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by Billie Maciunas

The Eve of Fluxus: A fluxmemoir (excerpts)

The Eve of Fluxus: A fluxmemoir by Billie Maciunas
(Arbiter Press, 2010)
Excerpted and published here by kind permission of the author.


what is fluxus not?

 Maybe you have accidentally already done something Fluxus­ how would you know it was Fluxus?[1]

When I knew George, he regularly wore an old mustard-colored cardigan with a zip front and a pair of brown polyester pants. His habitual attire makes it easier for me to remember things he said at particular times, because there was nothing to distract me from his face, eyes, and words. One day he said something to me that it has taken me a long time to figure out.

I had arrived at the farm in New Marlborough,[2] a small “village” in the Berkshires, in August, just as the long grass in the front yard was turning colors. It was early fall. George and I were in the large kitchen. There was a long table in the middle of the room with benches on each side. The pale green walls were lined with white cabinets, and one wall had glass-fronted cabinets. The style was every bit that of a 1920s manor house.

The day was sunny and quiet, and George and I seemed to be the only ones around.  He was dumping something into the garbage can, and we were talking. He said, “Artists are parasites.” I didn’t know him well, and I knew nothing about Fluxus, his lifework. I had only popular ideas of what an artist might be: famous names of dead people, such as Vincent Van Gogh. I thought he meant that living artists were egotistical and felt entitled to being supported without doing any practical work. I didn't know any living artists, and I didn't think of myself as one—or maybe only vaguely so—so I didn't argue with his stark pronouncement. It sounded a little parental, something a mother or father might say if their child decided to be a musician rather than a lawyer.

I learned about Fluxus by participating in it with George at the end of his life through our Fluxwedding and marriage. When he said, “Artists are parasites,” we were in the courtship phase, before we knew that he would soon die. I had been at the farm for about a month, and George had been in Seattle for most of that time participating in a Flux festival. He laughed as he told me about the gags and jokes—toilet seats with adhesive on the seats, for example. My favorite was the idea of using rocks as currency instead of money. Fluxus certainly sounded interesting, but also a little strange.

George was the most playful person I ever knew. I don't mean that he was a stranger to labor—I mean that he approached every­ thing with a sense of possibility. He didn't fail in anything because he didn't waste anything. He had a continual recourse to absurdity in order to rescue the moment. He found funny, for example, a plane trip that he took to a German city for an event. When he got to his destination, he realized that he had the wrong date. So he slept at the airport and flew back the next day. The experience for George was an “event.” As for success, that was when absurdity and elegance were married. When he highlighted these moments in the context of the formality called Fluxus, it was both fun and brilliant.

George one day showed me Mieko Shiomi’s Spatial Poem no. I, following a conversation we were having on the importance of technology versus imagination in art. I was arguing for imagination, but when I saw the Poem, I was impressed by the small wooden box it was in. There was something about the containment of the idea that was as fascinating as the idea itself. I asked, “Who made the box?”

“I did,” he said, snapping it shut and walking away, as if to say, “I rest my case.”

In October, I met Jean Brown, the Grande Dame of the art world in Lenox, Massachusetts. I viewed her Fluxus gallery, which included George's Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dementional (sic), Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms. (Incomplete). This was a miracle of tiny letters on a chart documenting everything from church processions to George’s Shit Anthology, formally named Excreta Fluxorum. Reading George’s Diagram, I definitely saw the humor, but I don't remember whether I appreciated its prodigious scholarship and organization.

I liked most of the pieces in Jean's gallery, including a wonderful “Fan Clock” in two parts: the clock’s hands ran as fast as a fan, and a fan’s blades ran as slowly as a clock.8 There was also a dead mouse in a jar of formaldehyde. It was George’s piece, and it had no label at all. It struck me as bizarre rather than amusing, but regarding Fluxus, I lived in a state of willing suspension of disbelief.

I was never especially curious about art and didn’t think about art history. I called myself a poet, and I thought that being a poet was a way of life rather than a profession. I was beginning to wrestle with the idea that the only way I could write was to forget that I was “a writer.” I had begun experimenting with certain practices, such as writing with my left hand, using whole sheets of paper to write a single letter, using paper with texture or color, colored pens, etc. I had lately, while George was away, begun writing “breathing poems,” which consisted of spelling out on many pages the sound of exhaling.

This was as close as I came to the notion of art as process or playing. I still thought of these processes as exercises to get the “real” poetry flowing. I could accept that toilet gags, the Spatial Poem, the history of art Diagram, the Fan Clock, and the pickled mouse were not art. They weren't expensive, incomprehensible, and made by famous people. However, I had mixed feelings about the idea that artists were parasites. It didn't seem to apply to my experience of “being” a poet, which entailed foregoing all security to seek experiences outside of whatever boundaries I met.

