Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins
In a remembrance in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Richard Kostelanetz described his fellow artist Dick Higgins as a prolific, unlimited source of creative production: “One principle clear to him from the beginning was that there should be no limits upon a creative person’s activities […] Richard C. Higgins was really at least three people in one big body.” Judging by Higgins’s wide-ranging activities as an artist, writer, scholar, teacher, and publisher, this might have been a low estimation. In a lifetime of only sixty years, he created sound works, performance pieces, drawings, poetry, films, happenings, paintings, and book art; wrote articles on the theory and history of multi-media art and poetry, and acted as the publisher of Something Else Press. These enterprises are at the center of the invaluable compendium Intermedia, Fluxus, and Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, published by Siglio Press.
Edited by Steve Clay and the Fluxus artist Ken Friedman, this volume contains a wealth of primary source texts which attest to Higgins’s ability to put words to the swirling cacophony of postwar art. He presciently began using the term “intermedia” in the mid-sixties to describe work which fell between established media and, optimistically, he connected the falling barriers between the arts to the approaching “dawn of a classless society.” The happening, he wrote in 1965, was a prime example of intermedia, since it is “an uncharted land that lies between collage, music, and the theater. It is not governed by rules; each work determines its own medium and form according to its own needs.”
Higgins participated in an extraordinary number of seminal art world events: he was a student in John Cage’s famous 1958 composition class at the New School, created wry and inventive performances and poetry under the aegis of Fluxus, and served as a professor in the early days of Cal Arts. In addition to his prophetic advancement of the term “intermedia,” Higgins’s writings display his farsighted attitude towards gender and sexuality: he used the gender-neutral pronoun “shem” to describe third parties and acknowledged his romantic relationships with men, in addition to his divorce and remarriage to the artist Alison Knowles, in the more personal reflections included in the volume. These autobiographical accounts are accompanied by an essay by his daughter, the Fluxus scholar Hannah Higgins, which provides an intimate view of Higgins as both a father and an ambitious artistic seeker.
Though he amusingly refers to uptight critics and establishment-backed artists as “pudgies” in several essays, Higgins was cognizant about the eventual incorporation of the new modes of art-making into art history and thus attempted to frame these developments himself, from the artist’s perspective, in lucid prose. Much of his critical writing, in essays such as “Fluxus: Theory and Reception” and “Intending,” addresses not only the parameters and historical roots of such work, but also proposes modes for evaluating new genres like happenings and chance compositions. He emphasizes that artists must advocate for their work by conveying their intentions to the public: “The specificity of the artist’s intentions has to be passed on if the work is to suggest anything to think about, which is a normal requisite for comprehensibility and impact, whether visual or sensuous or emotional.” Higgins followed this advice himself, explaining the conception and desired sensory impact of his poems, artist books, and performance scores in journal articles, newsletters, and single page poster-essays like “Some Poetry Intermedia” and “Five Traditions of Art History, an Essay,” both published in 1976.
The heart of the book details Higgins’s pursuits as a publisher, which began in 1962 when the Fluxus publisher George Maciunas encouraged him to publish his entire artistic output for one year beginning on April 13, one of Higgins’s favorite dates. When the resulting manuscript, Jefferson’s Birthday, was completed in 1963, Maciunas was unprepared to publish it in a timely manner. In response, a disappointed yet resolute Higgins decided to release the book himself. As he recounts in his short history of the press, Higgins told Knowles about his plan to establish an enterprise called “Shirtsleeves Press” in order to release the book. “That’s no good,” she replied. “Why don’t you call it something else?” Thus, Something Else Press was born.
Over a period of ten years, the Press published books by an eclectic array of artists, composers, and writers including Knowles, Ray Johnson, Emmett Williams, Claes Oldenburg, Merce Cunningham, Dieter Roth, Jackson Mac Low, Geoff Hendricks, and John Giorno. Among its most popular titles are an anthology of concrete poetry edited by Williams, Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach, and reissues of several books by Gertrude Stein, then largely unavailable in North America. Beginning in 1967, the press also released The Great Bear Pamphlets, a series of twenty short works by of-the-moment artists such as Cage and Allan Kaprow. These pamphlets, which Friedman notes in his introductory essay are perfectly sized to be photocopied, were intended for wide circulation and sold for two dollars each; it is with pride that Higgins notes that they were available in the Berkeley Co-op “on a display case beside the vegetable counter.” Higgins recounts the life of the press in several essays in the volume, its history flecked by his interpersonal conflicts and romantic turmoil, ending in the Press’s financial disarray in 1974. Despite its eleven-year lifespan, the checklist of the Press’s production testifies to Higgins’s omnivorous taste as a publisher.
The final section includes four essays by Higgins that trace the history and global reach of poetic forms largely attributed to the modern period, an academic focus clearly born of Higgins’s interest in intermedia. In “A Short History of Pattern Poetry” (1987), he writes, “The story of pattern poetry is, in fact, not the story of a single development of one simple form, but the story of an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole,” an endeavor he continued even after Something Else Press folded.
In addition to its scholarly value, Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins is a sourcebook for a new generation of artists interested in the experimental publications of the recent past, an outcome in line with Higgins’s pedagogical ethos. In 1978, he wrote about overhearing a group of “serious-looking young people” discussing Something Else Press: “I walked slowly, so as to hear more. One was saying to the others, ‘There’s nothing like that Press around these days.’ I felt like going over to him and saying, ‘Isn’t that a challenge? Do it—and do it better.’”
Jennie Waldow is a PhD candidate in Art History at Stanford University, where she studies postwar American art with a focus on 1960s and 1970s Conceptualism. Her areas of interest include Fluxus, artist's books and ephemera, political activism, and commercial engagement.