Dick Higgins: Directing Fluxus’ “oppositional energy and playful anarchy toward the unlikely medium of print”

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March 22nd, 2019

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

HYPERALLERGIC

Dick Higgins: Avant Garde Provocateur and Philosopher

JAMES GIBBONS

Originally published December 22, 2018

The boundary-smashing artist and performer Dick Higgins (1938–1998) was a “consummate explainer,” observes Steve Clay, co-editor with Ken Friedman of a new and comprehensive gathering of Higgins’s writings, Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press (2018, Siglio Press). As Higgins was a participant observer of a cluster of outrageous innovations in art, music, poetry, performance, and independent publishing, there was a lot of explaining to do. The editors’ selection begins in the mid-1960s, a time when Higgins, not yet 30, was already a veteran of the era’s performance-oriented avant-garde. A standout figure in the milieu of Allen Kaprow’s Happenings and a seminal figure in Fluxus, Higgins directed these movements’ oppositional energy and playful anarchy toward the unlikely medium of print. Funded indispensably by an inheritance from his family’s steel business, his Something Else Press carried out a freewheeling and ambitious publishing program that included not only Higgins’s own works and those of his Fluxus peers but also modernist publications that had fallen into near-oblivion, among them Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach (1920) and many books by Gertrude Stein. For Higgins, these reclamation projects were derived from a belief that the past could—and should—be as forward-looking as the present.

During its 10-year run (in its final year, 1974, Higgins was not involved) Something Else’s well-crafted books were complimented by its inexpensive Great Bear pamphlets, a series whose egalitarian aims and unconventional distribution anticipate the later upsurge of zine culture: for a time the Great Bears were available for purchase at the Berkeley co-op supermarket. Looking back after the press had shut down, Higgins called the entirety of Something Else’s publications a “big collage with many contributors,” a characterization that isn’t just a metaphor but also suggests the guiding spirit of the enterprise, which embraced contradictions and unexpected juxtapositions even as it consistently expressed a core orientation. It was, he wrote, “so much like an art movement of its own.” The Something Else bibliography included in the anthology, often accompanied by Higgins’s idiosyncratic catalog copy, allows the reader to experience the totality of its books (and a few unrealized projects) as a kind of large-scale, organic composition in the medium of publication.

Higgins himself always sought to clarify his aims, and how he might best articulate his aesthetic philosophy—or philosophy in general, since he rejected as artificial even a notional separation of aesthetics from life, of thinking from doing. In 1984 he remarked on his longstanding “near-obsession” of bringing together theory and practice in all his varied endeavors. Already in the Something Else newsletters of the mid-1960s (reprinted in Clay and Friedman’s collection in facsimile), a heady if not always prescient sense of world-historical import—“We are approaching the dawn of a classless society, to which separation into rigid categories is absolutely irrelevant”—had underwritten the message that the old hierarchical distinctions governing the arts were crumbling right beneath our noses. His brief Something Else manifesto encouraged a protean vitality that called more for resourcefulness than reverence toward masterpieces or generic orthodoxies: “Tomorrow one will write Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, cook some kohlrabi, develop a non-toxic epoxy, and invent still another kind of theater; or perhaps one will just sit and scream; or perhaps….”

Continue reading at Hyperallergic.

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