The Pedagogy of Play: Fluxus, Happenings, and Curriculum Reform in the 1960s
by Vesna Krstich
Like a classroom teacher with a
blackboard, a performer gives a lesson to
other performers on a subject such as
geography, Latin, grammar, mathematics,
This is the score for Lesson (1963) by Ben Vautier, one of the many event scores in the Fluxus Performance Workbook. It conjures the image of a lecture-based performance in which teaching and performing, learning and participating, are parallel activities. In this score, performers engage in imitative role-play – and the interchangeability of these functions encapsulates the fun-loving, non-hierarchical, and do-it-yourself spirit of Fluxus. For artists such as George Brecht, Dick Higgins and Al Hansen, this playfulness originated in the classroom – as students in John Cage’s experimental music class at the New School for Social Research. The transformation of the classroom into a performance laboratory as described in Vautier’s “lesson,” and the rise of experiential learning models are symptomatic of the greater progressive education movement of the 1960s, which attempted to destabilize authoritative learning environments, ranging from public high schools to post-secondary art schools.
The use of play as a teaching strategy is not a radical idea. Progressive education theorists like Friedrich Fröbel, John Dewey and Maria Montessori all believed that learning through playing was “serious work” – it promotes agency, imagination, exploration and social awareness in children. However, by the time children reach adulthood, the imagination, freedom and leisure associated with play slowly diminish. Yet even as play turns into work, the desire to play is ever-present in the adult world, as Johan Huizinga reminds us in his classic text Homo Ludens (1938). Play is sublimated into our culture in other ways: through myths, the justice system, ritual ceremonies, war and art. Education, then, offers a mode of play – one that requires balancing autonomy with instruction, open-ended inquiry with results and institutional demands. By the mid-1960s, artists affiliated with Happenings and Fluxus and likeminded educators took up this problem by reclaiming play as a pedagogical strategy in their efforts to reform the curriculum in universities and art schools. Their actions gave rise to new adult games: alternative curriculum models in the form of artist books, charts, board games, playing cards and other kits. All this material points to a complementary relationship between forms of artistic and educational play, creating an instructional aesthetic for experiential learning that then became radicalized during the social and political unrest of the years leading up to and following the student revolts of 1968.
Unlike his fellow classmates in Cage’s class, Allan Kaprow believed that cooperative play required structure and facilitation. Creating detailed and elaborate scripts, he insisted on reviewing and discussing them with participants in advance, taking part in the actions himself in order to provide further direction and guidance.1 In 1966, he delivered a lecture called How To Make a Happening, in which he introduced the “11 rules of the game,” spoken explanations that were distributed via a limited edition LP. On Side One, Kaprow explains, in a deadpan manner, some of the essential features of Happenings: “don’t use materials that remind you of art, use everyday spaces and events, perform the happening only once, use whatever kind of civic structures are necessary….” On Side Two, he reads the notes to three different Happenings and explains the role of the participants in determining and shaping their improvisational structure, reinforcing the importance of meeting and discussing the event beforehand.
When Kaprow’s Happenings were being performed at universities and colleges in America during the mid-1960s, he began to champion the idea of a happening as a communal game. He subsequently wrote a series of curriculum reform proposals aimed at transforming university curricula, by addressing the problem of art education at the elementary and high school level. Dismayed with the plight of humanities programs, the training of professional teachers and the attitudes of college-level art students, Kaprow insisted that universities should establish experimental institutes to advance research and creation in the visual artists, as well as an artist-in-residence program that would serve the needs of the lower schools.2 Kaprow’s proposals culminated in a short-lived intervention into the public school system called Project Other Ways (1968–9). Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation in New York, the program sought to introduce Happenings into the existing high school curriculum and to better train educators to deliver more engaging art programs.
