Some Things Else about Something Else Press by Barbara Moore

My job at Something Else Press was the best one I ever had. I set my own salary: $2.50 an hour, not bad in those days when rents ran about $100-$200 a month; I made my own leisurely hours; and I got along well with the boss.

My association with the Press was entirely unexpected. Sometime at the end of 1964, when I held what seemed like a very secure job writing catalogue copy for a large, commercial mail-order house, Dick Higgins mentioned he planned to start a press and wanted me as editor as soon as he found a good office. Although I said “Sure,” secretly I thought it was some kind of joke. In those days founders of small presses didn’t rent offices and “hire” editors. They worked from their homes and collaborated with friends, cranking out sheets on a mimeograph machine as Dick himself had been doing. But I’m not sure Dick actually used the adjective “small;” that may only have been my assumption.

Soon after Christmas I received a rude surprise. I was laid off from my catalogue job and, never having been fired before, went home in tears. After a few days of moping around I got a call from Dick, unaware of my misfortune. He had indeed located space and wanted me to come look at it. Thus his offer was no longer pie-in-the-sky, but a real job just when I needed it.

I was even more astonished at what followed. Our office was situated in a mundane commercial building in the middle of New York’s trade-publishing district on lower Fifth Avenue, and though certainly not lavish, was far from threadbare. One day I found on my desk a small dark vinyl case filled with formal business cards that carried my name as “Editorial Director.” Dick advertised in Publishers Weekly, engaged commission salesmen, and contracted with a clipping service to keep track of publicity. Such traditional modi operandi extended to the format (though not the content) of the things we published: bucking the trend towards eccentric multiples and boxed editions using unorthodox materials, Dick resolutely produced well-made book-like books, complete with cloth-covered boards and shiny dust jackets. They didn’t look stodgy —in fact, the sometimes florid typefaces and garish graphic treatments leapt off the shelf, but I was baffled by the conformism. Dick was committed to the most radical art concept of the time, intermedia; he wrote the key essay defining it in the first issue of the Something Else Newsletter in early 1966; yet he wouldn’t tamper with the formalism of the book.

Of course, he turned out to be right. By advertising where book dealers and librarians looked, and offering them a package they could recognize, he snuck the avant-garde into the hands of a new readership. These artistic wolves in sheeps’ clothing infiltrated the establishment, laying the groundwork for the artists’ book revolution to come.

As might be expected, behind the orderly exterior lurked some pretty offbeat thinking, and not limited to subject matter. What other publisher would have named a series of pamphlets after the office water cooler, leased from the Great Bear company (itself another symbol of convention)!

Dick’s and my duties were distinct. During my tenure he chose all the titles, took care of design and production (he had previously done these jobs for a book manufacturer), and handled finances After all, as Emmett Williams has pointed out, “It was… Dick’s money”.[(1)] In line with his book manufacturing experience, he made elaborate cost projections that determined, for example, that the price of Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake had to be exactly $3.47.

These professional accounting practices might fly out the window in a rush of optimism that says much about why Something Else Press went bankrupt, and why so many of its titles are still available today [1991] at reasonable prices. Having printed, let’s say, 1,000 copies of a book, and having given out the first 200 free to friends and potential reviewers, and having generated perhaps 50 bookstore orders (all returnable) such as would greet any new, decently publicized volume, Dick would survey the remaining stock and declare, “It’s time to reprint.”

Dick also wrote all the blurbs, newsletters and jacket copy, which sometimes put him in the awkward position of referring to his own work in the third person. To avoid this unseemly posture and no doubt to make the Press seem more populated, he created an alter ego, Camille Gordon, and named a series of newsy postcards after her. Camille was killed off once, then mysteriously reappeared in Afghanistan and picked up her career where it left off.[2]  

I once played a joke with Dick’s pseudonym. A female photographer friend of mine had been hired by the New York Review of Sex, one of many tabloids that sprang up in the mid-sixties touting the new sexual freedoms, to shoot prostitutes and their pimps in Times Square. While she managed to do this very discreetly, she was afraid of having her name credited in the published spread. I offered, and she used, Camille Gordon. This upset Dick, so I never let on until now that it was my doing.

My job included copy editing, proofreading, managing the office and correspondence. I never knew what to expect, as Dick was always bursting with ideas. Sometimes he originated concepts himself and then had to goad a recalcitrant author into producing. A case in point was his determination to publish Al Hansen’s view of happenings. Hansen went along with this, seemingly without enthusiasm, and even started writing text in an elementary-school notebook. But he was more a brilliant talker than a committed writer and the project languished. In desperation, Dick got Al together with a jug of wine and they rambled on tape for hours. The result was neither literary nor particularly coherent. Conscious of preserving even the discursive nature of the author’s distinctive voice, I performed a gigantic cut-and-paste job, without changing any of Al’s words.

