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Fluxus in Texas

Allison McElroy, 411 #2, rolled-up phonebook pages, wire, black frame, 2009

Anarchic and whimsical, Fluxus was a little-known art movement in the ’60s — little-known, even though Yoko Ono was an occasional and influential Fluxite. (John Lennon once quipped that everyone knew who Yoko was yet no one knew what she did.) But the movement arguably died out in the ’70s — although a Fort Worth artist, author and home-grown museum curator disagrees. As proof, he has assembled the current show, Fluxhibition #3, in the student gallery at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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Most art museum directors would have us believe that running an art museum is an all-consuming job. Yet Cecil Touchon runs two, three, maybe four — out of his own home (below, left). Actually, out of his living room.

TOUCHON: “We’re standing in the living room of a three-bedroom, ranch-style house in Fort Worth, and the entire living room is wall-to-wall metal shelving housing boxes, plastic containers full of collages and arts supplies.”

These are not just any overflowing shelves (above, right). Touchon is a successful artist with his boldly-colored collage works selling in New York and Santa Fe galleries. They’ve been featured in Interior Design magazine.

But what’s taking over his house are other people’s artworks. For a decade, Touchon has been exchanging pieces through the mail with fellow artists. The resulting collections he’s boxed up and crowded into his living room.

TOUCHON: “It’s all part of the Ontological Museum of the International Post-Dogmatist Group. There’s the FluxMuseum, the International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction, and then Fluxus Laboratories is here. Oh, and FluxShop. Yeah – you know you’ve got a real Fluxus product when you have a FluxShop gold stamp on it like these. [laughs]”

In 1961, Fluxus was christened (and loosely organzed) by George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-American who eventually sought to establish “Fluxfestivals” in Europe. Paradoxically — meaning, in this case, fittingly — the word “flux” refers to both “flowing” (as in water or energy) and “fusing together” (as in soldering metals). Maciunas and his fellow Fluxites were inspired by Dada, the mocking, anti-traditionalist art movement that came out of World War I, pioneered by artists Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball and Jean Arp.

The apparent irrationality, the deadpan jokes aimed at political and art establishments, the use of pointless mechanisms to spoof technology, the love of paradox, inversion and mass-manufactured products: All of these Dada traits re-appeared in Fluxus (which was originally termed “Neo-Dada”). Fluxus set out, Maciunas wrote, to purge the world of “dead art” and “bourgeois sickness” through a “fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.”

Lis Gundlach-Sell, An Heirloom from My Aunt Augusta, brass caster wheel from grand piano, display box, 2009

In the early ’60s, Yoko Ono’s performance efforts (what Maciunas called “neo-Haiku theater”) and composer John Cage’s experimental music — with his use of random sounds and silence — were major influences on Fluxus. Flux artists specialize in noise music, brief performance works, puzzles and games, as well as “intermedia.” They refuse to conform to the restrictions of paintings or sculptures or theater, preferring to blend or muddle them. Curiously, Fluxus has also been influential on architecture because of Maciunas’ early interest in prefab buildings.

A typical Fluxus project was Maciunas’ Flux Rain Machine (right), a little, clear plastic box with a bit of water in it. The water condenses and forms droplets on the inside of the box. Voila — rain.

Another plastic Fluxbox by Keith Buchholz holds a pair of dice. The cover declares, “Roll 13 and Win!” But a pair of dice can only add up to 12. Voila — futility and the illusion of easy prosperity.

One reason that Fluxus isn’t more widely known, I’d suggest, is that its ideas and elements were various (and contradictory) enough that they could easily morph into or be absorbed by the larger waves in ’60s art, particularly pop art and conceptual art. To a degree, both of these also had origins in Dada, so the flow of Fluxeteers into their ranks is not surprising.

Even so, Flux artworks are often distinguished by their manufacture: They’re cleverly made from cheap, ordinary, even scruffy materials, including human hair, cardboard, string, discarded books, clothing, broken crockery and novelty-store items. These “found objects” are deliberately not employed for museum-quality masterworks. The pieces are ephemeral and disposable, even self-destructive.

They’re more like junk. With a sense of humor.

Jon Hendricks is a Fluxus scholar and the curator of a major Fluxus archive, the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, which was recently donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

HENDRICKS: “Maciunas’ idea of Fluxus was to move away from art that was something precious to something where art can become a part of everyday life.”

A utopian, Maciunas deemed that the entire ‘art industry’ — museums, theaters, galleries, concert halls, everything — should die and be replaced by radically simple artworks that anyone could do. Maciunas also disliked the idea of the heroic individual artist. He preferred collaborative and group efforts. Which inspired his use of boxes. He borrowed the idea from Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise and Joseph Cornell’s famous shadow boxes. But for Maciunas, Hendricks notes, the box isn’t a way of framing and fusing together disparate objects through a single artist’s sensibility. A box is a way to contain contributions from dozens of artists. They’re like little museums that way — or anthologies. Indeed, Maciunas’ first boxes were called “editions” and they were like yearbooks, compiled annually from various efforts by Fluxites.

