We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Benjamin Patterson to the Twin Cities. Patterson is participating in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and, at age 80, is the oldest exhibiting artist. Born in Pittsburgh and living and working out of Wiesbaden, Germany, Patterson is a founding member of Fluxus, and his practice has incorporated music, visual arts, and performance—challenging traditional art-making modes. His oeuvre has been widely influential for generations of artists, including many in Radical Presence such as Clifford Owens.
Throughout his career, Patterson has explored the notion of systems in art, music, and text. Like many of his Fluxus peers such as Robert Filliou, Ben Vautier, and Daniel Spoerri, Patterson has also complicated and enriched the interaction between audience and performer, imposing situations that encourage direct engagement. Included in the exhibition, Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. Eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) performed the piece twice for an audience of 250 people, engaging in this dynamic Fluxus work and having fun while doing so. Patterson noted that this was the youngest group ever to perform Pond and did so with great success.
The following day, Patterson generously agreed to sit down with the public for a conversation at Theaster Gates’s table within Radical Presence. Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court is an installation made up of tables, chairs, and chalkboards salvaged from Crispus Attucks, a now-closed public school on Chicago’s South Side. The classroom setting encourages a democratic, roundtable approach to learning for and by the people assembled around it. The Walker has been hosting a number of programs over the past few months including conversations with artists Ralph Lemon and Coco Fusco, events and tours led by community members such as Andrea Jenkins and Amoke Kubat, and forthcoming discussions with Congressman Keith Ellison and Theaster Gates.
In his Holding Court talk, Patterson weaved through a number of topics, from his early classical training in double bass to his interest in natural sciences (cleaning alligator cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo) to his years in the army playing internationally in its orchestra. He has a sharp memory and a keen ability to recount stories, so this talk was a truly special moment for those who were present. (For those who weren’t, please find clips from the talk below.) One of the central topics was Patterson’s position as an African American musician in the mid-1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement. Patterson explained that he auditioned over twenty times for orchestras in places such as Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, always being told, “we have a problem,” when conductors faced him in person. Patterson dealt with this racial inequality with aplomb, never compromising his ethics, and finally moving to Canada to play with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, and later spending the majority of his life in Wiesbaden.
Patterson recounted his first meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a prominent German composer, and his subsequent encounter with John Cage the following day in Cologne. He explained that Cage invited him (as a wide-eyed 22-year-old) to perform with musicians such as David Tudor, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young the next night. Patterson’s relationship with these artists grew over the next few years, and soon he was living in the Gate Hill Co-op in Stony Brook, NY with the likes of Cage, David Behrman, and Stan VanDerBeek—playing poker and sitting down for weekly suppers together. For Patterson these years were incredibly influential in shaping his thinking and his outlook on life. It was after this that he adopted an interest in indeterminacy and chance operations in artistic practice, “preparing” his double bass by attaching clothespins and other objects onto the strings, and eventually becoming even more theatrical by turning the instrument upside down.
When he lived in Paris in 1962, Patterson befriended Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri, two key figures in the Fluxus movement, who collaborated on various projects such as Filliou’s gallery in a hat. The idea came from Filliou’s exposure to his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where a gentleman’s hat seemed the perfect venue for an exhibition. Patterson and Filliou created a mobile exhibition in a hat, moving through Paris by foot, subway, and bus for twelve hours, selling each of Patterson’s Puzzle Poems for 5 francs. Patterson claimed it to be his most successful vernissage, having nearly sold out the entire show.
Patterson took part in the first Fluxus festival of new music in Wiesbaden in 1963, during which time George Maciunas (founding father of Fluxus) released his first Fluxus magazine. Patterson revealed that the festival took place there because Maciunas was ducking the debt he accrued at his gallery in New York, and enrolled as a civilian draftsman for the U.S. army in Wiesbaden. For Patterson, Fluxus cannot be conclusively defined; it was more than an art movement—it was a new way of thinking. At the time there were no categories such as performance art, intermedia art, or interdisciplinary art, so he rather cunningly compared Fluxus to a circus. There were many performers with various talents—the lion tamer, the acrobat, the musician, the tightrope walker, and Maciunas as the ringleader cracking a whip—all under one big tent, arriving in town, performing, and packing up and moving on. The group was truly international, with a wide scope of interests and backgrounds: Filliou was an economist and wrote the recovery plan for South Korea after the war (and he was also a Coca Cola salesman), George Brecht was a chemist and invented Tampax, and Robert Watts was an electrical engineer. Patterson has led an inspiring life. He is a generous storyteller, and one of the few Fluxus members still alive today, making this event truly invaluable.
Following the talk, Patterson performed his recent piece, A Penny for Your Thoughts (2011), which promotes an exchange of ideas between artist and viewer. Patterson invited participants to care for their minds by getting rid of excess thoughts, writing them down, and selling each for a penny. Through this humorous and interactive Fluxus work in which shredded newspaper is attached to one’s head, Patterson encourages his audience to reframe how they think while investigating the commodification of the transfer of ideas. Patterson is still making work to this day, and is one of the most active artists I know. His travel itinerary includes Seattle, Nanjing, Brno, Siegen, Blois, and Karlsruhe—all before the end of 2014. We are grateful that he took time from his impressive schedule to visit us and share his stories with audiences in Minneapolis.