Punching the Line: Fluxus, Yippie, and the 1968 DNC

Tom Lavazzi

[1] New Year's Eve, 1967; Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubins, Ed Sanders, and Paul Krassner gathered in rented rooms of Hoffman's Lower East Side loft – Louisida, Alphabet city. Hoffman picks a letter — "Y"? (Kaiser 232) — and the Hip is Yipped, or flipped; "Yippie," the "Youth International Party," as Paul Krassner dubbed the movement, began as a joke, a bit of Fluxus-like detournement, with perhaps a tip of the hat to the "Fluxus International Party," a like-minded art movement that pre-dated Yippie by nearly a decade. The half-serious series of events that would be scripted for that summer were still a fold in the imagination, yet at the 1968 DNC (8/22–29), Yippie would find its shape, rebus-like, dialogically, through a partly impromptu, "de-collage" reworking of "Convention City" (cf. Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell's "civic" installations of the same period — de-collage works through de(con)struction to (re)construction). Staged on the cusp of turbulence that would radicalize not only many who took part in the marches and were victims of the riots in Grant Park and surrounding streets during the demonstrations of convention week, but also those displaced witnesses of the televised "revolution" and even the media itself, which at that moment (if only for a moment) became empowered as a vehicle of critical consciousness, Yippie carnivalizations of convention ideology, of the officially constructed convention space — an emblem of smooth, controlled transitions of power, of all-American processed democracy (rather than live process) — would register higher on the scale of ideological impacts than its founders could have envisioned. Though many factors and groups unintentionally collaborated to produce the political "happening" of the '68 DNC (including the Chicago police department and even — or especially — Mayor Daley, neither of whom were in the mode for jokes), I want to consider the role of the political "jest," as theorized and practiced by Yippie and informed (perhaps unwittingly) by Fluxus conceptual clowning, in radicalizing convention "participants" (those directly involved in protest events during convention week and, less directly, witnesses/viewers — including the TV audience) and in opening a space for the development/ deployment of critical consciousness. [1] Through the (at times dark) humored fissures of Yipped protest the spectacle of glitz and solidarity bled and distorted; by the end of August, 1968, the national convention as a symbol of political stability and order had given way to (or disassembled into, helped by the TV "tube" as a sort of Brechtian estrangement filter) a more complex, less "united" (if not ultimately unmanageable), yet more vital image of America than conventional political iconography could sustain.

[2] Yippie political carnival breathed the same air as Fluxus happenings in the 60's. Both movements deployed humor as a vehicle for social commentary, and to pose a challenge to the status quo. In Fluxus performances, as in Zen, according to David Doris, "humor throws a monkey-wrench into the smooth operation of the given and the known, posing instead a fragmented world of questions, of absolute instability, a stream of flux" (121).

[3] Two mid-'60s Fluxus performances come to mind that play with perception in this way (or work playfully toward enlightenment). One, Flux artist Joe Jones piece for a '65 Fluxorchestra concert, encouraged spectators to laugh at the notion of "high" art performance, to "decrown" (to borrow a term from Bakhtin) its forms and rituals of presentation, as well as to question the mass produced, or conventionalized — i.e., formalized/formularized — nature of mainstream art. As Fluxus founder George Maciunas describes the piece: "Joe Jones is building a whole mechanical orchestra for the second part. The tickets will be printed on balloons, which must be inflated to permit entry, then the ticket taker will pierce each balloon with a pin. Then the programs will be made into airplanes, and flown down from the balcony to audience" (Maciunas, letter to Ben Vautier; qtd. in Smith 174). Another piece from the mid '60s encourages onlookers to reconsider our culture's obsession with certain values by exploiting not high art but, as Owen Smith sees it, the performative elements in every day events: the instructions for "Street Cleaning Event," conceived by the Japanese Fluxus group HI Red Center and performed by a group of NYC-based Flux artists wearing white lab coats near the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn in 1966, stated that "a small...area of sidewalk should be cleaned...in a very thorough way, but using devices not normally used in streets such as: steel wool, steel brushes, powder cleaners, dental picks, toothbrushes, bleaches, cotton balls and alcohol, etc" (Maciunas, "Proposed Program...,"7; qtd, in Smith, 187). Both of these proto-Yippie events use humor as a means to ease us, or surprise us, into critical consciousness. In terms of the connection to Yippie actions, it is also important to note that many Fluxus performances are collaborative and interactive in nature, "decentering the role of the artist and artwork"; as Smith emphasizes, "ultimate power lies with the audience" (Smith 170). Maciunas calls these events "art-amusements," which are often "a simple natural event, a game or a gag. It is the fusion of Spike Jones, Vaudeville, gag[s], children's games and Duchamp" (Maciunas, "Fluxus Broadside..."; qtd. in Smith 181). The linking together of "gag" and "Duchamp" strikes a keynote for the activities of both movements: jokes, yes, but with a conceptual and critically conscious kick.

