In Memoriam: Ben Patterson

By Paul Couillard

The Creation of the World 7a*11d 2000 PHOTO Andrew Pommier

Ben Patterson | May 29, 1934 – June 25, 2016

Ben Patterson‘s appearance in the third 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in 2002 was a momentous occasion, one that prompted the collective to devote an entire evening to highlighting the artist and his work.[1] Patterson, an American living in Germany, was one of the original Fluxus artists, but he had taken an extended hiatus from regular art-making throughout most of the 1970s and ’80s in favour of steady work to support his family.[2] His jobs during this period—as a research librarian and an arts administrator—reflect both his background as a classical musician (including stints as a double bass soloist with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra and the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s) and his erudite, articulate approach to reinvigorating historical works and everyday objects by situating them in relation to fresh, contemporary gestures. When he returned to the art world in the late 1980s, his work had lost none of its currency, and he exhibited and toured extensively, presenting new performances, assemblages and conceptual projects alongside re-stagings of his earlier instructional works.

Patterson’s presentation at 7a*11d, An Evening with Ben Patterson, featured three performances as well as an artist talk hosted by Josh Thorpe, framed by Patterson as A Chat in the Artist’s Dressing Room. Carefully addressing and acknowledging the assembled audience, Patterson asked us to play along with the fiction of a fourth wall disguising our presence from the artist and his interviewer, so that the two could engage in a private tête-à-tête as Patterson made a costume change between performances. Thus we were invited into a liminal space of intimacy with the artist, charged with the tension of the audience’s sometimes boisterous reactions and Patterson’s own playful, conscious breaking of the illusion at various junctures of the conversation, including the initiation of a question-and-answer period at the end of the discussion.

Each of the performances in An Evening with Ben Patterson used works from the classical music canon as a starting point.[3] Patterson framed this method in relation to what fellow Fluxus artist Dick Higgins famously named “intermedia.” As Patterson explained, intermedia refers to

an art that happens not as a combination of two medias but as something that happens between the two medias […] in the sense of a koan that ‘here is this thing’ and ‘here is this thing’ and in between there is something else. That’s why [the publishing company that Higgins founded] was called the Something Else Press.[4]

Like the illusory fourth wall between performer and audience, it is this in-between that is the real engine of possibility and transformation. Developing a set of gestures around the structure of the original compositions, Patterson did not view his performances as being deconstructions so much as time-based assemblages that orchestrated new arrangements of materials, a technique he also used in his visual and sculptural collage works. In his words,

I use […] the music of Haydn, or Darius Milhaud […] as more or less found materials, as a kind of base material. Somebody who is making a collage or a décollage finds a poster […] and takes that as a base and adds things to it, builds around it. That material […] is obviously loaded with a lot of cultural references in many different directions. I feel comfortable in using that [.… B]etween the music that we all know and the stage action that is the created work […] something [happens] which is different, and hopefully that’s where the new work takes place.[5]

Patterson saw the potential for these beloved compositions to act as more than just a soundtrack or immutable, frozen scoring of notes. He was interested in exploring their generative potential when taken out of their traditional setting and placed in relation to current conditions: re-scored, in a way, onto human bodies and interactive situations. The results were generally infused with a dry wit and a warm appreciation for both the classical compositions and the bodies enacting their dynamics in unexpected and sometimes absurd scenarios. His work, like his personality, emanated a charming combination of seriousness and affability.

In a touching obituary for Patterson, Hannah B. Higgins (daughter of Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles), notes that despite their humour, Patterson’s works were not without their social and political undertones. She references in particular his 1964 instructional work, “Lick Piece.”

cover shapely female with whipped cream

topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional.


Taking her cue from an analysis by Fred Moten, Higgins writes,

the display of a black man licking whipped cream off a white woman (only later would the piece be performed with women of color) produces the oblique view that acknowledges the open secret of our subjugated bodies, the one female in the performance and the one black man exposing the deeper mechanics of the normative relationship between the clothed and the nude, the black and the white, the male and the female. This ecstasy and agony was bracketed (one could even say made possible by) by the ameliorative effect of the co-performers more simply enjoying the experience.[6]

As an African American who was unable to find work in the United States as a classical musician in the late 1950s and early 1960s because of the colour of his skin, there can be little doubt that Patterson was keenly aware of the social implications of this particular instructional work when performed by his racialized body. Here, again, is a work that happens in the in-between, in the space formed when a racialized body performs a racially neutral instruction.

