Borderline Art

In the 1950s, the experimental compositions of John Cage became an essential reference point for numerous artists who broke with existing conventions governing what we regard as visual art and what we regard as music, and who thus indirectly took those conventions as their subject matter. It was Cage’s philosophical, experimental, and conceptual approach to music as the organization of sounds and events and his chance compositions that, beginning in the late 1930s, paved the way for an entirely new conception of artistic creation. In his most radical piece, 4′33″ (1952), in which the audience listens to itself alone (its concentrated silence, its throat clearing, scraping, and coughing), the basic components and determinants of the artwork and the institutional conditions of its production are turned directly into the work’s esthetic material. The audience itself—which is already a component of every work thanks to the phenomenon of reception—actually produces the composition. It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art.[1] The consequences of this approach were extremely far-reaching: A dialogue with the institutional and production-specific framework conditions and conventions of art belonged from then on to the fundamental elements of advanced artistic production. The art theorist Diedrich Diederichsen goes so far as to speak in this regard of the conception of a new visual art out of the spirit of the philosophy of music. Through the influence of Cage, who taught at Black Mountain College and, in the late 1950s, at the New School for Social Research in New York, a new type of artist appeared on the scene—the composer of conceptual works. In connection with the emerging Fluxus movement, artists like Yoko Ono, George Brecht, and La Monte Young developed a special kind of notation, famous for resulting in so-called event scores. Yoko Ono, for example, used such notation to describe utterly commonplace actions and instructions, which—inspired by her involvement with Zen Buddhism—were supposed to bring the performers into direct and unmediated contact with themselves. In 1960, she rented a loft on Chambers Street, where she organized a seven-month concert series, mainl curated by La Monte Young with the most important avant-garde musicians, poets, dancers, and artists then experimenting in New York City, including La Monte Young. The question of whether this Chambers Street Series was music or visual art never arose, because a new term had been found for it—Fluxus (from the Latin fluo for flow). Artists applied the new liberated compositional methods to visual, sonic, contextual, and performance-related material. Other language to describe the new practices was also making the rounds. George Maciunas, an important initiator of the movement—who in 1960 proposed the term Fluxus for the artist group’s publication— described the first performances as action music, since visible and audible elements overlapped in them. Nam June Paik called his first large exhibition, staged in an architect’s private home, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. Yoko Ono spoke of music of the mind, while George Brecht described his works as borderline art, in which the genres are retained. In this conception, one and the same event may be realized as literature, image, or music, because borderline art is conceived as a continuous field that ‘can be crossed everywhere in a continuous line.’[2] In Dick Higgins’s now famous Statement on Intermedia, art is described as a form of communication in which the old genres, now obsolete, serve merely as reference points. While Fluxus is known today mainly for the vaudeville character of its festivals and its editions, the development of event scores and experimental composition represents a crucial step in the establishment of conceptual art. Dan Graham described the changed situation as follows in his text Subject Matter of 1969: We are no longer facing an object which is outside somewhere but the compositional process itself. We are composing the composition.

John Cage, 4′33″, 1952

John Cage, Water Music, 1952

Atsuko Tanaka, Work (Bell), 1955

George Brecht, Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event), 1960

George Brecht, Water Yam, 1963

George Maciunas, Music for Everyman, 1961

Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961

Tony Conrad, Three Loops for Performers and Tape Recorders, 1961

Yoko Ono, Voice Piece for Soprano, 1961

Yoko Ono, Snow Falling at Dawn, 1965

Yoko Ono, Music of the Mind, 1967

Nam June Paik, Random Access, 1963

Nam June Paik, Exposition of Music, 1963

La Monte Young, An Anthology, 1963

Pauline Oliveros, To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, 1970

Gottfried Bechtold, Medienkoffer, 1972

John Baldessari, Baldessari Sings LeWitt, 1972

Christian Marclay, Sound of Silence, 1988

Rodney Graham, Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong 1969, 2006