George lived stringently, having no evident profession. I certainly had nothing but hope and a promise. I had come to the farm at the suggestion of a medical researcher for whom I had done some typing in New York. She knew George and knew that he rented rooms to quiet people who didn't smoke. I had rented a room on the promise of payment for the typing job-enough for a month's rent. When I got on the bus in New York and headed to the Berkshires, I had a dollar and was carrying a single bag. It was a yellow newspaper bag used to deliver The Militant.

I was also ghostwriting a confessional memoir for a woman who’d said she had an affair with John Lindsay when he was the mayor of New York. She said she wanted to “capitalize” on her affair and had hired me to transcribe her tapes about what she wore, what they drank, etc. So far, I had not written the steamy stuff she wanted, and I didn't know how I was going to deal with it. Nevertheless, I thought I could do it somehow and thus earn enough to meet my severely pared needs.

The medical researcher who had recommended this idyllic farm had described the owner, George, as unmistakable by his thick black glasses with a green lens covering his left eye.

George was waiting at Melvin's Drug Store in Great Barrington when I stepped off the bus. He pointed to my newspaper bag and said laconically, “That's all you have?” Then we went to Price Chopper for food. Not having been inside a supermarket for a good three years, I was dazed by its brightness, size, and soporific Muzak. It reminded me of being inside the Space Odyssey: 2001 spaceship with the eerie computer voice of Hal. I was used to buying food as needed from fruit stands and corner markets. Sometimes I ate meals of raw vegetables or fruit standing on the street. At Price Chopper, I stood fondling a grapefruit, considering how best to spend my last dollar. I glanced up and saw George in the middle of the aisle watching me.

fluxlove, just an eight-letter word

Phillis and Chloris with a garland of flowers/ on their head, are singing love songs[3]

The farm at New Marlborough included two ten-to-fifteen-room main houses joined by a portico. There were also twelve outbuildings and an apple orchard. At the farm, George showed me my room on the second of three floors of the main house. The centerpiece of the room was an industrial vacuum cleaner. Otherwise, there were a bed, a dresser, and a table. The front of the room had curtainless windows facing a meadow and the evening sunset. The floors were shiny blond oak, and there was a screened porch almost the size of the room, shaded by tall trees. It was sunny and the only sound was birds singing.

I thought suddenly about a dream I’d had a couple of years earlier, when I’d first moved to New York. In the dream, there was a balmy and enveloping wind. Everything was green, and large birds like peacocks were roosting in the trees. Their long aqua-blue tails swept the ground, and I walked through this place like Eve in the garden.

I also remembered a dream I’d had shortly before meeting George, of riding in an open horse-drawn wagon with an older man. The sun was warm. He was smiling at me and I felt inexpressibly secure and happy. This image may have been inspired by a tarot card from a deck I had that was designed by artist Pamela Colman Smith.

In what had to be a reversal of that tarot dream, reality intruded one day to again remind me of this dream. I had been at the farm for a few days and had wandered about looking at the wildflowers. One morning, I took a pad and some colored pencils to draw the flowers. I was sitting in the weeds by a path when the former owner of the house, who was still living in half of it, rode up in a horse-drawn cart. She warned me imperiously to stay on George’s side of the property. As she drove away, the horses dropped big turds in their wake.

On my first night in New Marlborough, following George’s recommendation, I slept on the screened porch in a sleeping bag he lent me. There was a violent storm that night, and I was too frightened to get up and run inside until I remembered a book on the history of medicine that George had just lent me. It was lying near an open window, and I ran to rescue it from the rain.

The next day I woke to the sound of an electric drill on the porch. George was installing a light. I tried to ignore the noise and him, even as he tromped through my room, throwing quick glances at me on the bed reading his book. I finally got up and went for a four-mile walk. The birds singing, the cows lowing, and the two­ foot-high grass drying in the August sun in front of the manor house enchanted me. The grass turned lazily in the wind—purple, green, and gold. I learned later that some of George's neighbors didn't like his inattention to the lawn, but I thought it was beautiful and he wonderful to let it grow.

I don't remember exactly how I fed myself day to day. I was slender and fit, having ridden a bicycle around New York and otherwise walked everyplace I wanted to go, and having eaten stringently for the past three years. I found an old bicycle at the farm and went out most days exploring. One time I came across a fruit stand on the side of the road. No one was in attendance, though there was a sign with a big eye on it and a basket for customers to pay for what they took. I took some fruit but didn't have the money to pay. I rode down the road a bit and stopped on the side of the road to devour the delicious plundered peaches, plums, and other things. I think that George found out about this—I saw the owner of the stand talking to him in the yard one day. Although George never said anything to me about it, I think he paid for the food I had stolen.

