From Planned Utopias to Jerry-rigged Realities: The Multiple Forms of Maciunas’s Living-Working Systems By Mari Dumett

From Planned Utopias to Jerry-rigged Realities: The Multiple Forms of Maciunas’s Living-Working Systems

By: Mari Dumett

Reflecting on the life of Lithuanian-born artist and Fluxus founder George Maciunas, fellow artist Geoffrey Hendricks once stated: “To understand George it is helpful to reflect on where and how he lived, for the spaces he created paralleled how he worked and thought.” 1 Hendricks offers an important insight that is worth pursuing. Within the limited space of this essay, I will look briefly at three examples of spaces created by Maciunas in order to suggest how these spaces were connected to his broader logic of art and life as a whole. My purpose is to show how the spaces both instantiated and helped (re)produce this logic. This is by no means a straightforward task. As we shall see, the multiplicity of spaces he designed and occupied represent a complex and seemingly contradictory amalgam of utopian possibilities aimed at universal ideals and jerry-rigged solutions fitted to specific situations. He was at once a systematic thinker devising grand solutions to social problems, such as public housing, and a bricoleur, making the most of the usually minimal means (and space) at his disposal.

In 1965, Maciunas first published his plan for a Prefabricated Building System, which he had been working on since the mid-1950s.2 In Appendix One of the plan, he suggests that his design marks a watershed in building programs. Up until that point, he avers, the Soviet Union’s Prefabricated Building System had been the most efficient, but his plan was even more so. While the price per square foot of his system may have been a bit higher than that of the Soviets’, his ultimately “gave the most performance for the least cost.” Basing this claim of maximum efficiency on the objectives of workability, economy, adaptability, and durability, Maciunas implied that if his program was put into production it could surpass the Soviet’s record ability to produce three million new dwelling units in 1960 alone.3 His diagram of the building procedure begins in step one with a picture of twelve pre-cast concrete piles set in a 4 x 3 grid in the ground and ends at step six with a fully contained, single-storey, rectangular dwelling composed of exterior and interior panels. The diagram makes it look so simple and easy that one imagines his prefab structures proliferating across the landscape like a child’s erector set constructions sprawling across a living room floor, while providing living or working spaces for millions of people. Indeed, according to Maciunas the system allowed for the utmost flexibility and adaptation so it could expand, contract, or change shape in relation to the required function (be it private, commercial, or governmental) as well as any geographic or climatic restrictions.

The only component that could not be tampered with was the rectangular box housing the service cubicle. First to be placed on the foundation, the service cubicle formed the core around which the rest of the structure was assembled. Still, even this fixed unit was remarkably economic and efficient. It encased the core plumbing and electrical facilities of the house in a tight arrangement: the bathroom and kitchen sit back-to-back with a thin, shared plumbing wall running between them. In the kitchen, modern appliances, including a dishwasher and a washer and dryer, as well as the central heating and cooling unit, are all neatly tucked in. Everything has its place, with no extraneous space left over. Today we might think of Maciunas’s service cubicle as a precursor to the Modular Bathroom Units of the Dutch art group Atelier van Lieshout (AvL). Dispensing with Maciunas’s exterior panels, AvL’s modular units consist of a single foldable panel that can be easily packed up, transported, and set to work anywhere there is a plumbing hook-up.

Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System, based on only nine prefabricated components, could belong everywhere and nowhere at once. Its utopianism was premised on such universality—a system ostensibly applicable to every functional need and any logistical or environmental circumstance. But Maciunas’s attempt at a catchall solution involves a problematic preferencing of the universal to the disregard of the particular and the local—as if sliding open or shifting over a panel could account for important cultural, social, and economic particularities of place. In this regard, perhaps the most telling aspect of his building system is its inability to rise above one storey, making it in fact woefully “inefficient” for high-density urban centers. In reality, his plan would not have been the most efficient choice for public housing in New York or Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, let alone in a city like Tokyo or São Paulo today. Indeed, when the prefab panels are forced open to questions of a particular place, one begins to wonder whether his system might not have been most appropriate for accommodating the new postwar social type known as the “organization man,” moving in droves to the suburbs of American cities at the time—a dwelling designed to produce a subject as efficient at home as he was in the corporate office.4

