Peeping in the Vacuum Left in that Space of ‘Darker than Blueness’ – On, Of, For, With Ben Patterson
Ben Patterson, influential musician and a founding member of Fluxus passed away at age 82. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Curator at Large at documenta 14, met Patterson for the first time 10 years ago and was struck by Patterson's presence...
This script is not a eulogy. Actually you can’t write a eulogy about someone you loved dearly, but didn’t really know.
This script need not be categorized, for it tells a tale of someone uncategorizable in person but also in his genius.
This script shall sing praise of and for the one who struggled, but who was the rope in that tug of war between the visible and the audible.
This script is a chant of grief and a pronouncement of love. That kind of love that reverberated in and out of, and caressed the horn, the air and the ears of all when Coltrane tenderly breathed out ‘a love supreme.’ That compassion that betrays frailness and convokes strength when ‘Mbizo’ Dyani strikes the cords in reminiscence of the great one in ‘Song for Biko.’
This script is for, on, of, about, and with Ben Patterson and the vacuum he leaves behind in that space of Darker than Blueness. That very dear space of ours.
I last met Ben a couple of months ago, when he presented to me – grinning and as delighted as a ten-year-old boy – his new walking stick. His eyes sparkling with expectations and satisfaction, or indeed the kind of complacency of the kid in the school courtyard who had come up with a puzzle he was sure no one could crack. With that same dazzle in his soft and gentle eyes, he revealed a secret and sacred little compartment he had integrated into his walking stick to accommodate his precious liquor for those moments. But we will come back to this last meeting later, as it must have been the 99th time we met.
For the first 96 or so meetings, Ben had been there only in abstentia. I was to content myself with the numerous witty – as in markingly intelligent and humorous – notations, questionnaires, scores, performances, poetry, compositions, and objects he had made since 1960 till date. Till date because the last time we met, he was bubbling with new ideas for a piece he wanted to produce, as he went around Kassel in search for a suitable spot for the new piece.
The first encounter with Ben Patterson must have been some ten years ago. One of dem lazy days when you decide to kill time by biding awhile in your favorite bookshop, perusing art books you can’t afford to buy. An image in a book on art movements of the 20th century instantaneously caught my attention. In the Fluxus section, there was an image of a new music performance festival at the legendary Mary Baumeister studio. Some six men were in action, of which one, holding what seemed to be a contrabass, had a much darker shade than all others in this black-and-white image. Despite my interest in the likes of Vostell, Ritella, Maciunas, Spoerri and many other mighty figures of what was to become the Fluxus movement, I had never heard of a person of color, a Black man being part of it all, let alone one of the co-founders of the Fluxus movement. Besides the name of the festival, the image did not feature any names of participating artists, but Google – my friend and helper – informed me of a young African American named Ben Patterson, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1934, studied contrabass, Composition, and Film Direction at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s and due to racial constraints and the resulting difficulties in finding a job in a symphony orchestra in the US, was forced to emigrate to Canada. There he played with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra, then the U.S. Army Symphony, and later the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra. This young man had moved to Cologne, Germany in 1960 for the IGNM Festival, met with John Cage and performed with the likes of Brecht or Ichiyanagi, and became involved with many others in the new music scene centered around Mary Bauermeister and the Counter Festival. Bam. There he was.
The next encounters with Ben Patterson were with his early seminal pieces, which I ferociously searched for in all nooks and crannies of bookshops and libraries. Amongst them were pieces like the Paper Piece performed in 1961 (published in 1960 in the journal ich bin schön) in Gallery Lahaus Cologne for a Vostell exhibition in which paper was torn on ‘stage’ and disseminated into the audience in an interactive act of collective sharing and collective paper twisting, tearing, smashing, waving and crumpling, generating a soundscape befitting to what was radically new music. In other words, a concert in which the audience was bound to co-author and co-produce. Another early piece was the Variations for Double-Bass performed in 1961 in Gallery Lahaus Cologne for a Rotella exhibition, whose score partly stated:
Pitches, dynamics, durations and number of sounds to be produced in any one variation in this composition are not notated. (In the first performance by the composer a graphic score derived from ink blots was used as a guide; however, there are many other satisfactory solutions.)
Unfold world map on floor. Circle with pen, pencil, etc. city in which performance is being given. Locate end pin of bass in circle.
It is such action scores, such playfulness, such beyond-artness and besides-commercialness that had drawn my attention towards Fluxus in the first place, and it is for the same reasons that I didn’t intend to let Ben Patterson go. Other pieces like the Lick Piece or Slap Piece aka Fluxus Concert No. 1 and 3 respectively(359 Canal Street, 1964) and too many other pieces worth mentioning left their mark on me and my understanding of art beyond the conventional. It is said that back in New York in the mid-1960s Ben Patterson studied Library Science at Columbia University and thereafter pursued a career as a cultural manager until 1988, when he re-embarked fully into artistic production.
