To be is to do – Heidegger
To do is to be – Sartre
Do be do be do – Sinatra
Do it yourself – Paik
Sometime around 1960 or so, a popular graffito examined the states of being and doing, attributing the answers to two great philosophers and a musician. Nam June Paik went one better when he wrote, “Read music: do it yourself.”,1
This was the essential element of a new poetic economy.
The idea of music was one crucial element of doing it you, and the concept of the event was at its heart. The tradition of the event was an idea that emerged from the musical philosophy of composer Henry Cowell. Cowell proposed an approach to composing based on breaking the activity of sound into minimal, basic elements. John Cage, who had studied with Cowell, introduced the term to the composers and artists who took his courses in new musical composition at the New School for Social Research in the late 1950s. Both Cage and social theorist Theodore Adorno used the term “event,”2 to speak of music in an ontological sense as a form of work performed in time and realized as time unfolds.
In the early 1960s, this circle of artists and composers adapted the idea of the event to describe terse, minimal instructions exemplified in the work of George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and La Monte Young.3
Events began as a way to explore music composition and performative works. The musical origin of events gave rise to the custom of using the term “score” for the concise, verbal instructions used to notate events. Scores transmit instructions that allow a performer to realize an event work in the same way that a music score transmits instructions that enable performers to realize a musical work. While the concept of events began in music, it soon migrated to visual art and intermedia. It took hold there to develop as significant intermedia from in its own right.
The musical origin of events means that realizing or performing the score brings the event into final embodied existence. As with music, anyone may perform the score. Like all kinds of music, a score opens possibility that anyone can adopt a piece in the “do-it-yourself” tradition, realizing the work, interpreting it, and bringing it to life. One need not be an artist, composer, or musician to do so. It is not even necessary to be a professional practitioner of the arts.
The quality of events is “musicality,” the fact that anyone may realize work from a score. This distinguishes events from performance art, most painting, some forms of improvisational music, and any art forms that we only see as authentic when an author-creator realizes them. On one hand, we have a conception of compose performer as both the creator of the work and the locus of artistic energy. On the other, the artist or composer of an event creates it relinquishing performance and interpretation to an individual who can do it in his or her own way.
The concept of the event in art, music and intermedia has many meanings and nuances. An event can exist in at least four forms: as idea, as score, as process, and as artifact. The realized even is typically visible in five kinds of artifact: behavioral artifacts as sound. In many cases, an event may exist in more that one form, leaving a wake with several kinds of artifacts.
From a musical origin, events moved into performance, intermedia, and other domains. Some of us who worked with events developed a form of artistic practice in which events constituted instructions for the realization of social situations and even physical artifacts.
Whatever form of realization events may take, event scores tend to be compressed and minimal. They engage such ideas as intermedia, playfulness, simplicity, implicativeness, exemplativism, specificity, and presence in time, as well as musicality. Many event scores emerge from life situations. We can realize them in everyday situations as well as in performance, emphasizing the unity of art and life.
Doing it Yourself: Communities of Practice and Folk Traditions
The fluid nature of events transmitted through concise verbal instructions made them easy to describe and develop. This gave rise to a form of artistic and musical practice in which artists shared concepts in an emerging laboratory.
The practices that typify events resemble the social processes that develop and transmit ideas in other kinds of productive communities. One is the “community of practice” that typifies a guild or profession. One is the cultural community that generates a folk tradition with memory practices and transmission practices of folklore.
The concept of community of practice took shape in information science, design studies, and knowledge management. The term “communities of practice” is new, but the concept is ancient, rooted in the way that ancient and medieval craft guilds generate and transmit knowledge.67
Folklorist and Fluxus artist Bengt af Klintberg emphasizes the similarities between the events tradition and fold traditions as “simple pieces filled with energy and humor, pieces without any personal stylistic features, pieces that could be transmitted orally just like folklore and performed by everyone who wanted to.”8 9 It is here that the unity of art and life remains unbroken in the folk culture of traditional societies.
