Lost and Found: An Evening with Bern Porter

On Thursday, April 22, the MoMA Library and Esopus Foundation Ltd. co-hosted an evening celebrating the life and work of physicist-artist Bern Porter (1911–2004). I organized the event to breathe life into the books and other ephemera on display in the exhibition Lost and Found: The Work of Bern Porter from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art Library and to call more attention to this fascinating and under-recognized artist.

Kenneth Goldsmith, the poet and founding editor of ubuweb, began the evening with an animated reading of Porter’s 1955 poem Clothes, which was also published in Porter’s book I’ve Left: A Manifesto and a Testament of Science and Art (1962). This seminal book outlines Porter’s ideas for a union of science and art, which he dubbed “Sciart.” In it he proposes wild and revolutionary improvements to, as well as new uses for, books, poetry, clothing, theater, architecture, art, food, toys, and automobiles. Among his wacky ideas is a spray-on suit, sold in vending machines, that can be disposed of in the toilet! Listen to the audio clip above to hear Goldsmith’s wonderful performance of this poem, which concludes with Porter’s revelation that our own human skin is a clothing that can never be improved upon.

After Goldsmith had warmed up the crowd, author and director Dan Domench read a selection from his upcoming book Bern Porter: The Authorized Fictional Biography of the Artist, Scientist, Poet, Publisher, Performer, Adventurer, and Iconoclast. A group of six readers, including Domench, played the parts of people Porter knew during his life, including Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Betty Friedan. A recording of this performance is included in the audio above. Domench introduced the reading with a humorous story about Porter stealing children’s toys from his neighbor’s lawn. Apparently he would take their toys and display them as artworks in the galleries of their Maine town. To ward Porter off, the neighbors put up a white picket fence and hoarded the toys in a pile next to their doorstep. A few days after Porter’s death in 2004, Domench noticed the pile gleaming in the porch light and thought to himself that it looked like the perfect Porter sculpture.

The video Joy Glows Where Confusion Was: A film about, with, and without Bern Porter (2010), by Mark Melnicove, followed. Melnicove published many of Porter’s artist’s books and was his performance poetry partner. Today, he is the executor of Bern Porter’s estate. Melnicove and Porter called themselves “The Eternal Poetry Festival,” and the film, a colorful and cacophonous mash-up of old and new footage, brings their partnership to life. In addition to documentation of the two performing together, Melnicove spliced in an old interview with Porter on a news program, found footage from WWII, and recent footage of his life in Maine. It was touching to see the old footage of The Eternal Poetry Festival—Melnicove and Porter at the mic, arms around one another, swaying and reciting poetry and making sounds:

The evening ended with a bang. Goldsmith took to the stage again with a passionate reading of Porter’s alliterative 1975 poem The Last Acts of Saint Fuck You. He began with the first line, “The abnegating of treatises,” and ended in a red-faced bellow at the end of the poem with a barely discernible “The zounding of oaths.” The poem is both angry and humorous, and Goldsmith’s delivery gave way to loud applause. It was a great night!

Have I piqued your interest in Bern Porter? Luckily there are lots of resources for further exploration! Locals can visit the exhibition at MoMA or the MoMA Library to see a large collection of his materials, and everyone can access web resources like ubuweb, where you can read essays, look at digitized artist’s books, and listen to performances and interviews with Porter; the Spring 2009 issue of Esopus Magazine, which contains the article Bern Porter: A Found Essay by Mark Melnicove and a reproduction of Porter’s artists book Where to Go/What to Do/When in New York/The Week of June 17, 1972; and Arcade, the online catalog of the New York Art Resources Consortium.