by Owen Smith


The arts are a special mode of being where we are allowed to try lives and perspectives on and put them aside at will, where we can make our attempts as remote and formal as the retinal image or as close and intimate as performance sculpture created for groupings of two or three people. And any gradient between these poles...

---Ken Friedman, "Perspective: Brief Notes on an Exhibition," 1975 [1]

In 1977 Ken Friedman was interviewed by Diane Spodarek for the Detroit Artists Monthly. They discussed his academic background, his facilitation of the establishment of several collections of underground, Fluxus and small press materials, and his then current work with Associated Art Publishers. The interviewer then asked: "So you're involved in all these organizations, you're traveling and lecturing, and you write. When are you doing your work?" Friedman's answer was simply, "My art work? Sometimes I don't." [2] He then proceeded to qualify this statement: "It seems to me at this point that the very most important thing that artists can do in this country, at this time, is to establish a sense of community, to know one another, to work toward achieving our common goals." [3] For the last thirty-three years Friedman's major artistic undertaking has been building a community. In notes for a lecture entitled "Principles of Action," he describes his artmaking activities as social actions: "My work has been to re-interpret art from art-as-art mode (designed primarily or solely for the wall or pedestal) into art-as-human (educational, social, communicative, transactional) process. I have treated my work, both in the Fluxus tradition and in other areas, not only as a vehicle for aesthetic pleasure, but for social action and public participation." [4]

An expanded definition of the role of the artist as "networker" and/or facilitator forms the center of Friedman's artistic practice. Through the systematic and long-term development of his critical concerns and cultural engagements, Friedman has sought to create a laboratory for artistic and social ideas. This development is not understood by the artist to be a template for cultural production, but rather a process of living as a creative social being. As Friedman himself puts it, "One could say that I allied ideas and actions in ways that few others did in those days. Many people created models or metaphors. I tried to live out the meaning of the metaphors." [5] Friedman's most important and lasting work has been the composition of an expansive communication network. This project has followed several lines of development, ranging from his early involvement with Fluxus and his directorship of Fluxus West, to his current role as theorist of intermedial art and editor of several Fluxus anthologies. It is further evidenced in the trajectory of his transition from a fifteen-year-old radio producer, through his early involvement in the establishment of the mail art network (perhaps best exemplified in his Omaha Flow Systems exhibition project and his founding and editorship of the NYCS Weekly Breeder, to his recent co-founding of the Fluxlist online discussion group.


StarTING at ENDing, c. 1967


Ken Friedman's life is his work. This is not to say that his personal concerns constitute his work, rather that his conceptual dedication to creative engagement has informed all stages of his life. To understand his artistic production one must realize that his diversity of action is simultaneously natural and anchored in a systematic set of theories and ideas. In a 1972 essay for the journal Art and Artists Friedman wrote:

In every possible way we have tried to bring the entire range of human understanding and experience to bear upon art: psychology, design, environmental design, the behavioral sciences, social sciences, learning theory, theology and others named and to be named....we deal with human concerns. We refuse limitations, but choose to explore the full range of forms and attitudes. For some there is no choice involved: it is impossible not to do so." [6]

Friedman's work as an artist predates his awareness of his activities as works of art. As a child growing up in New London, Connecticut, he was constantly involved in a variety of creative endeavors such as building environments in which to play and inventing dramatic interludes. It was in this context that in the Spring of 1956, at the age of six, Friedman produced his first public event. He spent a spring day cleaning a public monument. Although not then recognized by Friedman as art, Scrub Piece became one of a number of works originally produced as life actions and subsequently scored as events following his 1966 exposure to Fluxus. In the early 1960s Friedman and his family moved to California where he became involved in the Unitarian Universalist denomination, and the Esperanto and world peace movements. It is through these early involvements that he began to develop his life-long interests in theology, social activism and community building. In this same period Friedman produced a series of both public and private events titled Immigration Acts. Although still not seen as art events, per se, by Friedman, he has described them as being conceived of as both meditational and poetic. In 1965 he entered California Western University, transferring to Shimer College in Illinois within the same year. At Shimer, Friedman began to produce and direct radio programs for the college station WRSB. While looking for program material, he came across an advertisement for Something Else Press. This encounter opened a whole new world of possibilities:

. . . I saw an ad published for a book published by Something Else Press. It was Daniel Spoerri's Anecdoted Topography of Chance. I got a copy to review, and I was stunned, thrilled by this book. I'd never seen anything so intriguing, so amazing. I got all the other Press books to review on air [and]. . . I began writing to Dick Higgins and Dick wrote me saying "When you come to New York, you have to visit us." In August of '66, I was in New York visiting Dick, and saw some Fluxus things. I learned that Spoerri was a member of Fluxus along with others Dick had been publishing.

