Mieko Shiomi. < music for two players II >. 1963. Ink on paper, sheet: 6 15/16 × 9 15/16" (17.7 × 25.3 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2020 Mieko Shiomi

Artist Instructions

These artworks aren’t finished until you participate.
Danielle Johnson Aug 26, 2020

The artists discussed below are associated with Fluxus, a loosely connected network of artists working in different cities around the world. Fluxus artists challenged the boundaries between disciplines and reimagined both what art could be and its relationship to audiences. A key idea was the score—developed from music composition—which allowed the artist to instruct a performer on the parameters of a work that can be realized at any time. Fluxus artists often used language as opposed to musical notation, so that anyone could carry out the instructions. They sought to create scores that celebrated the familiar sounds and materials of the everyday. Many embraced indeterminacy—opportunities for performers to take liberties during the performance, making each iteration of the work singular. Though MoMA has reopened following a temporary closure due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, we know many people might not be able to travel to the museum in the near future. So we’re sharing some works from the collection that you can experience wherever you are—invitations to the viewer that may shift how you perceive daily activities that punctuate our lives, perhaps now more than ever.

George Brecht. Word Event. c. 1961–62

“I wanted to make music that wouldn’t only be for the ears,” said George Brecht. “Music isn’t just what you hear or what you listen to, but everything that happens.” From the late 1950s through the early ’60s, Brecht began honing the format he would develop into the event score. Informed by his understanding of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades and his own interest in experimental music composition, Brecht’s score uses language to create a work that would take place in real space and time. Brecht reduced the linguistic prompts of the score to a bare minimum, sometimes, as in “Exit,” distilling the instruction to a single word. The event score allowed Brecht to invite the viewer to participate in the work, while the artist relinquished control over the interpretation or enactment of the instruction.

Alison Knowles. Proposition (Make a Salad). 1962

This photograph was taken at the Festival of Misfits in London in 1962, during a performance of a work by Alison Knowles titled Proposition #2: Make a Salad. Knowles, like many of her Fluxus peers, was interested in humble, everyday materials and sounds. Defying the hierarchies found in traditional Western music, Knowles encourages listeners to attune their senses to the sonic qualities of an ordinary activity that many have experienced but may not have paid careful attention to: making a salad. The work revels in the crunch of chopping lettuces, the thwack of a knife slicing through carrots, and the sloshing of mixing a dressing. As is often the case with Fluxus scores, anyone can perform this work, with the freedom to interpret the proposition in any number of ways. Knowles’s work epitomizes the far-ranging aesthetic and political potential of the language-based score.

Yoko Ono. Touch Poem for Group of People (from Grapefruit). 1963

Yoko Ono published Grapefruit, a collection of poems and instruction works, in 1964. This work, which appears in that collection, proposes an open-ended instruction—“touch each other”—allowing for myriad performance possibilities. “Touch could’ve been very conceptual…,” Ono has said. “But also, at the time, I really wanted people to touch each other physically because we never did that, you know, in those days, or even now. It’s a pity. I mean, we’re getting not closer, but more distant to each other.” That sentiment resonates in new ways today.

Mieko Shiomi. < music for two players II >. 1963

Looking for a more expansive understanding of music, Mieko Shiomi explained: “The more I thought of the essence of music, the more conceptual I became…. I thought ‘feeling duration itself is music.’ If so, you don’t need any sound, you can use something visual.” Shiomi’s instruction requires only that two players sit without speaking in a closed room for over two hours. Apart from not speaking, performers are free to explore the sonic qualities of that duration of time. The work is a way of connecting with a partner not through language but through sharing space and its attendant sensations. Shiomi’s score is meant to attune the performer’s senses to their environment, both visual and aural, and to sharpen awareness of sounds that are often taken for granted.

Benjamin Patterson. Instruction No. 2. 1965

Benjamin Patterson’s score is printed on a towel that’s folded around a piece of soap molded in the form of a lemon. The box contains the necessary components for realizing the work: just add water. Like many Fluxus works, this one was produced as a multiple, which were sold inexpensively and distributed through regular announcements and mailings within its large network. The multiple was meant to make these works widely available to anyone as part of a project of making art not just for the museums or the art market. This is an artwork that you can feel—in the form of water splashing on your cheeks—and that you can hear and smell. In reflecting on this period of his work, Patterson said, “There was very little to find in my early work to be commercialized…very slippery, meant to infiltrate at a near subliminal level and then exit, leaving behind little or no trace/evidence that a foreign matter had entered and tweaked a little bit of your mind.”

Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, 1965

Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, 1965