The parlor game tradition was similar enough to events that Something Else Press published a classic nineteenth century collection of games by reprinting William Brisbane Dick’s 1897 anthology, Dick’s One Hundred Amusements.10 This is also true of the relation between folk traditions and events, as Klinberg notes in his 1993 article on Fluxus games and folklore. 11
Games arise from, reflect, and generate community as well as competition. The English word “game” goes back to Old Swedish, old Norse, and Old High German words meaning “game, sport, merriment, joy, glee.” These, in turn, trace their roots to a Gothic word meaning “participation, communion.” Far beyond the element of competition, games bind communities together, and an important aspect of the concept of a game is the concept of rule-bound competition among members of a commonality.
Communities of practice generate rich cycles of interaction within groups that shape cultures through behavior, enactment, and shared social patterns. Despite many projects and systems that mirrored the functions and structures of formal organizations, networks of artists advocating the “do-it-yourself” ethos never functioned as formal organizations with a prescribed structure, rules or explicitly enrolled members. Nevertheless, they did work in an ongoing community of artists, composers, and designers. Some of these have now worked together for nearly half a century in different but overlapping theorists describe as organized culture and organizational learning. Many of the cultural practices of this community coalesced around the shared work of the event. They Did It Themselves
In the early 1960s, a rich series of performance concerts emerged with the New York Audiovisual Group and Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street in York City. Performers or conductors chose the program using an approach anchored in classical music tradition. This it became the traditional way of organizing event concerts. It remains the most common way of creating and performing events.
George Maciunas created boxed editions of many important suites of event scores. George Brecht’s Water Yam was the Magna Carta of boxed event structures. Several artists also realized editions of their own pieces. The best know and most influential of these was Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, a milestone in the evolution of conceptual art and performance art, and without doubt the best known and most widely distributed publication in this genre. A number of us followed Yoko’s example in creating our own editions of scores. Dick Higgins, Bengt af Klintberg, Milan Knixak and all took this path. Like Grapefruit was, these compilations were later expanded and issued by other publication that developed an interest in the work.
The difficulty of the do-it-yourself aesthetic is the problem of modern society. To speak of a “do-it-yourself” aesthetic implies a society where individuals have time for play, and a society where those who play have time- time for engagement and delight, time for accomplishment and mastery.
The allocation for time and resources- the ability to make a living while having the ability to ear enough to buy time- depends very much on the society we live in and it depends on the resources of the world around us. Because time and livelihood are linked, it also involves such social goods as education, health care, and insurance. While theses issues range far beyond the scope of a short note on the do-it-yourself aesthetic, they are vital to resolving the issues that the do-it-yourself ethos bring to light.
The Problem of Poetic Economics
At the start of this note, I mentioned the notation of poetic economy at the heart of the do-it-yourself ethos. This poetic economy centered on three crucial issues.
The first crucial issues were that everyone could make art and music. This entailed a radical democratization or at least a radical reconception of art and music away from standard markets to new models of exchange.
The second crucial issue was recognition of the arts from a context of consumer culture and passive reception to an active culture of engagement.
The third crucial issue was a transformation of society from the two great materialist cultures of predatory capitalism and command-and-control communism to something different. The nature of what those difference might be differs according to the approach or visionary impulses of earth, artist, composer, or designer active in proposing or theorizing a do-it-yourself approach. In nearly every case, however, it was clear that people recognized the difficulty in adopting a do-it-yourself ethos in the general context of the current economies. This was the case in the 1950s and 1960s. it remains a problem to this day.
To understand what happened to the concept of doing-it-yourself, it will help to step away from events to examine the work of Robert Filliou, an artist who studied economics at the University of California Los Angeles before going on to work as an oil economist for the United Nations. Later, he became an artist as one step in his slow transformation toward Buddhism. Toward the end of his career in economics and early in his art career, Filliou lost interest – or hope- in standard approaches to knowledge and knowledge production of an increasingly technocratic society. He wrote a manifesto offering an alternative.
Filliou’s manifesto effective declares social science, natural science, and he humanities obsolete. Instead, he approaches knowledge and knowledge production from what seems to be an optimistic perspective anchored in art.
Filliou himself addressed this problem in his manifest, “A Proposition, a Problem, a Danger, and Hunch.” He wrote,
“A refusal to be colonized culturally by a self-styled race of specialists in painting, sculpture, poetry, music, etc…, this is what ‘la revolte des Mediocres’ is about. With wonderful results in modern art, so far. Tomorrow could everybody revolt? How? Investigate.
