What was Fluxus? It was a genre of performance art that happened 10 years before the term was coined. It was a form of dada that happened 30 years after dada. It was what happened when young followers of John Cage gathered together in the early ’60s. It was a style that drew minuscule audiences and no critics whatever when it was alive. And it is a matter of some nostalgia today, so much so, in fact, that the Kitchen had to turn away several hundred people when it presented a good old-fashioned Flux-Concert on March 24.
I would like to try to unravel the Fluxus style, its history, its influences, its many links between Tokyo and New York, and its effect on more recent music and art. I would like to collect first-hand reports from those who were there. I would like to comment on George Maciunas, the self-proclaimed patron saint of Fluxus, and on the tabloid newspaper celebrating his death that I purchased at the concert. I would like to discuss the recent work by Alison Knowles that was also included on this program. And I would like to go into detail about the particularly memorable performances by Yasunao Tone, Larry Miller, and Philip Corner. But it seems preferable to focus on these ’60s pieces themselves, many of which are quite witty, some of which are profound, a few of which are both, and all of which will be totally forgotten unless there continue to be revivals of this sort. Here are a few of my favorites among the 33 short works included in this event.
‘Snowstorm No. 1,’ by Milan Knizak
Ten performers throw white paper airplanes to the audience. The audience throws then back and the activity continues. After perhaps five or six minutes, people in the audience begin to realize that the paper airplanes are actually the programs for the concert. The programs distributed, the concert continues.
‘Two Inches,’ by Robert Watts
Two performers gradually unroll about 10 feet of adding machine paper and stretch it out between them. A third performer comes out, judges the center, cuts the paper in two, and that is the end of ‘Two Inches.’ One realizes that Fluxus art had much to do with word plays, that the paper was about two inches wide, that it was cut in two, that it had inched its way out into the long stand, that the title had several implications, and that everyone in the audience probably interpreted the piece differently.
‘Wall Piece for Orchestra to Yoko Ono,’ by Yoko Ono
A nine-person orchestra lines up, a tenth person takes his place as a conductor, and a downbeat is given. The musicians walk over to the side and hit the wall instead of playing their instruments.
‘Piano Work,’ by Philip Cornerâ
The performer appears, crawling on his hands and knees, his shoulder braced hard against the front leg of a grand piano. With some strain, he gradually wheels the instrument out to the middle of the performing area and maneuvers it into a particular spot, thus finishing his ‘work.’ ‘Remote Music,’ by Larry Miller
A carefully molded hand in a black sleeve begins to descend from the ceiling headed directly for the piano keyboard. Gradually it stretches farther and farther out of the sleeve until the climactic moment when it lands directly in the middle register. The music finished, the hand slowly rises back up to the ceiling.
‘Duet for Brass Instruments,’ by Joe Jones
A trumpet player and a soprano saxophone player begin blowing on their instruments, making extremely strained, muffled sounds. A condom begins to inflate on one end of the trumpet, but the one on the end of the soprano saxophone develops a leak and remains limp.
‘One for violin,’ by Nam June Paik
A wooden block is placed in the center of the performing space. A performer enters and places a violin on the block. He grips it firmly around the scroll and gradually, very gradually, raises it over his head. Is it a valuable instrument? In one instant of extraordinary shock, the violin crashes down and splinters into at least a hundred pieces.
‘Constellation No. 11,’ by Dick Higgins
The performer asks everyone in the audience to think of a word and to select a number between one and 10. He then gives a 10-count downbeat, asking all of us to say our chosen words on our chosen counts, thereby producing a short spontaneous poem with a bizarre variety of images.
‘Gang Sang,’ by Dick Higgins
About eight volunteers are recruited from the audience. The performer asks them to stand at one side, facing the same direction and then instructs them to place one foot in front of the other and shift their weight onto the front foot. He repeats his instruction over and over, thus producing a very awkward group walk, which ends with the volunteers stepping out into the crowded front rows of the audience.
‘Micro,’ by Takehisa Kosugi
The performer steps up to a microphone, pauses dramatically, and then, in a sudden moment of extreme violence, wraps a piece of cellophane around the microphone. The loudspeakers erupt. The performer walks away and the cellophane gradually unwinds itself, producing more amplified crackling of a much milder and much less predictable sort.
‘Fruit in 3 Acts: Act 1—Pear, Act 2—Apple, Act 3—Watermelon,’ by Ken Friedman
The pear is thrown to the audience. The apple is placed between two boards and squashed flat the instant the performer jumps on the top board. The watermelon is thrown out the window and splatters onto Broome Street with a sound that carries faintly back into the hall.
‘Symphony No. 3 (in the water) (Flux-version II),’ by George Brecht
A toy boat with a sheet of music for its sail floats in a basin about four feet long. A trumpet player and a trombonist stand at one end, a French hornist and a saxophonist stand at the other end, a referee says ‘go,’ and the instrumentalists begin blasting at the sailboat, trying to move it across the basin with the air that comes out of their horns. The trumpet player and the trombonist win.
‘Overture,’ by Ben Patterson
Ten performers line up across the stage. The one on the end opens a cardboard box and takes out a slightly smaller cardboard box, which he passes on to the 1979/takehisa-kosugi-and-akio-suzuki-stunning-by-coincidence performer. The second performer does likewise, and this procedure continues until the tenth performer ends up with a tiny plastic box. He opens it, takes out a balloon, and blows it up. The word ‘finis’ can be read on the inflated balloon.