Fluxus: A Field Guide


Taking shape around 1959, the international cohort of artists known as Fluxus experimented with —or better yet between—poetry, theater, music, and the visual arts. More than a list of artists, a historical moment, or a set of artifacts, Fluxus gives name to a network of social relationships and common approaches to art-making that highlights, among other things, playfulness, simplicity, internationalism, intermedia, ephemerality, and the unity of art and everyday life. The American artist Ken Friedman calls Fluxus a “laboratory,” emphasizing both its experimentation and collaborative spirit. For his Lithuanian-born countryman George Maciunas, Fluxus is “a way of doing things” that foregrounds process over product. The Japanese artist Mieko Shiomi proposes that Fluxus is a set of lived concepts, a “pragmatic consciousness,” in which “we see things differently in everyday life after performing or seeing Fluxus works.”[1]

One finds in Fluxus work genre-blurring “intermedia,” provocative performance events, and mobile art “kits.” One finds an international syndicate of collaborating, agitating, pranksterish artmakers. And while there were indeed disagreements among its core practitioners of about forty artists, few movements of the twentieth century share its longevity. The American Dick Higgins notes, “[t]his depended upon a fluid conception of group identity: anyone who wanted to do that kind of thing was Fluxus … [we] stuck together to do Fluxus kinds of things, even when [we] were also doing other kinds of things at the same time.”[2] Indeed, it is often difficult to discern the boundaries separating Fluxus from other circles—whether it be action music, mail art, conceptualism, assemblage art, concrete and sound poetics, and so on. This was its revitalizing strength. Fluxus members worked in areas across and between multiple forms, challenging distinctions between artistic genres, and between art and everyday life. Perhaps it’s best to think of Fluxus as a provisional space wherein an undetermined number of artists, writers, and musicians with shared approaches to art did things together.

Proto-Fluxus | Fluxus Festivals | Fluxus Publications

John Cage taught a class in experimental composition at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1957 to 1959. The graduating class of 1959 included George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Al Hansen, and Allan Kaprow, while Jackson Mac Low, La Monte Young, Richard Maxfield, Toshi Ichijanagi, Jim Dine, Larry Poons, and George Segal were frequent attendees.[3] Cage’s fluid shifts between media would resonate strongly in Fluxus work. Brecht’s event scores, Kaprow’s multimedia theatrical Happenings, Young’s minimalist composition, and Mac Low’s chance-driven visual poetics can all be traced in part to Cage’s class—such that his influence cannot be overstated. Fluxus, Pop Art, conceptualism, and experimental theater and dance all claim his work as a generative source of inspiration.

For Cage’s part, he describes the milieu of this moment in interview with Richard Kostelanetz:

The river has divided, and we don’t any longer know which stream is the principal stream. We are in fact living in a society in which a multiplicity of directions are being taken, and no one who is in one of them would say that the others are more interesting than the one he is in. In other words, if a person is alive to what he’s doing, it can be quite different from what someone else is doing, and be equally a part of what’s going on. I don’t see it as worthwhile to say that one is more important than the others.[4]

Not only does Cage’s observation contextualize the rich diversity of work produced in post-WWII New York, it also signals a very different conception of the avant-garde. In Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s terms, if the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes “became heroically, sometimes disastrously”[5] an age of dogmatic ideologies, Fluxus would do its level best to practice an egalitarian and radically open form of community building.

Three especially significant forums with various ties to the New School class would help to create the New York contingent of Fluxus. (1) In 1959, Hansen and Higgins founded the New York Audio Visual Group as a continuation of Cage’s formative instruction; the group met weekly and performed “experimental notations.”[6] (2) The Chambers Street Series was the unofficial name for another performance venue organized by Young at Yoko Ono and Ichiyanagi’s 112 Chambers Street loft. Owen Smith recounts that over the course of six months, from December 1960 to May 1961, Young presented the work of more than eighty poets, artists, and musicians; this list included work by Robert Morris, Joseph Byrd, Henry Flynt, Terry Jennings, Mac Low, and others.[7] And, finally, (3) Maciunas opened the AG Gallery. Young met Maciunas sometime in late-1960 or early-1961 in a course offered by Richard Maxfield at the New School. Maciunas was invited to attend the Chambers Street Series, where he first encountered Brecht, Higgins, Mac Low, and others later affiliated with the core Fluxus Group. Notably, he had first coined the term “Fluxus” as the name for a magazine and publishing imprint affiliated with AG, not as a movement or a performance approach. Like the other two forums, the AG Gallery represented a wide array of experimental artists working in New York, inside of which the kernels of Fluxus practice were beginning to take shape. But Maciunas had ambitions for a wider audience, and would become the group’s chief sponsor and public promoter.

