Ecart as Fluxus: Get Inspired and Inspire

By Aga Wielocha

What keeps the spirit of any movement or group of artists alive is its influence and its growth through several generations.
— Ken Friedman

Source: Bovier, Lionel, and Christophe Cherix, eds. 2019. Ecart Geneva, 1969-1982. London: Koenig Books, p. 60

Emerging around 1960, Fluxus began not as a movement but as an international network of artists, characterized by a shared approach to and understanding of art. Fluxus’s diverse activities included concerts, festivals, performances, publications, mail art, and manifold kinds of actions, events, and gestures, including object making. By rejecting the distinction between art and life, it introduced tendencies that became imperative to the development of contemporary art such as interest in viewer participation, the collectivization of artistic production, the performative turn, and institutional critique.[1] The “heroic” or “classic” period of Fluxus has been associated with the artistic activities that took place throughout the 1960s in New York and Europe. Although in the 1970s many of the founding artists remained active and produced work in the Fluxus spirit, often in parallel to their own work, this decade was marked by the development of what Fluxus artist and scholar Ken Friedman terms Young Fluxus: artistic practices built on a specific understanding of Fluxus, often carried out in collaboration with or inspired by the Fluxus old guard and adapted to a specific cultural and social context (Brown, Frank, and Friedman 1982).[2]

For Fluxus – whose name means to flow and to change – mutability is a defining property. Indeed, the creative outcomes of Fluxus artists often reject a self-contained, stable, or finished material form, and as such they challenge modern institutional practices of collecting and preserving. In most cases, what results are not artworks as they are conventionally understood, but different kinds of documents, ephemera, publications, and memories captured in interviews and artists’ writings. Too often, these remnants, dispersed and disconnected, fail to fully represent artworks as conceived and performed.

An important part of our research project Activating Fluxus is to rethink and to examine alternative ways of perpetuating art created in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of Fluxus’s creative endeavors. We propose that the continuation of these works calls for rethinking and expanding the traditional practice of conservation that, for a considerable time, has been oriented towards securing the artwork’s physical properties. Taking this context into account, the opening epigraph might trigger a speculative question: To what extent does the continuation of a spirit, tradition, or artistic practice by younger generations of makers and creators inspire an expanded notion of conservation? What would such a continuation look like? Here, I address this possibility by introducing the practice of a second-generation Fluxus collective that operated in the 1970s in the Francophone Swiss art community.

The 1970s witnessed the seeds of Fluxus spreading all around Europe, resulting in numerous initiatives, that, with time, became influential and often critical references for local art scenes and communities. In Geneva, Fluxus found fertile ground and gave rise to what is known today as Ecart Group. Founded by John M. Armleder, Claude Rychner, and Patrick Lucchini during an Ecart Happening Festival in 1969 and active until the begging of the 1980s, the group became known predominantly as organizers of events including performance recitals and exhibitions and as publishers and distributors of artist books and magazines. Like Fluxus, the group’s name has a multi-layered meaning – in French écart refers to a gap or deviation but is also a palindrome for “trace” (both in French and in English).

Ecart adopted the model of what would today be called an artistic collective and became a key node in the network of international exchange of (neo)avant-garde artists in the 1970s. Various features place the group within the broader Fluxus (non-)movement, including collectiveness, performativity, a critical attitude towards the conventional notion of authorship, a shift away from the finished work towards the realisation of the score, an interest in chance and indeterminacy, an understanding of organisational activities such as exhibition making as art practice, an interest in play, an active relationship with the viewer, and the definition of a central role for printed matter and multiples. In what follows, I will address some of these features in more detail.

Source: Jobin, Elisabeth, and Yann Chateigné, eds. 2020. Almanach Ecart. Une Archive Collective, 1969–2019. Genève and Lausanne: HEAD-Genève and Art&fiction, p. 400

What brought together Armleder, Rychner, and Lucini and resulted in their declaration of joint “engagement in artistic practices” (Bovier and Cherix 2019, 134) was a long friendship dating back to their school years and various extracurricular activities such as rowing and hiking. In line with Fluxus’s principle of the equivalence between art and life and Robert Filliou’s attitude of permanent creation, it is difficult to identify exactly where the non-artistic activities of Ecart Group end and their artistic practice begins.[3] This ambiguity became one of Ecart’s trademarks, manifested by Armleder’s famous tea-making ceremonies, which resulted in an advertisement of his practice stating “John M Armleder —> activity —> nothing —> performance —> Infusion-diffusion.”[4]

Like early Fluxus, Ecart deliberately chose to locate its operational grounds outside of institutions and the market by creating their own physical and conceptual space. By applying alternative models of presentation and distribution through the artists’ curatorial and publishing activities, Ecart focused on art practices beyond the production of objects. The Ecart headquarters at 6 rue Plantamour in Geneva operated as an exhibition space, a concert venue, a bookshop, a library, and a distribution centre for the publishing house, and visitors were often welcomed with a cup of tea. The headquarters can be described as a condensed, one-space version of Fluxus venues that operated in the 1960s–1980s, such as Yoko Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street, Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press office in Chelsea, George Maciunas’s and Almus Salcius’s AG Gallery at 925 Madison Avenue, all in New York, and Willem de Ridder’s Mail-Order Warehouse and Fluxshop in Amsterdam, to name only a few.

