Unpacking the Score: Notes on the Material Legacy of Intermediality

By Hanna B. Hölling

This is an excerpt from an eponymously titled article published in the special issue of the Journal On Curating (“Fluxus Perspectives,” edited by Dorothee Richter and Martin Patrick, 2021).

Imagining Events

It is October 1959. I am visiting George Brecht’s just opened exhibition at the Reuben Gallery in New York. Titled toward events: an arrangement and displaying various objects as propositions, the exhibition is difficult to classify—it is neither an “object exhibition” nor can one really see “performances” (Fig. 1).[1]  The “toward” in the title suggests an experiment; the “arrangement”— a musical connotation. In fact, the concepts presented here have been derived from music. The objects are treated like scores. Before putting up his show, Brecht—a chemist by profession and an intriguing personality—had worked for various US companies such as Johnson and Johnson, authoring five U.S. patents and two co-patents, feminine tampons among others. His move towards fine arts coincided with his attendance at John Cage’s classes at the New School for Social Research, known for propagating new approaches to composing sound, music, and noise. As a result of his studies, Brecht conceives of textual notations of varying lengths that allow a great deal of freedom in their execution. These works stand apart from his contemporary Allan Kaprow’s instructions for Happenings that, more prescriptive, constrained room for improvisation (see, for instance, his 18 Happenings in 6 Parts from 1959). In his creative practice, Brecht also differs markedly from Cage, who organizes everyday sounds into musical compositions. Instead, Brecht accepts everyday situations, chance events, and “all occurrences” that might result from an encounter between the participants and the objects as a legitimate outcome. (Here, my use of the word “participants” rather than “viewers” emphasizes the subjects’ engagement over the passive, disembodied viewing.) Brecht wants to ensure that “the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed.”[2] To present these details, constellations, or occurrences in the context of a creative, authorial project, Brecht writes scores for them—an important aspect of my present contestation with the material legacy of Fluxus.

A screen capture from the article “Unpacking the Score: Notes on the Material Legacy of Intermediality,” published in the Journal On Curating (“Fluxus Perspectives,” edited by Dorothee Richter and Martin Patrick, 2021).

I am walking around in the [Reuben] gallery, observing visitors—not too many—engaging with Brecht’s work that invites haptic manipulation and thematizes time. Tactile gestures calibrated to an expanded sensorium are encouraged; textures, sounds, and smells are becoming a part of this art’s experience. Brecht defines his scores against the reification of the object world. He urges the subject to experience and notice “the ever-unfolding syntax of the given.”[3] Introducing such a novel mode of engagement with art, these works challenge not only visitors but also critics who struggle with the understanding of what this art is—an issue reflected later in slightly awkward exhibition announcements.

A work titled The Case draws my attention (Fig. 2). It invites me to inspect its contents—toys, artifacts of everyday use, curious objects, and perhaps even debris—and utilize them in the way which the artist purports as “appropriate to their nature.” A text printed on a paper bag that accompanies the exhibition reads:

THE CASE is found on a table. It is approached by one to several people and opened. The contents are removed and used in ways appropriate to their nature. The case is repacked and closed. The event (which lasts possibly 10-30 minutes) comprises all sensible occurrences between approach and abandonment of the case.[4] (See also fig.1.)

I follow the instructions. The Case draws me to its clumsy physicality, to its chaotic conglomeration of different kinds of artifact, a picnic box that lacks edible contents, whose system is difficult to grasp. The dominance of vision recedes, the sensorium comes forward: I am finding myself touching the metal, leather, rubber and plastic objects and paper clippings;[5] I am smelling candle wax inside The Case; time brackets my experience as I am exploring the case’s two compartments; I have to remove one of them to inspect the case’s lower level; I am pulling out and putting back the items, subjecting them to sensory examination. My body and eyesight work together to reach the object beyond its surface.[6] What is happening here? I am asking myself. Almost without conscious realization, I find myself performing The Case, and the event unfolds.