The same sentiments are expressed in Robert Filliou’s artist book Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (1970), which doubles as a curriculum guide for his Fluxus-inspired school, envisioned as a purpose-built structure called the Poïpoïdrome. This school was modelled on Filliou’s desire to establish an “Institute of Permanent Creation,” a non-degree program jointly run by artists and students, an idea he proposed to Kaprow and other members of a committee intending to establish a future experimental university as part of New York State University. Conjuring the spirit of Ben Vautier’s Lesson, Filliou proposes that artists of his generation teach history, poetry and religion by employing the participatory strategies derived from Fluxus, Happenings, games, street performance and concrete poetry. He even invites the reader to enter the writ-
ing game as a performer by asking them to fill up the blank pages of his book with suggestions for lessons and activities.
Filliou’s vision for an alternative school was created in response to the political unrest of 1968. In his book, he describes the lack of student autonomy and imaginative thinking in higher education. The antidote was to find a way to teach the “creative use of leisure,” or what he summed up in the following slogan: a world of artists -
work as play.3 Kaprow expresses a similar position in his seminal essay, The Education of the Un-Artist Part II (1972). “Play is a dirty word,” he writes.4 By the time a child reaches adulthood, the term takes on negative connotations: it is associated with frivolity, idleness and immaturity. Inspired by Huizinga, Kaprow draws a distinction between playing and gaming. While both have structures and involve spontaneity and freedom, the difference between the two, according to him, is that playing is open-ended and sought out for its own sake and games are based on competition and defeat. According to Kaprow, schools are partially responsible for creating this separation: the intrinsic value of play and the process of learning gets obfuscated by “hard work” and the need to win. Education becomes a game, played by teachers, students and administrators alike. Students realize that in order to advance, to gain employment or higher education, they need to compete for grades and for status. The task of converting work into play belonged to what Kaprow called the “un-artist” In other words, the ones who disavow their status as “artist” and their allegiance to art-world contexts can, in Kaprow’s mind, playfully insinuate themselves into other professions and industries, education being one of them. Filliou and Kaprow’s idealistic position echoes Dewey’s belief that work and play are not oppositional if one maintains a “playful atti-tude,” that is, if one regards one’s activity with pleasure and utility. Both artists believed that the problems with existing curricula and methods of instruction could be solved if performance-based art forms, which had the potential to reclaim the pedagogical value of play, were introduced to those in younger grades. In an interview with Filliou, Kaprow suggests that this experiment should be continued through to college, saying that, “..it would be interesting to see if their attitudes and capacities to study historical art (and) more advanced intellectual crit¬ical problems about the arts… made them much better qualified than the students who now come to college… with nothing but prejudices?”5
Art critic Harold Rosenberg took up this problem in his 1967 article “Where to Begin,” in which he presented a new philosophy for the teaching and training of artists and educators at the university level that wasn’t based on producing measurable results, but instead on offering instruction in contemporary art, contact with art centres, and a more interdisciplinary, humanistic curriculum.6 Rosenberg’s article was used as supporting material in a grant application to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, authored by Gurdon Woods, Chairman of the Committee of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Woods insisted upon the need to create an experimental curriculum, arguing that Santa Cruz was the ideal place to carry out this project because it was a young institution without an ingrained curriculum. In May 1968, three new faculty members were hired to teach in the art department for one year: Fluxus artist Robert Watts, art historian Sidney Simon and anthropologist Ted Carpenter. In addition to these core faculty members, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, and Reyner Banham were invited to participate in a guest lecture series. From this year-long experiment, a final report was published: Proposals for Art Education from a Year Long Study Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1968-1969, which contained essays, project ideas, fold-out posters and excerpts from texts by faculty members, guest lecturers and students.
