All form is a process of notation. —Dick Higgins1
Today, with the efflorescence in contemporary art of experimental forms of publishing, performance, social practice, sound, and myriad forms of new media, the impact of the international, neo-avant-garde Fluxus collective seems to register everywhere. For instance: Today, the production of objects can be integrated into a performance practice and vice versa. Today, interactions staged between bodies and leaving no material trace are legible as works of art. Today, the primary site of an artist’s practice can exist completely outside of art institutions. Today, a singular artwork can occupy, coarticulate, and critically address the historical legacies of several different mediums at once. Today, an artwork, now understood as a project based upon a central organizing concept, can rematerialize—repetitiously but with difference—across multiple platforms and formats. These remarkable characteristics, now native to current art, were nascent in Fluxus practice of the 1960s, and yet perhaps because its lessons have spread so widely and deeply, such lasting contributions remain largely unrecognized, even subterranean.
Broadly speaking, these contemporary approaches belong to the aftermath of the postmodern turn in art of the 1960s, a turn whose first stirrings are commonly traced to Minimalism and the challenge its simple geometries—floor-bound, literal, unpretentious, industrially produced, seemingly anonymous, seemingly readymade—posed to modernist ideals of art’s production, authorship, objecthood, and viewing experience alike. Minimalist works were, in Donald Judd’s words, “neither painting nor sculpture,” although they were clearly positioned in relation to those modernist categories, satisfying their call for ontological purity to such a degree that they imploded under the weight of modernism’s (or rather the modernist critic Clement Greenberg’s) own logic.2
Instead of this historical “crux of minimalism,” however, I want to consider a different yet equally crucial juncture articulated by Fluxus practice at the very same moment, if not slightly prior, when the rules of modernism were not so much overturned by artists as absorbed and then reconfigured beyond recognition.3 The crux of Fluxus can be located in Dick Higgins and George Maciunas’s attempts to theorize and chart (very literally, it turns out) their way out of a linearly unfolding art history, and they would do so by imagining Fluxus’s relationship to modernism according to the terms “intermedia” and “rear-guard.” A return to these significant yet under-recognized terms as well as this transitional moment when late modernism and early postmodernism were confluent will, I hope, illuminate the primeval ground on which the foundation of much contemporary art has been laid.
Above all the contemporary artistic phenomena to bear a subterranean debt to Fluxus, “intermedia” would be the major term to emerge from the Fluxus orbit, only to swiftly unmoor from its point of origin. First theorized by Higgins, intermedia and the Fluxus works to which the term initially referred stand among the earliest major attempts at a self-consciously post-modern art practice, a concerted and yet still tentative turn away from modernism long before the 1970s, when the word “postmodernism” (that initial emphatic hyphen finally done away with) came to imply an entire theoretical discipline. By now, the term intermedia connotes a cultural environment in which artistic mediums and forms have become, depending on one’s position or mood, either monstrously or joyously hybrid, uncategorizable, and overtly, complexly, perhaps even overly technological. For critic Rosalind Krauss, intermedia has been the codeword for a veritable international plague of multimedia installation art, itself a symptom of global capitalism.4 For a number of American Intermedia MFA programs, it stands for everything else artists do beyond the traditional disciplines of painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics, etc. We should remember, however, that at its inception in the mid-1960s under the pen of Higgins, intermedia was a simple and quite specific notion, a neologistic intervention aimed at giving name to the artistic interventions into the waning history of modernism that Higgins was witnessing at that moment. Intermedia sought to describe an alternative logic of artistic production in a shift away from modernist thinking without capitulating to a non-paradigm of “anything goes.”
