Saturday, 22 June 2013

Placing Audiences in relation to ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’


Figure 1: George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963.
There are two kinds of audience members, those with prior knowledge of the art world and those without. When referencing audience in this particular essay I am writing with regards to both, a combination of the two kinds of audience members together, forming one mixed audience. We often tend to experience an exhibition equally, when we enter the gallery, regardless of what day it is, regardless of whether or not it’s morning, afternoon, early evening, the works will remain the same, they don’t move around the space of their own accord, they are in the position deemed most appropriate throughout the exhibition. Despite a variety of educational backgrounds; we inhabit the space as others do, we follow the crowd, focusing on some works but not others, following the unseen directions set out for us by manipulative interpretation. Our paths mapped out for us through weeks of curatorial decision making and research. An exhibition team have the ability to turn a single work of art, a single concept or idea, into an entire gallery of works encompassing all aspects of said concept or idea. They provide the audience with a rewarding experience by communicating a work of art through all of the other works; thus strengthening the audiences’ understanding of the exhibition. By understanding the works as a whole, the audience begin to consider the works individually, connecting with the artist(s) through the works collectively and ultimately, through the work of the curator.

The exhibition I have chosen to use as a case study for this particular essay was shown at MOCAK Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej w Krakowie (Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków) on the 19th of October 2012 until the 27th of January 2013. Entitled ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’, we as an audience are already able to presuppose the kind of works we may experience or encounter based on the title, the location and the time period. This exhibition was curated by Maria Anna Potocka and coordinated by Katarzyna Wąs. “While the artists who remain active still work today on furthering and forming Fluxus ideas and actions, an ever growing number of art historians/curators are researching and presenting the history of Fluxus in all its variety. Nevertheless, the knowledge on the European Fluxus festivals has still been rudimentary. Therefore, it was high time to bring together research results in an international project, make previously undiscovered material accessible and most of all, draw attention to the artists’ and eyewitnesses’ perspectives. The exhibition is meant as a first step towards processing the historic Fluxus events in Europe.” (Sterling, 2013) The works were displayed in honour of the international artist network Fluxus and took place on the 50th anniversary of its founding. The title ‘The lunatics are on the loose...’ comes from a note scrawled across an original poster advertising the 1962 festival Fluxus (Internationale Festspiele neuester Musik) which proved unsuccessful, with most audience members disapproving of the movement. Taken from a Latin word meaning, 'to flow', Fluxus often incorporates inter-disciplinary activities between genres within the arts. Fluxus was profoundly influenced by “musical form. Fluxus works were conceived as composed collages of actions.” (Anon, 2011) The Fluxus artistic philosophy (http://www.thefluxusproject.com/about, 2013) can be expressed through four key points that define the majority of Fluxus work. Firstly, Fluxus was an attitude. It was not a movement or a style. Secondly, Fluxus was intermedia. Fluxus creators liked to see what would happen when different media crossed over. They used found and everyday objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations of objects, sounds, images, and texts. Thirdly, Fluxus works were simple. The art was small, the texts were short, and the performances were brief and finally, Fluxus was fun as humour was always an important element in Fluxus.

During the 1960's similarities between mediums such as painting and poetry or drawing and theatre, would be described as intermedia, a term first used by artist Dick Higgins. These areas became new genres themselves through repeated experiences, occurrences and use such as performance art and visual poetry. Fluxus was a term not only used to describe artists but also composers, designers, writers, actors, poets and anyone noted for combining different aspects of artistic disciplines and media. The influence of Fluxus is still widely used within performance, digital and multi-media based artworks but Fluxus itself ended in 1978 with the death of artist and founding member George Maciunas, the author of the 1963 Fluxus Manifesto (see Figure 1).

Contemporary attempts to question the role of the museum in society, the role of the audience and the status of the objects began to create exciting dialogues between the cultural institutions and their audiences. Museums and galleries both tried and are still trying to come up with innovative ways of experiencing displayed objects, particularly through the use of new media. Artists are often handed the role of the curator by the gallery or museum in order to aid new ways of considering spaces, objects and exhibitions in general, this move is usually made on the presumption that an artist will be able to think outside the box, or more creatively. “Artists can offer fresh insights beyond academic interpretations and take initiatives with groupings and juxtapositions that no museum curator would be allowed to consider.” (Putnam, 2009) It’s an opportunistic experiment undertaken by a number of cultural institutions, by hiring an artistic individual, free from commitment and not bound by actions that would perhaps be restricted otherwise, the museum has no choice but to recognise its faults and rectify them.

