In celebration of the Walker Art Center’s 75th anniversary as a public art center, Martin Friedman–Walker director from 1961 to 1990–has generously agreed to share his unpublished writings from the era. In the third installment of the ongoing Martin Friedman: Art (re)Collecting series, he remembers a heart-stopping, one-time performance by the ONCE Group.
Well before the term “performance art” took on a quasi-official-sounding appellation, the Walker invited the ONCE Group to perform in its spacious 1929 lobby, well before the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed a new building for the museum. The group was a collective of composers, poets, dancers, and playwrights. Originating in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ONCE was founded by composers Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda.
“We literally called it ‘ONCE’ on the assumption that it would not happen more than once,” recalled Reynolds. “There was such remarkable intensity in those events that there was something more than just a personal interest or need on our parts.”
They were a useful barnstorming cooperative that traveled to museums and college campuses, and the year before their June 1965 Walker appearance, they earned critical acclaim at the Venice Biennale. Their performances were highly physical, verging on perilous, circus-like antics. As part of the Here2 festival, they performed a variety of performances such as changed music, readings from texts, and–in a work called Kittyhawk (An Antigravity Piece)–a blindfolded young woman walking a plank suspended between two high industrial ladders on the Walker’s hard terrazzo floor.
I had neglected to discuss the evening’s contents with the museum’s insurance company.
This was an early event in my directorship–and a scary one, I might add, since these artists took scary chances. I still remember that night when a young woman was fastened with packing tape to the wall between the stairways leading to the balcony in the old building. She was taped tightly and slits were made in the tape through which her clothes were removed, delicately, by her fellow performers. So there she was, a target for ping-pong balls being launched at her like golf balls: harmless to her but surely disconcerting.
What this had to do with the mission of the ONCE Group I still puzzle over. Suffice to say it got my adrenaline going since I had signed the group up for an appearance at the museum without properly investigating just what their performances consisted of. I remember Robert Ashley’s voice intoning quite monotonously a section of a book he had written. It was a kind of a memoir about his childhood house, I think–an endless reading that kept turning up on Public Radio in obscure hours of the night. My heart was in my mouth from beginning to end.
When the evening was finally over my heart rate lowered and I could breathe normally again. It was not that I hadn’t seen daredevil events before, but this was the first time I was responsible for them, all in the name of art.
Somehow, a week or so later they tracked me down at a quiet little lake in northern Minnesota where I had taken my family for a vacation. Through loudspeakers on shore they communicated their affirmations of love and respect and, I fear, a request for another performance. That did not happen.