland, displaying images of cherry blossoms that have been digitized and colorized through video. Kubota visually layers, and eventually abstracts her subject matter completely. In some of these works, water is used as a reflective surface for projecting and distorting video images.

My Life With Nam June Paik
Kubota’s remarkable career has redefined art: how it is to be conceived, interpreted, and exhibited. The show, while highlighting the refinement and evolution of a lifetime artist, also medializes both the personal and the sacred, inviting viewers into a dreamlike world, one that is drenched in spiritual possibility and yet maintaining an ethic that is very real and grounded.

The artist chose the works displayed in My Life With Nam June Paik because they tell the special story of Shigeko Kubota and her husband. Together, the two would make video a legitimate art form, expanding their work through their relationship and the relationship through their work. Paik is sensed, omnipresent, in Kubota’s latest exhibit, her first since her husband’s death.

Paik’s life is celebrated with two new, larger than life video sculptures. Nam June Paik I (2007) is composed of metal piping that abstractly suggests a human figure sitting on a metal mesh, orb-like base. The figure comes to life as recent footage of Kubota and Paik in Miami plays on monitors that have been stationed at the head, torso, hands, and knees. This footage, shot intimately by Paik’s nurse, after his stroke in 1996, captures the couple in Paik’s later years, while music he composed as a thirteen year-old boy emanates in the background.

Nam June Paik II (2007) features an extraordinary figure wearing suspenders and a belt, indicators of Paik’s eccentric personality. Arms outstretched, the figure holds in one hand a violin, the instrument Paik smashed in his memorable performance, One for Violin Solo, in the other lies a Buddha head, an object which references his well-known work, TV-Buddha. While Nam June Paik I celebrates Paik’s later years by displaying footage of an elderly couple relaxing together on a park bench, the sequel piece evokes an image of Paik as a strong and successful young artist in the height of his career. The sculptures chronologically balance one another, presenting a rich physical and emotional landscape that draws upon Paik’s many roles in Kubota’s life.

Jogging Lady (1993) focuses on the female form. Kubota’s strong belief that exercise and health-giving activities are ways for women to empower themselves resonates in this work. Footage of women running marathons plays on monitors, placed in a metal sculpture of a woman, distributed throughout her stomach, breasts, and mouth. The same footage is projected onto large surrounding walls in bold, eye-catching colors. The piece is refreshing and energizing, offering a youthful and feminine side of Kubota’s work.

Offered as Jogging Lady’s male counterpart, Pissing Boy (1993) radiates Paik’s unique humor and charisma. Full of wit and playfulness, the robot-like figure made of tin urinates into a bucket, while Paik’s image comes to life on a monitor inside the head, a helmet that connotes a space traveler.

The other sculptures in My Life With Nam June Paik both directly and indirectly address Paik and the unique relationship Kubota shared with him. Kubota has said that the earlier works, Bird I (1991) and Bird II (1992) are about “freedom from desire”. The kaleidoscopic videos of various bird species convey the freedom to be unconstrained by gravity, to move freely, outside the normal everyday constraints of the body. Both pieces knock viewers off-balance, creating a dizzying effect in their bodies and minds.

Korean Grave (1993) evokes a spiritual dome that echoes a traditional Korean burial structure. The piece reveals video clips of footage, visible in monitors that poke out from a mysterious looking metal dome, from the couple’s 1984 trip to Paik’s homeland. The images displayed are collectible in the viewers’ minds, like the remnants of an artificial grave; acting like portals to another realm. Surrounded by colored mirrors, the video’s reflections create a dazzling, prismatic effect, encircling the body of the viewer into a bold, visual expression. Representing artifacts of personal history and transcendence, this piece evokes traditional, sacred ceremony and performs the difficult task of finding a place for it in our fast-paced, modern world.

Created from discarded bolts, screws, nails, and scrap metal, Tree I and Tree II (both 1993) mark a powerful contrast between objects in nature and those that are human-made. The sculpture depicts a tree whose branches have become resting places for video monitors. The monitors present lively images of colorful mosaics of flowers that burst into the viewer’s attention creating a 3-D, kaleidoscopic effect.

The works exhibited in My Life With Nam June Paik stand up individually as well as working integrally with one another, creating a visual timeline of two incredible lives.

