Dick Higgins. Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, ed. Steve Clay and Ken Friedman. New York: Siglio Press, 2018. 363 pp.
Review by Ina Blom
11 March 2020
"Then the term was picked up, used and abused. Every so often some pudgy would come along and say, 'You didn’t invent the term,' and I was delighted to be able to say that I had found it in Coleridge.” This is Dick Higgins, artist, composer, performer, publisher, and scholar––narrating, as he often did, his own immediate past. The term he refers to is intermedia, which he (re)launched in a 1965 essay designed to pinpoint the most aesthetically innovative features of the international Fluxus network, with which he had been affiliated since its inception in 1962. The essay was immensely influential: during the late '60’s, intermedia festivals were organized in New York and Heidelberg and inspired group formations such as Otto Beckmann's Art Intermedia in Vienna, or the American Intermedia Systems Corporation (USCO). In most cases, the term was used interchangeably with multimedia: it seemed to address a general desire to go beyond media boundaries, whatever that might actually mean.
To read this fine edition of texts from Higgins’s expansive body of writing is, however, to be reminded of the very specific set of ideas informing his use of the term. The Intermedia essay was one among a series of newsletters in which Higgins tried to communicate the ethos of his newly founded Something Else Press––an avant-garde publishing venture that, covered everything from Emmett Williams’ groundbreaking Anthology of Concrete Poetry and John Cage’s Notations to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock, including wayward artist books such as Daniel Spoerri’s Anecdoted Topography of Chance. The Intermedia essay is matched in significance by his missives on Games of Art, Intending, and Boredom and Danger (the last one curiously missing from this selection). For what comes across in these texts is a consistent promotion of the radically generative potential of blankness and indiscernibility––an antidote to various regulatory technicalities in advanced music and art. That Higgins should reject the hyperstructured procedures of international style serial music is perhaps not surprising: in Intending he describes it as “a neo-feudal tendency characteristic, socially, of the McCarthy era in which it flourished.” Less obvious is his resistance to the form of indeterminacy promoted by Cage, since Higgins had studied with Cage at the New School of Social Research in 1958–59 and remained close to him and his musical ideas for decades. Yet Higgins––a self-described “skeptic from New England”––felt that Cage’s way of relating chance operations to specific sonic materials still led to a relatively technical focus on detail, eliminating the important dimension of risk. His concept of “intending”––not to be confused with authorial intentionality––suggested something different: the merest indication of an intention or a direction, without specifications as to materials or media; a blank form that would give the performer the possibility of working with whatever would seem relevant to the situation in which one might find oneself.
In a particularly interesting move, Higgins associated risk, or danger, with boredom: displacing, as if once and for all, the concept of boredom from the modern tropes of spleen and meaninglessness, the emphasis on feeling bored. As outlined in personal notes for his chance-based 1960 play Saint Joan at Beaurevoir, boredom in the ordinary sense of the term was just a step on the way to something more interesting, notably “super boredom." At this stage, the onlooker would ideally disappear into the piece; “stop seeing himself and start seeing events as events . . . quantities will become relative and not mimetical.” For Higgins, “danger” was essentially self-loss at a nonpsychological, nonexistential level. It is, however, hard to review this brand of danger without also recalling Higgins fascination for Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. If Artaud dreaded metaphor––the dead matter of art––Higgins had inherited that dread, but also wanted to avoid the misconceptions that Artaud’s violence tended to provoke. Intermedia––a name for displacement or differentiation, a “constant dialectic on as many levels as possible”––seemed to do the trick. It also had a personal dimension. “Hell, it even affects my sexuality,” Higgins––the openly bisexual inventor of the gender neutral pronouns “shem” and “sher”––wrote in a 1977 letter. In fact, to discover the close relationship between Higgins characteristically frank and unpretentious autobiographical writings and his thoughts on art, aesthetics, history, and publishing is to get an exacting portrait of uncontainable avant-garde desires circa 1960. Uncontainability also gets a final homage in “Eleven Snapshots of Dick Higgins,” art historian Hannah Higgins’s touching and funny postscript on her father and his lifeworld.