Higgins’s theory of intermedia was initially outlined across two texts. The first, “Intermedia,” was begun in 1965 and published in 1966 as the front-page content to the inaugural The Something Else Newsletter, publicity organ for Higgins’s Something Else Press, a small, self-run publishing house for avant-garde literature and artist books. His lesser-known “Statement on Intermedia” was written in the summer of 1966 and published in German Fluxus affiliate Wolf Vostell’s magazine Dé-collage in July 1967.5 The notion of intermedia was arrived at in medias res to capture the myriad work that Higgins had witnessed since the late 1950s as an active participant in the milieu that by 1962 would be named Fluxus. This was work that, as Higgins’s first text describes, fell “between media,” work that occupied the “uncharted land that lies between” existing categories of practice.6 Among Higgins’s examples are Joe Jones’s kinetic, self-playing mechanical instruments, situated between music and sculpture, and Robert Filliou’s object poems, small assemblages standing in for individual verse linked together via hooks, situated between poetry and sculpture. John Cage and Philip Corner were identified as working between music and philosophy; indeed, one can detect a complementary, inverse relationship between Cage’s meditation on the musicality of the conventionally extra-musical phenomenon of silence in 4'33" (1952) and Corner’s holistic embrace of all extra-musical sound-producing capabilities of the traditional instrument of the piano in Piano Activities (1962). By the late 1970s, Higgins had begun to describe the new intermedia art forms as conceptual hybrids or fusions of existing mediums.7 Concrete poetry was seen as a fusion of visual art and poetry; Happenings a fusion of visual art, music, and theater; and sound poetry a fusion of music and literature. Higgins, well versed in music and literary history and theory, arrived at a practice focused on such intermedia modes as visual poetry, sound poetry, and graphic notation that formed the basis of theater pieces infused with Cagean notions of chance.
Intermedia was a term that matched Fluxus artists’ self-regard as de-professionalized, non-specialized agents who rejected the mantle of the modern artist as a specialist unwittingly aligned with the figure of the bureaucrat.8 Artists felt that approaching the individual métiers from a self-consciously outside position would release established vocabularies of medium and form from their typical functions. The printed announcement for the October 1962 Festival of Misfits—a program at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and One Gallery involving Robert Filliou, Benjamin Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier, and Emmett Williams—an event that was Fluxus in all but name, rendered this idea explicit:
We make music which is not Music, poems that are not Poetry, paintings that are not Painting, but music that may fit poetry, poetry that may fit paintings, paintings that may fit … something, something which gives us the chance to enjoy a happy, non-specialized fantasy.9
In this statement we see, crucially, that within Fluxus intermedia the language of individual mediums was roundly disrupted but not abandoned. Rather, new practices are seen to emerge from artists’ engagement with multiple mediums at once, mediums set into new relations with one another or that are coarticulated while remaining individually legible. Across his writings, Higgins was adamant that intermedia—“inter” as opposed to “multi”—was not to be confused with multimedia, in which mediums coexist simultaneously yet separately (for this he would often give the example of the coexistence of music, theater, and dance in opera).
From the very first essay, Higgins describes intermedia as a mode of working anew rather than breaking with existing aesthetic terms, for “continuity rather than categorization is the hallmark of our new mentality.”10 Remarkably, this first text already includes much of the language now associated with postmodernism, describing intermedia in terms not only of continuity but inclusivity, dialogue, and populism. And yet Higgins does not share the technological optimism of artists who would embrace the technological media (as opposed to medium) fetishism of celebrated theorist Marshall McLuhan.11 Rather, Higgins felt that intermedia art’s postmodern boundary crossing would allow art to address its political and social situation in a more direct, that is to say less mediated, fashion. The political stakes of intermedia became overt in Higgins’s 1966–1967 “Statement on Intermedia,” in which the in-between space of intermedia is newly characterized with Marxist language as a “dialectic between the media” motivated by a sense that existing categories of artistic production are inadequate for responding to a moment in which, due to new media technologies, “our sensitivities have changed.”12 Modern art, Higgins felt, had simply not kept up. With manifesto-like zeal, he set his sights beyond modernist aesthetic quarrels, calling to mind the backdrop of the Vietnam War (at that moment in its eleventh year) and emergent labor struggles as he posed questions about the collective ambition and future direction of contestational neo-avant-garde practices:
Our real enemies are the ones who send us to die in pointless wars or to live lives which are reduced to drudgery, not the people who use other means of communication [i.e. other art forms] from those which we find most appropriate to the present situation…. Does it not stand to reason, therefore, that having discovered the intermedia (which was, perhaps, only possible through approaching them by formal, even abstract means), the central problem is now not only the new formal one of learning to use them, but the new and more social one of what to use them for?13