Fluxus artist George Maciunas, a contributor to the publication, was responsible for its initial design, which was rejected because of its unconventional format consisting of posters, leaflets and “games for students and faculty to work and experiment with.”7 Maciunas also designed Curriculum Plan (1968–9), a sort of board game based on the course of study for a new arts curriculum proposed by Simon and Watts. For reasons that are uncertain, the board game was not included in the final publication and the curriculum was only outlined in written form. However, the board was made up of serpentine pathways of interconnected blocks containing graphics, diagrams and text and divided into three separate sections, representing the different years and programs of study. (It has been suggested that Curriculum Plan spells out “SOS”, a call for help, signifying Maciunas’ disenchantment with the art education system.)8
The board lays out the new curriculum, beginning with the Non-Major Program in Art, which consisted of student-led workshops taught by teaching assistants, Art Education majors, and senior undergraduates. Students in the program followed the path to The Experimental Education Lab, designed for those interested in teaching and testing out new approaches. These students would also be responsible for implementing changes to the program in consultation with faculty. In the centre of the board, one finds a wheel describing the first two years of the Art Major program. This stream encourages “Inter-Block collaborations” and the central core is devoted to explorations in intermedia and new technologies. It is divided into four categories: Environmental art made up of games, play, pyrotechnics, environments, kinesthetics, dance, inflatables, balloons, kites, laser and electronic devices, Happenings, events and so on; an Object Art (& Design) workshop focusing on material and construction; Aural Art; and a Graphic Art workshop where a variety of printing processes as well as time-based and light-based practices are explored. Upon successful application, the student can begin the third and fourth years, when they can specialize, resuming along a winding path towards the Independent Study option, the “end point” of the board game. The curriculum also included a Non-Degree option for more mature or “unusual” students who identify as “self-declared artists, and who reject the status of student and who regard as objectionable any requirements or screening.” Students enrolled in this stream pursued independent study but did not receive grades or evaluations.
Around the same time, another experiment was being carried out at the California Institute of the Arts. CalArts, established in 1970, was the first degree-granting school in California to offer programs in both visual and performing arts. Kaprow taught a course on Happenings, John Baldessari taught conceptual art, Alison Knowles taught screen-printing and Nam June Paik led workshops on video. The experimental spirit at CalArts was also indebted to the arrival of noted sociologist Maurice R. Stein, who would serve as the Dean of the School of Critical Studies, the intellectual backbone of the arts curriculum. As part of this program, students could take courses on Liberation and Resistance, African Cosmology, Existential Psychotherapy, and Women Writers of the 20th century, among others.
Stein had taught sociology at Brandeis University during the student upheavals of 1968. Working with one of his students, Larry Miller, he began conceiving of an alternative university system, writing Blueprint for Counter Education (1970). Like the initial plan for Proposals for Art Education, Blueprint is a box set consisting of a curriculum manual (containing instructions, a Fluxus questionnaire by Tomas Schmit and an expansive reading list) and three large diagrammatic charts designed by graphic artist Marshall Henrichs. Referred to as “wall decorations,” the charts measure 37¼ × 45 inches, and consist of traces of blackboard notes and schemata that Henrichs adapted into a dizzying array of black, white and red text, notations, symbols, and graphics. Each poster centred on two public intellectuals: Herbert Marcuse, the so-called guru of the New Left, and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
Stein described the process of compiling and implementing the book as a bit of “militant fun.” What started as blackboard notes in Stein’s sociology classroom was first transformed into a series of index cards, which functioned like playing cards that could be reshuffled and laid out into different configurations.9 The accompanying hand-book provided a set of “Elementary Instructions” on how to use the three charts. Readers were encouraged to focus on the “spatial potentialities” of the charts and how the process of moving back and forth among the three charts functioned as a game: “The three charts, together with the infinite participative relationships they can generate, might suggest three-dimensional chess, or some other very complicated board game.”10 Unlike classic board games, there are no underlying rules. Rather, the reader-looker begins anywhere he or she wants, depending on his or her interests. The process of navigating through the three charts privileged the visual: looking, wandering through the names, notes and graphics and spaces of the posters.
