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by Julia Robinson

Parsing Scores: Application in Fluxus

The battle for Fluxus’ critical and curatorial recognition still seems, to some of us, like the relatively recent past.[1] Ironically, its familiarity today might be the very thing against which it most needs to be defended. From the outset, Fluxus articulated a critical relation to institutions, the brick-and-mortar kind and language. Using the latter to challenge the former, the linguistic score accomplished many things, and generated a rare synergy between performativity, performance, and participation.[2] These three terms are overused now to the point of exhaustion, and more often conflated than distinguished. All were deployed in Fluxus, but not necessarily all at once. To be precise about particular strategies, their efficacy, stakes, and the types of intervention—developed from (or aimed at) various disciplines (music, poetry, art)—would seem basic to clarifying the urgency and agency of the Fluxus project at large. After all, Fluxus’ collectivist matrix, whether we think of it as a mode of composition, as simultaneous performance, as networked distribution, or all of these and more, supported a kaleidoscopic convergence of personalities, cultural outlooks, and artistic approaches. This returns us to the “problem” of Fluxus’ broad recognition, and the challenges it poses to rigorous historical interpretation. It is no longer a question of chiseling manifest heterogeneity down to a coherent unity, as some of the first documenters tried to do. Scholars and curators have often relied on the score as a common denominator for the collective. Yet, at this stage of the game, that matrix may be more valuable as a basis of differentiation. Recalling the old line about English and American speakers—divided by the same language—the diversity of Fluxus artists obviously had implications for the approaches to the medium of communication that putatively united them. A constant risk in analyzing the flexible, generative structure of the linguistic score—those John Cage called “non-notational” —is that its hard-won generality will be reduced to mere generalization.[3]

To underline the fact that the post-disciplinary application of the musical score was a given by Fluxus’s launch in 1962 discloses essential ground that still begs clarification. It is as necessary as ever to historicize the score models that emerged, to give a sense of their development, chronologically, rather than taking their simultaneity on Fluxus programs for contemporaneousness. And at a more basic level, it seems crucial to provide nuanced definitions, to articulate the core characteristics of the given structure/function—from “indeterminacy” on out—and to identify the range of Fluxus variations.[4] As artists brought their imagination and virtuosity to the indeterminate score, they demonstrated its scope, its concreteness as much as its fluidity. Across multiple presentation formats—from the stage, to the page, to the book, the box, and the “kit”—a stricter indeterminacy was reconstellated contextually as “situation participation.”[5] In the larger field of skilled deskilling in 1960s artistic practice, it thus seems apt to think about Fluxus in terms of what George Maciunas called “applied art.”[6] If we take this idea even more broadly than he did, it bears allusive testimony to the resources mobilized at the hands of different artists. Moreover, it may also focus us, in a new way, on the “space” of interpretation/ realization. When and by whom were Fluxus pieces applied? What was/is the nature of the score’s address? Did the composer envisage a single participant, a larger audience, or both? Were their instructions performable? The answers differ depending on the score, and its author: a fact that is still under-acknowledged. Let’s try to be more specific, for a moment: (1) How might we distinguish the notion of “action” (or “action music”)—as crucial, early on, in Mieko Shiomi’s work as in Nam June Paik’s—applied by artists whose aesthetics were otherwise worlds apart? (2) What can readily and succinctly be stated about the contrast between Alison Knowles’ “Propositions” and Yoko Ono’s “Instructions”? And (3) although we are speaking of a post-disciplinary framework: Is it useful to consider that the orientations of poetry and/or music (however broadly and diversely defined) are essential to the way we understand the models of some artists but not others?

Clearly, there are many precise questions worth asking, or asking again. To the extent that the information we still need is inherent, as if permanently encoded, in each score model, it seems worthwhile to keep looking at them closely and making use of the evidence they store. Given the abundant evidence today that projects staked on improvised collaboration, communication, and cooperation show no sign of diminishing, the effort of finding alternative ways of articulating the legacy of Fluxus can only sharpen our focus on the larger historical picture. Below, I take a brief look at a few score types to adumbrate the kind of reading I have in mind.

(1) George Brecht: The Event

Brecht’s “The Artificial Crowd” (1958) was a response to an assignment Cage gave on the chance organization of variables, such as sound sources, temporal divisions, etc. As the title suggests, the piece addressed the conception of audience. In fact, it had to do with Brecht’s sense that Cage hadn’t done so; but that’s a longer story. The piece distributed the causation of sound through a group of perceivers (the “crowd”), canceling the separate role of performers. At a technical level, the idea of having the auditory incident emanate from the listeners themselves reduced the distance between the sound’s cause and its effect to practically zero. At a conceptual level, it extended the function of chance operations by dispersing the causality/ initiation (authorship?) though the field of audition.[7] In July 1959, Brecht wrote the first short textual score of his generation. Time-Table Music was structured with recourse to the eponymous object. This gave onto another novum: bypassing the typical performance context (classroom, stage, or auditorium). Realized in a railway station, it was one of several pieces Brecht composed for sites of passage, creating a real-life figure/ground relationship among the different perceivers, performers and commuters, on the basis of aim. The found timetables not only offered a new way to arrange durations, but to initiate an active, conceptual and then perceptual operation. The participant’s task was to recode the familiar set of numbers (the train times) using a different scale; hours and minutes were taken as minutes and seconds. Selected by chance, the given digits constituted the participants’ frame for noticing events in their midst.[8]

Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event), 1960, elucidated the figure/ground structure of all perception with reference to two temporal registers (mechanical and natural). Inside their vehicles, participants had their own cue cards—featuring digits based on chance selections from ranges given in the score—concentrating on stopwatches, against a backdrop of the setting sun. As he sharpened the textual model of the event score via relative (contextual) perception, Brecht made use of language’s readymade indeterminacy: referential ambiguity, subject position, the shifter, etc. For him, realization amounted to the “constitutive act and perception”—the everyday action of our constant reckoning with the world—and the nature of experience.[9] He also loosened the grip of grammar. The bullet point became the focal point. The prompts would be activated through basic channels of subjective intuition—along with desire, the desire to fill in the gaps—and language’s mysterious capacity to do something.


All 1961: Three Aqueous Events – ice, water, steam

Three Gap Events – missing letter sign, between two sounds, meeting again

Word Event - exit

Six Exhibits – ceiling first wall, second wall, third wall, fourth wall, floor

Five Places – place one card [marked “exhibit”] in each of five places


Three Aqueous Events used the same number of words to prompt the reader/perceiver: ice, water, steam. Allan Kaprow suggested realizing the piece by making iced tea. Each to their own. At the level of language, vis-à-vis realization, the way Brecht fused subjective aim and the motivation of the sign is most explicit in Three Gap Events. And yet, as soon as we use the word explicit, we instantly see how Brecht had always already shifted the making explicit from author to perceiver; how he put the process of specification in our hands. The event concretized the object (in both senses: aim and physical thing). Remarkably, the first of the gaps defined in the score evokes a sign, a word brought down to the unit of the letter, albeit lacking one or more. And this sign(ified) registers as verbal and physical, and simultaneously, as past, present, and future. Brecht pulled it from his own experience, imagining that those of us reading the prompt might know what he meant; we all have probably seen those broken-down relics of former times (MOTEL, AIR CONDITIONED, COLOR TV) if not in reality, in movies. Or we might also see one in the future and think of the score; but with the Three Gap Events card in hand, we also think about that lost unit of the word, now. The other two prompts bring to mind how we can inhabit the eponymous spaces physically. Word Event (1961) is perhaps the shortest score ever conceived in this genre. Again, making use of a sign—in linguistics and an object in everyday experience—its one-word notation (“exit”) reads as a noun, a verb in the imperative, and, of course, the actual emergency markers placed over doors still ubiquitous today. When it was drawn into Fluxus, Word Event was programmed at the end of a concert for obvious reasons. Finally, Six Exhibits, and its sibling Five Places, constitute an early focus on the architectural or spatial envelope of the given, illuminating how closely the handling of experiential situations through the score anticipated the spatiotemporal address of more physical manifestations in the art of the 1960s (e.g. minimalism). All of this to suggest the effect of what the scientist in Brecht called generality. As we know, these scores, and the event model, immediately became foundational in Fluxus.[10]

2) Alison Knowles: Proposition

Originally dubbed “propositions,” Alison Knowles’ mode of composition took shape with Fluxus. For the first concerts, she improvised a handful of pieces virtually on the spot. Ever since, her work has maintained its spontaneity and disarming simplicity of address. Knowles’ indeterminacy is speculative. Sure, from the outset, of the authorial scope she envisaged, she defined crisp mediations. Never an artistic statement imposed, they were possibilities proposed. And rather than the modality of preparing instruments—spectacularly popular in early Fluxus—Knowles prepared interactions, setting up a kind of rendezvous (extending the concept in Duchamp)[11] Her model eschewed the eccentricity redolent of ego, the penchant for obscure poetics, or attention-grabbing drama. A sign of this is that her work is never impossible to perform.[12] All these traits lay further ground for using the common Fluxus matrix as a basis for differentiation.

Clearly, to render composition as a “proposition” qualifies everything that follows (color, clothing, or lunch). Recasting situations plucked from reality, Knowles channeled the colloquial not as mere slang, but as communication. Her scores draw on language we hear and use daily: the stuff of problems, moisturizing cream, and family.


Proposition #3 (1962): Nivea Cream Piece

Proposition #4 (1962): Child Art Piece

Proposition #17 (1963): Color Music No. 1 (for Dick Higgins)


Notwithstanding the organic content we associate with Knowles’ oeuvre, the Nivea Cream piece is an outlier. This is mainly because in specifying the sound source (while in Europe) the artist named a particular brand.[13] The contingency plan was if the bottle sporting the well-known blue and white label was not at hand, you had to improvise the prop; with a handwritten “Nivea” label taped onto a container, for example. This effort was never necessary in the countries where the piece was first performed.[14] Apart from ablutions and meals—we do not need to recite the pieces of the latter kind—Knowles was the only artist in Fluxus who thought of creating a score for a child, and without (yet) having had one. Like other variables she chose, this is a little bewildering to ponder as a performance. Yet, from quite a number of perspectives, it was a stroke of brilliance. Think of the unmannered affect, and the unpredictability that comes “readymade.” No matter what happens, the “frame” is radically indeterminate; the end comes, presumably, when the infant decides to stop or leave the stage.