I'd been making objects ever since I was a kid -- I'd made a little object the year before called The Open and Shut Case . . . [and ] I reconstructed one, as a gift for Dick. He looked at it and said to me, "Take this to George Maciunas." I asked, "Who's he?" Dick answered "The guy who does editorial work for Fluxus." I went to see George, who looked at the box and spent some time talking with me about some of the things I had been doing which I later discovered were "events." I knew that they weren't "ordinary life activities," but I hadn't considered them as art. They were simply what I had been doing. Maciunas said "This is very interesting. How would you like to join Fluxus?" I considered what the Fluxus people were doing to be most interesting, a remarkable spiritual practice. I replied "Sure, I'd like to join." Then George asked, "What kind of artist are you?" I said " I've never thought of myself as an artist." To that, on that afternoon evening in mid-August of 1966, he replied "you're a concept artist." [7]

Friedman entered the Fluxus milieu at the end of a period of significant change for the group. By the mid-1960s many of the original group of Fluxus artists had begun to explore work outside of Maciunas' collective vision of Fluxus. Artists such as Eric Andersen, Ben Vautier, Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Ben Patterson and Emmett Williams (all of whom had been associated with Fluxus in Europe) had either begun to develop their own versions of Fluxus or to pursue conceptually related but independent directions. In the United States, artists such as La Monte Young, Jackson Mac Low, Bob Watts, Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins had increasingly begun to chafe under what they felt were Maciunas' dictatorial ideas and approaches, and had either broken contact with Fluxus or consciously distanced themselves from it. [8] Thus when Maciunas invited Friedman to join Fluxus, the group was ready for the new ideas and energies he could bring to it. Not having his own predetermined artistic agenda, and in fact not thinking of himself as an artist at all, Friedman was seen by Maciunas as the right kind of "Fluxman" for the time, one who seemed to have lived Fluxus rather than adopted it as an attitude; a young, very energetic person who could help him disseminate Fluxus ideas and works without the hindrance of an artistic ego. [9] In Friedman, Maciunas found a disciple, and in Fluxus Friedman found a context for what he had been doing all his life. Thus a new generation of Fluxus was born and, like Friedman's own inclinations, it was more truly collective and collaborative. This Fluxus generation was much less concerned with consciously seeking to merge life into art than with living life as a creative process, enjoying what was to be found, learning from it and passing on such learning. Although often ignored in the literature, this shift is crucial to understanding both the trajectory of Fluxus in the late 1960s and 1970s and Friedman's own development. [10] This late 1960s and 1970s abandonment of the earlier Fluxus art/life stance by Friedman and other members of the Fluxus community was not only purposeful, it was a radical rejection of the traditional oppositional avant-gardist stance. The work of Friedman, Larry Miller, Albert Fine, Paul Sharits and others was not formed by antagonistic opposition, but rather by a shared belief in the value of participatory knowledge.


Cages, n.d.


Friedman took up the Fluxus banner in the Fall of 1966. Soon after their first meeting Maciunas produced several of his pieces as Fluxus works. [11] Friedman, in turn, set up the Avenue C Fluxroom, a small shop and exhibition space in the heart of the East Village, which was also his living space. The Fluxroom was located near the headquarters of the Diggers and the offices of the East Village Other. Friedman offered Fluxus publications and multiples for sale, mounted a few exhibitions, and tried to create an interface between Fluxus and other counterculture organizations. Nonetheless, by late October Friedman (who was still only sixteen at the time) began to feel increasingly alone and without the community he so desired. Maciunas was busy developing his Fluxhousing projects and had little time for him; Higgins had left for an extended trip to Europe. Friedman packed up and returned to California.

