Happy Birthday to You, Art!

Text and photo: Kari Yli-Annala 20.1.2017

Fluxus artist Robert Filliou declared in 1963 that art has a special birthday. According to Filliou, art was born a million years ago when someone put a dry sponge inside a bucket filled with water. It happened on the 17th of January (which happens to be also Filliou’s own birthday). Art’s Birthday had its first public celebration in 1973 and is now celebrated each year as an international event by artists and artists’ groups all around the world.

A million years seems to be as random as the idea of ”January” or ”17th” existing back in those days. However, the emergence of the symbolic codes and behavior happened at least 70000 years ago, when the earliest known artifacts which were not just tools were made. Some of them were musical instruments carved of animal bones. In his recent book A Million years of Music – The Emergence of Human Modernity (The MIT Press, 2015) musicologist Gary Tomlinson writes about the intermingled development of music and cognitition in the process that could be defined as ”humanistic evolutionism”. He uses the term ”musicking”, a term coined in 1998 by Christopher Small, meaning all kinds of aspects of playing, understanding and expressing music. Musicking is mostly a human practice, although it can also include non-human actants, elements and materials.

A cave painting, found in The Cave of the Trois-Frères in Ariège, from around 13,000 BC, has been suggested to represent a shamanic figure in a dance. But Tomlinson goes far away back in time. He doesn’t see a need to explain ”the origin of music” but to free it from the exclusively human perspective. He adopts a view which brings together both the biological and cultural heritage. He calls it ”biocultural coevolution”. Art and music are linked to the birth of homo sapiens and then to the sophisticated practices of the modern human. Tomlinson refers to Jacques Chailley‘s book 40,000 an de musique (1961), where the writer sums up the first 39,000 years of music only in two pages. However, Tomlinson wants to point out that ”the birth” of musicking in the early human days was not a beginning but an end of a story of the earlier stages. He uses the term ”incrementalism” when he refers to the parallel developments of ingredients of music and language long before either of them existed.

In 2017, the 1,000,054th Art’s Birthday was celebrated by numerous artists making performances, music, visual arts, cake and paper hats in different locations around the world. Although the existence of art a million years ago may at first seem to be an anachronistic idea, in the end its existence depends either on strict definitions or on the limits of our imagination. Rather, its ingredients and proto-capacities existed before the humans had any understanding on it, independent of us. Happy birthday, art!


Art’s Birthday´s website: http://www.artsbirthday.net/

Gary Tomlinson´s lecture from Yale University´s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-jjmQUM9gk

Photo: Jussi Suvanto and the flying sponge in Stuff and Nonsense event in HilbertRaum Gallery, Berlin on 17.1.2017. Stuff and Nonsense was a collaborative Art´s Birthday event organised by Nomadic Academy of Experimental Arts, a project by the writer.