The Inevitable Relationship Between Fluxus and Social Practice: Sarah Schultz Interviews Natilee Harren
Skip to main content

The Inevitable Relationship Between Fluxus and Social Practice: Sarah Schultz Interviews Natilee Harren

What do Walker Open Field, the avant-garde art movement Fluxus and socially-engaged art practice have in common? That is what the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department explored through this summer’s program, FluxField. This project took advantage of the concurrent timing of Open Field and the opening of Walker exhibitions Art Expanded: 1958-1978 and Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, both containing a strong Fluxus presence.

We invited a range of artists to create projects or events for Open Field inspired by or in some cases in reaction to the works, philosophy, and cosmology of Fluxus. FluxField artists included Beatrix JAR (Bianca Pettis and Jacob Aaron Roske), BodyCartography Project (Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad), Andy Ducett, Mike Haeg, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Chris Kallmyer, Maria Mortati, Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, and Jenni Undis. The indomitable Laurie Van Wieren also jumped into the flux fray with her Open Field piece, 4×4 = 100 Choreographers Dancing Outside. Key Fluxus figures Alison Knowles and Benjamin Patterson were invited to perform their work during the summer and fall.

To set the stage for FluxField, we invited the Los Angeles–based art historian Natilee Harren to begin to draw connections between these practices with a talk in the Walker’s Star Tribune Foundation Art Lab. This interview between Harren and Sarah Schultz, the Walker’s former Curator of Public Practice, is drawn from an essay Harren is writing called Notes on the Inevitable Relationship Between Fluxus and Social Practice.

Maria Mortati’s FluxField Interpretive Trail. Photo: Maria Mortati

Sarah Schultz: Natilee, what exactly is Fluxus? I find myself stumbling over this question and have never have seen or heard it described the same way twice!

Natilee Harren: The simplest and yet most difficult question to answer! Fluxus began as a neo-avant-garde artist collective founded in 1962 by George Maciunas and was active throughout the US, Europe, and Japan at least through the 1970s, although some would argue that Fluxus is still active today. It has acquired the reputation of being an unrepresentable or undefinable art movement, similar to how Dada and Surrealism were once perceived, but I think that’s simply because we haven’t yet arrived at a satisfying framework for understanding what Fluxus artists were up to. If we look at the main modes of Fluxus production—performances and multiples—it becomes clear that the common denominator of Fluxus practice was a reliance on scores and other forms of instruction. And that implies a production that was process-oriented, iterative, and often delegated. A Fluxus work almost always entails multiple realizations and therefore multiple authors, performers, and audiences. Fluxus artists’ utilization of scores was a crucial contribution to the post-modern expansion of artistic practices in the 1960s and a major thrust behind their efforts to look beyond the art world—to related fields like music, theater, literature, architecture and design—for models of art’s production and distribution.

Mike Haeg’s Penny Event. Photo: Maria Mortati

Why is the score such an integral form and idea within Fluxus? What does the score enable?

It all goes back to the search for alternative models for art’s production and distribution. A score allows for risk, failure, and experimentation, especially in the wake of 1950s innovations in musical notation and the embrace of indeterminacy by New York School composers like Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and John Cage, with whom many Fluxus people studied. A score creates an opportunity for collective and collaborative production. A score allows the work to happen in different times and places with different performers and different audiences. And yet, despite all this risk, chance, and variability, a score allows the work to be continually understood as a particular work, and to maintain its identity in however loose a way despite the differences in its varied manifestations. A score can provide a very loose structure or form, but the form is still there. It persists.

Rachel Jendrzejewski’s Walker Yam: 100 Scores for Open Field. Photo: Steve Cohen

The score feels like a connecting thread between Fluxus and Open Field. Why do they make good companions?

I think Fluxus and Open Field are natural complements because there is an integral relationship between the commons (the social-spatial model for Open Field) and scores. If you look at any theory of the commons, there is always the provision that commons require a set of agreed-upon and collectively upheld rules—just like Open Field’s own Field Etiquette. These rules could just as well be thought of as Open Field’s “score.” If commons rely on a score-like set of rules, then I think it’s equally fair, and rather interesting in fact, to imagine that a score in the expanded sense brought to us by Fluxus creates a commons, if only temporarily.

Some of the most explicit examples of Fluxus scores that can be thought to produce commons are those highly graphic in nature, like Benjamin Patterson’s Pond and Dick Higgins’s Graphis series. I am particularly interested in these because they remind us that Fluxus scores were not all text pieces but came out of an emergent culture of experimental notation that utilized not only text but really wild diagrams and drawings. Notation in the expanded field, you could say. The Patterson and Higgins scores involve grids and tangled webs of lines that are enlarged and transferred from the score to the floor of the performance space, providing a full-scale map to organize the bodies of performers and viewers.

BodyCartography Project’s Feeling the City on Nicollet Mall. Photo: Sarah Schultz

But perhaps even more so than Fluxus artists, the architect Lawrence Halprin was one who understood the link between scores and commons, since he designed public space with choreography in mind. He was the partner of dancer Anna Halprin and author of The RSVP Cycles, an amazing book about the social uses of scores. And he was the designer behind the renovation of Nicollet Mall in 1966. The RSVP Cycles includes his own “motation” study, a score for how people might move through one block of the redesigned street. I loved that we performed Alison Knowles’s pieces there, mapping them onto Lawrence Halprin’s extant score for pedestrians in the form of his carefully designed cityscape.

This connection between scores and commons helps makes sense of why Fluxus artists would go from performing a touring concert program to establishing artists’ housing in Soho and, at least in the case of Maciunas, planning communes in Massachusetts, Japan, and the Caribbean. Or more simply why everyday, life-sustaining activities such as cooking would figure into their practice.

