Photo by Paula Court 2011.
Photo by Paula Court 2011.
January 25th, 2012 · Sydney L. Stutterheim

Not Fluxus: An Interview with John Miller and Tony Conrad of XXX Macarena

Sydney L. Stutterheim: So John, let’s start with you – do you consider yourself a Fluxus artist?

John Miller: No. 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: No?

John Miller: No, and in fact, I didn’t even know that the event was titled a Fluxus performance until after I got the announcement.  It was put together in a very loose way, but it was also put together by people we are friendly with, so we weren’t invited on the basis of taking part in a Fluxus performance. 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: Even though you are grouped in the program under the term “In the Spirit”?

John Miller: Right.  And then in fact, there’s even a friend of mine… did you ever take classes with Nic [Nicolás] Guagnini while you were at Barnard?

Sydney L. Stutterheim: No…

John Miller: Nic is someone who idolizes Fluxus, so when I got the announcement, I sent it to him and I said, “In case you didn’t know, I’m a Fluxus artist”, which sort of set him off… As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a rubric and I’m happy to play music when the opportunity presents itself.  Tony may have more specific things to say.

Tony Conrad: No, no…not necessarily.

John Miller: I can tell an anecdote that might illuminate things.  Years ago, a friend of mine and I, Dan Walworth – he’s in film now, but we went to school together [RISD] and we had an artist book publishing partnership.  We were talking to Henry Flynt about publishing this long, kind of diatribe – it was a philosophy based on what if your senses don’t correspond to reality, so it was a deconstruction of the whole of culture basically.  At the time Henry was showing with Emily Harvey, a gallery that’s associated with Fluxus.  One time, I made the mistake of referring to him as a Fluxus artist and he berated me for a long time after that.

Sydney L. Stutterheim: Do you consider Fluxus to be a particular historical moment, or do you think there’s an element of Fluxus that has continued until today?  Because that’s one of the big questions, right? Whether or not it’s a movement and what the parameters of it are?  Do you have an opinion on that? And more generally then, since you don’t identify with Fluxus personally, do you think that there are artists today who can be considered to be working under the rubric of Fluxus?

John Miller: I’m no expert, but despite that, Fluxus has impacted my work.  I became aware of it in art school and at first I didn’t like it, because it seemed to be a kind of novelty art, but that was based on a very superficial exposure to it.  Right now Fluxus is really alive is for art historians.

Tony Conrad: Well it’s smaller now.

John Miller: Over the summer, I served as an evaluator for the Warhol Foundation’s Writers Grant and to me, the most interesting writing I came across was being done on apparatus theory and on Fluxus.  So, oddly enough, the retrospective theorization of Fluxus is really current.  On one hand, the influence of Fluxus is widespread, but these self-conscious attempts to be Fluxus seem a bit too late. 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: So Tony, do you have a take on this?  How do you see Fluxus? Do you see it as a particular historical moment?

Tony Conrad: For me, in many respects Fluxus was over by 1965.  But that has to do with my own personal engagement with the Fluxus scene.

Sydney L. Stutterheim: Which was during what period?

Tony Conrad: Well, I arrived in New York in 1962, largely because I was interested in the things that were going on in music composition at that time as a response to John Cage and his work, as well as the New York School.  The sense of transparency that Cage had introduced into the understanding of the music concert, music composition, and music experiencing had to be thought of, in some respects, as ultimately dismantling much of the structure of music overall as an enterprise.  There was then a lot of questioning about where to go, from that moment, for people who were involved with that discipline or that cultural stream.  What to do next?  It was an enormously challenging situation because of the way that Cage, in many ways, was almost completely relativist.  I mean, he had an almost completely relativist approach – where anything is anything and anything goes and everything is everything. But then, what to do?  As a response to all of this, Fluxus was not really a unified enterprise with principles and a manifesto so much as it was the handmaiden of George Maciunas, who was basically an impresario.  George had a second- floor loft on Canal Street.  You would go up to visit him but it was hermetic because he was very affected by asthma or some condition, so you had to not smoke and close the doors; it was all closed off.  When you got in, then he would explain his tricks to organize these madcap composers, many of whom were interested in dismantling the precepts for the kind of things that had been accepted in music earlier.  So there were people who were interested in all kinds of mixed activities.  We didn’t really have Allan Kaprow on the scene at that point; he was on the West Coast, wasn’t he? Didn’t he come from the West Coast?

