Harren Media Review Essay

Natilee Harren, Assistant Professor
Contemporary Art History and Critical Studies

Fine Arts Building, Room 104B
Email | 713-743-0508
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Education

  • PhD, University of California, Los Angeles
  • MA, University of California, Los Angeles
  • BA, Rice University

Biographical Summary

Professor Natilee Harren, an art historian and practicing critic, specializes in modern and contemporary art history and theory from 1900 to the present with a particular focus on experimental, interdisciplinary practices after 1960. Her current book project, Objects without Object: Fluxus and the Notational Neo-Avant-Garde, examines the international Fluxus collective amid transformations of the art object wrought by score-based practices of the 1960s and the epochal shift from modernism to postmodernism. Harren is also co-editor of an interdisciplinary electronic publication, forthcoming from the Getty Research Institute, that surveys and theorizes a range of 20th-century experimental notations from the fields of performance art, dance, literature, and music within a media-rich digital platform. Prof. Harren’s research engages the history and theory of Euro-American avant-gardes across the 20th and 21st centuries; intermedia art and theories of translation between artistic mediums and disciplines; the role of notations, scores, and diagrams in conceptual and performative art practices; institutional critique; social practice; and theories of appropriation. Harren’s essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Art Journal and Getty Research Journal, among other publications, and she has been a regular contributor to Artforum since 2009. Her research has been supported by a Getty Research Institute Predoctoral Fellowship, a Fulbright Graduate Fellowship at the Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Universität zu Köln, the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and the University of California Office of the President. She currently serves on the Executive Board of the Society of Contemporary Art Historians and as caa.reviews field editor for exhibition reviews in the Southwest. Prof. Harren previously taught in the departments of art and art history at UCLA and Occidental College.

Prof. Harren teaches Art & Society: Renaissance – Modern as well as upper-level lecture courses and seminars on contemporary art history and theory including Art Since 1960 and Fluxus & the Intermedia 1960s.

We can be yet more precise. To imagine one medium as translatable into the language of another imagines a medium as a set of operations unattached to any particular set of materials, a notion that could only be arrived at via a notation-based practice like Fluxus. Through its concerts and publishing program, which internalized and advanced the musical lessons of Cage (with whom several Fluxus people including Higgins had studied), Fluxus developed an allographic as opposed to autographic model of iterative production, in which artworks—both performances and objects—were created or realized over and over again to differing results. In Fluxus performance practice, works such as Brecht’s Drip Music (Drip Event) (1959–1962) gradually morphed in appearance from concert to concert, producing also sculptural versions; and by design, Fluxus’s editioned multiples, whose production was overseen by Maciunas, never promised to contain the same items from one “copy” to the next. In work after Fluxus work, we see the marriage of a general set of processes or qualities materialize in unique, specific situations. Furthermore, the manifold outcomes of an individual Fluxus score, instruction, diagram, or idea would be seen as inherently relatable to one another.31 Brecht and Filliou would make explicit this idea—of a medium reimagined in the manner of a broadly interpretable notation—with a series of fill-in-the-black scores titled The Mystery Game I–V, which recast painting, sculpture, music, assemblage, and poetry as reduced textual diagrams. The medium here becomes a notation, a set of qualities and procedural operations that may be realized with varying materials. To make a painting, for example, one can simply “Take (a colored material) / add to it (a material which dries) / and place it on (a flat surface) / by (an action).”32 This is surely a different imagination of the postmodern fate of the medium than what other critics have proposed, such as its dematerialization into a “phenomenological vector” of opticality or horizontality or its permanent dismantling into the aggregative apparatus of film or video.33

By the 1970s, Higgins had moved beyond his broad articulation of intermedia practice, meant as a useful intervention into an early moment still lacking in critical language, to begin trying to articulate more directly how concept and material cooperated in Fluxus and other related practices that relied upon iterative, notation-based processes to produce their ever-varying forms. During his brief time as a faculty member at CalArts (he resigned in frustration after only one year), Higgins wrote the text “Blank Images” (1970), describing a notational approach to production clearly informed by the relationship between Fluxus event scores and their variant realizations but pointing toward the potential for notation’s expanded use within all manner of artistic practices:

One would take the “idea” for the work, and figure out its essence. Then try to make it into a “Blank structure,” whose structure might imply a whole ideology…. The structure would then be filled in with meaningful content, the individual performances being determined by whatever was meaningful by (and to) the individual performers.34

While in “Blank Images” Higgins focuses on the structure of the iterative artwork, two important texts from 1976, “An Exemplativist Manifesto” (distributed in broadsheet form) and “Exemplative Works of Art,” attend to the relationship between the previously described “blank structure” and its divergent outcomes. Reviving an obscure word from the English language, Higgins describes “exemplative” works of art as mere examples pointing to a referent notation, model, or idea as well as to other prior or possible examples of that referent, the result being that exemplative works of art require an entirely new mode of reception for visual art:

This process stresses not the single realization as the work, but the dialectic between any single realization and its alternates…. The audience sees or senses the bare bones of the work along with the flesh, so the clarity with which these bare bones are assembled becomes a criterion of the value of the work. And the act of such assembling is part of the work—another performance aspect of it, even if, for instance, the finished work is a painting and thus immobile…. In exemplative art, then, the artist will always be involved in an ongoing process of inventing new forms—his works and style will seem…to be terribly chaotic and inconsistent. To us there will be consistency, however: it will lie in the kinds of materials that are chosen to express and epitomize the artist’s reality, and the things about the forms that he invents which stay the same—the artist of the goat, the artist of the shoe, the artist of the small.35

Here we see Higgins using language similar to his first writings on intermedia from a decade before, yet he is no longer concerned with justifying artists’ explorations of the possible dialectics between existing mediums. Rather, his project now is to articulate an alternative means of locating the organizing logic of an artist’s practice entirely apart from modernist notions of medium. The exemplative artwork, clearly inspired by the iterative operations of experimental notation that give us so many specific examples of a general form, moves beyond the purely performative to encompass all art made in this manner, including even “immobile” works such as paintings. “In fact,” Higgins writes, “in such a system all form is a process of notation.”36 We have finally arrived at a very particular understanding of intermedia native to the Fluxus milieu: artworks that posit a relational dialectic between mediums once held as resolutely separate, that imagine mediums speaking the language of one another; artworks which belong to a practice organized not by material specificity but by a central conceptual or notational origin or “blank structure,” examples of which can take on varying materials and forms but which relate ever back to a common framework.

Across all of Higgins’s newly defined terms, from intermedia to blank images to the exemplative artwork, we can say that there is an attendant mode of thinking and seeing that accompanies such production, a special “intermedia perception” motivated, as Hannah Higgins has described, by a search for “structural continuity” or “structural homologies” between entities that we are otherwise conditioned to perceive, in a modernist intellectual paradigm, as separate and different.37 Dick Higgins put it succinctly: “One key assumption of Fluxus works is that there are close analogies among things.”38 Intermedia perception is a mode of perception that one could otherwise describe as empathic, offering up an attendant model of subjectivity as well. If the Fluxus project can be understood as an allographic, notation-based practice in which works are reimagined in varying situations by varying actors with varying materials—a practice thus defined by transfer, transliteration, and transformation—it can also be understood, as Higgins has proposed, as a practice that is fundamentally “transpersonal.”39 Undeniably does Fluxus belong to that great postmodern cultural shift of the 1960s, the post-structuralist “death of the author,” but it provides an underacknowledged pathway through that shift, resulting not in the author’s self-obliterating desubjectivization in relation to his or her work but a sense of newly expanded subjectivity arising from collective action.

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