Amid the exigencies of the here and now, Knowles cultivated an element of reversibility. The outside world spilled into the performance space, and a performance focus was projected onto daily events. Once one is acquainted with the work, these aspects become inextricable. In this regard, Proposition #17 Color Music (for Dick Higgins) is of special interest. Whereas others had riffed on the chromatic scale (in music), Knowles scaled color to “emotion” (though not her own).[15] She subjected the latter, human phenomenon to the mode of indeterminate scoring—structured through lists and numeric order—addressing the piece to her husband. The instructions, which concerned finding solutions to problems, were to be numbered 1-5. Thus, the performer had to prioritize; issues exceeding this limitation would not make the cut. Further nuancing the aforementioned reversibility, the “premiere” took place at 423 Broadway, where the author and dedicatee (Knowles and Higgins) were living when the piece was composed.

Knowles’ approach has been to engage people in activities she sees the value of playing out. Some struck her as having a potential for musicality; others appeared as ideal conduits for recasting musical formalism. Making good on the de-authoring a proposition implies, Knowles’ scores can usually be realized in many ways, and, given a little imagination, with unexpectedly variable content. But one always knows what to do with them. Her open, straightforward cues, in their way, dispelled a more intricate, mannered instruction mode before it took hold.


3) Emmett Williams: Songs

An American poet living at Darmstadt, Emmett Williams had written and presented many radical performances at the cusp of poetry, music, and theater in the decade before Fluxus. In 1962, he was one of the core group of performers Maciunas called upon in Germany to contribute pieces and perform in the marathon of concerts he deemed essential to establish the collective. Given where he was based, at the epicenter of New Music, Williams’ poetic work listed toward the musical. In the spirit of the contra-disciplinary titling that flourished in the 1960s—in the US as much as elsewhere—he defined a series of early scores as “songs.” In this, he retained a fealty to poetry, insofar as the term “song” had been a staple in poem titles for centuries. Williams also reoriented the Dadaistic-Lettrist strain of contemporary sound poetry, with its concrete use of language, toward the “post-New Music” modality that became a hallmark of Fluxus. His song pieces assumed various inventive formats; in Four-Directional Song of Doubt performed at the Fluxus premiere in September 1962, Williams faced the stage, and five performers (Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Knowles, Nam June Paik, and Ben Patterson), as conductor. He had given each a gridded page featuring different constellations of colored dots, readable in all four orientations. Each of these “scores” was marked with one of five words: “YOU,” “JUST,” “NEVER,” “QUITE,” “KNOW” (the eponymous song of doubt). Knowles’ word on the first night was “never,” Paik’s was “just.” The different distributions of dots and voids cued an utterance or silence (respectively). In the unfolding performance, the hackneyed phrase never cohered as such.

Song of Uncertain Length (1960): Performer balances bottle on own head and walks about singing or speaking until bottle falls.

Counting Song (for La Monte Young) (1962): Audience is counted by various means.[16]

Alphabet Symphony (1962)


Williams’ exceptional linguistic capacities thrived in collective performance, as both complex matrices of gesture and sound, and simple, task-like directions. In the latter category, the Counting Song joined a cluster of witty—and in this case practical— audience pieces created in the formative period of Fluxus.


4) Mieko Shiomi: Spatial Music

Trained in music and musicology—versed in the radical 20th-century composers (having written on Anton Webern)—Mieko Shiomi was a member of the Tokyo-based experimental music Group Ongaku before she came into contact with Fluxus.[17] Keen to free herself from the boundaries of artistic genres (music, poetry, art), Shiomi allowed them to interpenetrate in her work, and explored the concept of action. Her feeling for music’s physical presence—or what Midori Yoshimoto evokes as “the three-dimensional quality of music”— drove her to treat sound as sculptural.[18] Her work was also made of nature, conveying manifestations of the aqueous and the palpable within the spatiotemporal field comprehended in the score. Shiomi’s sense of nature’s poetic import may encourage alignment of her work with that of Yoko Ono. But that may be too simple, given the two artists’ decidedly different aesthetics. Certainly, there are other ways of parsing the elements and the scope of her scores.