My most vivid editorial memory concerns a manuscript that was the meticulous antithesis of Hansen’s lively hodge-podge, Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Typography of Chance, translated from the French and anecdotally expanded by the author’s friend, the expatriate American poet/artist Emmett Williams. (Emmett, though still in Europe at the time, later came to New York to follow me as editor at the Press.) Due to Emmett’s professionalism, the Typography needed little copy editing from me, but its many names and cross references made for tricky proofreading. Unaware of Emmett’s and Dieter Roth’s mnemonic “the man with five A’s in his name,” I removed what appeared to be extra letters from the name Aagaard Andersen. As the proofs traveled back and forth across the ocean in those pre-fax days, Emmett kept putting the A’s back in and I conscientiously kept removing them. I got my comeuppance on that one when, about 12 or 15 years later, I was shackled with a typewriter that printed double A’s every time I hit the key.

In addition to the office work, I also had a job of sorts remaining neutral in the tug-of-war between Dick and George Maciunas, his nemesis in Fluxus. Dick’s break with Maciunas [in 1964], in which he decided to self-publish his double manuscript, Post Face/Jefferson’s Birthday, after Maciunas had dawdled with it, has been chronicled elsewhere. What’s germane here is that this friction that gave birth to Something Else Press is at the core of confusion over what Fluxus was and what it became.

While the Press gave Dick an unrestricted platform for his own ideas, the split overshadowed his substantial input towards the formation of Fluxus several years earlier. In addition to contributing work, ideas and energy, Dick, who seemed to know everybody and everything new that was going on, was one of two key people (the other being La Monte Young) who introduced the classically trained Maciunas to the avant-garde. Enthusiastically he guided the neophyte through unchartered waters, advising him on what artists, musicians and writers were creating the most important anti-establishment work.

So it’s no wonder that Dick felt some proprietary interest in Fluxus, even in the name itself. While on the one hand he disparaged Maciunas, on the other he saw no reason to give up his considerable stake in the growing movement. But the inseparable linkage of the term Fluxus with the persona of Maciunas created quite a dilemma.

The story of how the Press was named illustrates Dick’s ambivalence. The circulated version is that Dick thought of using “something like Shirtsleeves Press”, but was advised by his wife, Alison Knowles, to “call it something else.”[3] In reality, the name Dick first proposed was not “Shirtsleeves Press,” but “Fluxus Annex.”[4]

Clearly, this would never work. There were not just matters of fact and former friendships. Fluxus had begun in a spirit of collective community and tolerant eclecticism in which almost any new artform was eligible for inclusion, as long as it wasn’t painting, sculpture, literary drama or conventionally notated music. But in the early years under Maciunas its scope had narrowed, till it was pigeon-holed into his manifesto about “art-amusement”, a “fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.”[5] Although publicly portrayed as trivial, Fluxus art-amusement was the means, not the end, intended to collapse the arthritic knees of existing art through debilitating laughter.

Dick wanted to undermine the same establishment and to do it by publishing many of the same authors, but his means were truly something else. His book-format presentations appeared more serious and professional. His numerous writings, particularly the essay “Intermedia,” like Henry Flynt’s earlier essay “Concept Art,” brought sober theory into the discourse, something that Fluxus had never done. In attitude, Dick stood for the substantial—“an art that clucks and fills our guts” [6]—over the Fluxian ephemeral.

It could be argued that, at one time, Dick hoped the term intermedia would supplant the term Fluxus. It never did. Instead, it became the standard by which the avant-garde since has been defined, and its seminal literature can be found in the pages of books published by Something Else Press.

 

Notes

1. West Coast Poetry Review vol. 5 no 2, 1977, page 24

2. Outside the Press, Dick also sometimes wrote under other names with the initials C.G., such as Charles Gagnon. In phonetic French “ci-gît” means “here lies”, the words he planned to put on his tombstone.

3. This story qualified as here was first told to me by Dick in 1979 and I used it, unqualified in a catalogue introduction at the time. It has since been repeated, also without the qualifying phrase, in every telling of the origin of the press.

4. Dick Higgins, letter to Jeff Berner, August 22, 1966. Photocopy in the author’s possession.

5. Variations on the statement appear in numerous Fluxus printed pieces beginning in fall, 1965. The version here quoted is from a business-size card first circulated the following year.

6. “Something Else Manifesto,” printed on the verso of the dust jacket for Higgins’ Post Face/ Jefferson’s Birthday Something Else Press, 1964.  

 

This essay was originally published in a brochure accompanying the exhibition “Something Else Press” at Granary Books, New York, September 5—October 5, 1991—already 20+ years after these vividly remembered events had commenced. A thank you goes out to Barbara Moore for the notable reminiscences recounted here (and for much else), and to Steve Clay, Granary’s founder, for permission to reprint this essay (and for much else).  

 

Barbara Moore is an American writer, art historian, and director of the Peter Moore photography archive. From 1965 to 1966, Moore also served as editor at Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press. Currently, her practice centers around writing and lecturing primarily on the avant-garde art movements of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s. Another essay by Moore about her experiences at Something Else Press is “A Poor Man’s Keys to the New Art,” published online by Primary Information, which recently re-issued the Something Else Press Great Bear Pamphlets. Additional information about Ms. Moore can be found here