Professional Achievements
In the span of her long career, Kubota has had many solo exhibitions around the world and participated in numerous collective shows. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Toyama Museum of Art and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. She was a video artist-in-residence at both Brown University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has taught at the School of Visual Arts. In 1996, the Whitney held a one-person show of her artwork. Kubota is also the recipient of numerous honors and grants including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Maya Deren Award from the American Film Institute, and repeated fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. She was also awarded the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst Fellowship in Berlin, the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and the NEA/Visual Arts Grant.


Adams, Brook. “Kubota’s Video Sculpture: A Biographical Perspective.” In Shikego Kubota: Video Sculpture, edited by Mary Jane Jacob. New York: American Museum of the Moving Image, 1991. pp. 8-9.

Hendricks, Jon. Fluxus Codex. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1988.

Jacob, Mary Jane edited. Introduction to Shigeko Kubota: Video Sculpture. New York: American Museum of the Moving Image, 1991. p. 6.

Kubota, Shigeko. Interview conducted by Nicole Demby in July, 2007. Maya Stendhal Gallery, New York.

Shapiro, Michael. “The Japanese in New York.” In Manhattan Catalog 5, I. Spring-Summer 1990. pp. 42.

Yoshimoto, Midori. “Self-Exploration in Multimedia: The Experiments of Shigeko Kubota.” In Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York, edited by Mary Jane Jacob. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005. pp. 170-171, 185.

Zdenek, Felix. Shigeko Kubota: Video Sculptures. Essen: Museum Folkwang Essen, 1981.

above copied from:

Sunday, July 18, 2010

George Maciunas: Architect, Ken Friedman

I. Architect, Designer, Social Planner

George Maciunas had several careers in his short, active life. One of these was architecture.
George was first of all an architect.

The art world has neglected George’s work as an architect, social planner, and designer to emphasize a dramatic but somewhat inaccurate role casting him as founder and chief impresario of Fluxus. This image is inaccurate for many reasons. The dramatic narrative often represents Fluxus as a flying circus rather than a laboratory, or a cranky, cartoon version of an art movement. George plays the part of a latter-day Andre Breton in this drama, but the role is flavored by touches of Tristan Tzara, Joseph Stalin, and Napoleon. This story positions George as sole founder and central figure in Fluxus, rather than as co-founder and one among several central figures.

Despite its dramatic charm, this story and is variations is misleading. This misrepresentation diminishes the historical George Maciunas. It also diminishes the community of artists, architects, designers, and composers who worked together in the Fluxus laboratory of intermedia, social creativity, art, and music. Most of all, it fails to capture the nature of a complex social network that was by turns both artistic and experimental.

In George’s own mind, he was an architect. He had a vision of city planning, housing, and the distribution of social goods for the common well being of all citizens. He was a social planner who based his work with projects such as Fluxus or cooperative housing on a deeper, underlying vision. While some of his hypotheses and ideas turned out to be unworkable, his vision was not. His ideas about the nature of a good life never found expression in workable media. In the best tradition of social experimenters from Thoreau or the now vanished Shakers to Gandhi or the still-thriving Amish, he practiced the life he preached. He lived his theories. He tested them, changing his approach, while modifying and expanding his views.

When I met George in 1966, he was already quite different to the George Maciunas others described to me. He was not the mercurial, intolerant, zealot that others described. He was open-minded, easy to work with, and quite supportive of what were then new approaches to Fluxus. People spoke to me about a George who demanded that everyone do things his way. I met a man whose most frequent expression was, “Do it yourself.” Along with that came the implicit understanding that I had an obligation to find my own way forward.

George did not agree with me on everything. George brought me into Fluxus when I was just 16, and I often did things in a way that George thought could be done better. No one follows their own advice completely, and even though George believed I ought to find me own way to do things, he also gave me the advice that an experienced craftsman would give to a young colleague. He often gave me the advice I’d have given myself if I could travel back in time or send a letter to the young man I was then. Like George, though, I tried things full out. Some things worked and some didn’t.