If Maciunas’s Prefab System was based on an ideal of universal use-value, his piece Flux Combat evinced a spatial practice emerging out of a very specific and local lived experience. Beginning in 1966, Maciunas embarked on a plan to buy old buildings—in the neighborhood that was then known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” and today goes by the much more genteel name of SoHo—and turn them into living-working cooperatives for artists. In the early days of the process, he was able to work fairly well under the radar of New York housing authorities. He tried to get the buildings up to code, but sometimes took liberties, cutting corners to save time and money. Within a few short years, however, speculators followed the artists into the area, seeing dollar signs of profit rather than affordable living and working spaces in the old industrial edifices. This turned building inspectors’ eyes more closely on those living in the so-called “illegal” co-ops, including Maciunas, who became the subject of an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office. At the time, Maciunas himself lived in a renovated loft space at 80 Wooster Street—the very first Fluxhouse Cooperative started in 1967. The one potential glitch in the Attorney General’s plan to take Maciunas to court was that Maciunas had to be subpoenaed in person. The comical image of a stuffy state official attempting to track him down and haul him in must have titillated Maciunas’s imagination, as he decided to turn the whole affair into a kind of cat and mouse performance.

Flux Combat represented an over-the-top, multifaceted, survival strategy by which Maciunas would both evade the law and expose the absurdity of its bureaucratic machinations. It included ephemera such as rubber-mask disguises, postcards sent by friends around the world on behalf of Maciunas to throw the cops off his trail, and letters parodying city officials and their “bureau-speak.” In the midst of all of this subterfuge, however, Maciunas also made plans for a dramatic retooling of his loft. The objective: to turn the space into a “Flux-fortress.”

There were, according to Maciunas: “various unbreakable doors with giant cutting blades facing out, reinforced with steel pipe, braces, camouflaged doors, dummy and trick doors and ceiling hatches, filled or backed with white powder, liquids, smelly extracts. Funny messages behind each door, real escape hatches and tunnels leading to other floors, vaults etc., various precautions in entering and departing flux-fortress.”5 It is not clear how much of this was actually built, but we do have accounts from several Fluxus artists who remember a few of the peculiar designs that were realized. As Robert Watts recalled Flux Combat: “…GM now took steps for a prolonged siege. The door was reinforced on the inside with a steel bar, angle and plate, including the door frame. The outer side of the door became medieval and dangerous, as running the length and at close intervals were pieces of industrial paper guillotine blades, and extremely sharp. In effect there was no place to knock without being seriously cut.”6 And Geoffrey Hendricks added: “He also devised an escape route up through a narrow secret passage to the Cinematheque with the thought that if he kept himself thin, he could get through but his pursuers would get stuck. But the climax of the story was that in the secret passageway there was a disguise kept for himself, and this he would put on and go around to the upstairs hall and greet the people hunting for him, with the inquiry, “Who is it you are looking for?”, and then tell them where Maciunas might be found.”7 One imagines Maciunas outmaneuvering his pursuers through his jerry-rigged labyrinth only to confront them wearing a gorilla mask on the other side. To create the fortress Maciunas used a hodge-podge of materials—likely the scraps of his co-op renovation efforts—and imaginative methods—transferring the notorious “blade” of the French Revolution to his front door where it would cut the hand of those state agents who dared to knock. And it was particular in the extreme. For example, the functional efficacy of the narrow escape hatch and secret passageway was wholly dependent on Maciunas’s own body weight—his ability to remain slim (and the likelihood that those pursuing him would be of larger physique) the only assurance that he could slide through while others “got stuck.”

