Simon Anderson, artist and educator, Chicago

with Courtney Cintron

From his curious days as a British lad baking blue loaves of bread and deconstructing pianos, Simon Anderson began operating in a Fluxus mode before it had even entered the popular imagination. What is Fluxus? It’s one of those things that one may just have to investigate on their own to grasp. Generally speaking, it’s a network of international artists and composers that came together in the 1960s to explore and play with avant-garde ideas. It’s neither here nor there, because its meaning is always in motion. Yet there have been some key characteristics that have become idiosyncratic over time: paradox, humor, musicality, to name a few. All qualities that Anderson himself possesses.

I took a Fluxus seminar with Anderson my first year as a graduate student at SAIC. On the first day of class, we touched each other’s noses, discussed our astrological signs and spirit animals, and chatted about what our early impressions of Fluxus were. It was certainly not what I expected from an art history class. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were already engaging with Fluxus. There was a sense of freedom and undeniable humor that was at play throughout the semester that allowed for students to not only learn about the history of Fluxus but to understand it on a deeper level.

Anderson is the Associate Professor of Art History, Criticism, and Theory at the School of the Art Institute. In addition to Fluxus, he has also taught other Twentieth Century art and anti­-art lecture and seminar courses. He has also served as co­-chair of the Faculty Senate; the Chair of the department of Art history, theory and criticism; and Divisional Head of Academic Programs. Anderson has dedicated much of his life to being a Fluxus historian and administrator, working to support the platform. Some of the work that he’s done around Fluxus has included: organizing exhibitions, designing and producing publications, writing exhibition commentaries, magazine criticism, book chapters, correspondence ­art, and expanded poetry. Although Anderson has been tasked with many administrative responsibilities within the institution and around Fluxus activity itself, fascinatingly enough, he is still able to maintain a Fluxus attitude and approach to life. His practice is not about production and administrative perfection. Rather, Anderson prefers to support activity that’s already taking place and encourages others to engage in these activities.

As administrators, we often have this idea that creating more work for ourselves and others legitimizes our practice. Anderson’s method of supporting activities and ideas that already exist and allowing people to engage with these activities as little or as much as they’d like to is a relief and quite brilliant.


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COURTNEY CINTRON: When and where were you born? What were your earliest experiences and interactions with art?

SIMON ANDERSON: I was born in Bedfordshire, England, in the country, in 1955. It’s not a terribly cultural part of the world. So I didn’t really have that many brushes with art until I went to art school. There wasn’t that much around.

CC: How did you decide to go to art school?

SA: A friend of mine suggested it, and it sounded like fun. I was at a point where I had failed all of my exams at school. So I needed something else to do because I had to leave school. I went to a technical college which enabled me to retake some of the exams. They had an art program that offered a pre­-diploma course, which I was very enthusiastic about as soon as I discovered it.

CC: What were some of the first jobs that you had? What were your feelings about these jobs?

SA: As a schoolboy I worked at the local bakery on Saturdays, cleaning up and helping out, and I kind of liked that. I made a blue loaf once. I just got some dough from the bakery and I dyed it blue and baked it and it was really great because it didn’t look blue from the outside it just looked brown, a regular loaf, and then you cut it and you have a blue loaf. I was always doing crazy things I guess. I took a piano apart once when I was about 12 or 13. You know, that’s just the kind of curiosity that I had back then.

I worked in the food industry a lot after the bakery. After I graduated from my school I worked as a busboy and then worked my way up in the kitchen. I was a sous chef. I had a job in a jam factory bottling jam. I’ve never really liked work. You know, I get tired of routine very quickly.


CC: What about the repetitive nature of work?

SA: That never bothered me. I worked at Gillette making hair curlers. That was a little bit of a grind working all night making the same thing. But, it’s pretty interesting to work in a factory, especially at night because it’s full of weird people. You get some interesting conversations on break. I learned a lot about Marxism at the Gillette factory. I was politically very sensitive at that time and it was a great way of educating myself about some of those ideas. After that I worked in youth training, sort of government run schemes, finding things for youth to do when they couldn’t otherwise get jobs. This was in the late 70s when the economy really was not very good. That was a fun job because I got to build an adventure playground with these youths and also teach them how to play with the users of the playground. It was a nice mixture of theory and practice or work and play. That was useful for me as well.

CC: When did you move to the U.S. and what prompted you to move to the U.S.?

