One eye is good enough! Diseases in George Maciunas’ work
“I am still in the hospital, drinking kilograms of pills, being perforated with needles, surrounded by gas masks, dials, valves and all kinds of interesting objects. I pray daily to all the gods and anti-gods that my spine collapse in time so I collect that insurance and have a hell of a Fluxus time forever after”
George Maciunas, letter to Emmett Williams, 1963
“George says he is really looking forward to listening to all 38 lost Monteverdi operas after he dies. It is worth dying just for that, he says. Nothing of great interest has been composed after him.”
the voice of Jonas Mekas from the film Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas
There is a footage in Jonas Mekas’ Zefiro Torna of George Maciunas (the founder and central coordinator of Fluxus – from 1962 until his untimely death in 1978) bedridden in the St. Vincent Hospital in New York (1975), after New Jersey’s “Mafia thugs” had beaten him nearly to death for not paying an electrician his fee for the job done in one of the Fluxus’ lofts in SoHo (Maciunas claimed that Peter Di Steffano’s work was shoddy). At least that’s what the story says. Despite collapsed lung, broken ribs and lost eye, George treats the accident like a Fluxus piece, laughing and pointing at PVCs sticking out of his bare chest. “I broke like a Ming dynasty vase”1, and “One eye is good enough!”2, he chuckles. “Later art historians will analyze this movie again and again to find out why he was asthmatic”, postulated Nam June Paik3.
Asthma, cortisone, coughing, hospital, illness, medicines, sick, (in alphabetical order) – those words are probably the most recurring in the memories about George among his peers. “He seemed to survive on pills, inhalators, and self-administered injections of cortisone” – recalls art historian Barbara Moore4. “Even in the middle of crossing the street he would get out his throat spray”5 – says Fluxus artist Tomas Schmit. “I had never seen one man taking so many medications in my life” . The truth is that Maciunas suffered fromaa poor health condition fromfrom since his childhood (tuberculosis made him to spend most of his youth in Swiss sanatoriums), and later reoccurring asthmatic aliments troubled him constantly. “At some point he acquired an attraction for pain so intense that he enjoyed flagellation. No one knows Hhow long this had been present in his life no one knows, but soon after [Author’s note: he was diagnosed with liver cancer] he openly told his friends that “the pain kills the pain”6. The torment was like “pulling tooth without anesthesia all day long, how could I stand it without morphine?”7, asked the initiator of Fluxus, but he had never let his daily injections and medicine routines subdue him.
In 1961 [he] suffered very severe asthma and doctors gave him only one year to live. George, however, responded to the challenge even more vigorously, and before the year was up, medical science had discovered alternative remedies for his problem. As we all know he simply went on to increase his output of artistic activities over the years8.
One of the evidence of these “harvests” is written in January 1962 score Solo For Sick Man, a piece which ironically could be seen as a celebration of these feral diagnosis. Done in a fashion of Maciunas earlier Fluxus composition Music for Everyman (1961), it is a graphic table diagram with typewritten medical/bodily related occurrences on the left side and blank spaces on the right – to indicate the duration of each activity (involuntary or simulated?). That way the sound placed into subdivided grids of time becomes an evidence of the real life events. Some of the written actions requires intervention of an external object (like pill, drops, glass of water, etc.), and some could be performed without any props (cough, gargle, spit, clear throat, whistle, and so on). The list continues full page long.
It retains, nonetheless, a conventional relationship to the definition of musical composition articulated by means of scores. Yet, it gives the musician a rare opportunity to choose (something that is not very welcome in classical western music) a thought or an activity and undergoing his own idiosyncratic interpretation conceive of it as music. All this gives not only an impression that it does not require any specific musical skills or training, so that everyone can perform it, but also compose it. Thus by this democratic concept, as most Fluxus works, it blurs the borders between performers (musicians) and the audience, and also between what is considered high and low art.
And as the proceeding Music for Everyman (and other Maciunas’ table scores from that period, like Piano Compositions for Nam June Paik, Solo For Rich Man, or Solo For Violin for Sylvano Bussotti) it is vastly in9. It’s a well-known fact that George placed Cage in a very prominent place in the development of primary ideas of Fluxus, by means of providing a seminal model for merge of art and life (“to open up our eyes and ears each day”10). To the point that even on the chart mapping the history and influences of Fluxus, John Cage is at the heart of the diagram. “You could call the chart Cage Chart Not Fluxus Chart, but Cage”, Maciunas told Larry Miller on his death bed11. The most important, however, seems to be Cage’s class in musical composition at the New School for Social Research in New York (1957-1959) attended by many (future) Fluxus artists and associates, among them George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, and sometimes La Monte Young.
