issue 23 :: June 2014

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Interview: Ken Friedman

Ken Friedman came into Fluxus very young in the mid 1960s. A prolific author, his writings are indispensable to a historical and theoretical understanding of Fluxus and this interview is meant primarily to clarify a few issues for me. He has also composed numerous event scores and, like most of the Fluxus artists, has spent time on stage performing his works and others’. He edited The Fluxus Reader and helped compile the The Fluxus Performance Workbook, a compendium of hundreds of event scores. Ruud Janssen conducted an illuminating 1995 interview with him, mainly concerning his past involvement with Mail Art. A 2009 Interview details his professional/academic work as Dean of the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University. Perhaps the best overview of his work can be found in Owen Smith’s essay “A Pilgrim’s Progress”. I start by showing him a private letter he had sent me in 2001 when we were both members of the Internet mailing list FluxList.

Do your comments from 2001 still reflect your position on anti-art?

Yes. Back then, I wrote that “anti-art” is a conceptual category developed in opposition to art as a conceptual category. The concept of anti-art posits something other than art or something against art.

For this category to exist requires that art exists. Anti-art depends on the fact that art exists. It is therefore linked to art. If there were no art, there could be no anti-art.

People engage in anti-art to oppose what art entails for them. If art satisfied everyone, no one would oppose art. This may not mean that art is flawed, but it means that the individual is dissatisfied with some aspect of art.

It is rare that anyone opposes the possibility of art. Some people may do so, but such people are uncommon. They would have to oppose the category of art from a philosophical position. As I see it, they would have to occupy this position from outside the art world.

The anti-art position would require that one refuse to engage in art or to work with art. I have yet to meet anyone who does. A refusal to engage in art or work with art as a category involves an explicit, conscious refusal.

People who have no concept of art do not reflect the anti-art position. People who know what art is but don’t find it interesting do not oppose art. Both positions are neutral.

Explicit rejection of art - anti-art - is something else.

There may be people who truly hold an anti-art position. If there are, we are not likely to meet them. We meet people with a position on art in the art world, or connected to the art world. By definition, anyone who works in the art world cannot represent a meaningful anti-art stance.

For example, at one point I thought that Henry Flynt held a genuine anti-art position. Then Henry began making exhibitions, selling art, and taking part in Fluxus shows – even while protesting his inclusion in Fluxus. I was mistaken to believe that Henry takes an anti-art position. He does not.

Neither did Duchamp.

Instead, they worked with the concept of anti-art to enter a dialectical relationship with art, using this to establish a position in the art world. There may have been deeper philosophical issues in their stance, but the result was to create a position and a platform within the art world.

Most people who proclaim an anti-art position do so to open a niche in the art world that they can comfortably fill.

They do not seem to oppose art itself. At the most, they take issue with some aspects, practices, behaviors, or phenomena that characterize art or the art world.

While anti-art may exist as a philosophical category, we do not encounter genuine examples of anti-art in the art world. There are few examples or cases available. Even though I don’t reject the possibility of anti-art, I can’t define it.

Anti-art is something like anti-matter. While it exists in theory, it is hard to produce a sample. The difference between anti-art and anti-matter is that physicists can describe anti-matter. I am not sure that anyone has yet been able to describe anti-art.

While a pure case of anti-art may not exist, the anti-art position does. The anti-art position is a practical position within the art world. It is a wedge used to force open a niche in current art institutions and institutional practices. When it is used fruitfully in dialectical relationship with current art, it may be meaningful in pragmatic terms.

Was Duchamp an anti-artist? Probably not. Were Fluxus people anti-artists? Probably not. That is not necessarily bad. The play of dialectic served many useful ends.

What would anti-art be today? I am not sure. Some people who adopt an anti-art posture are serious, thoughtful, and genuine contributors to human experience. Others are self-centered egoists who dislike the art world because it does not recognize them as the geniuses they think themselves to be.

Back in 1970 or so, Ben Vautier organized a project called The Festival of Art, Anti-Art, and Non-Art. He suggested that all the categories are the same. That may be as good a definition as anything. If you can define art, all the same definitions probably apply to anti-art, except in the possibility of a philosophical definition that no one seems to have achieved.

