ART / The Fluxshoe detective: Who or what was Fluxus and what did they or it want? Andrew Graham-Dixon searches for clues at the Tate, without much success

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There are those who have long suspected that, behind the blanket of obfuscation which shrouds that curious phenomenon known as 'Fluxus', there lies a strange and deep-dyed plot. Fluxus is often referred to, in books about modern art, as one of the most seminal and radically experimental art movements of the 1960s. But the references are almost invariably made in passing and are usually cryptic and uninformative. Mystery surrounds the subject. Just who were the artists at the core of Fluxus? What was it that they stood for? What, exactly, did they produce?

Those researching Fluxus have very little solid material to go on. A man believed to be a member of the group, called George Brecht (this may have been a pseudonym), once defined the movement, unhelpfully, as 'a group of individuals with something unnameable in common'. A privately printed text of the late 1960s, purporting to be the manifesto of Fluxus, describes it as 'the fusion of Vaudeville, gags, children's games and Duchamp'. It is often assumed that Fluxus died in the 1970s. But it has also been rumoured that Fluxus still lives.

I have personal experience of the strange and elusive character of Fluxus. A few years ago one of the key events at the Venice Biennale was to be a Fluxus happening called 'Ubi Fluxus Ibi Motus'. The invitation card announced that 'During the all night will take place Fluxus performance on the island of the Giudecca'. A broken promise, written in broken English: I turned up during the all night, along with three other curious seekers after Fluxus, and spent a couple of hours on a deserted stretch of quayside disconsolately contemplating an empty beer bottle and a quantity of discarded bubblewrap. To this day, I am not entirely sure whether what we witnessed in the early hours of that Venetian morning was a non-event or a Fluxus event. Was that just a beer bottle and some bubblewrap, or was it Fluxus anti-art? I am still occasionally troubled by the question.

'Fluxbritannica', at the Tate Gallery, is an exhibition of archive material which claims to document the most significant British manifestations of the Fluxus movement in the 1960s and 1970s. How accurately it does so can probably only be judged by those people (I have not managed to trace any, although they are said to exist) who participated in or witnessed those manifestations at first hand. The exhibition consists exclusively of strange and perplexing ephemera: letters from Fluxus members to one another; flyposters; invitations to events that may or may not have actually taken place; hopelessly blurred photographs that may or may not record those events; and objects which, it is claimed, were produced in relation to them.

Among other oddities assembled reverently in glass vitrines, the visitor finds a plastic funnel glued to a stick and a small piece of broken glass. This is said to be the creation of a man called George Maciunas - himself said to be the Lithuanian- born American founder of the Fluxus movement and also, rumour has it, deceased - and it is labelled thus: 'Possibly a device made by Maciunas for the slide projection of live cockroaches'.

This is clearly a provocative object. Why did Maciunas deem the slide projection of live cockroaches desirable? When did he attempt it? Was the attempt successful? What did people make of it? But such urgent questions remain unanswered. Nearby, you find an object labelled 'Results of the fifth assemblage in John Gosling's Contribution to the Art of Assemblage', which consists of an extremely shrivelled and very mouldy lemon affixed to a child's magnet. Again, no further information is forthcoming.

Fishiest of all, however, is the surviving documentary evidence of what is said to have been the most spectacular and memorable of all British Fluxus events. 'Fluxshoe', according to the documentary evidence, took place at several venues in England and Wales between the winter of 1972 and the summer of 1973. But once more most of the exhibits here amount to little more than forms of hearsay: questionable memorabilia to be taken on trust.

A totally indecipherable and overexposed photograph of what could be Blitz bombing or the Blackpool Illuminations is described as 'the finale to As Is, performed by Anthony McCall and Carole Schneeman: a piece initiating a whole sequence of actions ranging from pouring paint over a pile of rubbish, and the audience beating a regular unchanging rhythm with metal objects on large wooden blocks scattered around the room, to Schneeman roller-skating, half-naked, backwards and forwards across the room.' Nearby, a scrap of yellowing paper is the only surviving evidence of Emmet William's performance piece in which he is said to have counted his audience and then informed them they were free to go.

'Fluxshoe' is said to have comprised many other equally transgressive and subversive events. A photograph of two joined hands marred only slightly by camera shake represents 'the climax of Yoko Ono's happening, Touch Poem'. Other redefinitions of poetry to emerge from 'Fluxshoe' included Paul Woodrow's Poem for Wood, a piece of wood with various instructions ('Nail to a Wall', 'Plane', 'Drill a Hole') written on it, and Allen Fisher's Milk in Bottles, which has survived only in the form of a black-and-white photograph of a man pouring water from one milk bottle into another: it is described as 'a long participatory poem in apathy, fear and fatigue'.

Coming to Britain, Fluxus spread its net wide, to judge by other exhibits. In Blackburn, a gentleman called Davi det Hompson lectured to audiences in the town shopping centre on the subjects of 'The Decline of Morality', 'Pollution' and 'The Creeping Threat of Ill-Fitting Shoes'. A brief note informs you that his audience was 'indifferent', and concedes that 'part of the problem may have been that he was gagged while talking'. There is a photograph of him to prove it. In Nottingham, Genesis P Orridge made his own contribution to Fluxus's British annus mirabilis by covering himself in plastic sheeting and impersonating a snail.

'Fluxbritannica' opened at the beginning of April, and the suspicion lurks that the entire exhibition is a hoax. Beyond that, the deeper and darker suspicion lurks that perhaps Fluxus itself never really existed. Perhaps it was a movement that was only said to exist. Perhaps its playfulness went even further than it has commonly been said to have gone, and perhaps the whole seminal movement was a fiction devised and kept up for decades by a complicitous handful of pranksters.

Did a man called Knud Pedersen really stage a Fluxus football match (played with two balls simultaneously) at Cambridge University in February 1973? Did a man called Endre Tot really stage a game of Fluxchess ('This consisted of a cut- down board with no spaces for the pieces to move, so that for an hour, with the clock ticking, nothing happened') between Hungary and England in 1972?

Perhaps they really did, but how much more seminal and radically experimental, as it says in the textbooks, Fluxus would turn out to have been if it was entirely fictional. Of course, it is just possible that all the 'events' which are 'documented' in 'Fluxbritannica' did actually take place; and, if that is true, then the 'anti-artists' of Fluxus were just a bunch of boring hippies who had discovered Dadaism. But I prefer to think of the whole thing as an inspired practical joke.

(Photographs omitted)