A screen capture from the article “Unpacking the Score: Notes on the Material Legacy of Intermediality,” published in the Journal On Curating (“Fluxus Perspectives,” edited by Dorothee Richter and Martin Patrick, 2021).

In the mid-twentieth century, a case was not a new subject but a motif known at least since Marcel Duchamp (e.g., Box in a Valise,1935-41, which perpetuates Duchamp’s oeuvre by assembling the miniature reproductions of his works), Joseph Cornell (surrealist boxed assemblages incorporating fragments of once appealing and then cast-off artifacts), and Robert Rauschenberg (including a participatory element in his combine Black Market from 1961). Although lacking fetishistic or psychic pursuits, The Case also recalls forms of Dada and Surrealistic objects. But importantly, The Case—as a case—later morphs into the Fluxkit, a prototypical Fluxus ensemble of objects designed by George Maciunas, the self-nominated leader and impresario of the loosely organized Fluxus group. Maciunas was fascinated by Brecht and integrated many of his ideas into what became the Fluxus canon. For instance, Fluxkit (or B copy, 1965) and Flux Year Box 2 (1968, edition announced 1965) display a similar objecthood to Brecht’s case, but they differ by what might be seen as a varying dimension of eventhood.[7]  

Time travel. It is May 2020, and I am visiting a newly opened exhibition of Fluxus materials displayed in one of the well-known museums of contemporary art. The Case greets me from behind a glass, presented on an elevated platform, still, if not silenced, patinated but proud of its traces of aging and evidence of former use. I start to imagine what damages handling of The Case by viewers would cause. Trained as a conservator, I somewhat automatically sympathize with this solution—conservators would be the first to impose restrictions on use. And yet there is something that saddens me in this still, encapsulated, deactivated ensemble. I feel that these objects are not simply representing something, designed to be just seen, but rather, they are conceived as means to an action authored by each individual participant separately and uniquely—aspects which seem to have been irretrievably lost in this sterile, silent museum presentation. Why am I troubled by this presentation, and why does the activation by the visitor, or rather its conspicuous absence, matter here?

The main “problem” of The Case, which somewhat unwillingly invites such frozen explications, seems to be its apparent alignment with the object world, and how, at first glimpse, and against Brecht’s initial desire to offer the participant an interactive multisensorial encounter, the musealized case reifies this world. Addressing the similar logic of Fluxkits which extend from Brecht’s case, Fluxus scholar Hannah B. Higgins comments: “At least until they enter the museum, these boxed items remain accessible for sensory examination […] These are sensory games calibrated to an ever-expanding sensorium.”[8] Since there is so much objecthood to be “vitrinized” and physically cared for, The Case’s existence as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, together with its performative quality as a three-dimensional score, remains overshadowed. While the significance of the object’s (frozen) material history including its patina and traces of use takes primacy over the relevance of the experiential interactive encounter, the carrier of meaning remains a shell and a surface unavailable to empirical evaluation, lacking a structural and metaphysical depth. The work, encased in a vitrine, misses a diachrony of now and then, and the synchrony of the present.

The idea underpinning The Case connotes the process of packing and unpacking. Whereas packing, or packaging, is often associated with concealment, introversion, and organization, unpacking is experiential, exploratory, and outward-facing (the relationship between packing and unpacking might be brought down to the opposition of “into” and “out of”). Here, packing becomes boxing, or “blackboxing,” a technique known from Science and Technology Studies (and from Actor-Network Theory) in which the work, whether scientific or technical, becomes invisible by its own success. Blackboxing happens when a device runs efficiently, its internal complexity is concealed, and when attention is paid to its superficial functionality. In other words, the more successful a device, the more obscure and opaque its function. Because The Case, once musealized and protected by the established policies of care, too easily aligns with a passive receptacle or a staging device, it easily satisfies its status as the object of aesthetic interests activated by the disembodied gaze. In the musealized presentation, in which The Case remains unavailable to the visitors for multisensory examination, the “performative enactment, one where the object and subject would suddenly appear as equal actors” as described by art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh,[9] is absent. And when the work is “unpacked” conceptually by a curious beholder or a researcher, it “ceases functioning” as an aesthetic compilation of surfaces and planes and reveals the mechanics and the logics of its inner apparatus: It becomes a performative thing which foregrounds a performative enactment.