Just before Friedman left New York, Maciunas decided to create a series of regional centers through which the ideas and works of the Fluxus group could be better propagated. In addition to a central Fluxus organization, which he was still to head, Maciunas created four branches (Fluxus West, Fluxus East, Fluxus North and Fluxus South) and asked Friedman to head Fluxus West. Friedman set up the first Fluxus West headquarters in San Diego. (He would continue to maintain an archive in his family's home until 1979, and it was significant portions of this rich body of material that formed the initial core of The University of Iowa's Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts collection.) At the end of 1966 Friedman relocated to the Bay Area where he opened the Fluxhouse that would serve as center for the branch. From 1967 to 1970 Fluxus West mounted several exhibitions of Fluxus materials as well as individual exhibitions of works by Christo, Dieter Rot, Ben Vautier, George Brecht, Robert Watts, Friedman himself, and numerous others. In addition, dozens of performances were sponsored that presented the works of leading experimental intermedia artists, many for the first time on the West Coast. Although artists as diverse as Alan Kaprow and the Spanish group Zaj were presented, most of the performances focused on artists more directly associated with the Fluxus group, for example, Brecht, Higgins, Milan Knizak, Vautier, Mieko Shiomi, Maciunas, Knowles, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Williams, and Friedman. At the same time, Friedman created the first of several Fluxmobiles, a VW Bus that served as traveling headquarters, exhibition space and studio. Friedman presented numerous performances, lectures, and exhibitions; at first traveling around the Bay Area, and eventually driving across the country several times. Throughout his Fluxus West period, he was actively establishing a network of individuals and organizations committed to the exchange of information, publications and works. His efforts were tireless, spurring many individuals and organizations to enter this growing communication network. Many artists who had been pursuing similar but individual projects established contact with one another through Fluxus West and began to collaborate and share ideas. It is in this role of disseminator and instigator that Friedman helped transform the mail art network from a small private exchange system to an open and global network of interested individuals. [12] If (as Dick Higgins has stated) Fluxus was established in an attempt to share interesting new work, then it could be argued that this goal was first achieved through Friedman's developing network. First published in 1966 as the "International Contact List of the Arts," this network would eventually expand to include well over 5000 names. From the outset, Friedman kept circulating the list and adding names to it. This process did two important things: it kept the list alive through its continual expansion and, more importantly, it helped to establish and maintain a community of interested individuals who could share information. It established a community (the names on the list) at the same time that it created the mechanism through which the members of that community could interact (the addresses themselves). It could be said that through his tireless sponsorship of Fluxus and an open mail art network, his experimental exhibitions and promotions, and his lectures on the new arts, writings and interviews, Friedman did more to disseminate the ideas and works associated with Fluxus and experimental and intermedial arts in North America than any other artist in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Throughout his extensive writings, Friedman repeatedly emphasizes several points that define his view of art and creativity. These include the significance of process and exploration, his understanding that art making is part of human culture, that art is about sharing, promoting well-being, and social exchange. He also repeatedly associates artistic process with the creation of communities through collaboration and the transmission of information. In his 1972 essay "The Aesthetics," he argues that an artist "is essentially a communicator. In whatever medium, activities of art are a transmission of one sort or another of experience or aesthetic data." [13] Friedman believes that although society primarily recognizes the artist's role as aesthetician and even as aesthetic commodity, this is not entirely accurate. Instead, the artist's potential, in Friedman's view, is best realized when activated through a process of exchange through teaching and learning. "An artist is as well a teacher of experience, a communications system, a resource bank, a living statement of the possibility of vision. As such, the artist is a prophet, a therapist, a teacher, a natural resource and a public servant." [14] The choice of these particular models is significant, for they are indicative of a process that Friedman has sought to realize in his own life and work. For Friedman, artists are no longer separate from and/or in advance of their own society; their roles as observers or even visionaries are inseparable from their social context. Artists become intimately linked with (and even dependent upon) their audience. They are instigators and facilitators of the audience's awareness. This relationship of mutual dependence is clearly seen in several of Friedman's early mail art exhibitions, specifically One-Year One-Man Show at the Oakland Art Museum, Work in Progress at the Henry Art Gallery (both in 1972), and the 1973 Omaha Flow Systems at the Joselyn Art Museum. The artist structured these exhibitions as open invitations for broad participation. In particular, it was the processes that Friedman created for the Omaha Flow Systems that have come to provide one important working model for the inclusive nature of mail art, per se. The exhibition consisted of an open call for participation in an international exchange of artworks. These were sent to Omaha and exhibited at the museum between April 1 and 24, 1973. Although Friedman was the individual/artist who conceived this project, the show itself was a collaboration among all participants -- from local school children to visual artists from Poland. Friedman stated that the whole purpose of Omaha Flow Systems was "to generate communication that gives people a good time and broadens their horizons." [15]