“A problem, the one and only, but massive: money, which creating does not necessarily create.”
“A danger: soon, and for thousands and thousands of years, the only right granted to individuals may be that of saying ‘yes, sir’. So that the memory of art (as freedom) is not lost, its age-old institutions can be put in simple, easily learned esoteric mathematical formulae, of the type a/b = c/d (for instance, if a is taken as hand, b as foot, d as table, hand over head can equal foot on table for purposes of recognition and passive resistance. Study the problem. Call the study: Theory and Practice of A/B”
“A hunch: works can be created as fast as the conceiving brain, You say aloud ‘blue,’ blue paint, or light, appears on canvas, etc… This is already done to light rooms and open doors. Eventually no more handicraft: Winged Art, like winged imagination. Alone or with others work this out, this further illustrating the 1962 action-manifesto l’Autrisme, during the performance of which performers ask one another, then each member of the audience.
What are you doing?
What are you thinking?
And, whatever the answer, add:
Do something else.
Think something else” 12
Considering the developments of the past half century, it is no longer as clear as it once seemed that the situation is as hopeless as Filliou believed it to be. The history of the past fifty years gives as much evidence for home as for despair.
One thing is clear: artists have not solved the problems Filliou addressed. Since no one else seems to have solved these problems, either, inviting artists to make an effort were technocrats had failed was not a bad idea. Nevertheless, this involves a second difficulty,
the problem of an art world that is as inappropriate to large-scale social creativity as the financial markets or military markets that Filliou saw as the threat.
Robert Filliou used the terms art and artist in a different way that the normative art world does. However, he used the normative art world as the forum of his ideas. In return, the art world seized on Filliou’s work, mediating his ideas in a narrow channel rather than a larger world of public discourse in open conversation.
As a result, the specialists who dominate the normative art took control of Filliou’s work, colonizing it and adapting it to the art markets. This included the “self-styled race of specialists in painting, sculpture, poetry, music, etc.”13 This race of specialists includes the critics, curators, dealers, directors, and collectors that control the economy of buying and selling art, and these specialists dominate the attention economy for thinking about it. In this world, Filliou’s proposition made little difference.
This short note is no place to address the broad range of issues embedded in Filliou’s manifesto. The situation now – as then – is that resolving these issues is difficult. The difficulties are not Filliou’s fault. Rather, these difficulties are embedded in a series of challenges we are only coming to understand. These challenges lie at the heart of the do-it-yourself concept.
The idea of a poetical economics emerged during an era of contest, inquiry, and debate that affected all research fields and most fields of professional practice. People like Nam Jun Paik, Robert Filliou, George Maciunas, and Dick Higgins understood this. They sought ways to link thought to productive inaction.
Attempting this through art suggested a new kind of research. It also suggested what Dick Higgins called “an art that clucks and fills our guts.” 14
The grand irony of Filliou’s work is that the art world transformed him from a public thinker into an artist, a transformation that limited and constrained his influence.
As a thinker, Filliou opposed the notion of art as a new form of specialization, subject to the control of dealers, critics, collectors, and highly specialized institutions that serve them. Filliou the thinker worked in the productive border zone between art and public life.
In contrast, Filliou the artist worked in the art world, and his ideas were ultimately constrained by mercantile interests. This was not Filliou’s fault. Much like specialists and technocrats in any field, the specialists who manage art world institutions also have a difficult time understanding and working with the productive poetic economies that emerge in the border zone.
Research in economies turned out to be far more productive in this dimension that Filliou realized. It is interesting to reflect on the work of economists who considered the problem in different ways. One stream of this work began in the 1940s when Australian economist Colin Clark laid the foundation for work that Daniel Bell would explore in his discussion of post-industrial society. Others also addressed these issues in terms of patterns and flows in trade, information, and communications. The Canadian economist Harold Innes exemplified this approach. Innis was Marshall McLuhan’s predecessor and mentor. McLuhan in his turn influence Paik and Higgins. The economist Fritz Machup was another case in point. The work of these economists helped give birth to a slowly evolving public conversation that is open to all, generating political dialogue in the larger arena of analysis, critique, and proposition.
Today, some of these ideas are bearing fruit to make a difference. Such distinguished economists as Marty Sen. Joseph Stiglitz, Muhammed Yunus, or Paul Krugman, as well as thinkers and scholars such as Thomas Friedman. Their work does not address the challenge of the do-it-yourself those, but it does address the challenges of creating a world with the preconditions of general prosperity and education that allows to each of us the opportunity for a “do-it-yourself” approach to art and music. The work of some thinkers, such as sociologist or Richard Sennet moves toward a robust understanding of what it means to do it yourself: locating the issues of time and mastery in the context of contemporary capitalism. Sennett asks what it would be like to show a world in which we do things well of their own sake. We see this as well in the culture of the Amish and the other plain people that prefer making things to buying them, locating craft industry in local communities with anchors in tradition.
The vision of do-it-yourself culture takes art out of commercial markets. At least it takes them out of the large-scale commercial art market of the circuit comprised of biannual exhibitions, art fairs, advertising-driven magazines, and auctions. It maintains a market of sorts, but that market resembles the agora of ancient Greek democracies. This is the city market where citizens assemble to talk as well as trade. The agora is a small-scale market, large enough for the needs of the city, but small by contemporary standards, but sufficient to the needs of the citizens, the people that inhibit a community.
It is here that the craft artisans sell the products of their workshops. Artists come here to sell the artifacts they make, though in this context, one can hardly label them artists as we use the term today. Philosophers and rectors come here to talk and trade ideas. Merchants buy and sell them.
The agora, of course, does not represent an ideal world. For all their greatness, the ancient Greek democracies would not resemble democracies today: if the citizen had time for philosophy and rhetoric, it was often because a slave worked his fields and household. While the Greek landowner did not think of farming as an agribusiness with an eye to maximizing profit, neither did he care much if others starved. The agora and the people
who built were embedded in a time and place, as all markets and all people are embedded in their times. Nevertheless, the thought of a different kind of art market to the market of today’s art world offers room for revision.
Progenitors of the do-it-yourself ethos proposed several systems over the years to develop new markets in art. George Maciunas developed an industrial system of multiples of Fluxus. The multiples contained event scores, games, puzzles and projects by Fluxus artists enabling any individual who owned a Fluxbox to perform or activated the work. George sold the boxes as low unit prices, much as music publishers sell sheet music or game producers sell games. Dick Higgins published scores, projects, and intermedia instructions in books that he manufactured for the general book market, selling them at standard book prices. I tried several systems, including a system that allowed art buyers to set their own prices. I also developed several kinds of exchange systems and flow systems designed to remove the flow of art from the constraints of specialists. Yet another time, I explored the possibility of registering my scores with the Norwegian music rights organization, Tono, so that people could perform work or construct objects for a modest royalty payment. None of these systems worked as we hoped, though we learned something from each experiment.
Neither did these systems or proposals actually resolve the challenges of doing it yourself.
What can we do to shape a world that has room for the do-it-yourself ethos? I have some ideas, but that’s a conversation for another day.
About the Author
Ken Friedman is Professor of Design Theory and Strategy and Dean of the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University of Technology.
Friedman is also an artist and designer who had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1966. For over 40 years, he has been active in the international experimental laboratory for art, design and architecture known as Fluxus, working with closely with such artists and composers as George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, and Nam June Paik. His work is respected in major museums and galleries around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and Stadtsgalerie Stuttgart.
1 Nam June Paik, quoted in Owen Smith. 1998. Fluxus: The Histtory of an Attituede. Sand Diego, CA: Sandiego State University Press, p. 63.
2 Julia Robinson 2002, “ The Brechtian Event Score: A Structure in Fluxus.” Performance Research, vol. 7, no 3. p. 122.
3 Dick Higgins. 1997. Modernism since Postmodernism Essays on Intermedia. San Diego: San Diego State University Press. pp. 163 –164. See also: Higgins Dick 1998. “Fluxus: Theory and Reception” The Fluxus Reader, Ken Friedman, editor Christopher West Sussex Academy Edition, pp, 217 – 236.
