First Find Your Island: The Quest for a Mega-Subjective Space

by Mark Staniforth

 

In 1972, the American artist Carla Liss travelled throughout Greece with Fluxus founder George Maciunas, in hopes of buying an island to establish an artists’ colony. “We didn’t find an island,” recalled Liss, “but we had a lot of fun looking.”[1] Fluxus was plagued by such triumphant failures. In another aborted project, Maciunas planned to lease a STOL8 passenger plane that the Fluxus crew would pilot from one remote island to the next, all the while (in a marvelously simplistic proposal) staging performances and “try[ing] to live off the sea”.[2] On one occasion, Maciunas did find a prospective home. Having identified a tiny, uninhabited island in the Caribbean, he led a five-person exploratory expedition (which, bizarrely, included Robert De Niro). Getting ahead of himself, Maciunas printed up postage stamps and assigned ministerial posts to his Fluxus colleagues. Beaten back by poisonous bushes, the project was quickly abandoned. De Niro, for his part, returned to civilization to gift the world films like Little Fockers and Dirty Grandpa.

These Fluxus projects, with their attendant failures and/or impossibilities (two more examples: George Brecht proposed translocating the Isle of Wight to the South Seas to afford it a more favorable climate[3]; Stefan Wewerka suggested: “Cut the earth in half, turn both halves in opposite directions and glue them together again”[4]), provide the perfect blueprint/s with which to approach art in our post-conceptual, post-urban age. Yet, once upon a time, adoration of the city was an all-consuming impulse.

Since the dawn of Futurism, the avant-garde had always been obsessed with all things urban. The first Futurist manifesto glorified the “modern metropolis” with its “vibrating nocturnal fervor of factories and shipyards burning under violent electrical moons.”[5]  The Situationists sought to detourn existing cities from within, and then build their own Gothams. Even the self-styled champion of “uncreative writing,” Kenneth Goldsmith, collated Capital (a wonderful 900-word paean to his beloved New York), emulating what Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project had done for Paris eighty years before. Yet, now we must surely concede that any aesthetic value in exploiting the urban has been completely exhausted. Pop Art-ish prints of adver-logos and bright yellow taxi-cabs are flogged by the cartload from market stalls. Punkish fashions sell to preteens in Wal-Mart. The act of detournement has itself been detourned. Surely the only sensible solution to this dilemma is to champion the transcendence of escape.

Mega-subjectivity may sound like a wholly inadequate, not to say unsexy headline act, but it describes perfectly a proposal to pursue an escapist fantasy, both literally and metaphorically, through the exploitation (and exploration) of the subjective urge. Central to this proposal are two main ideas/themes. The first is illustrated by the Art & Language collective’s insistence that all art is defined by its “capacity to provoke thought,”[6] and the second by Maciunas’ suggestion that aesthetic fulfilment can be achieved by taking an “art-attitude”[7] to even the most banal, run-of-the-mill phenomena. Furthermore, it is built upon the belief that the Conceptualists’ obsession with suppressing authorial voice and influence (a sort of contemporary extension of Barthes’ Death of the Author) is/was deeply flawed, if not impossible. Take, for instance, Goldsmith’s Day, a retyped version of the September 1, 2000 New York Times. Apparently a resolutely “uncreative” undertaking, Goldsmith himself admitted that, in fact, such an exercise generated countless authorial subjectivities and intrusions (note: font selection and manuscript formatting).

Mega-subjectivity argues that the “capacity to provoke thought” is optimized not by the attempted annihilation of self, but by its polar opposite: by piling on subjectivity so thickly, filling it with so many “whims” and “fancies” and “false dawns” and “cul-de-sacs” and “contradictions” and “failures,” that there comes a point in which the attendant values implicit in individual subjectivity are impossible to discern, and are thus rendered meaningless. Effectively, it is here that subjectivity becomes objective, if you will. This, I propose, is the central point of the mega-subjective.

And this, perhaps, is also where the fun starts. Mega-subjectivity vehemently rejects the nihilism which has shackled itself to modern Conceptualism, arguing instead that the path to aesthetic fulfillment is best served by the exploitation of the more emotive and wild elements in society. For example, take Gil Wolman’s film Treaty on Venom and Eternity[8], which is made up entirely of sporadic white flashes on an otherwise blank screen. Wolman’s theory goes that by negating the expectation of film itself, he clears the space for a “form of affirmation” to emerge within the spectator, who can then “form their own signifier and take an active part in the work’s creation.” Wolman’s proposal is entirely plausible, except for one crucial element: the reality that by the time an affirmative point is reached, the cinema would be empty (bar a handful of hardcore avant-garde aesthetes). It is, indisputably, art for artists—distant and impenetrable.

This same impenetrableness can be seen in the work of John Cage. The inestimable doyen of avant-garde sound poetry, Cage wrote chance-based scores designed to reduce authorial intent to a minimum. Like Wolman, he wanted the listener to “form their own signifier” (except, it seems, when those signifiers were formed too flamboyantly). The classically-trained cellist Charlotte Moorman, who would enjoy some degree of fame for her career-long association with Nam June Paik, imbued a wildness to her interpretations (including nudity and, on one occasion, mid-performance egg-frying) that Cage abhorred[9]. Yet Moorman was simply responding, in a mega-subjective way, to a specific set of possibilities Cage himself had created. Conceptualism’s quest for “neutrality and emptiness,”[10] it seems, extended to its interpreters. In a sense, they wanted to have their cake (or, in this case, their eggs), and eat it too.