Following the publication of Higgins’s early theses on intermedia, the term “shortly acquired a life of its own,” its meaning expanded and diluted in ways ensuring that Higgins’s political ambitions for it would fall short.14 On the one hand, intermedia in popular culture came to signify an offshoot of expanded cinema characterized by all-encompassing, disorienting mass spectacles of multisensorial media collage incorporating architecture, sound, projected light and film, strobes, and sometimes tactile and olfactory stimuli as well. Quasi-commercial touring enterprises such as the media art collective USCO and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable sought to merge the experiences of the nightclub and art gallery through total synthesis on all levels: between artistic mediums, subject and world, subject and subject, and even intra-subjectively, as participants were thought to access untapped regions of their consciousness through a kind of aesthetically induced intoxication akin to the experience otherwise provided only by LSD.15 With this work, the connotations of intermedia’s expanded approach to the conceptualization and categorization of artistic mediums is overwritten by an obsession with “media”: a proliferation of new technological apparatuses and combinations thereof that the beholder is now challenged to navigate.16 On the other hand, intermedia entered academia as a new disciplinary track vaguely defined by an experimental, post-Happenings mode combining performance and video, as in Hans Breder’s first Intermedia MFA program, founded at the University of Iowa in 1968.17 (At present, intermedia degree programs or concentrations also exist at the University of Maine–Orono, the University of Texas–Arlington, Arizona State University, the University of Florida, Mills College, and Pacific Northwest College of Art.) These two veins of intermedia would rapidly, increasingly merge. Many of USCO’s performances took place on college campuses as part of the touring Intermedia ’68 festival, organized and managed by the young MBA and entrepreneur John Brockman, which also included projects by Les Levine, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Carolee Schneemann, Trisha Brown, Terry Riley, Ken Dewey, Allan Kaprow, and Dick Higgins himself. By 1970, Gene Youngblood reported in his genre-defining book Expanded Cinema that USCO had partnered with behavioral scientists at Harvard to form the Intermedia Systems Corporation with the goal of developing “entertainment as education.”18
Despite Higgins’s participation in some of these developments, he eventually came to the position that they were an unfortunate direction, writing in 1981 that “the term was mis-used and it became chic—what a drag!”19 The intermedia work that Higgins himself promoted was more modest in form, appearing via his Something Else Press. He founded it in 1964 after a falling out with Maciunas over the slow operations of the Fluxus publishing program, with its laborious, hand-crafted editions that insisted upon rigorous and nearly self-defeating experimentalism in both content and format.20 Higgins desired to reach a larger audience through the more conventional format of the book, with all the preexisting institutional and industrial apparatus that it entailed. So in contrast, Something Else Press publications promoted intermedia experimentalism mainly in their content and page layout. Operating as “a sort of underground Harry Abrams,” it released books by Higgins and his neo-avant-garde peers alongside reprints of historical avant-garde works of art and literature that had fallen out of consciousness or were misunderstood but felt to be of vital influence to current practices.21 Historical works included reissues of Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach (1920/1966), Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources (1930/1969), and numerous titles by Gertrude Stein, including The Making of Americans (1925/1966). Contemporary titles included Al Hansen’s A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1965), Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake (1965), the Great Bear Pamphlet series (1965–1967), Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Re-Anecdoted Version) (1966), Emmett Williams’s An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967), and Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1967). What these works notably held in common was their hybrid status between artist’s book, documentation, and historical reflection on intermedia modes of production as they were unfolding in the current moment. Something Else Press also published works that connected aesthetic concerns with a broader sociocultural address, including Marshall McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations (1967) and Manfred Eaton’s Bio-Music (1973).
Higgins operated the press out of the home he shared with Alison Knowles behind the Chelsea Hotel at 238 West 22nd Street—at that time a seedy neighborhood and a center for gay and lesbian life—which they opened to the public in April 1966 with the founding of the Something Else Gallery. Like the press, the gallery was dedicated to providing a platform for experimental intermedia art—work that, as Higgins described, “falls between media, is by amateurs, or would normally be considered unshowable.“22 He hoped the Something Else Gallery would be to intermedia what the artist-run Tenth Street galleries had been to advanced art of the 1950s.
