How to consider fluid art forms today.

A paper written when I was embarking on a PhD. Unfortunately, of fortunately depending how you look at it, funding wasn’t available. As life takes various turns this represents unfulfilled aspirations, but continuing interests.


“Don’t believe all that crap about being limited to one’s perspective.  All of the sciences have been inventing ways to move from one standpoint to the next, from one frame of reference to the next, for God’s sake: that’s called relativity.”  ([as ‘the professor’] Latour, 2007 [2005] p. 146)

 On fluid art forms:

Intermedia was a term coined by an artist called Dick Higgins in 1965.  In a review of the term in 1981 Higgins suggested that its main function was to “simply offer a means of ingress into [art]works which already existed, the unfamiliarity of whose forms was such that many potential viewers, hearers, or readers were ‘turned off’ by them” (Higgins, 2001). These works were connected to the Fluxus group with which Higgins was involved and the Happenings of Allan Kaprow (Higgins, 1998, p.226).

Fluxus was not a unified movement and though a manifesto was written by George Maciunas (with whom Fluxus is often synonymous (Williams, Noel, 1997)) it was never signed.  However, outside the avant-garde rhetoric, which seems at odds with the perspectives of many artists and academics associated with Fluxus (Kaplan et al., 2000), the manifesto began with a cut-out definition that, being terse and tautological, is somewhat apt : “To Affect, or bring to a certain state by subjecting to or treating with a flux” (Macuinas, 1997 [1963]).  The way that Fluxus works resisted easy categorisation, comprehension and assimilation certainly seems to emphasis a state that is transient, indistinct and moving, in Dick Higgins’ words, surreptitiously between ‘life media’ and ‘art media’(Higgins, 2001).  For this reason it has been suggested that Fluxus runs against a tendency in Western thought to tie meaning to “fixed abstract essences of higher conceptual ideals” (Smith, 1992, p. 166), working instead on an experiential level (Higgins, 2002).  Ina Bloom, one of the main scholars writing on Intermedia, has suggested that “if writing about, thinking about, participating in, Fluxus is to be done at all, it can only come about within a consciousness that accepts the absence of coherence, purpose, and, as has been repeatedly pointed out by participants: Movement.” (Blom, 1998, p. 214)

This ‘movement’, or what Hannah Higgins might term fluidity (Higgins, 2002, p. 90), seems crucial to retaining what is important about Fluxus and Intermedia while presenting us with some questions relating to how we should go about understanding it.  And this is precisely what this paper takes as a starting point.

Fluidity, or perhaps better, an academic acknowledgment of a reality that is fluid, complex and difficult to categorise, seems to vitalise a number of contemporary academic fields:  Actor Network Theory, Material Culture and Phenomenological Anthropology.  It might be suggested then that studies of Intermedia – as a radical artistic practice that might proffer ‘ontological’, ‘transformative experiences’(Higgins, 2002, p. 207) – could benefit these areas of knowledge and that likewise these fields could offer new platforms from which to better understand Intermedia.  It is the latter possibility that concerns us here and we will turn to these fields in order to start thinking about how to consider fluid art forms today.

On the form of this paper:

“… can’t we say that to give an example, to instantiate, to be concrete, are all examples of the magic of mimesis wherein the replication, the copy, acquires the power of the represented?  And does not the magical power of this embodying inhere in the fact that in reading such examples we are thereby lifted out of ourselves into those images?”  (Taussig, 1993[original emphasis], p.16)

Before moving on it seems worth saying something about form of this paper.  For the economy of words it has been decided that two examples of Intermedia will be introduced and then in a subsequent (separate) section methodologies discussed in relation to them.  But here I think a short detour would be helpful because we might legitimately ask what an example is and here, “where is an example introduced exactly?”

Perhaps it is when the title of a relevant ‘thing’ is introduced?  And for sake of clarity we will divulge that one title will be, ‘Solo for Violin, Viola, Cello, or Contrabass’.  To this we would no doubt append the pronoun ‘George Brecht’ as a way of indicating who ‘made it’ and the date ‘1962’.  At this stage then, has the example been introduced (and where, here in this self-conscious introduction or in the text we are now imagining?)?

‘No’, you say, ‘it isn’t sufficient (it somehow isn’t fleshy enough)’.  So we add a reproduction of a black and white photograph (Fig 2) that corresponds to the title and pronoun; and given certain rules of formatting it may later appear that this photograph was actually added first, as the title and pronoun will be moved to a position below it.  So now, has the example been introduced?

