Women in Music in America Since 1900: An Encyclopedia

by Byrd, Jeffery

The Fluxus movement was born in the sixties as an attempt to explore and break down the boundaries between art and life. Fluxus was committed to creating a democratic art form in which all things could be art and anyone could be an artist. The Fluxus founders wished to dismantle the institutions of high art and 'serious' culture. They felt that art was a matter of perception rather than production and this removed the artist from the center of the art making process. Overall, Fluxus urged a creative engagement with the world and life itself.

Earlier artists had concentrated on included prosaic elements in their work, such as Picasso's cubist collages with newspapers and other bits of trash or Eric Satie's inclusion of typewriters and sirens in his music. Fluxus, however, focused on the quotidian in an unaltered, unaugmented way. The elements of everyday life were not incorporated into something larger, but appreciated for what they were.

The methods used by Fluxus also reflected egalitarian concerns. Fluxus was meant to be inexpensive, reproducible and accessible to all. These ideas run counter to the general structure of the art world with its emphasis on art objects as unique commodities with intrinsic value. They sidestepped the gallery/museum system by organizing their own exhibitions and concerts in other venues and by operating a mail order service to distribute their work.

Composer John Cage was a major influence on the Fluxus artists, particularly his work exploring the codes of musical composition and notation.

Cage felt that all music scores were coded instructions for action of one sort or another. The bulk of Fluxus production consists of written scores for performances. These brief and cryptic texts are intended to be interpreted by anyone and even though many contain musical references, few would be mistaken for a traditional piece of music. George Brecht's Solo for Flute (1962), for example, instructs the performer to take the instrument apart and put it back together again. Nam June Paik's Solo for Violin (1962) calls for the instrument's complete destruction.

Sound was often an incidental element to the pieces but more often, the combination of visual and aural information was meant to draw attention the process of its own creation. In other words, the performer was supposed to concentrate on the action at hand and clear the mind of other information. La Monte Young's Piano Piece for David Tudor (1960) requires such focus in that the performer is asked to open the piano's keyboard cover without making any sound at all. This action is repeated until successfully completed or until the performer gives up trying. Yoko Ono asks the performer to record the sound of a stone growing older in Tape Piece I (1963).

Lithuanian George Maciunas (1931-1978) was a charismatic organizer, tireless promoter and obsessive chronicler of Fluxus activities. He frequently coordinated Fluxus Concerts and published multiples of Fluxus pieces. These publications were usually not organized in book form, but rather in boxes or 'kits.' Each kit would contain contributions from many artists in the form of performance scores, found object assemblages, films and audiotape pieces. An example of what might be found in a Flux kit would be Benjamin Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (1964) which was a small plastic box containing soap and a paper towel reading "wash your face."

Fluxus works spanned every scale from the intimate to the global. Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi sent letters to people all over the world asking them to perform her Spatial Poem (1965-1972) and send her some record of what they did to complete the piece. The piece was a series of scores about with wind and gravity. The results were assembled on a map of the world. Shiomi also created a piece entitled Disappearing Music for Face (1964). This work exists as a performance and as a film (1966) of a mouth that slowly stops smiling and Cello Sonata (1977) performed by Charlotte Moorman on top of a 500 year old Italian clock tower. Another Shimoi work is Music for Two Players II (1963). For this work, the performers remain in a closed room for two hours, doing anything except speaking.

Alison Knowles also produced numerous performance scores including Identical Lunch (1969), that calls for mindfulness in the daily act of eating. Knowles also wrote poetry using found texts from a myriad of sources ranging from seed catalogues to travelogues. Knowles was married to another Fluxus artist, Dick Higgins (1938-1999), who published a number of books by Fluxus artists through his Something Else Press. Higgins was a artist as well as a writer and described notion of interdisciplinary art in his Statement on Intermedia (1966). Higgins also created a series of works called Danger Music, the second of which required Knowles to shave his head before an auditorium of uneasy spectators.

Video Pioneer Nam June Paik and his collaborator, cellist Charlotte Moorman were also associated with the Fluxus movement. Paik and Moorman created numerous performances added an erotic element to music. Moorman played her cello in various states of dress and in unusual locales such as atop an army tank in Guadalcanal Requiem (1976). Moorman was arrested for performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique (1967) in the nude.

Yoko Ono also worked made pieces which questioned the role of the female body in art. For Cut Piece (1964), Ono invited members of the audience to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors. Her "instruction" works were scores that yielded paintings or sculptures. Ono interpreted many of the scores herself and showed the results but, like all Fluxus scores, everyone was welcome to perform them.


See Also: Knowles, Alison; Moorman, Charlotte; Ono, Yoko; Performance Art

For Further Reading:

Armstrong, Elizabeth and Rothfuss, Joan, eds. 1993.In the Spirit of Fluxus. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center.

Milman, Estera, ed. 1992. "Fluxus: A Conceptual Country." Visible Language Vol.26, No 1/2.

Jeffery Byrd


Armstrong, Elizabeth and Rothfuss, Joan, eds. 1993.In the Spirit of Fluxus. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center.

Milman, Estera, ed. 1992. "Fluxus: A Conceptual Country." Visible Language Vol.26, No 1/2

Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter. 1996. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.