In a famous speech, Winston Churchill stated that we don’t have the privilege of knowing in advance the results of our actions. We can never finally determine our historical legacy. Actions that seem grand at one moment appear foolish the next. Historians revise their views in the light of mounting evidence, and what seems unworkable at one moment may prove to have been a valuable contribution while what seemed essential may prove to be a minor sidetrack.

Churchill’s conclusion was that we must live according to our conscience. We do the best we can with what we have. That’s the measure of a human being. George attained this admirable standard, demanding of himself as much as he asked of others. In the end, that is the measure of a woman or a man.
For an artist, it may be possible to separate work and life. Neither George nor most of us in Fluxus separated art and life, but many do, manufacturing art as a kind of fungible commodity.

It is different when we get to planning and its distant cousin, politics. We do not respect an architect who builds things he does not want to inhabit or someone who plans a world for others in which he does not intend to live. Like Gandhi and the Shakers, George tried to live in the world he envisioned. Like them, this quality gave George a foundation of authenticity and ethics.

II. Art and Anti-Art

Art was a distraction to George. He felt that art distracted the world from what it should be doing. As a result, he felt that he could revolutionize contemporary culture by attacking and overturning the social and economic patterns of art and music.

The straightforward way to achieve George’s social goals would have been to follow a path blazed by such pioneering architects and designers as Buckminster Fuller. Fuller understood the decisive role of science, technology, and innovation in a future shaped by the long span of human history and the short length of a human life. He also understood the quarter-century time lag between many conceptual and technical innovations and their implementation in the artifacts of daily life. Because of this, Fuller was patient in a way that George was not, and he applied his effort to processes that would take a grip in ways different to the kinds of innovations that George attempted to create.

Nevertheless, George’s ideas were not wrong. Many of his contributions were pioneering. Some echo today in ways that still resonate with contemporary culture, reshaping and enlivening the world in which we live. Time scales and social factors made a difference, though. But that’s a story to be told another time. Here, I consider George’s work as a planner, and planning social change through art or anti-art is difficult. What happens in the art world has cannot bring about the massive social and cultural change that George hoped to achieve.

The art market plays an immense role in today’s experience economy. Most individual artists are insignificant in the social ecology of the market, and this has always been then case. Artists who seem to be major cultural figures at one moment are nearly forgotten a decade later. If we average a common career trajectory in major art markets with the hundreds of thousands who barely achieve local recognition in the world’s satellite markets, fifteen minutes of fame is more than most people achieve. The role of art in human culture is mediated by an art world governed in by social systems, and the economic structures of the art market control most of those systems.

George had the insight that one could change contemporary culture by revolutionizing the art world. Dadaists and Surrealists had held this notion before. In the absence of a broader social and economic theory, it was easy to believe this to be so, but the outcome was as inconclusive in the 1960s or 1970s as it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reason this was hard to see is that few theories in those days managed to account for relations among the different elements of an art world best described as a complex adaptive system, and few described the linkages that constitute the effect of art as a series of multiple networks located in a larger society. The nature of that system was not as clear as it seems to be today. We lacked many of the concepts and tools that have emerged in the years since George died. Complexity theory, behavioral economics, and design theory help us to understand far more about human choices and cultural interaction than we knew then.

Even today, however, no one has offered a comprehensive sociology or economics or art, and we still have much to learn about how art, aesthetics, and creativity affect different kinds of cultural structures.

While art, aesthetics, and creativity are more powerful and vital as processes than they sometimes seem to be, the markets that mold artistic careers pay little attention to the deep and resilient processes that make art a factor in human social life and culture. This, in turn, denatures many of the properties that might make art the force that artists often hope it will be.

To work and earn a living, many artists allow the market narrative to shape their practice. At least most hope that this will help them to earn a living, but most fail to do so because the systemic effects of this position denatures them. At the same time, those who refuse to meet the needs of the market fall outside the system, often entirely outside the system. They exert no effect because – as Archimedes observed – one must have a place to stand to move the earth.

The factors that make art significant on a deep level embed it in a resolutely stable network of patterns and behaviors. The specific patterns and behaviors of art and art markets are historically contingent. So are most of the forms and media to which they gave rise. Like an iceberg, however, only a small part of the larger system is visible. The largest portion lies beneath the waterline, out of sight, subject to the physics of inertia.

