Nam June Paik’s 1962 One For Violin Solo
Nam June Paik’s 1962 One For Violin Solo involved the artist lifting the instrument over his head slowly and then smashing it down onto the table in front of him, the shattered pieces sent flying. This work gained in notoriety when Charlotte Moorman performed it in 1967. During the lead-up to the destruction, an audience member began berating her that it was wasteful and shameful to destroy an instrument, that it would be better given to some underprivileged music student. He charged the stage in protest, only to have his forehead gashed open by the swinging fiddle. This type of violent encounter between performer and audience would be played out 20 years later in the punk scene.
In 1967, Moorman and Paik were briefly imprisoned for indecent exposure after a performance of his Opera Sextronique, in which Moorman played the cello with her breasts exposed. Paik had often remarked, “Sex is very underdeveloped in music, as opposed to literature and optical art.” Perhaps his most famous attempt to correct this problem was the Flus Penis Symphony (1970), in which lo young men stick their penises through a large sheet of paper covered in musical notation. His 1962 composition Serenade for Alison includes the instruction, “Take off a pair of bloodstained panties and stuff them in the mouth of the worst music critic.” This anticipates rock music’s ambivalence towards acceptance from the establishment and predates not only the theatrical gore of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss, but also its eventual reclaiming by riot grrrl bands like L7, whose guitarist Donita Sparks once reportedly removed a tampon and flung it into the audience. In the spring of 1996, Oklahoma rock outfit the Flaming Lips gathered some 30 locals with cars equipped with tape players at an Oklahoma City mall parking garage and gave them each a unique cassette, which instructed them to begin playing at precisely the same moment. The participants were then invited to wander outside their cars and hear the result. A follow-up performance in Austin, Texas involved almost 2,000 people. This led to Walkmans being handed out during Flaming Lips concerts and eventually to the four-CD set Zaireeka, which is meant to be played simultaneously, synchronized on four separate stereos.
Almost 25 years prior to the Flaming Lips’ musical car event, Laurie Anderson held one of her earliest performance works, titled Automotive (1972), in Rochester, Vermont. It involved a gazebo with cars parked around it and flash cards produced by the artist signalling when the car owners should lean on their horns. Anderson tells the story that initially it was difficult to find anyone in Rochester who wanted to be in an automotive orchestra. So she set up a little booth at a supermarket and asked, “Is your Dodge a C-sharp?” Once it became competitive, it was easier to get people to play along.
Twelve years prior to Anderson’s piece is Fluxus artist George Brecht’s Motor Vehicle Sundown Event (1960), wherein performers parked their cars in an open field and switched on engines, horns, lights or opened doors, according to instructions on printed cards.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Flaming Lips’ twice-removed variation on Brecht’s Motor Vehicle Event is anything more than happenstance, but rather that happenstance is integral to any history–and that sometimes history goes backwards. Greil Marcus, in his epic Lipstick Traces, narrates a counter history of punk rock and provides antecedents in the Situationist, Lettrist and Dada movements. He is not so much suggesting that Johnny Rotten had some Guy Debord in him, but rather that Johnny Rotten was in Guy Debord.
Marcus’ book, like every history I’ve ever read of popular music, completely omits Fluxus. Not even a footnote. I can’t help but think of the protagonist in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, born in a manger next door to Christ and in attendance at the major events in history, but completely left out of its retelling.
Rock music doesn’t want or need to know its ancestry–indeed reverence is its antithesis. It’s like Waiter Benjamin’s angel of history–it has to turn its back on the pile of debris behind it and let the storm of progress propel it forward. Fluxus, too, with its emphasis on the ephemeral, doesn’t require the craned neck of corrective history, but it’s sometimes worth noting the flowers in the dustbin.