Patterson was equally aware that above all, this in-between space occurs in the perceptions of the audience. Describing La Monte Young’s 566 to Henry Flynt (1960), which consists of a staccato repetition of a cluster of piano notes made by pressing one’s arms and hands onto the keyboard 566 times, Patterson explains,

[B]ecause it’s not being done by a machine but by a human, you cannot repeat exactly the pressure and everything on every note as it was before. So … some tones are a little louder some are softer and so forth, and […] even if they were all more or less equally pounded, your ear itself begins doing a search through this maze of sound and patterns for things that it can recognize or things that it wants to hear. [… Y]our ear really begins to find its own pathway to navigate through this thing. So if one has the patience—which is the antidote for boredom—to listen carefully, then one begins to listen at a microtonal and nanosecond ratio rather than what had previously existed in Western music as a diatonic scale and seconds or half-seconds…[7]

As a musician, Patterson was interested in deep listening as the place where stories are ultimately generated. And indeed, the performances he presented as part of A Night with Ben Patterson are perhaps best understood as exercises in storytelling. What transforms a series of events into a narrative is not their simple progression, but the way certain elements are highlighted as meaningful, forming a thread that allows us to navigate the chaos and randomness of noise. In his Bolero, for example, Patterson positioned himself as the conductor of an orchestra of tea candles. Following his cues, timed with Ravel’s repeating melody, a figure suited in safety gear and helmet (enacted in the Toronto version by artist Louise Liliefeldt) progressively lit different sections of the tea candle orchestra using a propane torch until the sudden climax, when all of the flames were rapidly snuffed with the use of a CO2 fire extinguisher. The effect was a perfect visual mirror to the audio of the composition, which douses the rising tension and anticipation of the music’s slow, insistent build in a sudden and short-lived crescendo. Now it’s there, now it isn’t, and the audience is left to confront the unresolved internal resonances that continue even as the physical traces have vanished. Note that the essential ingredient in this tabletop visual spectacle is carbon dioxide, an odourless and colourless gas that cuts off the flames’ oxygen supply. In emphasizing the importance of using a CO2 extinguisher, Patterson told me of his first experiment, where he used a chemical extinguisher that left him covered in a toxic white powder. “That,” he remarked drily, “was a non-starter.”

If the latter image seems closer to a stereotype of performance art that associates many of its works with abject nihilism, it is worth mentioning that according to Patterson, it was a gesture of amiability that steered him toward Fluxus when his explorations with experimental music might have taken him down a different path. Patterson had travelled to Germany with a letter of introduction (from Stockhausen’s brother-in-law, who happened to be stationed at the German Embassy in Ottawa, where Patterson had been living and working) to meet Karlheinz Stockhausen. When Stockhausen noticed that the letter was dated more than a month previously, his initially warm reaction turned cold. Fortunately, all was not lost, as the next day Patterson went to a concert at the studio of Mary Bauermeister[8] featuring John Cage and David Tudor. The concert was a revelation for Patterson:

I thought to myself, this is what I had had in the back of my mind as to how music could be made, but never thought that anyone would take it seriously, or that I could even produce it. And […] here it was, so I went afterwards and introduced myself to John and […] he said, “Oh would you like to perform with us tomorrow night?” It was such a radical difference between the reception of Stockhausen and Cage, so the overnight conversion was not difficult.[9]

Patterson shared and spread this spirit of egalitarianism throughout his career, bringing the same graceful congeniality to our small-scale, artist-driven, relatively underground event as he did to his exhibitions in major institutions. True to the notion that art is a practice that should be open to all, he was happy to be in the company of any engaged, responsive audience, regardless of its size or pedigree.


[1] Patterson’s visit to Toronto was part of a tour organized by Le Lieu in Quebec City in conjunction with Regroupement internationale d’art performance de Québec (RIAP), Canada’s longest running performance art festival.

[2] Andrew Russeth, “Ben Patterson, Cornerstone of Fluxus and Experimental Art, Dies at 82,” ArtNews, June 27, 2016.

[3] Carmen, using music from Georges Bizet’s opera of the same name; The Creation of the World, using the opening to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation as well as Darius Milhaud’s 20-minute music for ballet La Creation du monde ; and Bolero, featuring the famous work by Maurice Ravel.

[4] From A Chat in the Artist’s Dressing Room, public conversation between Josh Thorpe and Ben Patterson, recorded November 1, 2000 at Art System, Toronto.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hannah B. Higgins, “On Not Forgetting Fluxus Artist Benjamin Patterson,” Hyperallergic, July 6, 2016.

[7] A Chat in the Artist’s Dressing Room.

[8] Years later, Bauermeister would, by coincidence, marry Stockhausen.

[9] From an artist talk by Ben Patterson on the occasion of his retrospective exhibition Born in the State of FLUX/us at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston.

The Creation of the World 7a*11d 2000 PHOTO Andrew Pommier

Ben Patterson was an American born musician and assemblage artist based in Wiesbaden, Germany. Widely recognized as one of the early contributors to the Fluxus movement, Patterson performed extensively in venues around the world. His works are represented in many major museums, including the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His connection to Canada extended back to the 1950s, when, unable to find work as a black classical musician in the United States, he appeared as a double bass soloist with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra and the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra. His witty and playful works were aimed at re-sensitizing his audience’s senses and sensibilities.

Patterson was featured in the 3rd 7a*11d international Festival of Performance Art in 2000 as a special presentation under the banner of Strangeways: Currents of the Fantastic in Contemporary Performance, curated by the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation (W. A. Davison and S. Higgins). His participation was made possible by Le Lieu’s Regroupement internationale d’art performance de Québec.

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