A Conversation with Francesco Conz
Henry Martin is an art critic and curator who has been writing about Fluxus for almost three decades. He is the author of George Brecht’s The Book of the Tumbler on Fire, and he has published essays on Fluxus artists from Brecht and Knowles to Friedman and Filliou. Martin lives near Bolzano, Italy, where he recently organized a major exhibition for the 30th anniversary of Fluxus.
Francesco Conz is a leading publisher of avant-garde and experimental art multiples. Beginning in 1972 in Asolo, Itaiy, Conz has worked with most members of the Fluxus group including Watts, Higgins, Brecht, Dupuy, Spoerrl, Williams and many others. He has also worked with artists from the Vienna Actlonlst Group, artists active In Lettrlsme. Spanish laj and International concrete poetry circles. Editions Com is located In Milan and Verona, where Francesco Com maintains an Important archive and collection of contemporary art.
f c: It was Hermann Nitsch who put me in touch with the Fluxus artists, first of all by way of Joe Jones, and I began to invite the people who interested me to come and work for a while in Asolo, which is the town where I was living at the time. There was Joe Jones, Nam June Paik, and Charlotte Moorman, Philip Corner and Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, Takako saito, and Carolee Schneemann, Dick Higgins as well. and Nitsch, any number of people, and these were the people who came to Asolo, who were at the center of the first of my editions in 1972• Some of these editions have never been seen, or have been shown only partially, like the edition, for example, that I did with Paik. That Paik publication is extremely complex, and showing it isn’t easy.
It’s a virtual history of all the works that Paik and Charlotte Moorman had done together, or sometimes separately, and it’s based on photos that were made by Peter Moore. Peter and Barbara Moore and their daughter came to Asolo from New York, and we selected all the photos together. Paik and Charlotte were also there and we put together a kind of retrospective, organized in a great enormous box, where you see the whole history of all their previous collaborations, up until about 1975. The box has photos of all their performances, and reproductions of the records made in the courts where Charlotte was put on trial for acts of obscenity and musical pornography. There’s also a printing of some of the original posters for Charlotte’s Avant-Garde Festivals. and a group of drawings as well, and silkscreen prints pulled in an edition of eighteen. All this was stlll at a time when Paik was largely unknown. Paik and Charlotte also did a performance in a vineyard next to the house where I lived, and there are photos of that as well, in fact a really complete documentation, all as a part of thiS edition. And that’s only the beginning of the things that took place in Asolo, which for years was the scene of a kind of constant happening.
It was the place for happenings or events or modern rituals, which is – really the best and clearest and most meaningful word. Geoff Hendricks, for example, does rituals, since when you watch him you really can’t help thinking of a shaman or a priest, and Geoff came to Asolo to complete a kind of transcontinental ceremony called Between Two Points, which was documented as a book. Philip Corner did his Meta Meditations in Asolo, Joe Jones did his Music Bike, Alison Knowles did the work called Leone d’ oro, and there was also lots of work with Nitsch. Nitsch did a box of documentary photographs, and of course his Asolo Room. Gunter Brus did the environmental work LA CROCE DEL VENETO (nine large paintings on wood). and Otto Muhl a set of his gestural paintings inspired at that time by his growing “Kommune”.
h m: Previously you’d opened a gallery In Venice, but almost instantly abandoned it. You always remark that Nitsch introduced you to a whole different world of artists, but still that doesn’t explain why the very idea of a gallery should suddenly have seemed inappropriate.
f c: There are all sorts of reasons for giving up that gallery, including the reason that I’m not very good as a dealer, since I’m far too attached to the art of the artists I get involved with, it’s a very deep and personal involvement, and a dealer has to deal with the workS of art in just the same way that a grocer buys and sells potatoes. And even at the time when I opened that gallery I called it “La Galleria d’arte moltiplicata”, which means “the gallery of multiplied art”, since I’ve always had the idea that what I basically wanted was to work as publisher. That’s much more creative, and much more active.
h m: Even as a collector, you’re not simply interested in owning works of art, and you often prefer to commission a work, or to discuss and finance a new or previously unrealized project, rather than offer to purchase a piece that already exists.