It was George Maciunas’s genius to seek ways to use the cultural inertia of art worlds to shift the larger culture around it. George’s mistake was that this could not be done. Deflecting the course of an iceberg does not change the ocean currents that move the iceberg from one part of the planet to another.

This doesn’t mean that George was wrong. Like Bucky Fuller, George had the profound insights of an inventor and scientist. He put them to work in what scientists might label a toy world. His contributions and discoveries are still bearing fruit. George’s main problem was that he died too soon to harvest his best ideas and refine them for the next step.

III. Ecce Homo

George Maciunas was a genius, a man of passionate moral zeal, intellectual vigor, and artistic strength.

He did not see the world as it is, but as it might have been. He saw it as it might have been – or ought to be.

George possessed astonishing power, depth, and insight in the fields that he understood, but he understood nothing at all about other things. The strength and clarity of his focus often gave him what seemed to be a unidirectional, even narrow vision.

George created astonishing effects with simple elements of type and image. He was able to create an absolutely modern design with a range of elements from medieval woodcuts to Japanese calligraphy and outline maps. Because color printing was expensive, he used little color. Instead, he developed a colorful design sensibility primarily using black and white.

If this was his strength, it was also his weakness. It was typical, perhaps even symptomatic that he used only black and white. He saw the world in sharp, moral terms, not in moderated shades of gray. Awake to the myriad logic forks in a chess game, he was insensitive to the hundreds of thousands of colors that human eyes distinguish. Someone once told me that George was color-blind. Perhaps it was true. If so, I can understand it.

George had a sly, complex sense of humor. He was famous for his love of vaudeville jokes, sight gags, and music hall entertainment. He also had a sense for subtle elegance.

George’s two favorite composers were Claudio Monteverdi and Spike Jones. In his complexity, George embraced these two polarities, and they embraced him. He could equally enjoy – and honor – the sublime and the ridiculous, a sixteenth century Italian master and a twentieth century clown.

George lived as much in the realm of the intellect as in the realm of the senses. He interpreted sense through the eye and the mind, not through the body. He was famous for odd, intellectually oriented diets that were devised on principles of economy and efficiency rather than to lose weight, taste good, or provide more than basic nourishment. These diets were as enigmatic and perplexing as they were uninteresting and austere.

I met George during an all-orange-juice season. Another time, he spent some months eating crackers six days of the week and stuffing himself at an all-you-can-eat-for-a-dollar Scandinavian Smorgasbord on the seventh day, maintaining that this cycle was simple, cost-effective and nutritious. I also recall hearing about a year of dried fish and grain Vodka.

George’s art offered an ironic mirror to his diets. He went to amazing lengths to prepare food works. Once, for example, he found a way to liquefy and distill all the elements of a meal. He reduced soup, salad, vegetables, meat and desert to clear, flavored liquids that he served in flasks and test tubes. His food pieces were part of a major Fluxus tradition of feasts and food events, but only Alison Knowles with her beans and tofu dishes ever went to George’s extremes.

Emmett Williams once told me about a lunch that George hosted for Daniel Spoerri, an artist with a second life as a chef and gastronome. To Daniel’s horror, George served a lunch of crackers, peanut butter, and yogurt, accompanied by soda water. It was neither an art event nor an ironic gesture. It was George’s way of living the simple life.

George was not the self-assured character that some feel his public persona suggested. Quite the contrary. His zealous, sometimes rigid positions could only have been mistaken for self-assurance from a distance. In retrospect, I suspect that George lacked confidence. He protected himself from the world by adopting an austere and sometimes doctrinaire approach where others might meet life with a warm, hearty appetite.

This did not bother those who knew and loved George. Fluxus was a crowd of misfits. Most of us were out of touch with aspects of the culture around us. Then again, it was the 1960s, and it seemed that dedication and an astonishing idea could change the world. That’s true, of course, but creating social change also requires a robust set of tools and skills, and the nature of these tools was not as apparent then.

George had a passion for catalogues and structures that paralleled his black-and-white mentality. Confident people see life and change as an opportunity. George was fascinated by change, but he often wanted to control and structure every possible change. I see that sort of a response to the ebb and flow of life as a fear of losing control. At one point, this resulted in George’s famous attempts to purge Fluxus by expelling those who failed to meet his expectations.

