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The Fluxus movement that emerged in the 60s advocated a rejection of prefixed notions or forms in art, and spoke for a conceptually open-ended practice based on reception and indeterminacy. The artist’s role was to develop conceptual methods for creation, methods that could be used independently of the artist. The aim was a deemphasizing of artistic authorship and a wish of giving agency of the creative process to the spectator or participant. This represented a regression of agency from the artists' side. The artist was to stipulate certain parameters in advance, but leave the result or execution of the work open to circumstances involving viewer participation.
Chance methods were appropriated and implemented in various ways in order to reach these objectives. The use of chance operations in Fluxus was, like with the dada movement, a method for creating experimental works of art. Likewise it was a break with the logics and ways of modern society, and an attempt to open up the perception of everyday life.
In the Fluxus manifesto George Maciunas specified two main strategies of chance that corresponded to the aims of the movement:
Chance as a compositional principle; using chance procedures in the making of both visual and audible composition.
Indeterminacy in reception; that a works realization relies on the choices and actions of the viewer, leaving elements open to the interpretation, performance and realization of a work.
George Brecht was one of the artists working with these strategies of chance. In Brecht's work there is an evident development towards the 2nd strategy. This strategy served as a resolution in Brecht's efforts to explore the possibilities of chance operations in art, possibilities that for Brecht were about finding the balance between chance and choice.
Starting out as an artist, Brecht was interested in the possibilities of chance as a method, and as so many other artists at the time he admired and related to Jackson Pollock’s way of working on his canvases. Pollock was at the time becoming almost a personified incarnation of chance, moreover he was doing so in a very individual, expressive and subjective way. This was exactly what the objectives of Fluxus later on were to reject.
Early on in 1957 Brecht was also experimenting with chance paintings. Contrary to Pollock he was doing so in a very systemized way; by using marbles dipped in paint and crumbled in bed sheets, he made arbitrary paintings in a similar style to those of Pollock. By this system Brecht managed to deconstruct action painting, by putting emphasis on the conceptual process over the end-product, and his way to systematize and intellectualize it.
Around this time Brecht wrote an essay called Chance-Imagery, on the use of chance in art. Brecht sent his essay to John Cage, which resulted in the two of them becoming friends. Brecht soon joined the program of Cage’s classes at the New School for Social Research. After attending the school Brecht had altered his view of working with chance in art, now favoring the Cageian programmed chance methods to the expressive and arbitrary methods of Pollock. It was at this time that Brecht came up with his way of working with event scores, a form realized as language, object and performance.
Brecht was using Cage’s techniques for musical composition to produce these hybrid scores. Brecht’s event scores require the spectator to be actively present in the realization of the work, and to manage certain choices over which the artist has no control. The event therefore becomes a variable action depending on the decisions of the performer(s), until performed the work only exists as a written piece of paper. One of the first event scores from 1959, Time-table music, was written for performance in a railway station. It was first performed when Cage’s class accompanied Brecht to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, where they used train timetables to create a composition:
The performers enter the railway station and obtain time-tables. They stand or seat themselves so as to be visible to each other, and, when ready, start they’re stopwatches simultaneously. Each performer interprets the tabled time indications in terms of minutes and seconds (e.g.7:16 = 7 minutes and 16 seconds). He selects one time by chance to determine the total duration of his performing. This done, he selects one row or column, and makes a sound at all points where tabled times within that row or column fall within the total duration of his performance.
Chance-Imagery by George Brecht Brecht’s influential essay, Chance-Imagery, considers the artistic use of methods of chance in a broader cultural context, framing examinations of Dadaism, Surrealism, Jackson Pollock, and John Cage, among others, in a discussion of parallel historical developments in the sciences and elsewhere. Speaking to the essay’s importance in the context of sixties avant-garde, a 1966 Something Else Press description of the essay calls it “a basic document in the technique of the new art and in the thinking behind it.”
“Chance in the arts provides a means for escaping the biases engrained in our personality by our culture and personal past history, that is, it is a means of attaining greater generality. The result is a method of approach with wide application. The methods of chance and randomness can be applied to the selection and arrangement of sounds by the composer, to movement and pace by the dancer, to three-dimensional form by the sculptor, to surface form and color by the painter, to linguistic elements by the poet.