This mode of engagement allowed the student to focus on relationships between the constellation of ideas, adding or adapting and creating their own game in the process.11
The focus on play was as central for British artist/pedagogue Roy Ascott as it was for Stein, Filliou, Maciunas and Kaprow. Ascott’s practice was informed by the social sciences, and specifically cybernetics. While he was never associated with either Fluxus or Happenings, his teaching philosophy shared affinities with both practices. Ascott’s cybernetic curriculum, known as “Groundcourse” was first implemented at Ealing Art College in 1962 and later at Ipswich Civic College in 1966. It was based on breaking with habitual forms of instruction in favour of unpredictability, change and uncertainty. The learning objective underlying Ascott’s cybernetic art pedagogy was to understand how one behaviour affects another in a system. In their first year, he encouraged students to challenge and break away from conventional drawing exercises in favour of ones that challenged their perceptions of external reality, asking them to: “Imagine you wake up one morning to find that you are a sponge. Describe visually your adventures during the day”, or “Using only wood, sheet aluminum, string and panel pins, construct analogues of: a high-pitched scream, the taste of ice cream, a foot¬ball match.”12 During their second year, students worked collectively and participated in a variety of experiments on group behaviour. They designed games and calibrators – devices resembling commercial-grade colour wheels, which tested students’ self-awareness in relation to the other group members. Similar to Stein, Ascott’s students produced “mind maps” or charts documenting their behaviour and responses to game scenarios they themselves developed as part of his curriculum. In 1971, when Ascott took up his role as President of the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, he replaced the course calendar with a set of Tarot Cards and abolished attendance records, exams, classes and entire departments, along with traditional studio and craft-based practices.
Ascott was terminated for what was perceived as a full-scale assault on the administrative apparatus of the Ontario College of Art. Stein was eventually dismissed for advocating the hire of Herbert Marcuse to the faculty at CalArts. Filliou’s empty pages still wait to be filled. What happened to Proposals for Art Education? Might it have been more successful had the publishers seen the potential of the more interactive package designed by Maciunas? Although lack of funding and political unrest in Berkeley prevented Kaprow from implementing nationwide reform in elementary and high schools, he did manage to continue playing at CalArts and in subsequent teaching positions. Was it because he was a reformer rather than a revolutionary?
One of the slogans of May ’68 was “All Power to the Imagination!” Imagination is synonymous with play. Greater student involvement was at the forefront of all of these educational reforms, as was the breakdown of media-specific categories and the rise of theory and criticism. On those accounts, play was successful because of the upheavals taking place around the world. For Marcuse, imag¬ination was a way to envision a better world. However, he also cautioned that one must be able to identify the contradiction: the fact that a system of domination creates the conditions for liberation but, in doing so, also co-opts the very thinking it promises to create. Perhaps this is why, by this stage, Kaprow cleverly insisted on dispensing with the labels “Happening” or “art” altogether in the hopes that this manoeuvre would better service education.
The post-’68 world ushered in the slow decline of humanities programs and the rise of applied-learning programs. More than four decades later, a new wave of global student protest has responded to the privatization of education, increased student debt and funding cuts that plague colleges and universities. Art schools continue to produce professional artists beholden to the market, yet there is an increase in social practice pro¬grams and low-residency MFA programs that place new demands on art education and on institutions.
In tandem with these developments, there has been a renewed interest in the anarchistic and experimental spirit of the 1960s. Ascott’s controversial curriculum is featured in a travelling retrospective of his 40-year career and a monographic account of his legacy, entitled Telematic Embrace, (published in 2003). Kaprow’s lecture-cum-LP was re-released as a CD by Primary Information and is now also available online. The Fluxus Performance Workbook, an amalgamation of event scores past and present, has been reformatted and redistributed as a free PDF. Blueprint for Counter Education has been recently reprinted in its original form as has Filliou’s Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (1970). Art historian Hannah Higgins, daughter of Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, has written about the educational value of the Fluxus movement. Higgins, who was, one might say, homeschooled in the movement, envisions how Filliou’s Poïpoïdrome might serve as a model for a Fluxus-inspired pedagogy in higher education today – one that supports multiple intelligences and experiential learning, dissolves disciplinary boundaries, forgoes sch-edules and specializations, and reinvents conventional classroom spaces.13 Teaching and learning in a constant state of flux. Perhaps it is time to, once again, re-write the rules of the game.
Vesna Krstich is a Toronto-based art critic, independent curator and educator whose research explores the interrelationship between pedagogy and participatory art. She has published in Parachute, C Magazine, Art Papers, Canadian Art and Curator: The Museum Journal, among others.