f c: You have to remember that I’m a fairly curious sort of collector. There’s an awful lot of fetishism in the way I go about it. Collecting, for me, is all for purposes of keeping things together, preserving them, keeping track of them, cataloguing them and setting them aside in a place where I can feel that they are safe. Collecting is an act of impulse, or even compulsion, that some people simply have Inside them, and I wouldn’t quite be able to define it. Some people are thieves, because they’re simply possessed by an Instinct for theft, there are other people who have saintly instincts, and then there are people whose instincts make them collectors, which means searching out things that strike them as precious and setting them aside and locking them up and spending lots of time looking at them. It’s very much like hoarding. I hope one day to have a great enormous house or villa or a castle where I’ll be able to house all the things I own, and I’ll set them all up which everything clearly ordered and all its proper place, with a room for this and a room for that, meaning a room for every artist, but then I’m almost certain that I’ll rig up a curtain or drape in front of every work so as to keep other people from looking at them.
h m: Can you really collect things with the Idea of hiding them?
f c: You know, it’s not at all like buying things at the supermarket. I get to be highly involved with an artist and the work that the artist makes, and the works I collect are very intensely a part of my life. The artists I work with are the people I live with and the things I collect have always been purchased directly from the artists, or sometimes I’ve asked the artists to make them for me; there’s no real reason for me to want to show them around or to turn them into a kind of public display. That has nothing to do with it. These are things for a few select people who really understand them, people who participate in what they’re all about, somehow sharing in what they’re all about, people who are passionately involved in what they’re all about. That’s a part of the whole experience of art. It’s like the treasures of St. Mark In Venice. You go to Venice to take a look at the treasures of St. Mark, but certainly you can’t find to expect them displayed in the Square. I mean it’s not the same experience as the pigeons and the peanut vendors, maybe with the treasures in a few glass cases sort of off to one side. It’s not that sort of thing at all. The treasures are In the treasury and the treasury’s protected in the depths of the church. There’s a system of electronic surveillance. and before you get to see them you go and talk with a sacristan, and maybe he’ll open the door to let you in, The gen· eral run of tourists will walk around the piazza and then visit the church, but the treasures are secret and out of sight and only the pea· pie who see them are the people who are really interested and who already know they’re there.
h m: You think of collecting as a very private activity, but your attitude must be different with respect to the editions you publish.
f c: Sure. Part of your reason for creating editions is that there’s a whole life activity that I have to finance, and dealing in original works is something that doesn’t interest me, if only because I’d find it far too painful. Each original work is like an only child, and how can you separate yourself from an only child? But when a work takes the form of an edition, it’s something I can keep and let go at one and the same time, even if my editions aren’t really easy to sell. They’re part of a continuing avant-garde that doesn’t have a lot of general appeal, and collectors, ordinarily, are careful to observe a kind of pecking order. First they want the older works of the artist who interests them, and then the newer works when the older works can no longer be found. It’s only when the newer works become rare and expensive that collectors finally get around to thinking about the editions, even if thinking like that can be a terrible mistake. There are certain Dada and Futurist editions and publications that are no less valuable than so called original works. But none of that can happen until the artist has been widely recognized. There’s also the fact that the works I publish can be really quite huge since they’re conceived of as documents or documentations. My edition of Gerhard Ruhm’s Automatische Zeichnungen is a complete collection of fifty-five graphics. and a collector has to ask himself what the hell he could possibly do with fifty-five graphics. I mean he’s not very likely to be able to hang them all up on his living-room walls. And what could most collectors do with the things I publish by Milan Knizak, or Ben Patterson, or Eric Andersen? Knizak did three copies each of nine life-size ceramic compositions. Ben Patterson did an edition of ten Fluxus double beds. Eric Andersen did an edition of ten on cloth that was five feet high and a hundred and sixty feet long; that was a silk-screen for each of one hundred and seven colours, and the printers at one point calculated that for each individual piece they walked back and forth with the screens tn their hands for nine kilometres. Most collectors haven’t yet managed to understand that the point in owning a work of art doesn’t have to have very much to do with the idea of wanting to display