Comparable developments were underway in Europe. Young had encountered Cage in the summer of 1959 at Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seminar in Darmstadt, as did future Fluxus collaborators Nam June Paik and Emmett Williams. The Korean artist Paik worked with Stockhausen in the electronic music studio of West German Radio (WGR) in Cologne (mirroring the evolution of experimental music at the NYAVG in New York). It was in Cologne during the early 1960s that Paik and Williams met the German artist Wolf Vostell and the American artist Ben Patterson at Mary Bauermeister’s acclaimed performance atelier. During a “counter-concert” devised in protest to the International Society for New Music (ISNM), Cage, Brecht, and Young performed several event scores first created for the New School seminar alongside works written by Paik and Williams in Stockhausen’s seminar. From 1961 forward, the American and European contexts for Fluxus grew increasingly intertwined. And while origin myths are attractive in part because they offer identifiable starting points, more accurately, Fluxus began in several places at once. Its generative experimentation consisted of the overlapping processes of several artists and writers working within a common ethos.

All of this came to form what Maciunas called the “proto-Fluxus” phase of the group’s activities, culminating in seven Fluxus festivals that were planned in various European cities between the fall of 1962 and the summer of 1963:

  • Municipal Museum of Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Germany, Sep. 1-23, 1962.
  • Art Library, Nikolaj Church & Alle Scenen Theater, Copenhagen, Denmark, Nov. 23-28, 1962.
  • The American Students’ & Artists’ Center, Paris, France, Dec. 3-8, 1962.
  • Dusseldorf Art Academy, Dusseldorf, Germany, Feb. 2-3, 1963.
  • Hypokriterion Theater, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Jun. 23, 1963.
  • Lancelot Samson Studio, The Hague, Netherlands, Jun. 28, 1963.
  • Fluxus and Total Art Festival, Hotel Scribe & Street Performances, Nice, France, Jul. 25-Aug. 4, 1963.

Dubbed by Maciunas the “Festum Fluxorum,” artists from the US, continental Europe, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere together staged their works for much larger audiences. The success of the seven shows varied, however. While the inaugural set of weekend concerts in Wiesbaden was generally successful in creating a stir, the Paris show was by and large a disappointment (though a lack of proper advertisement was likely to blame). The FluxArtists hit their stride at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where they attracted a sizeable crowd, received considerable press coverage, and appeared on local television. The weeklong concert in Copenhagen also drew a full house of several hundred people and was recorded for television (though it never aired). Smith observes an important transition from Fluxus initially conceived as a forum for eclectic experimentation to a largely event-focused performance series undertaken by “an ever-shifting network of associations, contacts, and collaborations.”[8] During the early festivals, diligent planning on the part of Higgins, Knowles, Vostell, Maciunas, Patterson, Paik, and others led to a standard repertoire of works that would establish the core of the European festival tour. This included Emmett Williams’s “Alphabet Symphony,” George Brecht’s “Drip Music” and “Word Event,” Ben Patterson’s “Paper Piece,” and Allison Knowles’s “Nivea Cream Piece.”