To return to your question, I feel that this remains a reasonable description of how people identify themselves with the anti-art position. It also explains why they seem to do so.
Deiter Roth dice, 1999
Ken Friedman, Deiter Roth Dice from FluxList Box No. 1, 1999.

I think at the time I was trying to deal with the piece—and I want to remember it being one of Dick Higgins’ Danger Musics, but maybe I am confusing it with an article about the Danger Music series and similar works by others — where one is instructed to throw a live grenade or incendiary device into the audience. The shock of this piece, even thinking about it, puts it for me beyond art, into anti-art. Can we say this is the opposite of art? Or does murder, torture and war violence, being a part of everyday life throughout the world become fair game to bring into art?

I think we’re talking about two different kinds of things. Something like this could be art but be immoral and unethical. Nothing requires art to be moral or ethical.

But I don’t recall this piece as one of Dick’s works.
But shouldn’t art be moral, at least in someone’s viewpoint? Especially since Fluxus and others have stated the aim to merge Art with Life: shouldn’t we strive for a moral life and hence a moral art?

In my view, the relationship between art and life implicit in Fluxus means that art implies ethics. I write about this at some length in my first book, The Aesthetics. So I agree with you on this. Developing the meaning of these issues is something that must be done in the future. I’d suggest you write to Roger Rothman at Bucknell [University] on this issue. He has been working on some ideas that bear a relationship to this.

Another person you might query is Owen Smith. I very much appreciate his view on these issues.
I now know the piece in question is Philip Corner’s “One antipersonnel-type CBU bomb will be thrown into the audience.” (Thank you Matthew Thies). Is the point of this piece to consider how this piece is not a piece of art, or a bad piece of art? Or what the limits of art are?

It’s difficult to say what the point of the piece is. Obviously, Phil never performed it. It’s some kind of proposal, but it is hard to say what kind it is.
Where are you living now? What are your current artistic projects?

I’ve been living in Australia since 2008, but my wife and I are moving to Kalmar, Sweden.

James Cook University is sending an exhibition of my event scores on a world tour. That is my current artistic project.

Ken Friedman, Ordinary Objects, 11.5” x 8”, ink and collage on paper, 2009.

When was the last time you did a performance of Fluxus works? Are you still composing event scores?

It’s over a decade since I did a performance of Fluxus works. I haven’t gone to Fluxus festivals or concerts since 1992, and I have not been performing since then. There was an exception in 2002 when Bertrand Clavez organized a symposium and or so at Le Corbusier’s Convent La Tourette. Ben Patterson was the only other Fluxus artist there, so it was a lovely, quiet event.

It is quite infrequent now when I compose event scores. My interests have changed.

La Tourette
Sainte Marie de La Tourette (1953-1960) by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis.

In your essay “Events and the Exquisite Corpse,” you link your first events with your early experiences in the Unitarian Church [endnote 6]. You did not think that they were art works as such, and have traced them back to writings in Job and Ecclesiastes [endnote 41] (did you make this connect in the 1950s or later?). After reading this, I thought of the Commandments of the Hebrew Bible, how much they resembled event scores, how open to interpretation they are (we’re still debating their meaning!). “Thou shall honor thy mother and father.” That seems simple on the surface, but you can imagine all sorts of situations where you have to decide how to do it, how to perform it.

Please read the note again. I didn’t link my first events to experiences in the Unitarian church. I explained that I was planning to be a Unitarian minister at the time I met Dick and George. My first events took place much earlier, in the 1950s — see Scrub Piece — but I did not consider these to be events until I met George.

Read the notes to Scrub Piece in 99 Events. I think I sent you a copy — if not, let me know and I will send it.

I haven’t thought through the issue of how I would develop a history of events as well I might… the footnote suggests an outline for how I might do it, and the outline goes back to the Bible. But I would not consider the Ten Commandments to be event scores. If you consider it this way, you can consider any statement of this kind to be an event score. Rather, these are statements of how to be. I suppose that event scores might in some sense be considered a statement about being, so someone might say this. I wouldn’t, though. The books of the Bible on which I would draw are the Wisdom books, not the five books of Moses.
How have your thoughts about performing changed over the decades?

