TIME TRAVEL IN A CABINET
When in 2001 critic Arthur Danto used aesthetician William Kennick’s 1958 metaphor of the world as a warehouse to describe Fluxus’ views on the relationship between art and life, he did not suspect that he was tapping into Maciunas’ most fundamental symbolic nucleus for the movement: storage spaces and their organization. Danto’s statement referred more to the varied contents of the warehouse -- from boats and housing to furniture and clothing -- rather than, like Maciunas, to its structure as a container. Nonetheless it may be possible to trace the dialogue between two very important spheres of Maciunas’ thought, functionalism in design and architecture, and the recounting and preservation of history, along a series of storage solutions devised by him through the years that constitute milestones in his work and in the history of Fluxus. In 1965, the architect/historian and leader of Fluxus allegedly approached the Soviet authorities for consideration of his own Maciunas Prebafricated Building System. Beginning in 1930, foreign architects were invited systematically to do projects in the USSR, best exemplified by the participation of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Eric Mendelsohn in the public international contest for the Palace of Soviets in 1931. Despite the fact that this exchange was curbed by the Soviet hostility to modern architecture that came about under Stalin, it frames, along with the continuing postwar reconstruction efforts in Europe, the conception and submission of this project.
If it were possible to foresee future work and present it on a résumé, Maciunas might have presented his qualifications to the Soviet officials thus:
A quick glance at his résumé reveals a pendular movement between an intense preoccupation with the design and construction of functional architecture and furniture, and the utilization of the same means for the collection and preservation of history, both of which represent his areas of formal training. The same modular cabinets that he intended as part of the project for “Flux Furniture,” 15-inch wooden cubes with “walnut sides and back, locked corners, variations on doors” that served to satisfy every possible need in a household in various configurations ranging from lamps to tables, would now be devoted to store the Flux Archives or documents of the history of the movement. Years later, functionality and history intersect head-on in Jean Brown’s Shaker Seed house in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A multifarious array of cabinets and drawers were proposed for the largest room on the second floor of the house of his close friend and collector to house her ample collection of works, ephemera, and correspondence by Dada, Surrealist, and Fluxus artists. Later, the Fluxcabinet, the last Fluxus anthology, under commission by Susan Reinhold (partner of Jean Brown’s son, Robert Brown) is directly born out of the formal solutions (a combination of office furniture of the kind Maciunas had already seen applied to art in a 1969-70 edition compiled by René Block, and of Shaker furniture aesthetics) and archival drive synthesized in the Tyringham archive.
The proclivity to organize and classify space evident in the examples listed above is heir both to Maciunas’ own penchant for classification demonstrated by his numerous charts and diagrams, and to the rationalization of space originating with the industrial revolution. Le Corbusier, whose oeuvre Maciunas admired, provided one of the most visible manifestations of the gradual extension to all areas of architectural practice of principles of efficiency to be found in industry. In his design of the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, particularly in his proposal of the “Casiers standards” [standard storage compartments], as well as in his book L’art decorative d’auhourd-hui, one of four accompanying publications to the exhibition, Le Corbusier foregrounded the importance of storage accommodations for the efficient functioning of home and office. In the core chapter of this book, “Type-Needs,” the architect sets out to formulate man’s “most fundamental desires,” believing that human needs “are not very numerous; they are very similar for mankind” and that “these needs are type, that is to say they are the same for all of us.” He believes in the existence of four types of needs: containment (cups, bottles); shelter (housing); memory aids (filing cabinets and copy letters); and storage (wardrobes and sideboards). The chapter is profusely illustrated with all manners and forms of drawers, cabinets, and filing systems. It might be possible to understand the marriage of storage and history in Maciunas’ work as an attempt to flexibilize this view of functionalism, one that focused on biological needs at the expense of needs based on social identity and tradition, and which pervaded not only Corbusier’s thought but that of many other architects and artists at the height of the machine age. He can be seen, in other words, to be using what Corbusier calls “tools” associated with industry and bureaucracy to satisfy such complex needs as the preservation of and access to history.
But it is only 1965. We have no evidence of Maciunas’ hypothetical evolution toward a manipulation of functionalism to consider needs beyond the basic ones, or conversely toward a consideration of history as a basic human need. What we do know, nonetheless, is that the discussion of functionalism after the war had been rampant for many years. The question after the war was if and how to recover faith in technology and the rationalization of industry when there was ample evidence that they had a major responsibility for the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. A related discussion took shape around the concept of monumentality, through which, beyond the mere providing of shelter, the expression of human history and traditions was contended as a preeminent objective of architecture. Close friends of Maciunas have often declared that he kept abreast of the latest architectural developments. The very fact of his connection to at least one member of the Situationist International (as potential contributor to the Fluxus No. 2 West European Year-Box I, whose contents were proposed as late as 1962), one of whose several configurations was the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, reveals the possibility that his understanding and embrace of functional design in 1965 might have been far from a simplistic, naïve position, and that it must be given due credit in its engagement with ongoing postwar discussions of functionalism and related issues such as the status of monumentality.
Furthermore, a fundamental turn from the long rejection and historical silence of the Russian avant-garde and the prescription of Social Realism as the mandatory aesthetic choice during Stalin’s rule, was announced late in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev’s address to the builders, in which he paved the way for the recovery of the functionalism at the heart of Constructivism. As scholar Jean-Louis Cohen expresses, “Khrushchev’s discourse led to a redefinition of architecture as essentially a technical practice, and opened the door to a new type of historical narrative, allowing for the rememoration of the avant-garde.” The history of the avant-garde was not recovered at the expense of, but because of, a renewed faith in efficiency and functionalism.
In Maciunas Prefabricated Building System, storage cabinets and the rationalized space of the kitchen area come to serve as structural elements. As late as 1951 at least one manufacturer of factory-built kitchens had experimented with the transformation of the mechanical core of the house -- the unit of kitchen and bathroom, what Maciunas calls in his proposal the “Service Cubical” -- into its structural core, serving as the load-bearing structure of the prefabricated house. According to a major study published that same year by author Burnham Kelly for the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation of the Prefabrication Industry in the United States, this development “supports the theory, often put forward, that ultimately the rational prefabricated house will be an outgrowth of the mass-produced mechanical core, rather than the reverse.” No such transformation, however, had been devised for storage cabinets. In contrast to the Soviet prefabricated building system, as he himself analyses in appendix 1 of his pamphlet, in which, as was common practice, walls would function as load-bearing structures, Maciunas indicates in his “Method of Design Development,” that “Storage cabinets are made to substitute for structural walls.” In this manner, cabinets in the house perform a double function, storage and support. As in Le Corbusier’s L’art decorative d’aujourd-hui, shelves and cabinets become an icon of efficiency, the foundational stones of a proposal geared to resuscitate and elevate functionalism.
In the context of an ongoing battle between the symbolic aspirations of social realism and functionalism in the USSR, the return to functionalism meant the recovery of history and tradition, not their cancellation. Efficiency is precisely the way Maciunas proposes for dealing with the past, and in subsequent years, of making history available for future generations. We see it embodied in the many examples of storage units throughout the years, and most notably, in the archive for Jean Brown near the end of his life, where the history of the avant-garde is recovered one cabinet, one document at a time.