SA: I moved out of Britain in the mid to late 1980s, because it was a horrible place to live. It was almost a civil war…the miner’s strike, the economy. It was a very divided country and I was on the losing side of the division. I had the opportunity to leave the country. My partner got a job in Spain. So we moved to Madrid. That was a lovely place to live. That’s where I finished writing up my PhD, which was a great opportunity because I couldn’t speak the language. I had my little room and I did my thing. So that was great for me. When you have a doctorate you have to do something with it. It’s like having a kid. You can’t just leave them there, you know? You have to work them and make them live…make them work for you in a sense. The work situation was very difficult at that time in Europe, and it wasn’t in this country. So that’s why I moved to this country. When I got my doctorate I thought I would come and get some work experience and see the country and have some fun. I was going to get a motorcycle and do Route 66 and all those things that a lot of immigrants think about America when they come here. Doing those things that you see in the movies. Yeah, so that’s why I came. Not intending to stay at all, and here I am.

CC: What was your first exposure to Fluxus and what attracted you to it?

SA: My first exposure was at art school. My undergraduate experience. I had a teacher named Robin Crozier. Robin was into the Fluxus scene. He was into correspondence art and artist books. Through his job at the art school, he had gotten the library to order a lot of Something Else Press books. He would show them to anyone and talk to anyone about them. His classes were much more experiential than any other class I’d had. I found that very exciting. I was initially attracted to the unique experience of being in a classroom and performing together doing one piece, and it seemed to change the room and everyone in it. And everyone’s relationship to each other. I thought that was a very exciting thing, and it was the best part of my educational experience. Because everything else was a bit ropey really. I was an immediate convert. It was at a time when one could reach out to people and they would respond. I got more involved than I realized. I wrote to people who had been involved in the founding of Fluxus, and in many cases, they wrote back. This was my way of not trying to write so much. In my school, we had to write a thesis as an undergraduate, and I wasn’t really up for the idea of writing very much. I thought that if I got people to send me words I could use them all, and I wouldn’t have to write. If I got 100 people to write 20 words that would be half a thesis. That was my idea. Of course, it didn’t really work because the things they sent me were, although some of them were 20 words, some of them weren’t. One of them was 20 beans. Alison Knowles sent me 20 beans. So, it was educational in more than one way. It affirmed my curiosity for the group and their ideas. That they could answer and yet the answer was further away than when I’d asked. They knew that, and that was part of it. I think, and I’m not sure, but I think what they were trying to say was, well you have to decide that it’s going to be what you make it, rather than we tell you what it is and then you make it that. That’s not very interesting.


CC: Out of those artists during that formative period of time, which one do you feel had the greatest influence on you?

SA: At that time, I was most interested in the work of George Brecht. I’ve always been impressed by his work. I thought then, for good reason I think, I thought he glued most closely to what my idea of Fluxus was back then. So all the way through my undergraduate and my graduate work up to MA level I thought that his form of Fluxus was the most powerful, the most interesting because it was simple. There was nothing involved that was out of anyone’s capabilities. Yet, it was also deep. So you got from the facile to the fascinating very quickly if you wanted to. Or, you could go from the playful to the profound if you wanted to. You could also stay at the playful. So, I’ve always liked his work. Subsequently, I got to know other people better. I know Alison Knowles’ work better than I know Brecht’s work because I’ve been more involved with it, and I’ve known her better. My personal knowledge of Brecht was restricted to a few postcards and a brief conversation in which I was totally star struck. My relationship with Alison Knowles has been much more equal and friendly. So, I’ve really learned to appreciate her work a lot. Through that experience of both of them, and through Dick Higgins as well–who I corresponded with–I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of different approaches. I try to maintain that openness to the idea in my own talking about it. It doesn’t always work.

CC: You’ve followed these artists and their work and you’ve worked much as a historian of Fluxus. What has been your own personal involvement with Fluxus? Do you have any art objects, compositions, etc.?

SA: I used to do more of that than I do now. For instance, when I wrote these guys in the 70s I sent them stuff that I’ve made as a quid pro quo. You know, I’ll send you this if you send me that information. So, that was very much a part of what I did back then. I guess I’ve become less comfortable with that as a way of operating around Fluxus. I’ve tended to do more of organizing events or helping to prepare for events, or introducing events rather than getting involved in the concrete production of things. That’s generally what I’m more interested in. Being more instrumental rather than productive. I have a lot of personal issues around continued production in late capitalism. We don’t really need another multiple in the world. Also, I think that by making things happen you can do more in a sense. You can actually achieve change more efficiently somehow. I don’t know that that’s true, but that’s how I feel about it. My day to day existence has changed a bit. So, I’m less interested in entering the circle of production and consumption in the same way some other people have.