While these expulsions were mistaken, they weren’t as arrogant as some felt them to be. Exclusion is a characteristic tone of arrogance, but George’s early and much publicized expulsions were a defense mechanism. George was not truly arrogant. It would be more accurate to say he was nervous.

George wanted things to be orderly and under control. He was warm and friendly to those whom he knew, shy and nervous toward almost everyone else. Since he didn’t know how to deal with colleagues with whom he disagreed, he simply removed them from the category of colleague.

He loved his work best of all. Work was everything for George. Work was not a means of living. Work was life itself. George gave himself completely to his work. When he admired others and their work, hg gave his love and admiration unstintingly to their work. At the same time, this was an intellectual passion. He didn’t further Fluxus because he loved the people. It was his love of the work that drove him to do so much for Fluxus.

George was a bundle of memorable personality traits. It seems to me he was one of the most intriguing figures in art in the twentieth century. As a memorable avant-garde character, he ranks with Alfred Jarry, Le Douanier Rousseau, Tristan Tzara, and André Breton.

IV. Meeting George

In August of 1966, Dick Higgins sent me to meet George Maciunas for the first time. I began corresponding with Dick to make radio programs based on the Something Else Press books of Daniel Spoerri, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles, Ray Johnson, Robert Filliou and others for my programs at Radio WRSB. This was a college-based radio station in Mount Carroll, Illinois. Dick and Alison Knowles invited me to stay with them for a while at their home in New York, a few blocks away from the press. I was sixteen years old. I’d just finished the first two years of college, and I was in New York to look around.

George’s telephone directions brought me to his fifth floor walk-up apartment on West Broadway in a decaying industrial section of New York City that was then part of Little Italy. Henry Flynt later took over George’s apartment, and the neighborhood became the Soho art district. Back then, it was just a tenement. I walked up the stairs to find a black door covered with violent, emphatic NO! SMOKING!!! signs. I knocked.

The door opened a crack, and a pair of eyes framed in round, wire-rimmed spectacles peered out. That was George Maciunas.

George was a small, wiry man with a prim, owlish look. He was dressed in a short sleeve business shirt, open at the neck, no tie. He wore dark slacks and black cloth slippers. His pocket was cluttered with number of pens. In current jargon, we’d call him a “nerd” or a “geek.” He’d fit right in with the computer jocks, engineers, and architects at Carnegie Mellon University, his alma mater.

George ushered me into his kitchen. It was a steamy, New York summer day, but the apartment was cool. It smelled like rice mats. I recognized the smell. It reminded me of a Japanese store I used to frequent as a youngster in New London, Connecticut.

The apartment contained three rooms. To the right was a compact, well-designed office and workroom. The floor was covered with rice mats. George said not to go in without slippers, so I looked in from the door to see drafting tables, desks, shelves and an astonishing clutter of papers, projects, notebook, and files. It was the most orderly clutter I’ve ever seen, the opposite of my own chronological layers of projects.

The first time I saw George’s workspace, it was rigged out with a marvelous contraption that enabled him to reach up and tap a weight to summon items he wanted. By means of a counterbalance and some strings and rods, whatever he wanted would float into his grasp. At least, this is my memory. I am not sure if I actually saw the working device, or a prototype, or if this is just a memory of a planning diagram that George showed me.

To the left of the kitchen, George had what looked like a huge, walk-in closet or a small storage room. The room was filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves, like an industrial warehouse. In fact, it was an industrial warehouse, the comprehensive inventory of Fluxus editions in unassembled form. The shelves were loaded with boxes storing the contents of Fluxus multiple editions, suitcases and year boxes. When an order came in for a Fluxbox, George would go to back of the closet, select the appropriate plastic or wooden container, and march through the room plucking out the proper cards and objects to emerge with a completed work. He’d select the proper label, glue it on, and have a completed edition ready to mail.

The kitchen had a sink, windows, stove, table and chairs. These were all quite ordinary except for the refrigerator. George had a bright orange refrigerator. When he opened it, I could see he had filled it with oranges from the bottom clear to the top shelf. The top shelf, on either side of the old-fashioned meat chest and ice tray, held four huge jugs of fresh orange juice. He offered me a glass of orange juice.