“According to Sharon Macdonald the three main points of departure from the ‘old museology’ were: the comprehension of the meaning of museum objects as situated as contextual rather than inherent; the attention to commercialism and entertainment; and the consideration of the visitor as an active agent.”
(Macdonald, 2006)

The visitor as an active agent is of particular importance, for without the visitor, the museum or gallery is simply a storage space for objects of historical significance. The importance of interpretation, as an aid to the perceptions and affections of displayed objects, whether art or artefact is inconsequential, knowledge, if not already obtained through another source must be provided in order to enable and encourage what we see, whether this is through the labelling of works, text panels, information leaflets, trigger works or an alternative method. ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’ used large text panels, in both Polish and English to create a beneficial and informative experience for someone who perhaps doesn’t speak Polish but does speak English, there were also audio guides and braille available. The names of the cities where the festivals took place were transferred onto the gallery floor, in large, fluorescent pink, capitalised letters, to be walked over, though most chose not to, uncertain as to whether or not the floor texts were art works. This kind of confusion within a space challenges the audience as observer. “A well-defined observer extracts everything that it can, everything that can be extracted in the corresponding system. In short the role of a partial observer is to perceive and to experience, although these perceptions and affections are not those of a man, in the currently accepted sense, but belong to the things studied.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994) By using this example describing inherent perceptions and affections of that being studied, Deleuze and Guattari are making a connection between the audience or observer and the object. They are acknowledging the ability to see things differently, the evolution of an audience. The art world creates well defined observers out of partial observers through extended exposure to interpretation methods, the more time you spend in a space, the more you learn about it, developing your knowledge of the works that inhabit the space improves your ability to understand why they are situated where they are. It allows you to make connections which were perhaps not initially obvious. The associations made and the viewer’s ability to find a connection or commonality amongst displayed works in particular sections or rooms creates a more interactive experience for the audience. ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’ was in itself more of an abbreviation than an exhibition, a compressed summary of the Fluxus activities during the 1960’s and 70’s at the European festivals (see Figure 2). Yet, despite this, the combination of documentation, DIY installation, projections, visualisations, interviews and photographs created the atmosphere one is more accustomed to in a conventional museum, rather than a gallery space, the presentation of these materials felt more like artefact than it did art. It is interesting how, although the 1960’s and 70’s were perhaps arguably not long enough ago for us to consider such objects as artefact, they are historical objects, relating to art. The definition of an artefact tends to be something produced by man, particularly an object of archaeological interest. Although one usually associates artefacts with the distant past, some archaeologists will argue that an object, usually a found object can be at least twenty five years old to qualify such a title as artefact.

“Watkins argues for curating as a type of artistic practice, with individual artworks being analogous to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (everyday found objects taken as art), their display aided by the curator’s “manipulation of the environment, the lighting, the labels and the placement of other works of art.””
(O'Neill, 2012)

Figure 2: The lunatics are on the loose… Illustration Credit: Tiffany Horan, 2013.
In my opinion the works here are not so much tangible works of art but ephemera, collectible memorabilia which could be considered as artefact depending on the opinions of the audience. “According to Duchampian principles, the entirety of an exhibition could become art…” (Putnam, 2009) Collectively, one could consider every object as part of an installation, the exhibition as an installation amongst the collection works of the gallery, in that sense the objects could be considered art but separately they aren't anything more than artefact and any projected concept we give to such objects are of our own creation, they are ideas conceived in the minds of the audience, rather than something inherent in the objects themselves. The eye of the beholder belongs to the audience. Thinking of the exhibition as medium is not a new idea, as although one could argue that “most curators are not artists and an artist is not a curator … an artist with the ability to curate can be both” (Horan, 2013) there are those who believe in curating as an artistic practice, the curator as artist. When one is able to curate and not create, how can one possibly consider the curator as artist? For example, Jonathan Watkins wrote an essay called ‘The Critic as Artist’, where he “draws on Oscar Wilde’s idea that objects are transformed into art by the critic writing about them, in which it is the eye of the beholder that produces the work of art.” (O'Neill, 2012) Part of the exhibition included an Alison Knowles piece where members of the audience were able to take part in ‘Add Your Own Thing’, the instructions read as follows: ‘Place something from your own pocket to add to this exhibition. If you have nothing, write one word on a paper and add this.’ The wall contained a variety of objects, buttons, wrappers, ticket stubs, coins, labels, a hair bobble, tobacco, receipts, tissues, scribbled drawings, words and sentences. This is a piece that could change every time you viewed it depending on the level of audience participation. The objects added were not labelled with the owners name, they were donated to the artist’s work, the authorship is that of the artist and the work is that of a collective audience. There is still an uncertainty amongst audiences as to the authenticity of the work produced in this way and the definition of an artist when it comes to the value of such interactive or participatory works as the artist is creating an idea to be facilitated by an audience, rather than creating an object to be viewed by an audience.