CC: We began our class with some reading fragments from Heraclitus, best known for his philosophy on universal flux. One fragment stood out in particular, ‘The river where you set your foot just now is gone, those waters giving way to this, now this.’ Can you talk a little bit about this fragment in its relationship to Fluxus?

SA: We talked a little bit about it earlier when we were discussing ephemerality versus the immortal. The idea is immortal, but the reality may not be. This is a central paradox that Fluxus has played with very nimbly. Certainly in the early days; it was nimbler at it. A lot of Fluxus artists have played with the idea of paradox and using paradox as a philosophical tool to get you into other ways of being, thinking, or acting in the world. For philosophers, historically, paradox has been a dead end. It has been something very difficult for them to get past. So that generally, when we get to deal with paradox in the philosophical sense you have to work around it and say, ‘okay that’s a separate thing, we’ll call them paradoxes and leave it at that.’ Whereas Fluxus, it seems to me, engaged from the very beginning with that paradox of, ‘If you’re doing it you can’t be measuring it at the same time. If you’re measuring it you’re not really doing it, you’re measuring it.’ I think rather than prevent people from understanding, they were allowing for a more expanded possibility of understanding. Because really, if you boil it down to the pithy, Heraclitus’ thing is easy to understand. It’s like yeah, it’s the same river, but it’s different water. It’s not that hard until you take it out of the lived experience of stepping into the water and then going back next year and being like, ‘Okay, here I am again at the banks of the delightful Chicago River.’

Even though it smells the same, it’s not the same.” That way of exploiting and enjoying, and not being distressed by the paradox, is also a useful way of thinking about the non-­western linear reductive thing that Fluxus also helped get people to think about. The paradox is only a problem if you’re stuck in logic. If you accept that logic is only one part of the big picture that helps drive us, you can’t be intimidated by it, and you can actually enjoy it. That’s one of the great things about Fluxus for me. It helps me to see difficulties in a different way. Whether it’s difficulties of one’s own creativity or one’s own struggle with value, whatever the difficulty is, if you can be helped to empower yourself around it by seeing a bigger picture or seeing it as something else, then that’s a great thing. It doesn’t solve the logical problem, but that’s okay. We can have fun with that now. I think it’s also very nice to understand that these problems are not new and don’t just come with the digital era, but they’re actually big problems that people have chewed over for centuries in our tradition and in other traditions. Confucius was raising the same problem at the same time as Heraclitus, but in a different language and in a different culture. It’s nice that Fluxus can be so radical and experimental even 50 years later. After a while, you realize that it has those deep strings that take it back to prehistory.


CC: Fluxus began in 1962 as a series of concert festivals in Wiesbaden and then around Europe that would promote their planned publication. Musicians such as La Monte Young, John Cage, Ligeti, Penderecki, Terry Riley, and Brion Gysin alongside performance pieces written by Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, George Brecht, and Nam June Paik. In this sense, it seems to be rooted in experimental music. What were the roles of music and performance in these early FLUX Fests and have these roles continued to evolve?