‘No’, you say, still hungry for more ‘flesh’.  And we agree, for lots of reasons; first pointing out that the photograph is not presented as a photograph at all, i.e. as something with a content and materiality, but has been treated from the outset as an image (Edwards, Hart, 2004).  So then, we turn to the body of text that surrounds this image and caption and must now expect that it contain references to that image and caption.  This body of text may draw upon narrative threads, weaving together accounts of an event (now emerging as being the ‘thing’ depicted by the image) and other theoretical accounts, which imply not only what it was but how ‘it’ might be relevant today – how the reader should use it.

If this is where an example is being introduced, we might concede that it is in fact introduced everywhere in this text.  But why stop at this text at all?  The context in which the text is read and redistributed, framed and reframed will all contribute to the example, an example that we now see will never-be-finished-transforming.  It’s not what examples do in themselves that matters, but how entire systems of meaning-making do things with them (and here the concrete poetry that Dick Higgins identified within Intermedia, poetry determined by typography and in this example readable in different directions and so transformed during singular performances, shows us how relevant Intermedia art makes this discussion.)

If this paper is about methodologies then we must acknowledge that they are implied at the very outset, before they are even named.  We cannot simply look to examples and then select a method for reading them; the examples themselves are formed and forming inside and outside this text.  This, as Robert Taussig has argued, makes the whole process involved in using examples into something of a ritual that undermines Western preoccupations with rational and objective observation (Taussig 1993).  As this ritual begins let me close this introduction with an observation by Fluxus artist Alison Knowles:

“Fluxus allow there to be discussions at this fundamental level… Trying to define Fluxus means engaging first of all in what it means to seek a definition.  This process makes a boundary that limits investigation.”  (Alison Knowles in Kaplan et al., 2000)

(w)Here are the examples (?)

Our first example is one taken from the prolific artist George Brecht, who coined the term ‘event score’ to describe the prompt or recipe used by many Fluxus artists to generate alleatory performances.  The score for the piece Solo for Violin, Cello or Contrabass reads simply, “polishing”.  It is difficult to say how long the original performance lasted and what exactly was occurring around Brecht at the time this photograph was taken, though it was performed in the Fluxhall on Canal Street in New York.  It has been re-enacted many times and according to Jill Johnston in Art in America “the preferred enactment of this score in any performance setting has been sitting on a chair or stool and polishing a violin” (Johnston, 2006).

Our second example is an Activity by Allan Kaprow called Trading Dirt (1983-86).  Activities are somewhat distinct from the earlier happenings in that they are less orchestrated and tend to be more subtle in scope.  Like Fluxus event scores, Happenings and Activities are often re-enacted, something that might be taken to be part of their democratic nature, and also a reminder that what they offer is again in the singularity of a performance.

For the original event Kaprow dug a bucket worth of earth from his garden with the idea of exchanging it; Kaprow would then use this newly acquired bucket of dirt in his next trade.  With each bucket of dirt traded over a three year period Kaprow would pass on the story of the previous dirt.  One bucket, Kaprow called dog dirt, was selectively dug by his ‘already tear-eyed’ friends David and Eleanor Antin from the place where they buried their dog (Kaprow, 2008). This earth, selected by the Antins, was exchanged for some ‘Heavy Duty Buddhist Dirt’ they had heard that Kaprow had (Kaprow, 2008).

Kaprow’s explanation for why these activities were interesting and relevant was highlighted in a short essay in 1986 called Art Which Can’t Be Art, primarily about cleaning his teeth, which concludes:

“Anything less than paradox would be simplistic. Unless the identity (and thus the meaning) of what the artist does oscillates between ordinary, recognizable activity and the ‘resonance’ of that activity in the larger human context, the activity itself reduces to conventional behaviour.  Or if it is framed as art by a gallery, it reduces to conventional art.  Thus toothbrushing, as we normally do it, offers no roads back to the real world either.  But ordinary life performed as art/ not art can change the everyday with metaphoric power.”  (Kaprow, 2003 [1986], p.222)


“… no amount of methodology will ever bring a text closer to the distant setting about which it writes, no amount of ignorance of deconstruction will take a text farther away from it either.” (Latour, 1988, p. 170)

Actor Network Theory

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a move within the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, like many ‘post-modern’ fields, to place an emphasis upon the ‘text’ as the site where scientific objects are constructed.  Considering the collective endeavours of the specific group tied to this approach, including Steve Woolgar, philosopher Roger Taylor and sociologist Clarice Stasz,  Elizabeth Chaplin has commented that “to the reader [of these works] who is not fascinated with the intricacies of reflexivity to the exclusion of almost all else, it may seem that the social world outside is fast receding.” (Chaplin, 1994, p.267)  And indeed it is here, in her exploration of literary methods used in service of sociology, that she turns to an early essay by Bruno Latour called The Politics of Explanation (1988) as it directly critiques this hermetic type of reflexivity.  As Bruno Latour is a key voice behind Actor Network Theory (ANT) it is worth us looking at some of the points made in this text to gain an understanding of how ANT is positioned.

