Festival of Fantastics

by Bent Petersen

One of the events that made the biggest impression on me during the Festival of Fantastics was Ben Vautier’s reaction to a question at the preliminary press conference as to what Fluxus is. He led us outside to Algade, one of Denmark’s busiest main streets, fetched a roll of receipt paper from a supermarket cash register and handed one end of the roll to his colleague Alison Knowles.

While she, her back against a brick wall, held on to the strip of paper, Ben Vautier, the roll of receipt paper is his hand, stepped out onto the street in front of cars which had to brake sharply, cyclists and pedestrians. He strode backwards across the street to the wall on the opposite side unwinding the paper roll as he went, like a bar blocking the road, with tailbacks quickly forming in both directions – until a cyclist tore the paper strip.

”That’s Fluxus”, Ben declared. A brilliant, yet simple and expressive way of describing a concept that cannot be defined in words.

During the press conference, Vautier eagerly made notes and drawings on sheets of paper which he regularly threw to the floor. They were picked up in no time by devoted members of the audience, in particular the Korean ambassador, a keen collector who followed the entire festival with great interest. As Ben says in the exhibition catalogue, one of the reasons for the tremendous interest in Fluxus was all the free material one could collect in the hope of later being able to sell it at a sizeable profit.

In 1984, Øystein Hjort told me about one of his students, Marianne Bech, who had just written an excellent dissertation on Fluxus. He asked me if North would be interested in publishing it – North had recently published a sizeable work on Arthur Köpcke. Obviously, I was very interested and contacted Marianne Bech.

The problem was getting the publication financed. North was struggling to survive as it was, and even though Marianne generously renounced her fee, I was unable to cover the expense of translation and printing. With a good deal of approximation and manipulation, Fluxus would be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 1985 and the idea arose of celebrating the occasion with a festival and including the publication in the festivities. Of course, this meant even more fundraising, but at the same time we did have access to much more funding – including public funding.

It was not difficult to convince Valborg Nørby of Gallery Sct. Agnes that a festival in Roskilde would be a good idea. Valborg and I had been close friends for many years, and since the end of the 70s I had worked as a consultant and as her sparring partner at the gallery, arranging many of her exhibitions and giving a number of lectures at the gallery. Together, we worked on the local authorities and business community for financing. Our efforts included a lecture at the Lion’s Club to leaders of the business and financial establishment. Meanwhile, Marianne and I discussed festival participants, content and budget. We agreed on a number of potential participants like Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Ben Vautier, Emmett Williams, Robert Filliou, Nam June Paik, George Brecht, Tomas Smit, Wolf Vostell and Eric Andersen.

At this time we got in touch with Eric Andersen, who quickly taught a newcomer like me about the realities of social networking even among rebels like the Fluxus people: If this and that person is invited, then these other people will not agree to come – this applied, for example, to Wolf Vostell who we had to leave out from the outset. Already at this point I had to downscale my involvement in the project, which later overwhelmed both Valborg Nørby and I, and turned out to be a financial disaster.

Eric also lectured us that no Fluxus artist would participate in anything so petit bourgeois as a 25th anniversary – no, it had to be a 17¾-year anniversary – and since Fluxus had passed away several years previously, a new name had to be chosen and the official occasion had to be dropped. The final result was ‘Festival of Fantastics’ for Fluxus and affiliated artists.

The festival was realized despite of many financial and practical difficulties, not least as a result of the tremendous efforts of Marianne Bech and Valborg Nørby, Eric Andersen’s contacts and the numerous corps of volunteers. And in many ways the festival was a huge success mixing humor, madness and poetry.

Collaboration with the artists was exemplary and educational. Especially two aspects puzzled me. The first thing was that every performance was so carefully prepared and timed, with nothing left to chance. This did not correspond with my impression of the immediacy and spontaneity of the Fluxus events – or with my experiences with related happenings, performances and actions that emerged in the wake of Fluxus. The second thing was that many performances were re-enactments of earlier happenings – which gave the festival the feel of an anniversary after all!

My own favorites were Alison Knowles’ performance at the Viking Ship Hall, Philip Corner’s piano performance at the library, his “Democracy in Action” and “A Reverence for the Piano”, Geoffrey Hendricks’ performance at the harbour and Eric Andersen’s sound performance with Roskilde Studio Choir at the amphitheatre in the park – all surrounded by poetry and grace.

Actions presented in Ben Vautier’s performances and film screenings were both absurd, linguistically refined and thought-provoking, e.g. where he is sitting on a chair in the middle of the busy Promenade des Anglais in Nice with a sign in front of him reading ”Ne pas me regard” (don’t look at me) (which naturally attracted a crowd). Or when, also in Nice, he sat on a bench facing Mediterranean, a glass plate on his knee, signing his name on the horizon as it appeared through the glass. The action was entitled “Ben signs the horizon”. Or his simple word paintings like “Deux mots” (two words).
Emmett Williams’ readings and simple word games were beautiful, although it was perhaps the veneration of experiencing this great poet up close made the greatest impression. And this notion is a point in itself: a number of internationally renowned artists travelled from France, Germany, the USA and Canada to meet here in Roskilde and revive old acquaintances and memories and give the population of this small provincial town an experience for life (and myself, with Marianne having been instigators and involved in getting them here…) Come to think of it; where was the world press from Copenhagen at this occasion? Not that they were missed at the time.

The absurdity of Bob Watts’ performances certainly made an impression, especially the  meticulously planned, highly orchestrated concert with a brass band in Roskilde Hall. The audience bought their tickets and waited eagerly for the required academic quarter of an hour before the curtain was raised to reveal the band sitting on chairs, their instruments at their feet. Conductor Bob Watts raised his arms and the musicians moved their instruments to their mouths, whereupon Watts lowered his arms and the musicians returned their instruments to the floor.

Bob Watts turned to the audience and bowed and the curtain came down. The performance was over. A similar absurdity characterized Eric Andersen’s performance at the Roskilde municipal court. The event consisted solely of getting the paying audience to leave the room as quickly as possible.