Music for Two Players, 1963

Water Music, 1964

Direction Event, 1964

Spatial Poem No. 1, 1965


At this juncture, I would change tack to see what can be brought out of Shiomi’s work by thinking it in relation to a model that interested her (Brecht’s event). Juxtaposing specific scores—for example, Shiomi’s Music for Two Players, Water Music, Direction Event and her Spatial Poem series with Brecht’s Three Gap Events, Three Aqueous Events, Six Exhibits or Five Places—may newly illuminate both artists’ work. Music for Two Players is a dance of presence, and a kind of still, ocular joust. More oriented toward performance, it shares with Brecht’s Three Gaps the definition of space as well as unspecified interpersonal relations (locking eyes in the Shiomi, “meeting again” in the Brecht). It may strike us that her staring duet is more intense, and has a more concrete here and now. Where Brecht evoked spaces and timing relatively abstractly—as in: “between two sounds” —Shiomi made this precise, five sets of four minutes with changing spacing given in meters. Both created openings for emotion and sociality but left it empty, to be supplied, or not, by those who participate. Unlike many of her Fluxus peers, Shiomi’s formalism exhibits restraint. She refrained from making the locking eyes provocative, and from the banality of escalating excitation, had she simply directed the couple to come closer and closer and closer. For obvious reasons, it is tempting to pair Shiomi’s Water Music with Brecht’s Three Aqueous Events. And indeed, both are concerned with perceptions of a change of state. Her prompt was “give the water still form,” “let the water lose its still form”; his, as we saw, was “ice/water/steam.” Although Brecht always saw his selections of perceptual events as “music,” and vice versa—expanding the sense of that term considerably, and not taking credit for composing it —this particular work by Shiomi seems more musical, and not merely because of its title.[19]

Performed first in a gallery, Direction Event shares something with Brecht’s Six Exhibits and Five Places, but, in this case, we get a crisper comparison when we juxtapose Shiomi’s 1964 piece with her celebrated Spatial Poem of 1965. Executed with her circle of peers and friends—attending her Perpetual Fluxfest event at the Washington Square Gallery—Direction... was based on the cardinal points but positioned Shiomi as the point of origin. Threads originating from the hands of the artist (specifically, her fingers) were “extended” to those around her, making a physical connection to prospective participants. Furnishing maps and compasses, Shiomi allowed people to orient themselves and—with only one word, “toward,” as a prompt—to chart their own direction. A year later, back in Japan, she conceived the Spatial Poem project, emptying her initiation of one word by inviting her peers to come up with it. Once they had executed the “word event” and placed it somewhere, they were to send her notes about it, which she eventually turned into a world map, with flags exhibiting those words, and marking their points of origin.[20] Conducting a play of attention, involvement, and communication at a distance, Spatial Poem No. 1 maintained the tactility of Direction Event, connecting participants through writing, positioning, and mailing. It was one of the works of the group Brecht most admired. As he was working with Robert Filliou in France on “permanent creation” through an “eternal network,” Shiomi charted her “global” model of perpetual collaboration.


5) Nam June Paik: Action Music

Also trained in music, having written his thesis at the same Tokyo university as Shiomi—on Webern’s peer Arnold Schoenberg—Nam June Paik absorbed Cage in his own unique way. Living in Germany, and finding his way to the center of New Music at Darmstadt, Paik based himself in Cologne at the turn of the 1960s, and took the chance to experiment with the wealth of equipment at that city’s Radio studio (WDR). He was also struck by Dada, having caught the landmark 1958 exhibition at Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle, and seen the Zero artists divert their painting practice into performance in its wake.[21] In 1960, Paik began expanding direct action, the Dada model Theodor Adorno dismissed at that moment as no longer available to artists in administered society. Undeterred, Paik pushed on, defining a personal style of wildly energetic, sometimes violent and hybrid displays he dubbed “Action Music.”[22] With the support of the adventurous and open-minded artist Mary Bauermeister, who hosted him at her Cologne studio, Paik  performed Etude for Pianoforte. The spontaneous actions of the piece included pulverizing a piano, jumping off the stage, charging at one particular audience member, John Cage, at which point he cut off the composer’s tie, amongst other disturbing invasions of personal space. In Symphony for 20 Rooms (1961), Paik prompted audience members to kick objects around a space, and activate cassette players to listen to audio collages.[23] This was mild compared to the asphyxiation to which he subjected one audience, or the unexpected stripteases he enacted or scripted for others.[24] Meeting Maciunas in Germany, and hatching ideas for a splashy the inauguration of Fluxus, the collective served as the support for Paik’s transition from musician/composer to artist.


Simple (1961)

Zen for Head (1961)

One For Violin Solo (1962)

Fluxus Champion Contest (1962)


To the extent that Paik’s personality was felt across multiple collaborative contexts, we sense the latitude that became a kind of ethos amid the radical diversity of the group.


6) Dick Higgins: Danger Music

Dick Higgins had considerable practice in experimental composition by the time Fluxus started, having studied with Cage at the New School (1957-59), practicing the form and witnessing its development by fellow class members.[25] The erudite young American was also well versed in the historical avant-gardes. After the Cage classes, Higgins teamed up to create the New York Audio-Visual Group to continue the new models of composing. In his first Fluxus scores, the most obvious transition—significant change—to be discerned has to do with length. Initially thinking nothing of writing scores paragraphs, even pages long, he began conceiving pieces as short as a single sentence. His extensive “Danger Music” series is exemplary in this regard. Recall the now-infamous Wiesbaden debut of Danger Music #2, with Higgins sitting still, and Knowles elaborating a careful performance of head shaving. What this underscores is the value of different personalities interpreting the work of others, intelligently and instructively; scores they would never have written themselves.