John Miller: He starts off in New York and then he went to the West Coast, becoming the Dean of CalArts.  After that, he went to UCSD.

Tony Conrad: Yeah, so he was in New York already.  But he wasn’t a Fluxus artist per se.  There would be basically Fluxus events, which had a deep connection with European artists who were very interesting such as Ben Vautier, people in Denmark and so forth.  A lot of exciting things happened that had a lot to do with the breakdown of interdisciplinary barriers, like where [Nam June] Paik cuts off John Cage’s necktie or when George Brecht has these card pieces and so forth. Things happened that were breaking down boundaries between literature, performance, music, and for that matter, filmmaking, painting.   Things were all merging and cascading together in weird combinations. What was exciting in a sense was that Fluxus kind of deconstructed the whole cultural structure, the classic cultural structure. I arrived after Yoko Ono’s loft concerts, so I never got to experience those, which saddened me because my friends were doing some of that.  Like my friend Henry Flynt, who I was hanging with at that time.  Henry was close friends with George Maciunas.  One of the aspects that brought them together was their political radicalism.  Henry had some ideas about political radicalism and its relation to culture that led him to invite me to join him in picketing some of the cultural activities in town.  So we picketed the Museum of Modern Art, to destroy the damn thing; we picketed Lincoln Center to shut it down, and we picketed [Karlheinz] Stockhausen’s Originale when he came and did that.  We got ourselves generally ostracized by all kinds of different people who were actually more interested in cultural careerism than in the negative developments.

John Miller: Tony, did you see those as kinds of absurdist protests?

Tony Conrad: No, no, no…not at all.

John Miller: Oh, really?

Tony Conrad: No, they were entirely serious.

John Miller: Because in the photos it just looks like two lone individuals against the institution.

Tony Conrad: Yeah.

John Miller: So it’s like David and Goliath or something.

Tony Conrad: It was very serious.  What I thought about it at the time was, “Well, I’m not really sure, if they actually decided that they would tear down the museum, that I would really be pleased, but I’ll go along this far because I’m not sure that it will happen anyway.” 

John Miller: By serious, I didn’t mean the intent of the protest, but rather the efficacy of the protest.

Tony Conrad: No, the efficacy was hopeless obviously, except in the case of Originale.  But the thought behind it was very serious.  Maciunas had proposed apparently, or was said to have proposed to Stalin, that they adopt Fluxus as the State culture in the Soviet Union.  So this is pretty fucking extreme shit going down.  And by 1965, about that time, what needed to have been said about radically restructuring cultural activity had been said, the changes that had been made were fairly clearly demarcated.  People began to understand.  But, like, then Dick Higgins started just making reams and reams and reams of Fluxus documents and at this point I thought, “Oh my God, Higgins – stop him! Turn him off! Somebody find the switch!”  Because this is turning out not to be a fulcrum for cultural change, but instead to be a kind of recuperative enterprise that involves the extension of cultural forms in a variant guise.  So a couple of years later, by 1968, we are getting the “dematerialization of art” and all of this kind of stuff, we are getting conceptual art being inaugurated in some respects by those artists who were doing that.  At that point–though I would now change my opinion somewhat–but at that time, it appeared to me that this “conceptual art” was a kind of diluted replay of Fluxus.  Because Fluxus had been powerfully conceptual in its earlier engagement. But then again, Fluxus was also a replay of Futurism, which I didn’t know until much later, because I never studied art history, until I read Michael Kirby’s book on Futurist Performance and found that it was full of Fluxus works. From 1910!  Did you have that experience too?

