IMPORTANCE OF DOING: A Look at Social Media Art, Through the Eyes Fluxus.


Katrine Granholm Mortensen


MA Digital Arts (Visual Arts), 12th of December 2012

Course Leader: Jonathan Kearney
Supervisor: Jane Madsen
Camberwell College, University of the Arts London



Can we use the ideas and values of the 60s Fluxus movement to make sense of todays crowd- sourced social media art?


I have been told that to try to define Fluxus is the absolutely worst thing you can do to Fluxus. Therefore it might sound contradictory or even absurd to try to explain other art forms by drawing parallels to this movement. Even so there are many interesting similarities between the idea of Fluxus and the emerging Social Media Art of today.

Formed in the beginning of the 1960s, Fluxus was an artistic collective moulded from a broad base of artist, who worked with medias in completely new ways and even created new ones in the process. They were in opposition to the established art world, which they found elite and bourgeois. Some of the most fundamental values of Fluxus were: The break with elitist view on art (Maciunas 1965), the need for audience participation (Higgins 2002), and through the subculture of Mail art sprung large networks that bound artists and audiences alike. (Friedman 1984).

Today, new digital platforms such as social media networks are now being used as a basis for creating crowd-sourced art (Davis, 2010). The platforms open op for a new wave of inclusive art that is completely open for contributions from professionals and amateurs alike (Shirky, 2010) – and, like Fluxus and Mail Art did before it, Social Media art defies the established ideas of aesthetics and the role of the artist.

In this essay I extract some of the fundamental principles of Fluxus and compare them to social media art. My hope is that by using some of the principles of Fluxus as a decoder we can come closer to identifying some of the core values in today’s social media art.

KEYWORDS: Fluxus, mail art, social media art, audience participation, networked creation. 


I am lucky enough to live in a town that played a small role in the history of Fluxus. So, as part of
my research on Fluxus and mail art I decided to pay a visit to Knud Petersen who was an eager local contributor to both. Knud Petersen is the founder of the Art Library in Copenhagen, where anyone can rent a piece of art for the going price of a pack of cigarettes. He was also co-organiser and host of several Fluxus concerts in Copenhagen and owns a large archive of Fluxus objects and publications. Petersen was kind enough to sit down and talk to me for several hours, but he was not keen on giving a formal written interview because of his high age. Instead I have quoted his book ‘Post’, which is about mail art, and a TV interview he did on Fluxus.


Fluxus is an art collective that has its roots in the western avant-garde movement with Dada as
one of its most important influences (Milman, 1998). It all began in the early 1960s with a group
of young artists and composers that where part of in the experimental composition class of the
‘New School for Social Research’ taught by the experimental composer and artist John Cage. Quite
a number of his former students of his class were to become influential members of Fluxus. George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Allison Knowles and Allan Kaprow to mention a few. (Friedman, Sawchyn & Smith 1998) Even so, it is the Lithuanian-born designer George Maciunas who is widely recognised as the central founding figure of the group. He named the movement, and he was as much a key organiser of Fluxus events and publications as he was a contributing artist. (Kellein, 1995) In some ways he was the glue that held it all together and many people the movement died with him when
he passed away in 1978. (Fluxus – Remembrance of an Art Form, 1998) Maciunas’ first intention was to create a magazine called Fluxus, which showcased the art of the students and the young artists around John Cages’ course, and from this idea sprung the idea of Fluxus concerts. The activities drew a transnational following of artists into the collective. (Kellein, 1995) Fluxus was to become the label for a broad variety of Intermediate artistic disciplines and gatherings linked together by a community of artist who shared a love for playful conceptual thinking (The Misfits – 30 Years of Fluxus. 1993). Fluxus artist were very experimental, and in their work was often in opposition to the established

art world and its genres. Often the art had a conceptual, almost gag-like quality to it. (Kellein 1995, Higgins, 2002) On the backdrop behind the scene of a early Fluxfest venue, Nikolaj Church in Copenhagen, The German-Danish Fluxus artist Arthur Köpcke had written: “We create music that is poetry and theatre that is painting. We unfold an unspecialized fantasy” (Fluxus – Remembrance of an Art Form, 1998). From the very beginning Fluxus could not be labelled and defined in

the same ways as conventional art forms. This was partly because much Fluxus art did not use classical medias. Much Fluxus Art was Intermediate, which is art that does not fit into conventional classification systems. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins invented the term in 1966 (Higgins, 2002).