In the over three decades that Friedman has been active as an artist, organizer and educator, his work as a whole provides a paradigm for creative engagement and thought. Friedman's historical significance is in part traceable to his involvement with the Fluxus Group and the influence of the sensibilities associated with it. It is also related to his contributions to the development of the mail art or "Eternal Network," a term Robert Filliou originally coined in reference to two of his own primary creative concerns: the inseparability of art and life, and art as thought which embraces a diversity of explorations including the spiritual, the physical, the social, and the economic conditions of existence. [16] As Friedman himself noted "When Robert Filliou developed his concept of 'The Eternal Network,' he was thinking of the human condition rather than art. Filliou held that the purpose of art was to make life more important than art. That was the central idea of the Eternal Network." [17] What should be stressed is that for Friedman the Eternal Network is not merely a substitute for correspondence art, as the term has since come to be used. Not only does the Eternal Network encompass artists' publications, alternative spaces and exhibition venues, it is also a social construction that evolves from the exchange of information.

While much of the work of the post-Cageian generations of artists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has raised questions about art's equivocal relation to life, for the most part it has functioned comfortably within the pre-ordained, sanctified artistic space of an "alternative art" context. Friedman's work (and in particular his activities as a networker) is much more akin to Filliou's original conception. He has consciously and critically positioned himself and his activities as catalysts for cultural interaction and social growth both within and outside of the art world. Friedman wrote that the "Eternal Network placed its stress on dialog, even on multilog, the process of group research and the community of discourse. In some ways, the ideas and works that emerged from the network more closely resemble scientific research than art." [18] Although many artists associated with these currents, notably Maciunas, Higgins and Beuys, have sought to create a social praxis for and through their work, Friedman differs from them. The artist describes his approach as "shaping both a philosophy and being willing to undertake the decades of work it takes, trying first one way, then another, to bring the ideas of my philosophy to life through action. . . Through the changes, the new approaches, I undertook systematic work. When things didn't work one way, I tried another. I failed to get some things done. I succeeded with others. The model I'd use is the model of a research center or laboratory." [19]


Friedmanswerk (Edition Hundertmark), c. 1971


In Friedman's life and work one can see the playing out of these very same concerns. Not only has he led his life as a creative process ignoring traditional separations between art and life or between process and product, but he has also used these same processes of investigation to explore a remarkable breadth of concerns similar to those that interested Filliou. Even to this day, Friedman (who now teaches leadership, organization theory, and knowledge management at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, Norway) should not be seen as having moved away from art, but as committed to an ongoing exploration of the Eternal Network. Similar to Filliou's original conception of the term, this is for Friedman a process of permanent creation which is centrally involved with an exchange of knowledge resources. This process of physical, conceptual and spiritual investigation (combined with sharing his finds with interested listeners and viewers) has always been at the core of his work. [20] In his essay "Fluxus and Concept Art," Friedman wrote: "The future of art, particularly concept art, lies in sharing and promoting life and well-being among peoples of the earth, or striving towards enlightenment." [21] In his philosophical view of art Friedman conjoins both therapy and religion to artistic praxis. He has stated that the root of artistic experience is a spiritual order of communication and that the ultimate goal of art activities is to "discover the meaning and direction of what we do (the therapeutic or religious)." [22]

Similarly, in a passage from his book The Aesthetics Friedman sets forth his program for social, cultural, and ultimately spiritual change:

In order to change the world, we must change the attitudes and lifestyles of men and women. This means that in reality we don't change men and women, but change situations in order to allow people to choose and be free, to choose the changes most suitable for them by themselves. Thus we change the human situation.

How do we change the human situation? By changing and reinventing culture -- the patterns of being and interaction -- in which the lives of human beings are rooted and grounded. But this change is slow. . . All along the way, we must be changing ourselves, experimenting, trying new models, living out new forms and energy flows, correcting what can be corrected now and laying the groundwork for what we can not accomplish immediately.

