Jonas Mekas, Collection of 40 Film Stills, Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas, 2007, June 5 – August 23, 2008, installation view, Maya Stendhal Gallery
Between 1957 and 1965, before establishing the downtown artist cooperatives that garnered him the nickname “The Father of SoHo,” Fluxus impresario George Maciunas drafted a set of ambitious building plans for newly constructed apartment complexes and single-unit dwellings. Unrealized in his lifetime, Maciunas’s Prefabricated Building System was intended not only to outdo the khrushchyovka apartment style—a concrete-panel system for multistory complexes that was used in the Soviet Union and throughout the Eastern bloc beginning in the 1950s—but also to promote a rigorously designed, multi-functional type of architecture that could be used for residential or institutional purposes in various environments at low production costs. Referred to popularly as Maciunas’s “Plastic Prefab,” the project was the focus of this exhibition, for which a three-dimensional model and virtual tour of a prototypical home based on Maciunas’s detailed plans were realized.
The results of this retro-minded experiment were mixed. While the one-to-ten ratio model revealed a streamlined, alluring plan for a single-story dwelling made up of nine rectangular panels—easily transported modular units that could be adjusted to various configurations around a Japanese-style interior garden—the digital renderings and corporate-style animation that accompanied it seemed out of step with and superfluous to the socially motivated context of Maciunas’s proposal. Overseen by architect Scott Weinkle, the presentation showed that Maciunas’s design was informed by up-to-date fabrication methods of the time and was not only highly functional but also elegant. What was obfuscated, however, by the commercial aesthetic and lack of supplementary materials, was an attuned sense of the urgency and socialist fervor that initiated the design.
Trained as an architect at Cooper Union and the Carnegie Institute of Technology following his family’s forced emigration from Lithuania in the wake of World War II, Maciunas maintained an active interest in the discipline even after turning to graphic design and art. Though Maciunas developed his building system in the 1950s, he did not publish it until 1965, when they appeared in a pamphlet that also featured his Fluxus collaborator Henry Flynt’s text “Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture.” The pamphlet, excerpted in the exhibition, presents a detailed cost-benefit analysis of Maciunas’s system in comparison with other prefab designs—including two of Buckminster Fuller’s as well as the Soviet system—and touts the socialist ramifications of the flexible, highly distributable, thrifty model. The publication is equal parts propaganda and blueprint, position paper and potential business venture. Maciunas apparently went so far as to approach Soviet authorities, according to Flynt, but with little to no practical response. Not one to be discouraged, however, Maciunas soon produced other pamphlets announcing similarly radical efforts to purchase and renovate obsolescent manufacturing buildings in SoHo in order to turn them into collective living environments for artists—a seemingly quixotic but partially successful venture on Maciunas’s part that provided the backdrop for the heyday of the Fluxus movement and the first home for Jonas Mekas’s Filmmakers’ Cinematheque at 80 Wooster Street.
The resilience, adaptability, and ingenuity that characterized Maciunas’s life and practice was best conveyed by the exhibition’s inclusion of a newly edited version of Mekas’s film Zefiro Torna: Scenes in the Life of George Maciunas, 1992. Installed in an adjacent project room as a nonsynchronous two-channel installation with forty related photo stills, Mekas’s elegiac homage to his close friend and fellow Lithunian émigré features informal footage spanning nearly three decades. The portrait of Maciunas that emerges is of an obsessive organizer, transposing his experience with public relations and design strategies into a stream of convivial activities for an ever-shifting bohemian mix—Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono make repeated cameos alongside Fluxus stalwarts Ay-O, Alison Knowles, and others. Observed constantly preparing the stage for each score-based performance, late-night cabaret, street game, and anti-art gag, Maciunas quite literally appears to provide a home in perpetual motion for any and all willing to participate.