Maciunas peppered me with questions. What did I do? What did I think? What was I planning? At that time, I was planning to become a Unitarian minister. I did all sorts of things, things without names, things that jumped over the boundaries between ideas and actions, between the manufacture of objects and books, between philosophy and literature. Maciunas listened for a while and invited me to join Fluxus. I said yes.

A short while later, George asked me what kind of artist I was. Until that moment, I had never thought of myself as an artist. George thought about this for a minute, and said, “You’re a concept artist.”

It always pleased me that I became part of Fluxus before I became an artist.

I usually worked with George from a distance, so I couldn’t say much about his work habits. I do recall the way he kept all the parts of Fluxus items stored in neat cubbyholes, and compartments.

George Maciunas was consumed by a rage for order. Rather than organizational ability, though, this was planning ability linked to boundless energy and an obsessive-compulsive mania. Organizational management requires leadership, and George lacked the ability to convince and persuade. He only had organizational ability in the sense of organizing closets and organizing plans.

Even so, people loved to work with George. This was the result of his ability to lure people and charm them with wonderful ideas. Most people worked with George as a fellow artist, attracted by his energy and the dynamic vortex of his activities. No one followed him as an organizer. George and I got on well and worked together for many years, but I sometimes think this is because we worked in New York and California, several thousand miles apart.

George’s ideas, though, and his plans astonished and inspired me. George was a constant source of inspiration and energy. From the time we met through the early 1970s, I called George two or three times a week, wherever I was. George always used to tell me that I should save money by writing rather than calling, but I valued our dialogues. George didn’t always have time to write back – something he often complained of. Conversation enabled me to learn from him and sometimes to debate with him. This was not always as expensive as the notoriously frugal George feared. In the 1960s, the telephone company – then a monopoly controlled by ATT – tried to increase long-distance usage by creating wide-area telephony for large volume purchasers. Many universities purchased wide-area contracts, and San Francisco State College was one of these. My office at San Francisco State College Experimental College had a phone that allowed me to call anywhere in North America for roughly the price of a local call. It was not as cheap as Internet telephony today, but it was much cheaper than the long-distance rates individuals had to pay. As I traveled from place to place, I also found similar phone services at other universities. George never quite believed me when I told him the cost was low – and when I phoned from home, I did run up huge bills. Even them, I loved listening to George and it was worth it to me.

George had traits that caused his friends to shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s George.” It was the flip side of his organizational mania. George was a whirlwind of charts, plans, demands, and categories. He had the ability and energy to get a great deal done even when it was just George doing things. If he sometimes failed to follow through or interact when it came to working with others, his ability to make things happen anyhow, and make them happen often, made him a legend.

This legend was as much built on George’s eccentricities and failings as on his achievements. George’s real achievements have not yet become well known. People became much more devoted to the dead George Maciunas than they were to the living man.

Unfortunately, the tendency to respond to George’s legend has obscured a genuinely innovative thinker, not George Maciunas the eccentric artist, but George Maciunas, the architect. One example of this is the misinterpretation of George’s learning machines.

V. The Architecture of Learning

A few years ago, art historian Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt organized an exhibition titled Maciunas’s “Learning Machines” From Art History to a Chronology of Fluxus.

While the exhibition was beautiful, accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue depicting George’s historiographic and socio-cultural charts and diagrams, the focus was artifact outputs rather than the conceptual, process-oriented idea behind Maciunas’s learning machines.

As an architecture student at Carnegie Mellon Institute, George understood the difference between a machine and a chart. A machine is something that can change states.

Learning is a state change. When we learn, we are different to what we were. We change in one or more dimensions as compared with the state we occupied before learning. Learning involves multiple processes anchored in experience, time, and memory. The notion of a learning machine involves two possibilities, each related to the other. One is the idea of a machine that can help others to learn. The other is a machine that can undergo learning, that is, an artificial intelligence machine. Today, these have come together in the computer and in the myriad versions of information technology now changing our world.

The Carnegie Mellon Institute – now Carnegie Mellon University – was an important early center for research on computers and information technology. Knowing this, it is easy to understand George’s vision of the learning machine – and it is easy to understand why art critics and art historians have missed a crucial issue.