A collaborative and inclusive enterprise, Ecart followed the Fluxus principle of the disappearance of an individual artistic ego behind a collective identity. In opposition to Fluxus, however, where the anonymity of individuals was imposed by Maciunas, it seems that for Ecart, a group founded on a history of camaraderie, this was more an attitude than a rule. The decentring of authorship was followed loosely, with Armleder constantly oscillating between the collective practice and his personal interests and concerns. Still, the collective spirit clearly governed Ecart activities throughout the 1970s. In 1977, as a response to an invitation by the gallery Apropos in Lucerne, the Ecart artists decided to organize three short consecutive exhibitions described in the accompanying flyer as “the same exhibition three times.” Titled L’exposition que I’autre aurait pu faire (The show the other one could have done) / 3x(2×1), the exhibition consisted of a series of works by each artist done either in the style of one of the others, or in a way that the other would not have done it, or in a way he would have done it for the artist making the work (Bovier and Cherix 2019, 97).[5] This collaboration was not only performed internally but also directed outward, to the members of the local and international artistic community. Ecart Performance Group & Guest was established in the context of Ken Friedman’s exhibition in 1974 to present the artist’s work in his absence. As a document published by Ecart in 1977 states, “its function is to assist artists who are presenting their actions, and to organize performances in which works by the group or its members no longer appear exclusively on the program” (Bovier and Cherix 2019, 61). Ecart Performance Group & Guest was often an umbrella name for collaborations with various artists temporarily associated with the collective who performed together on many different occasions, such as Carlos Garcia, Gérald Minkoff, and Muriel Olesen. Another natural space for forging often long-lasting alliances and partnerships was the artist-run gallery. Between 1973 and 1982, Galerie Ecart featured shows by influential makers of the time, including Fluxus artists such as Daniel Spoerri (1973), Friedman (1974), Higgins (1977), and Ben (Vautier) (1978), and Ecart Publications produced catalogues understood by the collective as an extension of their display space.

In addition to being an artistic group, a venue for art events, a publishing house, and a bookshop, Ecart was above all a network facilitator and an experiment in alternative models of distribution and dissemination. Operating outside of the official, institutional circuit required bringing information to wider audiences through newsletters, catalogues, and other printed matter such as leaflets, with titles available for sale. As Friedman observes, “the world-wide network involved in Ecart’s projects actually belies a sensibility and a series of activities far more expansive than the alternative space concept in the United States” (Brown, Frank, and Friedman 1982). Maintaining a position as a key node in a non-hierarchical network involved time and resources, which, to a certain extent, resembled Maciunas’s role in Fluxus in the 1960s and 1970s. In both cases, building and sustaining a network and nourishing relationships can be seen as an artistic practice in its own right.

The artistic activities of Ecart perpetuated Fluxus by distributing the work of Fluxus artists through exhibitions, events and publications, by practicing art in the Fluxus spirit, and by spreading the seeds of Fluxus further. This process did not end with the collective’s dissolution in the early 1980s but continued, albeit at a somewhat slower pace, through the activities of the bookshop and the publishing house.[9] Certainly, the members of Ecart Group were not the last practitioners of Fluxus, and the legacy of Fluxus persists in the work of later generations. For instance, the term “neo-Fluxus” is often used to describe artists associated in the 1990s with what Nicolas Bourriaud terms “relational aesthetics,” although these artists might not consider themselves Fluxus per se.[10]

Source: Bovier, Lionel, and Christophe Cherix, eds. 2019. Ecart Geneva, 1969-1982. London: Koenig Books, p. 35

