Craig Saper On Fluxus

"Something Else Politics"

October 22, 2001

The Fluxus movement emerged in New York around 1960, then it took root in Europe, and eventually in its way to Japan. The movement encompassed a new aesthetic that had already appeared on three continents. That aesthetic encompasses a reductive gesturality, part Dada, part Bauhaus and part Zen, and presumes that all media and all artistic disciplines are fair game for combination and fusion. Fluxus presaged avant-garde developments over the last 40 years. Fluxus objects and performances are characterized by minimalist but often expansive gestures based in scientific, philosophical, sociological, or other extra-artistic ideas and leavened with burlesque.

Yoko Ono is the best-known individual associated with Fluxus, but many artists have associated themselves with Fluxus since its emergence. In the '60s, when the Fluxus movement was most active, artists all over the globe worked in concert with a spontaneously generated but carefully maintained Fluxus network. Since then, Fluxus has endured not so much as a movement but as a sensibility—a way of fusing certain radical social attitudes with ever—evolving aesthetic practices. Initially received as little more than an international network of pranksters, the admittedly playful artists of Fluxus were, and remain, a network of radical visionaries who have sought to change political and social, as well as aesthetic, perception.

You can learn much more about Fluxus from the Fluxus Home Page.

Introduction by Joshua Schuster

I have this vision stuck in my head of Craig Saper, at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1996, pulling up an essay by Walter Benjamin and reading: "I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." It was a storybook beginning to a storybook class. We were confronted from the outset that there was a crises in criticism and that we were going to have to invent our way out of it. At stake was a way both in and out of criticism itself. Benjamin was a model; that the act of unpacking one's library could be the very model for a form of scholarship and knowledge. Where else could we find models? With adrenaline and a hallucinatory focus, and perhaps anything could serve as the conceptual apparatus from which to generate new ways of thinking. How can an event be a model of thought? How do you think a handshake or a barricade or a letter being passed through a postal system? All that is solid melts into air-there, capital in its own act of disguise was exposed as a model for new ways of thinking. Or a telephone call, that brings one to the question of what is called thinking? Or to take tonight's topic Fluxus, the art movement, could it secretly be the code by which a university could be built anew?

Craig Saper (left) after his presentation at the Writers House.

This search for models itself repeated the structure of avant-garde art, which by fiat never distinguished between material and event as the substances for creative thinking. Using materiality and event as the basis for thinking was nothing new in philosophy either: who could not say that the Greeks used the model of the sun to begin the adventure into philosophy, or the model of the philosopher falling into the well as the model of skepticism? But the key to creativity here was not to use the avant-garde as an object of criticism, but as a process of thinking itself. The false prison of the code of professionalized knowledge in the university was sundered. The breakdown in power became a power generator itself. You became your idea, it possessed you and took you into places you weren't sure could be real. At one point I found myself defending the logic of flypaper by waving the sticky, slimy paper during a lecture. One felt what it might be like not simply to think about knowledge, but to be inside the very force of knowledge when it breaks off from knowledge itself.

The university did not take this irreverent challenge standing still. As the story goes, the university asserted itself in its own model of thought, professional, tame, middle class, coherent with all the techniques of capital. And Craig Saper was not permitted to remain (although thankfully he did find another post at another university, so this fortunately complicates my demonizing of academia). Still, this moment was the most true lesson of my entire undergraduate experience: that knowledge, as a form of discourse, does not take lightly any challenge to its operational status. That knowledge is a field that must be respected, monitered and maintained, and the critic must tend this field, making sure that its fertility is properly harnessed and controlled.

From out of this field Craig Saper comes to us. He is the storyteller that Walter Benjamin warned us about. But he won't just tell us stories that will sooth us and rid us of our fears that grow in the all-too-triumphant field of academia. Not now, not in this world, which is at war, which is constantly in the mode of coming to terms with its own crises. All one can hope for is that somehow the world is becoming more open to such a story teller, a person like Craig Saper who will engage and possibly dazzle his audience, not simply with knowledge, but with something far more intimate to what is called thinking.


Craig Saper has published 30 articles, chapters, and essays on new media, film, art, experimental poetry, and cultural theory. Recently his essays appear in Directed by Alan Smithee (2001), edited by Penn grad students Stephen Hock and Jeremy Braddock, in Strategies, and as program note for the 20th Anniversary of the Black Maria Film and Video Festival. His work on Fluxus is well known from his contribution to The Fluxus Reader. His recent reviews appear in Anthropology and Humanism and Art Journal. He has also recently written the entries on "Comparative Literature" and "The Spectator" for The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge 2001) and Oxford UP's Companion to the Body respectively. He is the author of two books, Artificial Mythologies (1997) and Networked Art (2001), and recently guest edited an issue of Style on interactive style. He was the associate editor of the Newsletter of the Freudian Field and guest edited an issue of Visible Language in the late 80's. He has delivered nearly 50 papers at conferences and as an invited lecturer and will give papers at CAA and MLA this year. A section of his most recent book is anthologized in a forthcoming volume on artistic and literary precursors to the Internet. His book on Networked Art includes a chapter discussing artists' networks as an opposition to terrorist networks. His talk at the Writer's House will examine the political economy of artists' networks with specific emphasis on the socio-political work of the poet, publisher, and artist Dick Higgins. He was previously on the faculty at Indiana and Penn. Since the late 1990s he has served first as the Director of the New Media Center and other administrative positions and is now an Associate Professor at The University of the Arts.