it. Not everybody sees the point in having the treasures of St. Mark put away in a private sacristy. But I’m convinced that things are going to change, and that people will begin to be sensitive to a whole array of new and developing ideas, People are often confused by the fact that my editions are often so heavily based on photography, but that’s because they haven’t understood that photography itself is a dying art, or rather a dying technique, And the value of certain kinds of photographs – their value as art, or perhaps as replacements for art, or as replacements for painting and other kinds of images – will remain unclear until the technique has grown totally obsolete. But that’s destined to happen. Already today there’s a developing digital technology for making records of images that then you’ll be able to view on a TV screen or any other ‘media, and the whole process of photography will soon be forgotten, just as now we’ve forgotten skills involved In working the enormous lithographic stones that were used for making the posters of Toulouse Lautrec. So attitudes to photography are going to change as the other arts like painting and sculpture and ceramics die out and turn ever more into simpler crafts, people will also begin to see the need for iconographies that replace them. It’s a very vast process, because art. as I see it, will be the principal thing, in twenty or thirty years’ time. that will take the place of religion, since religion, too, is well on its way to turning into just one more of the various political parties. The churches today are already empty, and their rituals and ceremonies no longer compare to what they used to be; theres no more Haydn played in the churches. no more sumptuous processions passing through the streets, there’s no longer that sense of power and mystery that was once so close to the essence of religious life. The churches organize meetings and picnics and basketball teams that are organized by everybody else; they run programs to help keep kids off the streets and to help the ones who’ve got problems with drugs, and that’s all well and good, but it’s all just the same as the programs that are run by the parties and the social workers. This is not a new idea of course. Matthew Arnold, for instance, wrote about this more than one hundred years ago. Not exactly the same, but that’s the point; it’s almost the same, or surely a part of a single social context. If you want to point out the differences you find yourself looking at precisely the kinds of distinctions that separate the views of one political party from another. They just make proposals that compete with slightly different proposals that are made by everybody else. Perhaps the religions are a little more attentive to the fear of death and retribution, but that’s no more than a party line, or the line of a special appeal to a certain public that thinks and responds in a certain way, or terms of a certain ideology. Meanwhile, the convents and the monasteries get converted into luxury hotels. For this reason people with a need for a monastic way of life have to look for it somewhere else, and that’s the role that art can play, or the role in fact that it plays already. Instead of going into a convent and thinking about God , the modem way of looking for a spiritual life is much more of a private dedication to reading certain books and thinking certain thoughts and being involved in certain processes that are right at the centre of avant-garde art. This avant-garde art, that replaces religion, already has its saints. People will turn to photography as a way of staying in touch with those saints. That’s the kind of photography that interests me. I’m thinking about the photographs that were made by a person like Peter Moore, whose photos of the avant-grade art started in the 1960s, Again there’s the photographic archive I have of all the work of the Guerrilla Art Action Group, and the testimonial photographic documentation I gathered and published on the whole of the work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler. I’m talking about photos of really historic events, and people will one day need to have them, since in the future these things will be looked at as our relics and fetishes and incunabula. I also hope one day to be able to publish the photos that I myself have made, since that’s another Important part of all my various activities. I have a camera every- where I go, whenever I’m together with artists, and I’ve made thousands and thousands of photographs. They’re very curious photographs where you get to see the artist in a certain way – where you get the feeling of the kinds of lives they lead. These photos one day will be very important, when people will have learned to look at the artists from a point of view that isn’t yet common, seeing them for what they really are. They’re the photos of the lives of the saints of the new religion. They’re very unofficial photographs, since these saints are eating and drinking and maybe playing volley ball, or taking a shower or sleeping, or playing tag in a hay loft and doing a million different things that we ought to remember in addition to simply the work they do.
h m: But when you talk about the saintliness of the artists who interest you, what, more precisely, are you referring to? Where do you manage to see all this saintliness?