The gallery’s exhibition program gave material dimension to Higgins’s notion of intermedia already promulgated in his writings and the emerging press catalogue. Its first exhibition, Object Poems, included work by Higgins, Williams (hired by Higgins as the press editor), Filliou (who had visited New York from France a year earlier), and Vostell (temporarily in residence at the Chelsea Hotel on a visit from Germany). New York Times critic Grace Glueck described the artists and their work in terms reminiscent of the Festival of Misfits’ deliberate transposition of disciplinary identification. The show of “art objects by poets and composers” reportedly included a kinetic assemblage (quite alive, in fact) by Williams entitled Fish Poem: an aquarium of carp tagged with letters from the alphabet, the unwitting authors of ever-metamorphosing automatic poetry.23
The next exhibition, on view from late April to mid-May, took Intermedia as its title and featured movement-based musical sculptures by Jones; objects by George Brecht that in their banal, everyday address questioned the limits of art and thus constituted a position between art and philosophy; and Knowles’s The “T” Dictionary, a series of technically innovative silkscreens that the exhibition announcement described as occupying an intermedium between graphic art, photography, and performance. Knowles’s project had already appeared in one of the press’s earliest publications, The Four Suits, alongside works by Corner, Patterson, and Tomas Schmit. Indeed, if we refer to the project’s appearance in that publication, The “T” Dictionary appears to take the form of illustrated dictionary pages listing words beginning with the letter “T,” although it quickly becomes apparent that the words and their definitions are Knowles’s invention. What we see is a graphic poem in disguise, or in true intermedia fashion, a poem that only looks like a dictionary, a poem that attacks in words and pictures the very rulebook that poetry’s strategies of metaphor, allusion, analogy, and connotation seek to undo. After a few more pages we learn, furthermore, that Knowles’s made-up dictionary provides the material for a performance that unfolds before our eyes. The three-page dictionary gives way to thirty-some pages in which the dictionary’s textual and illustrational elements—we see again and again a tooth, suitcase trunk, duck trap, and tiger, among other more mysterious images—are subject to formal manipulation. They are rendered semi-transparent. They are printed in negative. They are overlaid, rotated, reversed, flipped, magnified and miniaturized into near-oblivion. Partway through we are informed that the pages are a “graphic performance” of Knowles’s Performance Piece #8 (1965), “which uses words as one group of objects and images as the other”:
Divide a variety of objects into two groups. Each group is labeled “everything.” These groups may include several people. There is a third division of the stage empty of objects labeled “nothing.” Each of the objects is “something.” One performer combines and activates the objects as follows for any desired duration of time:
- something with everything
- something with nothing
- something with something
- everything with everything
- everything with nothing
- nothing with nothing24
The generic terms “something,” “everything,” and “nothing” are presented in Knowles’s score in shifting combinations that ultimately deflate the desire to stabilize identity that typically motivates exercises of classification, amounting to an attack on modernist epistemologies of order. Many other Fluxus scores, such as George Brecht’s Two Exercises (1961) and Exercise (1963), would also perform a similar transgression of limits or boundaries between categories, exposing them as arbitrary, if not overlapping or even self-same. We can see this in The “T” Dictionary with the figure of the tooth, its crown and root appearing again and again in graphic permutations that unleash a proliferation of alternative identities: crustacean, flower, glove, tentacles, claws, a flame-like coronet. The tooth begins to read as an absurd yet incisive avatar for artistic mediums after intermedia; according to Knowles’s dictionary, the tooth, given as the plural teeth, are defined as “all different, all useful, each cooperating with each.”25
Following the Intermedia exhibition at Something Else Gallery, a much larger, international exhibition assembled by poet Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim, titled The Arts in Fusion, occupied the space for the rest of May, having traveled from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Contributions were drawn from artists working across the United States, western and eastern Europe, Brazil, and Japan. The artists were mainly experimental poets, but one could also find contributions from Brecht, Cage, Vostell, Dieter Roth, Earle Brown, and Terry Riley next to poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bernard Heidsieck, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Augusto de Campos, Eugen Gomringer, and Jerome Rothenberg. Fernbach-Flarsheim’s curatorial statement sketches out the broad shift in art practices in general, marked by procedures of translation and transposition. “Canvases and sculptures have become performable,” he writes. “Scores can be fed into computers and become sound.”26
Higgins’s turn to describing intermedia as a “fusion” of existing mediums seems to have been borrowed from this exhibition. Soon he would propose an Intermedia magazine, never to materialize, although the publication’s promise to document the “expansion,” “fusion,” “leakage,” and “convergence” of artistic mediums as well as the constitution of its editorial board—Higgins, Kaprow, and Williams along with curator Lawrence Alloway and graphic designer Quentin Fiore—remain compelling.27 Artistic occupations and their corresponding mediums are imagined by Higgins and his neo-avant-garde cohort as ever in transit, ever in relation, ever being rethought in terms of one another. But can we not further specify intermedia’s operations? What exactly is happening in this in-between space in which mediums ostensibly “fuse” with one another?