It’s over two decades since I performed on a regular basis, so I haven’t given it much thought.
Do you feel your ideas about art have changed over the years? Are they expanding or are you pruning away ideas that you think have failed or no longer necessary?

My thoughts about art have always been fluid. I can’t say how they have changed without saying too much or too little. It is fair to say that I have been pruning ideas away.

Ken Friedman in 1973.

You, and others, have written event scores that are practically impossible to perform. Are we to consider these works as jokes, conceptual exercises, the limits of human will?

The event is a fluid medium. Some events that are impossible to perform for practical reasons are philosophical or conceptual exercises. Others may be jokes. It is depends on the specific score.

View of KEN FRIEDMAN: FLUXUS PRODIGY - 99 Events, 2009.

Many Fluxus event scores are open to very large interpretation. What do think makes a successful interpretation? Have you ever performed an event score that you felt had failed?

These are good questions, but I can’t address this in a short space. I’ve written several articles about events and a book chapter on events and the Surrealist Exquisite Corpse game. These cover my views of interpretation and the way in which events permit broad and open forms of interpretation.

I have performed events that have failed. I guess everyone has.
Have you ever been surprised about how someone has performed your work?

Yes, but I can’t recall any specific examples.

Ken Friedman, Cleanliness Flux Kit, 12 x 9.3 x 1.3 cm, hinged compartmentalized plastic box housing items for cleaning, 1967.

What new artists have impressed you lately?

I haven’t been paying much attention to art. I see things I like from time to time, but I don’t remember names and works the way I used to.
Stamp Act
Bibiana Padilla Maltos and Morgan Guberman performing “Stamp Act” (Ken Friedman, 1974) at ACME Observatory, Berkeley, California, 2002. Photos by Gino Robair.

Why do you think Fluxus is not mentioned as often and rarely in the reverential tones as the Situationists? Is it because of the seemingly apolitical aspect of Fluxus? Except for 2 films by Debord, I can’t think of any Situationist artworks (their publications I consider to be philosophy, not art, if you will let me make that distinction). I just received a postcard from Picasso Gaglione of the FluxJob festival at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts earlier this year. The motto of the festival was “Purging the world of bourgeoise sickness since 1963.” This surprised me as I have rarely seen Fluxus associated with political themes like that, and that could just be my ignorance. In 1964, George Maciunas, Henry Flynt, Tony Conrad and others demonstrated against a Karlheinz Stockhausen concert in New York City; they didn’t (that I know of) demonstrate against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. i.e., they mobilized for an artistic purpose, not a political one.

This puzzles me a bit. I haven’t seen Situationism discussed more often or with greater reverence than Fluxus. I have the sense that they appeal to different audiences with some overlap – the scholarly literature seems to cover Fluxus a bit better, but there seems to be a slightly greater interest in Situationism among young artists.

It is difficult to make a statement like this. When you do a Google search, you find that both terms have several meanings. Because of this, a Google Scholar search is equally ineffective. You’d have to spend some time digging down carefully into the search results.

Some Fluxus people were highly political, but not all. Maciunas and Flynt demonstrated against Stockhausen for political reasons – they had a political argument against his music.

Many Fluxus artists demonstrated against the Viet Nam war. Beuys, Maciunas, Vostell, Higgins, and others made highly visible art works protesting the war. Even more of us protested in public marches and civic demonstrations.

When you consider the fact that there are major Fluxus collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Hood Art Gallery, the Getty Institute, and the Tate Gallery, I’d have to say Fluxus did not do so badly.

Of course, this may be an indication of our failure to integrate art and life.
I meant Fluxus just in relation to Philosophy; as Art Fluxus I think has been much more successful and more discussed than the Situationists. I’m obviously not omnipotent, but I don’t know of anyone who is trying to reclaim the Situationist name for themselves.

Fluxus I think does make important contributions to Aesthetics and the idea/meaning of Art, but I don’t see Fluxus being discussed in philosophy works as I do Situationism, for instance the book The Postmodern Turn by Best & Kellner that discusses Situationism, Cage, Cunningham and Andy Warhol, but not a mention of Fluxus. But maybe it is more important that artists are still discussing Fluxus as opposed to the philosophers.