In Fort Worth, Touchon’s mail exchanges with other artists and his boxed-up collections eventually led to his assembling Fluxhibition #3 at UT-Arlington — which he was able to do very quickly with works submitted from around the world. The show is sub-titled “Thinking Inside of the Box.” It features 140 kits, cases, tubes, cans, birdhouses, bottles and containers — including a piece by Yoko Ono herself, a limited-edition, yellow Japanese box containing a poem, “We’re All Water” (above). Through the course of the exhibition, we see the box as utility item and metaphor, the box as a little stage, as board game, toolkit, toy set, parfait glass, map case, juggling pin, animal cage and laboratory sample — just about everything, perhaps, except the box as coffin. Touchon likes to point out that even a website can be a box — and he’s created several linked, Flux-related “web-boxes.” In fact, his entire exhibition is mounted to the walls of the gallery on shelves made of the cardboard boxes that will be used to ship it to its next home.

It’s a touring show — in a box.

But — is it Fluxus?

Scholars like Hendricks see Fluxus fading after 1978 with Maciunas’ death and with the other Flux artists going in new directions (echoing what a number of early Dadaists did when they turned to Surrealism in the ’20s). So Fluxus belongs to a specific historic era — just like Impressionism or Cubism. Today, you could call your artwork Fluxus or Cubist, and Hendricks says, it still could be interesting. But it won’t have the same meaning, the same revelation. Times change, people change. What was fresh can now feel redundant or irrelevant.

HENDRICKS: “Movements do tend to have a kind of time frame, a period when they are essential, when they have to exist.”

Touchon argues that this is the way collectors and curators think, not artists. Collectors want movements to be limited to a period, a place, a canon of select works. This increases the value of their own collections. Ironically, Touchon himself is clearly a manic collector. But for him, while Flux artists may play with boxes, Fluxus itself can’t be contained in one. The impulses behind Dada and Fluxus, he believes, resurface during certain periods (World War I, the Cold War, the Bush years). Besides, he notes, over the years, Fluxus works have often been produced by artists in their spare time (making an actual living at it would be directly counter to Maciunas’ ideas. Not surprisingly, he died impoverished). For them, Fluxart is a low-cost sideline, as it were, a way to stretch the aesthetic muscles, an intellectual game that doesn’t have to pay the bills.

Which means the Fluxkits and Fluxcreations are likely to go on —

[VOICEOVER intercuts with sounds of Touchon picking through the boxes in his house]:

TOUCHON: “So there’s more … ” [rummages]

— and on –

TOUCHON: “This is full …” [rummages]

And on.

TOUCHON: “I think this is one of them here…”

So — has Touchon ever thought of rental storage?

TOUCHON: “Well, I’m considering that at this point. But I’m still actually organizing the collection to tell you the truth. [Laughs.]”

Fluxhibition #3 runs through July 31 at the E. H. Hereford University Center Gallery at the University of Texas at Arlington. Cecil Touchon has already posted a call for contributions to Fluxhibition #4: Fluxus Amusements, Diversions, Games, Tricks and Puzzles.

Cover image: Spectators by Carolyn Waite.

  • http://walkonwaterannklefstad.blogspot.com ann klefstad

    Touchon is right to bring up the penchant of collectors and curators to compartmentalize artiists’ work in the interest of canonicity. The inside of artmaking looks very different from its outside! Touchon’s notion of Fluxus as a kind of wave action with generational periods is fascinating, and I think he’s absolutely right.

  • http://artistorganizedart.org/commons Fluxus Community

    This seems a bit slavish. Though it would be more usual to copy style parameters innovated by original Fluxus artists and deny the connection. There is rare transparency here, likely to suffer a similar fate the originals did because of it. Fluxus may have invented a few “styles” in an effort to position itself, however it was not really a style, rather it was a response. The Fluxus response was to an already emerging response by many artists throughout the world at that time. I find this Jonas Mekas video comparing Warhol to Maciunas and contradicting the section “Fluxus Art,” helpful in understanding this. Anyway thanks for this big effort and for adoring Fluxus.

  • MATTHEW ROSE

    Cecil Touchon has done perhaps as much as anyone besides John Cage, Christian Marclay and a few others in Paris to bring Fluxus-inspired art to a wide audience. He is obsessive in the way that only seminal artists and in his case, curators, can be with Fluxus-oriented work and that is to not only work day and night but to be precise and correct in both the form and content of the exhibitions. This is why the boxes the works sit on are the boxes the works will be packed into as they make their way to the next station.

    And on top of that, looking at Cecil’s broad output from collage and painting to scores to his flux objects (like his sandpapered glasses), one is truly amazed and touched that an art movement deemed dead with the great George Maciunas has taken on a meaningful life (and movement) well beyond the the death of its chairman.

    Bravo…

    Matthew Rose / Paris, France

  • Sheila Murphy

    Cecil Touchon has found ingenious ways of integrating exciting streams of artistic invention into 21st Century artistic life. His commitment and the robust and innovative essence of his own art (showing at the Marshall Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, among other galleries) make visible and real numerous extraordinary compositions. Fluxibition 3 introduces a brilliant array of pieces addressing containment.

