- June 16, 2001 - December 30, 2001
Beginning in the 1960s, Fluxus was a loose and diverse association of artists who championed a form of art-making that did not exclude everyday actions and experiences. As Fluxus co-founder George Maciunas put it, “It [Fluxus] is a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, [John] Cage, and [Marcel] Duchamp.” Fluxus artists drew on Dada, Duchamp’s readymades, Surrealism, Futurism, and experimental music. For Fluxus artists, play undermined the seriousness of “high” art in its humor and irreverence and encouraged participants to celebrate everyday actions instead of static, valuable art objects. Since games can be humorous, can invite physical or mental participation, and belong to the realm of popular or “low” art rather than high art, they were a perfect match for Fluxus. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Fluxus artists made countless games, from larger, multiple-player events to smaller, more individualized objects. This exhibition presented over seventy Fluxus games and game ephemera by seventeen artists gathered together for the first time.
Fluxus artists often met for multi-player games they called “Fluxfests,” which often included “Flux-Sports.” The Fluxfest held at Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in February 1970 had a particularly amusing Flux-Sports component. Examples of games played on the night of the Flux-Sports event include soccer played on stilts, a javelin toss with a balloon, and table tennis played with paddles with holes in the center or metal cans (to be filled with water) attached. Many of these props were also presented in the exhibition. In addition, contestants had their pick of a variety of races, including the “Slow Speed Cycle Contest,” in which the goal was to ride a bicycle at the slowest possible pace to reach the finish line last, or the “Handicap Run,” whose participants ran “while drinking vodka, eating porridge, eating ice cream, spitting, playing musical instruments, writing, operating film camera[s], grinding coffee, undressing, shouting, counting, etc.” These fun and absurd events fell right in line with Maciunas’ belief that Fluxus activities “must be simple, amusing, [and] concerned with insignificances.”
Many of the more intimate Fluxus games were boxes containing “scores,” or playing instructions, altered decks of cards, or manipulated chess sets. Maciunas defined Fluxus as striving “for the monostructural and nontheatrical qualities of a simple natural event, a game or a gag.” Despite the simplicity Maciunas ascribed to Fluxus, most Fluxus games are not straightforward natural events or insignificances. In fact, as opposed to the event-based Fluxus games, many of the box games, decks of cards, and chess sets are impossible to play with the given instructions. George Brecht’s 1965 Games and Puzzles/Swim Puzzle box game, for example, contains a seashell and a score reading, “Arrange the beads in such a way the word CUAL never occurs.” To play this game Brecht offers us only a seashell, no beads or letters, making it somewhat difficult to follow his instructions. On the other hand, because the word CUAL can never be conjured up with a seashell, you have already won. With typical Fluxus absurdity and irony, although we can’t play this game, we don’t really have to because we have won without arranging a single non-existent bead. Silliness aside, the impossibility of playing the game or performing the work hints at an important question concerning the Fluxus belief that art is found in the action rather than the object: if the action does not occur (the game is not played), what and where is the art?
Despite their sense of play, humor, and diversion, ultimately games are about rules. Players become most aware of the rules of a game when the game is unable to be played according to those rules, and the inability to play certain Fluxus games implies more than a simple gag. By calling attention to social rules by way of the rules in games, Fluxus games comment on the rules of art-making, buying, selling, and canonizing. The Fluxus game is politicized by its lack of logic, transformed into a critique of the established playing field of art practice. While we may appreciate the gag and recognize the characteristic Fluxus mix of humor, absurdity, and irony, Fluxus games remain more complex than simple and more fraught with meaning than mere insignificant amusement. On the other hand, you could simply read the instructions, get the joke, and laugh.