Collecting, Presenting, and Conserving a ‘Living Art’” -- The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection

posted on 20 Mar 2014 14:12 by Hanna Hoelling
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Perhaps one of the most fascinating collections of Fluxus artworks, objects, photographs, scores and ephemera is the Lila and Gilbert Silverman Fluxus Collection housed since 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is also an interesting example of how the emergence of new forms of artistic expression of the 1960s and 1970s influenced the intuitional ways of collecting, archiving and presenting. On the occasion of the class Fluxus: An Introduction to an Attitude (course Beyond the Object Principle) joint in the second part by curator Kim Conaty of the MoMA, the students had the opportunity to explore the arcane of cataloguing and presenting this Fluxus collection.

Linden Hill, M.A. student in the class provides a review of the class.

Last week, our class Beyond the Object Principle had the pleasure of speaking with Kim Conaty, a curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art. Conaty discussed the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, an unprecedented collection of Fluxus ephemera, which MoMA acquired in 2008. Raising a number of fascinating points about the difficulties of cataloging, curating, and conserving the works of the Fluxus artists, Conaty explained the history and future of this diverse collection.
The story of the archive itself is compelling; the Silverman’s were art collectors who learned about Fluxus in 1977, a time when people weren’t collecting this type of work. No one really knew how to collect or present this material, which largely consisted of posters, props, photographs, and other leftovers from performances. A key figure for both the Silverman’s and MoMA is Jon Hendricks, who ultimately curated the Silverman’s collection and is considered the first Fluxus documentarian. Hendricks is still deeply embedded in the collection; Conaty and her colleagues depend on him for his knowledge of the material. Seeing as he might be the only person who can decipher the handwritings of different Fluxus figures or knows what exactly a certain prop was used for, his knowledge is invaluable. Hendricks has served as MoMA’s Fluxus Consulting Curator for the past five years, and he has co-organized the three exhibitions at MoMA that have drawn heavily on the Fluxus Collection.
As wonderful as the Silverman Fluxus Collection is, Conaty presented a number of “problems” concerning it. Even though the collection has been in MoMA for five years, it is (perhaps appropriately) in a constant state of “flux.” There aren’t any conservators or curators specifically trained to handle Fluxus material; because Fluxus is inherently interdisciplinary, the collection includes objects that would normally be handled by a variety of different curatorial departments. One of the first issues to deal with was where to put these objects. Do they belong in Collections? Or are they better suited to the Archives or Library? Are photographs of Fluxus performances considered archival materials or the artwork itself? Conaty stressed that it is a case-by-case situation, but many of the pieces of correspondence, scores, and photos initially placed in archives have now moved to collections. For other types of collections, correspondence might only be an archival material, but for certain Fluxus artists, the correspondence was integral to work itself. This discrepancy blurs the boundaries: at what point does the document become the work of art?
Another hurdle in the acquisition of this collection is how to insert and catalog it into the museum’s database. Rather than cataloging each object separately, Conaty proposed grouping the Fluxus works by festival or event. She explained that the catalog system might have the actual performance be the main catalog entry with all of the photos, ephemera, and scores in the collection as sub-sections under the parent number. The idea of having something intangible, like a performance, as a primary catalog entry is a compelling curatorial solution that likely wouldn’t have been imaginable until fairly recently, when museums began collecting performance art.

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Since 2008, there have been over thirty exhibits at MoMA and elsewhere that have used materials from the Silverman Fluxus Collection. Conaty walked us through a number of the exhibits and the issues each one raised. In her discussion of the 2001 exhibit Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions 1962-1978, she explained that a huge obstacle the curatorial team dealt with was maintaining the work’s “original spirit.” Understandably, it is difficult to keep the Fluxus events, many of which only survive in leftovers, alive and relatable for viewers who may not have lived through the height of the Fluxus movement. In this exhibit and other recent presentations, the curators included a number of re-performances and re-enactments, which sounded like they successfully kept the works present. In addition to the static ephemera, live performances and installations added another, complementary dimension to the material. For example, in Thing/Thought, the curators exhibited a Flux-kit, which a different artist arranged each month of the exhibit. Some of the artists were original Fluxus artists, while others were contemporary artists who did not know much about the Fluxus movement. While I personally have a slight problem with contemporary artists who virtually know nothing about Fluxus re-enacting a Flux-kit in an exhibit dedicated to Fluxus, the combination of contemporary and past interaction with the material seems to both conserve the afterlife of the works and continue the Fluxus notion of never being static.
It will be exciting to see what the future holds for the Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA. In addition to what are sure to be many more exhibits dedicated to Fluxus, Conaty commented that she and her team are hoping to develop a website interface that would make more of the collection available online, in order to maximize the number of people interacting with the collection. Ultimately, Fluxus is a movement that potentially never ended and continues to exist today; it is fun to think that perhaps the challenges MoMA faces are just part of a never-ending Fluxus performance.

Images: MoMA, Fluxus Preview, October 2, 2009 – January 23, 2010
Organized by Christophe Cherix and Jon Hendricks

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