SA: The evolution is a good way of thinking about it because as you pointed out, these people coalesced over a number of years in different countries to this kind of crescendo in Wiesbaden. Many of the Americans came at it through musicality if not through music studies. We talked about Cage in class a lot because it was instrumental, and it was called experimental composition. So, it was really about experimental music and musicality, and Cage brought nothing other than his knowledge of music to it. It was all about music for him. So, all the rest was extraneous to that study. And it irritated Cage a bit. This extension into other areas. He got over it. There was a time when it was like, ‘Yeah, they took these ideas and then they did really weird things with them.’ Musicality is essential to understanding Fluxus. The notion that the event is scored as if it were a musical event that was scored is central to understanding Fluxus. As Ken Friedman talks about in his extended list of Fluxus criteria from the nine of Dick Higgins, Ken comes up with twelve. And one of his is musicality. He says that for him at least, the notion that we’re thinking of this practice through the lens of music rather than the lens of the history of painting enabled so much more people to understand and marry themselves to the idea. Because at that time, if you think about it, was a time when music was entering the lives of everybody at a different level. Suddenly we had four mop head lads from Liverpool who were changing the world through musical ideas. That notion that you didn’t have to be a maestro before you could not just be a pop star, but actually change the world was all happening around the same time. It’s not just the forms of music that were important, although they were vital through Cage, Stockhausen, Henry Cowell, Satie, that all of those ideas were really important to Fluxus. But also, the very fact that through music it was visible to everyone who wasn’t trained or traditional necessarily. Big movements could happen through music. That fact was quite important to the success of Fluxus in the early days. These were concerts at which truly a new idea of music was visible for the first time. Because if you went to a Stockhausen concert or even a Cage concert you still had the impossible levels of virtuosity that create a wall between the audience and the performer. When you have a Fluxus concert it’s like, ‘how do I make the most interesting drip come out of this bottle.’ We don’t need any of the things that we need to make a Cage piece or a Stockhausen piece or even a Satie piece and certainly not a Henry Cowell piece. We have access to those other things and that was empowering not only to Fluxus artists but also to their audiences. So, in that sense music is really the wellspring of this activity. Also, in that time, we’re getting much more used to improvisation as a way of constructing music. No longer do you necessarily follow the written notes or even follow the tradition of note music that you’re in. It was really moving beyond that and improvisation was a conversation between musicians. Suddenly the basis for making music had opened up and that allowed for the weirdness of Fluxus to not be so abnormal.

I’m not musical. I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I love to sing and I was in the choir as a kid and went away to choir school. But I can’t read music, so I could never get into it. I’ve always been a kind of wannabe musician. I started a band when I was 13, and I had to play the bongos. I tried the bass guitar once because I thought, ‘Hey fewer strings, I should be able to handle that,’ but it doesn’t work like that. By the time I came to Fluxus I knew that I could not play music and it made it even more attractive for me. I didn’t have to learn music or be a musician to play these things. It was incredibly empowering because of the simple idea that sound can be music and get sound out of a musical instrument is not difficult if you don’t have the prescription of tunefulness. I’ve watched it be liberating for other people too. One of my things as a student was to have an orchestra. My college luckily had a large collection of musical instruments. So, I would just gather all of the musical instruments into a room and all the people I knew and say, ‘Hey, let’s play.’ As soon as you get over your first violent impulses it’s really a great thing to do. That was a pre-­Fluxus experience. Then I got to watch the people that had thought of these things do with them, and I was tremendously impressed by the concentration they realized was necessary to make this work. That, you actually have to approach it seriously and with good intent. You can get very interesting things to happen out of a bottle of water and a saucer. I picked up from watching those people do those things. I realized that they had power even though they didn’t have the need for training or musical articulation. Rather than the punk ethic of three chords and the truth, it’s like, ‘No chords, no truth.”

CC: What role does humor have play in Fluxus? How have you used humor in your own life?

SA: That was another thing that attracted me very early to these artists. I recognized that they were not afraid to acknowledge their humor. That was kind of unusual. Even though pop art was sly and ironic, it was rarely funny. So, it was a kind of implied humor in pop. Whereas in Fluxus, people were actually using funny things to make things work. It kind of legitimized the use of humor. It was not necessarily a postoperative injection of humor to make it pertinent or tolerable. It was actually using not only funny things but also the mechanics of humor to make the things that weren’t funny, funny. Again, humor is a great way to allow people ingress. If you can laugh at something, or laugh with it, or if it makes you laugh, you have a level of comfort with it that you don’t with something that intimidates you or mystifies you. It’s a direct path for people outside to come in very quickly. For some reason I guess I’ve always found that role of humor to be important for my own self­preservation. Even when it was not a case of self­-preservation I can’t help it anyway. It fit in with the way I thought and the way I am in the world. I like to laugh much more than most other things. This for me was a God send in that sense. I feel very fortunate to have been able to follow that path that I have…completely unplanned I must say, but the timing has been right to make it happen.


CC: How do you as a professor, besides teaching Fluxus itself, operate in a Fluxus mode? In what various ways has this influenced your students? How would you like it to influence your students?

