Celebrating Portsmouth Sinfonia and Other Fluxus-Inspired Acts



Two veterans of Cincinnati’s co-op gallery scene, now students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will present their strange and fascinating new project, Thing-stead artist-books, Saturday night at Camp Washington’s Wave Pool gallery. 

And given that Chris Reeves’ and Aaron Walker’s work is deeply inspired by Fluxus, the mixed-media (or “intermedia”) movement of the 1950s and 1960s in which avant-garde art was made with a spirit of fun, the 7-10 p.m. Wave Pool event will be a happening. It will include readings and performances.

Walker soon starts his second year in UIC’s M.F.A. program; Reeves is seeking a doctorate in Art History at the school. He is studying with Professor Hannah Higgins, a Fluxus scholar whose artist-parents are Alison Knowles and the late Dick Higgins. Higgins was a key Fluxus artist who founded Something Else Press and also coined the term “intermedia.” 

We both have employed similar strategies ourselves,” Walker says of his and Reeves’ interest in Fluxus. “Over the years, I see how play and humor can be great ways to address maybe alienating or difficult or tough subjects, and be good packaging for big ideas.”

All of the five books in Reeves’ and Walker’s Thing-stead series sound interesting, based on provided descriptions.

Four of them are: Exercises In Chicago Style Manual, described by Walker as an esoteric but playful mash-up of two existing books — Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style and the Chicago Manual of Style — to create short stories written through footnotes; Oulaf Pataphysique{!}, a reprinted two-volume work of prose, smut and imagined sculptures by Arthur Brum, now New York-based but a founder of Cincinnati’s Murmur alternative space; Puzzles and Games for Fun and Popularity, an index of games real and imagined; and the peculiar Legend and History, in which Columbus artist Ryland Wharton has taken a found copy of 

1961 novel The Alchemists that a reader had heavily highlighted, and then reprinted it with the non-highlighted words omitted.


But it is the fifth, Classical Muddly, that could get the most attention. It’s a serious, straightforward research project by Reeves into the history of Britain’s Portsmouth Sinfonia, sometimes called “the world’s worst orchestra.” In 1974, it released an album called Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, notorious because the members intentionally couldn’t play their instruments. Suffice it to say, its version of “Also sprach Zarathustra” was startling and evoked gales of laughter. The impact propelled a further career for the orchestra in England, where it even played Royal Albert Hall.

Today, Portsmouth Sinfonia is usually thought of as a 1970s pop-cultural goof in the spirit of Monty Python, The National Lampoon Radio Hour or Bryan Ferry’s version of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party.”

In actuality, as Reeves traces in Classical Muddly, the “Portsmouth” in the group refers to Portsmouth Polytechnic College of Art, where the composer Gavin Bryars staged a 1970 happening that included the idea of an orchestra whose musicians would play instruments unfamiliar to them. 

The book’s title, Classical Muddly, refers to a later Portsmouth Sinfonia album that was a retort to the Pops impulse of symphony orchestras encapsulated by a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Hooked on Classics. 

While acknowledging the novelty factor, Reeves has come to respect Portsmouth Sinfonia’s artistic credentials. “They fall on the same spectrum as Fluxus — taking their projects seriously, but never themselves too seriously,” Reeves says via email. “That is perhaps why they [and to some extent Fluxus] get kind of historically written off in some art-historical canons.”

“What’s most interesting to me about both Fluxus and the Sinfonia is how they are a sort of populist avant-garde — putting forth difficult ideas in a way that is fairly accessible,” he continues. “To me, that’s where I think the Sinfonia’s legacy stands. They were able to make a packed Royal Albert Hall fill with laughter, not at them, but with them, and did this with ideas rooted in very highfalutin 1960s musical and art concepts.”

For information about purchasing books, contact thing-steadpress@gmail.com.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

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