In the 1980s Latour, as a sociologist of science himself, was confident with a relativist position – though revising this somewhat in later years (Latour, 2004).  His argument in The Politics of Explanation however, distinguishes his own position from the group discussed by Chaplin.  The type of reflexivity practiced by this group, which Latour also ties to Jacques Derrida and Harold Garfinkel, he calls Meta-reflexivity.  “Meta-reflexivity is based on the idea that the most deleterious effect of a text is to be naively believed by the reader as in some way relating to a referent out there. Reflexivity is supposed to counteract this effect by rendering the text unfit for normal consumption (which often means unreadable).”(Latour, 1988, p.168)  Instead of taking this approach Latour argues for an Intra-reflexivity, which renders the world more believable and practical for the reader in their own life situation – but much like an allegory, not necessitating a belief in a singular true reality.  Later Latour would stress the realist aspect of this work (Latour, 2004), a way of describing things in more and more detail.  ANT, which we’ll explore shortly, drives this process.  It was originated by Michel Callon and Latour in the 1980s with the help of others – prominently John Law (Ritzer, 2007, Pp. 1-3).

Interestingly for our study John Law writes in his work After Method that a new vocabulary is necessary as “a way of pointing to and articulating a sense of the world as an unformed but generative flux of forces and relations that work to produce particular realities.” (Law, 2008 [2004], p.7) This involves imagining agency as emotive and embodied “rather than cognitive” (Ibid p.3) and in Annemarie Mol’s earlier remarks on ANT it requires a new set of metaphors, “not those of perspective and construction, but rather those of interaction and performance.” (Mol, 2005 [1999], p.77)  She adds that these “suggest a reality that is done and enacted rather than observed” (Ibid).

Here it is obvious that the usual connotations of Methodology are somewhat strained if not rejected.  One of the clearest articulations of what makes ANT different comes in Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory – a nevertheless complex study to rewrite the mistaken assumptions underlying sociology.  For Latour you must not start with an assumption about there being a ‘society’ in which things are connected by homogenous social bonds or agents.  Actors instead should be respected for their own capacities to create their own disturbances or controversies that should not be subsumed under a predetermined structure (i.e. class system, consumerism).  In Latour’s words “an actor that makes no difference is not an actor at all.  An actor, if words have any meaning, is exactly what is not substitutable” (Latour, 2007 [2005], p.153)

In a generous move Latour elucidates how all these elements should come together.  Primarily, you must keep the social flat!  By this he means that a study should not rest on the dichotomy of local events and global schemes, a rendering of different scales of activities existing in different dimensions.  Instead he suggests that the global be localised and that the local be redistributed.  And here we shall draw upon one of our examples.

Rather than jump to suggest that Brecht’s work Solo for Violin, Cello or Contrabass is about the development of a global art movement, an avant-garde, a wholesale rejection of traditional values, or connected to universal experiences, all of which might be mistakenly seen to underpin it or control it somehow from above, ANT would require that these concepts themselves be tied to local conduits.  Just as a philosopher needs a desk to write her work, these ‘art movements’ and ‘universal experiences’, if they are there at all, should be located and treated in the same(flat) space of the performance itself (where is this knowledge performed, by what means?).  Similarly the local experiences engendered by the performance – such as the smell of the polish, the sounds rendered subjectively- should not simply be taken to be the local and perhaps authentic aspects of the performance.  The violin that Brecht polishes is connected to a specific design, the wood taken from elsewhere; likewise those attendant at the performance will carry some structural knowledge from outside the performance.  The local events slip into other places as they are redistibuted; both global and local are formed by a network of actors.  And here, an actor can legitimately be an object, usually excluded from the category of social agent.  This would be Intra-reflexive in that this complex account is a single layer, a single story of the many realities produced during this event.

Material Culture:

Material culture studies (MCS) has roots in evolutionary anthropology and classical sociology at the end of the 19th Century, while its contemporary emergence owes much to the anthropological works of a relatively small number of academics: particularly Daniel Miller and colleagues at UCL (Woodward, 2007, see Pp 17-32).  Ian Woodward’s useful overview on the subject highlights three facets of MCS (and the multiplicity of connected disciplines that go by other names).  Firstly it is Interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary.  Secondly, it stresses the importance of objects and mediators in inter-subjective relationships.  And thirdly, it stresses the importance of the social lives of things, a case made by an influential text of that name edited by Arjun Appadurai (Appadurai, 2005 [1986]).

