Essay by Amy Taubin: From Fluxus to Media Art

From Fluxus to Media Art

By Amy Taubin

“Warhol and George, Warhol and Fluxus. Somewhere there, very deep, they were both the same, they were both Fluxus…” muses Jonas Mekas during a sequence from his 16mm diary film, Zefiro Torno or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas. The sequence juxtaposes Warhol’s famed “cow wallpaper” show at the Whitney Museum in 1971 with a Fluxus event – “George’s Dumpling Party” – which took place that same year at 80 Wooster Street, one of the first artists’ cooperative buildings designed and realized by Maciunas in Soho. Conceived as a “Fluxhouse,” 80 Wooster Street was the center for Fluxus activities from 1968 until two years before Maciunas’s death in 1978. Warhol is present at the dumpling party, seated on the grimy white tile floor, along with Yoko Ono, a core member of Fluxus and her husband John Lennon, an honorary Fluxus artist by virtue of his marriage to Yoko and the Dadaist humor evidenced in his lyrics, other writings, and drawings. Unlike Warhol, however, Maciunas had little interest in, or even tolerance for, celebrities. Most of the other participants in the “dumpling event” are Fluxus artists whose names and faces would not have been known outside the world of the avant-garde arts.

Mekas’ assessment of the similarities between Maciunas and Warhol is based his personal empathy for both artists as well as his understanding of their work. Like Mekas, Maciunas was born in Lithuania and came to the U.S. soon after World War II, while Warhol was a first generation American, the son of Czech immigrants who arrived in the U.S. and settled in Pittsburgh early in the Great Depression. Which is to say all three regarded the United States with outsiders’ eyes – specifically, with the perspective of Eastern Europeans who had emigrated from countries which had been taken over by the Soviet Union – and were impelled to create elaborate, insulated worlds of their own devising in which their creative powers could flourish.

Thus, Mekas became not simply a filmmaker, but the indispensable programmer, archivist, fund-raiser, theoretician and all around proselytizer for a genre of moving image work that has been variously dubbed, to no one’s complete satisfaction, avant-garde film, underground film, experimental film, and the New American Cinema. Dedicating much of his time and energy for 50 years to building an infrastructure for this fragile body of work, he founded the Filmmakers Cooperative, the Filmmakers Cinematheque, and Anthology Film Archives. He was also a co- editor/publisher of Film Culture magazine and the writer of “Movie Journal” a weekly, influential column in the “Village Voice.” Indeed, Mekas’s image as the impresario of avant-garde film obscured from many involved in this world the fact that he himself made films and that the 16mm camera, without which he was seldom seen, was being used to capture images that, beginning in the mid-1960s, he would edit into a series of moving picture diaries, some of which are now regarded as among the greatest works of avant-garde cinema.

Maciunas, too, was a combination of artist and impresario, the primary organizer of Fluxus, a loose, international collective of artists working in the tradition of Duchamp and Dada. Irreverent humor is the Fluxus mode of attack, used to question the meaning of value in the art world, in mass culture, and in the daily life of consumerist society. Fluxus privileges ephemeral forms and materials: one-off performances and works made of paper. And like Futurism, Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism, Fluxus is aligned to the modernist avant-garde through its commitment to mediums of mass reproduction: print, photography, film, and video. Maciunas coined the name Fluxus as a potential title for a magazine devoted to Lithuanian culture, almost immediately redeploying it as a brand name that would soon connect the work of several dozen avant-garde artists, among them LaMonte Young, Nam June Paik, Georges Brecht, Henry Flynt, and Yoko Ono. The practices of these artists can only be described through hyphenates: Paik, for example, was a composer-performance maker-sculptor-electronic image maker who, as early as 1948, used the dreaded bearer of mass culture – the TV set – in his gallery assemblages.

The most complex hyphenate of them all, Maciunas had degrees in graphic design and architecture from Cooper Union, in architecture and musicology from the Carnegie Institute, and in art history from NYU. Packaging was central to his work as was the conceiving and compiling of vast genealogies. In 1962, Maciunas organized the first major Fluxus event, a series of concerts in Wiesbaden, in Germany. The programs, which then traveled to major European cities, were comprised of pieces by some dozen Fluxus artists, all of which were scored, although many of scores had nothing to do with music or even sound. In keeping with his dedication to using standard technology in innovative ways, Maciunas’s own score was, generated from an Olivetti adding machine tape.
The following year, Maciunas opened the Fluxshop on Canal Street in New York, where Fluxus scores were performed and Fluxus objects were produced, packaged (sometimes as multiples, sometimes as one-offs) and sold for what amounted to pennies by comparison to the Pop Art – and later in the decade, the Minimalist and Conceptual Art – that filled the most adventurous uptown galleries. The extreme frugality of Fluxus was central to its aesthetic and politics. Maciunas’ elaborate genealogical charts, their typography and design reflecting the style of Soviet Constructivism, traced connections among the artists involved directly in Fluxus, situated Fluxus within the history of 20th century art, and drew complicated connections between Fluxus and the various art movements of the sixties and early seventies: Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Body Art, Arte Povera, Happenings, Post-Modern Dance, Performance Art, Earthworks.