f c: That’s simply what they are. They’re the new saints. We’re talking about people who’ve had something important to say about our whole way of life, people who’ve raised some very radical objections and shown a dedication to a different kind of consciousness, a different kind of awareness. The saints of the new church are still attempting to offer, including their newer and more human saints, simply don’t make any sense, not today. There’s no longer any place for religious saints. Of course I can think of Robert lax as a saint. That’s exactly the impression he gave me when he came not long ago to visit me in Verona. And who could be more of a saint than Geo~e Brecht? Saint Anthony went into a convent and didn’t eat, and didn’t drink. but modern human beings no longer have a need for things like that. We don’t need to whip ourselves or wear hair shirts or make ourselves sick by eating roots. George Brecht is a person who could easily be one of the worlds most famous artists, with pieces that sell at the prices of Joseph Beuys or jasper johns, but that’s not the way he lives. That’s not the sort of thing that interests him. He lives a kind of renumeration, and his life is virtually monastic. He lives quietly in a small place, answers only a part of his mail, and only speaks on the phone by prior arrangement. His renunciations are just as radical as the ones that were made by St. Francis in the thirteenth century. He affirms a whole different set of values, It’s a set of mental or spiritual or contemplative values that you simply don’t”find in the rest of society around us. The spiritual figures that the church presents us with today, figures like Mother Theresa or the pope, are ultimately dependent on the same gigantic publicity machine that runs the rest of our society. Most of the pictures of the pope show him getting off an airplane, The pope’s in the foreground on a great kitsch throne, and right behind him is his Boeing 747 – the great, mythic eagle that flies him magically back and forth across the face of the earth. A kind of technological ubiquity. That’s the sort of thing that impresses us, the sort of thing that impresses all the ordinary people who make up our ordinary society. Those are the myths and rites of charisma and personal power that people now react to, But the real modern-day saints are the people who are able to reject that sort of myth. Thirty years ago, Robert Lax went off on his own to live in a corner of the island of Patmos, and he’s still right there, continuing to make his book. I think of that as a great renunciation, Bob Watts was a very great artist and withdrew from New York City to a farm in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Robert Delford Brown is the founder of the First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, and he continues to live in New York, but remains virtually hiding in a house to the north of Greenwich Village. Filliou at the end of his life retired to a Buddhist monastery. George Brecht lives the quietest possible life in a quaint and anonymous suburb of Cologne. just like a saint in retreat. Or there was Charlotte Moorman who lived in an attic in New York. which might just as well have been a tree·house in a jungle. Jean Dupuy settled in a tiny village on top of a mountain in the south of France, called Pierrefeu. Dick Higgins bought a Church at Barrytown and is there with Alison Knowles. The list could go on and on. And of course there’s Maciunas, but to talk about Maciunas and what made him a saint I’d have to write a whole book, Ken Friedman is Maciunas’s Saint Paul, writing letters to all the apostles and spreading the Fluxus word, from California to Finland, The works these artists do are simply relics they leave behind, and my editions are a way of documenting and collecting these relics and preserving them.
h m: Do you think that explains why your editions are often so precious? Many of the artists who interest you work with very simple ideas, and yet you present them lavishly, That could be viewed as a contradiction, but perhaps you’d say it’s much the same thing as presenting the bone of a martyred saint In a gold and crystal case.
f c: I think that’s true, But I’m also intrigued by the notion of using very classical materials in ways in which they were never intended to be used, For example, there’s my edition of Allson Knowles’ Great Bear Fluxeu Events. It’s a collection of sixteen texts that could hardly be more simple, or more minimal. almost painfully, or almost stupidly simple, but they’re presented in a luxurious silk-lined box, and they’re printed on some of the world’s finest paper, with each sheet folded for protection in a vellum sheath. It’s an acid·free Fabriano paper that’s very much in contact with the work that it’s used to present. It’s a paper designed for a totally different purpose; a quality of paper you’d expect to see used for lithographs, or maybe for watercolours. Now I’m planning to publish a series of editions on parchment, but the artists will be using the parchment in totally unprecedented ways, I work with avant-garde artists, but I’m also fascinated with all these rare and precious materials that were used for the making of a de luxe and classical art, because it’s clear that all of these “supports” are now disappearing-meaning the silks and parchments and exquisite papers, the impeccable book-binding and handcrafted woods and precision casting – since the whole tradition of classical art they served is also disappearing. These crafts and techniques and materials are the only thing that that kind of art has left behind it, the only real Iegacy, and even that won’t last for very much longer. So I like to recuperate these kinds of materials, pulling them outside their original context, and employing them for other uses.