Patterson has featured in a few major shows in the USA and Europe, such as the 20th anniversary of the Fluxus movement in 1982; the Biennale in São Paulo in 1983; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (1995); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2002); Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany (2002); and Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver Contemporary Arts Museum, USA (2011); The Studio Museum Harlem, USA (2011); and Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden, Germany (2012). Despite this fact, he still remained relatively unknown in the margins of the constructed canon that gave much more attention to less poignant practices, even within the sphere of Fluxus. Indeed, it is a marvel that the name Ben Patterson is still covered by a cloud of obscurity and still calls for head-scratching, while names like Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Brecht, Vautier, or George Maciunas are household names.
Patterson’s notes for Paper Piece. Photograph: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Two aspects that have kept my crave and fascination for Ben’s work over the years have been his delicate sense of humor in the artworks and as a person, as I later was to discover, and the subtle but at the same time profound political deliberations and utterances in his works. For the former, this applies to works like Concrete Poem No. 6 (2005) made of concrete poured into a wooden box and the title written on concrete, or in his numerous poems, scores, writings, e.g. Methods and Processes (1962), where he instructs the performant to “think of number 6; bark like a dog; think of number 6 twice; stand up (do not think of number 6); sit down; think of number 6; bark like a dog.” Art ad absurdum.In My Grand 70th Birthday Tour (2003),it is written on the piece: “in the merry month of may 2004, I will become 70 years old. To celebrate this event, I plan to mix and serve ‘Ben cocktails’ for all my friends, who wish to meet me on the summit of ‘Fuji-san’ Japan on 29th of May 2004. (This will be my first visit to Japan.) Yes, it would be very simple to fly, non-stop from Frankfurt to Tokyo. But how boring! I will travel with the ‘Trans-Siberian Railroad’ … and realize an old dream of George Maciunas… To make a ‘grand Fluxus concert’ in various cities along the ‘Trans-Siberian’ (…).”
Ben Patterson’s commentaries on the socio-political state of the world in his works are numerous. To mention but a few, Untitled (A Case for Bombing Pause) (1962), Pan Am (1990), or Say Your Prayer (1990). On another note and in relation to race politics, Valerie Cassel Oliver writes in her puissant essay, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Patterson,” about Ben Patterson’s participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and how it became paramount for him to participate in the Civil Rights movement. Cassel Oliver mentions that the fact that Ben Patterson’s impetus towards the Civil Rights movement was not shared by his Fluxus colleagues in the US, deeply disappointed him and for the first time he “felt the corporeal reality of his blackness among his liberal friends,” especially taking into consideration the fact that the ideology behind Fluxus was of social, cultural, and political revolution.
To me, one of Ben Patterson’s most political endeavors has been THE MUSEUM FOR THE SUB-CONSCIOUS, designed “to collect, preserve, study and exhibit one of mankind’s most extraordinary, most determining, but also, least understood attributes – the sub-conscious”, for which in 1996, he established the first “Public Entrance” to the Museum for the Sub-Conscious, cemented onto the cliff of a mountain in Okandukaseibe, Namibia (where 27,000-year-old charcoal and ochre drawings of animals were found). Then in 1999, political reasons motivated him to put up the second “entrance” to the museum on Jerusalem Beach in Tel Aviv, Israel. A third “entrance” was established in 2010 on a mountain in Salta province, Argentina, to honour the remaining ‘Wichí’ aka Mataco people indigenous to this area. Later, further entrances were set up in Houston and in Wiesbaden.
Earlier this year, 2016, I gave a talk with the title “a conspiracy in ‘darker than blueness’ – Looking at Akinbode Akinbiyi and Ben Patterson to Answer Curtis Mayfield’s Calls in ‘We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue’” at the Villa Arson, Nice. The point of departure for this lecture was this sheer marvel and trial to understand how come Ben Patterson’s practice, even within this setup of international artists that clearly had a revolutionary agenda, could be so much at the margin. It was a trial to look at the concept of the avant-garde, the mechanisms of power embedded within such concepts, and the geopolitical and georacial ideologies that are cultivated and still perpetrate power gradients even within the field of the arts. The lecture was an effort to re-think or un-think the avant-garde, just as much as to reformulate or de-formulate concepts of the canon, especially in relation to Blackness and therein situating Ben Patterson. As Fred Moten puts it in his book In the Break – The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition:
“The idea of the avant-garde is embedded in a theory of history. This is to say that a particular geographical ideology, a geographical-racial or racist unconscious, marks and is the problematic out of which or against the backdrop of which the idea of the avant-garde emerges. The specter of Hegel reigns over and animates this constellation.”
“Part of what I’m after now is this: an assertion that the avant-garde is a black thing and an assertion that blackness is an avant-garde thing.”
But is it the canon we are looking for? Is it just about finding a place in someone’s canon or creating another one? What about complexifying the mechanisms that make up any canon? Such that through acts of subversiveness one destabilizes, unsettles, volatilizes and permeates the foundations that make up the power gradients inherent to every canon.
