Review of Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins

Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins
Steve Clay & Ken Friedman, Editors

Siglio Press, Catskill, NY, 2018
364 pp., illus. 100 b/w & 100 col.
Paper, $35
ISBN: 978-1-938221-20-0.

Reviewed by
Jack Ox
December 2018

Sometime in August of 1978, I accompanied Peter Frank when he went to visit Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles in Barton, Vermont to pick up one of every book the Something Else Press had published until that time. The twins, Hannah and Jessica, were only 13 years old. Dick Higgins was also an influential theorist in the artists' collaborative called Fluxus. Leonardo readers should be familiar with Higgins and his theories about intermedia because Leonardo re-published his essay “Intermedia” with an appendix by Hannah Higgins, who today is the chair of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Higgins’ essay was part of Jacques Mandelbrojt's and my special section called “Synesthesia and Intersences” (Higgins, 2001)

One year later I moved to NYC, where I was able to assume the role of incessant nudge enabling the completion of this vital document –– the annotated bibliography of the Something Else Press (Frank, 1983). (Peter Frank needed a deadline to finish writing anything, but without it, I was able to supply nudging to complete this project within four years.) However, we have begun with the second part of this new book, A Something Else Press Checklist, compiled by one of the editors, Steve Clay, who calls it a work in progress. I count over 50 books listed and described from 1964-1974 out of a total of 177 books. Many covers are reproduced, nine to a page in full color. The list of authors will astound those not already familiar with The Something Else Press. It includes Gertrude Stein, Henry Cowell, Wolf Vostell Daniel Spoerri, Allan Kaprow, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gordon Huntley, Emmett Williams, John Cage, Dick Higgins himself and on and on. There are short summations of what is in each of these books, creating a valuable resource for scholars and students. Clay reports that this book owes great credit to Peter Frank for his document that was an indispensable resource for thirty-five years on The Something Else Press. What appears in this new book is a revised and illustrated checklist with notes from book jackets, newsletters, catalogs, etc., with an effort to use the words of Higgins whenever possible.

The next section lists the Great Bear Pamphlets, most of which were 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, sixteen pages each except for no. 8, Manifestos, which are thirty-two pages. These pamphlets include luminary writers such as Al Hansen, Jerome Rothenberg, George Brecht, Alison Knowles, David Antin, Di(e)ter Rot(h), Philip Corner, Robert Filliou, John Cage, Bengt af Klintberg, Wolf Vostell, and Claes Oldenburg, and John Giorno.

There are two Books listed as Deluxe Editions: Allan Kaprow's Calling from 1967 and Alison Knowles' The Big Book from 1967-68, of which two versions were consisting of eight pages, 96 x 48 inches. The script in this book lists places The Big Book was to be shown and says "it is doubtful it will be seen in New York before it sails off for Europe, where it will presumably remain." However, I can report that I saw and entered The Big Book sometime after 1979 when it was at the Franklin Furnace in New York City. For me entering Knowles' book was an early and crucial immersive experience. Finally, you can see some of the fantastic graphics produced by The Something Else Press: L'Immortelle Morte du Monde by Robert Filliou (1967), Marcel Duchamp's Coeurs Volants (1967), André Tomkins, Lichtschablone für Dick Higgins (1967), which cannot be reproduced because it is a disappearing work that is only visible when held up to the light. They are two graphics from John Giorno: [From the Kama Sutra of John Giorno] [Black Cock] and [From the Book of the Dead of John Giorno] [Rainbow Buddhas & Bodhisattvas] (1973).

But let us now talk about who Dick Higgins was and his importance in not only the art world but in the general world of ideas. Above, you have seen the sort of artists with whom Higgins collaborated. Now we will look into the meaning of his most important idea––intermedia. The central idea behind intermedia is cross-modal mapping. Higgins defined it as the presence of structural elements from two or more different media in one medium, which means that visualization and sonification are two examples of intermedia. Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate is intermedia because it combines sound poetry (a poem constructed from German phonemes, no words) with a classical sonata form from the domain of music. I came across the principles of intermedia when I wrote a dissertation on conceptual metaphor and blending theories by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It is important to note that Higgins was writing about intermedia in the 1960s and Lakoff and Johnson just started publishing their theories in the late 1970s. Intermedia and perceptually based knowledge representations provide rich and varied collections of multimodal conceptual metaphors and blends. We think in a state of multimodality. Einstein is famous for "seeing" his theories as in understanding gravity through visualizing a ball warping the surface on which it rolls. In a multimodal metaphor, the source and target domains are in different modes. To establish the existence of a metaphor one first determines the source and target domains, then which features are mapped onto the target domain (Forceville & Urios-Aparisi, 2009, p. 387). By definition, visualization, sonification, and other possible perceptual representations of data are multimodal. (Ox, 2015, p. 73) So, intermedia defines the process we use when we think.

