Books

No One Else

Cover of Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, November 2018.

INTERMEDIA, FLUXUS AND THE SOMETHING ELSE PRESS: SELECTED WRITINGS BY DICK HIGGINS, EDITED BY STEVE CLAY AND KEN FRIEDMAN. Siglio Press, 2018. 364 pages.

DICK HIGGINS, Fluxus affiliate and founder of the Something Else Press, once described the books he published as a series of “love letters to the future.” A new volume of writings by the artist, composed between 1962 and 1997 and selected by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman, delivers on this promise, making Higgins’s underappreciated contributions as publisher, editor, patron, theorist, and historian of the 1960s neo-avant-gardes legible to today’s students and scholars of the marginal, obscure, and quirkily experimental. An intoxicating, multifaceted bouquet of various genres of Higgins’s writing, the anthology highlights the artist’s role as participant-historian in numerous early postmodern currents across the visual arts, literature, music, theater, and dance. Above all, Higgins served as a mouthpiece for Fluxus, concrete and sound poetry, and intermedia—the latter a term he adopted and reinvented in the mid-sixties to describe the myriad new practices that probed the gaps between established mediums and disciplines.

Higgins’s entrée into neo-avant-garde circles came through his participation in John Cage’s experimental composition course at the New School for Social Research in the late 1950s, after which he traveled to Europe with his on-again, off-again life partner Alison Knowles to participate in the first Fluxus concert tour. By 1963, Higgins had struck out on his own, establishing the Something Else Press with the aim of utilizing mass market book formats to transmit his milieu’s innovative work to a broader public than Fluxus had ever hoped. This mission was a blueprint for Siglio Press (the present book’s publisher), Granary Books (Clay’s imprint), UbuWeb, Primary Information, and Boo-Hooray, among many other publishers now revisiting and reissuing works from the 1960s, increasingly recognized as a golden era of independent publishing.

In essence, Clay and Friedman’s anthology is a time capsule of Higgins’s experience of the aesthetically unruly sixties, describing the contours of an interdisciplinary New York network with Higgins at its center and an international reach. For example, through his Something Else Newsletter and other amusingly written promotional bulletins related to the press, Higgins alerted readers to the presence of Europeans Robert Filliou and Wolf Vostell in New York and plugged work by Argentine conceptualist Marta Minujín. Jean-Jacques Lebel played a recording of Higgins’s poem Le petit cirque au fin du monde on repeat over loudspeakers at University of Vincennes during May 1968. And for a brief time in the early 1970s, Higgins was a faculty member at CalArts.

So why has Higgins remained so little appreciated amidst the art world’s endless mining of forgotten practices of the 1960s? This book seems poised to change that, but I imagine it is because Higgins, like many Fluxus artists, was not immersed fully in any one specific discipline and thus has seemed a marginal figure to all. Even within Fluxus, he was not much of an object-maker; his network was broad but nowhere near mainstream; he committed himself to an independent, perhaps even self-marginalizing path; and his career was marked by two personal breakdowns during which he retreated from the urban centers of New York and Los Angeles to rural Vermont and then upstate New York. A polymath, nonspecialist dabbler, Higgins lived by the maxim, “We must always…act like dedicated amateurs.” We ought now also recognize his role as in fact prototypical of the multitasking twenty-first-century subject, similar in many ways to other highly networked figures enjoying renewed attention, such as Daniel Spoerri, Richard Hamilton, and Charlotte Moorman.

Dick Higgins’s Intermedia diagram.

The book’s first section presents Higgins’s writings on Fluxus, Happenings, and intermedia, thoughtfully including facsimile reproductions (although some are printed at a scale in which text gets lost in the gutter). Alongside the handy, long-lived term “intermedia,” Higgins forwarded other concepts that didn’t catch on but which are historically illuminating: exemplativism, arts of the new mentality, blank forms, concretism, and intending—all of which meant to defend the privileging of indeterminate processes over completed, foreclosed works. Secondly, the book focuses on the activities of the Something Else Press, which Higgins accurately described as “a big collage with many contributors.”

Over the course of roughly a decade, the press published titles recovering works by Gertrude Stein, Henry Cowell, and the Dada luminary Richard Huelsenbeck, alongside compilations of new approaches to poetry, performance, dance, architecture, and even organic gardening. The heart of this section is an annotated checklist that gathers published commentary on the press’s books from jacket copy and press releases, providing a complementary update to Peter Frank’s annotated bibliography of the press, first published in 1983. The third and fourth bodies of material include further historical and theoretical writings by Higgins particularly relevant to histories of poetry and artists’ books. By this point, the reader has a vivid sense of the quality of Higgins’s writing, which he once aptly described as “a well-outlined conversational ramble”: florid, long-winded, personal, full of self-invented jargon and inside jokes, at times catty. The volume ends with a highly personal biography written by Higgins’s daughter, the art historian Hannah Higgins, which for me is the book’s gem. Her text fleshes out existing gaps in the Higgins patriarch’s life story while also pointing to areas ripe for further examination, namely his musical compositions, plays, and (believe it or not) paintings.

Reading Higgins’s writings today, one is struck by allusions to his queer identity (he had at least two male lovers in his life) as a relevant dimension of his aesthetic orientation, as if his fluid sexuality correlated to intermedia art’s mining of the spaces between existing categories. By the 1980s, queerness seemed to have been an integral part of his aesthetic and life philosophy. “The chief cause of aesthetic inefficiency is our unwillingness to extend our identities, usually due to professional role-playing and other self-stereotyping,” he wrote. In like spirit, Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press extends the reach of Higgins’s efforts to bring avant-garde art and literature to a mass audience as well as his efforts to expand the limits of his own subjectivity. “The book is,” he once wrote, “the container of a provocation. We open it and are provoked to match our horizons with those implied by the text.”

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