h m: But what’s the purpose of a thing like that. creating a kind of confusion, a kind of conundrum? Working on the meaning of materials is hardly typical of the artists you publish. This discourse on materials that belong to the art historical past is something you might be said to add to their work.
f c: It’s only a question of offering: certain suggestions. It’s not at all that the artists don’t like to respond to them, For example, I’ve produced a work with Eric Andersen, a box containing his Crying Plate, which is a flat piece of marble with two small depressions in it – fine pink Verona marble- and I suggested to Eric that this plate should be presented in a beautifully crafted mahogany box with leather straps; I mean the work is all very secretive, and the box is lined with satin. Mahogany is right since it’s the wannest and most precious wood you can find, if in fact you can find it, and Eric did not say no, and insist on using plywood. Mahogany is now a very rare and expensive wood, not to mention the rarity of finding a carpenter who knows how to work with it, The artists are highly intrigued when I offer suggestion about the kinds of materials and craftsmanship that I can still make available. That’s something I can do since I’m very much in touch with the various fields of fine craftsmanship; knowing about these things was an important part of the work I was doing when I used to own a furniture factory. So I can just ask the artists what they’d like. I can ask if they’d like to work with mahogany or marble or whatever else. Then it’s up to them to decide. I simply point out that certain materials might be very interesting.
h m: I imagine that this is how you got started with printing editions on cloth, except that then the idea got away from you and assumed a larger dimension, since you’ve published so many editions on cloth.
f c: That’s an idea that just seemed to take off because people seemed to accept it. At the beg-inning it looked like everything else and was only another experiment, but then I discovered that there was even a market for my editions on cloth, not of course a tremendous market. but people didn’t balk and were ready to accept them; people found it all quite natural and really quite obvious that there’s no essential difference between editions on cloth and silkscreens on paper. They could easily see that the shift is material meant no loss at all in quality or credibility. And for me these was a whole host of primarily practical advantages. Working with images on cloth makes it possible to do shows the way I did two years ago in Australia. That whole enormous show got shipped as three postal packages. If the works have been printed on paper, I’d have met with a very different problem. A work on paper, if it’s three meters tall and six meters wide, is a much more difficult thing to get to the other side of the world. Everything is much more mobile with works on sheets of cloth, and I liked the idea of being able to have various collections in various places all at the same time. I do these works in editions of thirty, and I can make one package and mail it to New Zealand, and then make the same package again on the following day and ship it to Canada. The same show can travel on several different circuits all at once, since the effort involved in shipping is very slight and the costs are low. The works can be shown in all sorts of places that function on minimal budgets, like universities, art clubs in Eastern Europe, and in other out of the way places in general. The whole idea was very, very practical. Now I’m thinking about doing Dick Higgins’ maps on cloth, but in a slightly different way, since I’ll have them plastified and mounted on two horizontal wooden bars like the maps you used to find in all the schools, mounted on the wall over the blackboard.
h m: You’ve worked with all of the Fluxus artists, but not only with Fluxus artists, You seem perhaps to think of them as a part of a somewhat larger, or very much larger family. It’s not that you’ve fallen in love with Fluxus as an isolated movement: you seem rather to _ feel that all of these artists have a quality that’s strangely common not only among themselves, but also, say. with Sari Dienes, or Eric Dietman, or with Jackson Mac Low, or AI Hansen, or Ay-O. How would you define that quality?
f c: Each one of them has a personal myth of his or her own, and each of these myths is independent and self-sufficient. The thing that always interests me is what we were talking about before, talking about the idea of saintliness. Each of these people has a personal history, and that purely personal history is the motor that drives the work, which is always totally independent of the work of everybody else. Emmett Williams, for example, is now doing work that belongs more to the field of poetry than to anything else: it’s work that has very little to do with the Fluxus in his past, and the amount of Fluxus in his past isn’t even all that great. Or look at Spoerri and how much his work has changed and all the different things he’s done, or at Serge III and Jean Dupuyl
h m: I myself think of Fluxus as something that seems once upon a time to have happened, and to have made its place in the histories of a great many different people: but it belongs to these people now as a part of a past that they’ve known how to leave behind them. They’ve all gone on to do hosts of different things. and it strikes me that you’ve always continued to support them, and that your own particular interest isn’t at all limited to the Fluxus moment that they only momentarily shared. What they’ve continued on to do continues to arouse your interest,
f· c: I’d go even further than that. since I can happily admit that … well, it’s quite clear that I didn’t get started until the beginning of the 1970s, and you could say that by then the “historical” part of the Fluxus movement was already over and done with. So I never had a chance to give a lot of attention to the beginning of the Fluxus movement, since I hadn’t been around to take part in it; it made much more sense to take an interest in what the artists were doing at the time when I met them, and I’ve continued to take an interest in what they’ve continued to do. I have a fairly romantic idea of the artist, which means that I really can’t think that an artist was good some ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and that nothing since then makes a difference. People mature, and they ought to get better and better. I can see that these Fluxus people, and the other people who interest me, have continued to grow. Much of the work they’re doing now is better than the things they were doing before, Titian and Monet did their very best work at the end of their lives, and there’s no good reason for that not to happen again. The thing about the artists I work with most. and the thing that goes to show just how good they truly are, is that they’ve managed to be free of any repetitive trademark. They’re always creative, and they can explore an idea with enormous tenacity, but often again it’s not easy to identify their work. If you want to know who did it you have to look for the signature. That’s more the way it is with Duchamp, where the thing you most can love about the work is the fact that it’s always incomprehensible, and is always incomprehensible in always different ways. Or think about the oracles. When people went to ask questions at the oracle at Delphi the answers were always mysterious. and they were also always different. No authentic oracle would ever say the same thing twice. That, again, is why religion today has no more saints to offer, or why we always find them disappointing, since the saints the church wants to give us have nothing new to say: all they manage to say is a further variation on a theme, maybe with a little evolution, since certain sins today look a bit more admissible. There’s not much point in insisting that they’ll send you to hell, but it’s pretty much the same old soup warmed up again and sent out from the same old kitchen, sort of like painting, which hasn’t really changed very much in the last three thousand years. Eighty percent of the confessions that are made today in Italy in the confessionals of the Catholic church are about sex. Greed, and corruption and not paying your taxes are all by now so natural that confessions about things like that don’t even cross people’s minds. It’s simple jungle survival. But sex as well will cease to be a sin, and the church will have to abandon all the idiotic things it says about AIDS; and at that point even the pope will want to arrange for the canonization of Otto Miihl. The artists in the last ten years have done more on behalf of sexual health than the church has managed to do in three thousand years. These are saints who interest me. They’re people who’ve Invented a different Iconography that has much more to do with life, or with giving you a dimension in which to think about your daily life and all the stupid importance you try to give it. Try to Imagine a general, maybe, or a judge. or the head inspector of the federal tax office doing that, These people who leave everybody terrorized and quivering with respect. You can really ask. just how long? Only until their sixty-fifth birthday, Then they go into retirement and nobody’s scared at all. You meet them on the street and slap them on the shoulder and say “how’s the wife. old boy,” and they can’t even frighten the sparrows in the park any more. they’re right back to zero, and the very same zero as before the time when they started out. They turn sixty-five and find themselves stripped of everything, since there’s nothing of which to strip them. Not even the emperors of China have left a lot of traces behind them. The thousands of emperors of China and Japan have simply disappeared and only a few scholars know as much as their names. The only people who remain are the people who leave tangible works of art behind them. And that’s more or less where you find the proof of the saintliness of art. The artists build the churches and the monuments, and the works I publish are very complete, It’s never a question of a modest portfolio with six or seven prints, it’s always more of a question of a cycle of works, or of something that has it’s own completeness. Like a cathedral. And I’m happy to be able to give them a hand.
h m: You think of yourself as collaborating with the artists.
f c: Exactly. Collaborating with the kinds of artists who can make that sort of claim to saintliness. Because if you talk about artists, there are lots of artists, but saints are fairly rare. And maybe that saintliness rubs off. There are all sorts of distinctions in the religious orders of the church, the major friars and minor friars and the deacons and all the rest. So maybe some collectors have a slight or collateral claim to saintliness, and maybe some publishers as well.
This interview was originally published in Lund Art Press, vol.2, no.2, 1991, and has been re-edited for this publication, “Under the Influence of Fluxus”.