But what does it mean that a work of art is score- or notation-based? How does a score-based work challenge the established categories of a self-contained artwork, existent in one defined materiality that changes as it decays in line with the progressive models of linear time? How does a score-based artwork fit within the categories of visual artifacts, often conceived to be lasting in their finished, intended, or authentic states? How does such work behave when collected by museums, institutions, or galleries?

This essay seeks to build a theory of score-based works different from traditional approaches in which the score becomes a function of the performance’s archive. At its core, there lies a deep interest in the ontology of the work, its materiality and ontogenesis regulated by indeterminacy and openness. How can we conceive of a score-based work as an incipient, rather than preordained, form, always already on the verge between the virtual and the actual? What implications does a score-based work have on the pursuit and the ethics of care?

This slow labor of looking and unpacking the score is inspired by the question concerning the ongoing material and conceptual life of things—a certain complicity with materials—and attention paid to the artwork’s multifarious transitions. The following essay offers a brief meditation on the concept of the score as a condition of possibility (a necessary condition) for an intermedial work to exist. Slowly unpacking the score, the essay glimpses at the way in which scores are scripted and rescripted, how they live on through changes, are archived and musealized. It also asks whether a score itself can be conceptualized as an intermedial form (rather than giving rise to it) and ends by probing the score’s potential as a subject of agential realism.

Continue reading here.

[1] toward events: an arrangement was Brecht’s first solo show in the newly opened Reuben Gallery in New York. Among objects displayed were The Case, The Dome, The Cabinet, and Solitaire—all arrangements of ready-mades that mark his transition from chance painting to events.

[2] Brecht quoted in Mari Dumett, Corporate Imaginations: Fluxus Strategies for Living (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 30.

[3] Julia Robinson in George Brecht Events: A Heterospective (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2005), 61.

[4] Flyer for toward events: an arrangement, reprinted in George Brecht Events: A Heterospective (Cologne: Walther König, 2005), 42.

[5] The list of objects contained in The Case included, among others, a candle, a ball game, rubber balls, puzzle piece, thread, photographs, pieces of domino, a noisemaker, a glove and a score.

[6] Here, surface stands metonymically for a superficial, visual encounter with objects. But as cultural critic and theorist Giuliana Bruno convinces us, surface investigations might also stand for a profound encounter with materiality as a substance of material relations. See Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[7] Although it is formally similar by encompassing varying objects in a case, The Case differs from Fluxkits in that it offers a direct immersion into the experience with objects. Fluxkits, staring from the first book-based Fluxus I (1965), compile works such as Fluxus scores, instructions, games, puzzles, beats, stuck of cards, films, among others, authored by Fluxus artists. They are, in that sense, sensory and experiential worlds within a case, rather than a compilation of objects. For an interesting contestation with Fluxus event-hood, object-hood and subject-hood, see Natasha Lushetich, Fluxus: The Practice of Non-Duality (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014), 105-143.

[8] Hannah Higgins, “Reading Art and Objecthood While Thinking about Containers,” Nonsite 25 (October 2018).

[9] Buchloh commented on Robert Watts’ works. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Robert Watts: Animate Objects, Inanimate Subjects,” in Neo-Avant-Garde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), 538.

Featured header image: A screen capture from the article “Unpacking the Score: Notes on the Material Legacy of Intermediality,” featuring George Brecht, Water Yam (events), 1959-1966 ©DACS 2021, published in the Journal On Curating (“Fluxus Perspectives,” edited by Dorothee Richter and Martin Patrick, 2021).

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