Science tells us that the universe is what we conceive it to be, and chance enables us to determine what we conceive it to be (for the conception is only partly conscious). The receptacle of forms available to the artist thus becomes open-ended, and eventually embraces all of nature, for the recognition of significant form becomes limited only by the observer’s self. It must be obvious too that the infinite range of application of these methods is compounded when the matter of materials is also considered, and this is a subject we have only incidentally touched on here. One hopes that so-called avant-garde painters will someday look beyond the classical oil medium with the same open-minded receptivity that, say, Pierre Schaeffer did in his field, in 1948. [...]
In the sense that there is a certain lack of conscious control in everything we do, the use of chance in art could be traced (academically) to the cave drawings of prehistoric man; but the first explicit use of chance in painting seems to have come shortly before World War I. If we admit automatism as chance, then the improvisations of Kandinsky, painted “rather subconsciously in a state of strong inner tension,” would take precedence over the first papiers colles of Picasso, in which were incorporated fortuitous scraps of newspaper and cardboard.
It is useful practically to include automatism in a consideration of chance in art, and it is only our viewpoint which makes it a chance process. Automatism is also an aspect of chance in the sense that we accept its product as something which it really is not. In all of Breton’s manifestations of the marvelous (a handy summary) we read into phenomena characteristics which they do not possess in an absolute way. Duchamp called this “irony” (“a playful way of accepting something”), and the concept is a critical one in understanding the vector through Dada, Pollock, the present-day chance-imagists, and the future.
We are more interested, though, in the mechanically chance process, and here Duchamp did the pioneer work. In 1913 he undertook what seems to be the first explicit use of chance for the creation of an affective image, in the “3 stoppages etalon.” He made these images by holding a thread one meter long, “straight and horizontal,” one meter above a blank canvas. After letting it fall onto the canvas, it was fixed with a trickle of varnish into the chance convolution in which it fell. This process was repeated to give three such canvases. Duchamp seems to consider three phenomena basic to his exploitation of chance: wind, gravity and aim.
Duchamp’s theories on the use of chance seem highly developed, but not exhaustive. Other Dadaists, especially Jean Arp, Max Ernst and Tristan Tzara, later developed other important applications of chance: Arp composed his collage “According to the Laws of Chance” in 1933 by picking up chance scraps of paper, shuffling them, and gluing them down just as they fell. Torn Woodcut was made in a similar way in 1954, using the pieces of a Dada print he had made in 1920.
Ernst developed the “decalcomania of chance”, wherein, for example, ink was spread between two sheets of paper, which were then pulled apart.
Tzara composed poems by drawing words from a hat. “To make a dadaist poem/ Take a newspaper./ Take a pair of scissors./ Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem./ Cut out the article./ Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag./ Shake it gently./ Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag./ Copy conscientiously./ The poem will be like you./ And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”
Frottage was a “semi-automatic process for obtaining patterns or designs by rubbing canvas or paper which has been placed over a rough surface such as planking, embossing, a brick wall, etc.”. This is an example of a technique for which we shall later have a more general term - the “irrelevant process.” A very interesting technique of the Surrealists, which permitted the cause of an event to be lost, so to speak, in multiplicity, was that of the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), wherein several persons each made part of a picture, folding the paper to cover his addition, before passing the drawing to the next participant.
The ability of the unconscious to reconcile opposites is nowhere so evident as in Dada, for within a periphery of nonsense the ridiculous and the profound were made to evince each other: “Dada wished to destroy the reasonable frauds of men and recover the natural, unreasonable order. Dada wished to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with illogical nonsense. That is why we beat the Dadaist bass drum with all our might and trumpeted the praises of unreason. . . . Dada like nature is without meaning. Dada is for infinite meaning and finite means.” (Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, 1949)
Within such a (frameless) framework, chance played a major part, as testified by Arp himself: “Chance opened up perceptions to me, immediate spiritual insights. Intuition led me to revere the law of chance as the highest and deepest of laws, the law that rises from the fundament. An insignificant word might become a deadly thunderbolt. One little sound might destroy the earth. One little sound might create a new universe.” The almost incredibly incisive mind of Tristan Tzara, as early as 1922, even recognized the relationship of all this to Oriental philosophy (in one of the most convincing of Dada documents, the “Lecture on Dada”): “Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.” Such aspects of reality as Oriental thought-scientific thought-Dada-chance become somewhat clearer in such a light. Perhaps chance is the most allusive of the phenomena studied by the Dadaists and Surrealists because it is capable of being most widely generalized. We shall see.”
