La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche (deregulation version)
In the summer of 1965, George Brecht and Robert Filliou, with the support of their partners Donna and Marianne, opened a shop at 12 rue de May in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a seaside village just east of Nice, France. The space, 36 meters square, with a canary yellow awning and chalkboard sign in the window, was called La Cédille Qui Sourit, or “The Cedilla That Smiles.” Conceived first as an English bookshop “under the sign of humor,” it was actually, as Filliou has recounted, “a sort of workshop and of shop, of nonshop would we say now, for we were never commercially registered, and the Cédille was always shut, opening only upon request of visitors to our homes.”
The artists, both associated with the international, neo-avant-garde Fluxus collective, called their shop a “Center of Permanent Creation,” for they were continually producing research, letters, jokes, puzzles, games, recipes, poems, drawings, and events. Yet there were few unannounced visitors to the Cédille, or at least ones who were successful in visiting, since the shop did not have a telephone and Brecht and Filliou seemed not to spend much time there. The artists presided more often at one of the nearby cafés, devising more of the visual gags they called “One Minute Scenarios,” “dis-inventing” objects, adding to their “Anthology of Misunderstandings,” or talking with their friends Alfred the bricklayer, Antoine the fisherman, Fernand the plumber, or anyone else who happened to drop by. 
The Cédille carried materials from a variety of artists associated with Fluxus, including books from Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press as well as interactive multiples published by Daniel Spoerri’s MAT Editions and the Fluxus imprint, organized by George Maciunas. However, none of Brecht and Filliou’s works initiated there seemed to come to fruition; or, their material structure emphasized the possibility of endless reconfiguration. The Cédille’s haphazard, almost anti-retail display made its wares indistinguishable from the surrounding works-in-progress, an appropriate set-up for the sale of editions whose openness to change and alteration belonged to a nonconventional trajectory of artistic objecthood indebted to the readymades of Duchamp and the indeterminate compositions of John Cage. More like an atelier than white cube gallery, the Cédille was an extrapolation of the Fluxus model of the artwork-in-flux into an artist-run economy of production, distribution, and exchange that would, to borrow language from Maciunas’s 1963 manifesto, “promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art.”
Given recent economic and political events, I am now encouraged to think of the transformations on the art object enacted by various Fluxus practices in terms of a deregulation of the art object, for that very term first came into use in the early 1960s in relation to emerging federal policy changes to the rail and truck transportation industries. These historical facts seem fitting, for what I am about to narrate is a story of the deregulation not only of the art object but also of its movement through certain art networks, motivated by artists’ frustration and disgust at networks’ paradoxical tendency to consolidate power.
The Cédille was a shop that kept no regular hours and had no tidy, reliable stock of merchandise. Still, it subsisted until 1968, when in March, Brecht and Filliou realized they could no longer afford to pay rent. By October, they had defaulted on a contract that should have carried the project into 1974. And thus we must admit that the Cédille, if indeed it was meant to function as a store, failed as a commercial venture.
Yet each of the ways in which Brecht and Filliou’s project supposedly “failed” was deliberate. The Cédille playfully critiqued the expanded commodification and capitalization of art in the 1960s, which coincided with the economic boom of the immediate postwar decades. The demands of a growing collector base had instigated the invention and promotion of multiples, a new art product that adopted the forms, materials and techniques of mass production and distribution. In 1964 and ’65, multiples began to be promoted heavily through exhibitions like The American Supermarket at Bianchini Gallery and newly founded ventures like Mass Art, Inc. and Marian Goodman’s Multiples, Inc., which specialized in the production and sale of artist editions that catered to the expanding market for Pop art.