A learning machine was an information system. Entering information in the system enabled a person to combine and manipulate the information in different ways to create different kinds of outcomes. In what we now call a computer, this activity would involve writing a program, entering inputs, and deriving an output, a result.

But George’s learning machines were not computers. They were not mechanized or digital engines powered by an external source. They were physical prototypes that assisted human beings in learning. The idea of the learning machine involved creating tools to help human beings change their internal states of experience and awareness.

George built a number of learning machines in physical form. When I first heard from Astrit as she planned her exhibition, these are what I thought she meant.

Instead, the exhibition featured George’s charts, graphs, and diagrams. These might be labeled learning machines in a conceptual sense, but these were not the learning machines that George discussed with me.

George’s physical learning machines were filing systems in which he created different kinds of storage units, drawers, or other containers for different kinds of information.

I do not know whether he ever wrote about or described these. Many of George’s ideas and inventions took physical shape or formal shape without an articulate description of his concept and purposes. Some of these had no description at all.

My assumption is that the physical learning machines were lost or destroyed during George’s moves or after his death. They would have looked very much like boxes or shelving units. If the contents had been moved, it would have been easy to mistake the learning machines for empty shelves or filing systems without contents.

One version of the learning machine concept survived after George’s death. George built a system of storage and filing cabinets for Jean Brown that resembled his grand learning machine concept. Jean’s archive was sold to the Getty. I do not know whether they also purchased and shipped the shelving units that he built for her. This was not exactly a learning machine, but it resembled one version of the learning machine concept.

Unless George left writings about the learning machine concept, it would be difficult to say what he knew about similar projects and what he intended finally to realize.

There are several parallels to the learning machine idea, however, and George knew about them.

One was the concept described in Nam June Paik’s 1964 Manifesto, Utopian Laser Television. This manifesto predicted a broadcast medium that would resemble the World Wide Web in many ways. Paik conceived it for the technology of television. Today, we have something much like it in terms of desktop computers and World Wide Web with broadband access. The interface remains a television screen or a computer screen cognate.

But an article from 1945 the described a device much closer to the concept of Maciunas’s learning machine. This is Vannevar Bush Memex. Bush described this in a landmark article titled “As We May Think.” The Memex was a stand-alone learning machine, but the technology it foreshadowed is the World Wide Web.

I don’t know if George knew about Bush’s work, but it seems likely. Bush was a professor at MIT. As a professor, and as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s science advisor, he had rich connections and strong influence at Carnegie Mellon. It is conceivable that George knew about the Memex.

What made George’s learning machine significant was the fact that was a physical, three-dimensional prototype rather than a digital artifact. Because of this, the learning machine could model activities and processes that were not possible in the digital computers of the time. Interestingly, the use of physical models still has value today. Pelle Ehn, professor at Malmo University College, has been doing remarkable work with simple physical models to prototype and test user interaction with different kinds of information systems.

The learning machines were also related to three further concepts that George knew about, but I do not know whether he considered these in terms of the learning machine.

One of these concepts was Jorge Luis Borges’s concept of the universal library. Borges discussed the idea of a library that would contain all possible books that were ever written, and all that could ever be written, but the vast scale and scope of the library meant that it was impossible to find anything in the sea of information. The learning machine is a heuristic device that allows us to capture information topically in a theoretically open system while permitting us to structure the elements of a universal library for human use.

Borges’s story dates back to the 1940s. I think George learned about it from my 1972 book, The Aesthetics, where I discuss Borges’s concept.

Another concept in The Aesthetics is my concept of the “gestalt essay.” The gestalt essay is an installation in the form of an information structure. The gestalt essay involves selecting texts and concepts. These are printed or otherwise prepared as cards, documents, or other kinds of representation. The essay is a physical space in which the texts and concepts fill the space in different relationships to one another.

The other work George would have known is a 1968 score titled Paper Architecture. This score involved modeling potential environments on paper at full scale before building them. Like Ehn’s cardboard computers, it allowed people to test concepts conceptually with some forms of physical interaction before creating working prototypes.

George’s learning machines as I understood them had aspects or attributes of all these systems. I do not know whether he ever intended to realize the learning machine concept in a more elaborate form, with mechanical or audio-visual components. As I saw it, the concept offered a path toward conceptual modeling and information storage systems that could be used in different ways to work with large assortments of information. Because the learning machines were highly adaptable open systems, they could be used for a rich variety of purposes.