Figure 3: The lunatics are on the loose… Illustration Credit: Tiffany Horan, 2013.
This calls into question how one labels such interactive artwork, if it requires labelling at all, surely one cannot list all the participants as artist due to interpretation such as labelling occurring early on in the organisation of an exhibition. “In a museum that did not label its paintings, how many of us would not feel uneasy lest we condemn one of the greats or praise an unknown?” (Lessing, 1965, p. 463)

The above quote by Lessing was written with regards to forgery within art. It relates well to Maciunas’ complicated influence on Fluxus where by the ownership of a number of works cannot be attributed to their rightful creators, some have been misattributed altogether and others are simply anonymous. He believed in selling multiples of works in abundance, Maciunas would often change the ideas of the original artists and begin production. Thus we as an audience are never sure of the authenticity of a great many Fluxus works. Lessing’s quote can also be used to illustrate how important it is for the audience to engage with interpretation methods to enhance their knowledge of art, in particular things such as the creative process are learnt through viewing objects made from certain materials, materials of which are usually listed as a method of interpretation, i.e. labels. I agree with Lessing that the uncertainty of the unknown artist is unsettling, especially for those with prior knowledge of the artworld. If the work of art is labelled incorrectly, or if we attribute it to the wrong artist, we as an audience are being provided with incorrect knowledge and are therefore unable to make correct or informed judgements. “Quiet control – mediated by trust – is what the art world is really about.” (Poe cited in Thornton, 2008, Introduction) This trust is what we expect when viewing works of art, or artefact within a cultural institution. The interpretation should be factual; it should guide and nourish the audience. Without it, we are creating false knowledge, manipulative interpretation which does nothing to enhance the viewing experience, if anything it distracts from it as without visible knowledge we begin to question the work, rather than look at it objectively.

Art should be viewed subjectively, allowing the internal assessment of works once we are in possession of the relevant information. Fluxus “had dismantled the definition of artwork.” (Anon, 2011) Manipulative Interpretation was evident whilst viewing ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’ due the forceful interactivity of the displayed objects, in order to see one thing, you must see beyond another. However, this worked well when we consider the ways in which “play initially emerged for many artists as an alternative for traditional forms of ‘serious culture’.” Viewing the work becomes an almost liberating endeavour; you become part of the work, part of a performance visible only to the other participants, the other audience members. Rather than bypassing the suspended documentation altogether, we find ourselves weaving in and out of laminated papers hung from the ceiling in an attempt to watch the projection behind them (see Figure 3). The dance of the audience, delicately choreographed by the curatorial team is almost in itself a participatory work of art, instructed without instructions. “The museum’s primary function is ideological.” (Duncan, C. & Wallach, A., 2004) Although the option is usually always available to take another route when viewing displayed objects, the audience tend to follow suit, they start from the beginning and make their way towards the end. This is not always the best choice, more often than not; it’s worth starting at the end and making your way towards the start of the exhibition, a curator will rarely leave the best until last. “Individual objects have shifting and ambiguous relationships to meaning. Being themselves mute, their significance is open to interpretation. … Objects are subject to multiple interpretations, some of which may be contradictory.” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000) First impressions are as essential to displayed objects in a museum as they are to people. The objects you encounter on entering the space are there to entice you. If ‘The lunatics are on the loose... Fluxus European Festivals 1962-1977’ had not provided the audience with the ability to interact, it would have directly gone against the essential elements relating to Fluxus, the idea of free play with objects. Without free play or actions, movements or motions involving an object, the exhibition would have seemed static and irrelevant; the objects in Fluxus works were meaningless without actions.

The museum of today is a modernist museum, having emerged in the nineteenth century; a number of practices are outdated and unsuccessful when faced with placing a twenty first century audience. “Rapid social and technological changes combined with radical changes in attitudes to objects as sources of knowledge left the purpose and the character of museums unclear.” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000) Due to the transformation of artistic practices, museums have to adapt, they need to create spaces and exhibitions relevant to the present, whilst displaying objects of the past in order to survive. In the same way that we rarely use a salon hang style in a contemporary gallery space (with the exception of Tate Liverpool’s 2013 Silvia Sleigh exhibition) and have adopted a minimalist approach to display, the museum needs to find new ways to create relevant and beneficial public spaces, socially and economically preserving culture the way a conservator preserves a watercolour on paper. The museum can easily become an artefact in itself, the museum trapped in a museum. The museum protected by the confines, protocol and red tape of the traditional museum.

Bibliography and References

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Anon, (2011) The Art Style UK: Parragon Book Service Ltd.               
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Duncan, C. & Wallach, A. ‘The Universal Survey Museum’ in Carbonell, B. M. ed. (2004) Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts Oxford: Blackwell.
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O’Neill, P. ‘The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse’ in Rugg, J. & Sedgwick, M. (2007) Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance, Bristol: Intellect Books.
O'Neill, P. (2012) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) United States of America: MIT Press.
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Sterling, B. (2013) ‘Look out art world, Fluxus is here with the exploding lettuce’ Wired [Online]. Available from: http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2013/01/look-out-art-world-fluxus-is-here-with-the-exploding-lettuce/ (Accessed: 30th April 2013)
Thornton, S. (2008) Seven Days in the Art World UK: Granta Books.