Drip Music
For single or multiple performance. A
source of dripping water and an empty
vessel are arranged so that the water falls
into the vessel. — George Brecht

Nivea Cream Piece
First performer comes on stage with a bottle
of Nivea cream or (if none is available) with
a bottle of hand cream labeled ‘Nivea Cream.’
He pours the cream onto his hands and
massages them in front of the microphone.
Other performers enter, one by one, and do
the same thing. Then they join together in
front of the microphone to make a mass of
massaging hands. They leave in the reverse
of the order in which they entered on a
signal from the first performer.  — Alison Knowles

Hannah Higgins offers an incisive definition of such works: “the Event performance typically consists of simple, everyday actions such as viewing a chance occurrence through a keyhole or polishing a violin … In the event, everyday actions are framed as minimalistic performances or, occasionally, as imaginary and impossible experiments with everyday situations.”[9] Ono provides a fine example of this latter variety.

Tunafish Sandwich Piece
Imagine one thousand suns in the
sky at the same time.
Let them shine for one hour.
Then, let them gradually melt
into the sky.
Make one tuna fish sandwich and eat.

1964 spring. — Yoko Ono[10]

The network of collaborators involved in Festum Fluxorum carried the project with them to various other centers. In the south of France, Brecht and Robert Filliou had established Cédille qui Sourit, their “international center of permanent creation,” in Villefranche sur Mer. At Cédille, the pair conceived of the “Eternal Network,” a transgeographic community of artists sending and sharing art objects by way of the postal service and other planned performances and shows.[11] The concept resonated with Maciunas’s idea for a Fluxus Mail-Order Warehouse, both of which would contribute to the growing phenomenon of correspondence art.[12]  Ben Vautier was also busy in Nice, having developed his own variant of “Total Art” Fluxus at his Galerie Ben Doute de Tout and the Theatre Total performance group in the wake of the final Fluxus festival at the Hotel Scribe.

Back in New York, Patterson, Higgins, Knowles, Maciunas, Bob Watts, and other Fluxus affiliates were eager to expand upon their success in European. Several concert series were planned from 1963 to 1965, including 12 Fluxus Concerts (Flux Hall), Perpetual Fluxus Festival (Washington Square Gallery), Fluxorchestra Concerts (Carnegie Recital Hall), and the Yam Festival. Activities expanded westward also. Maciunas and Friedman established “Fluxus West” in 1966, the latter setting up centers in San Diego and San Francisco. The following year Friedman purchased a Volkswagen bus he dubbed the “fluxmobile,” which served as a “travelling center for exhibitions and festivals.” Friedman recalls:

It is interesting to note that between 1966 and 1976, Fluxus West brought various forms of Fluxus exhibitions, events, performances, and workshops to 40 of the 50 United States and to 3 of the Canadian provinces … By the fall of 1967, a regular pattern of Fluxmobile trips up and down the West Coast became established which continued through the early ’70s, alternating with occasional long excursions to inland areas or to the MidWest or East Coast.[13]

The itinerant lives of Fluxus artists meant that “its members became a mobile cultural center,” and especially given this decentralization of activities, print culture played an equally essential role in coordinating the group’s actions. Along with the New York Audio Visual Group, the Chambers Street Series, and the AG Gallery, the publication of An Anthology proved a pivotal event in the formation of Fluxus. The project first came to fruition in 1960 when Chester V. J. Anderson, the editor of a west-coast magazine called Beatitude, approached Young and Mac Low with the idea for a special issue titled Beatitude East that would showcase the New York scene. Young was slated to guest edit the issue and had collected a sizeable amount of work from American, European, and Japanese contributors—suggesting that Young had global ambitions for the volume. The magazine folded before the issue went to print, stalling the project indefinitely. By the summer of 1961, Maciunas was planning a publishing venture of his own to showcase the work of those associated with the Chambers Street Series and AG Gallery. He learned of Young’s planned anthology and proposed that he print the work. Although it was not strictly a Fluxus document, Young edited the volume, Mac Low typeset its pages, and Maciunas designed its cover, making An Anthology the first collective publication by core members of the group.

The next two years involved extensive travel for those who took part in the European festival tour. A hectic schedule and fiscal woes delayed publication of An Anthology until 1963. Despite setbacks, Maciunas, Higgins, Friedman, Vostell, Brecht, and others made plans for magazines and ephemeral printed texts to showcase the work performed during the festivals. Among them, Fluxus I, Water Yam, News-Policy-Letter, Fluxus Yearbox 2, Decoll/age, Fluxkits, Ekstra Bladet, Fluxus Preview Review, ccV Tre, and Something Else Press would help to disseminate the group’s work and advertise their activities. These ranged from simple designs to elaborately constructed objects and stapled mimeos to bound volumes. Maciunas began a series of News-Policy-Letters in 1962 to keep group members apprised of one another’s work. These invaluable documents offer an instructive account of the group’s generative development.

