Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman (Catskill, NY: Siglio, 2018. 363 pages)
This anthology or compendium from Siglio Press brings together a range of the critical and contextual writings of Dick Higgins, along with a checklist of works he published, a biographical essay by his daughter, and a variety of other material mostly focussed on the period from the beginning of the 1960s to the mid-1970s. Higgins (1938-1998) was active in a world of Happenings, Intermedia, and Fluxus as a practitioner across art forms and modes, and as a supporter through publication and promotion of a wide variety of avant-garde artforms. This book gives a picture of a connected and exciting artworld linking the US to Europe, Japan, South America and Canada, and brings into shared discussion music, books, performance and art.
The book’s index gives some sense of the breadth of Higgins’ interests and activities, ranging from:
Abrams, M. H., The Mirror and the Lamp
Abstract Expressionism, contrasted with Fluxus
Young, La Monte, A Vision
Zaccar Offset (pp. 346, 362)
Here are interests and a practice that draw together Medieval Poetry, twentieth-century literary theory, art movements, contemporary music, and typographic design. This gives a sense of the various areas in which Higgins worked as part of a post-World War II New York art scene. He sought to put the art-making of his contemporaries into context critically and theoretically, he made work with a mix of practitioners, he researched the histories and traditions of visual, sonic and performance poetry, and designed and made publications to distribute this new work to as wide a range of readers as possible.
The book is presented in four sections, partly chronological and partly thematic. Section 1 focusses on Higgins involvement with Fluxus, his participation as a performer, his contribution to the documentation of the group’s activities, and his work at defining or describing what Fluxus was (or is!). This section includes Higgins’ texts that come close to definitions or descriptions of these practices. In a short essay from 1966, Higgins coined the term ‘intermedia’. Though as Ken Friedman comments,
[H]e often noted that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had first used the term. Higgins
was too modest. Coleridge used the term “intermedium” in the singular, using
it once […] Higgins’s “intermedia” referred to a tendency in the arts that
became both a range of art forms and a way of approaching the arts. (14)
Higgins deploys the term to discuss writing and performance and music and visual work that operate across the discipline or media boundaries that were so important to American Modernism. Higgins’ definition is both specific and very sweeping, noting current developments among his peers and taking in the long history of art, music and theatre. As a broader concept Higgins sees ‘intermedia’ as resisting categorisation and as responding to a shift to a classless society. An atmosphere of social and political optimism supports the works across Happenings, Fluxconcerts and the essays Higgins produced to contextualise the work he and his friends were involved in. This was a time of hope for change, of a belief that art could contribute to a general improvement in everyday life, of art as resistant to the limiting ideas of the market and conformist capitalism.
Section 2 documents the work of Something Else Press (founded by Higgins in 1964), including a checklist of works published and proposed. As part of the catalogue for Something Else Press from 1965-66, Higgins includes a short essay titled ‘What to Look for in a Book – Physically’ where he discusses the practical decisions involved in the production of good quality books of new work that can have wide distribution. He concludes:
We are not interested in built in obsolescence. We want our books to be
as fresh ten years from now as they are today. (128)
The design and concept of these books still feels fresh; and the selection of works still feels relevant. The press published older material, including out of print works by Gertrude Stein, the Dada Almanach by Richard Hulsenbach (1920), and Luigi Russolo’s ‘The Art of Noise’ (1913). They also introduced new European works to a US readership, including publications by Wolf Vostell, Dieter Rot, and Robert Filliou. Higgins wasn’t concerned only to publish within a specific movement or set (unlike George Maciunas who published only Fluxus publications and multiples), but was concerned to produce books that he believed would sell. The press had a number of commercially successful products, including an important Anthology of Concrete Poetry edited by Emmett Williams (1967), that sold thousands of copies.
The third section of the book gathers together other writings by Higgins that consider his poetic and writing practice, and that seek to place that practice in a wider or longer historical and cultural context. In his ‘Exemplatavist Manifesto’ he outlines a set of artistic approaches that avoid the limits of what he terms ‘cognitive’ artworks.
The question for an audience to ask, when confronted by an exemplative or
other non-cognitive work, is not the usual “Who did this and why,” but the
newer “What is this, and how does it work?” (250)
Higgins describes works where rules and actions are key, or he considers various ways in which scores and notation are used in performance and text works. In all these cases the focus is on what the works do, not who made them or why. What is important is what the work can make happen, not who it belongs to or what it is worth financially. Such considerations remain a strong thread through contemporary art-making, and in sound and textual art into the present. The work of Higgins and his peers while less celebrated in standard histories of art, or in sale rooms, offers important models for discussing the production and consumption of art.
The fourth section brings together essays and commentaries that represent Higgins’ work on the history and tradition of visual and sonic poetries, and engage in a taxonomic exercise to identify types and modes within these broad practices. The materials gathered here are earlier versions and portions of later books. Higgins published a significant study on the international history of pattern poetry, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (1987) which aimed to bring attention to a forgotten or overlooked category. He has worked in various ways to describe how visual and sonic poetries work, what they do, and how. His wider poetics and theory of art are explored in Horizons: The Poetics and Theories of the Intermedia (1979). These books are how I first came across Higgins’ work, as a gatherer of the varieties of poetry that fell outside what I was used to, as a seeker out of the outliers and sports, the variants and vagaries of poetic making. And this remains one of Higgins’ important contributions to the world of writing and working with words. His taxonomies and strategies for visual, verbal, sonic writing remain relevant today, offering a way of critically considering poetic practice that is concerned less with ‘the poet’ and more with what can happen for the audience, with what is going on in the event rather than what may be represented in the picture.
While the current book from Siglio Press is retrospective in its historical archival thrust, bringing together a range of scattered texts and information and preserving them in a beautifully designed and bound volume, it is also oriented to the future. As Steve Clay notes in his Introduction:
Dick Higgins was an intermedia artist of and for his time, on the proverbial cutting edge of new paradigms within and between poetry, painting, performance, and more. In a 1919 interview he described the publication list of the Something Else Press as “love letters to the future.” We offer the current selection to another future, particularly to young artists, poets, and publishers, that through the work of Dick Higgins they might find new possibilities of their own. (10)
New readers may find models for writing and making within these covers, and may also feel Higgins’ queerness, and his consideration of gender fluid pronouns as newly relevant in current practice. Looking for a way to write that could avoid gender binaries Higgins used the pronouns sher / shem/ shemself. He lived a queer life, having a long marriage to Alison Knowles, as well as a series of gay relationships. He also worked professionally with Knowles, publishing A Big Book and other works, and she contributed to the design and illustration of a number of Something Else Press works. Higgins’ collaborative methods, his interest in getting new work to wide audiences and his resistance to limitations on the possibilities for living, being and making art make this an inspiring and encouraging book.