The Auto da Fe of Jose Que
Without question. one of the most outlandish and challenging of Kurt's activities as a professor was during the UCLA Experimental Arts Festival. In the photo above, as a "stand-in" for Jose Que, purportedly an artist/revolutionary performing theater pieces dealing with "aesthetico-politics", Kurt, dressed in white, assembled a tower of books and set them ablaze in the Hans Mayerhold Free Speech area on the UCLA campus. His performance was part of an elaborate art/theater piece, which included press releases and the the creation of a "biography" of Jose Que, Kurt's punned alter-ego named after Franz Kafka's Joseph K in The Trial. Naturally, the book burning, dubbed an Auto da Fe by Kurt (the burning of a heretic during the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church), received copious attention by the student paper and, one supposes, the university administration and his fellow professors. Below you will find a variety of Kurt's prepared remarks and materials and copies of the press accounts of the elaborate happening, Kurt's version of Provocation as an Art Form.
A "psychedelic-style" poster was created and distributed (above) and the stage was set by Kurt with a press release (text below) distributed in advance of the two day event.
LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL OF THE EXPERIMENTAL ARTS
Title: "What the Hell's Really Going On."
Speaker: Kurt von Meier, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Art at UCLA. BA from U. of California, MFA and Ph.D from Princeton
Time: Thursday, April 27, 1967, in the Student Center UCLA.
This talk attempts to provide a general historical frame of reference in terms of twentieth century art history for the experimental directions included in the Festival. The rise of Intermedia, such as assemblage, environments, and happenings, can be directly related to developments already beginning in the 19th century. These, in turn, have their roots in the arts of earlier periods, as for example in the great multi-media conceptions of the Baroque opera. All of this tradition leads to the most adventuresome and truly radical statements being made by artists today. Within the last decade or so there have been numerous key developments: the fading of distinctions between the conventional, previously separated media of the arts; the fading of distinctions between so-called fine art and the popular arts; the development of individual artists, such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, toward multi-media expressions; the rise of new media like TV and film, and their increasing significance in the consideration of artists; the truly international character and effects of the new popular arts; the accordion collapse of time spans for developments and the corollary coexistence of styles; the rise of a new teen-age culture, Negro culture, and hippie culture in the arts and as elements of the Great Coalition of the Revolution; the general extension of art into the realm of life. These developments will be characterized and illustrated, as they provide an essential frame of reference for understanding and evaluating the major contributions of the Festival.
One of the most challenging and dramatic presentations planned for the UCLA Festival of the Experimental Arts is the scheduled "Auto da Fe," by the Mexican-American creator Jose Que. Exact details concerning the performance are somewhat mysterious as they have been kept secret from all except the Festival's directors, Joseph Byrd and Barbara Raskell and UCLA Art History Professor Kurt von Meier, who is assisting Que by acting as coordinator for the piece. It is hoped that Que himself will be present for the two-day festival, which runs from Thursday, April 27 beginning at noon, until Friday, April 28th, concluding with an evening concert by the New Music Workshop. Most of the events and exhibitions will be centered around the Student Center building on tha UCLA campus, with the lectures in the Men' Social Lounge because of its special character, however, Jose Que will perform out of doors, in the Hans Meyerhold Free Speech area in front of the student center. The presentation, which has teen explained as a theater piece, is slated for Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., following the appearance of Peter Bergman, well-known wizard of the Radio Free Oz program, and Michael Agnello who will speak on "Provocation as an Art Form." The Friday program begins at noon with a performance by the Guerilla Theater.
The "artist," who actually prefers to be called a "creator," may not be in actual attendance for all of the action. Word was recently received from close associates of Que in Mexico that his activities within the last few months in Hermosillo may prevent his appearance in Los Angeles. Reportedly both J.S. Border Patrol and Mexican military authorities are interested in the art and life of Jose Que, which involves not only earlier poetry (mostly in Spanish), painting and sculpture, but also more recent experimental statements in theater pieces and aesthetico-politics.
As the anticipation grew, Kurt continued to carefully construct his dramatic narrative, using his talents in art criticism to document the artistic history of his fictional "revolutionary artist" Jose Que, including a detailed critique of Que's various "works", in a lengthy article in UCLA's Daily Bruin. His reference to "art historians conducting irrelevant and impossible research" indicates that his view of the "art scene" and art criticism was evolving; after being regularly published in the leading art magazines, he would abandon that activity not too long thereafter.
Keeping in mind that this event occurred roughly 25 years after Hitler's Nazis staged public book burnings in Germany, the obvious question is, what is it that Kurt had in mind? He was unafraid of controversy; one could even say he sought it out, but he must have known that burning books at a prestigious university would draw negative attention, and it did. The newspaper account below indicates that both the crowd of students as well as the reporters did not know what to make of Kurt's display.
The letter below, printed in the UCLA Daily Bruin, after the event, reasonably asks the point of Kurt's performance; "did the man in white expect to implicate his flock with shame and cowardice?" asks Kenneth B. Such. As the article above indicates, only one person appeared to object to the burning of the books, and Kurt shook his hand after the fire was out and the event ended. Was Kurt expecting or wanting to be stopped?