[4] The parodistic, allusive signifyings of the Yippie-produced film Yippie (1968, b/w, 10 minutes) lead us (laughingly) toward a similar perceptual restructuring. Yippie(a collaborative production and "statement of the International Youth Party," as the film is subtitled) collages documentary footage of the convention week events with early Hollywood spectacle (i.e., images in "public domain," but also out-of-date/out-of-tune with the current socio-political spectacle) to comment on the "revolutionary" rabble: keystone cops parody the Chicago PD's (by extension, Daley's) fumbling, misdirected rage; the sound tract detours zenned utopianism (Ginsberg's "Om" permutes into pop middle-class escapism "ommmm...dreaming of a white Christmas") and the film closes with a can-can burlesque nomination of Pigasus (an actual pig) as Yip(ed) candidate for president, in full regalia, and an LBJ "unbirthday" bash (events that took place on 8/23 and 27, respectively). Nothing is sacred in the film. Hierarchies (cultural, social, intellectual) are leveled as the imagery revels in serious buffoonery (billy-clubbing policemen, for example, depicted as overreacting children) and both protestors and authorities are given their pies in the face (not quite in the manner of the Zen master's smack of the wand). Like Fluxus films and performances of the same period, Yippie deploys filmic techniques (sound counterpoint, associative montage and crosscut editing) to create a "space of the comic" that serves as "a forum for the investigation of boundaries, a site of transgression in which received, unspoken codes are simultaneously revealed and overturned" (Doris 121), teasing us into an alternate, yipped way of thinking of the "text" of the DNC as a whole (which we might now think of, in performance artist Joseph Beuys' phrase, as a kinetic "social sculpture"). The film — like Yip antics generally — achieves this altered — i.e., "fluxed" — mode of perception, to a large extent, through parody and laughter, which is close to the heart of Fluxus: As Timothy Porges explains, giving a Zen spin to the movement, at the heart of Fluxus practice is "a lack of normal perspective and a tendency to giggle and suffer (both by choice) in ways and at times which often seem inappropriate"(9). It's this (critically) conscious preference for the "inappropriate" move that gives both Fluxworks and Yip actions a Brechtian, self-reflexive torque.

[5] Another resonant example of the parodic, collaborative detouring of everyday objects, a la Fluxus, during the '68 DNC is the building of the Lincoln Park barricade, ostensibly to impede a police offensive to clear Lincoln Park of "loiterers"(primarily those who came to attend a promised music festival and were camping in Lincoln and Grant parks); the event alludes to the barricades erected three months earlier during the May student demonstrations and worker strikes in France, but with an important difference: though the French student barricades had obvious symbolic value, in their opposition to hegemonic cultural forces, especially consumer capitalism, they also functioned as literal barricades, blocking Paris avenues; the Chicago protestors' "barricade," in the middle of a park, blocked nothing, was pure symbol and site-specific, impromptu happening. It was not so much a barricade as a piling up of references to commodity culture, the stuff of leisure/evasion — a flimsy assemblage of picnic tables, benches, trash receptacles, whatever came to hand, including what both emblematized and, in public events, literally governed authorized uses of culture — police lines. The Lincoln Park barricade, in other words, was a Yip-fluxed barricade, alluding to but troping military defense strategy both through the antiquatedness and futility of the tactic and through the piling up against mainstream culture its own products, impeding its progress with its own symbols. Had Daley's men had the presence — the independence — of mind to step back a moment and consider the scene, surely they would have laughed; but then, of course, we'd be talking about a different sort of culture, acculturation process — and power structure — altogether.

