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On Not Forgetting Fluxus Artist Benjamin Patterson

Benjamin Patterson (center) conducting his piece, "Pond" (1962), with (left to right) unknown, Philip Corner, Benjamin Patterson, Larry Miller, Eric Andersen, Ben Vautier (hands), Alison Knowles, in Odense, Denmark, on September 11, 2001. (photo by Dorte Krogh, courtesy the author)
Benjamin Patterson (center) conducting his piece, “Pond” (1962), with (left to right) unknown, Philip Corner, Patterson, Larry Miller, Eric Andersen, Ben Vautier (hands), Alison Knowles, in Odense, Denmark, on September 11, 2001. (photo by Dorte Krogh, courtesy the author)

It’s September 11, 2001, and a group of Fluxus artists has convened in Odense, Denmark. They enter the room and stand around the edge of a grid on the floor. Mechanical frogs are released and hop around on the grid — clickety clack, clickety clack, clickety clack. The rhythms of the mechanisms compete, but set a polyrhythmic, mechanical substrate for the sound work. As a frog enters a square, and for as long as it is there, an artist or two or three (of four, eight, or more) flicks their tongue, pops a lip, or says the same word, claps, snaps, or (perhaps) sneezes repetitively. These are simple sounds and easily repeated, not particularly personally expressive. The conductor, Benjamin Patterson, helps the performers along with a gesture. It’s time. Go now. The world just got a whole lot more complicated, but here is a way to connect to it through careful focus on a simple action. Patterson’s intermedia piece, “Pond” (1966), offers the group a place to be together and to be alone, which is comforting.

“Pond” is a Fluxus Event that consists of the following instruction: “Performer voices repetitive sounds after a jumping mechanical frog enters his zone on a charted floor.” Patterson’s friend, Danish Fluxus artist Eric Andersen, remembered the work in a recent email to me. “Benjamin Patterson was a blessing for Intermedia, Fluxus, and Performance art (The New Trinity) with the Double Bass, Tongues, and Frogs,” he wrote. “He’ll not be forgotten before Weather Forecasts Dry Out.” As if mechanical frogs needed water. Maybe they do. In any case, perhaps we should try to keep them wet, with tears. As Andersen’s note demonstrates in describing his friend, Patterson’s is has become was. And so begins the process of not forgetting.

Fluxus artist, composer, performer, and poet Benjamin Patterson died last month, and the ever-dwindling number of Fluxus co-founders shrank again. I hadn’t seen him in some time (he was a friend of my parents, Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles), but I felt in touch thanks to Facebook, where he would appear in posts as a most loyal friend and collaborator. The last time I saw him in person was at the main train station in Berlin in 2012, where he, Knowles, and fellow Fluxus artist Ann Noel were drinking beer and schnapps and he was excited about his retrospective in Houston.

His 82nd birthday party, this May 29 at Kerstin Skrobanek’s house in Heilbron, looked like fun. Noel posted pictures of Patterson in a garden house festooned for the occasion. “Ben’s Bar was open,” and he was “drinking white wine out of violin-shaped bottles.” He’d brought along a bottle of excellent whiskey, purchased in Scotland for the occasion. The whiskey went by the seemingly oxymoronic name “Timorous Beastie.” One assumes that by the end of the bottle, the drinker has moved from timid to deliciously raucous, meaning it’s only an oxymoron if it’s a name and not a story, which this party seemed to be. Clearly, Patterson had built a life in the company of sympathetic artists and lifelong friends, each of whom mourns his passing.

It might not have turned out this way. When he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1956 with a degree in contrabass and composition, opportunities for classically trained African American musicians were scarce to nonexistent in US symphonies. “[I]n the end, even though such a famous conductor as Leopold Stokowski fought strongly on my behalf,” Patterson lamented in the catalogue for his 2010 retrospective, “America was not yet ready for a black symphony musician.” So, in 1960, he moved to Cologne, Germany, which had a thriving experimental music scene loosely centered on the Serialist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and, more importantly for Patterson, the atelier of his wife, the painter Mary Bauermeister.

In Bauermeister’s atelier concerts, Patterson met the American composer John Cage, whose students in his course on experimental composition at the New School for Social Research (1957–59) had blown open the boundary between structurally experimental instrumental music and sound art, event theater, and sound poetry. Cage included work by many of his students in Bauermeister’s 1960 Counterfestival of Newest Music. The atelier also provided a context for emerging friendships, as between Patterson and future Fluxer Nam June Paik, and provided a context for Patterson’s chance-based instructional compositions, called Events, now associated with Fluxus. In the ensuing two years, the experimental music and poetry scene in and around Cologne brought Patterson into the orbit of other future Fluxers, including George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell, and the poet Emmett Williams — the future husband of the aforementioned Ann Noel, with which couple he formed an especially strong friendship.

Williams had a day job as travel section editor for the US Army’s daily newspaper, Stars and Stripes, which published the first ever print articles on Fluxus, including an interview between Williams and Patterson on October 21, 1962. By then, Patterson was well established as a new music composer and performer in the Cologne galleries. His pieces were featured in the first European Fluxus Festivals (which he assisted Maciunas in organizing, along with the early Paris festivals) and he became a beloved member of the coalescing community of Fluxus artists, composers, performers, and poets moving through Wiesbaden, Dusseldorf, Paris, Copenhagen, London, and all manner of smaller cities in between in 1962 and ‘63. “He was pretty much the center of Fluxus in Germany,” Knowles told me recently. “I will miss him.”