SA: Yes, I think humor is a good way of teaching art history. It’s refreshing for a lot of people that don’t necessarily expect art history to be even mildly amusing, and I see no reason why it should not. I think again, that is a way of making my job as an art historian more tolerable for me and for the people that I’m teaching. There is a kind of way that I use Fluxus ideas in the classroom whether I’m teaching Fluxus or not. However, I have found that, having been a teacher now for millennia, that I teach more of the stuff that I find matches my personality. It’s easy for me to teach. It’s easier for me to teach in this method and in this area. I used to be a generalist through necessity because nobody had ever heard of Fluxus. So, I never even mentioned it the first few years of my teaching years because it was more work than it was of benefit. So, that has changed and now it’s easy for me to teach Fluxus and most of the things I teach. I teach with that inflection or things connected to the area.

CC: What do you hope that your students take away from your Fluxus teaching?

SA: I’m hoping that they take away something that they don’t know. I think that it’s a long burning fuse. If people can associate art history with pleasure that’s a good thing because the way that it’s structured in our education often does not lead to it being pleasurable. I’ve always thought that it was much more interesting than the normal way of teaching that it allows for. We’ve come to art because we love it. Why should we have to suffer to do that? I don’t think that art history needs to be painful or the cause of suffering for anyone at any level. That’s the most important thing. If I can give people an experience that they can acknowledge after the fact was art history, but it didn’t feel like it, then I’ve done something that I wanted to.

I remember once, I was in an art history class. I was sitting in the back of an auditorium, and the chap at the front was a very nice, very fascinating guy. He actually collected military uniforms. I loved that about him. I thought, ‘why don’t you talk about that more because you’re obviously a lunatic who doesn’t just know about them, but collects them as well. Instead, he was showing us a very bad slide of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, a German late Romantic painter. The painting was called The Wreck of the Hope, and it was about a shipwreck. I just remember looking at the painting it was all pink because it was a slide and it had faded ­­and I looked at the title and thought, ‘That’s exactly how I feel right now.’ My entire experience of this person’s clearly-felt emotions have been reduced to sitting in the back of this dark room expected to learn the date, the title, the name, the dates of the artist, the medium, the size, and all of that stuff that is associated with art history. It was a memorable experience obviously. It burned its way into my consciousness at some level. When I realized that the job I could most easily get was teaching art history, I thought, ‘I’m going to try to never put anyone in that situation.’ That’s my intention, to not put people in that situation just because they like art.


CC: You’ve been in many art administrative positions: Chair of the Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism; Divisional Head of Academic Programs, and then in addition to organizing exhibitions, designing, and producing publications, lecturing, etc…are you still able to maintain a Fluxus mode of being within these various contexts?

SA: The School of the Art Institute helps a lot. One of the nice things historically has been that if you can justify it to the right person you can do anything you’d like. I’ve found that to be fairly consistently true. If you can create a justification for doing it and also importantly, if you can maintain an audience for those ideas, then you can do them. I’ve found that I’ve been able to do that at this school. When I first came here I did a lot of administration and that enabled me to see the institution as a whole. I feel very fortunate in having done that as a relatively new faculty member. When you do a job at the division level or the head of the department level, you see how this complicated thing operates. That’s enormously useful in succeeding because you can find models out there of people that have done very interesting things from apparently uninteresting beginnings. If you look around at the faculty here, there are people who have done legendary things and they weren’t doing their job at all, but they were doing things that were good for themselves, good for students, good for the school, and are on our mission statement now. Seeing that the school has a history of allowing people to develop quite idiosyncratic practices that have then served them and the school well, has been very helpful to me. I got to smash up a grand piano in the ballroom. How fun is that? I merely had to justify that to the right people. Having positioned experience as a legitimate art historical thing to do then I can posit that experience as a form of art history as well. You need the right institution to do that or you need the money and the independence to do it yourself.

CC: If you could give new Fluxus practitioners any advice, what would it be?

SA: Well, I’ll re-­quote a few things. Probably the most important from George Brecht, who I wrote to when I was an undergraduate art student asking about Fluxus, said, ‘I would suggest research on the spot.’ In other words, You’re going to find out more about it here now then if you go searching for it. I would also cite the German dentist Fluxus collector Hans Sohm, who said, ‘Don’t write the history of Fluxus, the artists don’t want it, it’s against the spirit of Fluxus.’ I would say that anything you want to know about Fluxus in published form that is useful was written by the artists at the time. So, I would combine those three things. It’s kind of anti­-advise isn’t it?


“Piano Activities” video by School of the Art Institute of Chicago


  • with Courtney Cintron

    Simon Anderson:

    Courtney Cintron: