Over a four-month span of the darkest days of Minnesota winter, I worked with members of the Walker’s education department and the Walker’s librarian to develop a series of monthly workshops that drew inspiration from the work of Fluxus artists featured in the exhibition, Art Expanded, 1958–1978 and were a continuation of Fluxus-infused activities that took place in Open Field over the summer of 2014. The charge of the workshops was to offer a hands-on activity for visitors of all ages that made a connection with the Fluxus artworks on view in the galleries. My hope was to develop workshops that:
- offered a contemporary take on Fluxus, inhabited the spirit of the original Fluxus, while also accommodating and reflecting the present.
- connected the art lab with the resources of the institution—in particular, the collection, the galleries, and the library.
- turned the art lab into an energetic, comfortable space with a sense of context, communal activity, and history.
Fundamentally, we all wanted the workshops to be both fun and thoughtful. And, maybe most importantly, we really didn’t want to find ourselves trying to answer the question, “What is Fluxus?”
Thinking in Series
The suggestion to offer a series of workshops—rather than a single, one-off event—sealed the deal for me. Designing multiple sessions meant we could work with the Fluxus collection in greater depth and develop multiple activities that responded to some of the diversity of Fluxus production. The structure naturally supported an iterative design process (develop, test, reflect, revise) and after each Fluxus Club, we met to talk about the previous event and finalize plans for the next one. All the workshops responded to a single, broad theme (and we sometimes even repeated successful activities) but each was differentiated:
- November: Fluxus Poster Production Shop
- December: Flux Newspaper
- January: Art Into Life (New Art/New Year/New Life)
- February: Flux Valentines
Most importantly, however, a series meant we could adapt the workshops as we learned what worked well, and what fell flat. After the December workshop, for example, we realized we struggled to explain Fluxus when visitors asked for a definition: the workshops were about an invitation to actively participate, but when we switched to the role of “expert explainer” we shifted the dynamic of the space (and didn’t really clarify much about Fluxus.) We suggested visitors seek out Fluxus works in the gallery, but didn’t have a great way to get them there.
In response, we rethought our strategy for the January event. We expanded our use of scores, writing them not just for individual activities , but for the event as a whole. On the giant chalkboard in the Walker’s lobby, we posted a score that invited visitors to take off their winter coats and directed them to the lab, library, and galleries. We worked with the gallery guides (who were great at talking with visitors about Fluxus), and provided them with envelopes of scores to give visitors, who could try them out in the gallery, then explore further in the art lab. Through the scores, the workshop expanded beyond the art lab, to the galleries, to the library, and to the lobby.
One of our goals for the series was to make best use of the resources of the institution and to facilitate connections between the art lab, the library, and the galleries. The collaboration with Margit Wilson, the Walker’s librarian, was especially productive. The Walker library, beloved but relatively inaccessible (open to the public only by appointment), initially appealed because it made available a trove of Fluxus resources just a few steps from the art lab (the galleries are more distant from the lab space). During the first month’s program, Margit hosted an open house in the library, with an assortment of Fluxus publications and exhibition catalogues for browsing. As we reflected on that first event, however, it was clear that the library could be more than a space for browsing—it could be a making space as well. We developed activities and Flux-like scores to inspire visitors, that required only book-safe, dry media, and made use of library resources (books, photocopier, typewriters.) The making activities in the library and the lab complemented each other: visitors could make chance poetry in the library, then add their poem to the Flux Newspaper (December) or Flux Valentine (February) in the art lab. The keys to the art lab/library collaboration: staffing (like the art lab, the library had to be staffed and visitors supervised during the event); a few rules (clean hands required in the library); and good signage (we posted scores that sent visitors to the library from the art lab.).
I hoped we could thread the ideas and spirit of Fluxus through all aspects of the workshop: the activities, the setup of the space, how we collaborated with the library and how we connected with the rest of the Walker. We began by thinking about the workshop space: the art lab is a great space for art activities, but is quite sterile: white floors and walls, bright lights, big tables covered with paper. To bring a bit more spirit to the space, we turned down the lights and decorated: we covered tables with mismatched, thrifted tablecloths, projected images of Fluxus artworks from the collection; wrote scores on the chalkboard and posted them on the walls; and, most importantly, filled the space with stuff we (and the visitors) made. We invited visitors to contribute to the space: they could add their posters to the wall, contribute a collage or poem to the Flux Newspaper, or add their New Year’s art resolution to our recreation of Ben’s Window (by Ben Vautier) as seen in the exhibition Art Expanded. And we saved all the material from month to month, so the space had a sense of history: by February, the space was filled with posters, signs, collage, and collaborative poems made during the previous sessions. Each month, the space got visually richer and less lab-like. (All this was possible because of the efforts of the program’s intern, Sheila Novak, who deinstalled and collected all of the materials at the end of each evening, then reinstalled them the following month.)
Perhaps our best tool for infusing the events with the spirit of Fluxus was the use of scores. We used scores to introduce visitors to the evening’s activities, to get people from space to space, and to pick up a brush or pen and make something. Because they were both concrete and open-ended, scores gave participants enough direction to feel comfortable diving into activities without being worried about getting it “right.” By January, even the informational sign in the lobby was part of the thread: we created a Flux-like meta score for the event, so the act of coming down to see what was going on in the art lab was a sort of performance. We weren’t explaining Fluxus; we were making opportunities for visitors to do their own Fluxus.
What We Learned
As the artist leading the workshop, I appreciated the opportunity to work on this series: the chance to reflect and make revisions from month to month meant we had multiple chances to get things right and could explore the Fluxus collections in greater depth. It also gave us time to develop meaningful collaborations, especially between the art lab and the library. Because we “threaded” the Fluxus spirit through all aspects of the events (from wayfinding to the physical setup of the art lab), the series was time-intensive: scores had to be written, designed, printed and distributed; the space had to be recreated (with increasing amounts of stuff) then cleaned up each month; materials had to be saved and stored from month to month. But because this was a series, that staff time was well-spent: we were able to bring back successful activities and use what we learned to develop new, better strategies.
We could have done some things better: because we had trouble defining Fluxus in general and these workshops in particular, outreach and publicity were more difficult than it would have been if we’d been advertising just a single, concrete activity. Fluxus Club drew fairly small audiences (winter weather and competition with other museum events certainly contributed to the numbers.) On the other hand, smaller audiences made it practical for the library to host activities. Our best and most engaged audiences came the evening we partnered with the gallery guides who were posted in the galleries: they talked with visitors about Fluxus, handed out scores, and invited them to the activities in the art lab and library, where the staff there could engage them in the making activities. That one-on-one, personal interaction was key—and practical on a relatively quiet evening.
We may never have come up with a great response to “what is Fluxus,” but by inviting visitors to get involved—and by creating spaces that made it easy and inviting to dive in—we certainly inspired a kind of active and playful participation that celebrated the spirit of the Fluxus artists.