BY Ross Simonini in Features | 21 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 162

The New, The New

Henry Flynt talks about half a century’s worth of wildly divergent activities

BY Ross Simonini in Features | 21 MAR 14

Henry Flynt is a philosopher, musician and artist who emerged out of New York’s post-John Cage milieu in the early 1960s. He protested against high art institutions in the name of anti-art and founded ‘concept art’, a marriage of visual aesthetics with mathematics, which he had studied in college. In 1966, he founded the proto-punk band Henry Flynt & The Insurrections with the artist and drummer Walter De Maria. In it, Flynt played dirty guitar phrases and sang with a rasp. He later went on to pursue a strain of folk-inspired trance music that brewed hillbilly violin playing with traditional blues forms, minimalist composition techniques and various methods of electronic manipulation. During his long career, Flynt has released many solo albums, occasionally exhibited his art work (including at the 1990 Venice Biennale) and published a slew of philosophical writings that connect his multifarious disciplines, often inventing new terminologies for his ideas (‘meta-technology’, for instance, or ‘personhood theory’). In 2012–13, Kunstverein Düsseldorf surveyed what Flynt calls his ‘activities’, including paintings, word pieces, installations and geometric representations of sound. 

Tritone Monochord, 1987, dulcimer tuning pin, brackets, screws, violin bridge, guitar string and permanent marker on wood, 40 × 48 × 2 cm. Courtesy: Emily Harvey Foundation

Ross Simonini Early on, you studied mathematics. How did you arrive at art?

Henry Flynt When I was young, I espoused what they would have called a philosophy of science – logical positivism – and I kept pushing it and pushing it until I finally realized that logical positivism is nothing but admiration for science. It’s a glorification of science. Rudolf Carnap, for instance, was a physicist who switched to philosophy, yet he spent all his time glorifying his former profession. He said there wasn’t any such thing as ‘right’ mathematics and, although he claimed to be totally committed to mathematics as it was, he also thought that by saying this he was modernizing the excuse for mathematics. I mean, if you go back far enough, mathe­maticians would say that a statement like 2 + 2 = 4 is true because it describes an immaterial, invisible world. This is the sort of thing that I absorbed when I went to college for the first time. I thought and thought about this until I realized that Carnap was deliberately overlooking extremely obvious objections to science, which he didn’t put forward because he didn’t want to.

Figure for an ‘illusion ratio’ taken from Concept Art, 1963. Courtesy: Henry Flynt

RS     What exactly do you mean by ‘extremely obvious objections’?

HF     Suppose that you have a neuroscientist who claims that your mental processes are nothing more than how your brain is wired – that’s it! In other words, all of what you consider to be your thinking process is simply the mechanical operation of a machine in your head called the brain. The problem is that, in order to talk about this, neuroscientists use logic and mathematics. And they cannot simply say that the logic and the mathematics are how your brain is wired: it would be some kind of preposterous circular reasoning. Logic and mathematics have to be credible to us. We have to appreciate them in consciousness. As it turns out, when you analyse logic and mathematics, they quickly fall to pieces. In other words, mathematics is really just one big walking contradiction. It’s like playing cards with a marked deck! When mathematicians discovered that the square root of two was an irrational number, it was an unmitigated disaster for mathematics, because there wasn’t any such thing as an irrational number – that is our term. They didn’t have that term. Mathematicians maintain the axiom that the result of an arithmetical calculation has to be a number. In this case, they had an arithmetical calculation whose result was not a number by their standards. At that particular moment in time, the whole system exploded. The reason I’m going into such detail about this is because every single thing that has ever happened in mathematics follows this same pattern. When mathematicians are presented with a contradiction, they say: ‘Oh, well, we changed our minds; it’s not a contradiction, it’s just something new. Irrational numbers are just new!’ And they have been trying to explain irrational numbers ever since.

RS     For how long?

HF     For about 2,300 years! And they still haven’t perfected their explanation. They tell you different stories depending on which level you study mathematics to. There’s one account they tell you in high school, another in college, another in your graduate seminar and then, finally, they take you into the back room and tell you that they don’t know what the real answer is!

RS   But is that really so surprising? Isn’t that all just a part of discovery and experimentation?

HF     Well, there are very few legitimate mathematicians who would say what I have been saying to you. I am way, way out beyond anything like that. You could be a pragmatist and argue that, if irrational numbers are useful, then we should have them – whether we can explain them or not. Maybe all math­ematicians believe that, but they don’t talk as though they do. Pi as 22/7ths is a much more convenient formula than what Pi actually is. It’s a transcendental number, and who wants to learn the theory of transcendental numbers? I mean, 22/7ths was fine for a lot of people for a long time. Once you get into very high-end technological applications, however, you can’t use 22/7ths, otherwise the power plant you’re operating will blow up on you! Normally people in this field of endeavour are not that kind of cash-value pragmatist. They take them­selves more seriously. And so now we go back to the neuroscientist who says that it’s all hardwired into your brain. Well, what is it that is hardwired? Is it 22/7ths? Is it the number system that only has rational numbers in it? Or is it this game of saying: ‘It’s a contradiction.’ ‘No, it’s not a contradiction.’ I’m telling you, every important result in mathematics comes about like that.

Henry Flynt giving a reading at Walter De Maria’s loft, New York, February 1963. Courtesy: Henry Flynt; photograph: Diane Wakoski

RS     Have you devised an alternative to this approach?