Meanwhile, Brecht and Filliou, disillusioned by their experiences working with commercial galleries in New York and Paris, willfully abandoned the creative and economic centers of the art world for provincial Villefranche, where they continued to develop formats of a tenuous and transmutable materiality and object status, a strategy that was being advanced across the scene of Fluxus. Following the first European concert tour between September 1962 and summer 1963, Fluxus activity had become concentrated in New York around Maciunas and his fervent organizational efforts but retained, in ideal if not in reality, shifting international outposts such as Willem de Ridder’s “European Mail-Order Warehouse” in Amsterdam, Ben Vautier’s storefront in Nice, and Brecht and Filliou’s shop in Villefrance. The Cédille was not antipodal to Fluxus; rather, it advanced the Fluxus project in ways that exceeded Maciunas’s initial conceptual and productive frameworks.
If Fluxus artists endeavored to propose an alternative to the high-market art commodity along with its attendant notions of uniqueness, material integrity, and cultural and monetary value, then the Cédille represents a key moment within this project given its array of activities designed for this very task. Brecht and Filliou’s venture was not simply a flippant dropping-out from an art system with which they had become disillusioned; it was a concerted effort to construct other models for the art object and its distribution, a move with important ramifications for artistic labor. Brecht and Filliou, already dropouts from the fields of chemistry and economics, pursued anti-instrumental non-work leading to non-objects, which were sometimes available and sometimes not through their non-shop. Their goals were achieved largely through gestures that—to adopt Hannah Arendt’s epistemological categories, to which we will later return—aimed at escaping work and labor, tending rather toward action. For in Arendt’s schema, it is the artwork that as an object most closely resembles action in the political sense. The artwork is an object that exists beyond work, beyond instrumentalized production oriented around the creation of useful things. It was the artwork’s tendency—or in the operative sense, art work or labor—toward political action that Brecht and Filliou pursued through their activities at the Cédille. Their efforts to cultivate an artistic practice as near as possible to the realm of action threatened to depart from the realm of work altogether and, subsequently, that of the art object too, threatening the visibility of their practice.
The Cédille’s founding principles were perhaps best emblematized by its curious name. In the French language, a cédille, or cedilla, is the hook-like orthographic sign that attaches to the bottom of a c in order to transform its phonetic value to that of an s. The cedilla is thus a transformational grapheme, emerging onto the scene of language to cause a subtle but meaningful alteration. This curlicue form figures inconspicuously but centrally in perhaps the only lucrative object-centric activity Brecht and Filliou undertook at the Cédille: the suspense poems. Filliou, who identified foremost as a poet, invented the format in Paris in 1961 under the title “Study in dispatching poems at low speed,” and potential subscribers were identified with the aid of Daniel Spoerri’s address book. 
The works were referred to also as “object-poems” in reference to surrealist works that played with material and symbolic relations between language and objects. Notions of suspense were evoked in the poems’ materiality and mode of circulation, for the works were in fact editioned assemblages that subscribers would receive one piece at a time by mail, in a purposeful disruption of the typically instant gratification of the purchase. Each verse-object was typically a wooden support bearing a small object and text label, its top and bottom equipped with metal hooks and eyes allowing successive verses to be suspended below.
Take, for instance, a model object-poem created by Filliou, whose six components successively read: “the mussel is alone / the egg is alone / the snail is alone / the dog is alone / the cactus is alone / end of poem: the man is alone.”
The phrases are labels for a series of found objects concluded by the image of a man’s face, which underscores the ambivalence between the melancholic solitariness of the individual parts and their anticipation of a connection to come. Besides containing the phrase “fin du poème,” the poems were end-marked by the final piece’s lack of connecting apparatus, but since they were designed to hang from an uppermost catch, there was always the suggestion that they could be added onto from above, a sense confirmed by the seemingly random accumulation of objects to which any number of others might be added. The suspense poem is a signifying chain through which meaning oscillates, unwilling to settle—is suspended, we should say—a phenomenon further emphasized by its openness to rearrangement. This logic would suggest that the surface from which it hangs is part of the work too and, therefore, that what we see here is merely the concluding verse to a visual poetry extending to the space around it, and beyond. Meaning continues to unravel. If the surrealist object-poem’s equivalent treatment of language and objects indicated an expansive, associative model of thought wherein the adjacency of words and things would form an expanded system of signification, Brecht and Filliou enlarged this purview yet further to address the field of reception, encouraging the viewer to identify in the immediate environment connections between ever more disparate things. The poems thus effect a kind of semiotic deregulation, following upon that of the Fluxbox, in which everyday objects are released from their conventional meaning and use-value by being set into relation with other, seemingly unlike things.