Well, this makes sense. But not all that many philosophers discuss Situationism, either. Basically, Best and Kellner offer their views on art and postmodernism — but even though the book is widely cited as a survey, I don’t see that much discussion of their views. And postmodernism is not the only branch of philosophy.

Ken Friedman, At the Slocumb Gallery catalog, 1975

Is Fluxus a thing of the past or can people, young people, still claim to do it and expand upon it. I still have conflicted thoughts about this, even though my work has appeared in Fluxus publications and festivals.

While I did not have a strong opinion on this issue in the past, I have a view now.

Fluxus belongs to the past. For any community to remain a living community, it must continually take in new members and participants. This has not happened.

Some of the new artists who want to label themselves as Fluxus artists blame the original Fluxus artists as difficult people who do not welcome new artists to Fluxus. Perhaps this is the case, but there is more to it. The other issue is the behavior and work of people who want to claim a part in the Fluxus legacy.

What made Fluxus an interesting community was a commitment to the work of the other participants. A few living members of the original Fluxus continue to meet to perform and exhibit their work and the work of their colleagues. This is not the case for other artists who represent themselves as Fluxus artists. Even though they use the Fluxus label for their publications and festivals, they only perform their own new work. They don’t perform the work of the original Fluxus artists.

When Keith Buchholz and Picasso Gaglione organized a festival at one point, I wrote to Keith to express my views on a poster that only identified the new artists who were performing at the festival. I wrote to Keith to explain that there was no Fluxus work in this festival – only new work. Keith wrote back to say that they were performing work by many Fluxus artists who were not listed on the poster. To me, that was even worse.

Event scores are a form of musical composition. When an orchestra performs music, the poster and program name the composers. Composers get top billing, not the members of the orchestra.

The posters of most early Fluxconcerts feature the composers and artists whose work was presented. Programs list the performers after the composers if they list them at all.

The posters for the new artists who use the Fluxus label suggest two problems.

First, they suggest a failure to understand the musical nature of Fluxus.

Second, they suggest a failure to respect and participate in a community. In my view, artists who label themselves as Fluxus should not behave this way. They appropriate the name of Fluxus without respecting the work or the people who created Fluxus.

I lost interest in the entire debate when one of the new artists called for a boycott of the original Fluxus artists and their work.

The work exists. People can use, perform, and expand upon Fluxus work without calling themselves Fluxus artists.
How is this situation different from, let’s say, Franklin and Penelope Rosemont forming the Chicago Surrealist Group in 1965? They seemingly had the approval of André Breton after meeting him. Some of the new Fluxus artists I think claim Dick Higgins’ and others’ approval in the early days of the FluxList, and others claim that any approval is not necessary: FLUXUS MANIFESTO FOR THE 21st CENTURY, by Allan Revich, March 21, 2011

There is a distinction between claiming that Dick or anyone else liked their work or liked them and claiming that Dick saw them as Fluxus artists.

As far as I know, Dick never thought of Allan Revich or any of these other folks as Fluxus artists.

It is correct to say that no approval is necessary. If I want to call myself the Pope, or a Barry Goldwater Republican, or the King of England, it is my privilege to do so and no approval is necessary. That does not make my claim meaningful — I simply don’t need anyone to approve it.

If, however, I expect the obedience of the Church, there is only one way to become Pope, and there is a procedure to becoming King of England based in law and tradition. There might be a little greater flexibility if I were to declare myself a Barry Goldwater Republican — but it would not be a credible statement.

I think Allan is a nice guy, but I don’t see him as a Fluxus artist.
I can’t speak for Keith and Picasso’s poster, but maybe they didn’t want suggest that some more famous names would be there in person or try to capitalize on the more famous names.

In my view, this is not a reason. That is simply not the way that the posters and programs were done for Fluxus festivals or concerts. No one suggested that the more famous names would be there — any more than I’d be suggesting that Mozart would be attending a performance of Don Giovanni if I were to stage one. The names on the posters are the names of those artists who work one presents. And let’s be serious — could anyone imagine that Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, George Maciunas, or Alice Hutchins would be attending?
I think you are right about the event scores being musical compositions, and as such, composers should get paid for their work. La Monte Young once demanded a festival to pay him $250 to perform his “Piano Piece for David Tudor #1” in which you are instructed to feed a bushel of hay to a piano. The festival couldn’t afford this and didn’t do the piece. Maybe not listing the other names was a way to avoid this scrutiny. Maybe this is just a problem with La Monte Young’s works.

