As the 12-Month Fluxus Collection Intern in the Department of Drawings and Prints, I received a research grant to travel to Germany and survey a number of Fluxus-related exhibitions, some of which celebrated the movement’s 50th anniversary, as well as the 80th birthday of Fluxus artist Yoko Ono. However, the primary impetus for my decision to travel to Germany was the city of Wiesbaden’s decision to award its 2012 Culture Prize to Benjamin Patterson, the highly experimental master double-bassist and Fluxus cofounder. Patterson, who is still producing art today, was not only one of the original core members of Fluxus, but also the movement’s sole African American member. Personally, I considered it an amazing opportunity to speak with a Fluxus artist who shares my ethnicity and whose art in many ways escaped the categorization of “black art.” Unlike many African American modern artists, Patterson is considered a Fluxus artist first and a black artist second.“Everything is practically the same, except of course the piano is new.” These were Benjamin Patterson’s remarks regarding the auditorium in the Städtischen Museum Wiesbaden, the site of what is widely considered the first official Fluxus festival, Fluxus – Internationale Festpiele Neuester Musik (Fluxus – International Festival of the Newest Music.), held in September 1962. Standing at the door of the auditorium, which Patterson had arranged to be specially opened for my visit, I did not know what to expect. Even after consulting numerous photographs documenting the events that unfolded in this very auditorium, the reality of the space was still shocking, perhaps because the space was indeed “practically the same” as what I had seen in those photos. History and my present reality felt momentarily conflated.
It was over 50 years ago on this humble stage that an experimental band of artists, poets, and composers turned play into practice, forever transforming the future of artistic production in the process. The piano, as Ben aptly noted, was of course new; the original instrument from was artfully destroyed piece by piece, with a variety of tools, by all participating Fluxus members, in what was arguably one of the most radical piano ensembles ever performed (Philip Corner’s Piano Activities, 1962).With the stage so close to the adjacent tiers of seating, I could imagine the intimacy and excitement of the collective experience, especially once the imaginary wall separating performers and audience was ruptured during Patterson’s Paper Piece (1961). Various performers flung pieces of paper into the air to be “crumpled, rumpled,” and so on by anyone who wished to participate in the artist’s take on the “newest music.”
Paper Piece was one of the first official Fluxus performances to directly implicate the audience. It turned passive spectators into co-producers of the work. During my conversation with Patterson, sitting under the sun at a café just across the street from the Museum Wiesbaden, the artist explained that he never anticipated this participatory element—that it was a surprising, yet much-welcomed, coincidence that was integrated subsequent performances and became a prominent aspect of the Fluxus agenda.
Wiesbaden was the site where a gang of art world misfits took on the public identity of Fluxus. It is highly disputed as to whether or not Fluxus is strictly a historical moment of the 1960s and 1970s, or whether it lives on in the recent work of surviving core members like Patterson—and in the work of other contemporary artists who share a similar aesthetic sensibility. Irrespective of terminology and categorical labeling, the spirit of Fluxus is still alive in Ben Patterson, radiating outward through the city of Wiesbaden. It was an unforgettable experience to converse one-on-one with him in one of the first sites where he staked his double-bass into the soil of the avant-garde.