Enter Digital Archives of the 1960s Fluxus Movement and Explore the Avant-Garde Art of John Cage, Yoko Ono, John Cale, Nam June Paik & More

When it comes to the influ­ence of the arts on every­day life, it can seem like our real­i­ty derives far more from Jeff Koons’ “aug­ment­ed banal­i­ty” than from the Fluxus move­ment’s play­ful exper­i­ments with chance oper­a­tions, con­cep­tu­al rig­or, and impro­visato­ry per­for­mance. But per­haps in a Jeff Koons world, these are pre­cise­ly the qual­i­ties we need. Main­ly based in New York, and “tak­ing shape around 1959,” notes the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa’s Fluxus: A Field Guide, “the inter­na­tion­al cohort of artists known as Fluxus exper­i­ment­ed with—or bet­ter yet between—poet­ry, the­ater, music, and the visu­al arts.” Big names like John Cage and Yoko Ono might give the unini­ti­at­ed a sense of what the 60s art move­ment was all about. An “inter­dis­ci­pli­nary aes­thet­ic,” writes Ubuweb, that “brings togeth­er influ­ences as diverse as Zen, sci­ence, and dai­ly life and puts them to poet­ic use.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that… but Fluxus artists keep us won­der­ing what that might be, sug­gest­ing that ordi­nary expe­ri­ence and the stuff of every­day life pro­vide all the mate­r­i­al we need. Japan­ese artist Mieko Shio­mi describes Fluxus as a “prag­mat­ic con­scious­ness” that makes us “see things dif­fer­ent­ly in every­day life after per­form­ing or see­ing Fluxus works.”

The def­i­n­i­tions of Fluxus, you might notice, can begin to sound a bit cir­cu­lar, maybe because they are entire­ly beside the point. George Maci­u­nas, who named and co-found­ed the move­ment, called Fluxus “a way of doing things.” He called it a num­ber of oth­er things as well.

Maci­u­nas’ 1963 “Fluxus Man­i­festo” makes all the right man­i­festo moves, para­phras­ing Tris­tan Tzara’s “Dada Man­i­festo” in its promise to “purge the world of bour­geois sick­ness, ‘intel­lec­tu­al,’ pro­fes­sion­al & com­mer­cial­ized cul­ture,” and so on. He begins with a dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of Fluxus, involv­ing the symp­toms of dysen­tery, and “the mat­ter just dis­charged.” But the art of Fluxus, aim­ing at a “non art real­i­ty,” seems mild-man­nered by con­trast with this iron­ic blus­ter.

Though it could also be dan­ger­ous at times, Fluxus was always a form of play, often seem­ing­ly con­tent­less, as in Nam June Paik’s “Zen for Film,” a silent, eight-minute film almost entire­ly com­posed of a fuzzy white screen or, in the most noto­ri­ous exam­ple, John Cage’s “musi­cal” com­po­si­tion, 4.33.

Fluxus has become so close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the musi­cal exper­i­ments and per­for­mance art of Cage and Ono that the cen­tral­i­ty of poet­ry and the visu­al arts to the move­ment can go unre­marked. Maci­u­nas him­self was a high­ly skilled graph­ic artist and an aspir­ing bour­geois pro­pri­etor: he first sought to turn Fluxus into a com­mer­cial cor­po­ra­tion and designed a num­ber of prod­ucts such as chess sets, posters, and a wood­en box filled with assem­blages of small art objects cre­at­ed by his fel­low Fluxus artists. He lat­er admit­ted, “no one was buy­ing it.” Of course, plen­ty of peo­ple did, just not in a way that returned on his siz­able cash invest­ment. See an “unbox­ing” of Maci­u­nas’ Flux Box 2, above and try not to think of Wes Ander­son.

Like their Dada fore­bears, Fluxus artists worked in every medi­um. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Library’s Fluxus Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion, you can find visu­al art by Maci­u­nas and his col­leagues, like Joseph Beuy’s “Fluxus West” post­card, fur­ther up, George Brecht’s Fluxus Games and Puz­zles below it, and A‑Yo’s “Fin­ger Box,” above. At Mono­skop, you’ll find links to more art, film, music, and books by and about artists like Yoko Ono and Fluxus poet Dick Higgens.

At Ubuweb, you’ll find a Flux­film Anthol­o­gy, dat­ing from 1962–1970 and con­tain­ing short films by Paik, Ono, Maci­u­nas, George Brecht, and many more (includ­ing a 1966 short from John Cale). And at Ubuweb: Sound, you’ll find eight cas­settes worth of Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired music, from 1962 to 1992, like the Wolf Vostell “music sculp­ture,” Le Cri / The Cry, from 1990, above. The Fluxus approach may seem puck­ish­ly quaint, even pre­cious, next to the slick hyper­re­al­i­ty of Snapchat, but you will expe­ri­ence the every­day world around you quite dif­fer­ent­ly after immers­ing your­self in the con­cep­tu­al process-world of Fluxus.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Yoko Ono Lets Audi­ence Cut Up Her Clothes in Con­cep­tu­al Art Per­for­mance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

When John Cage & Mar­cel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chess­board That Turned Chess Moves Into Elec­tron­ic Music (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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