In my previous blog entry, I formulated the apparent incompatibility of Fluxus and the archive in terms of the opposition between ecology and economy. Ecological Fluxus works, I argued with the help of Fluxus scholar Hannah Higgins, situate the individual in his/her here and now, while the archive disconnects objects from their own time and place and hoards them. This sums up the problem, but it brings us no closer to an answer to the question, why the archive is such a natural form for a Fluxus display.
In order to start closing the gap, I will here introduce two works of art and a third (imaginary) discipline besides economy and ecology: eco-topology, the study of the place of the house. The first work I want to draw into the discussion is Japanese artist Mieko Shiomi’s Spatial Poem No. 1, subtitled “Word Event”. The work was accompanied by the following introductory text: “This event was done through March, April and May, 1965. Some of the words already might not be in the place described, some might change its place in the near future, some might stay there for a long time from now... some flags being movements... some still indicating the real place”. The work is based on an instruction that reads “Write a word or words on the enclosed card and place it somewhere”. The words and sentences she received in response were printed on small flags that could be stuck into a map of the world. The work is a very early example of mail art – but it is also one of the few works produced in the context of Fluxus that not only disperses itself, but comes back together again as well. In fact, it is almost archival.
By contrast, American Fluxus artist George Brecht’s Word Event is purely dissipative. The instruction that lies at the basis of this work only consists of one word, “Exit”. At one level, it plays on the grammatical ambiguity of the word: it can be an exit, a door, that is meant, but it can also refer to the act of leaving. As such, it is related to a work like “Drip Music (Drip Event)”, which consists of the equally ambiguous word “Dripping”. At another level, it is related to works such as “Direction” and “No Smoking Event”, which read, respectively, “Arrange to observe a sign indicating direction of travel. Travel in the indicated direction. Travel in another direction” and “Arrange to observe a no smoking sign. Smoking. Not smoking”. These works are part of a group of works in which Brecht focuses on barely noticed fittings such as hooks, hinges and in this case, signs. Brecht’s aim was to create what he called “borderline art”, an art precariously balanced on the brink between art and non-art. To obtain such a result, he took the Duchampian ready-made one step further, to the point where it is enough to observe an object, a situation or an act in daily life. The Duchampian act of selection, whether dictated by aesthetic delectation or not (Duchamp in a talk at the MoMA, 19 October 1961), is replaced with a casual noticing. The actual physical shape of the work is no longer important.
Both works imply a certain conception of space and place; it is this aspect of them that is studied in an eco-topological analysis. Now I have to say from the outset that my comments are only relevant if one is willing to accept the work on its own premises, just as one has to be interested in archiving it in a way that suits it for my argument to be relevant at all. Both works are extremely open and rely on the collaboration of the viewer or recipient, so they are easily sabotaged. Shiomi’s Spatial Poem no. 1 appears to operate in the same way as Derrida’s archive does. The recipients were supposed to write their word, the place where they had put it and their name on an enclosed response card. In Derridean terms, the card functioned as a material substrate for a living memory. The moment when the card is filled out is the archival moment, another one of Derrida’s expressions, after which living memory is written proof and the act is marked as having taken place at a different time and in a different place. Moreover, the responses were numbered, ready for the map to receive them as a material substrate for the material substrate: it carries numbers to indicate where each flag needs to be stuck. The flags are documents, the map is an archive – different, but powered by the same logic.
However, the work seems to have invited subversion of that same logic. No less than three words were thrown into the sea, two were kept in the recipient’s pocket and composer György Ligeti – see my blog entry called “100 Metronomes” – flushed his word down the toilet. What is even more important is that the map with all the flags stuck on it makes it very clear that the human brain cannot capture so many things going on at the same time. The “word event” it embodies is also the event of experiencing your own inability to grasp so many words at one time; it is that, at least as much as it is the event of collecting and localising the words. In Brecht’s Word Event something similar happens, but along a different route. Upon first glance, the instruction, “EXIT”, appears to be an authorative, generative text. It seems to have the authority to turn everyday objects or events into art and to generate documentary material of itself. But the work is never complete without you, the spectator, thinking about it. Even when looking at the score you are realising the work – which means that no-one can ever see the actual work. The original disappears and the work is dispersed across a million living substrates, namely, living, thinking, feeling people. Their eco-topology, the place of their house, is different from that of the archive as we know it. All the ingredients – the substrate, the archive, the law it establishes and perpetuates – are there, but they are displaced.
To be continued.