John Miller: Not exactly, but what I was thinking, just going back to-

Tony Conrad: You probably knew all about Futurism already-

John Miller: I didn’t, but my teachers were all conceptual artists.  That’s where I was coming from.  But also-

Tony Conrad: You youngsters!

John Miller: But also one of the most influential things in my education was Doug Huebler’s lectures when he came to RISD, where everybody – well not everybody – it was a pretty conservative school, but there was a small contingent of students who were eagerly awaiting him.  Heubler, at that time, was considered to be the most radical conceptualist.

Tony Conrad: Definitely.

John Miller: And he came and told us that he felt his work was a failure.  When students asked him what he did, he said, “Well, now I mostly play tennis.”  So people were expecting this conquering hero and they got something very different.  Which I thought was good.

Tony Conrad: In some ways he was the conquering hero.

John Miller: The conquering anti-hero.  So anyway, that typifies my entry point. Going back, you brought up the point that Cage said that everything was okay, and that’s where the apparatus comes into play.  If everything is open, then you have to look at the larger structures of how social behavior and society are ordered. And Branden Joseph gets into some of that in his book on Tony.  The most difficult part of the book is the Cage chapter, and then it gets more fun after that.  But it sets the terms of this relationship of basic existence.

Tony Conrad: He’s very studied on Cage.

John Miller: Yeah, yeah. And the open-endedness of Cage’s work where it becomes seemingly so open-ended that it defaults to the actual ideological structures of our culture…

Sydney L. Stutterheim: So it collapses back.

John Miller: Yeah, it leads to mechanisms of control, the apparatus and how behavior is regulated.  Not in a conspiratorial way, but just in the structuring of mass culture. Maybe that’s the most important implication to come out of Fluxus.  Because you look at Fluxus and superficially it seems to be open and whimsical, but there’s the flip side. The dark side of Fluxus.  Towards the end of Branden’s book, he talks about “biomusic.”  When the U.S. was trying to unseat-when it did unseat-Manuel Noriega, to demoralize him, music was blasted into his compound.  And that leads into biomusic and different kinds of musical control.

Sydney L. Stutterheim: So Tony, did you ever identify as a Fluxus artist?

Tony Conrad: Never.  I wasn’t in the business of generating work at that point.  I was neither ready to do that nor eager.  As fast as I would have prepared myself I would have undercut my own vision. 

John Miller: So in that sense, did you not consider music work?  Was your music something separate?

Tony Conrad: Well, the music that I eventually engaged with was this collaborative enterprise with La Monte Young and John Cale and Angus MacLise and Marian Zazeela.  The understanding I brought to that was that by stabilizing the sound and then, so to speak, entering into the sphere of the sound as a hearer as well as a maker and then manipulating the shape of the sound in real time, that we were in effect subtracting the role of the composer from the cultural network.  I thought of this as a social intervention, in the sense that you were describing.  In other words, I wanted to get rid of the goddamn composer permanently–like no more of this thing “composer;” we’re not gonna have that anymore.  We’re gonna get rid of that and replace it by direct engagement with the system of the sound.  The form that our work took in this particular case was dependant on all that.  I saw that as one solution to the conundrum of Cage’s transparency and the conditions you’re describing.  But that wasn’t a Fluxus maneuver.  Like today, we are doing a show under this rubric of Fluxus in some way, but you know, the thing about that is, it’s weird – Let’s suppose you were going to have a Mozart festival-

John Miller: We could play under that rubric.

