Sarah Hill

Art in Flux

“Make a salad.” One of the pivotal works of the Fluxus collective by artist Alison Knowles is —like most contemporary art— open to interpretation. Taking advantage of the work as a recipe for automatic participation, University of Houston professor of art history Natilee Harren often teaches this performance art instruction or “event score” in her classes. The art is the actual doing of the thing in question. While she prefers to make a delicious fruit salad with her students, one important lesson of Fluxus is that there’s really no wrong ingredient or way of doing it since Knowles’s direction is so open-ended, and deliberately so.

Following fifteen years of research across multiple continents, Harren has recently published a book on Fluxus, entitled Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Winner of a Terra Foundation for American Art International Publication Grant, the book outlines Fluxus’s central role in promoting an anti-elitist, interdisciplinary ideology that energized a major transformational period in twentieth-century art history. The main idea propelling the Fluxus movement was: Art doesn’t just live in a museum or gallery but can be found in the objects and activities of everyday life.

Fluxus emerged in New York and sites across Western Europe and Japan during the early 1960s, amidst the Beatnik poetry and Jazz Age. The movement was named, quite appropriately, after the word “flux,” meaning “to flow” or “to change.” Through correspondence and travel, participants forged an international network of diverse individuals who worked across performance and visual art, dance, concrete poetry, mail art and music. Among them, one thing was held sacred in common: the concept that anyone could create the art or be an artist.

In a recent post for The Chicago Blog, Harren identifies relationships between Fluxus activities and daily life under the current quarantine. She writes: “Most relevant to us now, [a Fluxus artist’s] humble practice centered on modest, improvised rituals performed in the face of great uncertainty. [Fluxus artists] welcomed experimental processes, not always knowing what the outcome of their actions would be.”

Harren’s research delves deeply into several thrusts of Fluxus practice. The event score, for example, is a format inspired by traditional musical scores. However, written in plain language, it is meant to be read and interpreted as a simple set of directions. Some may be easy to follow, while others are not—but all are open to interpretation. These scores were often collected and placed in suitcases or other small containers and sold by direct mail as Fluxbox multiples. The theory was that anyone could read the score and create a work of art that was unique to their context and distinct from every other performance inspired by the score.

Seven deeply researched chapters make up Harren’s study, including a final chapter that relates Fluxus to contemporary new media and participatory art. One reviewer predicts the book will remain “a field-defining text for many years.” But, being both an art historian and practicing critic highly engaged in Houston’s contemporary art community, Harren didn’t stop with the book’s publication. She recently organized a three-part series, supported by a grant from Houston Arts Alliance, that explored Fluxus and its legacies through free, public events held at the Blaffer Museum, Lawndale Art Center and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Some well-known names contributed to the movement, such as Yoko Ono, while others were inspired by the collective and went on to pursue other forms of radical art, such as Andy Warhol.

“The underground subculture that proliferated during this period, which Fluxus played a major role in cultivating, inspired some of the greatest artists of our time,” says Harren. “Fluxus helped instigate a paradigm shift in our very understanding of what counts as art and who counts as an artist. It’s important for us to document and understand the origins of these changes.”

Her book, Fluxus Forms, reminds us that world-changing research is not just for scientists and that art belongs not only to classically-trained painters and sculptors.