HF     I proposed a vast project that was going to draw the necessary conclusions from all of my thinking on this subject. I called it ‘meta-technology’. The idea of meta-technology is that a scientist ma­nip­ulates matter. What people used to think of as determinations of reality – mathematics and logic – would fall some­where under that rubric. Meta-technology takes the determination of reality as its subject matter, with the goal of manip­ulating it. The first time I explained this to somebody, their response was that I was talking about a transfer of technology at the level of belief systems. Yet, strictly speaking, what I envisaged was a ma­nip­ulation of the determination of reality. I want to explode the nice little games math­ematicians have going, to take them some­where that math­ematicians don’t want it to go. By all rights, this should lead us to a far more powerful technology, not a weaker one.

RS     The whole ‘true/false’ binary system seems to dictate a lot of your thinking.

HF     I even have a term for it: binary decidability. In the scientific world, there’s no such thing as stepping outside of that. We need it in order to maintain clarity.

RS     Would you say you’re trying to subvert it through art? 

Two Honest Tests (dyptic), 1992, two photographs, 16 × 20 cm. Courtesy: Luigi Bonotto

HF     I’m trying to wreck the true/false game in philosophy and in meta-technology. In our civilization, there is an assigned role for the artist as an irrationalist, as someone with an infantile mind. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire declared: ‘I know that 2 + 2 = 5.’ But he did so because he was a surrealist; a statement like that has nothing to do with my project. Surrealists were expected to misbehave and say ridiculous things, but the scientist running the nu­clear power plant can’t afford to think that way. Except that in the real world they do think that way and that’s why these plants are always blowing up. Artists tend to be viewed as these pitiful people who chop off their own ears, but I want to discourage the idea that I’m working in an irrational field just because that’s where artists live. I would be delighted to match the level of the physicists and the mathematicians and to debate them on their own territory. I don’t need to be making oil paintings.

RS     Can you talk about how you developed concept art in the early 1960s?

HF     The actual line of development was very specific. At the same time that I was coming out of all this logical positivism in my late teens, I’d taken a lot of music lessons, but had never taken an art lesson. In music then there was this fetishization of structure and I subscribed to so-called formalism in mathematics – which essen­tial­ly says that mathematics is a game – and I took that very seriously. I arrived at this extremely negative view of cognition, which I later termed ‘cognitive nihilism’ or ‘belieflessness’, and I was looking at these proofs and I was looking at the music people and at all of these increasingly elaborate structures and the idea came to me: why can’t you have a kind of mathematics in which the notation is going to interact with the subjectivity of the viewer? Conven­tional mathematics takes notation for grant­ed. It’s a mark on the paper, the mark stays there, behaves itself, you don’t have to worry about it. My notations jump out at you and attack your eye, so to speak. That’s where concept art started.

 Henry Flynt, 1989. Courtesy: Henry Flynt; photograph: Rene Block

RS     Could that even be considered mathematics?

HF     You’re right: in mathematics that is the biggest no-no! In fact, the first time I presented that thesis to a mathematician at New York University, he just ushered me right out of his office!

RS     So, it’s more about aesthetics?

HF     I was saying: why don’t I construct these so-called proof trees as aesthetic objects, since we no longer believe that math­emat­ics is simply true or false. I’m going to create some kind of interesting game that in­volves the viewer’s relationship to notation, which will issue in what would technically be called derivations from premises. And that’s how I announced concept art in June 1961. I was already in the avant-garde of the avant-garde of the avant-garde, but this was something completely new. Concept art was apropos of nothing, and now I know why: because I pictured it as being a species of art; its value is aesthetic. But it’s important to understand that there’s a long tradition in mathematics of the aesthetic value of pure mathematics. How does a mathematician defend pure mathematics? Does he defend it by saying that it’s true? Or does he defend it by saying that it has superior aesthetic qualities?

Mirror-Fragmented Poem, 1993, acrylic on linen, 183 × 213 cm. Courtesy: Henry Flynt

RS     Does pure theory have aesthetic value?

HF     That’s what mathematicians say, but I challenge them to start from zero and to defend everything they claim. The 20th century mathematician Karl Menger said that the value of pure mathematics is aesthetic. He said that we should no more be required to defend pure mathematics than Beethoven should be required to defend a sonata. But the bottom line is always this: if you don’t go along with what we mathematicians say, then we have the expertise to make an atomic bomb and drop it on you! In many ways, Mathematics 101 is really Military Science 101!

I believe it was Allan Kaprow, back in the 1950s, who said that people will no longer be painters, poets, etc. – there will be only artists. If I may say so, I think my own work actually falls outside of the so-called seven modes of expression that comprise the fine arts: music, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, architecture and photography. I began to do what I called ‘activities’, which were something else altogether. I had everything going at the same time. Concept art was in a box by itself, but the other things that I was doing were on some kind of recognizable continuum with what we in the self-described ‘extreme avant-garde’ were doing.

Logically Impossible Space, 1990, installation view at Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, 2012. Courtesy: Henry Flynt

RS     Who’s we?

HF     The first people that I would mention are musicians: John Cage, La Monte Young, etc. I wouldn’t cite Jackson Pollock, for instance, because he didn’t go into this with any kind of quantitative infrastructure. The extreme avant-garde included Cage and his pals, but it also included a lot of people who were a generation or two younger, who would or would not have claimed that they were beyond Cage. Certainly La Monte would have claimed that he was beyond Cage. I would have. RS What do you mean by ‘beyond’? HF It’s a race!

RS   You feel that art is a race?

HF     Which horse is out in front? Well, that’s what we were supposed to believe in 1960. The new, the new, the new, the new, the new.

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist and musician living between New York and Northern California, USA.