[6] Erving Goffman's definition of "negative experience" is one way of canning the theatrical laughter that erupted at the '68 DNC: "If the whole frame can be shaken, rendered problematic, then this too can ensure that prior involvements — and prior distances — can be broken up and that, whatever else happens, a dramatic change can occur in what it is that is being experienced" (Goffman, 375, qtd. in Saper, 82). This problematizing of perception and experience, defamiliarizing the ordinary by tilting it toward the absurd is what "happened" in Chicago. As Flux artist George Brecht images this nonlinear mode of thought, referring to what he calls the "Duchampian paradigm" of art-making, the artist's "works are like points scattered off into many different directions...like a spiral." (Martin 40-42; qtd. in Smith, 20). A spiral is the right figure: the goal of Fluxus performance, as the Yip-Fluxed DNC, is to raise questions, to open and extend the dialogue rather than seek resolutions. Yip antics attempted to screw the DNC toward political comedy by transmogrifying some of its major symbols (i.e., the nomination of a pig as presidential candidate), by attempting to de-nominate the place of the master signifier (and certainly de-humanize it) as much as replace it with ridiculous meaning. [2] Their goal, that is, was primarily toward emptying, toward anti-meaning, than toward reconstitution/revisioning of the symbolic order; Derridean laughter rather than Shakespearean comedy. A major method of such madness, of such de-Collaged critical consciousness (which applies not just to Yippie activities at the DNC but to much of the radical thought and action of the 60's) is, as John Hanhardt says of Wolf Vostell's early 60s TV decollages, to "erase and recompose imagery," to "destabilize the institutionalized codes and meanings of the dominant culture" (124).

[7] Hoffman's mode of "comic" intervention in the political process often walked the line between the hilarious (or in-sane) and the deadly serious; not even fellow radicals always knew how literally to take his scenarios. Seed publisher and Chicago Yip Abe Peck recalls that in the planning stages for convention week actions, on "Wednesday, Abbie penciled in a riot. He was talking about twenty to thirty killed, six thousand wounded. Was that a prediction, a caution, a desire, an obituary, gallows humor?" (Sloman 127). Of course, such a dis-easing, decentering, destabilizing response is exactly what Hoffman's rhetoric was deployed to provoke; yet, despite his off-hand militant posturing ("well, maybe a few people will be killed in Chicago, but it will save thousands of lives in Vietnam") (Sloman 122), what finally "happened" in the radicalized space of the DNC was not Hoffman's kind of theater.[3] In his book-length narrative poem, 1968: A History in Verse, Sanders states that he "wanted to get the Hell out of Chicago / to the safety of Avenue A"; out of the "hasty signs" and "hasty props" of Convention week, he comments (echoing Blake and quoting Yeats' "Easter Sunday 1916"), "a terrible beauty was born" (203), a striking image of which might be Abe Peck's grotesque rewriting, in true Yip-flux spirit, of a pop/Hip song lyric as warning to prospective Festival attendees: "if you're coming to Chicago, be sure to wear some armor in your hair" (qtd. in Farber, 49). Part of the reason behind the escalation of violence throughout the week was that Daley didn't fully comprehend — and hence couldn't intelligently counter - the subversive force in all its modulations: The Yip actions - symbolic/activist, parodistic interventions; the Mobe/SDS brand of practical, nonviolent resistance/protest; the youth who came mainly for the advertised festivities and to be part of the "scene" - direct, explosive, many of them street smart, but not necessarily motivated by a clear political agenda; and the "legal," "respectable," highly rationalized, symbolic, and controlled actions of the McCarthy delegates. To meet these various modes of resistance with the unreflective response of a billy club and tear gas canister said a lot about the lack of suppleness of the forces for "law and order," how easily they could be provoked, but also to what extent they would go to protect that order and to the limits of a Yip-fluxed political theater, of radicalized laughter, in defusing those forces. [4]

[8] Yippie MO was a dialectics of laughter: a "Festival of Life" (consisting mainly of "free"doms — free music, free food, free dope and even "free parking," as a map of the projected Lincoln Park site advertises) (Farber, inset following p. 55) posed against the "Convention of Death" (Hoffman, et al, qtd in Farber, 35) of the DNC and its pro-war/pro LBJ delegates; as a counter to violent resistance (as, say, in the Chicago race riots that had taken place that spring following Martin Luther King's assassination), The Yip-Flux mode of protest deployed "techniques of disarming propaganda" that had "their roots not in Mao or Che but in the Provos, rock and Lenny Bruce" (Lester, qtd. in Farber, 34). The effectiveness of such a deployment of humor as a tool for political activism may be debated; as a tool of critical thought, it is on much less shaky ground. Because of Yippie, we have something more to hold in mind from the '68 DNC than black and white streams (streamers?) of blood. Picture this on the evening news: on one side of an inset split screen, Hubert Humphrey (or later, Nixon), and on the other, Pigasus — now that says something.