Kurt clearly knew what he was doing was controversial; he used the imaginary Jose Que as a foil to distance himself from the act of burning books, but then instead became the "arch-priest of the Experimental Arts Festival." Did he want to be stopped? A document he wrote entitled "Notes on the Performance of Auto da Fe by Jose Que" (below) appears never to have been published, and partially explains the meaning and importance of his acts. His account of his interaction with the crowd is telling, if not entirely clear, but as a teacher, Kurt preferred giving clues rather than explicit explanations. Suffice to say, Kurt created his own "destruction in art" theater piece, although in the end it may have played a major role in the destruction of his employment as a professor at UCLA.
A version of this article appeared in the May 5, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Free Press
NOTES ON THE PERFORMANCE OF AUTO DA FE by JOSE QUE
by Kurt von Meier
The UCLA Festival of the Experimental Arts, held on the Westwood campus during the last weekend of April, presented the first public performance of a piece by the radical young Mexican-American artist Jose Que. The title of the piece, "Auto da Fe" gives several clues to the level on which Que's ideas operate. Not only is there a reference to the artist's personal social-religious background; more importantly, perhaps, are the implications for reading the piece in terms of "aesthetico-politics," one of the artist's basic concepts. Until the last minute, it was not known whether Que would arrive from 'Mexico to perform the work himself. Then, by way of introduction, one of the Festival Directors, Joseph Byrd (an avant garde Los Angeles composer and artist himself) announced that Que would not appear because at that very moment he was engaged in fighting, or at least in guerilla activity in Mexico, in Hermosillo and the surrounding parts of the northern Mexican State of Sonora. Byrd also indicated that this activity represented A further extension of Que's own concept "aesthetico‑politics" developing out of the "Art" context of theater pieces into the "medium" of the real world. As such, the gesture of Que's absence can be thought of as a commentary on one of the recurring themes of the Festival: the multifaceted extensions of activities conventionally associated with "Art," and their interpenetration with "Life," creating McLuhanesque anti-environments, which force radical confrontations with reality. "Auto da Fe" was coordinated by the present writer, who also performed it in the artist's place.
The location chosen for the performance was out of doors, in the Meyerhoff Park free-speech area, in front of the UCLA Student Union building. At two p.m., under bright sunshine, strips of heavy-duty aluminum foil were laid out on the grass to form a glittering, reflective rectangle. In the center of this was placed a tripod brazier (as found in Greek tragedies and in Orange County backyards). This was sheathed in aluminum foil also. After a base of excelsior was laid in the brazier, an original serigraph by the Canadian artist Michael Morris, entitled "Fantome de Sentiment" was placed over the grill. Atop this were slowly, carefully stacked, pagoda-style, the following books:
1. Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings
2. H.W. Janson, A History of Art
3. D.T. Suzuki, Zen in Japanese Culture
4. Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis
5. Pasadena Museum of Art, Marcel Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition
6. John Cage, Silence
7. Robert Welch, The Politician
8. Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
9. Mao Tse Tung, The Red Book
10. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
* Michael Morris, "Fantome de Sentiment" Serigraph
As each level of the "pagoda"" was completed, it was annointed with kerosene, and sprinkled with powdered magnesium. The final book to be added, spread open-faced and upside down, appeared to be The Holy Bible, bound in white leather. This title, however, did not appear on the program distributed to the several hundred Festival-goers and passing students who had assembled in a vast semi-circle. But it was also suggested that one of those books which did appear on the program in fact was not burned. With the final sprinkling of powdered magnesium, thin strips of magnesium metal were used as fuses, and draped down the sides of the brazier.
The performer was dressed entirely in white. After placing the fuses, he removed the white cotton gloves, and lit a blowtorch—but before approaching the pagoda-pyre with blowtorch in his bare hands, he unfurled a white umbrella which was held in the other. The books and art were ignited, and consumed by the flames-the pagoda toppled, with half-burned paper blown by the wind into the crowd. Finally, the largest hook at the base of the pyre tumbled off onto the aluminum base, the kerosene-soaked expensive copy of Allen Kaprow's Assemblage, Environments and Happenings; with this a pocket of magnesium powder flashed brilliantly most of the rest had been dispersed by the wind.
Chester Anderson, another of the speakers at the Festival, later described the piece by Que as having a musical structure: the three movements were indicated by three instances of crowd participation. The first, and most notable of these occurred as the pagoda-pyre was being delicately constructed. A tall, bearded member of the crowd walked slowly foward to the performer and said quietly: "If you are going to burn those books, you'll have to burn me with them." Reply: "That's not the piece. I'm not going on until someone stops me. I'm going on to perform the entire piece. Thank you, personally, for coming up. I'd like very much to talk with you after the piece is over." "I'll only go back if you, personally, guarantee me that this thing is good." Reply: "It certainly is, as far as I have been able to think through it. Otherwise I wouldn't be here doing it." The second and third movements were much less self-demanding shouts from the crowd: "What does it mean?" and finally (from a crew-cut type leaning out of a Student Union window), "So what?"
The performer stood silently for about five or six minutes until the flames subsided on the charred and scattered books. Fire extinguishers were brought in to douse the smoldering book remnants. It was announced that the piece was over, and people began to disperse. A part of the crowd remained in the area, discussing the event; a tape recorder was presented, and there general discussion of the piece as the performer proceeded to clean up the scraps of the soaked and smoking refuse. Then the Kaprow book burst into flame again, and was only finally extinguished when thrown into the brazier with the other remains, and covered by the aluminum foil which had been gathered up from the grass. The sky had darkened with clouds. As the last cover of aluminum foil smothered the last flame, then the first drops of gentle rain began to fall, and washing the grass clean, it rained for several hours.