August 15, 2012  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Fluxus
Unpacking Fluxus: Conversing Around the Merch Table with Cory Arcangel

From left: Cory Arcangel in his Brooklyn studio; Cory Arcangel. Sailing (detail). 2010. Website. Image courtesy of Cory Arcangel. ©  2012 Cory Arcangel

This past January computer programmer, web designer, and sculptor Cory Arcangel participated in the exhibition “Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–78,” by creating his own arrangement of a Fluxkit, the signature compilation of objects created by many Fluxus artists held in a black suitcase. Arcangel’s arrangement was a mixtape of sorts that featured artists with a beat he found appealing. Among the protagonists was Robert Watts, an artist affiliated with Fluxus and Pop art, who is known for creating quirky merchandise that he intended to distribute to a diverse audience through Fluxus mail-order kits and DIY novelty companies that he pioneered with friends. Arcangel’s own work toys with popular forms like Nintendo game cartridges and Oakley M Frame glasses and in many cases, like Sailing, his Arabic fan site for Christopher Cross, he creates work to be stumbled upon and to be circulated through unlikely hands. 

A few weeks ago I invited Arcangel back to MoMA to have a closer look at Watts’s multiples pulled from the Museum’s Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, including unsavory placemats, chrome goods, and clouds designed to cheer your desk. The following is an excerpt from a conversation that these works inspired.

How aware of Fluxus material were you before you participated in the exhibition at MoMA this past winter?

Robert Watts. Hand With Cigarette, Pea On Placemat. 1967. Offset on synthetic polymer sheet. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Estate of Robert Watts

I had never handled it personally. What I knew was more of the high-profile pieces. I was most surprised by its uniform design and old-timey feel, which I later learned was Maciunas’ vision for the look. So I just knew Zen for Film and some of the Yoko Ono stuff, and maybe the La Monte Young piece, Composition No. 7, which I knew but had never seen produced in an edition of cards. So I guess I would say I knew a little. And then you know it as a kind of feeling. I didn’t know they had kits, the only kit I knew of was Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, and I certainly had never heard of Robert Watts. His work has a kind of flavor that was a little bit surprising. Like really strange, but a very clear, strong, calm vision. Everything was so well considered. I would love to have one of these placemats, is that still a thing that people buy? It kind of blew my mind all this stuff.

Robert Watts. Desk Blotter. c. 1967. Offset on synthetic polymer sheet. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Estate of Robert Watts

Can you recount briefly what your approach was for creating your arrangement of the Fluxkit and what some of the items you included were?

At first, I was thinking of organizing the contents of the Fluxkit with some kind of Flux-style game. Maybe all items piled on top of each other, or displaying them all backwards, etc. But, upon seeing the contents of the kit, I simply became totally overwhelmed! Especially since one of my all-time favorite artworks was included, Nam Jun Paik’s, Zen For Film! – a clear strip of film that is to gather dust while playing. So, instead of playing a game with the display, I flipped through the contents and picked what I liked on first impression—a kinda “web surfing” approach. And through this method, I noticed I was picking a lot of material by an artist I was unfamiliar with, Robert Watts.

Do you see any parallels today with the kind of DIY merchandising that Watts pursued?

It definitely is happening with hip-hop artists. Every hip-hop person has their own line of everything. I was just at Macy’s yesterday and saw Lil Wayne has his own line of skater-ware called “Trukfit.” “Octobers Very Own” is Drake’s line. I was on Drake’s website last night and he was selling mini flashlights and carabiners, I think those are the little clips you put on your belt when you go mountain climbing? And executive pens. If Drake is selling executive pens, that’s pretty close to what I am seeing here with Watts! It’s very interesting.

From left: Chromed Pencil. c. 1962–63. Chrome plating over unidentified substrate with paint additions; Chromed Lollipop. 1964. Chrome plating over unidentified substrate. Both works by Robert Watts. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Estate of Robert Watts

There was just a large retrospective of the artist/designer Keith Haring’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, could he fit into this dialogue as well?

Oh yes of course, with the Pop Shop. That was a really successful version of this. Although Haring was less inward thinking than many Fluxus artists. Fluxus was more of a meta project. But then you think about Drake and there’s a little bit of meta there.

Some of your work is freely available online, and can even be recreated by the public. They are a bit like recipes, which reminds me of scores made by Fluxus artists that anyone could complete. How do you determine the value of your works?

Robert Watts. Desk Cloud. 1967. Gelatin silver print on mount. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2012 Estate of Robert Watts

In the end you want to create a kind of moment for somebody, that’s what the value of the work is. Its commodity value is separate from that. My website, weirdly enough, is my internal barometer of what I am making because the web is the medium that I understand the best. Intuitively, how the work situates itself in the context that I am the most comfortable in is how I view my whole practice. Certain works of mine do have associated source code that generates them, which means that when that object is on my website the actual artwork isn’t necessarily the photograph of the object, but is simply an illustration of the result of the code that could be downloaded and fussed with if you are a computer nerd. So in that way the work expands to different audiences outside of the art industry. For example, a sculpture that is generated by a source code has a larger audience of people who are interested generally in machines. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I’m doing something, you know what I mean? I have no real overriding theory.