Filliou’s biographer Pierre Tilman has remarked upon another poignant resonance for the cedilla other than the hooks of the suspense poems and the curl of a smile: “They resemble question marks,” he writes, “and question marks upside-down resemble cedillas.”  The interrogative, common to the artists’ favored discursive forms of jokes, puzzles, and misunderstandings and visually resembling a hook or an extended hand, creates an opportunity—a demand, even—for connection. This idea was signified on the address stamp designed by Brecht that served as the Cédille’s logo. Below the shop’s address, replacing the typical dadaist manicule favored by Maciunas, is a graphic of two clasped hands, an image reiterated in Brecht’s favored closing salutation in correspondence at the time: “Handshakes, George.”
Experiments with the cedilla as a morphological trope, especially by Filliou, reveal additional resonances. Filliou’s Poème invalide (or Disabled poem), published in the Belgian literary journal Phantomas during the months leading up to the Cédille’s opening, includes an image of a body composed of three numbered blocks with cedilla-like appendages. The image might not read as a body at all if not complemented by a text in the form of a list of things which, as the French manquer richly evokes, the writer both lacks and feels a longing for: a hope, an idea, a meal, a shoe, a love, a home, etc. The catalog of loss is punctuated by the melancholic refrain, “it’s YOU that I miss.” Accompanying the poem is an altered photograph of a man on a bicycle, whose arms and left leg have been severed from his body. The missing limbs appear on the facing page, suspended ridiculously in mid-air. This man who lacks gets fulfilled, if only in delayed fashion. A turn of the page confronts the reader with the geometricized figure, under which the poem arrives at its conclusion:
I’m missing a beginning
I’m missing a middle
I’m missing an end
End of poem:
I THINK ONLY OF YOU WHO IS WHAT I MISS
The cedillas of the abstract figure now clearly transform into legs and arms, connectors or receptors that reach for the toi called for in the poem. The cedilla-body of the cedilla-man is defined by what it lacks, what it misses, and that for which it waits: a hope, an idea, a meal, a shoe, a love, a home, you.
In a preliminary sketch that may have been Filliou’s first articulation of Poème invalide, we witness the limbs of a figure transform from hermetic protuberances into cedillas, one by one. The image suggests a fully relational model of subjectivity that, while individual, desires to be fulfilled or made able by connecting to others. It was a model lived by the artist himself, who depended for his survival upon the kindness and generosity of friends, who simply reflected the kindness and generosity of their friend Robert back to him. Well aware that this had become his habitual approach to working and living, he remarked: “The real talent I have is for friendship. Ninety-nine percent of my work is not visible.” 
And so connectivity, generosity, and friendship became the operative ethic of the Cédille too. In July 1967 Brecht and Filliou cobbled together what extra money they had in order to purchase a ticket for the artist Joe Jones to travel from New York to Villefranche, where he would join Brecht and Filliou, Donna and Marianne, and Takako Saito for the rest of the summer. Jones responded with a touching dadaesque diagram of his transit, imagined as a series of vectors linked and energized by a “love connector” that would facilitate the passage of a wilted flower into the company of five companions, among whom it could blossom again.
That gift was not all. For Christmas 1966, Brecht and Filliou invited artists to contribute to the shop’s inventory of “objects that could be given to friends as gifts, not in the form of small versions of their personal works, but rather things that would be more difficult to present by conventional means.”  “It is very difficult to offer these gifts,” Filliou admitted, “various factors coming into account, but we would like…to convince our fellow artists that such exchanges are possible. In order to accomplish this it would be enough for each of us to ‘sacrifice’ one of our works, in order to reduce the purchase price. That is possible and we hope very much to arrive at such a result.” 