  • http://www.fluxusheidelberg.org Litsa Spathi

    Cecil Touchon was selected to publish an essay as one of eleven contemporary “New Fluxus” artists who are seen to ‘inhabit the site of Fluxus, developing and interpreting the Fluxus tradition in a new way.’ in a special double issue of the journal Visible Language on Fluxus. The double issue was developed by Owen Smith and Ken Friedman and published through the Rhode Island School of Design The other artists included as representing New Fluxus artists: Alan Bowman, Bibiana Padilla Maltos, David-Baptiste Chirot, David Cologiovani, Eryk Salvaggio, Litsa Spathi, mIEKAL aND, MTAA, Ruud Janssen, Sol Nte, and Walter Cianciusi.

    Bravo, Fluxus lebt mit uns

    Litsa Spathi / The Netherlands-Germany-Greece

  • http://www.fluxusheidelberg.org Ruud Janssen

    Cecil Touchon has done some amazing things in the past, and with his fluxhibition #3 he shows a wonderfull collection. Fluxus is so much alive today and there has been created a lot after all these decades. I am glad someone shows this to the world. Art is always on the move. These boxes move too in all the ways the word has in it. Ruud Janssen, July 19th 2009.

  • http://www.vansebroeck.be Luc Fierens

    fluxlist was launched in 1996 and brought George Brecht’s words : “Fluxus has been Fluxed ” into practise. A second generation of Fluxus artists or call them fluxists or fluxlisters started shaping on-line practices of communication-art connecting various networks : mail-artists, performance artists, collagists, visual poets, neoists, artists’bookmakers, etc… They had one goal in common : explore the fluxus legacy also in connection with the first generation. With ups & downs, with some projects and exchibitions. Cecil Touchon’s projects are documented and shown and show the “traces” of this social sculpture “network”. The Eternal Mail-artnetwork shaped the internetNetWorks …. before “official artists” took over. Cecil Touchon shows that independent artists can still produce important and influencial work and setting up their own distribution system without the mass marketing strategies of official art.

  • http://www.grupposinestetico.it Antonio Sassu

    dear Cecil Touchon
    Congratulations for iniziative fluxus you collection
    and
    happy continuation
    greetins best wishes
    Antonio Sassu from Italy

  • http://zslawrence.blogspot.com Z S Lawrence

    Cecil is that rare character, the artist as facilitator, as medium, channeling art to an audience. He has, as much as any associated with Fluxus, made it possible for people to experience Fluxus on a wide scale, connecting artists looking to make their voices heard with willing listeners (and viewers, and readers, and players, and talkers, and …). He deserves every bit of gratitude for his work that all of us can muster.

  • http://www.bonafideart.com Melissa McCarthy

    Every time I read about Fluxus, I get excited and inspired…and I already consider myself a Fluxus artist! Whether or not a movement gets categorized is secondary to the energy it brings to the artist in creating work, and is irrelevant to a viewer’s enjoyment of it. If a bracketed “Fluxus Period” exists, it is for the advantage of a collector or curator. I just make stuff. Deep gratitude to Cecil Touchon for organizing and sharing the wealth, and offering education to any who might want it.

  • MailWorks@Bruxelles

    Thanks for the opportunity of this exhibition and to Cecil for these efforts. It is very good that this art gets an audience. We notice in Europe more and more interest in Fluxus and its influence in the new generation of artists being currently at art colleges or just having finished them. Cecil, I am very much looking forward to the catalogue to show the exhibition to those who couldn`t make it over the ocean in time.

  • LLMDunn

    Art is for everyone
    Cecil and every artist involved here expresses more than can ever be understood of the nature of creating and manifesting ideas and non-ideas alike
    We are all fortunate to have this force of energy whipping up and eliciting response from the far reaches of the globe – Cecil is doing amazing things with a passion and with innovation and with committment
    the art world can say what it wants
    curators and critics can say what they want
    fluxus as a movement in art might be contained
    but if this fluxhibition is any indication – then flux lives on!

  • http://www.johnmbennett.net John M. Bennett

    Very cool! Your house should be preserved as is (or how it will be when you pass on) for posterity, a perfect archive. Thank you!

  • Bibiana Padilla Maltos

    Touchon is doing what not many others even dare to try: publishing, showcasing, promoting art and artists in a very altruist way. Congratulations for all the hard work, Cecil!

  • http://www.fluxmass.org pronoblem

    Fun show, and great work Cecil… and great work by everyone from the Fluxus Community!

    Yoko had her front page dedicated to the show a few days ago, here it is archived:

    http://imaginepeace.com/news/archives/6745

  • Christine Tarantino

    Fluxhibition #3 was a real labor of pure love, fueled by Cecil’s
    talents, skills, and dedication to art and fluxus.

    Christine Tarantino

  • ex posto facto (Julie Jefferies)

    I got to spend some delicious time with this exhibit last weekend. WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW It was so great to see so much great stuff (I’m nearly speechless) (or at least tongue tied) in one little space. There was so much energy, inspiration and wit! Good lookin’ too. THANKS Cecil for putting it together. I hope to get back over there before it comes down…FABULOUS & go see if you can! ( I hope it’s ok that I left Fluxus Bucks for people to take…)