Tony Conrad: You see, Mozart wrote a lot of silly little tunes, you know, like children’s tunes that you can play frontwards and backwards, just like Bach wrote the Anna Magdalena Book or whatever.  These classical composers wrote little toy tunes, like Bartok wrote Mikrokosmos – okay, so you don’t have a Bartók festival or a Bach festival where you just play the stupid little melodies.  And Fluxus – although the conceptual machinery as the apparatus is very elaborate and intricate as John mentioned, the actual architecture of implementation is almost trivial. Like often it’s: “turn the light on, turn the light off”-type pieces.  And so just to perform these, or to have a Fluxus festival where you throw out the whole conceptual contingency, the social and artistic contingency that brought it to some relevance, and to keep instead the ragged little like turds that dropped along the way, the rabbit droppings by Yoko Ono and whoever else; I find this unpleasantly dismissive. 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: Wow. Okay then.

Tony Conrad: Well I explained it, right? 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: You did.  Your response is very interesting.  But then why do you think that you were asked?

Tony Conrad: And then I called up my friend Henry today and I said, “You know Henry, we are supposed to do this Fluxus concert – are there people still really doing Fluxus?”  Because as John mentioned, he still works with Emily Harvey and so forth.  “Ohhhhh yes,” Henry said, “They have Fluxus conferences all the time.”  All these people who used to be in Fluxus – some of them are dead – but they sort of have like a resurrection, the ones who are still around, they all congeal around some topic.

John Miller: It’s almost parallel to, who is it, is it Hermann Nitsch who has the big music festival in Austria?  One of the Actionists…

Tony Conrad: Well, Nitsch does music.

John Miller: Yeah, where it’s an eight-day thing, but it’s almost like a tourist attraction, and he’s cultivated the hat and the beard.  It’s a very picturesque, folkloric… It seems as if the appreciation of Fluxus… might be like that.

Tony Conrad: A brand name.

John Miller: Mike Kelley used to joke that when he would go to Vienna, they would say, “Oh come to the commune,” and Mike would say “I’m not going there, they can come to my hotel.”

Tony Conrad: I stayed at the commune.

John Miller: You did?

Tony Conrad: Yeah, [Otto] Muehl’s commune for a day or two.  In fact, Otto stayed at my loft on 42nd Street for a month. 

John Miller:  Oh yeah, I saw that Light Industry film presentation that was based on you guys meeting each other.

Tony Conrad: Oh really?! Oh my God.  But yeah, what incredible, strange work… I remember that I saw it in Munich and then met him and so forth.  I was attracted to it for its weirdness and the extreme gestures… but then, I never did any of that… Not yet…

John Miller: It was much more pop than I expected.

Tony Conrad: Yeah.  It finally showed at maybe 80 Wooster Street or something like that.  Nobody was interested in New York at that time.  Too outré for New York.   At that time, New York was not interested in outré bodily expressions. 

Sydney L. Stutterheim: So you both work in a variety of mediums… Do you think that is perhaps an aspect that can be considered part of the legacy of Fluxus?  I mean, it can go back to Constructivist, Productivist, even Futurist projects, but you both teach, play music –Tony,  you’re in film and John, you are a photographer and painter – I just wonder how that all fits in. 

John Miller: One thing that is attractive to me about playing music is that it’s not so clearly defined as being work or play.  It’s in this gray zone, really.  It’s also funny because the audience is constituted in a particular way.  My introduction to noise came through playing with Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler out of CalArts, while I was in school as a graduate student.  I had played in art school punk bands leading up to that, but it was more of a New York style.

Tony Conrad: You were friends with the Sonic Youth people?

John Miller: Well, here’s what happened.  There was a guy who was an illustrator at RISD named John King, and we were in this band that this music critic Michael Bloom, who wrote for The Boston Pheonix, put together.  In a way, he thought that it was like putting together the Archies or something, except he would do it with all art students.  Or like the Monkees.  So he had this kinda Zappa beard and long hair and we’d rehearse with him and we’d make a mistake and he’d bellow into the microphone, “WRONG!”  Anyway, we played a couple times at school but I became friends with John, who was very interested in punk just as it was breaking.  I found out about everything through him.  We moved to New York together and this was a time when if you were looking at punk records in a record store there were maybe two or three people who were interested.  John is from Connecticut, as is Thurston, and he met Thurston while he was still in high school, in a Connecticut record store.  So Thurston started crashing at our loft.