Beginning with Ben Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX│us, a traveling retrospective that originated at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in November 2010, Patterson has had some well-deserved recognition recently in the United States. Given his centrality to the founding of Fluxus, and even allowing for a 15 year hiatus after the mid ‘60s during which he raised a family and worked as a high level arts administrator, Patterson was at a double disadvantage in his career in the US as both a Fluxus artist and an African American artist. The commercial orientation of US museum boards and the Eurocentric framing of mainstream art history have created blind spots, social bracketing, and disciplinary frameworks that structurally (sometimes intentionally) exclude minorities and women. Not surprisingly, some of Patterson’s best work subtly and poignantly addresses both.

For example, Patterson and several co-performers licked whipped cream off Letty Eisenhauer in “Lick Piece,” which was first performed on May 9, 1964, at Maciunas’s Fluxhall in New York City. The score clearly complicates (by making literal) the slick — or “licked” —surface of the academic nude:

cover shapely female with whipped cream
lick

topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional.

When performed by Patterson, particularly in the early days, the work would be inflected with racial over- and undertones. In “Liner Notes for ‘Lick Piece’” from the CAMH catalogue, writer Fred Moten described the work in just these terms:

Unseen, unrecognized, bare in its clothing, in performance, the hypervisible instrument is in position, has a plan, an open secret bearing more than the eye/I can see, more than sound can bear, of other musics. … Focus is shifted — intermittently, glancingly — from the bodies (which is to say the questions) that he poses. One of those bodies is his, which remains explicit though it is not nude. The explicitness of the black body, the explicit body’s blackness, is not only about the way a certain lived experience can be said to bear the traces of bareness; nor is it encompassed in what it is to bear the only black body on-site or onstage or in the room or in the frame.

As Moten describes, the display of a black man licking whipped cream off a white woman (only later would the piece be performed with women of color) produces the oblique view that acknowledges the open secret of our subjugated bodies, the one female in the performance and the one black man exposing the deeper mechanics of the normative relationship between the clothed and the nude, the black and the white, the male and the female. This ecstasy and agony was bracketed (one could even say made possible by) by the ameliorative effect of the co-performers more simply enjoying the experience. Patterson’s objects on occasion addressed similar issues. “Show off your Skin”(1990), for example, paired a painted copy of Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” (1814) — a quintessentially porcelain academic nude — with advertisements for a famous New York dermatologist and motorized pincers. Whose skin gets shown and under what forms of medical duress are clearly at issue in the work.

Not all of Patterson’s pieces were this specifically legible with regard to content. His often-amusing readymades included a riff on Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack” (1914) that consisted of cigarettes clipped to each bottle prong (“Smokers Rights,” 1988), an art historical one-liner. Patterson’s “Paper Piece” (1960), whose score usually reads “improvisation with paper,” was first performed in its current form in the first German Fluxus festivals in 1962 and consists of performers directing paper airplanes (often programs), wads, giant sheets, entire newspapers, torn bits, shreds, shards, and tissues deep into the audience, which people usually mirror by returning the favor with jaunty hilarity as the papers rustle, bustle (Patterson’s word), pop, and tear. I’m not sure exactly what “Paper Piece” means, but it’s a lot of fun as a participatory sound work. Similarly, his intermedia opera, Lemons, included an amusing scene where a tea kettle is set with a balloon that inflates as the water boils and co-performers attempt to pop it with darts. Finally, beginning in about 1994, Patterson distilled and compressed the love stories of classical operas by Ravel, Puccini, Bizet, and Wagner into roughly 10-minute-long audience participation pieces. With Patterson deftly at the wheel, Fluxus absorbed and spat out the modern repertory in a form better suited to our shrinking attention spans.

As Patterson’s recognition has advanced and Fluxus has gained recent traction as an alternative to the art world’s obscene decadence, Patterson developed a small Fluxus. Very small. Tiny. Nano. He fabricated a traveling Fluxus concert for the tabletop, “Nano Fluxus (After Marcel Duchamp),” a gesture toward Duchamp’s famous museum of miniatures in a box, the “Boîte-en-valise.” Unlike the “Boîte” miniatures, however, “Nano Fluxus” offered both an intimate encounter with the simple performance instructions of Fluxus and the opposite. Patterson’s finely attuned musician/artist hands performed tiny versions of Fluxus events as an enormous video projection appeared behind him, as if the passage of time had enlarged the scope of the field and the scope of the works. Scaled from “Nano Flux” to macroworld and back, the viewer’s attention moved between the actual table and the video. In this simple gesture, Patterson had envisioned a remarkable mechanism for scaling up and down, through the taught surfaces of everyday attention.

A recent Patterson video depicts him “Nano Fluxing” in Amsterdam in 2013. It serves as a reminder of the modesty of Fluxus at its best, its intimacy, its social nature and complex commitments, its inter-media nature, its openness, its inclusivity, its humor, its seriousness, its networks, its scales (musical and otherwise), its Ben Patterson-ness. Andersen wrote: “He’ll not be forgotten before Weather Forecasts Dry Out.” As much as I hope for a solution to climate change, I hope that’s forever.

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