Me, I'm not an artist. Just a pilgrim. Sometimes I do art, sometimes I write, sometimes I'm an observer, sometimes an anthropologist. All this and more. As we all can be. The joy of it is, the message of it is: with a little hard work, and a lot of love and something beyond name, we can be it all, experience the depth of all even within this brief time-span. [23]

Through his almost evangelical spreading of the word of a new art by and for the people, an art of contemplation, learning and communication, an art formed through the exchange of information and the resultant development of a community, Friedman achieved, to extend this religious analogy, that which he had sought since childhood: a role as a minister and a congregation to which to preach. In intent, as well as action, Ken Friedman has truly devoted himself to the ministry of the Eternal Network.



[1]. Ken Friedman, "Perspective: Brief Notes on an Exhibition," La Mamelle, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1975), p. 6.

[2]. Ken Friedman with Diane Spodarek, "Artist, Critic, and Lecturer: Ken Friedman," Detroit Artists Monthly, January, 1978, p. 8.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ken Friedman, notes for a lecture titled "Principles of Action," quoted in Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz, Ken Friedman: The World That Is, The World That Is To Be, preface by Thomas Joseph Mew III, Mt. Berry Georgia: Berry College, 1976, pp. 33-34.

[5]. Ken Friedman, email to the author, July 6th, 1999.

[6]. Ken Friedman, "Fluxus and Concept Art," Art and Artists, Vol. 7 no. 7 (October 1972), p. 51.

[7]. Ken Friedman with Helen and Newton Harrison, "Artist to Artist: Ken Friedman," Atlanta Art Workers Coalition Newspaper, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan/Feb, 1979), p.2.

[8]. For more information on this period in the history of Fluxus see Owen Smith, Fluxus: the History of an Attitude, San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1998.

[9]. Maciunas felt that it was just such egos, and the conflicts they caused that had led to the prior breakdown of the group. In 1962 and 1963 while in Europe Maciunas had unsuccessfully tried to form a similar relationship with Tomas Schmit.

10. Overlooking this distinction has led several critics to criticize Fluxus activities and events of the seventies for having lost the culturally critical edge that was more transparently evident in the Fluxus work of the early Sixties. One of the more notable of these is Stuart Home. See his Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, London: Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, 1998.

[11]. Both Garnisht Kigele Fluxfeast and Open and Shut Case were realized in September of that year.

[12]. Michael Crane, "The Origins of Correspondence Art," in Correspondence Art, Michael Crane and Mary Stofflett, eds., San Francisco: Contemporary Arts Press, 1984, p. 90.

[13]. Ken Friedman, The Aesthetics, Devon, England: Beau Gest Press, 1972, p. 48.

[14]. Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[15]. See Ken Friedman, "Flowing in Omaha," which first appeared in Art and Artists, (London) August 1973 and is reprinted in this volume. In describing the function of some of his event scores Friedman addresses his understanding of the relationship among artist, work and audience: "[These] pieces which are not so much self-reflective . . . but instead utilize the material or simplicity of ideology involved in the piece to set up a tension between the work and the viewer which causes the viewer to become self-reflexive and involved at the same time." Although the artist's role as instigator and the work as vehicle remain intact, they are no longer independent of their effect on the audience. Ken Friedman, press interview, quoted in The World That Is, The World That Is To Be, p. 31.

[16]. "Perspective: Brief Notes on an Exhibition," p.7.

[17]. The concept of the Eternal Network was conceived by Filliou and George Brecht in the Summer of 1965 at Cedille qui Sourit, their store, laboratory, workshop and "international center for permanent creation" in the south of France. For more information see Robert Filliou, Teaching and Learning as a Performing Arts, Cologne: Verlag Gebr., 1970. See also, Stephen Perkins, "Utopian Networks and Correspondence Identities," in this volume.

[18]. Ken Friedman, "Foreword: The Eternal Network," in Chuck Welch, The Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1995, p. xv.

[19]. Ibid., p.xvi.

[20]. Ken Friedman, email to the author, July 6, 1999

[21]. "Fluxus and Concept Art," p. 50.

[22]. The Aesthetics, p. 2

[23]. Ibid., pp. 80-8.



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To: Subjugated Knowledges cover page.