Fluxus is the sort of thing that many non-creative types look on with wonder and contempt. It is everything a practical parent fears when his or her child says they want to study art, and a compelling case for the ridiculousness of Art with a capital “A” to many. Inspired by work like John Cage’s 4’33” and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Fluxus was a movement in the 1960’s that aimed to highlight the beauty and whimsy of the everyday and blur the line between art and the world around it. It was bold and simple, and I venture to say that most people didn’t get it. Were you to witness a Fluxus piece out of context, you’d almost certainly be profoundly confused, or completely unaware that you witnessed anything at all.
Though Fluxus art can take nearly any form, perhaps the most succinct and representative works are the performance pieces, often called “events”. These events are exceedingly simple by design, and were usually written down as a sort of script for performers, or published and distributed, with other materials, in “Fluxkits”. This week’s love letter is directed at a collection of Fluxus events available as a .pdf for free online called The Fluxus Workbook.
The pieces it contains are humorous, thoughtful, and always perfectly succinct. A few examples:
Rainbow No. 1 for Orchestra
Soap bubbles are blown out of various wind instruments. The conductor breaks the bubbles with his baton.
Ay-O — Date Unknown
Fluxus Piece for G.M.
Two events are advertised at two adjacent locations. Audience is brought into the same hall by separate entrances. The audiences are separated from each other by a curtain. For the performance, the curtain is raised.
Albert M. Fine — Date Unknown
Throw things that are difficult to throw because of their light weight.
Lee Heflin — Date Unknown
These performances are nearly everything I dislike about fine art — overly conceptual pieces that are ineffective at communicating their purpose and irreverent to that fact — if not for an important distinction. They lack deep, overwrought meaning; they are simply intended to confuse and delight. It’s not a man attempting to throw feathers and sheets of paper as a commentary on the futility of our lives, it’s a man attempting to throw feathers and sheets of paper because it’s strange and compelling. I imagine the performer, despite all his mass, thwarted by the light objects who refuse to behave as he instructs. Though he could easily destroy them, he can never truly throw them, no matter how hard he tries. The best “events” are concise observations about the inherent weirdness of the world around us, and pieces like Fall have stuck with me for years. Every time I see someone inadvertently performing it, I’m reminded of the workbook.
Family Planning Event
Get pregnant for 18 months and have twins.
Ken Friedman — 1992
Having witnessed a number of the performances from the collection, and performed one myself, I find that the most effective medium for these events is the instructions, not the performances themselves. Many of them require significant setup, and some are not physically possible, such as Family Planning Event. These implausible and impossible events are intended to be read instead of performed, and even the more practical ones are better suited to words in many instances. The descriptions are timeless and faceless, which emphasizes the repeatability and banality of the performances. Many of the events are performed every day by thousands of unaware people, the intervention by the artist is the act of writing it down, giving it a title, and publishing it. We are meant to consider the event as art in the frame of the page.
One Ken Friedman piece, Cheers, would fit right in with one of Improv Everywhere’s sketches:
Conduct a large crowd of people to the house of a stranger. Knock on the door. When someone opens the door, the crowd applauds and cheers vigorously. All depart silently.
Ken Friedman — 1965
What excites me so much about these events is their simplicity. Most are just a subtle twist to a common and understood interaction with the world around us, something pulled out of context or wrapped around itself. Yet, this juxtaposition is powerful and provocative. It serves to remind us of the importance of details, and that everything is an opportunity to delight and surprise. As designers, we conceive and build the systems that connect and empower people. We carefully craft experiences to be as low friction and invisible as possible. As artists, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and the other Fluxists deconstruct these systems and show us how beautiful the unexpected can be. Can some of this delight be integrated in a way that doesn’t detract from or convolute a specific interaction? Can answering emails or paying bills be a joyful experience through some slight alteration?
These compact events lend themselves to being shared, and I thought it might be interesting to post favorite pieces, from the workbook or elsewhere, on Twitter with the hashtag #fluxustweets.