In the a TV interview from 1998, the Danish Fluxus contributor Knud Petersen explains how he sees the intermediate nature of Fluxus through his description of the George Brecht score ‘Three Lamp Events’: “I will give you one of the very greatest examples, which is by George Brecht, who made a piece where you simple turn the light on and off. You cannot put it in a museum. It cannot be sold. The man doesn’t fit into of any literary, musical, pictorial context. Because what he is doing – which is characteristic for Fluxus – is Intermedia. Intermedia is something that is neither music, nor painting, nor photograph, nor film, nor literature. It’s something in between, such as turning on and off light.” (Fluxus – Remembrance of an Art Form, 1998).


George Maciunas, who saw himself as the ‘Chairman of Fluxus’ (Kellein 1995), wrote several Manifestos about Fluxus, in ‘Fluxus Broadside Manifesto’ from 1965 he mocks the established art world. This Manifesto is in particular is interesting in this context because Maciunas compares his view on the established art world. Because it is so difficult to say exactly what Fluxus was, as a minimum this Manifesto gives us some insight into what Fluxus was not – or at lest attempted not to be.

To justify artist’s professional, parasitic and elite status in society,
he must demonstrate artist’s indispensability and exclusiveness,
he must demonstrate the dependability of audience upon him,
he must demonstrate that no one but the artist can do art.

Therefore, art must appear to be complex, pretentious, profound, serious, intellectual, inspired, skillful, significant, theatrical, It must appear to be valuable as commodity so as to provide the artist with an income. To raise its value (artist’s income and patrons profit), art is made to appear rare, limited in quantity and therefore obtainable and accessible only to the social elite and institutions.

To establish artist’s nonprofessional status in society,
he must demonstrate artist’s dispensability and
he must demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the audience,
he must demonstrate that anything can be art and anyone can do it.

Therefore, art-amusement must be simple, amusing, unpretentious, concerned
with insignificances, require no skill or countless rehearsals, have no commodity or institutional value.

The value of art-amusement must be lowered by making it unlimited, mass- produced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all.

Fluxus art-amusement is the rear- guard without any pretention or urge
to participate in the competition of “one-upmanship” with the avant-garde. It strives for the monostructural and nontheatrical qualities of simple natural event, a game or a gag. It is the fusion of Spikes Jones Vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp.*

Maciunas (1965) Fluxus Broadside Manifest

In the Manifesto, Maciunas breaks with several assumptions he believes dominates the professional

art establishment:

• ‘Only professional artist produce art.’ • ‘Art is Exclusive’
• ‘Art works should be rare and limited.’ • ‘Art is profound and intellectual.’

• ‘Art is only for an elite audience.

Fluxus Art-Amusement should on the other hand, be it’s opposite.

• Art-Amusement is by non-professionals.
• Art-Amusement is inclusive.
• Art-Amusement is dispensable and mass-produced.
• Art-Amusement is simple, amusing and unpretentious.
• Art-Amusement is obtainable and eventually produced by all.

Clearly in it’s nature, Fluxus was in opposition to the establishment from the very beginning. But the reactions back were also harsh. At the ‘62 Fluxus concert in Nikolaj Church the Danish national TV station recorded the show and planned to air it on TV. Knud Petersen recalls how he a couple of days after the concert, saw a newspaper placard with the words: “TV cancels concert because of bad taste” (Fluxus – Remembrance of an art form, 1998)


According to Hannah Higgins, the daughter of Fluxus artists, Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, an important and consistent theme in Fluxus is audience participation, or primary experience. She claims that the defining trait of Fluxus is that it needs to be experienced by doing something active and not only by viewing it from a distance.

As Hannah Higgins says in Fluxus Experience:

‘It is impossible to device a system able to account for the vast range of meanings and associations Fluxus evokes for the audience. Instead, Fluxus is better understood on its own terms: as producing diverse primary experiences and interactions with reality, plain and simple.’ (Higgins 2002)

In other words, Higgin’s proposition is not that the active experience of Fluxus is more profound or meaningful than the passive experience of regular art. Simply that it is an equally valid experience.