When I moved to Germany in 1987, I happily hosted members of the Higgins family on many of their frequent trips to Cologne. Therefore, I was able to discuss intermedia with Higgins on multiple occasions. And we did this while I was producing an eight hundred square foot visualization of the Schwitters Ursonate. It was amazing to be able to discuss issues with Higgins that all seemed to involve the principles of intermedia. But here, in this book, the reader can see the Something Else newsletter from February 1966 where he defines intermedia in a clear and concise way. I feel Higgins’ presence throughout this book as if he is in the room.

There is a large section excerpted from Postface. I had taken this book out of the library at the University of New Mexico, and I think that it is much better to read in this version. The small original pages are set into the larger white pages of this book on selected writings, and the ease of reading is noticeable. But the reason to read this section is that you will be able to see how intermedia is at the heart of Fluxus. Postface is a narrative that moves from descriptions of fellow artists performances and relationships to Fluxus into philosophical thinking entwined with a great art historical perspective. The editors were correct in placing this excerpt in the same section with Higgins' description of intermedia.

Part III is called The Constant Dialectic.

"Generally speaking, dialectic is a mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation. As such, dialectic is the medium that helps us comprehend a world that is racked by paradox. Indeed, dialectic facilitates the philosophic enterprise as described by Bertrand Russell, who wrote that 'to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.' "(O'Connor, 2003; Russell, 1945, p. xiv)

Higgins is having these long, philosophical discussions with himself. And to do this, he wrote An Exemplativist Manifesto. I believe that he is referring to works that have a plan or a score which forms the basis for an artwork. He writes that for an artwork to be called exemplavist, the emphasis must be on what the work is an example of, not on its precise structure or realization. Intermedia is a philosophical medium for Higgins. Since event scores [1] in Fluxus are small, concise scores, leaving many details up to the performer, the concept of exemplative makes sense. Even a static painting can be created according to a plan and fulfill the same requirements to be an exemplavist painting. Exemplative art always exists on a continuum between two opposite points, such as the heart and mind, the personal and objective, the unitary and the general, and so on. The audience should be asking "What is this and how does it work?" That is very different from asking "who did this and why."

Between the essay The Strategy of Each of My Books, and Eleven Snapshots of Dick Higgins by Hannah Higgins, you the reader can begin to enter his life in a very intimate way. There is an intellectual honesty that the daughter seems to have inherited from her father in these life descriptions. Reading these sections, one can enter the creative life of Higgins and the people with whom he collaborated. But most importantly, one can see the struggles for an artist who works on the edges in his thinking.

Part IV includes the first chapter of Higgins’ book, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (1987). You are going to want to buy the complete book because it is a fantastic, scholarly resource. Luckily, it is still available. I am sure there is no better resource on this fascinating topic, which begins with the Phaistos Disk circa 1700 B.C. Higgins gave me a copy of this book in 1991, and I have gone back to it many times. Also, in Part IV there is The Strategy of Visual Poetry: three aspects, and Points Toward Taxonomy of Sound Poetry. As is usual with Higgin's practice, he goes back to Aristotle and moves into a time that is more our own.

This book focuses on Higgins as a world-class scholar and is a must if you are teaching a class including Fluxus; it could function as a textbook. The book will give the reader an idea of the scope of artists who collaborated in the Fluxus workshop and of the times in which they did this. I am grateful to the editors, Ken Friedman and Steve Clay, for publishing these critical texts.

Notes

[1] Event score: An important element in the artistic tradition of Fluxus. These are scores for performances that are simple and Zen-like in their construction. Event scores are instructions for a set of actions.

References

Forceville, Charles J., & Urios-Aparisi, Eduardo. (2009). Multimodal Metaphor. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.

Frank, Peter. (1983). Something Else Press: An Annotated Bibiography. Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company.

Higgins, Dick. (2001). "Intermedia." Leonardo Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, 34, 49-54.

Higgins, Dick. (2018). Intermedia, Fluxis and the Something Else Press: Selected writings by Dick Higgins (S. Clay & K. Firiedman Eds.). Catskill, NY: Siglio.

O'Connor, Kim. (2003). "Dialectic." Theories of Media.  Retrieved 9/10, 2018, from http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/dialectic.htm.

Ox, Jack. (2015). Manifestations of Conceptual Metaphor and Blending Theories in Science, Design, and Art. (PhD), Swinburne University of Technology.

Russell, Bertrand. (1945). The History of Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster.