It's often hard to get a handle on group shows of young artists, but the cluster of shows which the Lower Manhattan nonprofit Art in General has opened for its 20th anniversary is unusually complicated. It includes a street project series and two installations around the theme of Fluxus, the 1960s movement that played uncle to Happenings, Pop and Conceptual Art.
The street projects have mostly been woven into the commercial life on Canal Street, New York's little bit of Hong Kong (on view till Feb. 28, 2002). The two Fluxus-themed projects include a two-curator gallery group show, "Looking for Mr. Fluxus," a tribute to the late Fluxus chef d'ecole George Maciunas, and Skúta Helgason's installation "Fluxus Genetics" (both running Oct. 9-Dec. 22, 2001).
The subject -- or pretext -- of Fluxus for these shows comes from the group's past proximity to Art in General. Some 40 years ago they ran a concert hall and multiples warehouse shop nearby. Even in that heyday, Peter Frank wrote of this movement as "sly and diffident."
Fluxus is about art embedded in daily life through its routines. Fluxus is art as life, or as a way of life. Rather than a cultural practice tied to a system of markets and institutional validations, Fluxus is a community of artists who think and practice similarly, a neighborly international bohemia.
Fluxus performance began as a tweaking of the routines of high cultural musical performance during the late 1950s. Artists like Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys made high culture subcultural, and scores of "anti-artists" and a galaxy of mini-movements moved within the Fluxus ambit. I met Fluxus in the mid-'70s at the Avant-Garde Festival organized by cellist Charlotte Moorman. By then the movement foregrounded whimsy, Buddhist detachment, Zen illuminations and an art of the commonplace centered around games.
In recent years various political aspects of this 1960s movement have begun to emerge. These include the righteous histrionics of the Guerrilla Art Action Group, which was tied to Fluxus, and the slapstick detournement of the Yippies. But most Fluxus politics is by implication, and far more indirect than the rhetorical forms. Again it's about living a life in art, a sense of strategies born in a play on the bureaucratic routines of control by state and capital.
The leading professor of this mode of Fluxus, indeed the Breton of the movement, was the Lithuanian émigré George Maciunas. He was an expert engineer of situations for artists, including a kind of shadow economy.
Maciunas is called "Mr. Fluxus" in the title of the show upstairs at Art in General, and in a book on him edited by Dick Higgins. But he might also be called "Mr. Soho." After two years of running a "Fluxshop" on Canal Street selling the group's signature artists' multiples, Maciunas began to organize co-ops for his compatriots to live in the downtown warehouse district. Between 1966 and 1975 he did 15 of them -- without filing prospectuses, which indemnify capital and add hugely to a co-op's cost.
The eclectic collections of objects in Maciunas' "Fluxboxes" came largely from the caches of old manufactures he discovered in these empty lofts, part of the first bounty to post-modern art of the nation's deindustrialization.
Maciunas was inspired by Lef, the ultra-revolutionary group of Russian Constructivists, and after the State Attorney General issued warrants for his arrest back in the 1970s, he holed up in the basement of the co-op at 80 Wooster underneath fellow Lithuanian Jonas Mekas' budding Anthology Film Archives. Like some literary character, Maciunas concocted a kit of disguises to hide from the state. But hard-assed contractors caught up with him and beat him savagely in a parking lot.
I culled the details of this story from an afternoon with the books in Skúta Helgason's installation Fluxus Genetics. It's furnished like a rundown '50s apartment with jazz and odd records (most prior to 1962), a set of highball glasses, and shelves of well-thumbed period books. Helgason drifted around during the opening in a retro suit while videotapes of Ernie Kovacs' inimitable routines played on an antique TV set. Meanwhile, Luiza Interlenghi has loaded a cabinet in the "simulated living room environment" with copies of original Fluxus materials.
In this and the "Laboratorium" adjoining it, Helgason is working to isolate the "gene" of Fluxus, inspired by the dense and elaborate chart of influences compiled by Maciunas. Helgason is marking and annotating a continuously expanding library of delightfully obscure titles, and analyzing slides of work by different artists for the "presence of the Fluxus gene." Perhaps, Helgason said, he will find artists who are "illegitimate children" of Fluxus without knowing it. He plans then to mount an exhibition of their work in this space
This act of public curation is a marked instance of the collapse of the roles of artist, academic and curator. It is based in research and a dash of what in historical museums is called "reenactment," inhabiting a lounge which, Helgason said, reflects "my fantasy of cultural influences" on the Fluxus movement. (In fact, restaging has long been part of this movement; a concert of "Fluxus classics" is planned by Art in General for Dec. 2.)
This project is a charming environment of curiosities and rare art information. And of course, Helgason's conceit of a bio-art-history is historical positivism taken to a patently ludicrous extreme. If "reenactment" and research are genetics, is formal analysis of artworks forensics?
I confess the conflation of genetic biological research with historical investigation leaves me uneasy. The metaphor has a legal aspect, naturalized through resort to biology, and a juridical outcome -- curation. Artists who would submit themselves to esthetic certification must be masochists -- or students. But maybe that take is too serious for Fluxus, for what is after all a Fluxish project.