How did Ecart manage to be added to what the Fluxus artist and historian Simon Anderson calls a “Fluxus stable?”[6] From the outset, the collective was inspired by Fluxus founding artists and their predecessors, and this influence was often a topic of the artistic examination. During the inauguration of the Ecart Gallery in 1972, Armleder presented an installation consisting of ten tape recorders, entitled Conversation. Etude pour John Cage. Each device played non-stop a sound piece or the voice of an artist, including George Brecht, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, William S. Burroughs, Higgins, Merce Cunningham, Naum Gabo, Raoul Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Kurt Schwitters, with a photograph of the artist placed above it (Bovier and Cherix 2012, 117). On various occasions Ecart also directly engaged in presenting and disseminating Fluxus locally and internationally. In 1977, on the occasion of Dick Higgins’s exhibition at the Ecart space, Armleder and Luccini executed Higgins’s legendary score Intermedial Object #1 by constructing the object from wood, plastic, glass, and light.[7] According to Higgins, this was the first time that the performing of the score resulted in a physical manifestation (Higgins 2019). In 1978, in response to the news of Maciunas’s death, Galerie Ecart held an exhibition of Fluxus objects and books (Bovier and Cherix 2019, 104). In the late 1970s, Ben Vautier and Gino Di Maggio organized a touring exhibition titled Fluxus International & Cie, which was presented in different venues including the Galerie d’Art Contemporain in Nice (1979) and the Musée St-Georges in Liège (1980). According to Bovier and Cherix (2019) it was Armleder who advocated for inviting the show to Geneva. This exhibition, organized by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and produced by the Association pour la Creation d’un Musee d’Art Moderne, took place between March and April 1980 in the basement of the Musée Rath. Within this project, Ecart was in charge of researching the local art scene and inviting Swiss artists, co-designing the show as well as programming and co-performing Fluxus events that included pieces by Brecht, Henry Flynt, and Nam June Paik and a Fluxconcert for George Maciunas together with Milan Knížák, Ben, and Emmett Williams. The international profile of the show as well as the participation of the Fluxus founding artist sealed the bond between Ecart and Fluxus. This connection was reinforced later by the inclusion of Armleder in the Young Fluxus exhibition organized by Ken Friedman in 1982 at Artists Space in New York.[8]

How can sustaining continuity by inspiring and being inspired, by referencing, experimenting, and engaging with someone else’s art influence conservation thinking and practice? What can art preservationists learn from the natural, historical processes of passing on traditions of and approaches to art making from generation to generation? One answer to this question might be the use of artistic reinterpretation as a tool for conservation. Unlike concepts such as (re-)enactment, (re-)staging, and (re-)installation, reinterpretation involves what might be termed the artistic translation of an artwork to a different context and/or medium. Understood as an entirely creative act, this tool is traditionally used in performative art disciplines, such as music, dance, and theatre, but it is still controversial in the field of collecting and preserving visual art (Wijers 2022; Giannachi 2018). Since this area remains largely under-researched, the Activating Fluxus project aims to test the potentialities and limitations of reinterpretation as a conservation approach and to critically analyse its reception in the community engaged in the care, presentation, and study of Fluxus art. We will also further investigate the legacy of Ecart and the way the group’s work has been collected, presented, and preserved.

The epigraph is from Brown, Elizabeth, Peter Frank, and Ken Friedman. 1982.

[1] By “performative turn” in visual arts we refer here to the shift of attention from the art object to the artist’s action that emerged in the late 1950s. Departing from the avant-garde traditions of Dada and Futurism, this phenomenon was inspired largely by Abstract Expressionism, which emphasized the body’s role in artistic production as well as by the avant-garde music scene. It emerged in the context of a larger “performative turn” that began around the same time in the humanities and social sciences with the notion of the performative introduced into linguistic theory by philosopher John Langshaw Austin in his lecture series How to Do Things with Words (1955). Art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann argues that the performative dimension of (visual) art can be also understood as a shift from what an artwork depicts and represents to the effects and experiences that it produces, which is also a relevant approach for analysing Fluxus (see: von Hantelmann 2014).

[2] The term “old guard” refers here to the founding members of Fluxus actively collaborating with George Maciunas in the first half of the 1960s both in Europe and New York. Young Fluxus is the title of an exhibition hosted by Artists Space, a New York–based non-commercial art gallery in 1982 and curated by Friedman and art critic Peter Frank. In addition to Ecart’s John Armleder, the show featured works by Don Boyd, Jean Dupuy, Valery & Rimma Gerlovin, J. H. Kocman, Carla Liss, Larry V. Miller, Endre Tót, Peter van Riper, and Yoshimasa Wada.

[3] Filliou, Robert. “GOOD-FOR-NOTHING-GOOD-FOR-EVERYTHING (c. 1962).” In Theories and  Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Howard Selz, 854. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

[4] As mentioned in testimonies by various artists and cultural workers, tea tasting was a central part of many social events, both official and unofficial, that took place on Ecart premises. As art historian and curator Christian Besson recalls, “cups of tea were also on offer for visitors to the Ecart gallery and bookshop at 6, rue Plantamour, Geneva […] Having supped there on several occasions back in the days of my youthful quest for art and its supposed meaning, I can now share that tea time at the gallery was an unsettling experience […]” (Besson 2019, 137). As Armleder recounts “in 1975, at the Paris Biennial for instance, my main occupation was making tea for the others and I showed practically no work.” John M. Armleder, entretien avec Suzanne Pagé, in cat. de l’expos. John M. Armleder, Winthertur, Kunstmuseum, 1987, p. 69. Quoted after Bovier, Lionel, and Christophe Cherix, eds. 2019. Ecart Geneva, 1969-1982. London: Koenig Books, p. 137.