In Higgins’s intermedia, works are described as having the dimensions or qualities of multiple mediums at once, transforming the old modernist notion of medium from an increasingly restricted material ontology into a set of qualities or procedural operations. As if to model such an artwork, in 1966 Higgins produced next to his intermedia writing and curating a score, Intermedial Object #1 (1966). It begins, “Construct what matches the following description,” and ends with the invitation for photographs and movies of resulting constructions to be sent to Something Else Press.28 In between, the score lists nine dimensions of a proposed intermedial object, from size, shape, and function to permanence and impact, each dimension scaled on a continuum between two seemingly arbitrary entities. The intermedial object occupies position six in size between “horse” (1) and “elephant” (10), position seven in shape between “shoe” and “mushroom,” position six in function between “food” and “chair,” position two in permanence between “cake” and “joy,” and so on. The impact dimension, the only one granted a third measure, orients the object between qualities of “political,” “aesthetic,” and “humorous.” Despite its whimsicality, Intermedial Object #1 exemplifies Higgins’s serious rethinking of mediums at a time when his peers were producing work that either took on qualities of or were like multiple mediums at once. Higgins’s intermedial object is simultaneously like a shoe and like a mushroom; in other words, it can be described as both shoelike and mushroomlike. In Higgins’s mind, an intermedia work is not defined singularly as music, sculpture, painting, and so on, but can be simultaneously musical, sculptural, painterly. “In an intermedial work, such as a piece of action music,” he explains, “the composition is a musical metaphor, where there may or may not be a musical notation.”29 Mediums are conceived as adjectival in the sense that an artwork can take on dimensions or characteristics of, or can evoke or appear like, several mediums at once, as the Fluxus “misfits” had earlier described: music like poetry, poetry like painting, painting like sculpture, and so on. The intermedia imagining of individual mediums approaching one another through this kind of metaphorical relation is appropriate from the perspective of a group of artists who had always approached the various disciplines from an outsider position: composers and poets working like sculptors and painters, and so on. If unsympathetic critics at this proto-postmodernist moment saw mediums beginning to speak in tongues, Higgins’s articulations of the intermedia phenomenon meant to convince befuddled audiences that in fact mediums were now speaking in the languages of one another.30
We can be yet more precise. To imagine one medium as translatable into the language of another imagines a medium as a set of operations unattached to any particular set of materials, a notion that could only be arrived at via a notation-based practice like Fluxus. Through its concerts and publishing program, which internalized and advanced the musical lessons of Cage (with whom several Fluxus people including Higgins had studied), Fluxus developed an allographic as opposed to autographic model of iterative production, in which artworks—both performances and objects—were created or realized over and over again to differing results. In Fluxus performance practice, works such as Brecht’s Drip Music (Drip Event) (1959–1962) gradually morphed in appearance from concert to concert, producing also sculptural versions; and by design, Fluxus’s editioned multiples, whose production was overseen by Maciunas, never promised to contain the same items from one “copy” to the next. In work after Fluxus work, we see the marriage of a general set of processes or qualities materialize in unique, specific situations. Furthermore, the manifold outcomes of an individual Fluxus score, instruction, diagram, or idea would be seen as inherently relatable to one another.31 Brecht and Filliou would make explicit this idea—of a medium reimagined in the manner of a broadly interpretable notation—with a series of fill-in-the-black scores titled The Mystery Game I–V, which recast painting, sculpture, music, assemblage, and poetry as reduced textual diagrams. The medium here becomes a notation, a set of qualities and procedural operations that may be realized with varying materials. To make a painting, for example, one can simply “Take (a colored material) / add to it (a material which dries) / and place it on (a flat surface) / by (an action).”32 This is surely a different imagination of the postmodern fate of the medium than what other critics have proposed, such as its dematerialization into a “phenomenological vector” of opticality or horizontality or its permanent dismantling into the aggregative apparatus of film or video.33
By the 1970s, Higgins had moved beyond his broad articulation of intermedia practice, meant as a useful intervention into an early moment still lacking in critical language, to begin trying to articulate more directly how concept and material cooperated in Fluxus and other related practices that relied upon iterative, notation-based processes to produce their ever-varying forms. During his brief time as a faculty member at CalArts (he resigned in frustration after only one year), Higgins wrote the text “Blank Images” (1970), describing a notational approach to production clearly informed by the relationship between Fluxus event scores and their variant realizations but pointing toward the potential for notation’s expanded use within all manner of artistic practices:
