Book Cover:Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press
The Mongrel Artist
Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press
SELECTED WRITINGS BY DICK HIGGINS
Edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman
Siglio Press, Catskill, NY, 2018
by Nicolette Reim
Maybe you don’t know about Dick Higgins when you begin this book, but, by the end, you will have experienced the extraordinary life of an art historical figure. Higgins (1938-1998), rejected galleries and museums; he instigated and promoted outrageous new music, poetry and performances in alternative ways. He established Something Else Press, through which he became a major theorist for the new art. Reintroducing the word “intermedia,” he described the disintegration of boundaries between traditional modes of art-making, creating spaces/possibilities for original works that defied categorization. “Intermedia” is fundamental for understanding the collective known as “Fluxus,” to which Higgins is tied. George Maciunas (1931-1978), constant Fluxus persona, organizer extraordinaire of festivals, events and distributor of Flux art, is usually referenced as the founder. Steve Clay, publisher, editor, curator and archivist specializing in literature and art of the 1960s-80s, and Ken Friedman, youngest Fluxus member, former manager of Something Else Press and editor of The Fluxus Reader, consider Higgins a Fluxus co-founder alongside Maciunas. The book is a treasure for anyone interested in Fluxus, avant-gardism, 60s chaos, barriers disappearing between art forms and ways of circumventing a dominant art world. It extends significantly the first bibliography of Fluxus publications by Peter Frank (1983). Clay and Friedman ponder the perplexity - Higgins, greatly esteemed articulator of artistic innovations, is barely known. The book is also a highly original form of biography.
Dick Higgins from Alison Knowles Archive
Section one gives Higgins’ writings on Fluxus, Happenings, intermedia and other ideas that didn’t develop, but quite thought-provoking. Section two focuses on the activities of Something Else Press. Higgins described it as “a big collage with many contributors.” The third and fourth parts include further analytical and theoretical writings, as well as extensively researched poetry and artist book histories. He once described his writing as, “a well-outlined conversational ramble.” It’s true – he can be baroque, prolonged, quite personal with patter and inside jokes and also back-biting. There are detailed, illustrated checklists, including jacket and catalogue notes on published books. Clay and Friedman chose works reflecting Higgins’ tremendous intellect, range of knowledge, rigorous, insouciant experimental approach and include writings long out-of-print or difficult to find.
foew&ombwhnw by Dick Higgins, 1969 (detail), reproduced in Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writing by Dick Higgins, Siglio, 2018.
Flux artists continuously disagreed on everything, including if they were a collective, community, movement, political entity, philosophical activity or just a “tendency.” One thing seems to be agreed upon, Fluxus was an international laboratory of experimental ideas and came to be characterized by direct, short, concrete works, musical events and conceptual scores. Every day occurrences became art - mundane activities sources for subject matter. Fluxus had a core of about seven, mostly American and about 200 from other countries, united only by common intentions. People from diverse backgrounds, gender and race were consciously sought. More conceptual, less craft-oriented than most art, works were, nevertheless, carefully put together and aesthetic. value was determined by how well a piece expanded a viewer’s “horizons – emotionally, intellectually, or, however.” Reacting against solemnity, a “spirit of” accompanied. The defiant element in that playful quality seems lost now as Fluxus is often perceived as mostly fun and games. Clay and Friedman’s book attempts to defuse this stressing of Fluxus games and gags by re-examining Fluxus insistence art be directly connected to life; art is only really useful by setting an example using the senses – touch, vision, hearing, smell – cues to life’s multifarious aspects. Higgins wrote, “Fluxus started out as a collective, because there were so few ways open to us to present our work.” The group rebelled against commercialism, the “professional artist,” pigeon-holing and individualism, or, as Higgins put it, “the Going Thing.” He declared, “Tomorrow one will write “Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, cook some kohlrabi, develop a non-toxic epoxy and invent still another kind of theatre; or perhaps one will just sit and scream; or perhaps . . .” With Maciunas’ death in 1978 (age 46), “Fluxus ceased or didn’t stop or stopped some time before,” depending on a particular point of view.
Dick Higgins’s Intermedia diagram.
Image originally published in Dick Higgins, A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes Towards a Theory of the New Arts,
Printed Editions, 1978
Flux artists, like rounding up cats, endlessly disagreed also with Maciunas. In any case, no one paid the “Chairman” much attention, even members he “purged.” Higgins, sometimes a peace maker, also dissented, exampled by his impatience with the length of time Fluxus Press was taking to publish his collection Jefferson’s Birthday. Repossessing the manuscript, he announced to fellow Flux artist/wife Alison Knowles he was going to start his own publishing company for Fluxus type art. “What will you call it?” she asked. “Shirtsleeves Press,” he replied. “That’s awful, call it something else,” and he did. Maciunas considered it a rival to Fluxus Press; Higgins considered it an addition.
