George Maciunas’ Charts: The Historical Past of Fluxus’ Future

By: Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt

One makes history if one actively intervenes. From the position of stepping back and reflecting, one writes about it. George Maciunas practiced both. As ‘agent-provocateur’ his name became synonymous with the New York Fluxus movement. By acting as the editor of publications both graphically stylized and improvised, the educated designer banged heavily the advertising drum. He coordinated the worldwide artistic activities of the Fluxus collaborators so that the movement continued to be a “new wave”. As many other isms came and went, Fluxus grew to gain international interest, dominating all other contemporary styles. Maciunas tried to impose on it a historical status from inception and from inside the present movement rather than from an outside perspective distant in time. With this vision, Maciunas became the leader of the Fluxus artists.

Despite Maciunas’ engagement, the danger of trivializing this avant-garde movement, which he had developed in the early sixties, was by far not averted. Fluxus deviated between the boundaries of art and non-art and consequently risked being marginalized and, thereby, landing outside of the currently popular Pop-Art scene. Artistic theory leading to an affirmative aesthetics of the consumption culture, is not important to the objectives of Fluxus. Instead, it aimed to reject aesthetics and to introduce ordinary life into the arts. Particularly ephemeral works like “gag-like simple events” or so-called “games” are characterized more by their event character than by tangible results. Therefore, they run the danger of being deemed negligible. This adds a medial fuzziness. Fluxus acted predominantly in combinations of music, performance, visual arts and literature. This mixed form was called “Intermedia”1 . In order to create an understanding for this type of art, new general conditions had to be created. Maciunas wrote in the brochure “Fluxus” (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-garde Movements) that a “borderline be rationally defined” This limit, which on one side should have the effect of being historically legitimized should also, on the other side, be artistically encouraging. He illustrated, with a series of diagrams, how he wanted this to be understood. Diagrams were Maciunas’ life theme2 . Not only did he produce numerous diagrams with scientific diligence, but he also archived selected examples, or redrew them for purposes of demonstration.

Beginning with the first Fluxus charts, it was already clear that Maciunas wanted to record artistic and sociopolitical chronological evolution. He could not imagine the extent to which he was part of a new development. That is to say, with the 20th century, the era of art genealogy began 3. However, Maciunas had no concrete precedence for his Charts. He also entered the multicultural and intermedial conditions for Fluxus in a tabular arrangement. With this, he moved in a clear counter position to the American tradition of Formalism, which reaches back over Ad Reinhardt’s sarcastic art genealogical tree How to Look at Modern Art in America (1961 and 1946), Nathanial Pousett-Dart’s Gestaltiar Chart of Contemporary American Art (1938), and Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s paradigmatic Chart (1936) to Miguel Covarrubias’ Tree of Modern Art-Planted 60 Years Ago (1933).

The heterogenic relations, which Maciunas shows in his charts, mirrors, the tendency of Fluxus-Artists to lend themselves to the entirety of a piece of art. Thereby, Marcel Duchamp, as a representative of art beyond painting, and John Cage, with his experimental music, were each conceded a central position. Diverse influences from church processions to futuristic theater, channeled Maciunas in view of the different performance and action directions within the artistic collective, which let them finish in chronological order of the Fluxus history. The chronology gives the long history of Fluxus a relatively short appearance despite its thoroughness and degree of precision. Maciunas determines time and again, on the basis of these schemes, who belongs to the core of Fluxus and who had been excluded from membership. The diagram, therefore, takes the characteristics of a show trial. In this manner, questions of writing history and art policy are brought newly forward.

Maciunas’ diagrams, relative to the history of Fluxus, were not spontaneously designed. They were preceded by many intensive history studies, which Maciunas undertook at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and New York University. As was usual amongst American students of the fifties, he developed long tables with data and facts, offering him a better overview of larger developments. The written word became the decisive motive for the educated typographer. Maciunas was somewhat of a “Learning Machine”. His widespread interests and his universalistic approach required suitable forms of knowledge management in order for him to retain an overview of the enormity of the material. The diagram offered its services in so far as it sorted the facts, and reduced complexity. Maciunas established very precise and orderly, extensive chronologies of Russian history, ancient history, and the history of art, in which he sometimes also drew miniatures.

Maciunas’ “Learning Machines” are made from paper and glue. Their design followed the comparative time tables. Space and time, and their dissolution into succession, configured together an orderly system in which one can integrate historical and geographical knowledge. Thereby, the parallel between space and time creates a mathematical relation between the individual data and the allowance to make quantitative statements. It is this geo-historical idea, which inspired Maciunas for the generation, distribution, and maintenance of knowledge. In order to create these informative concentration zones, he breaks up the factual scheme by extending his work into the third dimension.

As a self appointed genealogist, Maciunas summarized the essential influences for Fluxus. As a Fluxus chronicler, he kept track of all events by transferring his many experiences with Fluxus into data. Maciunas tried to escape from the silence of facts by changing them into a diagrammatic flow of history, and to process them graphically so that they are accessible for historical interpretation. Maciunas was not a fantasist. With a certain bean counter mentality, he established accurate lists of all Fluxus activities and put them together in a synopsis. Maciunas was an analyst. He tried to explain Fluxus in his charts since he was interested in historical preconditions and backgrounds. Add to that the What, When and Where, and he was also a chronic systematist. Regardless of whether he managed his work week or brought abstract words into correlation to each other, or whether he schematized the history of Fluxus, the anti-narrative structure determined his thinking. Maciunas spread the sequential events of history out in a way that they made spatial order. In the grid, they take symbolic form4. This geometrical figure, whether in its strict form or as a graphic matrix, structures all knowledge pictures of Maciunas.

Maciunas approached art from a historical perspective. Nonetheless, he developed new ideas for visual expression and the development of art- a testimony to his fascination with the challenge of history writing. Writing history has to do with processes, which in their multilayered appearances, have to be continually re-oriented. The advantage of analytical graphics in the field of art and images lies in its explicative function. It reduces complex situations without many words and makes them presentable in their entirety. By systematizing the information, by means of rationalizing factual relations, it establishes a structure of knowledge.

The art of netted thinking is to simplify and to admit new views. This basis of thinking, which transgresses all areas of science, also determines Maciunas’ artistic practice. Maciunas believed that there would be no real understanding of the evolution of art without visual presentation.

The three dozen history diagrams which Maciunas created between 1953 and 1973 demonstrated historical causalities and tried to draw a historical picture in different ways consisting of data, lines, and vectors. The result is equally fascinating both scientifically and artistically. It opens views to new connections between years on one side and historical events on the other. This results in a completely new form of knowledge transfer.

Maciunas makes clear very complex relationships between political, cultural, historical, economical, poetic, and aesthetic aspects. His diagrams can be read like a “cultural timetable” which, at the same time, predetermine the geo-historical framework of the Fluxus movement. From universal history, the Fluxus chronical is created.

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