In 1963, an artist named George Maciunas put forward a rallying cry for a new movement in art, one that he would call “Fluxus.” Like many of his avant-garde predecessors and peers, he chose to make his case known in the form of a manifesto. The document was itself a work of art, composed of several dictionary definitions of the word “flux,” from which Fluxus takes its name, followed by handwritten notes that expanded on its various meanings. Beneath the entry defining flux as a purging or discharge of fluids, Maciunas wrote in an insistent hand: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!”
Fluxus’s spirit of rebellion against the commercial art market, elitism, and the conventions of both art and society had its roots in Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, while its irreverence and youthful energy were in tune with the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s. Though its nucleus was in New York City, where Maciunas and many other artists were based, Fluxus projects popped up across Europe and in Japan. The movement attracted a loosely affiliated, international group of artists, designers, poets, and musicians who readily embraced one of its central tenets: the total integration of art and life. In his manifesto, Maciunas described the work that would result from this integration as “living art, anti-art…NON ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.”
Intentionally uncategorizable, Fluxus projects were wide-ranging and often multidisciplinary, humorous, and based in everyday, inexpensive materials and experiences—including everything from breathing to answering the telephone. When asked to define Fluxus, Maciunas would often respond by playing recordings of barking dogs and honking geese, perhaps confounding his questioner but also demonstrating the experimentation and embrace of absurdity at its core. Performances—which Fluxus artists called “Events,” in order to distinguish them from Happenings and other forms of performance-based art—were a significant part of the movement. These were largely based on sets of written instructions, called “scores,” referencing the fact that they were derived from musical compositions. Following a score would result in an action, event, performance, or one of the many other kinds of experiences that were generated out of this vibrant movement.
The Leaders of Fluxus
With Maciunas as its founder and central coordinator, Fluxus lasted from 1962 until the artist’s untimely death in 1978. A polymath, the Lithuanian-born American studied architecture, art history, graphic design, and musicology. This formidable educational background and his highly playful, utopian vision shaped all of his work, not least the movement itself.
The artists, designers, poets, and musicians who rallied around Maciunas’s call for a radical, egalitarian new art were as diverse as the work that came out of the Fluxus movement. Many were inspired by elder artist, composer, and musician John Cage. Through his work and his charismatic teaching, he demonstrated that art and life could be fluidly interchangeable. He did this, in part, by welcoming chance into his musical compositions—including ambient noises or the sounds of audience members coughing, stirring in their seats, and sometimes even heckling the performers—and by using such things as everyday household objects as instruments. Cage’s drive to find artistic potential in the everyday resonated with the Fluxus artists.
Widely recognized as the originator of musical Minimalism, composer and artist La Monte Young was also associated with Fluxus. His compositions were characterized by their pared-down structures and exceptional length. In 1960, he collaborated with artist Yoko Ono to organize a series of events by artists, dancers, musicians, and composers held in Ono’s studio in downtown New York, known as the Chambers Street Loft Series. Maciunas attended, along with many other artists who would become involved with Fluxus. Ono’s studio would become a hub of innovative and experimental new work.
In 1964, Ono debuted one of her seminal performance works, Cut Piece. Sitting alone on a stage with a pair of scissors in front of her, she instructed the audience to take turns approaching her and using the scissors to cut off a piece of her clothing. She remained nearly motionless and expressionless as various audience members obliged, sometimes aggressively. As she wrote about the experience in 1966: “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.” Ono has reprised the piece over the years, and wrote a step-by-step performance score for anyone to recreate it—which many people have done, and many more will likely continue to do.
Like so many of their peers, early Fluxus members Nam June Paik and Alison Knowles worked across media. Paik, considered a progenitor of video art, was one of the first artists to make art out of televisions and video cameras. These technologies form the core of his pioneering sculptures, installations, and performances, which range from austere and meditative to cacophonous and bursting with an onslaught of imagery.
In his performance works, Paik immersed audiences in richly visual and aural experiences, centered upon ingeniously altered television sets and cleverly rigged video cameras. He collaborated with avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman on a number of musical performances, including one in which she played his TV Cello (1971). Paik crafted a working cello out of a stack of three television sets whose varying shapes and sizes together mirrored the contours of the actual instrument. Each set displayed images as Moorman played, switching between a live feed of the performance itself, a video collage of other cellists, and a television broadcast.
For her part, Knowles created performances, sound pieces, installations, sculptures, book objects, and prints that have their roots, in part, in her early association with Cage. In 1962, the composer—who, as it turns out, was a mushroom enthusiast—co-founded the New York Mycological Society, which Knowles joined. “You can stay with music while you’re hunting mushrooms,” he once said. “[A] mushroom grows for such a short time, and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming across a sound, which also lives a short time.” Knowles credits their time together foraging for wild mushrooms as important in helping her to develop her vision and leading to her incorporation of food into a number of her Fluxus projects.
Why Does Fluxus Matter?
While it might be an overstatement to say that the Fluxus movement revolutionized the art world or the real world in the ways that Maciunas called for in his manifesto, it did help to radically change notions of what art could be. With their work, the Fluxus artists pushed art well outside of mainstream venues like galleries and museums. Their informal, spontaneous, and often ephemeral pieces were not only difficult to collect and codify; they were also sometimes hard to recognize as art. But museums and galleries eventually caught up and absorbed their work. So too did younger generations of artists, who continue to build on the freedom that the movement introduced into artmaking with their own work. The next time you walk into an art space and find a pot of curry bubbling on a burner (as in the well-known piece, Untitled (Free), 1992, by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija) or a sculpture composed of things you might find in your own home, thank Fluxus for helping to lay the groundwork.