Danger Music #2 (1962): Hat. Rags. Paper. Heave. Shave.

Danger Music # 15 [for the dance] (1962): Work with butter and eggs for a time.

Danger Music #17 (1962): Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream![26]


In the dynamic dialogues of Fluxus, Higgins and Paik are an obvious pairing. Early on, they crafted scores (some all but impossible to execute) dedicated to each other. The youthful hubris of both artists offers a further illumination of performativity and performance, while signaling an under-explored affinity between the American’s “Danger Music” and the Korean’s “Action Music.” No doubt the latter term, which Shiomi applied with reference to “poetry,” bears more thorough translation, linguistically and culturally. Higgins’ Danger Music #9 for Nam June Paik instructed: “Volunteer to have your spine removed.” Paik’s response was more perverse, and dead-ended, proposing the performer “creep into the vagina of a live whale.” While we can imagine, at a stretch, how Higgins’ score might be realizable, simply by saying “I volunteer,” for instance, Paik’s patently is not. This returns us to the aforementioned dividing line of performability in the early scoring activity. If one hallmark of Fluxus was collective performance—implying a willingness to contribute to the thinking around the work of one’s peers in active, real-time interpretations—prompts that are patently impossible to perform pose an interesting problem. Do we consider these pieces integral to the Fluxus repertoire? And, if so, can this be said of the unperformable scores conceived at a remove from the ethos (or banter) of call-and-response?


7) Yoko Ono: Instruction

In the late 1950s, Yoko Ono was living in New York and implicated in the circle of young composers.[27] In a short while, her workspace on Chambers Street became a site of activity, which spilled over into Maciunas' AG Gallery.[28] There, Ono debuted a solo show, Paintings and Drawings (summer 1961), appending some instructions to a few of the works on display. These are well known (e.g., the fragment of canvas laid on the gallery floor, next to which she placed a note: “painting to be stepped on.”) Her partner Toshi Ichiyanagi returned to Japan in 1961, calling on his and Ono’s New York peers to send work that could be presented to introduce the new practices there.[29] Returning to Japan in 1962, Ono conceived a large number of new pieces, penned in elegant calligraphy, framed and exhibited at Tokyo’s Sōgetsu Art Center. These works had a unique feeling of solipsism, and in many cases read as impossible to take as scores for performance; they were perhaps best suited to display first of all.


Walk Piece, 1961: Stir inside your brains with a penis until things are mixed well.

Take a walk.

Clock Piece, 1963: Steal all the clocks and watches in the world. Destroy them.

Fish Piece, 1964: Take a tape of the voices of fish on the night of a full moon. Take it until Dawn.

Hide-and-Seek Piece, 1964: Hide until everybody goes home. Hide until everybody forgets about you. Hide until everybody dies.


Ono’s Instruction Pieces—many of which are titled “events”—are routinely discussed as like the scores of her peers, comprising as they do, a title and a few lines of text.[30] This in itself gets us to the root of the pseudomorphism that so often attends the weaker accounts of Fluxus scores. Most groupings into which art historians, curators and critics attempt to place Ono’s work categorically ignore its singularity. Even the overwhelming dimension of the imaginary therein immediately conjures a distance from the—regularly, energetically, and diversely enacted—score models that drove the formation of Fluxus. It is thus hard to see Ono’s pieces as “instructions”; the premise is perhaps better read—as it sometimes has been—as a poetic ruse, a play on that very designation and genre. What tends to be forgotten is that Ono almost never performed her pieces in the collective context of Fluxus; this, fueling the somewhat circuitous argument that the solipsistic pieces she conceived are, practically speaking, un-performable. Or so might be said of quite a few of them. Although it is rarely considered, the performance history of these pieces, manifestly spare if not altogether non-existent, explains their anomalous status. The main exception is Cut Piece (1964) which drew upon the psychic indeterminacy present in every audience.[31]


8) Fluxus: Applied Art

Fluxus was propelled via a system of perpetual commissioning, constant requests for “work,” all manner of ideas to be realized in whatever format came to mind. In the formative years of the collective, it was very often Maciunas who initiated these calls. Notwithstanding the important array of scores he conceived himself, Maciunas’ legacy (as I have argued) is bound up with his role of channeling, charting, and organizing. In constant communication with the artists, he never tired of drumming up participation, whether it was for forthcoming concerts, or any number of other matrices of collective creativity he sought to “realize” in a graspable form. Maciunas’ exhaustive efforts, as we know, extended from the “commissioning” moment to designing, printing, packaging, and distribution of the artists’ propositions. It is impossible not to recognize how Maciunas coordinated an ever-diverse patchwork of contributions and gave them the stamp of unity. In this respect, he was arguably the quintessential applied artist, honoring the Russian model he so admired. In January 1964, Maciunas clarified his vision of Fluxus’ mandate as a programmatic enactment of the “applied.” To the extent that his statement constitutes a historical anchor for socially oriented art, it is worth quoting (or re-quoting) him at length. “Fluxus objectives are social (not aesthetic),” he insisted:

