George Maciunas’ Charts
The Historical Past of Fluxus’ Future
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
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.
1 Dick Higgins, „Intermedia“, in: The Something
Else Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 1, Febr. 1966.
2 See Astrit
Schmidt-Burkhardt, „Learning Machines“: >From
Art History to a Chronology of Fluxus, Berlin: Vice Versa, 2003.
3 See Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, Stammbäume der Kunst:
Zur Genealogie der Avantgarde, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005.
4 See Rosaling E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and
Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1985, pp. 9-22.