Fluxus scholar Hannah Higgins described the movement’s promotion of “concrete, everyday stuff” as a “metarealistic trigger”[11] intended to inspire creative fulfilment using elements accessible to everyone. Inevitably, this meant that certain subjects/themes would reoccur. Futurism embraced carnivalesque elements like sex and food (see Valentine de Saint-Point’s Futurist Manifesto of Lust, and Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook). Paik encouraged Moorman to perform nude after bemoaning there was not enough sex in classical music[12]. Alison Knowles’ event scores instructed  participants to simply “Make a Salad.” Ben Patterson swore by humor and kitsch, and playful provocation: “I prefer to use humor as it often provides the path of least suspicion/resistance for the implanting of subversive ideas.”[13] Among his works was Lick Piece, which instructed: “Cover shapely female with whipped cream/lick/topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional.”[14] Maciunas’ geographical meanderings embrace elements of nostalgia linked with childhood exploits like map drawing and den building. As such, in a sort of Freudian “phantastic” way, their “metarealistic trigger” is bound to prove more irresistible than, say, a flickering film, or a set of cold, hard instructions a la Cage (the subtext: express yourself, but not too much).

Precedents for mega-subjective practice are not confined to early Futurism and Fluxus. The quest for subjective maximalism is evident even in works like My Secret Life, a 2500-page epic of Victorian pornography first published in 1888, and in Joe Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time, a protracted transcription of everyday conversations which was never published, and may or may not have been a hoax.

Perhaps the finest example of a practice applying the tenets of mega-subjectivity (besides Moorman’s performances) is the work of the British artist Emma Kay. In a series of ambitious experiments (which were subsequently published in book form), Kay sought to relate the respective histories of the world (Worldview), the Bible (The Bible From Memory) and Shakespeare (Shakespeare From Memory), entirely from memory.[15] In Worldview, Kay flits (metaphorically) across millions of years—disregarding (and making light of) inconsistencies, mistakes and omissions in the execution of the work.  The main focus of her praxis was to juxtapose important historical events with fads and popular culture, imbuing a subjective richness to the work. In other words, it is the text’s failures and disjointedness which enlarge the capacity to provoke thought. The text may allow us to generate a limited number of subjective deductions relating to the author’s education or knowledge, but the whole (despite being a work by an individual) tells us less about the individual and more about the condition and fallacies of the (objective) human mind.

By its very nature, mega-subjectivity will, much like Fluxus, resist formal definitions. In addition, it will never establish itself as a movement like modern Conceptualism.  Many of its (furtive) adherents will utilize mega-subjective modes and practices without ever knowing it. However, unlike what George Maciunas proposed for Fluxus, mega-subjectivity will (also) never devise a grand design/schema to unify the worlds of art and work. It merely proposes that one should polish and pull one’s “metarealistic trigger” in the name of individual, creative fulfilment, and in so doing, inspire others in the spirit of (aesthetic) comradery. Toss a salad! Splash a shapely female with whipped cream!  Hire a plane and head for a deserted island! Then, document these adventures, all the while reciting punk impresario Malcolm McClaren’s savvy admonition over and over: “It is better to be a flamboyant failure than a benign success.”[16]


[1] Williams, E. & Noel, A (1997) Mr Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas. London: Thames & Hudson. pp 215.

[2] Williams/Mr Fluxus, pp 216.

[3] See Blom, I. “Boredom & Oblivion” in Friedman, K. The Fluxus Reader. Chichester: J Wiley & Sons, 1997.

[4] Wewerka, S. in Vostell, W. Fantastic Architecture, Something Else Press.

[5] See “Manifesto of Futurism” in Rainey, L. (ed), Futurism: An Anthology. New Haven: Yale Press, 2009. pp 51-53.

[6] Rugoff, R. “How to Look at Invisible Art” in Invisible: Art About The Unseen. London: Hayward Gallery, 2012. pp 39.

[7] Williams/Mr Fluxus, pp 91.

[8] See Schulmann, F. “I see NOTHING”, in Copeland, M & Lovay, B. (eds): The Anti-Museum. Berlin: Koenig, 2017. pp 626.

[9] See Rothfuss, J. Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp 3.

[10] Friedman/Fluxus Reader, pp 76.

[11] Higgins, H. Fluxus Experience. Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 2002. pp 62.

[12] Paik called its absence “a lamentable historical blunder”. See Rothfuss/Cellist, pp 88.

[13] Patterson, B. Born in the State of FLUX/us. Houston: Comtemporary Art Museum Houston, 2012. pp 115.

[14] See http://id3419.securedata.net/artnotart/fluxus/bpatterson-lickingpiece.html

[15] See http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/emma-kay-2701

[16] See https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/aug/10/malcolm-mclaren-musician

 

 

BIO

Mark Staniforth is a writer and poet from a small village in North Yorkshire, England. He is currently investigating mega-subjectivity for a PhD at Leeds Beckett University, and producing one sonnet each day at antisonnets.wordpress.com. He tweets as @markpoems.

 

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