concern[ed] […] with: Gradual elimination of fine arts (music, theater, poetry, fiction, painting, sculpt –etc. etc.)... the desire to stop the waste of material and human resources …and divert it to socially constructive ends. Such… applied arts would be (industrial design, journalism, architecture, engineering, graphic-typographic arts, printing, etc.) Ù these are all most closely related fields to fine arts and offer [the] best alternative profession to fine artists. […] Thus Fluxus is definitely against [the] art-object as non-functional commodity [...] therefore, should tend towards [a] collective spirit, anonymity and ANTI-INDIVIDUALISM. These Fluxus concerts, publications etc. – are at best transitional (a few years) & temporary until such time when fine art can be totally eliminated (or at least its institutional forms) and artists find other employment.[32]

In several of the mid-1960s “manifestos,” Maciunas glossed an anti-art stance for Fluxus via provocative analogies to “gags” and “vaudeville.” Clear, however, from looking at the scores—even the small sample discussed above—is that this jokey dimension hardly characterized the majority of the group’s output. Unfortunately, the abundant evidence has not tempered the impulse of countless interpreters to emphasize a silly, gaggy Fluxus, to its obvious detriment. Like all of Maciunas’ strategies, he played the humor card to advance larger goals.[33] The manifesto-speak, like the gag—risky though they were—became tools of performative subversion; the reality effect undercut the exclusive (and the truly trivial) in “Art.” Like time bombs of radical critique, set to go off in the future, his ways of defining Fluxus were pitted against the commodification threatening the creative act.

The dimension of the applied—that is, the work of art envisaged in terms of wide application—is key to the relevance of Fluxus in the 1960s and now. When read with precision, the concept cancels weak links between artistic impulses separated by the ‘same’ language. Maciunas’ sense of the applied acted historically. “Applied art” comprehended various and contrary origins—from the Productivist opposition to (non-utilitarian, bourgeois) modern art, art for art’s sake, to decoration as the anxiety behind the first breaks into abstraction—and how it might ramify in the hands of the Fluxus collective. In the artistic initiatives of the latter, in the wake of the preceding approaches (none of which contradicts or corresponds to Maciunas’ “applied”), we may begin to see how the score was productively exported and retooled, as a renewable field of application (even in the most contemporary sense). More historically conscious than many of his 1960s contemporaries, Maciunas sensed the urgency of social engagement, encouraging ideas that made radical uses of “art.” Having studied the early-twentieth-century precedents in minute detail, he was poised to apply them.[34]

This last item, appended to the foregoing list, obviously defies direct comparison to those score models (though, from a certain perspective, it might be defined as such). What it conjures instead is the spectrum in Fluxus; and that Maciunas’ “applied art” does not have to look like the rest. Indeed, his model of application only fully registers when we allow ourselves to look through the different matrices of artistic thought. Inevitably tentative and fragile, these frames within frames, constituting the multiple modalities of mediation in Fluxus, speak poignantly to the present, as an ever-available structure at the threshold of apprehension.

For the full notation of Fluxus scores referenced here, please see the Fluxus Performance Workbook, Ken Friedman, Owen Smith and Lauren Sawchyn, eds. Downloadable at:


Julia Robinson is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of Art History at New York University. She has curated exhibitions on George Brecht, John Cage, and other topics centered on the experimental art of the 1960s, at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, MACBA, Barcelona, and the Reina Sofía, Madrid. Her essays have appeared in Performance Research, October, Grey Room, Mousse, Artforum, and Modernism/Modernity. She is the editor of the October Files volume John Cage (October/MIT Press), and has a forthcoming book on George Brecht under the same imprint.


[1] An earlier version of this account appeared in Reclaiming Art, Reshaping Democracy, Xavier Douroux, Estelle Zhong Mengual, eds. (Presses du reél, 2017).

[2] Cage first referred to language-based composition as “non-notational” in a letter to George Brecht (1960-61) requesting event scores (absent of musical notes) for performances during and after his travels in Europe with David Tudor. (Letters from Cage and Tudor to Brecht about the scores and their performance are found in Brecht’s published notebooks, 1960-61 [Walther König], and the scores in question (that Brecht sent them) are found in Cage’s correspondence [Northwestern University] and in Tudor’s archive [Getty Research Institute, Special Collections]).

[3] I use “generality” in the sense of an elegant mathematical equation, at once “simple” (reduced from a field of immense complexity), and applicable (generalizable) to other problems/fields. This, in contrast to (the risk of) generalization in the sense of blunting, over-simplifying, making everything the same.

[4] Clearly, the Fluxus elaborations of indeterminacy diverged exponentially from the Cagean model. Like his concept of the “experimental,” which it refined, “indeterminacy” was another existing term the composer reclaimed as a neologism. Thus, his definition was strict, not to say legislative. “Indeterminacy,” in Cage’s lexicon, had a job to do. All this, but especially the composer’s antipathy toward improvisation, stands in strong contrast to the use of the undetermined by younger artists, not only those in Fluxus. As we see from 1959-60 onwards, the new generation worked with a very different conception of audience, amongst much else.

