There aren’t many things I like more than a good bit of Fluxus. Like Barry ‘The Cougar’ Dawson would say of his sugarfree Bourbon and Cola in a can it “makes my pants fit nice.” If you’re not familiar, I oughtn’t be the guy to fill you in, but since nobody else is going to write the rest of this article: Fluxus was (is) an art “attitude,” a philosophy about art-making, that began emerging in the ’50s. People like George Maciunas (who wrote the 1963 ‘Fluxus Manifesto’), Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles, Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik are often mentioned in the same sentence as ‘Fluxus.’ To define it, defines it away – note the word, fluxus, flux, from fluere (flow) – its meaning is drifting and liquid… but invariably it questions the perceived boundaries of art, commingling what we call art and life. Tonight under the fluoro lights of the Calloway Auditorium, Ashley Smith performs Ken Friedman’s Explaining Fluxus (1986), announcing that “Fluxus is best defined by Gumby, and a shoe.” He holds a Gumby toy in one hand and a trainer in the other. Precisely.
If I can’t tell you what Fluxus is, maybe I can tell you what it isn’t – it’s not an aesthetic, it’s not a unified project and it’s not a rulebook (though sometimes it asks you to follow instructions). Maybe it’s got a lot in common with Dada, Surrealism, and Punk but that depends who you ask. I can certainly tell you that I was very excited when I got an email from composer/UWA professor Chris Tonkin telling me that the university was having a multi-venue fluxus night – a sort of festival – and would I like to write about it. Yes definitely I wrote as I sat on the bus.
A few days later I get off a different bus, it’s night time now… Strolling over to the Music Department, just next to the tennis courts (ponk, thwok). Inside the Calloway we gather round. Ashley Smith explains Fluxus, and then four black-clad perfomers lift four microphones that are dangling from a central frame, to perform Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music (1968, revised ’73). Two people on either side of the microphones, alternating… they all raise their hands to a roughly equal height and, in quick succession, let go. Gravity takes it course. On the ground are four speakers, one at the nadir of each microphone’s swinging arc, projecting what the microphone “hears.” Astute readers will have already realized that, when the mic passes the speaker, it will feed back – and so it does. But with each mic passing over at a subtly different time, a rhythm is produced; and with each speaker emitting a discernibly different feedback frequency, four tones conspire into a simple, hypnotic melody. But from the first moment, this seemingly repetitive arrangement is in flux, shrinking and warping as the pendulum arcs gradually decrease. I’ve never heard Pendulum Music described as a “Fluxus” work before, but this indeterminacy, this playful shifting and phasing, makes it a fitting departure point for a night presenting the concept of Fluxus with an emphasis on sound. And, relevance notwithstanding, it’s one of the most elegantly simple and brilliant pieces of conceptual music I’ve come across – performed perfectly, in a great setting, so, much kudos.
When the microphones fall still and only a wall of multicoloured feedback remained, we trickle out. Equipped with a map we set about on our own unique journeys through the music school buildings, in which a total of 38 performances or “events” are occuring, simultaneously and continuously, for the next hour.
People are making salads and drawing straight lines with chalk. We enter a dark room where a glitching magpie “documentary” is patched up with bird-like recorder improv, and an electronic wind instrument performance sampling real magpie sounds, but in the end we get a ‘refund’ (a hand full of birdseed). Heading upstairs in the lift we encounter two cello players, droning two notes a fifth apart, consistently for the full hour (this is La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960 #7). Yoko Ono tells us to walk on a painting that’s been left on the floor, so we do. She also tells us to cut a man’s clothes off his body with scissors, so we do that too.
Mieko Shiomi requests that a violin be suspended in a public place. A knock on a mystery door yields wildly variable results – including screams, applause and Whitney Houston choruses – in Ken Friedman’s Cheers. John Cage enlists a young man to improvise on an amplified cactus, the clicking and popping spines amounting to a weird, wonderful percussion performance. Hammers, lamps, repetition, ad-libbing, collage, scribbles, darkness, beating sine waves, descriptions of sneakers, conga lines. It’s a big crazy beautiful mess, ideas that would otherwise never be given the opportunity to take physical form, exploded through the architecture.
There are moments where the curators and performers totally nail it, which is harder than it sounds. It’s truly wonderful to hear John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a strange and beguiling composition that dates back to 1939 (!) and is considered the first ever example of live electronic music. As per Pendulum Music, Jude Weirmeir’s Message in a Bottle and Eternal Love Heart are performed with palpable sincerity and attention to detail. Others performances go above and beyond the call of duty, as with Cage’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #1 (1960) – the piece calls for a piano to be “fed” with a bale of hay and a bucket of water. Here, the performer is in full farmer attire, and the room is decorated with innumerable plastic branches and small glowing lights. It’s a creative interpretation of a simple, silly piece and – importantly – it embraces the outrageous humour present in much Fluxus work, rather than stifling it under the weight of history and academia.
There are instances where the spirit of Fluxus gets somewhat lost. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, for example, always hinged on a sense of vulnerability – a la Marina Abramovic – the “performer” not knowing how much of their clothing would be trimmed off, not knowing how far the “audience” would go (performer/audience distinctions are decidedly blurred here). But tonight, a sign issues a Parental Guidance warning and instructs participants: Do NOT cut undergarment. I doubt the respectful, sober crowd at tonight’s event would’ve “cut undergarment” anyway, but by sealing off the possibility, the work suddenly feels very predictable and enfeebled. Similarly, with Ben Vaultier’s Telephone (1962), an instruction to “call the police and talk as long as possible” is obviously faked. A number of other “prank call” style performances are delivered to the same recipient, who’s clearly in on the game. The performance remains quirky and amusing, but it’s mere theatre, completely stripped of its antisocial, subversive essence. And yeah, of course, you can’t really prank call the police as a University representative without getting into strife. But in this case it feels like an all-or-nothing gesture; either do it properly or don’t bother at all.
Luckily, such gripes are few and far between. The freewheeling array of performances is convincingly staged, and the decision to contain everything in a one-hour window makes it feel like a heady, bewildering dream. It’s by turns funny, confronting, beautiful and thought-provoking. Fluxus has rarely been absurd for its own sake – and by having participants fill a balloon with one breath before auctioning their colourful plastic “lungs” off (for example) the UWA School of Music showcases the poetic humour and the barbed political commentary of the philosophy. Fluxus tests assumptions, forces uncommon or uncanny interactions, and critiques elitist institutions and scenes; it’s truly heartening, indeed glee-inducing, to see that play out in an “elite” University context. And while you might argue that a night such as this is a kind of animated museum, rehashing 60-year-old avant-gardes rather than pursuing new ground, the fact is that it doesn’t feel like that when you take part. These gestures still have to power to surprise and fascinate. Fluxus tactics are remarkably timeless – I think the UWA Music School has recognized this – neatly updating particular components with iPhones and laptops, or reimagining staging and format, but almost always retaining the essence of the work. In a world where music and art are too often straightjacketed into clubs, pubs, galleries and the occasional fenced-off festival, free-flowing disruptions like Fluxus allow us to rediscover the captivating power of art and the unexpected. I honestly can’t wait for ‘In A State of Flux’ #2.