Although Maciunas didn’t participate in Cage’s lectures, he took part in the pioneering course on electronic music carried out by composer Richard Maxfield (a former student of Cage, who replaced him as the instructor), where in 1960 he met La Monte Young, and soon after invited him to present his work at AG Gallery that George run at that time (apparently it was Maxfield himself who encouraged George to initiate the concert series).
The gallery became a concert hall. […] After the first wonderful concert meetings, rehearsals of complete opposite character to the Middle Ages began, those of the avant-garde: certain electronic sounds and still some others that were entirely incomprehensible to me. The public was the new youth, overgrown with hair and slovenly dressed
– recalled callously the mother of Fluxus impresario12. Not that peculiar then that Maciunas’ own sound pieces show the influences of those three (Cage, Maxfiled, and Young), and his interest in aleatory and improvisatory ideas, as well musique concrète.
In June 1962, during one of the first European Fluxus concerts, Après John Cage in Wuppertal Maciunas introduced the term “concretism” in an essay Neo-Dada in Music, Theater Poetry, Art, to describe the fusion of art and life, form and content. Fluxus artists, explains Maciunas, “prefer the reality of a rotten tomato rather than illusionistic image or symbol of it”13). Written couple of months prior Solo For Sick Man might be the best example of depicting his idea of corporeal concretism14.
“Sounds [themselves] are material events. Repeatable, reproducible, recognizable – in everyday life”15:Yet, here – as in all music – a body is required to produce the sound (thinking of playing an instrument or singing) and to experience it (through listening, but also physically, when the sound penetrates the flesh and mind). Synaesthetic Fluxus scores involve the whole body with its all senses, they meant to be read, heard and performed. Like in corporeal musical compositions – defined by American eclectic composer and instrument creator Harry Partch in his book Genesis of Music16 – musical side of Solo For Sick Man is not a “pure form” or appreciated on a mental or spiritual basis, on the contrary, vocal or verbal manifestation is essential. Practically all mentioned illness related events (from coughing to kicking etuis)17 in Maciunas composition make use of “material components” of the body and its concrete capacities – using human voice and/or movement, but the final sound depends on interpretation and abilities of individual performer. Sometimes it is the body that becomes a musical instrument, making sounds of sipping, spiting, clearing throat, the other times – the content of medical cabinet acts as various trumpets, violins, clarinet, or percussion. “The stethoscope enabled physicians to directly attend to (‘ausculate’) the poundings and rumblings of the heart and lungs. The price for this, however, was that patient’s voice first had to be silenced lest it interfere with an accurate sounding”18. In Maciunas composition it is the human that is given the primary voice and control over the sonic results.
Sickness and music are corporeal experiences. Both won’t happen (exist) without the participation of a body. As sound fills the tissues and senses, so an illness gets into cells and effects our thinking and perception. And no matter how much the notation of Solo For Sick Man could have been influenced by Cage’s or Maxfield’s music (the latter one conceived even in 1959 a composition called Cough Music For Tape), it is hard looking at it not to think of it as of a patient medical record that hangs beside the bed in a clinic, and of its didactic form – activities are presented like specimens – as of research laboratory. Similar like Maxfield’s composition made of coughs of hundreds of people at the concert (rescued from the cutting-room floor) Maciunas piece is not totally random improvisation. It has a clear structure which becomes even more intentional while performing and filling out the graphic grid with time frames dedicated to each action. Already the great Renaissance philosopher and mathematician Renée Descartes saw that “the body is in essence an organization of minute, motile particles”19.
The structure of Solo For Sick Man, in the very nature of typical Fluxus Event Scores (invented by George Brecht), is repeatable. Yet, still unique, each time it is performed. It is also portable (mentioned props could be found with no trouble), and – as the title states – designed to be performed by one person. Thus, it can be easily imagined to be played this at the privacy of one’s own bed or in a hospital room (or in one own mind), as well as at the stage of a concert hall or in a theater. There is no evidence, though, of this piece being presented to the public (not that are known to me at least at the time of writing this text). Even when in 2014 British musician of Lithuanian heritage Anton Lukoszevieze, put together with his ensemble Apartment House (known for playing Cage or Nam June Paik and other Fluxus scores) a whole record of eight compositions by Maciunas (Musical Scoring System included Music for Everyman, Solo for Rich Man or Solo for Balloons), Solo For Sick Man did not make its way there.
“In medical science the corporeal body is both decontextualized (removed from its socio-cultural milieu) and de-animated (divested of any semblance of spirit or soul-stuff)”20. Often time medical practitioners treat patient in a non-personal way, as another case in line, one of many, so that they become unified organisms – Körpers (a basic unit of analysis in biomedicine). Maciunas’ own experienced health problems clearly inspired the creation of Solo For Sick Man, however, he also objectified the signs of disease and ways of its treatment to become pure sounds, and by giving them structure and narration – music.
One can say that George performed Solo For Sick Man throughout his whole life21. From the moment he suffered from lung disease as a little boy, through asthma, ulcers, infections, to the moment he discovered he has advanced cancer of the liver and pancreas. Maybe art, and especially music, was a way to release stress in order to help to manage the asthma attacks better and relive his unbearable pain. His beloved Claudio Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti (a playful rhapsodic pastorale ode to Zephyr that brings spring and its attendant opportunities for romance) accompanied his most important life events – such as Flux Wedding with Billie Maciunas in 1978 (at 537 Broadway in Soho, at the very same spot where three years earlier he was almost killed). He also wanted it to be played at his funeral.
Already sentenced to death he had selected his favorite music and recorded it on tape and asked that everyone listened to his beloved music during the farewell. All his friends came to pay the last respect; his family and all were grieved by his early death and listen to the music with feeling, and it seemed to me that his spirit was among us, touching each of us and listening with us and approving of us22.
George Maciunas, November or December 1965, in Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931–1978, ed. Ann Noel, Emmett Williams, Thames & Hudson, London 1998, p. 193. ↩
An interview with Ay-O, in George: The Story of George Maciunas and Fluxus, dir. Jeffrey Perkins, 2019. ↩
Nam June Paik, Who is Afraid of Jonas Mekas?, in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, ed. David James, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1992, p. 285. ↩
Barbara Moore, George Maciunas: A Finger in Fluxus, “Artforum”, vol. 21, no. 2, October 1982, www.georgemaciunas.com/press/george-maciunas-a-finger-in-fluxus-by-barbara-moore, accessed September 19, 2019. ↩
Harry Stendahl, No Smoking, www.harrystendhal.com/harry-stendhal/no-smoking. ↩
B. Moore, op. cit. ↩
Jonas Mekas, from transcript of commentary of his movie Zefiro Torna: Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas, dir. Jonas Mekas, 2002. ↩
La Monte Young, letter To Whom it May Concern, New York, February 18th 1978, in Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978, ed. Ann Noel, Emmett Williams, Thames & Hudson, London 1998, p. 322. ↩
Cage accepted whatever sounds occurred within a specific period of time. Those sounds determined the music — but not in the prosaic sense. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience, University of California Press, Berkeley 2002, p. 51. ↩
Ibidem, p. 83. ↩
Larry Miller, Transcript of the Videoaped Interview with George Maciunas, 24 March 1978, in The Fluxus Reader, ed. Ken Friedman, Academy Editions, Chichester 1998, p. 184. ↩
Leokadija Maciunas, My Son, manuscript from 1979, Silverman Collection, www.georgemaciunas.com/essays-2/my-son-by-leokadija-maciunas. ↩
“A sound, for instance, produced by striking the same piano itself with a hammer or kicking its underside is more material and concrete since it indicates in a much clearer manner the hardness of hammer, hollowness of piano sound box and resonance of string. A human speech or eating sounds are likewise more concrete for the same reason of source recognisability”. Neo-Dada in Music, Theater, Poetry, Art was reprinted in: Ubi fluxus ibi motus 1990-1962, ed. Achille Oliva, Mazzotta Edizione, Milano 1990, p. 214-216, and in Fluxus : Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, ed. Clive Phillpot and Jon Hendricks, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1988, p. 25-27. ↩
Maybe next to Flux-Labyrinth – a maze of corridors in which participant encounters series of games and gags, like in an enlarged human-sized Fluxus box, and Larry Miller’s “Orifice Flux Plugs” – designed by Maciunas a kit of items which are meant to plug the many cavities of the human body, both, however, were created 12 years later. ↩
Holger Schulze, The Body of Sound, ,,SoundEffects’’, vol. 2, no.1, 2012, p. 199. ↩
Harry Partch, Genesis of Music, Da Capo Press, New York 1974, p. 8. ↩
The score is not precise here, but the context suggests that it’s an etui for any medical equipment. ↩
James Aho, Kevin Aho, The Diseases of Medicine, in Body Matters: A Phenomenology of Sickness, Disease, and Illness, Lexington Books, Lanham 2008, p. 79. ↩
J. Aho, K. Aho, op.cit., p. 80. ↩
Ibidem, p. 77. ↩
One of its tangible evidences was a mobile “Flux Clinic”, set up in 1977 by Maciunas in a truck in Seattle and its surrounds, which was first organized a decade earlier at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York (in a concert with three artists from Tokyo, who called themselves “Hi Red Center”) that measured visitors’ height, weight, volume, head strength, finger length, etc. Maciunas’ clinic was an altered, more entertaining version of “One Shelter Plan” conducted some time prior by “Hi Red Center” at the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya, Japan, where it was arranged as fallout shelter. Thanks to Jarosław Kozłowski, in 1977 the project took place in Akumulatory 2 Galery in Poznań, Poland, according to the instructions sent by Maciunas. ↩
L. Maciunas, op.cit. ↩