The Press (1963-1974) was started with Higgins’ inheritance. It became one of the most important sources of experimental activity of its time. It released exquisite publications concerning Happenings, poetry, dada, events, architecture, art theory, music and literature that included outstanding artists and writers of the twentieth century: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Ray Johnson, Henry Cowell, Wolf Vostell, Daniel Spoerri, Allan Kaprow, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gordon Huntley, Claes Oldenberg, John Giorno, Dick Higgins himself and numerous others. The Press lists two Deluxe Editions: Allan Kaprow’s Calling (1967) and Alison Knowles’ The Big Book (1967-68). It also printed graphics, including Marcel Duchamp’s Cours Volant (1967), announcements, posters and a wide assortment of short-use items. It gave theoretical heft and statue to an entire generation of artists dedicated to changing notions about art. Higgins’ own contributions to intermedia, often based on danger and violence, are many, but Something Else Press redefined how “the book” could inhabit an in-between space. The Great Bear Pamphlets (named after the water cooler) presented short but important Flux artist works in an inexpensive, usually sixteen page, 5 ½” x 8 ½” format. Distributed in common areas (i.e. the Berkeley co-op supermarket), they disseminated information beyond highbrow institutions.
Entire set of Great Bear Pamphlets and three Camille’s Reports, 1965-1967, reproduced in
Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writing by Dick Higgins, Siglio, 2018.
A life-long Episcopalian churchgoer, Higgins claimed to have wanted to become a priest. He did not regard himself as a spokesperson for “new ways of thinking,” preferring to comment offside and leery of “preachy rhetoric.” Committed to openness and play, random interjections abounded, such as during a ponderous discussion, “Is there anything more glorious than a cool breeze on a hot day?” Rather than bury failures, as most artists do, he published or exhibited them if it helped a bigger cause. Higgins increasingly focused his attention on Something Else Press. By 1965 he was no longer directly associated with Fluxus. He left the Press in 1973, finances and distribution became too difficult. What went wrong with the Press? He said, “In a way nothing; in another way, everything. . . It lived out its natural life.” Structure was weak, staff problematic and employees hired (and not fired) amidst insufficient funds. At the end of his life Higgins pursued many mediums, including paintings which are predominantly unknown. “It is hard to say where I came from; certainly, my parenthood is uncertain, and I’ve always thought of myself as something of a mongrel. I have always belonged to many worlds . . .” He concluded, “Fluxus, it seems, is a mongrel art, with no distinct parentage or pedigree, as we are encouraged to get from the pound as opposed to buying an expensive purebred.”
The book conveys the exhilaration of an avant-garde movement and the hodge podge of an innovative small press. The final essay is a surprisingly eloquent chapter by Higgins’ daughter, the art historian Hannah Higgins. She shares intimate aspects of his creative struggles and of the people with whom he collaborated. His “intermedia” personal life included marrying twice his most meaningful wife (believing the person more important than gender), openness about his homosexuality, parenting twin daughters and ceaseless work with his amazing mind. He recovered from two nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and a serious car accident. He kept his family close, dying prematurely of heart failure at age 60 following his last Fluxus performance. Higgins once said, “It is hard to say where a life begins or ends.” His goes on as publications and collections reveal the significance of his work.
“Some Poetry Intermedia” by Dick Higgins, 1967, reproduced in Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writing by Dick Higgins, Siglio, 2018.
So why is Dick Higgins underappreciated in an art world endlessly intrigued by the 1960s? This book could change that. Higgins, like many Fluxus artists, was not identified by a known, specific medium, thus easily passed over. His work will always remain incomplete. Within Fluxus he made few objects; his network was large but not mainstream; he was committed to an independent course. He never wanted a career - “We must always act like dedicated amateurs.” He twice left important art centers (NYC and LA), retreating to rural Vermont, then upstate New York.
Since Flux artists never seemed to agree on anything, difficulty explaining Fluxus, therefore Higgins, continues. Is Fluxus/Higgins performance, objects or publications? Fluxus as experience survived for more than forty years in part due to its experimental, and educational commitments. It has been described as the most productive research of ideas in art history. Implications go beyond art to essential questions of our place in the universe. Lack of presence in art history is perhaps because of an over-reliance on processed information with clear verbal explanations. Past criticism looked at Fluxus as either a neo-avant-garde, mere chaos, an empty, rageful tirade or a silly, anti-art joke, thus limiting broader value and societal connections. Experimental approaches find meaning in ways difficult to describe. Defying description, failing to be acknowledged, could be successes - what would happen to the ideals and goals of Fluxus/Higgins if they were incorporated into the museum?
“Five Traditions of Art History, an Essay” by Dick Higgins, 1976, reproduced in Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writing by Dick Higgins, Siglio, 2018.
Re-visiting Fluxus could retrieve something more applicable and transformative. Remaining obscure risks loss of import. Fluxus as an attitude toward art, culture and life did not necessarily stop in 1978. The book gives wider access to Higgins’ contributions as a brilliant theorist, art historian and belief in art’s profundity. “Fluxus is still needed in a world of pretension, falseness, grandiosity and humorlessness,” he wrote. His words echo even louder now. Fluxus arose from needs for change and responded by creating possibilities for ontological knowledge. “All questions are fundamentally serious, most answers stupid!”
Critiquing and curating are part of the art world driven by the art market. Art magazines at the start of Something Else Press wrote primarily for galleries and other advertisers. Higgins believed publishing in the future would include many small groups like his, parallel with companies producing books by the thousands. Small literary groups can be the research and development part of the large industries, useful spaces on the edges. Trade publishers could support them in these objectives. Something Else Press is gone, but the example is still there. The front cover of the book shows a close-up of Higgins performing his piece, “Danger Music Number Seventeen (Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!).” Passing a book shop, he once overheard someone say, “There’s nothing like that ‘Press’ around these days.” Higgins’ loud voice could just as easily be screaming, “Isn’t that a challenge? Do it – and do it better. I didn’t. I was wrong. I should have.”
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.
Photo: Elias Maus