[5] The playful titles of individual pieces, with authorship assigned to individuals from the collective, followed the game of exchanging artistic identities, e.g.: John Armleder, Un travail qu’aurait pu faire Patrick Lucchini (A work Patrick Lucchini could have done), 1977; Claude Rychner, Un travail que John Armleder aurait fait b I’intention de C. Rychner (A work John Armleder would have done for C. Rychner), 1977, etc. (Bovier and Cherix 2019).

[6] The term Fluxus stable is borrowed from Andreson’s essay Fluxus, Fluxion, Fluxshoe: The 1970s in Friedman, Ken, ed. 1998. The Fluxus Reader. Chichester: Academy Editions.

[7]  Exhibition titled Recent graphic works, retrospective of the books, and editions Something Else Press, Galerie Ecart, 1977. On the MAMCO Geneva collection website the work is dated 1976, while Bovier and Cherix (2019, 100) date it at 1977, see: [accessed July, 10, 2022].

[8] The inclusion of Armleder as individual artist can be explained by the dissolution of Ecart as a collective in 1981.

[9] See: [accessed July, 10, 2022].

[10] First published in 1998, Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential book Relational Aesthetics describes the shift in contemporary artistic practice toward participation, experience, and “the whole of human relations.” Artists included by Bourriaud within this framework, such as Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Pierre Huyghe problematize the making of conventional art objects and favour audience engagement by creating situations that call for interpersonal interactions. For Fluxus as inspiration for relational artists, see e.g.: Patrick, Martin. 2014. “Unfinished Filliou: On the Fluxus Ethos and the Origins of Relational Aesthetics.” Art Journal 69 (1–2): 44–61.  In a recent exhibition titled By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022), curator Karen Moss situated the work Proposition #2: Make a Salad as an antecedent to relational aesthetics by including an undated photograph of Tiravanija visiting Knowles in her SoHo loft (Chamberlain 2022).

References and selected sources

Armleder, John, Patrick Lucchini, and Endre Tót. 2006. Ecart films archives John Armleder & all. Paris: Bdv.

Bianchi, Pierre-Paul. 2020. “Anatomie d’une Imprimerie: Ecart Publications (1973-1982) Ou La Mise En Circulation de l’art Dans Le Livre.” Université de Lausanne, Master Thesis.

Bovier, Lionel, and Christophe Cherix. 2012. “John Armleder and Ecart.” In Artist-Run Spaces, edited by Gabriele Detterer and Maurizio Nannucci. Zurich: JRP/Ringier.

Bovier, Lionel. 2013. Ecart (1969-1980). Zurich: JPR Ringier.

Bovier, Lionel, and Christophe Cherix, eds. 2019. Ecart Geneva, 1969-1982. London: Koenig Books.

Brown, Elizabeth, Peter Frank, and Ken Friedman. 1982. Young Fluxus. New York: Artists Space / Open Studio.

Chateigne, Yann, Elisabeth Jobin, Matthew Copeland, Emilie Parendeau, Pierre Leguillon, and Dan Solbach. 2019. “ARCHIVES ECART.” 2019.

Chamberlain, Colby. 2022. “Food for Thought. Colby Chamberlain on Alison Knowles.” Artforum, 2022.

Giannachi, Gabriella. 2018. “At the Edge of the ‘Living Present.’” In Histories of Performance Documentation, edited by Jonah Westerman and Gabriella Giannachi, 115–31. New York: Routledge.

Hantelmann, Dorothea von. 2014. “The Experiential Turn.” In On Performativity. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center.

Higgins, Dick. 2019. “Intermedial Object #1.” In Ecart Geneva, 1969-1982, edited by Lionel Bovier and Christophe Cherix, 99. London: Koenig Books.

Jobin, Elisabeth, and Yann Chateigné, eds. 2020. Almanach Ecart. Une Archive Collective, 1969–2019. Genève and Lausanne: HEAD-Genève and Art&fiction.

Musée d’art moderne et contemporain Geneva. 2019. John Armleder et l’Espace Ecart.

Wijers, Gaby. 2022. “The Strategic Importance of Reinterpretation for Media Art Mediation and Conservation.” In Over and Over and Over Again: Reenactment Strategies in Contemporary Arts and Theory, edited by Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, and Arianna Sforzini, 193–203. Berlin: ICI Berlin Press.

Featured photo: Detail of an envelope sent by Johan van Geluwe as a part of the project Troc de  Boîtes (1975) by Ecart Group. Source: Ecart Archives, MAMCO, Geneva.


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