Tony Conrad: Ha! There you go.

John Miller: And playing guitars with John.  They were coming up with stuff that was very Sonic Youth-sounding even before he met Kim Gordon.  And then out on the West Coast Mike Kelley had dated Kim Gordon for a while, and they came to New York together.

Tony Conrad: Kim and Mike? Really?

John Miller: Yeah. They drove cross country together.  And I remember when they arrived, they parked their car on Ludlow Street and then the next day they found that someone had broken into it and stolen all their stuff.

Tony Conrad: No!  Welcome to NY!

John Miller: That was the time when on Houston Street you used to see carcasses of cars, the wheels stripped off, and then these chop-shop trucks would come and pick random parts, so you would find cars with fenders slashed off, hoods taken away, windshields, whatever they needed.

Tony Conrad: So they were lucky!

John Miller: They were lucky the car was still there.

Sydney L. Stutterheim: How did you two meet?

Tony Conrad: I lived with Anne Turyn, a brilliant photographer and writer.  She founded a publication series in Buffalo, where we were living, called Top Stories.  She was then publishing short works by writers that she was attracted to, who were adventurous.

John Miller: Mostly women too, right?

Tony Conrad: Yeah, I think, actually, coincidentally as it were, all of the first few were women.  On that account I became aware of John because he was one of a very very very small number of people who were publishing some kind of avant-garde literature in New York.  He published this thing called Cave Canem, which --

John Miller: “Beware of the dog.”

Sydney L. Stutterheim: What was that?

John Miller: Cave canem – “Beware of the dog” in Latin.

Tony Conrad: I don’t know if Anne brought you to Buffalo or not; I don’t think so.

John Miller: No.

Tony Conrad: Then it turned out that there were different people that we knew in common.  In fact, there was this whole uncanny group of people that John was just describing who I was then becoming aware of at this time.  God knows how exactly, except there were links to people in Buffalo, like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo and their coterie of friends–who were also then connected to Jack Goldstein and David Salle. And then Anne was connected to some of the writers.  So there was this whole thing going on that was quite exciting around this time, late '70s early '80s, and in due course we crossed paths at that point.  We are also good friends with the Sonic Youth people, Tony Oursler, and who else; there’s a whole bunch of them.

John Miller: Well we haven’t mentioned Jutta at all. 

Tony Conrad:  I didn’t know Jutta at that time, but I knew Mike.  I met Mike in 1980, out there, coincidentally.

John Miller: But the way we got started?

Sydney L. Stutterheim: Playing together?

John Miller: Yeah, exactly.

Tony Conrad: But then 20 or 30 years go by, and nothing, and then! Now it’s your story…

John Miller: Several years ago a Brazilian artist, Karen Schneider, was planning on doing a piece at the Sculpture Center where she would just turn on fog machines and obscure all the other work on view; it was a piece called Sabotage.

Tony Conrad: Very Fluxus in a way.

John Miller: I joked to her, “Oh it sounds like a metal show.” And she said, “Would you like to play music?”  At first I didn’t, but then our friend Jutta Koether did play synthesizer – hang on, maybe I’m getting this chronology wrong.  She first did Orchard Gallery and Jutta played synth there.  Then I joined Jutta at the Sculpture Center.  So the two of us played together and then back in 2007 I think it was, I wanted to play some music at a show I was having at Freidrich Petzel Gallery. I knew Mike Kelley was in town so I invited him to play with Jutta and me, and Mike said “Well, let’s invite Tony, too.”  So that’s how we got started.  About two years ago, Greg [Greg Parma Smith] started playing drums and percussion with us.  But it all started as a joke.  I told Karen her work was like a metal show and then she turned the joke into a proposition. 

End of article