Despite Maciunas’ polemical bent and his obsession with origins, Fluxus had a fairly open-door policy and was resolutely non-hierarchical in relation to art mediums. As a result of the friendship between Maciunas and Mekas, many Fluxus artists became interested in avant-garde film at a moment when most of the art world turned a blind eye even to the movies that Warhol was turning out at a frantic rate in his “Silver Factory. Maciunas had dubbed the 1963 Fluxshop the “Factory,” and while it’s not impossible that Warhol borrowed the term from him, for Warhol, it reflected not only the idea of machine-made art but also his infatuation with Hollywood as “the factory of dreams.” Of the several issues of Mekas’ magazine “Film Culture” that Maciunas designed, one is devoted to Warhol (Issue 45, 1967.) It is an amazingly “filmic” volume, in which Maciunas and Warhol’s shared penchants – for series, repetition, and for images produced through the layering of various reproductive technologies – completely dovetail. On one of the last pages is a letter from the poet and Fluxus artist Jackson MacLow in which he takes Maciunas to task for claiming that Warhol’s “Empire” (1964,) the infamous eight-hour movie of the Empire State building (for which Mekas operated the camera) was a duplicate of MacLow’s 1961 “TREE MOVIE” concept. MacLow argues that his idea for “a movie consisting of a continuous view of the same object” was directly derived from musical compositions by LaMonte Young and that if anyone influenced Warhol’s single image films, it was Young. He concludes by railing against, “the who-did-it-first-ism of the so-called avant-garde” a sin made manifest, although MacLow never makes the accusation directly, in Maciunas’ genealogies.

That is to say, the sixties was a heady decade during which the cross-pollination of ideas overcame medium specific boundaries and the boundaries between high and low. Art broke out of the white box galleries and museums. In 1965, Warhol turned a retrospective of his paintings at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia into an installation by covering the walls on which the paintings were hung with silk screens of S&H Green Stamps, a strategy he repeated six years later when he wallpapered the Whitney Museum with silk screened cows. Also in 1965, using the Norelco company’s prototype of a home-video camera/recording system, Warhol produced “Inner and Outer Space” arguably the first mixed-media moving-image work to incorporate video that was originated specifically for it. The next year, he installed the Factory’s house band, The Velvet Underground, in the Dom, a former Polish meeting hall on St. Marks Place, covered the walls and ceilings with projections of Factory-made films, added a dance floor and some disco lighting, thus creating “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, which serves as a model for nightclub events, happenings, and installations to this very day.
A few weeks after Warhol made “Inner and Outer Space, Paik purchased the first Sony Portapak video system available in the U.S., using it immediately to record a Papal procession on Fifth Avenue. He screened the resulting video later that same day in a MacDougal Street coffee house for an audience of fellow Fluxus associates including John Cage and Merce Cunningham. While Warhol’s involvement with video was no more than as one of many available mediums, Paik devoted almost all of his artistic energy and his considerable proselytizing skill, which was at least as great as Mekas’, to the electronic moving image, which he considered the medium of the future.

Thanks to the friendship of Mekas and Maciunas, filmmaking was from the start, an important Fluxus activity. Although MacLow’s “TREE FILM” existed in conceptual form only, Maciunas compiled several programs of Flux Films – or anti-films, as they were referred to – which were so sparing in their use of the expressive qualities of the photographic moving image that by comparison even ‘minimalist” films such as Michael Snow’s “Wavelength” or Warhol’s “Empire” seemed like Hollywood epics. When Maciunas completed The Fluxhouse Cooperative at 80 Wooster Street in 1968, it became the headquarters for both Fluxus and the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, and briefly in the Seventies for the Anthology Film Archives as well. Mekas encouraged Shigeko Kubota, a Fluxus artist married to Paik and like him focused on video to begin a video program at 80 Wooster.

Video proved more attractive to galleries and museums anxious to keep on the cutting edge than film had been. Video had sculptural aspects. Monitors could be incorporated within three-dimensional constructions as in the work of Paik and Kubota. And the immediate feedback loop generated between camera and monitor could activate a space, as in, for example, the early video sculptures of Bruce Nauman. It is the temporally open-ended spatially interactive possibilities of video that continue to intrigue contemporary new media artists. There is no doubt that had Maciunas not died in 1978, he would have replaced his beloved electric typewriter with digital tools. Nor that Warhol would have found his own uses for the Internet where every blog and YouTube posting testifies to his prophecy that in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.

It is left then to Mekas to affirm the past in the present by transposing the cultural history captured in his film diaries to digital media. He used his website, to post “365 Days,” moving image diary entries for each day of 2007. Some of the entries were culled from his 40 years of film diaries; others were recorded on the digital video camera, which has taken the place of his 16mm Bolex, and posted almost immediately. In recent years, Mekas has also produced more than a dozen multiple monitor video installations, reshaping material from his film diaries for a different kind of social space, one which facilitates interaction among viewers and one in which the crucial element of moving image work – duration – is determined by the viewer. It is apt that the two subjects of the nine monitor installation “Fluxus & Warhol” (2008,) as well Mekas, the man recording their lives and times, had radical relationships to temporality, “I wanted to see time go by,” said Warhol apropos of “Empire, although the remark applies to all of his silent films. Later, he worked in double-time, requiring successive reels of his “talkies” to be projected simultaneously side by side. Many Fluxus artists chose the model of the one-line joke (time contracted into an epiphany) while others, LaMonte being a notable example, favored hyper-extended durations. In his film work, Mekas’s employed extremely brief shots, in an attempt to capture the transformation of presence into memory. In “Fluxus and Warhol,” their time is yours. Make what you will of it.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor to “Film Comment” and “Sight and Sound” magazines and is the author of “Taxi Driver” in the BFI’s Classic Film Series. She received the Anthology Film Archives Film Preservation Honors’ Siegfried Krakauer Award in 2007 and the Art Historian Award from the School of Visual Arts in 2005. In a former life she was an actress on Broadway and appears in several avant-garde films including those by Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow. She lives in a Soho co-op that was organized by Georges Maciunas and has preserved the strange kitchen he designed for her loft.