“I was not ready for Patterson.” The first time writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs witnessed legendary Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson’s work, she left with a puzzle: “How would I approach my own scores, and how might I play with instruction to express my curiosities/concerns by employing mundane objects?” In anticipation of Patterson’s arrival at the Walker this week, we invited Diggs to reflect upon these first instructive encounters with Patterson’s work and to compose a few original scores of her own. Diggs appeared at the Walker last March to present poems, songs, and myths from her acclaimed debut book TwERK as part of the ongoing Free Verse literary series (copresented with Rain Taxi Review of Books). She’ll be making a return to the Twin Cities next month when her piece muscle memory (a work in progress) will be performed at Pillsbury House Theatre.
“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 is it to bear the only black body on-site or onstage or in the room or in the frame.”
—Liner Notes for Lick Piece, Fred Moten
“To have your own style is to crystallize.”
Admission: I heard a brief mention of his name years ago but was slow on my homework. So on March 31, 2011, when Ben Patterson did an evening of chance operations, scores, and a talk at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the first embarrassed, muffled utter from my mouth was “He’s black?” Sitting there sandwiched between artists Mendi + Keith Obadike and composer/pianist Courtney Bryan, it was difficult to not hide my personal joy in his playing and toying with how art, poetry and performance are defined. And despite my personal exploits in innovative poetics and deconstructing “the reading,” I was not ready for Patterson.
I sit. Watch Patterson do Patterson. He orchestrates with our bodies. Our feet. We shift forward, backward, right and forward again. He scores our bodies. Then there is a fish bowl and a small fishing pole. He’s smiling. As he instructs and addresses, a whole new vocabulary is being gifted to me. The poet/performance artist Edwin Torres wrote that “poets are creatures of awareness; receptive beings that embody transition.” Before experiencing Patterson in action, a handful of artists I’ve encountered embodied Torres’s words. And now, Mr. Patterson has sent me home with a puzzle of sorts. How would I approach my own scores, and how might I play with instruction to express my curiosities/concerns by employing mundane objects?
In 2013, at the Roulette in Brooklyn, I, along with the Obadikes, are now participants during his retrospective concert. I am one of several people wearing Victorian paper masks, offering him a rose to be blended and drank, shooting confetti into the air and playing a multicolored party horn as I would my first clarinet in grade school. And thinking in the car ride back to Manhattan, how I composed before was now pleasantly warped. Patterson altered my appreciation of Br’er Rabbit, of Coyote, of Raven, of Èṣù, of shape-shifters. And then there is his linear timeline. His proficiency at shape-shifting within the creative realm (as well thrive as an arts administrator) was a template to move me forward in my ventures as a novice of the avant-garde, the experimental, the curatorial.
Back to 2011. A slide comes up. There is a photo of a performance where Patterson digs a hole. His audience: a handful of white onlookers. I am perplexed by this footage and action. A black male body digging into the earth for hours. The action conjures up sharecropping. It even invokes death. For whom is not explicit. Enter the coyote god again. To play upon hard labor as something of ease. To present accessibility when historical action is far more complicated and unnerving.
“and think garbarge man, boogy man, Eichmann, etc.”
Methods and Processes (details) 1962, Ben Patterson
When someone rings a bell, we conjure and call upon spirits. When we light a candle, we keep our ashé strong. These are actions I’ve come to understand as ritual. Should I see Patterson’s work as a bell? As a candle?
(Performed to “America the Beautiful” as performed by Ray Charles.)
- Paint ten Darth Vadar masks in various shades of brown from brownish black to beige.
- Place in 10 manila envelopes one sheet of blank paper.
- With 10 volunteers, have each place the mask on their face.
- Give each of them an envelope.
- Instruct the volunteers to stand in a semi circle behind a chair center stage.
- Sit in the chair.
- Have each volunteer walk toward you, reveal the paper and announce one of two statements:
- I am your father.
- I am not your father.
- After they have announced the results, volunteers will hand over the sheet of paper to you.
- Volunteers rejoin the semi-circle.
- Tape the sheets of paper together and swaddle yourself.
82 Combo 28 Straight (in 2 parts)
Materials for action
- 1 Box of TNT Bang Its
- Roll of Brown Paper
- Jar of Molasses
- Brita/Pur water filter pitcher (32-64 oz.)
- Sharpie Marker
- Make a doll in the shape of a boy out of brown paper.
- Leave it faceless.
- Place the paper doll on the pavement.
- Smash and trample the doll.
- Proceed with throwing meticulously 1 bag of bang-its at the doll.
- Leave paper doll on pavement, near a gas station for 7 days.
- On the 7th day, carry the doll to the ocean.
- Pour molasses on the doll and place it in the ocean.
- If it sinks bid it farewell.
- Take a picture.
- Press [enter] to continue.
- Fill up a water filter pitcher with water.
- Allow the water to go through the filter.
- Carry the pitcher with water to the ocean.
- Once you arrived at the ocean, empty the pitcher into the ocean.
- Refill the pitcher this time with the ocean.
- Wait for the ocean water to go through the filter.
- Pour the ocean water back into the ocean.
- Repeat this process until you’ve cleansed the ocean of all impurities.