[5] Brecht offered the notion of “situation participation” in lieu of “indeterminacy” in an exchange with Cage at the end of the first class he took with the composer (see the Brecht notebook, summer, 1958).

[6] Maciunas used the term, “applied art” performatively, in contrast to the passive status of art as commodity.

[7] Brecht conceived “The Artificial Crowd” in one of the first Cage’s classes at the New School. See his notebook, summer 1958.

[8] For the first performance of Time-Table Music, Cage and the students went to Grand Central Station. Grabbing the freely available timetables, they had to convert the familiar, columnar list of numbers—departure and arrival times in hours and minutes— to minutes and seconds, to ascertain the duration of the event. The “content “would depend what on each “performer” perceived.

[9] The “constitutive act and perception” is a definition Brecht derived from his study of Ernst Cassirer.

[10] As is well known, Maciunas had in hand the Brecht scores gathered for La Monte Young’s An Anthology, which he was designing—many more than would ultimately be reproduced there—when he departed for Germany in late 1961, and used them as a base for Fluxus. He even sent them as examples, to people in Europe who expressed interest in developing Fluxus programs to start them off. Brecht’s body of work, collected Water Yam (1963), the first Fluxus “publication” by one artist.

[11] As we know, the practice of “preparing” instruments taken up with gusto in early Fluxus was modeled (very loosely) on Cage’s invention of the prepared piano (1940). Ben Patterson’s Variations for Double-Bass (1962), for example, called for clothespins to be attached to the instrument’s strings, among other sound-distorting actions demonstratively executed. Nam June Paik was more explicit in his “homage” to Cage, naming a series of radically altered pianos and televisions “prepared” (see his Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, Wuppertal, 1963).

On the Duchamp reference, we recall that he defined the readymade as “a kind of rendezvous” in his Green Box notes. I argue that Knowles’ preparation of the audience through her cues extended this notion—from object, and one-to-one encounter—in the arena of the collective: imagination in unison.

[12] The “test” of performability—not exactly overlapping but bearing on the element of participation— is one more way to focus the score. We tend to forget that many pieces long associated with Fluxus do not envisage collective performance and do not allow for physical involvement of the reader/perceiver. If this sounds counter-intuitive for a collective initiated through performance, there are explanations. The scores that immediately come to mind, both developed at some remove from Fluxus, are Brecht’s (discussed above) and Yoko Ono’s (discussed below). Briefly, Brecht’s model did not require performance, Ono’s often obviated it. Paik also created unperformable work, for different reasons.

[13] The other rare instance of branding is in Knowles’ own Identical Lunch (c. 1969), involving routine nourishment. Not a Fluxus piece per se, the proposition, centered on a tuna fish sandwich, was documented in screen-prints stamped with the label “Starkist.”

[14]  Nivea was invented in Germany (in 1911). By 1962, it was a commonplace product distributed across four continents.

[15] Again, Knowles and her peers went further with an element—affective and instinctive—that Cage had repressed, or redistributed. In the late 1940s he turned the coloration of subjective emotion toward the universal (e.g., Sonatas and Interludes, 1946-48, anchored in the “nine permanent emotions” from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which were articulated by recourse to a color scale. In Cage’s class, where he discussed the latter, Brecht built on his organization of elements by creating a cueing system based on color-coded cards (Confetti Music, 1958). Immediately after that Aria. Brecht’s best-known color score, Three Yellow Events (1961), with the prompts yellow, yellow, yellow/ yellow, loud/ red, is dedicated to the mother of found color drawn into art: Rrose. Knowles, for her part, wrote the score Celebration Red in 1962, setting off a collection of red objects to be contributed to the matrix in perpetuity.

[16] See the Fluxus Performance Workbook, Ken Friedman, Owen Smith, Lauren Sawchyn eds, p. 116. https://www.academia.edu/9983685/Fluxus_Performance_Workbook Accessed June 20 2021. The example Williams gave was: “performer gives a small gift (coin, cough drop, cookie, match stick, etc.) to every member of the audience, counting each as s/he does so, or marks audience members with … chalk, or keeps track by pointing finger, etc.” This piece had a definite function in early Fluxus when a percentage of box office returns was promised to the performers. After the artists began to notice that their hosts were robbing them by under-reporting the attendance, Williams’ piece doubled as a strategy for counting the audience during the concert.

[17] Mieko Shiomi studied musicology at Tokyo National University—graduating in 1957. At the height of the Gutai group’s activity —a collective comprised predominantly of painters—and their pursuit of a concreteness that foregrounded the body, Shiomi was active in the Group Ongaku. The latter, also including future Fluxus recruits Takehisa Kosugi and Yasunao Tone, developed a vigorous experimental and improvisational performance practice inspired by Edgard Varèse, and Pierre Schaeffer.