In my view, this is bending over backwards to give folks the benefit of a doubt that is not in question. The rules for Fluxus concerts were always clear — if you performed more than 50% work by Fluxus artists, you could call it a Fluxus concert and you owed no royalties. Some of us deliberately did not register our work with the rights organisations such as ASCAP specifically to enable people to perform free under the Fluxus rules.

Further, La Monte declined to grant permission for his work to be performed as Fluxus work specifically because he wants to keep full control over all performance rights. La Monte always kept a distance from Fluxus, and he specifically denied George Maciunas the right to reproduce or publish his work. He threw a fit when I included his scores in the first edition of the Fluxus Peformance Workbook, as well. I deleted him from later editions.
About performing old Fluxus works, I love doing it, if I have time to do so. Generally, if I have just a few minutes to do something, I will perform my own works, as probably no one else will. I think many of the newer artists feel this way. No disrespect is intended. The one FluxFest (Chicago 2012) I’ve attended was probably the most accepted into a community I have ever felt in my life, so I feel very persuaded by their claim to the name.

The argument is not whether you should or should not perform your own work. The argument is whether this is a Fluxconcert. If one want to stage the concert within the framework of the original rules, one would stage a Fluxconcert with say 20 works. 11 would be by Fluxus artists. The others could be by anyone. Then one could say that one is performing Revich, Gaglione, etc., in a Fluxconcert. But it still won’t make them Fluxus artists.

Let’s say that you went to a festival of Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Disciples of Christ. Everyone at the festival believes themselves to be called directly and personally by Jesus to be one of his disciples, and let’s say that this group believes that every member of their church is as much a discipline as the original Twelve Apostles with the same apostolic standing. Now let’s say you felt warm and accepted. On that basis, you could decide that these folks have the right to claim that Sally Johnson and Terry Smith and Jack Littlejohn are all disciples in the same way that Simon Peter, James, John and the others were disciples.

That said, I have come to a point in my life where I just don’t care. It does not seem reasonable to me for those folks to call themselves “Fluxus artists,” but I am not interested in addressing the issue. You asked, so I gave my view.
I did ask, as I am interestedted in the topic, and thank you for answering me. I don’t remember a boycott of original Fluxus work, but there were a few people on FluxList whose messages I would totally ignore. I do remember some pushback on a certain original Fluxus artist for his attacks on you and your work on the list. To this day his name leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

It was Litsa Späthi who announced the boycott. I don’t know whatever came of it, but they circulated their announcement widely at the time.
In response to a private letter, I agree that the term Fluxish that I sometimes use to describe my work is not entirely apt, but I want it to be known that some of my work is very much influenced by Fluxus. “Performance Art” is too general of a term, as what I do is partially a reaction against a certain narcasist, cathartic style of performance art.

The work can be events without being Fluxus much as an opera can be opera without being a work by Verdi. To say that the work is influenced by Fluxus is fair. I simply wouldn’t call it Fluxus.

Josh Ronsen and Brandon Young performing “Viking Event” (Ken Friedman, 1989) at Flux Cafe, Austin, Texas, February 28, 2004. Photo by Shawn Feeney.

A friend of mine recently went to a conference on archiving and saw Emily Frieda Shaw’s presentation on “Digitizing Fluxus West at the University of Iowa.” In the presentation there are two items that couldn’t be identified: a fur-covered dish (slide 20) and a set of metal bells tied with colored rope. Do you remember who made these?

All this stuff went to Iowa decades ago. There should be a label or note on the work. I don’t recall it, though. But the lecture is not entirely correct — work came from many places, and I gave a lot of work that was never in the collection that I loaned to La Jolla.
What was your research into the philosophy of science?

I’ve been interested in several issues, especially the nature of theory construction and what it is to explain something. I’ve written on this a few times. I hope to do more work on this in the future.
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