Joesph Bueys, ex Messerschmidt pilot turned rather Loony professor of Art and acclaimed conceptual/performance artist, collected leftist radicals as bees collect pollen. He thrived on their fresh blood, wanted to display them, encourage them to be creative, give them a platform, develop them, and turn them into honey to feed the left wing communist creative world to which he aspired. He founded the International Free University which became a magnet for activist artists, vegetarians, anarchists and socialists. He collected me. And my colleague. Recruited us from the then Ruskin College International Trade Union Studies Group. He had heard, upon the socialist grapevine, that we were attempting to educate and agitate British shop stewards about the evils of multi-national capitalism. Honey to the struggle thought he, and invited us to perform our multi-media presentation, with him, at the 1977 Kassel Documenta
We were not artists. Not even vegetarians. Nor could we be considered to be appreciative of Art. The only picture I had on the walls of my terraced home in Nottingham was that of the green Chinese lady that I had rescued from a skip when my neighbors did a runner. My colleague was a factory worker, made cars for Ford in Dagenham. I was an ex-soldier. We were both were students at Ruskin in Oxford, mature students, left wing students, studying Marx, Labour history, economics, supporting strikes, making trouble. Activism, not art was our agenda. We knew not and cared not who the hell was Bueys. Nor what on earth was the Kassel Documenta. And the International Free University was unheard of in the British trade union circles that we were then absorbed in. But the offer from a strange German of a freebie trip to Germany? We became artists overnight!
In Kassel Bueys had a sizable corner of the main city gallery, the Museum Fridericianum, given over to a work-space for the Free International University, wherein he would give lectures and display his collection of radicals. We were not alone. He had collected an eccentric group of such radicals. He had a pair of artists from New York who had flown under all the New York bridges with either coloured smoke or ribbons, can’t quite remember now. There was a British film maker with a tourist type film of San Francisco which he had mutilated with punched holes, added a psychedelic sound track and possibly edited whilst high on LSD, well that’s what it looked like. It was quite good fun, there was German and Dutch radicals too but I simply do not know what their contribution to the struggle was.
Bueys believed creativity was capital. He would give lectures on socialism and economics and creativity, drawing formulas and diagrams onto a blackboard. At the end of each lecture he would sell the blackboards by way of auction, for quite enormous, astonishing sums of money. After that, one of his collected radicals would give their presentation. It was all very splendid. Very creative. We became exhibits.
The Kassel Documenta work space with honey pump tubing
Bueys was first and foremost an internationally renowned Artist and sculptor. His major artistic contribution to Kassel Documenta was a honey pump consisting of thick transparent tubing strung around the work space and connected to powerful pumping machines which would pump honey through the tubing around the work area creating a sense of peace and serenity and helping the process of creativity. Unfortunately it tended to attract a unpleasant number of flies and wasps which rather detracted from the serenity of the work area.
The rest of the Documenta exhibition was eye popping for us naive British trade unionists turned temporary exhibits or even perhaps temporary artists. Next door was a presentation consisting of two 16 mm projectors side by side, each showing a woman having an epileptic fit. The film was on a loop so just kept going all day showing the two poor women strapped into wooden chairs having violent fits. It was silent. Not a sound. We found it offensive and bought a couple of pairs of good German insulated pliers and regularly cut the cables of the projectors. The German curators simply repaired the cables and the show went on. Cut; repair; cut repair. We were intent on striking a blow for the dignity of the women. They were creating art. It was, in its way a performance. We could probably have got a grant for it.
There was a darkened room with regularly placed slabs of slate, set out in the shape of the seats of a railway carriage. It was designed to represent the sealed carriage in which Lenin traveled from Zurich to Moscow in 1917. As students of Marx we spent some time in the darkened room trying to think of why we were there.
Elsewhere was an Englishman who had buried himself deep in the ground in a box and was living there throughout the exhibition. And in the central square another artist group had rigged up a drilling machine and were drilling a hole one kilometer deep into the center of Kassel. You could buy small tubes of soil from the different depths they had reached. Unemployed Germans got a discount.
Bueys was financing the Free University and his collection of radicals by selling the blackboards for mind boggling sums. He also sold a poem that he had written about food. It was on a long scroll of grey paper, signed at the bottom by Bueys and smeared with his trademark animal fat, and then embossed with the Free University stamp. The animal fat was interesting and represented, according to the philosophy of Bueys, the period in the Second World War when his Messerschmidt was shot down on the Eastern Front and local people saved him by smearing him in fat and wrapping him in felt. Thereafter animal fat became his signature and appeared in every work of art he ever produced. We were perhaps fortunate they had not smeared him with manure.
We enjoyed the most wonderful long lunches, al fresco, in the late summer sunshine, not too much meat, lots of German wine and an odd, left-wing collection of creative radicals. For a while there, during that long German summer, we were exhibits!