[18] Midori Yoshimoto, “Music, Art, Poetry, and Beyond: The Intermedia Art of Mieko Shiomi,” in Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

[19] Notably, Shiomi created new definitions of musical concepts in sculpture and film. Transferring the gradual reduction of volume (diminuendo)—already concrete for Shiomi—her Endless Box comprised 34 handcrafted cartons, empty, but filled with each other—one inserted into the next, all the way down —physically diagrammed the immaterial as a “visual diminuendo.” Disappearing Music for Face, which debuted (as a diminishing smile) at the Perpetual Fluxfest in 1964, was famously translated as a filmic sequence featuring a headshot of same (enacted by Ono).

[20] Shiomi’s prompt read: “Write a word or words on the enclosed card and place it somewhere.” In another translation of spatiality, this time focused on the auditory, Boundary Music (1963) instructed: Make your sound faintest possible to a boundary condition whether the sound is given birth to as a sound or not. At the performance, instruments, human bodies, electronic apparatuses, or anything else may be used.” See Fluxus Performance Workbook, op. cit., 96.

[21] Paik came to Germany in the late 1950s to study music. The 1958 exhibition, Dada: Dokumente einer Bewegung at the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, made a tremendous impression on him and many others, from Cage to the Zero Group. At the time, the latter were breaking into performance and multi-media installations under the impact of Yves Klein, on the one hand, and the Gutai Group, on the other. We see Paik in the crowd at the Zero events on the streets of Düsseldorf in 1961. Soon thereafter, Paik adopted the term “Neo-Dada” for performances running through 1962.

[22] See Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle“ in Quasi una Fantasia: Essays in Music and Culture (Verso, 1992). Ironically both Paik and Adorno both adopted the Beethoven title “quasi una fantasia.”

[23] The description of Paik’s work draws upon John Hanhardt’s account of same in “The Seoul of Fluxus,” The Worlds of Nam June Paik (New York: Guggenheim, 2000), 30. In 1963 Paik expanded the Symphony idea, inter alia, in his Exposition of Music-Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, a mansion whose many rooms became sites for various types of audience engagement.

[24] Paik used the term “Neo-Dada” in the publicity for concerts he held in Wuppertal and Düsseldorf in the months leading up to the first Fluxus program (Wiesbaden, September 1962). Maciunas was involved in the Kleines Sommerfest Après John Cage (Wuppertal, June 1962), which notably featured a performance of his text “Neo-Dada in Music, Theater, Poetry, and Art.” Repr. in Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Armstrong, In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993.

[25] Dick Higgins wrote sheaves of long form scores (e.g., the Constellations) in the context of the Cage class. Notwithstanding the fact that the Constellations were performed at Fluxus concerts, Higgins seems quickly to have sensed the efficacy of short scores, which become typical for him from 1962 on.

[26] This work has an explicit precedent in a Dada piece by Tristan Tzara repeating the word “roar!” See The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), Robert Motherwell ed. (Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), 96-97.

[27] Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi were circulating among Japanese composers and artists in New York, and Ichiyanagi was attending Cage’s New School class.

[28] The concert program Young organized from December 1960 through mid-1961 at Ono’s Chambers Street studio featured his own Compositions 1961, Ichiyanagi’s linear scores, Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions, Jackson Mac Low’s simultaneities, and an “environment” by Robert Morris, inter alia —placing a great deal on the table with which Ono and others would have to contend.

[29] Ichiyanagi, letter to Brecht, July 1961; original pasted into Brecht’s notebook of that period.

[30] Henry Flynt dubbed the formula: “a title, a tweet, and a date.” See Flynt’s text on the authentication of early scores in Julia Robinson and Christian Xatrec, +/-1961: Founding the Expanded Arts (Madrid: Reina Sofia, 2013).

[31] In August 1964, Ono performed this work under the title: Yoko Ono Farewell Concert: Strip Tease Show at Tokyo’s Sōgetsu Art Center. Beyond indeterminacy, the contrast of “Cut Piece” and “Strip Tease”—in terms of the message sent to the audience/participants—is, to say the least, confusing.

[32] George Maciunas, letter to Tomas Schmit, January 1964, in Jon Hendricks, ed., Fluxus etc./Addenda II (Pasadena: Baxter Art Gallery/California Institute of Technology, 1983), 166-167.

[33] On a more personal, not to say, autobiographical level, Maciunas’ sense of the agency of the “gag” reflected his unique cultural and psychosexual makeup—a personality (and a member of a generation) stamped with repression—against which he deployed eruptions of scatological humor, inter alia.

[34] Maciunas studied art history at New York University in the 1950s, and taught himself the history of Russia though intricate charts, addressing political aims, and multiple practical implementations. See Astrit Schmidt-Burckhardt, Maciunas’ Learning Machines: From Art History to a Chronology of Fluxus (Berlin: Vice Versa Verlag and Detroit: Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Foundation, 2003).



















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Issue 51


by Martin Patrick and Dorothee Richter

by Natilee Harren

by Ann Noël

by Ken Friedman

by Peter van der Meijden