The implications of each of these three facets have been very important in relation to a number of fields.  For Arjun Appadurai and other contributors to The Social Life of Things it opened up a new way of examining commodities and their relationship to culture.  In a way not dissimilar from the aims of ANT, MCS adds complexity to depictions of the world.  For example, Igor Kopytoff’s contribution concludes, “In the homogenized world of commodities, an eventful biography of a thing becomes the story of the various singularizations of it, of classifications and reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts with every minor change in context (Kopytoff, 2005 [1986], p.90) (Latour may object to context, unless it is seen to emanate from a flattened field – performed into being at the same level as the commodities’ reclassifications).  For Nicholas Thomas, studying commodities predominantly on the peripheries of Fijian and eastern Polynesian cultures, the ethnographic implications are emphasised.  He believes that MCS can help to overcome the Othering of other cultures assumed to have ‘pure’, separated systems of trading distinct from the capitalist West (Thomas, 1991, see particuarly Pp. 14 – 22 on ‘The Inalienability of the Gift’).  He looks instead to blur these distinctions and show them to be much more co-contaminated, suggesting the development of a “kind of micro-ethnography, like the history of a ring, that would specify why certain garments or books mean so much.”(Thomas, 1991, p.31)  For design historian Judy Attfield MCS is a tool for reclaiming fluid aspects of the world against a design history that privileges select examples of good design, isolated from the world of subject/object relationships (Attfield, 2000, Pp. 9-20)

Thinking about the centrality of material objects in most Fluxus works, where violins are polished or smashed it seems that material culture studies would provide a platform from which to reclaim some of the complex meanings of Intermedia, Allan Kaprow’s Trading Dirt being a perfect illustration.  The narratives attaching to the soil, which accumulate over time, attach meanings to it.  Rather than assume the work has a fixed meaning (difficult in flux) it surely becomes a case of tracing intricate networks through the stories being told, with descriptions of locations and actions.  That Kaprow describes this type of work as a ‘paradox’ suggests that it hovers problematically between between being art and not-art.  It is this quasi state, as Latour might suggest, that invites the type of study developed in MCS.  As Judy Attfield has said “It is only in acknowledging the whole ensemble of things that make up an environment, ‘rogue elements’ and all, that it is possible to envisage the material world, whether consciously ‘design’, mere ‘things’ without any particular attitude, or more realistically – a promiscuous mixture of both” (Attfield, 2000, p.33)  In trading dirt, ‘art’ things and ‘non-art’ things interweave as part of inter-subject-object relationships.  Here things matter and the fact that the dirt develops its own biography is crucial.

Phenomenological Anthropology:

This final ‘field’ is the most difficult to trace, and given limitations I will necessarily have to keep this section very short.  However, a text called Things as they Are edited by anthropologist Michael Jackson (1996) can be seen to be one of the first attempts to give identity to a specific series of approaches to anthropology taken from Phenomenology.  Here I will simply point out its connections to the areas we have already discussed.  In the introduction Jackson writes that the reason phenomenological approaches seem important is that they emphasise that “philosophies and theories, like political opinions, should be regarded as part and parcel of the world in which we live rather than transcendent views that somehow escape the impress of our social interests, cultural habits and personal persuasions” (Jackson, 1996, p.1) This seems very much like Latour’s directive to keep things ‘flat’.  Further Jackson argues that this field is about reclaiming experience against a “preoccupation with order and structure”(Ibid, p.5), which echoes the words of Fluxus scholars and voices within MCS: “[the] world of nuances is not a system of arcane meanings, a philosophical playground; rather it is practically muddled like everything else – symbolic miracles take place ‘while someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’” (citing WH Auden, Thomas, 1991, p.11)

Conclusion: An Introduction to future studies

The introduction to this paper first began by highlighting the complexity of Intermedia works, a number of scholars emphasising movement, the experiential dimension and the difficult to categorise nature of the subject – a reason enough for us to explore new ways of thinking about it.  Then in a deconstructive type passage we discussed the problem of giving examples as a means of breaking down and thinking about our own methods.  Here however, heterogeneous elements reside and a short quote from Robert Taussig helped to suggest that something more than ‘meta-reflexivity’ was in play.  Indeed the fields that we have encountered suggest that is important not to simply reject the possibility of describing the world around us, but with the help of allegory and new methods, to describe it in even more detail.

Given the length of this paper there are obviously many omissions.  However, it has hopefully managed to pave the way for better considerations of fluid art forms today.   Firstly, you would not begin with a structured view of the world, but must let actors be actors and reveal themselves, not by embodying pre-scripted roles, but causing displacements within the networks created by your study as you localise the global and distribute the local.  These networks are necessarily traced through actors that could be both people and objects, bringing a heterogeneous range of effects with them.   Intermedia performances might be seen to be select durations during which a number of phenomena and displacements arise.  Tracing these would be a difficult task, but would require a rethinking of conventional approaches.  Actor Network Theory, Material Culture Studies and Phenomenological Anthropology all seem to break down dualistic preoccupations while offering exciting possibilities for rethinking the world as it is performed into being through people and objects.


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