Fluxkits are curated collections of everyday objects and Fluxus objects. An example of one a Fluxus object is Ay-O’s Finger box. The Finger Box is a small box with a hole in it. The boxes would contain different types of textures. In essence the Finger Box can only be experienced through a physical action. By putting a finger in its hole and feeling its content.

Ay-O (1964) Fingerbox set No. 26    

In her essay ‘Contemplative Interaction: Alternating Between Immersion and Reflection’ Lone Kofoed Hansen (2005) also sets out to prove that physical action can result in deeper reflective thinking. Hansen’s theory builds on Kant’s theory of contemplation. In short a thesis that proposes that a sublime work of art is one that can shake the recipient’s perceptive foundations. But, contrary to Kant, who believed that contemplation was a time-consuming and purely mental activity, Hansen sets out to prove that a recipient can also reach contemplative state of mind while being physically active. By analysing two interactive artefacts she shows that reflective thinking also can occur when the recipient is physically active and passive.

Hansen identifies four modes of interaction, which the recipient moves back and forth from. She tells us that we move from being reflective to immerse, and from physically active to physically passive. Her theory is that we may reach contemplation in different ways with different artefacts and that some artefacts allow us to be both physically active and reflective at the same time. One of the artefacts she test is a project called ‘Drift Table’ in which the user can control an augmented image on a table by placing object on it’s surface, thus making the user reflect on her actions influence on her experience. (Hansen, 2005)

Hansen (2005) Contemplation Model    


Many Fluxus artist were involved in sub-art form called mail art or correspondence art. These two designations are basically intermediate art works sent between equal participants through the postal system. In other words: A mail art piece does not need to be a letter, it can be anything sent by mail to a recipient (Friedman, 1995).

Ray Johnson is widely credited as the founder of the mail art. Although others used the postal system as an artistic channel before him, he was the one to identify mail art as an art form in itself (Friedman, 1995).

A typical example of Ray Johnson’s work would be a xerox copy of one his art works with a stamp saying: “PLEASE ADD TO AND RETURN TO RAY JOHNSON”. The receiver would then create alterations to the piece and send it back. Thus creating a technique for artistic collaboration similar to the Dadaistic writing and drawing technique “The Equisite Corpse” – in which collaborating artists add different sections to the same drawing. (Mail art From 1984 Franklin Furnace Exhibition, 1984)

n its original form mail art is really not an open art form, but rather more a private club with exclusive mailing lists of artist (Petersen, 2006), and since mail is a one to one media, Mail art was far from the inclusive dream of Maciunas. Even so the genre attracted many prominent Fluxus artists, as Ken Friedman writes in his essay ‘The Early Days of mail art’:

“The implicit public quality of the postal system and its use by Fluxus means that early Fluxus activities were more public in theory than they were in practice. The reason for this is the ability to reach out to almost anyone, anywhere through the mail. This can be as much a guarantee of privacy as publicity. Because of this, many early Fluxus exchanges using the mail were rather like telephone calls for objects. They used a public network, but they were not broadcast.” (Friedman, 1995).

Out of Mail art sprung an important Fluxus invention: The newsletter, invented by Dick Higgins in as a part of the Something Else Press publications. The newsletter was a broadcast medium and with it came a channel to the public. In 1966 Ken Friedman started to publish long lists with names and contact information of interesting artist. Actions like these, helped build large artist networks. They became forums where ideas could be shared. With the postal system came a unique cost-efficient opportunity channel through which Fluxus artist could disperse their art and ideas to anywhere in the world. (Friedman, 1995).

In his book ‘Post’ Knud Petersen (2006) declares mail art dead and accuses e-mail of the deed. He writes: ‘In the years around 1970, no one had the imagination to depict the gigantic scale of emails and chats, regular information, sales and spam that was later to bee.