The twenty-nine participants included Alison Knowles, Ben Vautier, Emmett Williams, Mieko Shiomi, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, Jean-Jacques Lebel, François Dufrêne, Mimmo Rotella, and Jacques Villeglé, who offered items such as portable holes, linen sacks, hieroglyphs, pudding and neckties, hardly objects for aesthetic glorification—at times, hardly even objects. Brecht and Filliou saw the gift as an object category capable of evading not only capitalist speculation but also the conventional modes of display that facilitate the translation of cultural value into pure exchange value. Moreover, to create an artwork-as-gift would set off a chain of giving that is potentially endless, like the connective hooks of the suspense poems or the cedilla-body whose cupped hands signify a gesture not only of entreaty but of offering as well.
To reconceive the artwork as a gift rather than simply as a commodity (although, of course, the two categories are not mutually exclusive) instigated a deregulation of value similar to the semiotic deregulation of the suspense poems, inasmuch as the purchase of one of these works marked only the first of countless future exchanges to be made. Rather than a precious object to be purchased and possessed in finality, the artwork imagined according to the logic of the gift would assume the gifting gesture’s quality of infinite extension; the work’s material form thus becomes incidental in relation to its greater significance as the momentary proxy of a gesture to be reciprocated evermore.
Such schemes were ultimately not enough to keep the Cédille afloat, but for a time Brecht and Filliou seemed successful in establishing a provisional, non-instrumental “poetic economy,” as Filliou would call it, to counter the art market’s “economics of prostitution,” which the artists saw as “wholly dependent upon publicity, self-advertising and door-to-door salesmanship” and representative of a kind of “pretention, aggressiveness, arrivisme” carried over from the bourgeois art culture of the 19th century.
The artists preferred to meditate on failure and its relationship to creativity and artistic production. They enthusiastically revived the tradition of the “café-genius,” the model of the artist who sits about all day in the public forum of the café, inventing ideas but realizing few or none of them.  Filliou glorified the café-genius in a manifesto titled “Poetical Economy: Towards a New Standard of Value”:
People used to make fun of wild, picturesque, tortured artists sounding off in drinking places, and leaving their work unattended. Some still do. They don’t know yet that all of us now are sorts of café-geniuses. Not only do we have more ideas than possibilities of realizing them…But many of us don’t even try any more. Better, they think, to make my life consistent with my ideals, than to trade them up for some money and illusory fame. So it is high time to rehabilitate the Génies de Café.
Filliou’s prescient embrace of “idea art” already recognized the impossibility of an artistic creation that could evade the fetish economy of art. So better not to create anything at all. Better to sit in the café and chat with Alfred, Antoine, Fernand, or whoever else happened to drop by. The café-genius rejected not only the enduring ideal of the artist’s solitary studio practice but also the production models of pop and minimalism, in which the artist would be either a socialite/promoter/producer or an industrial/technological worker. Filliou, trained as an economist, could recognize that these innovations in artistic production were not liberating paradigm shifts but merely a next step in the late capitalist economy’s commodification and capitalization of creative labor. For Fluxus artists in New York, these developments were harder to ignore. In one of many dispatches to the Cédille, Robert Watts wrote, “The thing now is ‘primary structures’ a show of sculpture at the Jewish Museum—Morris, Judd…It all sort of looks like bad playground sculpture of the housing projects (not quite) but you should read the words and manifestos, just another hard sell. Maybe Kaprow is right—just go out in the woods and forget it.”
Now, to understand an art that does not prioritize consummate objecthood and its attendant values, Hannah Arendt’s theory of the relation between labor, work, and action is helpful, for mapped against the additive and incomplete nature of the Cédille’s activities, it makes sense of the shop’s over-arching goal—to provide a counter-model to capitalist forms of artistic labor and exchange—and allows us to see the project’s ethical and political nature. In her 1958 text The Human Condition, Arendt discerns a tri-partite hierarchy of human activity characterized by labor, work, and action. Labor maintains the necessities of existence; cyclical and eternal, it is strictly instrumental, and for this reason Arendt likens it to slavery. Work, also instrumentally motivated, concerns the fabrication of functional objects and structures, and thus it has a definitive end. The last and most valued form of activity for Arendt is Action, which occurs immaterially in the speech and interactions between multiplicities of individuals. As a counterpart to work, Action is world-creating in a non-material, cultural sense, and it is integral to Arendt’s understanding of the true experience of politics. She pays special attention to artworks, whose conventionally material nature (remember, she is writing in the late 1950s just before the object-critical practices of the early 1960s were to coalesce) would tie them to the category of work; yet more than any other kind of object they withstand the vicissitudes of use and time, and so they maintain “a closer relationship to politics than other objects, and their mode of production has a closer relationship to acting than to any other type of occupation.” It is in this sense that artworks can be thought to engender a world outlasting the life span of any individual, able to communicate across great expanses of time and space.