Yes… Over the past hundreds of years, peoples of color have been left out of histories, their knowledge systems destroyed through what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls ‘epistemicides’, and even in the cases where their contributions were omnipresent and fundamental, acts of side-lining, ignoring, and trials of ‘telling only half of the complete story’ have been implemented to erase, to render invisible, to pluck off their wings so that they could only fly a very ordinary pitch.
But what next? If one were to choose the direction of non-lamentation, a constructive trajectory of ‘from here we look-back-forward,’ then it might be interesting to take Curtis Mayfield’s question seriously:
“We people who are darker than blue, are we gonna stand around this town and let what others say come true?”
My reading or better listening of Mayfield is that he critically questions our position towards the metaphorical savage slots we all have been maneuvered or manipulated into. He lays bare the precarious situations we inhabit if we see ourselves through the eyes and lenses of the other, and if we measure ourselves through the biased tapes of those who never intended you to be measurable, let alone join them in any ranks worth mentioning. This is to say that Mayfield’s question is to my opinion actually a wake-up call, a call for action, a call to hit the gong and do the roll call, a call to bear witness, a call to find our names in a context where our names have been traded for symbols or have sunk into the depths of the oceans upon the passage from the old to the new world, a call to find a language to acknowledge and a call to spread Coltrane’s ‘love Supreme.’ Mayfield forges ahead to state and ask, “Get yourself together, learn to know your side. Shall we commit our own genocide, before you check out your mind?” And then he goes on to make this fierce claim that “when the time comes and we are really free, there’ll be no brothers left you see.”
So what I was proposing was to heed Mayfield’s counsels, bear witness, and to exercise acts of unsilencing and unveiling. What I was proposing was to conspire in ‘darker than blueness,’ which is to say to create spaces, plots, coalitions, agreements, unions, in which some radical love is enacted, embodied, disseminated, dissipated for and by all, but especially for those who have been placed at the margins – before it is too late.
It is for this reason and most especially for the vast and strong body of work that Ben had produced over five decades that I proposed, and Adam Szymczyk accepted to invite Ben Patterson to contribute something for documenta 14.
In his reply to the invitation to documenta 14, Ben, with all his humility, proclaimed that this invitation was the greatest surprise in his artistic career. He quipped that Fluxus thus arrived in the “Big Time,” but expressed his concern that at 82 he might not be as fit to do 36 hours without sleep, as he did with 75. He mentioned his health condition, but said the invitation was probably good for his health and expressed an endless optimism by dropping this: “However, as we say in the U.S.A. ‘Old cowboys never die, they just fade away’…. So, let’s give it the ‘old college try’ and see what happens.” Reading this, I caught myself trying to shrug off the chill that ran down my spine and the accompanying wet cheeks.
The penultimate meeting with Ben was indeed the first one in person, mid-March 2016 in Athens. He was very curious as to how we found him – still in dismay that this generation was more interested in his work than the ones before had been. He was thrifty with his words. My mother used to say we had two ears and only one mouth for a reason. That proportion was well in place with Ben, as we walked on the historical sites in Athens, which he was visiting for the first time. He talked of the Lick Piece and other great pieces of his, then satisfied our curiosity to know why the hell Fluxus and Wiesbaden, often with a very broad grin or outburst of laughter. We drank tea, wine, ate good Greek food while deliberating on the new piece he intended to produce for documenta 14. After dinner he bought a big book of Greek cuisine recipes as a present, and the twinkle in his eye betrayed the fact that this gift was at least as much for him as it was for his partner.
Ben Patterson’s restaging of Nam June Paik’s “One for the Violin,” 1962, (Photo by Wolfgang Traeger, courtesy of the artist)
The aforementioned last meeting in Kassel rolled in a similar way. Ben talked of frogs and how much he liked the sounds they made. He went around town with documenta 14 colleagues, listening attentively to the histories of the various institutions and the city. Then he said he was looking forward to returning to realize his new piece.
Then he faded away…
In Valerie Cassel Oliver’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Patterson”, she quotes a statement from initial notes for an essay by Fred Moten on Benjamin Patterson:
“Within the strictures of an ethics of dematerialization, Patterson disappears. He reemerges in republication, in enactment, in repertory, by way of the recording and its digital and cybernetic reproduction – the para-ontological remains of Patterson’s performances, which take the form of a sifting of and through remains, a continual serving of left-overs, of fucked-up, funny, generatively unfunky licks and pieces of licks. Matter is art’s embarrassment; enjoyment is its shame. This double illegitimacy betrays so much of what is valorized under the rubric of Fluxus, which moves within a disingenuous forgetting of this fact, which is, in turn, disingenuously and sometimes profitably forgotten.”
So, this script indeed is not a eulogy.
This script is the bearing witness of the disappearance of an individual qua institution, whose contributions to the arts have been, to say the least, way-paving, pacesetting, and crucial, but who never got the position he deserved in public or artistic discourses and spaces as his contemporaries.
This script attests the fading away of an old cowboy, whose enormous benefactions to that space of ‘darker than blueness’ will guarantee that his presence – transcendental as it might be – will be felt with and even beyond the republications, re-enactments, repertories, recordings, and reproductions.