“The art that unfolded in a part of the avant-garde can be explained as a pregnancy with a technological father, a pregnancy that lasts from the early seventies to the mid nineties where it abruptly ends with the birth of electronic mail.
Although the outcome became folksy in the form of emails, it started elitist in the form of Mail Art.” (Petersen, 2006 p. 14)

In Knud Petersen’s opinion mail art was diluted by the email. But with email, and later social networks, came new possibilities. From the conventional one to one communication model of the letter, and the one to many model of the newsletter, social networks brought the opportunity of many to many communication. This shift is covered in Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everybody’, although his analysis is not on art, but on media in general. (Shirky 2008)

In another book ‘Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’ Shirky talks about social production. Before social media, amateur production could never compete with professional ones in quality or scale. But crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia have now proved that if the amateur contributions are in a large enough number, they can now be of extremely high value (Shirky, 2010). Research done by Nature back in 2005 even shows that Wikipedia is in large as accurate as the Encyclopaedia of Britain. Though one might unlucky enough to accoutre manipulated articles with false information, Natures studies showed that in the average Wikipedia article there was 4 errors

in Britannica it was 3. (Wales, 2005). The reason for this Shirky says is the enormous quantities of contribution. He writes:
“Social production can now be dramatically more effective than it used to be, both in absolute terms and relative to more formally managed production, because the radius and half-life of shared effort have moved from household to global scale.” (Shirky, 2010 p.162)


Now lets talk about social media art. There are actually many ways to define social media art. The definitions vary from ‘art that is published through social media’, over ‘art that uses social media data’ to ‘social art collaboration’ (Davis, 2010). So, just to clarify things my focus is on the latter: ‘social art collaboration’ or ‘crowd-sourced art’ which I believe is the only truly social definition. Art of this definition is by nature inclusive as it is open for a diverse range of contributors with very different skills and backgrounds.

As great example of this type of art is ‘The Johnny Cash Project’ by Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk from 2010, which is an extremely famous example of social art collaboration. Using a custom drawing tool, visitors to the site can recreate a frame from the music video ‘Ain’t no Grave’ and add it to the piece. The project has no end-date. The contributions will keep on being ‘added to the project that, as it says on the website: ‘will continue to evolve and grow, one frame at a time’. (The Johnny Cash Project, 2012). Since the project is on going, the site has different viewing options based on parameters like popularity, novelty, style and randomness. This way you may see the video again and again and never have the same experience. As it is to be expected, the individual contributions differ in quality and style. But like in Wikipedia, because the quantity of contributions is so high and the outcome is highly impressive.

Aaron Koblin & Chris Milk (ongoing) The Johnny Cash Project    

Because it is still open for contributions the piece may be explored in two ways: By viewing it as a video or by taking part in it’s creation which ties a distinct link back to ‘Add and return‘ philosophy of artists like Ray Johnson.

Let’s go back and try to compare Maciunas’ 1965 Manifesto to ‘The Johnny Cash Project’. •The Johnny Cash Project is by non-professionals.

While the project is be thought up by Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, and it uses developed custom tools, every single frame is created by regular people driven by a communal motivation to contribute to the project.

•The Johnny Cash Project is “inclusive”.
Anybody from anywhere in the world can contribute if they have access to a computer with Internet connection.

•The Johnny Cash Project is “dispensable and mass-produced”.
You may say that Internet art dispensable by nature this project is locked in a museum. If we interpret mass-produced in terms of availability, then since the project site can be viewed simultaneously from anywhere at the same given time, it is mass-produced.

•The Johnny Cash Project is “simple, amusing and unpretentious”.
The sites custom tools make it easy to participate. Co-creation gives pleasure to contributors, and the amount of joke-contributions to the project makes it down to earth and human.

•The Johnny Cash Project is “obtainable and eventually produced by all”.


This essay has established and explored several similarities between Fluxus and social media art: Inclusiveness (Maciunas, 1965), audience experience (Higgins, 2002), and networked participation. (Friedman, 1984).

By looking at social media art through the eyes of Fluxus we may learn to appreciate the values of social creation and experience through audience participation (Higgins, 2007) & Hansen, 2005).

But, when we move the creation into the hands of the audience we must ask ourselves if the true way to experience this type of art is to evaluate it as a ‘finished’ piece, or by actively contributing to it. Ben Patterson says it as simple as this: “The true way to experience art is to create it”. (The Misfits – 30 Years of Fluxus, 1993).

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