In Memoriam: Ben Patterson (1934–2016)
by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Ben Patterson performing Solo for Double Bass, Wuppertal, Germany, 1962. Photo: Rolf Jährling. Source:

This script is not a eulogy. Actually you can’t write a eulogy about someone you loved dearly, but didn’t really know. This script is for, on, of, about, and with Ben Patterson and the vacuum he leaves behind in that space that Curtis Mayfield called “darker than blueness.” That very dear space of ours.

My first encounter with the artist must have been some ten years ago. One of dem lazy days when you decide to kill time by biding awhile in your favorite bookshop, perusing art books you can’t afford to buy. One picture in a book on art movements of the twentieth century instantly caught my attention. In the Fluxus section, there was an image of a new music performance festival at the legendary Mary Baumeister studio in Cologne. Some six men were in action, and one of whom holding what seemed to be a double bass appeared to have a much darker skin tone than all others in this black-and-white photo. Despite my interest in the likes of George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri, and many other mighty figures of what was to become the Fluxus movement, I had never heard of a person of color, a black man that was part of it all, let alone one of the co-founders of Fluxus. There was no other information besides the name of the festival, no names of participating artists, but Google—my friend and helper—informed me of a young African American named Ben Patterson, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1934. The next encounters with Patterson were with his early seminal pieces, which I ferociously searched for in all nooks and crannies of bookshops and libraries.

Despite his prolific and profound contributions, Patterson remains relatively unknown in the margins of the constructed canon that gave much more attention to less poignant practices, even within the sphere of Fluxus. Indeed, it is a marvel that the name Ben Patterson is covered by a cloud of obscurity and still calls for head-scratching, while others like George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier, Vostell, or Emmett Williams are household names. It is for this reason, and most especially for the vast and strong body of works that Patterson produced over five decades that I proposed to Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk that we invite Patterson to contribute something for documenta 14.

The penultimate meeting with Ben in mid-March 2016 in Athens was my first with him in person. He was very curious as to how we found him—still in dismay that this generation would be more interested in his work than the ones before. He talked of the Lick Piece (1964) and other great pieces of his, and then he satisfied our curiosity to know how the hell he came to Fluxus and Wiesbaden, often with a very broad grin or outburst of laughter. We drank tea, wine, ate good Greek food while deliberating on the new piece he intended to produce for documenta 14. Our last meeting, in Kassel, happened in a similar way. He was bubbling with ideas for a new work he wanted to produce, and went around town with documenta 14 colleagues, listening attentively to the histories of the various institutions and the city. He said he was looking forward to returning to realize his new piece. Then he faded away…

In Valerie Cassel Oliver’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Patterson, she quotes a statement from initial notes for an essay by Fred Moten on Patterson: “Within the strictures of an ethics of dematerialization, Patterson disappears. He reemerges in republication, in enactment, in repertory, by way of the recording and its digital and cybernetic reproduction – the para-ontological remains of Patterson’s performances, which take the form of a sifting of and through remains, a continual serving of left-overs, of fucked-up, funny, generatively unfunky licks and pieces of licks. Matter is art’s embarrassment; enjoyment is its shame. This double illegitimacy betrays so much of what is valorized under the rubric of Fluxus, which moves within a disingenuous forgetting of this fact, which is, in turn, disingenuously and sometimes profitably forgotten.“1

So, this script is not a eulogy. This script is the (partial) bearing witness of the disappearance of an individual-qua-institution, whose contributions to the arts have been, to say the least, paving the way, setting the pace, and crucial, but who never received the recognition he deserved in public or artistic discourses and spaces as did his contemporaries. This script attests to the fading away of an old cowboy, whose enormous benefactions to that space “darker than blueness” will guarantee that his presence will be felt with and even beyond the republications, re-enactments, repertories, recordings, and reproductions.

This is an edited excerpt from “Peeping in the Vacuum Left in that Space of ‘Darker than Blueness’ – On, Of, For, With Ben Patterson,” which appears in its full form at Contemporary And (C&).

1 Cassel Oliver, Valerie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Patterson” in Benjamin Patterson. Born in the State of Flux/us (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2011), p. 2.

Posted in Notes on 07.07.2016

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