We learn, for instance, that Maciunas planned a series of “Fluxus Yearbooks”—seven in total—though only Fluxus I and Fluxus Yearbox 2 would see the light of day. He was searching for the right format to anthologize such an eclectic amalgam of ephemeral works. Smith describes this transition in the final design of Fluxus I: “a series of brown mailing envelopes containing works and bolted together with interspaced printed pages … was more than a design choice for Maciunas, it was a necessity if any Fluxus anthology was ever to be produced.”[14] He would go further still with Fluxus Year Box 2. In the inaugural issue of News-Policy-Letter,Maciunas describes his plans for the anthology:

It was decided to utilize instead of covers a flat box to contain the contents so as to permit inclusion of many loose items: records, films, ‘Poor-man’s films—flip books,’ ‘original art,’ metal, plastic, wood objects, scraps of paper, clippings, junk, rags. Any composition or work that cannot be reproduced in standard sheet form or cannot be reproduced at all.[15] 

The final format would, like Fluxus I, contain print materials of irregular sizes, mainly consisting of performances, events, scores, and poems, along with small three-dimensional objects and film reels. The cinematic and sculptural arts thus joined the literary, theatrical, and musical genres to create the consummate intermedia object.[16] These formally adventurous collections presented challenges, however. Both were delayed due to cost and the labor involved. Nevertheless, by the time Water Yam (ca. 1963), Fluxus I (1964), Fluxkit (1964) and Fluxus Year Box 2 (1966), Maciunas had collaborated with nearly every member of the group, publishing a sizeable body of work produced from 1959 to the mid-1960s.

If the wave of mid-1960s publishing ventures spearheaded by Maciunas formed a more defined framework for Fluxus practice, then Higgins’s Something Else Press broadened the group’s publishing mandate. Founded in 1964, SEP published important volumes by Vostell, Hansen, Williams, Brecht, Mac Low, Filliou, Kaprow, Knowles, and Higgins himself, including the latter’s 1969 foew&ombwhnw (which featured his influential essay “Intermedia”), Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (1966), Williams’s Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967), and John Cage’s Notations (1969). SEP was also the first American publisher to print several works by Gertrude Stein. A look through Something Else’s backlist ably demonstrates the associations of Fluxus to visual and concrete verse, dance, and music. SEP published Merce Cunningham, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Marshal McLuhan. In “Two Sides of a Coin: Fluxus and Something Else Press,” Higgins reflects on what set apart his approach to publishing from Maciunas. Whereas he “stressed original design, unusual materials, and the handmade,” Higgins was more practical, opting for whatever design style “was appropriate to book formats.”[17] He opted for a trade edition, which, though comparatively more expensive to print, had the potential to reach a much wider audience. Something Else Press, he observed, “was to be a parallel expression, covering much the same ground; committed to the development of a context for Fluxus and intermedial art forms by bringing the work to the largest possible public in an undiluted form.”[18] Pamphlets, newsletters, posters, and other ephemera still comprised an important part of Higgins’s editorial project, but it was the 60 or so titles that offered a consistent source of Fluxus works more suitable for the bound book.[19]

A Graphic History

Fluxus actors produced an array of visual designs—maps, diagrams, graphs, and charts— that plot the group’s artistic approaches and social relationships. Vostell’s group drawings, Maciunas’s “learning machines,” Higgins’s “Intermedia Chart” and Paik’s “Fluxus Island in Décollage” each draws from the graphic syntax of visual knowledge production in order to document the group’s transformative movements.[20]

Wolf Vostell, Weisbaden, “Fluxus Weisbaden,” 1962.

Nam June Paik, “Fluxus Island in Décollage Ocean,” 1962.

George Maciunas, “Fluxus (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-garde Movements).” Diagram, 1966.