Speaking of Alison Knowles: one summer highlight was working with her at the Walker to perform several of her iconic Fluxus scores including Proposition #2: Make A Salad, Shoes of Your Choice and Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (Song of Your Choice). Can you talk about your experience of the salad, the shoes and the song?

of2014air_ak_salad Open Field; Artist-in-Residence; Education; Public Programs; Visual Arts; Exhibitions. Alison Knowles: Make a Salad, July 10, 2014, in The Grove. A leading member of the Fluxus artist group, Alison Knowles will be in-residence with her collaborator, Joshua Selman, to restage her iconic event score Make a Salad on Open Field. Event scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life recontexualized as performance. While each iteration of the piece is unique, the basic ingredients include Knowles preparing a massive salad by chopping the ingredients to live music, tossing it in the air, then serving it to the audience. Originally performed in London at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1962. Knowles?s work is included in the Walker?s new exhibition Art Expanded: 1958?1978, on view June 14, 2014 ? March 8, 2015 in Galleries 1, 2, 3, and the Perlman Gallery. Curated by Eric Crosby.
Alison Knowles’ Make a Salad. Photo: Gene Pittman

With those performances I was profoundly struck by Alison’s spirit of adventure, curiosity, and commitment to those pieces throughout all these years. Those works were written in 1962 and 1963! Her relationship to them is a perfect example of Fluxus performance culture. There is a commitment to the work, a comportment of earnestness and seriousness despite the work’s lightness and wit, and an attitude—an ethics, even—of generosity and denial of mastery and ego. The recent Walker events demonstrated that after all these years Fluxus scores still have something to give us, something to show us, due to their flexibility and durability and strength, cannily built in from the very start. They bring different things into relief in every environment and era in which they are performed.

ecp2014air-knowles-wkshp Education; Community Programs; Open Field; Artist-in-Residence; Visual Arts; Exhibitions. Alison Knowles Workshop July 11, 2014 Art Lab; Nicollet Mall; Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. Part of Alison Knowles Open Field residency, and by extension, the exhibition Art Expanded. Two of Knowles' scores were reinterpreted: #6 Shoes of Your Choice (orig. March 1963), and #7 Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (orig. December 1962). The event/workshop was not advertised or open to the public. Sarah Schultz sent an invite to Staff and a small group was assembled. Collaborators include Laurie Van Wieren, Eric Crosby, Chris Kallmyer, Bianca & Jacob from Beatrix*JAR, Marcus, Rachel J., Laura, and Natilee. Andy Underwood documented the scores on location; still photos by Lacey Criswell.
Alison Knowles’ Song of Your Choice. Photo: Lacey Criswell

And then there is always the danger involved in their performance, especially when we took them out into the streets of Minneapolis. With Shoes of Your Choice, which we performed on Nicollet Mall, there was the danger of enfolding passersby into the piece who had no idea what Fluxus is, and then with Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (Song of Your Choice), which we performed at the Hilton hotel’s indoor pool, there was the danger of having no audience at all except that one guy who was already swimming laps. But then several people, including some in ballroom dance costumes, came out onto their balconies to hear us and it was so lovely. The works are open to all possible outcomes. As George Brecht once said, “No catastrophes are possible.”

So finally, what kind of connections can we draw between Fluxus and contemporary, socially-engaged art practices? If it’s helpful, I am using the phrase socially-engaged art, a term I know can be frustratingly vague,  in the broadest sense, to encompass any number of art practices (activist, performative, community-based, pedagogical etc.) that are created by and grounded in social interactions and exchange between people.

of2014air_kallmyer-pcat_0717 Open Field Artist-in-Residency Chris Kallmyer, Play Catch, All Together, July 17, 2014, Open Field. Grab your baseball glove* and join Kallmyer and Twins organist Sue Nelson for a work focused on the sound of people playing catch alongside a baseball stadium organ. Participants are invited to oil their gloves, do some light stretching, and throw around a lemon as warm-up?an homage to Fluxus artist Ken Friedman. Afterwards, have freshly-squeezed lemonade, meet Nelson, and take home a copy of Kallmyer?s score for Play Catch, All Together.
Score for Chris Kallmyer’s Play Catch, All Together with Twins organist Sue Nelson. Photo: Gene Pittman

Speaking art historically, I think that artists working within the framework of social practice today owe much to the Fluxus milieu’s expanded understanding of a score, whether they are explicitly working with scores or not. To help make sense of these links I’ve begun to think of different types of social organization as scores that organize the movement of bodies through space—everything from music, recipes, and games to architecture, digital coding, ritual, and law. The best social practice work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.  At the Walker for example, you’ve invited artists like Lucky Dragons and Fritz Haeg to mount projects that capitalize on the innate community-building aspects of music and the preparation of food.  This summer Chris Kallmyer drew out some of the meditative, aesthetic aspects of the cultural ritual of baseball on Open Field with his work Play Catch, All Together.  In Los Angeles where I live, artists like Elana Mann and Juliana Snapper of the People’s Microphony Camerata explore the political and aesthetic potential of the People’s Mic, and Michael Parker carved a gigantic obelisk a parcel of land adjacent to the LA river, which became a platform for performances and critical discussions about art and the local ecology.

As artists move further and further away from the production of discrete, conventional art objects, I find the idea of the score—and all that it entails in terms of the work’s ontology, production, distribution, and reception—to be an increasingly helpful way of understanding what an artwork is now and how it moves through the world.

Benjamin Patterson, a key figure in the Fluxus network of artists, visits the Walker on October 9 as part of the exhibit Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Art Expanded, 1958-1978, which explores the expanded arts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, is on view through March 2015, and includes the work of Alison Knowles and George Macunias, among other notable Fluxus figures.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.