Criticisms of the idealist, even anti-materialist nature of Arendt’s articulation of politics has not invalidated its relevance for aesthetics; rather, this quality has made it particularly useful for understanding ephemeral art forms. For Brecht and Filliou’s objects, which were almost not objects, and their artistic work, which was almost not work, threatened to collapse the distinction between work and action. The suspense poems were made from found objects and bits from the hardware store. All that remains of the gifting project is an inventory list. Another initiative, the Non-School of Villefranche, survives only in the form of a letterhead bearing this motto: “Carefree exchange of information and experience / No student, no teacher / Perfect license, at times to talk, at times to listen.” The lessons shared by its non-masters have vanished like spoken words dissipate into air and silence. In all the activities of their Center of Permanent Creation, the artists seemed systematically to refuse to advance beyond the phase of ideas and processes. To remain in the to-and-fro of process was to perpetuate the exhilaration of possibility as much as it was an allegiance to productive dysfunction, a courting of failure. At the price of losing their tangible worldliness, the activities in the brief life of the Cédille moved ever closer to the domain of true politics as envisioned by Arendt without, however, departing from the immanent here-and-now of the shop’s highly localized day-to-day existence.
Following the Cédille’s bankruptcy, Brecht moved to London and began to mount conceptual projects with the artist Anna Lowell, while the Fillious relocated with the support of Spoerri and Dieter Roth to Düsseldorf, where Robert worked in Roth’s studio and occasionally taught at the Kunstakademie. Yet even when the Cédille closed, it did not quite end; it rather dispersed as a new creation called La Fête Permanente, translated into English as “The Eternal Network.” To announce the Cédille’s closure, the artists sent out a poster whose text is strung together by ellipses: “There is always someone making a fortune, someone going…broke (us in particular)/La Cédille qui Sourit turns the page once more, as…La Fête est Permanente announces the next realization of The Eternal Network/manifestations, meanderings, meditations, microcosms, macrocosms, mixtures, meanings…”
As a dominant punctuation, the ellipses signaled that the end of the Cédille was in fact not an end but rather the continuation of the artists’ energies in other projects. The announcement linked the Cédille to the next realization of the Eternal Network, a conceptual framework devised to connect the collective production of like-minded artists internationally. Like an ellipsis or a cedilla-esque hook, the Eternal Network operated according to a principle of addition, with each node signifying the possibility of continuation rather than the finitude signaled by the singular period at the end of a sentence. And despite the fact that Brecht and Filliou’s poster was the first announcement of the Eternal Network, the rhetoric of its language seemed to suggest not only that the Cédille was part of a larger structure that would proceed indefinitely into the future, but also that the shop was part of something that had always been. It was merely one instantiation, one point, of a poetic project onto which a proliferating, infinite network of activities could be added. This (in)conclusion of the Cédille project was akin to Arendt’s idea that, whereas the meaning of a material thing is fundamentally contained within that thing, “the meaning of an activity can exist only as long as the activity continues.” The world of action is “a world that never comes to an end and that—although spun of the most ephemeral stuff, of fleeting words and quickly forgotten deeds—is of such incredible enduring tenacity that…it can outlive by centuries the loss of a palpable manufactured world.” The inauguration of The Eternal Network was Brecht and Filliou’s final effort to extend the boundaries and life of the Cédille despite the very real limits and restrictions in the face of which, it must be admitted, the shop ultimately failed in its goals.
