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Fluxus was a network of artists who thought anything could be art, and anyone could be an artist. This video explores the food-related work of George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles, et al. Vote for your favorite novel here!: https://to.pbs.org/2Jes2X5

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Throughout history, food has served as subject matter, inspiration, and of course, sustenance for artists.  Food has also been the art on a number of occasions.  On today's Art Cooking, we're exploring the activities of a group of artists working in the 1960s and '70s, who believed the stuff of our everyday lives could be art and that any of us can be artists.  Sometimes it involved food.  

Fluxus began before it was given a name, like this quintessentially fluxian instruction piece asking us to light a match and watch it until it goes out was written by Yoko Ono in 1955, firmly before the early '60s when the name was coined and Ono became associated with the  movement, or non-movement as its members preferred to call it.  The late 1950s saw a bubbling up of alternative art practices in the US and Europe, happenings, experimental music and dance, and fluxus flowed out of that, not a style but an approach, prompts or event scores like this one, sometimes funny, and often utterly unremarkable, but the many who named the group was George Maciunas, or Mr. Fluxus as this book calls him, who emigrated from Lithuania to the US in 1948 and staged the first official fluxus events in 1961 and '62.

We're gonna pretend like we were invited to contribute to the New Years Eve flux feast Maciunas organized in New York in 1969.  The distribution list is a veritable who's who of fluxus artists, all asked to participate by contribuing either a food or drink of your own invention or to make something up from the list below.  First on the list are flux eggs, which we're gonna give a go.  

First, emptying out some eggshells, per his instruction.  He probably didn't use this nifty egg topper that's supposed to give us a clean cut and make for some pretty eggshells.  It doesn't work perfectly for me, so let's talk about something else.  Maciunas was the group's most prominent instigator and evangelist and he published a fluxus manifesto in 1963.  

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The name is derived from the Latin fluere, to flow, and Matiunas embraced its association with bodily discharge and scientific processes.  He called to purge the world of bourgeouis sickness and promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art.  He wanted to promote living art, anti-art, promote non-art reality, to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.  

Matiunas was often the MC at fluxus events, but it had a relatively diverse roster of members and participants.  There was Nam June Paik, a Korean artist who went on to pretty much found video art.  Alison Knowles, whose food work we're gonna enact later.  The concrete poet Emmett Williams, of course, there's George, and artist-composer and classical double bassist Benjamin Patterson.  There was also Charlotte Moorman, seen here performing a work by Paik. Ben Vautier, here performing a work by George Brecht, also involved with fluxus.  Shigeko Kubota first executed her performance affixing a paintbrush to her underwear and brushing red paint onto paper at a fluxus festival in 1965.  La Monte Young and of course, Yoko Ono, among a number of others, many of whom were present for the New Years Eve feast at hand.

Speaking of, we're to fill our shells with any of a list of materials, the first of which is plaster.  This doesn't seem quite right, so we're gonna go ahead and rename ours after Matiunas' home country and mix it up per the box's instructions, or roughly so, pouring it in our first eggshell and letting it dry.  

Next up is urethane foam, which you can buy or secretly steal a bit from a cushion in your house.  After that, liquid white glue.  Yeah, this doesn't look right either.  There we go.  Now would be a good time to mention that Matiunas and others saw the group as being a kind of contemporary expression of dada.  Like dada, fluxists rejected the status quo, upsetting norms in their focus on humble, everyday objects, presenting them in unexpected places and unexpected ways and last up, some white paint.  

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Other items on his list are ink, water, white gelatin, coffee, bad smell, good smell, dead bug, and the all important category of etc, so you can really take this in whatever direction you wish.  Clearly inedible but also delightfully confounding.  

Artists at the time were turning away from the drama and self seriousness of abstract expressionism.  Fluxus had a sense of humor and as you should be able to tell by now was not about the individual artist but about group practice, a more democratic form of art open to anyone who could follow some instructions, like I too can make fluxus art happen by following Matunas' tea variations, also on the New Year's Eve menu, which can be made from boiling wood or rope or leather or wool or paper.

We've found some jute rope that we thought would do well for this and are gonna simply steep it with some boiling water, letting it sit there for a while.  Because we should probably make something edible, we're also gonna try one of the mono-color meals on the list, and we've chosen the black meal, contributed by Bici Hendricks, who now goes by the name Nye Ffarrabas.  

First, we gather ingredients that we perceive as black, like these grapes and black beans.  I've invited a friend, by the way, the artist Lauren Zoll who contributed the Assignment "Off" and who also happens to be doing a project where she's harvesting ink from black beans and fruits to make solar panels that mimic photosynthesis and create detectable amounts of electrical energy, but we also have black sesame seeds and ripe mullberries, black rice, and nori, or dried seaweed, black coffee, and dark chocolate, which doesn't end up looking very black at all.  We've also got some black bean juice and mullberry juice from Lauren's project, along with blackstrap molasses and hoisin sauce.  

Then we set about making some dishes from our ingredients.  I'm gonna try making some black sushi.  A little rice, some berries, some grapes, a little hoisin sauce, and then I'll do a super amateurish job of wrapping this up.  

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Apologies to any sushi chefs in the audience, but I have my untrained amateur rep to protect.  Then, we'll dip into our sesame seeds and set aside.  While I make some more sushi, Lauren is going to attempt some black bean foam, working from her black bean juice, some mulberries, maybe throw in a little black rice for some starch, a little cream, and we're gonna shake it on up in a whipped cream dispenser.  Might as well shake the camera a little, too, while we're at it, and whoa, out it comes!  We're pleased with our test, so we add it to our plate, making a handsome pool of our foam around the sushi.