A Throw of the Dice Never will Abolish Chance (1887) by Stéphane Mallarmé A Throw of the Dice Never will Abolish Chance (Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard) is a poem by the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Its intimate combination of free verse and unusual typographic layout anticipated the 20th century interest in graphic design and concrete poetry.
The poem is spread over 20 pages, in various typefaces, amidst liberal amounts of blank space. Each pair of consecutive facing pages is to be read as a single panel; the text flows back and forth across the two pages, along irregular lines. The sentence that names the poem is split into three parts, printed in large capital letters on panels 1, 6, and 8. A second textual thread in smaller capitals apparently begins on the right side of panel 1, QUAND MÊME LANCÉ DANS DES CIRCONSTANCES ÉTERNELLES DU FOND D'UN NAUFRAGE ("Even when thrown into eternal circumstances from the bottom of a shipwreck"). Other interlocking threads in various typefaces start throughout the book. At the bottom right of the last panel is the sentence Every Thought Sends Forth a Throw of the Dice (“Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés”).
Seen as inhabiting a hall of mirrors, the piece of work delivers itself of its risky character: the title “A Throw of Dice will Never Abolish Chance” is a mirror because the word chance – al-zhar in Arabic – means a throw of the dice. There is mirroring at the beginning and at the end because the first and last words of the poem are the same: “A Throw of the Dice”. There is mirroring in the middle, where the central fold of the double page is crossed by diagonal type that opens and closes with the same two words “AS IF”. Mirroring occurs where the dislocation of verse, stanza and rhyme and meaning navigate to a new listening of the world, a new readability, hoisted on the scale of the Cosmos.
A Throw of the Dice Never will Abolish Chance (1969) by Marcel Broodthaers Marcel Broodthaers’ poem, A Throw of the Dice Never will Abolish Chance (Un Coup de dés Jamais N'abolira le Hasard), is an homage to Mallarmé’s poem, of which Broodthaers wrote: "Mallarmé is at the source of modern art. . . . He unwittingly invented modern space." Mallarmé’s poem proposed to liberate language from conventions of space and typography by stretching sentences across spreads and using multiple typefaces to abstract both form and content.
In designing his edition, Broodthaers blocked out the lines of the original work with solid black bars of varying width, dependent on the original type size, turning the original text into an abstract image of the poem (Broodthaers also replaced the word Poème, on the title page, with Image). Mallarmé's poem was published in three different editions with varying paper types; Broodthaers copied this approach: one with translucent paper, one with standard paper, and one on individual aluminum plates.
Robert Morris During the 60s Robert Morris made several works using felt in a spontaneous and flexible way, a way that allowed the constant becoming of the material. Influenced by Duchamp’s and Cage’s emphasis on process, Morris was exploring the work as a record of a performance, and started to explore elements of accident and chance in his work. Morris made use of what was, at the time, unconventional materials such as thread-waste, dirt, lead and felt which he handled in a spontaneous manner. Materials were randomly scattered or piled on the gallery floor or walls, or mounted to resist deliberate shaping.
In his writings Morris makes the distinction between two different models of chance operations: The idealist mode is a model where the artist makes use of an a-priori system that determines or influences the result of the work. In the way that Duchamp, Cage and at times Brecht were doing. This systematization of process serves to remove taste and personal touch in the process formerly controlled in a dictating way by the artist themselves. The other mode is that of an engagement with materials and process. In the way that the artists have a modus operandi towards the material that is casual, un-emphasized or imprecise and seemingly unmotivated. Leaning towards arbitrariness in decision making, or an absence of decision making.