We had a brief dating interval. George invited me to a local concert of Purcell's music played on the virginal. We didn’t have four dollars for the tickets, so he borrowed the money from Jean Brown, and the three of us went together. I didn’t have appropriate clothes for the concert, so I rummaged around in trunks and in the attic until I came up with a powder-blue men’s dress shirt, a pair of polyester, maroon-colored men’s pants that were long enough to cover my ankles, and a pair of large white bucks for men. When I appeared, George approved the results, congratulating me on coming up with an impromptu outfit. Another time, George invited me to a movie. As we were waiting for it to start, he popped another of the Tums he had been eating all summer to quiet his stomach pain and said quietly, “Maybe I have cancer.”

Throughout the rest of that gorgeous summer and into the fall, George introduced me to friends and visitors. Along with Fluxus gallery owner Jean Brown, I met Fluxus artists Robert Watts, Shigeko, and Simone Forti. I also met Almus and Nijole Salcius, close friends of George’s who were, like George, Lithuanian. They were a hearty and good-looking couple who brought big loaves of brown Lithuanian bread to the farm. Almus asked me why I wanted to be a writer, since I was pretty, as Nijole scoffed at him for his manners. I remember Almus asking me how or what I ate, and George interjected, saying, “She lives on air.”

George’s friends didn’t indulge in the melodrama, ego-tripping, and pettiness that is often part of relationships. One evening when Jean Brown and Shigeko were visiting, we were all sitting on the large first-floor porch and there was music. Shigeko began to dance by herself, and she was lovely in her unself-conscious freedom. She moved and circled in tiny steps, like a ballerina in a music box. This image characterizes the mood at New Marlborough that late summer.

When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1970s, I was part of a bohemian group that was politically socialist. George and his friends reminded me of those times, except that there was less polemical edge and more graciousness. The cultural composition of the visitors and groups in New Marlborough was heterogeneous: Japanese, Lithuanian, French, American. Nearly everyone had traveled, and everyone could share stories about places where they had lived and visited. In retrospect, I think that my company made George happier, and that his friends were pleased that he might have finally met a companion. If I was not Fluxus, I was at least a breath of fresh air. I had no agenda, no attachments, and seemingly no desires other than to write. I was quiet, solitary, and wasn't impressed by “big names,” even if I knew any. Not least important, I was slender and attractive, looking younger than my thirty years.

I think that George, a connoisseur of classical music who had studied architecture at Cooper Union in New York City, and a world-traveler, was amused by my ignorance, which in another light could be seen as innocence or guilelessness. He told me, “You have to read The Idiot.” He explained that the idiot, Prince Myshkin, was “the most attractive” character in the book. Prince Myshkin was socially inept because he didn’t understand lies. He accepted what people said as truth and he told the truth himself. He ended up insane, unfortunately, but that is a story for another book.

I read The Idiot that summer and fall, along with all the rest of Dostoevsky’s novels. George had the entire collection, and I loved to read. I also wanted to understand why Dostoevsky was George’s favorite writer. It was a long time, however, before I understood his subtle and wonderful compliment when he compared me to the idiot. Other compliments were equally subtle: he described me as “laconic” and “pleasing to the sight.”

Billie Maciunas remains a lifelong Fluxus aficionado, promoting original Fluxus artists through social media and in scholarly publications on the topic of Fluxus and George Maciunas. She participated in several Fluxus performances with her husband shortly before he died, including Black and White Wedding Piece, performed in New York City on the same evening as the Fluxus Wedding and cabaret. Recently, she has appeared in Jeffrey Perkins’ outstanding film on George and Fluxus, along with many revered artists, critics, and personalities. She received a doctorate in Comparative Literature from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in modern Brazilian and American women poets. Besides The Eve of Fluxus, Maciunas has published Unsettled Oranges, a book of poetry on the theme of her husband’s death, and Our Book, a book of translations of selected poems of Portuguese poet Florbela Espanca. Maciunas resides in Ocala, Florida, where she teaches at Lowell Correctional Institution and is currently working toward acquiring a professional teaching certificate.


[1] Larry Miller, ‘Maybe Fluxus (A Para-Interrogative Guide for the Neoteric Transmuter, Tinder, Tinker and Totalist),” The Fluxus Reader, ed. Ken Friedman. (Great Britain: Academy Editions, 1998) 212.

[2] George planned for this property to be a “Post Cage Bauhaus Black Mountain College.” Thomas Kellein, The Dream of Fluxus: George Maciunas, An Artist’s Biography (London: Ed. Hansjorg Mayer, 2007) 151.

[3] From a translation of Ottavio Rinuccini’s lyrics for Claudio Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna.

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Issue 51


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