Somewhere in between the utopian Prefabricated Building System and the “bricoleured” Flux Combat loft, lied the spaces in which Maciunas did his day-to-day living. Yet these too were remarkable and revealing in their own way, perhaps the most so for our purposes. In 1961, Maciunas left New York to take a job as a graphic designer at the United States Air Force base in Wiesbaden, Germany. It seems that during his first winter there, he lived for a while in his car. Artist Alison Knowles gives a wonderful description of how this might have worked:
…we learned that George had worked the previous winter as a draftsman by day, and in the back of his car by night! This was verboten of course, and took daily ingenuity, courage and presence of mind to carry it off. In fact, each night became a performance in itself. First George bought the food at the PX, either eating there or adding to his stash of small stock items for the car. No need to eat in a restaurant—ever! One imagines the interior of the car as the ultimate in space organization, with its boxes, probably the glove compartment became a desk, correspondence inside the compartment, and the piles of clothing that had to be worn each night [because of the cold] in neat piles on the floor. The driver’s seat was perhaps hollow to provide storage for food etc.?8

Glove compartments could become desks, front seats could become storage containers, and everything could be put in its place to achieve optimum spatial use-value within such limited means. Air Force draftsman by day, and Fluxus organizer by night, Maciunas could impose a rigorous order on the most awkward of spaces—such as the interior of an automobile?so that his work and life would run efficiently. And the car in Wiesbaden was but one of many examples of how central organization was not only to the spaces Maciunas created but also to everything he did. His apartment at 349 West Broadway was “designed, built, and organized…to provide him with the maximum amount of storage and some simple clean work areas.”9 And at 80 Wooster Street, prior to Flux Combat, he also created a rationally ordered space tailored to his specific work and storage needs. Here are Geoffrey Hendricks’ observations on Maciunas’s basement at that location:

…he had a large room for storage with aisles of shelves filled with boxes all carefully labeled in his distinctive handwriting and printing. His theory was that you shouldn’t throw out anything, for as soon as you did, you would realize what you needed it for. He was always shopping for bargains, odd lots, strange things that could become elements of Fluxus editions, and these too were stored.10

In this space, as in the space of the car in Germany, the systematic thinker “met” the makeshift bricoleur, and the ideal of universal functional order came together with the particularities of lived experience.

A mass of various and sundry things flooded into Maciunas’s spaces—from the cheap food purchased at the United States Air Force PX to the objects found or bought on the streets of New York—but the flood was always controlled, the things always placed meticulously into boxes for orderly retrieval at a later date. Ultimately, the spaces he created had to facilitate this process, representing an ongoing negotiation between the universal and utopian on the one hand and the particular and lived on the other. Most of all, Maciunas’s spaces suggest a deep desire, imaginative capacity, and organizational acumen to create living-working systems, no matter the circumstances.

Mari Dumett received a B.A. in Political Science from Indiana
University, an M.A. in Art History from the University of British
Columbia, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University where
she is finishing a dissertation on George Maciunas and Fluxus.

1, Geoffrey Hendricks, Manuscript (New York, 1994) as reprinted in Mr. Fluxus: a Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978, eds., Emmett Williams and Anne Noël (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), p. 177.

2, It appeared in the text “Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture,” which Maciunas co-produced with Henry Flynt. This text is reprinted in Fluxus etc., Addenda I. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, ed., Jon Hendricks (New York: Ink &, 1983), pp. 38-43.

3, This is Maciunas’s figure, as cited in Appendix One of the Prefabricated Building System.

4, For discussions of the notion of the “organization man” see, for example: William H. Whyte, Jr., The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954); Robert Presthus, The Organizational Society: an Analysis and a Theory (New York: Knopf, 1962).

5, George Maciunas, Flux-Combat Between George Maciunas & Attorney General of New York, 1975-76 (Stuttgart: Staatsgalerie, Archiv Sohm).

6, Robert Watts, Manuscript (1980) as reprinted in Mr. Fluxus: a Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978, eds., Emmett Williams and Anne Noël (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), p. 184.

7, Geoffrey Hendricks, p. 185.

8, Alison Knowles, Manuscript (1980) as reprinted in Mr. Fluxus: a Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978, eds., Emmett Williams and Anne Noël (London: Thames and Hudson, ), p. 57.

9, Geoffrey Hendricks, p. 177.
10, Geoffrey Hendricks, p. 178.