Let's garnish with some more grapes and berries and black beans and behold, a black meal, which of course demonstrates clearly that black is never really black.  Okay, okay, except for maybe Anish Kapoor's precious (?~6:54) black, but we see purple and grey and green and brown and red and you know?  It's not half bad.  A little sweet and a little savory with the funky fishiness of the nori and complexity of the hoisin and beaniness of the foam.

We didn't fight over the remaining pieces, but all in all, a success.  Other Hendrix suggestions for monocolor meals are blue, red, or green, which I really hope you'll all do and share photos with us online with #theartassignment.  This, I'm sure, looks nothing like the black meal that took place at the original event.  As 1969 turned into 1970, at Jonas (?~7:32)' cinematech at 80 Worcester St in New York, but that's the point.  A simple prompt can lead in any number of directions, and shoot, Lauren escaped before we could share our jute tea.  Say that 10 times fast. 

Sorry, Mark, it's gonna be just the two of us.  Wow, this stuff is pungent.  We're not gonna actually drink it because we're not sure it's safe, but the aroma is overwhelmingly earthy and sharp and ropey.  

Since we've got some leftover eggs, oh hey, man, how's it going, we might as well enact this event score by flexus artist Dick Higgins, titled "Danger Music Number Fifteen" from 1962.

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It reads: "Work with eggs and butter for a time."  In case you're vegan or don't have any eggs, here are "Danger Music Number Seventeen" and "Danger Music 24" for your consideration, but let's get started.  In the late 50s, Higgins studied at the New School of Social Research in New York with composer John Cage, who had a huge influence on Higgins and many others.  Cage allowed and embraced chance as a part of his work, like Higgins does here, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.  What does 'work' mean, and how long is a 'time'?  

Improvisation was assumed in the event scores produced by fluxus artists.  Their instructions that when followed produce an artwork, like Philip Corner's event score for "Piano Activities" doesn't give the exact direction to destroy a piano and auction its pieces to the audience, but that's precisely what happened when it was performed at a fluxus festival in 1962.  Musical instruments had the potential to generate sounds and experiences in many more ways than in their traditional deployment. 

Fluxus was deeply rooted in experimental music but also in philosophy, literature, theater, and poetry.  Higgins called this kind of art "intermedia", occupying the uncharted land that lies between the categories generally assigned in the arts.  Anyway, a newspaper account of Higgins performing this work tells us that he smashed some of the eggs on his head, tossed some of them in the air, and handed over some of the mixture to members of the audience.  So here you go.

The final course of our flux feast today is gonna be Allison Knowles' "Identical Lunch", which she dictates is "A tunafish sandwich on wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo, and a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk."  So in the late 1960s, Knowles would often go to lunch at the Riss Diner near the home she shared with other fluxus artists, including Dick Higgins, who was her husband at the time.

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Side note, they divorced in 1970, but they didn't have a flux divorce like (?~10:07) Hendricks had in 1971.  Anyhow, her friend Philip Corner of "Piano Activities" fame noticed she ate the same thing every day and then she decided to make a kind of performance of it.  She invited friends to join her and asked others to try the same lunch wherever they were and write about it.  Corner did his own version, steadily working through the entire Riss menu, item by item.

I went ahead and made by tuna salad off-screen, because I really think it's something that should only happen in private, and let's be real, it couldn't have been anything other than iceberg lettuce, and there we are.  Tuna fish sandwiches.  We pour our glasses of buttermilk and dig in to our perfectly edible "Identical Lunch".  Our two sandwiches may be functionally identical, but they certainly aren't identical to any tuna fish sandwich Knowles has ever had, or any that you would make if you set out to do the same.

This type of performance required no audience.  It happened whether or not she was alone or with others, whether she did it or other people.  Knowles made a book about the project in 1971 with one of the best quotes ever included in an art book by Corner's aunt: "What's there to write about?  It's just a lousy tunafish sandwich."  But that's the thing.  This meager sandwich not only demonstrates the impossibility that anything can ever identical but also that there's something to be said for the often-overlooked activities of our daily lives.  The performances we enact and put on each day, whether or not we're aware of them.  Knowles said about it, "It was about having an excuse to get to talk to people, to notice everything that happened, to pay attention."  

That was lovely, but no we must confront George Macinuas' variation on the lunch, which unfortunately requires me to put the entire meal into a blender, blend until smooth, and drink it.  Gah.  Maciunas.  You had to go and make it unpalatable, didn't you?  We made another sandwich for this purpose and are following his instructions to a T, although desperately searching for a loophole that will allow us to escape our fate, but there doesn't seem to be any vagueness in this prompt.  

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The artists involved in fluxus were immensely talented in the skill of taking the magic out of art, taking the ego out of it.  Most of what's left of fluxus are printed pieces of paper and photographs, because that's all it was really.  Event scores, instructions, kits, and publications.  Inexpensive to produce and distribute and to purchase.  They took apart what it was to be an artist and what kind of work it required.  Not about feeling, but doing, and do it, we did.

It's been argued that fluxus came to an end when Maciunas died in 1978 from pancreatic cancer after which there was a flux feast and wake where guests ate foods that were only black, white, or purple, but there's no real clarity about when it ended or even if it did.  Fluxus was never a finite movement, but a loose network of artists working among and between media, united by core values.  In one sense, all of their works were recipes, able to be carried out by anyone, anywhere, and with the potential to unfold in any number of ways.

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