4 Ken Friedman. 1991 “The Belgrade Text.” Ballade, No. 1, 1991, Oslo: Universitesforlaget, 52-57; Friedman, Ken, 2002. “Working with Event Scores: A Personal History.” In Performance Research: On Fluxus, Ric Allsopp, ken Friendman, and Owen Smith, editors, Performance Research, 124-128; Ken Friedman, 2002. “52 Events. A Participatory Artwork.” PDC 2002. Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference, Malmo, Sweden, 23-25 June 2002. Thomas Binder. Judith Gregory, and Ina Wagner, editors. Palo A lot, California. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, 396-400.
5 Friedman, Ken. 1998. “Fluxus and Company.” The Fluxus Reader. Ken Friedman, editor. Chichester, West Sussex: Academy Editions, pp. 244-251.
6 For the development and transmission of knowledge within guilds, see ken Friedman. 1997. “Design Science and Design Education. “The College of Complexity.” Peter McGrory, editor. Helsinki: University of Art and Design, Helsinki UIAH, pp. 55, 61-63’ For more guild training see also: Catharina Bloomberg. 1994. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate, Kent: The Japan Library; David Lowrly. 1985. Autumn Lighting. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Miyamoto Musashi. 1982. The Book of Five Rings. (With Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagya Munenori.) Translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston and London: Shambhala.
7 For more on the concept of communities of practice, see Etienne Wegner. 1998. Communities of practice. Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press; Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder. 2002. Cultivating communities of practice. A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press; Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner. 1991. Situated learning, Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. For more on organizational learning and knowledge management, see Ken Friedman and Johan Olaisen. 1999. “Knowledge Management,” Underveis til frdmttiden, Kunnskapsledelse I teori og praksis. Ken Friedman and Johan Olaisen, eds. Oslo: Fagbokforlaget, 14- 29; Ikukiro Nokaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi. 1995. The knowledge-creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. New York Oxford University Press; Meinolf Dierkes, Ariane Bertthoine Antal, John Child, and Ikujiro Nonaka. 2001. Handbook of Organizattional Learning and Knowledge, Oxforn: Oxford University Press.
8 Bengt at Klintberg, quoted in Sellem, Jean. 1991. “The Fluxus Outpost in Sweden. An Interview with Bengt af Klintbert.” Lund Art Press, vol. 2, no. 2, p. 69; see also Bengt af Klintberg . 1993. “Fluxus Games and Contemporary Folklore: On the Non- Individual Character of Fluxus Art.” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift LXII:2, 1993, 115-125; Bengt af Klintberg. 2006. Svensk Fluxus/Swedish Fluxus. Stockholm: Ronnells Antikvariat.
9 For more on traditional folk games and activities, see: Richard Chase. 1956. American Folk Tales and Songs, and Other Examples of English-American Tradition as Preserved in the Appalachian Mountains and Elsewhere in the United States. New York: New American Library World Literature; Richard Chase, 1967. Singing Games and Playparty Games, New York: Dover.
10 Dick, William Brisbane. 1967. Dick’s 100 Amusements. One Hundred Amusements For Evening Parties, Picnics, And Social Gatherings. New York: Something Else Press. Many games in this collection bore a striking resemblance to event scores and Fluxus activities.
11 Klintberg, “Fluxus Games and Contemporary Folklore.”
12 Filliou, Robert. 1966. “A Proposition, a Problem, a Danger and a Hunch.” Manifestoes. New York: Something Else Press. p. 16: reprinted 1971 in Art Folio, [ Religious Arts Guild Circular/Packet: 2.] Ken Friedman editor. Boston: Religious Arts Guild; reprinted 2004 in Manifestoes. New York: Ubu Classiscs, p.16 [Free copy of the Something Else Press Great Bear Pamphlet in PDF format.) URL:
Date Accessed 2009 April 28.
13 Filliou, in Manifestoes. p.16.
14 Higgins, Dick. 1966. “A Something Else Manifesto.” Manifestoes. New York: Something Else Press, p.21; reprinted 2004 in Manifestoes. New York: Ubu Classics, p.21. [Free copy of the Something Else Press Great Bear Pamphlet in PDF format.) URL: http;//www.ubu.com/historical/gb/index.html
Date Accessed 2009 April 28.
15 While I tried all the other proposals, I never moved forward on this proposal because it would have worked in a way different to my plans. Tono is like ASCAP and BMI in North America. Rather than allowing everyone to perform works simply, the system requires payment from all, with no leeway for schools, museums, or non-profit organizations.