Works Cited

Doris, David T. "Zen Vaudeville: A Medi(t)ation in the Margins of Fluxus" in Friedman, Fluxus Reader, 91-135.

Farber, David. Chicago '68 . Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Friedman, Ken. "Explaining Fluxus, or, Puissance de la Fluxus." WhiteWalls 16 (Spring 1987): 12-29.

—, ed. Fluxus Reader. Chichester , West Sussex , England : Academy Editions. 1998.

— and Timothy Porges, eds. WhiteWalls: Fluxus [spec. issue] 16 (Spring 1987).

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Toronto and New York : Bantam Books, 1987.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston : Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Hanhardt, John G. "De-Collage and Television: Wolf Vostell in New York, 1963-1964." Fluxus: A Conceptual Country. Visible Language 26.1,2 (Winter/Spring 1992): 109-25.

Hoffman, Abbie, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, Paul Krassner. "Yippie, Convention Notes." A294, Box 8, Records of the Chicago Study Team Investigation, National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Chicago, Il., nd.

Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America : Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture and the Shaping of a Generation. New York : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

Lester, Julius. "From the Other Side of the Tracks." Guardian, March 30. 1968; rpt. as a Yippie flyer, A182, Box 7, Records of the Chicago Study Team Investigation, National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Chicago, Il.

Maciunas, George. "Fluxus Broadside Manifesto." New York : Fluxus, The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, nd [ca. 1965].

—. Letter to Ben Vautier. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, New York and Detroit , nd [summer 1965].

—. "Proposed Program for a Fluxfest in Prague, 1966." Archiv Shom, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart , 1966.

Martin, Henry. Part One: Never change anything. Let changes fall in. Einfallen. Es fällt mir ein Part Two: Never say never. A conversation with George Brecht Bologna: Exit Edizioni, 1979.

Peck, Abe. "A Letter from Chicago ." Liberation News Service (August 6, 1968): np.

Porges, Timothy. "The Ellipses of Fluxus." WhiteWalls 16 (Spring 1987): 9-12.

Sanders, Edward. 1968: A History in Verse. Santa Rosa , CA : Black Sparrow Press, 1997.

Saper, Craig. "Fluxacademy: From Intermedia to Interactive Education." Fluxus: A Conceptual Country. Visible Language 26.1,2 (Winter/Spring 1992): 79-97.

Sloman, Larry. Steal This Dream. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Smith, Owen. Fluxus: the History of an Attitude. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press, 1998.


[1] Demographically, the list of "radicalized" groups represents a socio-economically and ideologically diverse cross/inter section of mainstream and sub cultures, some members of which experienced the other end of the stick of authority perhaps for the first time, including, in addition to Yips, Hips, Mobe — National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam — and old New Left and SDS — Students for a Democratic Society — activists, working class street gangs, "authorized" convention delegates and attendees, ministers, WWI and Vietnam vets, media personnel, resident bystanders and the more or less "tuned in" (cf. Leary's Politics of Ecstasy) youth who came in hopes of free music, free love and dope.

[2] An event that uncannily foreshadowed the Chicago 8 trial, which became the Chicago 7 trial after Bobby Seale was removed for contempt of court and tried separately — following the mock nomination, seven Yippies, along with the Pig, were arrested.

[3] Hoffman's schedule of events for the week included workshops in self-defense, but even these tactics were vehicles for a counter-symbolic offensive: Japanese snake dancing v. Western style military/police lines.

[4] Interestingly, the System partly orchestrated its own decollage upheaval. According to a 1978 CBS News special, army sources boasted that "about one demonstrator in six" at the '68 DNC had been an undercover agent; some were Federal agents, and others were Daley's men — police officers doubling as "demonstrators" (Gitlin, 323).