Irregular customer

Reed Altemus at Maine Roasters Coffee
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  August 24, 2006

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NOT CLOWNING AROUND: Commemorating Fluxus
The Portland Press Herald horoscope predicted an average day for artist Reed Altemus on Monday, August 21. “Basics count. Anchor in on what is necessary, bypassing frivolous ideas or expenditures. Many people seek you out. Juggling different aspects of your day will take talent, which you have. Take charge and be more sensitive to those around you. Tonight: Head home early.”

Few know this secret, but it’s true: the art world is an astrologocentric mafia. Like Ronald Reagan’s White House, most of its crucial decisions are made through consultation with the stars; if you’re in the know, you’ll know it, and if not, your fate is probably already charted for you.

I know what I know about Reed Altemus from his blogspot details, and from the occasional posting on the Fluxlist listserv — which circulates information about the activities of those involved with the media-melding Fluxus school and its various activities around the globe, as well as some solid poetry. According to his profile, Altemus is a 45-year-old Taurus, interestingly born also under the Chinese sign of the Ox, living, making, and archiving work in Portland.

Half a baker’s dozen of his prints are on display at Maine Roasters Coffee on Route One in Falmouth, rich dense experiments with typeset and advertisement text that cut across several languages from Japanese to Swedish Fish. I noticed them while waiting for a black coffee behind two kids who had ordered real fruit mango smoothies and stopped up the line for ten minutes, which is as much time as good art is entitled to demand.

Altemus is a regular Maine Roasters customer. Talking to the staff here one day, noticing that they display art on their walls, he suggested some of his own.

Altemus’s blogspot profile ends: “The poet was a fool who wanted no conflict among us, gods or people. Harmony needs low and high, as progeny needs man and woman. Heraclitus.”

No harmony without conflict. But what about the poet’s wish to sidestep the framework of harmony? Why should poetry aim at a harmony of high and low? Why not just aim at high? Why not mainline caffeine like Balzac and write toward the world that exists on that high? That’s a kind of foolishness too, one that deserves to be taken seriously.

French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s book Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts lists three principles he came up with that were meant to bring the world, or maybe even just the world inhabited by him and his friends, towards an entirely new experimental, humane economy — the “Poetical Economy,” he called it.

The first of its principles entails rehabilitating the figure of the café-genius: the anti-hero who, like all the fine failures that Filliou revered, aims to influence nobody, shirks “the deadweight of leadership,” and does his or her finest work while sucking down caffeine and inventing the world that ought to be whether it will be or not.

Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, having learned from every conference he had ever attended that all of the best work invariably took place not in the planned sessions but in the coffee breaks between them, organized his 1994 “Art & Brain” conference in Jülich as one continuous coffee-break.

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