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Childish antics? Osama Bin Laden masks? Berlin's Insider Jan Kage chats with Benjamin Patterson, co-founder of the Fluxus movement. By the end of the night, one of them was covered in a mountain of crumpled newspaper.
I first met Benjamin Patterson in October 2011 when he was setting up for his "Bury Ben" performance in Schau Fenster, the art space I've run since 2010. Ben was arranging his keyboard at the far end of the long, narow space. When he finished, he joined me at the bar, which I was preparing for the night. We were an hour early. The other artists and the curator Petra Stegmann were still busy with the Fluxus conference at the Akademie der Künste.
I believe I poured Ben a vodka and had a prosecco myself. "Is it okay to smoke?" Ben asked politely. "Sure is! You are in Berlin, Ben," I replied. He pulled a little metal ashtray out of his pocket. What a fine gentleman, I thought to myself. I had long been completely socialized by this punkrock city, where everybody just drops the ashes straight onto the floor. Of course Ben was nothing close to punkrock. Before becoming a performing artist, he had been a double bass player in philharmonic orchestras.
I lit his cigarette, and what followed was a beautiful hour of conversation and stories.
Ben told me in his soft voice how he had hitchhiked through all of the US after finishing high school in what must have been the early 1950s.
"Not even Jack Kerouac was on the road then," I replied, impressed.
"And in San Francisco I spent all my money because Thelonious Monk played in a club, and I had to go see him five nights in a row," he said.
"Well, I don't want to sound romantic," I said. "But that is about the only reason for me to step into a time machine. Monk is God!"
In a 1995 photo, Ben Patterson stands with his art, created from bread, called 'The People Have No Bread'
In this hour Ben told me stories about the period between WWII and Korea. He recalled a time that shaped a generation of women and men who would go on to produce social movements centered on civil rights and later on the anti-war movement. It was also an era that spawned art forms and scenes like the beatnicks and Fluxus, which became the boheme and avant-garde predecessors of the mass hippy culture.
Soon everyone arrived, and the performances of the evening began. Willem de Ridder passed around little paper notes with instructions written on them such as: "Walk around the room, touch every pillar and pass this note on to the most likeable person in the room." Tamas St.Turba conducted a performance titled "Idle Walk," which consisted of him wearing an Osama Bin Laden mask outside the gallery, banging with his hands on the 25-meter long display window (which, by the way, enlarged a crack that extended to the window, so it later had to be replaced).
I have been showing art in Berlin for more then a decade now, presenting artists who are typically let's say, between 25 and 50 years old. And even though some consider themselves rebels, anti-bourgeois or offbeat, most of them are really well-behaved and friendly.
With hammers and other noise devices, Ben Patterson took part in the 1962 'International Fluxus Festival of the Newest Music' in Wiesbaden
Not that the Fluxus artists were not friendly that night in 2011. To the contrary. Yet the manner in which they conducted themselves had something child-like to it. It was not childishness in a naive or even in a regressive way. Rather, the type of childishness a grown person acts out purposefully to take a stand. A stand that today might seem a little strange and outdated. But, in understanding the time from which it came, it all made sense. Their approach stemmed from a time in which a man was meant to be a "man's man," if you know what I mean: fight wars, earn a living, fill a fridge, be reasonable. And do not mess with useless art! There was this joyous glimmer of childishness in their eyes as they performed.
I grew up in a time when the Fluxus movement from the 1960s was already established and honorable. It was taken seriously and discussed academically. It occurred to me that evening, while chatting with Benjamin Patterson, that Fluxus must have been an artistic form of protest against an authoritarian society. The childlike twinkle in the performers' eyes was an expression of devilish, childish joy: I won't obey! And yes, today it would seem, rather naive. But back then it was probably the most reasonable thing to do.
So by the end of the night we all ripped paper from large newspaper rolls and threw the crumples onto Ben while he played tones on his keyboard until the end of his performance, when he and his set were completely buried underneath a big, white paper mountain.
Benjamin Patterson will return to Schau Fenster on March 14 for another exhibition and performance. This year Ben turns 80 years old. Which is awkward because he seems very young to me. May he live long and well! Happy birthday, Ben!