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  • Fluxus Thirty-Eight Degrees South: An interview with Ken Friedman
  • Darren Tofts (bio)

In the 1960s, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters used a psychedelic school bus to take drug culture and heightened consciousness on the road. A Volkswagen bus served a similar purpose for the young Ken Friedman as he travelled across America, promoting an altogether different sensibility. Ken Friedman is one of the remaining living figures associated with Fluxus, a legendary group of artists, designers, composers, and architects whose members included Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, George Maciunas, Milan Knizak, Mieko Shiomi, Dick Higgins, La Monte Young, Joseph Beuys and more, with such friends as John Cage, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Lithuanian-born architect and artist Maciunas coined the term Fluxus from a Latin-based word meaning “to flow,” describing an experimental attitude to art that resisted conceptual and disciplinary boundaries. Higgins would later coin the term intermedia to refer to art forms that crossed boundaries so far that they gave birth to new forms and media (“Intermedia”). Fluxus itself was what Friedman describes as a “laboratory of ideas” (“Fluxus: A Laboratory of Ideas”), serving as a crucial launching ground for such new media as performance art, installation, artist books, video art, mail art, new music, and more.

When he met Maciunas in New York in 1966, Friedman was an aspiring Unitarian minister more interested in philosophy and theology than in art and design. His association with Dick Higgins’s influential Something Else Press put him into the orbit of other Fluxus artists, such as Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, Peter Moore, and Meredith Monk, as well as an energised vibe of creative innovation. When Higgins saw Friedman make a small box resembling a handcrafted Fluxus object in Higgins’s New York apartment, he sent Friedman to meet Maciunas (Higgins, “Being” 3). From that moment, Friedman never looked back. Assuming the role of a “Fluxus missionary,” Friedman was pivotal in the distribution of Fluxus activities throughout the country from New York (Fluxus HQ) to San Diego and San Francisco (Fluxus West), as well as to England, where he conceived and helped to launch the year-long Fluxshoe. While some locations were more active than others, the compass points also designated Fluxus centres and activities in cities throughout Europe: Fluxus East was in Prague, Fluxus North was in Copenhagen, Fluxus South was in Nice. Friedman moved between various headquarters across the United States in his Fluxmobile, a Volkswagen bus which doubled as a traveling studio and portable warehouse of Fluxus artefacts. Friedman was attracted to the Fluxus convergence of an unashamedly conceptual approach to art and the socially engaged aspirations of the counter culture with an art that would merge into and embrace daily life. In making Fluxus mobile – literally – Friedman realised the Fluxus goal of taking art out of the gallery and into the street.

Fluxus was not well-known in the mid- to late 60s and its significance for contemporary art, design and culture has become apparent only in retrospect. Friedman shares the credit for this recognition; as Peter Frank writes, “historically and spiritually, Ken Friedman is Fluxus. He has helped to ensure that the elusive and supposedly ephemeral Fluxus movement is now regarded as a permanent force in art and presence in art history” (177). Indeed, Frank credits Friedman with the crucial, galvanizing influence that enabled the “substantiation of the Fluxus ethos in a context wider than art” (151). While this “youthful enthusiasm” was crucial to the formative years of Fluxus in the mid-60s, Frank also recognizes this wide-ranging influence in his later creative pursuits, notably with the Finnish ceramics manufacturer Arabia in the late 1980s. Friedman’s approach to ceramics as a Fluxus artist dramatically “married the modernist workshop with the post-modern assertion of variety and individuality” at a time when Arabia was seeking a fresh approach to the design of utilitarian, everyday household utensils that were also decorative objects (149). The Finnish design economist Esa Kolehmainen specifically pointed to Friedman’s “interartistic” approach to domestic design as a means of inventively combining utility, design, and art into a kind of “gesamtkunstwerk” that could be exhibited as well as sold.

Fluxus continues to...