In the ensuing years, Filliou would continue to develop a series of interlocking theories of alternative economics, while Brecht would continue to devise arrangements of objects that called attention to subtle perceptual shifts in everyday life. For all this, the Eternal Network functioned as a conceptual underpinning, automatically uniting these diverse activities with those of sympathetic artists without, however, neutralizing their differences. Brecht communicated this attitude in a letter to Maciunas wherein he ascribes the same vision to Fluxus: “GLOBAL ASPECT: Fluxus seems to me a situational…phenomenon, a network of active points all equidistant from the center. These points can proliferate, new points arise, at any place on the earth where there is life.” Brecht seems to suggest that Fluxus could be a code name for the Eternal Network, or vice versa—that the logic of Fluxus was that of a network, the whole of which could be activated by anyone from anywhere. If the Fluxus editions coming out of Maciunas’s New York workshop could only perform, over and over again, a critical drama of disappointment and futility, the Eternal Network, with its total deregulation of collective artistic practice, offered perhaps a more viable artistic-political model.
Now, consider for a moment the present. There have been mounting arguments that the Internet and Internet art are the inheritors of Fluxus and of projects like the Eternal Network. To counter such claims, I would point out that the Internet and the social media tools that we use to engage with it are transforming digital space into a network that is less and less democratic and horizontal (if it ever was), and more and more algorythmic, organized by hidden abstract codes that guide us into segregated ideological cul-de-sacs—filter bubbles, they have been called. It was such consolidation of knowledge and power that Fluxus activities sought to contravene. The deregulation of the art object from an autographic, unique, precious masterwork of material integrity coincided by the late 1960s with the establishment of a counter-network and counter-economy against not only the commercial and hierarchical aspects of the art economy but also efforts led by Maciunas himself to copyright and regulate Fluxus production for the sake of its revolutionary collective program. What has become apparent to me, in light of the American Fall of 2011 and the ongoing movement to occupy our financial and political centers, is that for Brecht and Filliou a strategy of occupation was simply not enough—it would have to be paired with a fleeing to the periphery, where the establishment of a completely alternative artistic culture still seemed possible.
And yet—to return to the object of our concern—the utopian desire to forgo material execution for the sake of furthering an artistic program committed to the to-and-fro of exchange and communication could not be fully achieved by Brecht and Filliou, for a critique of the fetishization of objects could not but be made through precise manipulations of material forms. The underlying tension animating the Cédille was thus the artists’ effort to occupy the putative opposition between material and immaterial, work and non-work (or leisure or play). This would explain their occasional participation, from afar, in mainstream art networks: the temporary staging of the gifting project at Galerie Ranson in Paris in winter 1966-67, for instance, or the postmortem resurrection of the Cédille at the Stadtisches Museum Mönchengladbach, Germany, in 1969, at the request of curator Johannes Cladders. Such a tension parallels the one Arendt sensed between art and politics. To operate in the register of politics, Brecht and Filliou would not have needed to make anything at all, and yet this would not have been a proper way to critique mimetically the instrumentalization and institutionalization of art or to propose an alternative economic and aesthetic model for it.
Ultimately, it must be admitted that the Cédille exceeded the Arendtian schema, throwing up a series of questions in its wake: Does situating one’s work in the dynamic to-and-fro of process inevitably lead to a form of incessant artistic labor, a kind of slavery to an ideal? Doesn’t the logic of the Cédille detailed here—the logic of unceasing addition and non-finitude, of infinite expansion and growth—mirror perhaps too closely the logic of the capitalist economy of prostitution? Jones’s vision of the Cédille activating so many “love connectors” points us to the initiative’s crucial yet tenuous difference. Initiated as a utopian gesture of disavowal, the Cédille embodied a set of irresolvable contradictions that ensured its temporariness. Only the questions it raised remain, promising nothing but to remain unresolved. And so it is that the Cédille proposes in the final instance only a series of productive questions. But then again, a cedilla is also a question mark, inverted.