One would take the “idea” for the work, and figure out its essence. Then try to make it into a “Blank structure,” whose structure might imply a whole ideology…. The structure would then be filled in with meaningful content, the individual performances being determined by whatever was meaningful by (and to) the individual performers.34
While in “Blank Images” Higgins focuses on the structure of the iterative artwork, two important texts from 1976, “An Exemplativist Manifesto” (distributed in broadsheet form) and “Exemplative Works of Art,” attend to the relationship between the previously described “blank structure” and its divergent outcomes. Reviving an obscure word from the English language, Higgins describes “exemplative” works of art as mere examples pointing to a referent notation, model, or idea as well as to other prior or possible examples of that referent, the result being that exemplative works of art require an entirely new mode of reception for visual art:
This process stresses not the single realization as the work, but the dialectic between any single realization and its alternates…. The audience sees or senses the bare bones of the work along with the flesh, so the clarity with which these bare bones are assembled becomes a criterion of the value of the work. And the act of such assembling is part of the work—another performance aspect of it, even if, for instance, the finished work is a painting and thus immobile…. In exemplative art, then, the artist will always be involved in an ongoing process of inventing new forms—his works and style will seem…to be terribly chaotic and inconsistent. To us there will be consistency, however: it will lie in the kinds of materials that are chosen to express and epitomize the artist’s reality, and the things about the forms that he invents which stay the same—the artist of the goat, the artist of the shoe, the artist of the small.35
Here we see Higgins using language similar to his first writings on intermedia from a decade before, yet he is no longer concerned with justifying artists’ explorations of the possible dialectics between existing mediums. Rather, his project now is to articulate an alternative means of locating the organizing logic of an artist’s practice entirely apart from modernist notions of medium. The exemplative artwork, clearly inspired by the iterative operations of experimental notation that give us so many specific examples of a general form, moves beyond the purely performative to encompass all art made in this manner, including even “immobile” works such as paintings. “In fact,” Higgins writes, “in such a system all form is a process of notation.”36 We have finally arrived at a very particular understanding of intermedia native to the Fluxus milieu: artworks that posit a relational dialectic between mediums once held as resolutely separate, that imagine mediums speaking the language of one another; artworks which belong to a practice organized not by material specificity but by a central conceptual or notational origin or “blank structure,” examples of which can take on varying materials and forms but which relate ever back to a common framework.
Across all of Higgins’s newly defined terms, from intermedia to blank images to the exemplative artwork, we can say that there is an attendant mode of thinking and seeing that accompanies such production, a special “intermedia perception” motivated, as Hannah Higgins has described, by a search for “structural continuity” or “structural homologies” between entities that we are otherwise conditioned to perceive, in a modernist intellectual paradigm, as separate and different.37 Dick Higgins put it succinctly: “One key assumption of Fluxus works is that there are close analogies among things.”38 Intermedia perception is a mode of perception that one could otherwise describe as empathic, offering up an attendant model of subjectivity as well. If the Fluxus project can be understood as an allographic, notation-based practice in which works are reimagined in varying situations by varying actors with varying materials—a practice thus defined by transfer, transliteration, and transformation—it can also be understood, as Higgins has proposed, as a practice that is fundamentally “transpersonal.”39 Undeniably does Fluxus belong to that great postmodern cultural shift of the 1960s, the post-structuralist “death of the author,” but it provides an underacknowledged pathway through that shift, resulting not in the author’s self-obliterating desubjectivization in relation to his or her work but a sense of newly expanded subjectivity arising from collective action.
This mode of perception would apply as well to the model of history imagined by Fluxus artists as they sought a direction for their artistically and socially revolutionary energies at a moment when avant-garde aesthetics were seen as “everywhere and triumphant,” fully institutionalized and capitalized and thus depleted, outmoded, and unsalvageable.40 Against the frenzied “tradition of the new” that dominated the contemporary art world of the 1960s, Fluxus conceptualized its place in history in terms of affinity, analogy, continuity, and return, yet a further extension of intermedia perception’s embrace of continuity and homology.41 In Higgins’s mind, Fluxus was “a mongrel art, with no distinct parentage or pedigree. There is a relationship to Cage and to Duchamp, but it is mostly by affinity and the example of integrity, rather than that Fluxus developed out of their work in any specific way.”42 The mapping of such historical relations would thus have to look very different from a one-dimensional linear chronology.