While the term or the rubric of the learning machine is connect to George’s work, there seem to be no extant proposals, drawings, or models for physical learning machines. Except for the Jean Brown archive, I do not know if any of the actual machines survived George’s death. While I hope some sketches or other notes might exist, none seem to have been published.

Instead, George’s diagrams and charts have been mistaken for learning machines. The confusion here is simple. The charts and diagrams are to a learning machine what a printout is to a computer.

What is important is the fact that some versions of the learning machine concept took physical form in three dimensions. This is natural in the work of a man who was an architect as well as a graphic designer. George built spaces, buildings, and physical models, and I gather that he held a number of patents on devices for prefabricated housing. The learning machines formed an important conceptual bridge between his two-dimensional structures and the larger three-dimensional projects that he attempted. What makes them special is that they were conceptual information systems as his charts and diagrams were that took information into a three-dimensional form.

There was another kind of physical learning machine as well. These are very well known, but we do not label them learning machines. These are the physical Fluxus kits and boxes.

Most Fluxus boxes are physical artifacts that a human being manipulates to bring about a state change. In doing so, the person who changes the state of the tool undertakes an action the creates an experience. The result of this experience can be labeled as learning.

VI. Architect, Planner, Builder

Fluxus was never able to support George Maciunas. George supported Fluxus. while George bankrolled Fluxus, he was not the only one to bankroll Fluxus. Several others also supported Fluxus activities, projects, exhibitions and centers out of our own resources.

Dick Higgins spent almost half a million dollars on Something Else Press between 1964 and 1974, more than three million dollars in today’s money. Ben Vautier bankrolled Fluxus activities in Nice. RenĂ© Block underwrote many important exhibitions, projects and publications in Germany, first through his own gallery and later as an independent organizer and curator. I supported Fluxus West and the projects that grew out of it, often by cooperating with other publishers or institutions as well as supporting publications and projects from the proceeds of my business activities. The total tab between 1966 and today may be as large as Something Else Press, but I haven’t paid it all out of pocket the way Dick did.

George did undeniably important work. One thing that made his work important – and durable – was the fact that he was part of a larger community. Many people supported Fluxus in large ways and small. It was a community enterprise.

In this sense, George was more successful than he might have hoped. Fluxus was never a collective or an art movement, but it became a durable community. that is as much to George’s credit as anyone’s.

George has been on my mind in recent months. I have changed jobs from working as a research professor in Norway to working as a university dean in Australia. As a professor in Oslo, I often worked in my home office. In Melbourne, I focus on taking care of people more than focusing on my own research. Buildings are on my mind. We have just begun to plan a major building covering most of a city block on one of Melbourne’s most valuable pieces of real estate.

This will become a living laboratory for sustainable construction, and we are working to incorporate planning and building period into our curriculum to learn from the process – and into our research program to share what we learn.

The lessons George taught me have been valuable in the years since, and they remain valuable today. A building such as our does not get built by a sole architect – it is built by communities of practice, including designers, architects, planners, financiers, political leaders, university leaders, managers, and many more.

It’s not possible to do this with pre-fabricated housing, but it is necessary to do this by asking the cultural questions that George asked. These questions have too often been overlooked in books and catalogues on George’s work and life.

George has been neglected as a thinker and designer at the same time that his role in Fluxus has been misinterpreted in ways that he would not have approved.

Many Fluxus artists have been marginalized by attributing their work and ideas to George. In many minds, this made George the central and single figure in Fluxus. To me this makes him smaller than he was.

George was a creative and vital figure in a laboratory of ideas. Laboratories – like universities – gain stature by attracting and retaining a strong cohort of important thinkers. The more members in the community, the greater the stature. The fewer, the smaller and less impressive a laboratory or university is, even when the community gathers around one smart person or two.

By making Fluxus and George Maciunas nearly synonymous, the thin scholarship of recent years has made Fluxus small. It has also made Gorge smaller than he was. this diminished vision of the man and his work places much of George’s work in a shadow.

It is time to restore George’s legacy as an architect, planner, and designer.

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