7 Utopian Design Experiments, from Le Corbusier’s Radiant City to a Ghost Town in China
BY DEMIE KIM
JAN 9TH, 2017 4:50 PM
Coined by Thomas More in 1516, the word “utopia” stems from the Greek ou-topos—which means “no place” or “nowhere”—but also refers to eu-topos, meaning “a good place.” The very origins of the word therefore reflect the question of whether a good or perfect place can ever exist. Throughout history, religious reformers and visionary starchitects alike have attempted to answer that question by establishing spiritual communes and crafting masterplans for cities of the future. Below, we highlight seven that didn’t quite pan out.
Built strategically near what is now the Slovenian border to defend against the Ottoman Empire in the late 16th century, the fortress city of Palmanova boasted some of the era’s most cutting-edge military features, including nine protruding ramparts as well as a surrounding moat and three guarded entryways. Its harmonious radial symmetry was intended to reflect the goodness of its incoming inhabitants—except no one actually wanted the risk of living in what was essentially a military citadel. Eventually, the Venetian government pardoned prisoners and gave them property in the city to fill its street. Today, Palmanova is home to about 5,400 residents.
The sign at the entrance of Arcosanti, in the middle of the Arizona desert, reads: “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment, join us.” Founded in 1970, the town is the brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who envisioned a multi-story housing complex for 5,000 people. There, they would grow their own food, bring no harm to the environment, and support themselves by producing and selling windchimes. Expected to be completed within five years, the town today is three percent complete, though a cohort of about 50 residents continues to cast and carve away at bells in the “New Age crafts retreat,” as TheGuardiancalled it.
Hundreds of hastily constructed yet nearly uninhabited “ghost towns” have cropped up across China in the past few decades as the country sees unprecedented economic growth and real estate development. New Ordos, located just south of Old Ordos in Inner Mongolia, is one extreme example. In the early 2000s, the Chinese government invested billions of dollars to construct the supercity on bare land in the Gobi Desert. The larger-than-life architectural projects include a huge statue of Genghis Khan overlooking its central plaza, and “Ordos 100,” a now-terminated project by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, featuring 100 villas designed by architects from around the world. Yet the tremendous cost of building the city resulted in some of the country’s highest property values—second only to Shanghai—so, unsurprisingly, few wanted to move in. As photographer Raphael Olivier said following his visit, “The whole place feels like a post-apocalyptic space station from a science-fiction movie.”
Drop City, Colorado
In the spring of 1965, three college graduates bought six acres of land in southern Colorado. It cost $450. There, they established Drop City, a community in which punishment was prohibited, meals were communally prepared, and property was shared among all. For a little while, the inhabitants of this early “hippie commune” all got along: They planted gardens, raised chickens, made art, and built their signature geodesic dome residences from recycled materials. Drop City’s death bell starting ringing in early 1967, when one particularly unruly member proposed hosting a “Joy Fest” for music and art. As the number of residents—and the use of illegal drugs—escalated, members began abusing the communal funds for personal goods. Finding it increasingly difficult to stick to their no-punishment rule, the founders eventually gave up and abandoned their utopian dream.
Le Corbusier’s Radiant City
Presented in 1924, Le Corbusier’s plan for the Ville Radieuse (Radiant City) never actually came to fruition—though many of its principles went on to influence modern planning and urban housing complexes across the globe. The city was to operate as a “living machine”: Different areas would be designated for commercial, business, leisure, and residential purposes; a transportation deck in the city center would connect city dwellers, via underground trains, to housing districts consisting of towering premade buildings called “Unités.” Though it was envisioned as a utopian city, modern-day manifestations of Corbusier’s ideas have drawn criticism for their lack of public spaces and a general disregard for livability. Unité-like apartment complexes on urban fringes are now subject to high levels of poverty and crime.
Established in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, a French woman known as “the Mother,” Auroville (“the City of Dawn”) is the world’s largest spiritual utopia. A four-point charter outlines its founding ideals, including that it “belongs to humanity as a whole” and that it will be “a place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.” Its labyrinthine, circular plan is anchored by the central “Matrimandir,” a huge dome covered in gold plates. Protected by UNESCO and supported by the Indian government, Auroville is today home to 2,500 people, and it seems to be in good shape—though its idealistic reputation has been undermined by questions of who controls its funds and whether its rules are actually followed. Crime and corruption are significant problems, too.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City
Le Corbusier’s nemesis and fellow starchitect envisioned a different city for America—one that resembled more of a cookie-cutter suburb than a bustling metropolis, with more open space and sprawling landscape than skyscrapers. His city was based on modern technologies found in the automobile, electronic communication, and standardized mechanical production; everything from the size of roads to the proximity of schools and commerce would be based on “a new standard of space measurement—the man seated in his automobile.” However, Wright’s contemporaries found his plan wasteful and egotistical. Art historian Meyer Schapiro deemed it “perfectly consistent with physical and spiritual decay.”