George Maciunas was of course the figure to chart most obsessively Fluxus’s relation to the history of art past and present, and he would begin to do so in earnest at the very moment Higgins was producing his first theories of intermedia. In the written preface to Maciunas’s Fluxus (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-Garde Movements) (1966), a blocky flowchart of inter-braided avant-gardes going back to Dada and Futurism, he writes, “Since the historical development of fluxus and related movements are not linear as a chronological commentary would be, but rather planometrical, a diagram would describe the development and relationships more efficiently.” The many diagrams Maciunas would create to visualize the developing history of Fluxus, including as well Expanded Arts Diagram (1966) and Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimentional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms (circa 1973), only became more and more elaborate, detailed, and multi-dimensional. Correspondingly, Higgins’s own diagrams, Five Traditions of Art History, An Essay (1976), Some Poetry Intermedia (1976), and Intermedia Chart (1995), took the shape of stars, spirals, and Venn diagrams. In Maciunas’s and Higgins’s diagrams, Fluxus art history is depicted as a history of asynchronous affinities snaking in multiple directions across an emphatically two-dimensional matrix, attesting to the artists’ thoroughgoing anti-modernist view that cultural history is cumulative, additive, and extensive rather than linear and mono-directional.43 Like intermedia, these capacious, constellational models of art history did not do away with modernism so much as dramatically rearrange its constitutive parts, suggesting alternative, decidedly postmodern views on what artistic “innovation” could mean. Andreas Huyssen, who once aptly cast Fluxus as the “master-code” of postmodernism, puts it well: “Postmodernism is far from making modernism obsolete. On the contrary, it casts a new light on it and appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies and techniques inserting them and making them work in new constellations.”44
Fluxus’s counterintuitive obsession with past art history at a moment of tireless innovation reveals how the collective imagined itself as neither modernist nor even avant-garde, but rear-guard. Maciunas seized upon this term in his attempt to specify the stakes of Fluxus in “Art/Fluxus Art-Amusement” (1965), one of the most succinct, manifesto-like statements he would produce on the collective’s activities: “Fluxus art-amusement is the rear-guard without any pretention [sic] or urge to participate in the competition of one-upmanship with the avant-garde.” It must be “simple, amusing, unpretentious, concerned with insignificances, require no skill or countless rehearsals, have no commodity or institutional value,” its value deliberately lowered by being “unlimited, massproduced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all.” Superficially, Maciunas’s conception of Fluxus as a rear-guard meant an allegiance to bathroom humor (admittedly more of a personal trademark than a global style), low-culture tackiness, and deflated value. For sure, Fluxus practice was decidedly modest and somewhat retrograde in its dedication to the promotion by mail-order of formats like artist books, magazines, and multiples that were clearly on their way to being outpaced by the electronic technologies associated with more techno-utopian, pop-cultural strains of intermedia. Maciunas’s practice was especially and even counter-productively labor-intensive, his production studio operating more like a guild of artisanal laborers than a modern Taylorist factory. In this respect we must also understand that Fluxus rear-guardism signified not a conservative neo-expressionist or neo-modernist revanchism but something quite different: a return to the historical avant-gardes to mine their untapped potential for a new historical context as well as a look back to cultural modes of the very, very past—before industrialization, before the Enlightenment, before the modernist separation of disciplines and mediums.45 Set in opposition to the sixties art world’s capital-driven obsession with avant-gardist innovation, the Fluxus appeal to rear-guard thinking constituted a radical move.
We can only appreciate Fluxus and its embrace of the terms intermedia and rear-guard if we understand the transitional, in-between moment in art history that it occupied. Fluxus artists emerged in a postmodern (or late modernist or proto-postmodern) moment in which the medium was still the dominant organizing force for artistic practices, and they were among the first artists to self-consciously chart a path away from that paradigm. Fluxus also emerged in a moment before the belief in socially revolutionary avant-garde art practices had been totally foreclosed, a moment when the idea of a radical postmodern avant-garde seemed still tenable, even if those terms needed to be reimagined. Literary critic Matei Calinescu’s notion of the experimentalist rear-guard is helpful here. As opposed to the historical avant-garde’s aggressive front, he has described the rear-guard as composed of specialists who survey and make do with the ruins of major battles past, probing and tinkering with history’s leftover parts.46 Such was the position of Fluxus artists, misfit specialists in non-specialization, as they constituted new practices from the broken-down terms and forms of modernism’s aftermath. Postmodern and avant-garde were remade as intermedia and rear-guard.