Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Long Dialogue with Artist Ann Klefstad (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my Tuesday interview with artist/philosopher Ann Klefstad.

EN: You were an early part of an arts community called Fluxus, taken from a Latin word that means “to flow”… What was Fluxus all about and how did it influence you?

AK: I definitely was not an "early part" of the arts community called Fluxus, though I am a part of a group of followers of the movement that lives on the web with occasional forays into what is often called "the real world." There is a fair amount of debate over what this group of artists should be called: Fluxus? PostFluxus? Young Fluxus? Some original members of the group think that no one should be allowed to use the name except members of the original group.

Fluxus was an international art movement started by George Maciunas in the '60s, which incorporated music (John Cage, Henry Flynt, many others), performance art (lots of people including Dick Higgins, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Ken Friedman), visual art (Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Vautier, George Brecht), mail art (Ray Johnson, Robert Filliou, many others) and other stuff, including word experiments etc., that were picked up by groups like the OuLiPo and Harry Mathews and more.

It was a period of incredible ferment in the 60s and 70s, largely below the radar of the semi-official arts community that was pushing big museum-bound abstract painting and sculpture, secretly promoted by (of all people) the CIA to establish the cultural (and financial) dynamism of the free American art world. What people think of as "radical" about the '60s art world (abstraction, minimalism, gigantism) was actually far more conservative than Fluxus and other movements and groupings that were trying to establish a place for art in everyday life, rather than in investment-bound galleries and corporately supported museums.
           
In any case, two original Fluxus members, Dick Higgins and Ken Friedman, were intrigued in the early '90s with the potential of the web to foster groupings and art play like Fluxus. So they started what at the time was called a "mailing list": just an email list of people to whom all postings to the list would be sent by email. Very simple and primitive, in keeping with everyone's very slow dialup connections. There was no web site or anything like that – this is when "web sites" were sparse, and the hip thing in websites was the Jodi collective, who did goofy visual things with HTML code.
           
So early on, when this mailing list had only a few members, Gunnar Swanson, a professor of graphic design at UMD, recommended I join it, so I did, as I knew about Fluxus from back in the 70s, when I followed it through the magazine Art International (US art mags didn't cover it much). Years before, in the early 80s when I lived in San Francisco, working in a bakery nights and wandering around during the day, I had started to do various Fluxus-inspired kinds of street art—walking backwards all one afternoon through Nob Hill streets; on my way home from a bakery shift at 5 am, carefully placing eggs under the windshield wipers of cars on my street like parking tickets; the next week doing the same thing with oranges. Just things that would crack the façade of the day, let in a little surprise, pleasant uncertainty.

I also started to do drawings again then too. Fluxus was never "against" things like painting, not being very religious about style or manner. I lived up the hill from Chinatown and so the materials available to me were Chinese. I bought them and used them to make ink paintings on sheets of Chinese thin laid paper.  The street stuff just kept the spirit alive—you know, kept me off the treadmill.  It reinstated the hope for everyday miracles that creativity depends on.
           
 And Fluxus is still an important influence for me. A few years back (2003, I think) the Tweed brought to Duluth a retrospective of Dick Higgins' work curated by his daughter after his death. I curated a show of new Fluxus event score works to run with it called "The Secret Life of Fluxus"—because there are many artists all over the world, connected by the Fluxlist (which still exists), who still practice Fluxus modes such as the event score: this is just a set of instructions, which, if you follow them, will produce the work. We produced a couple of these works for the show—two of Dick's (a performance work and a choral-music take on one of his text works composed by Justin Rubin) and a performance work written by a Duluth artist—I can't remember who just now! But it did involve a BB gun, a sheet of tin, saltine crackers, and whistling. 

Unearthing History, commissioned by MN Historical Society.
EN: Why are the arts an important part of any community?

AK: "The arts"—it would be good if they were not so compartmentalized, and I think that may finally come about over the years.
           
Obviously, people in any community tend to get stuck, treadmilled, in ruts, trapped—by fears mostly, by habits ingrained because they reduce the fears, by not seeing wonders, in fact by not seeing anything that isn't familiar, and fearing strangeness if, by chance, they should happen to get a glimpse of it.
           
This is where prejudice arises, where hate grows. Because people are afraid—of economic disaster, of being unwanted, of boredom, of discovering they are not who they think they are, of being asked to love something they can't love, of a million things. And they hate being afraid. So they find people or things to blame for their fears. And they then can never get rid of their fears, because the false blame, the hostility, prevents them from understanding the actual source of their fears, so they could work their way out of them.
           
And that stuck state makes people unable to create or think anything new, unable to believe in any change. A community becomes brackish, a backwater, without the stream of new life flowing through it.
           
That's what art should be, that stream. In big cities where a lot of artists congregate, people become more used to novelty, better able to innovate, more tolerant of complexity—these are good things for the culture in general, for being human in general.
           
But each community needs to generate its own stream. The stream needs to originate nearby, to flow through the stagnation, to wash away some of the fear and hate. The stream is composed of people who aren't afraid to be laughed at, who aren't afraid to be stigmatized as weird, who can see people other than them as still human, human in new or unknown ways, who can take in otherness and make newness of it. These people, ideally, can make communications –which is what artworks are, whether they are visual or verbal or performances or music—that carry that emotional and intellectual openness into their communities, that can be –ideally—assimilated by their fellow citizens because, though new, they come from a familiar place.
           
That's why I think every community needs art. Though I suppose a case can be made that it's an economic driver in a tourist economy. 

* * * *  
This interview will be continued tomorrow, same time same station. You can see more of Ann Klefstad's work at  mnartists.org  

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