Benjamin Patterson / When Elephants Fight, It Is The Frogs That Suffer – A Sonic Graffiti (2016-2017)

Bernd Schultheis (Realization),
in Cooperation with Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden /
E. Gruhn & B. Patterson, 2017

"My pieces, as they appear on paper, have neither material nor abstract value, they can only achieve value in performance, and even then only the personal value that the participant himself can express in his own behavior and/or that of the community and/or according to experience. In fact, each piece is just this: a person who consciously does this or that. Everyone can do that."1
Benjamin Patterson

The American Fluxus artist Ben Patterson (Pittsburgh 1934-2016 Wiesbaden) was invited by artistic director Adam Szymczyk to participate in documenta 14. Prior to his sudden death, Patterson had already conceived and planned the comprehensive parts integral to mounting his sound installation, When Elephants Fight, It Is The Frogs That Suffer – A Sonic Graffiti, in Athens and Kassel. The Nassauische Kunstverein Wiesbaden, with which Patterson was closely connected for years, undertook its realization in cooperation with his daughter. Patterson’s installation was engineered by Berlin composer and instrumentalist Bernd Schultheis. Adhering to one of Fluxus’s maxims, which emphasizes that the general negation of any end product (museal) is that which characterizes an artistic expression, the development of Patterson’s installation is of central importance. The “work of art† that one encounters only arises in the mind of the recipient; in the end almost nothing remains visible.

Inspired by the overwhelming presence of graffiti throughout Athens†”vibrant yet precarious†”Ben Patterson dreamed of a “symphony of croaking frogs†2 in the form of “A Sonic Graffiti.† His sound collage would incorporate layered and intermixed natural frog tones, hidden political messages, and philosophical wisdom with the help from choirs. Building from one of his early scores titled Pond (1962), the same year in which Fluxus formed publicly in Wiesbaden, Patterson is now referencing two more artistic sources: The Frog-Prince (Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, No.1, 1812) and Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, which premiered first in 405 BC at the Athens’ Dionysian Theater. The mélange of sources involved in Patterson’s installation reverses in time and situates his audience in a time-lapse of Western cultural history.

In the garden of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, audiences witnessed the first showcase of Patterson’s 24-channel sound collage of 16 camouflaged loudspeakers. In Kassel, throughout the grassy park area of the Karlsaue, Patterson’s A Sonic Graffiti functions akin to an orchestral dig, submerged within view of the Baroque Orangery. Here, Patterson’s frog symphony will sound for 100 days from June 10, 2017.

The backdrop for his work is shaped geographically and iconographically by its close proximity to the National Gardens, which is in the immediate vicinity of Aristotle’s Lyceum and Odeion, Athens Conservatory†”one of the four main exhibition venues for documenta 14 in the Greek metropolis. The garden of the Byzatine and Christian Museum was recently rebuilt by the architect Anestei Parisi who arranged it as an open-air museum with artificial, water-filled streams, bridges and basins in the outcrops of today’s dried-up riverbed of Ilissos. Right in the middle of the river was the Frog Island Vatrachonisi, the site that is today the Museum’s garden.

Since antiquity, frogs were regarded as an important symbol of fertility and prosperity. For the Fluxus artists, the frog was extremely symbolic, so much so that the self-proclaimed Fluxus Chairman George Maciunas (1931-1978) wanted to be reborn as a frog. Civilization and nature meet in the construction of eight layers of sound, each accompanied by sounds from site and the surrounding area.

The history of the environment is full of stories: as the legend tells us, on the quiet paths to the shores, Aristotle and other philosophers of his Lyceum walked there during their philosophical conversations. Today, the sounds framing it are quite different. Multi-lane streets now full of shops, traffic and residences challenge intimate conversations, and any indication of previous ancient idylls is undetectable. An indicator of contemporary mobility, these transport axes encircle such idealized landscape. In whose artificial idyll the singing of a new synthetic frog population exists, Patterson’s work invites the audience to philosophize and to discover their “inner frog."3

In Kassel, however, the acoustic frog pond lies directly opposite the Academy of Fine Arts, a building built by Paul Friedrich Posenenske (1919-2004) at the Küchengraben in the magical calmness of the Karlsaue. Here, idyllic yet in the midst of absolutist baroque landscape architecture, soundwaves occur vis-à-vis the imposing Orangery, which resembles a fairytale castle.

Both Athens’s and Kassel’s frog populations have abandoned each location a long time ago. Ben Patterson’s gesture is not just to repopulate the area, but to also transmit a coded message hidden among the rich sounding of eight native frog species for the flâneur. The sounds, which he originally planned to record himself, were kindly made available by the Frogs & Friends e.V., an organization that uses New Media inventions for the protection and preservation of amphibians.

Selected passages from the two literary sources above, as well as onomatopoetic frog sounds from different languages (recorded by three choirs in English, Greek and German language in cooperation with Deutschlandradio Kultur, Berlin) are integral to the project. The text and speech fragments coincide with the voices of the eight natural frogs, finally combining†” or even overpowering with quotes and original tones from Benjamin Patterson’s extensive archive into an aural experience of history and fairytale. While political quotations come from original recordings, some are also staged. The British artist Ann Noël, widow of Patterson’s close friend Emmett Williams (1925-2007), also a Fluxus artist, recites wisdoms from ancient philosophers that are inserted in the work as collaged sounds of a natural pond. These different textures and lyrics were acoustically “sprayed“ like tags into the Sonic Graffiti together with the human frog tones.

In addition to frogs as native representatives of a changed environment, they also function thematically within Patterson’s past. Since his childhood as a Boy Scout, and later in his oeuvre, frogs link with Patterson’s thoughts on political, social and cultural questions. The eponymous line “When elephants fight, it is the frogs that suffer† is a Greek proverb of African origin, quoted by various media, especially within commentary on the financial crisis of Greece.4 Patterson’s work seems to suggest a certain dynamic: in times of unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and various financial crises, the society of “small creatures† becomes increasingly overrun, crushed and destroyed, powerless against overpowering systems and internal conflicts. But we should not forget, it’s been the small amphibian beings, by their courageous leaps, who have made human life possible on this planet.

The earliest reference for his idea occurs in his score Pond, which was often performed at Fluxus and other performance events, and is based on the concept of Chance Operations by John Cage (1912-1992). A lattice system drawn to the floor forms the starting surface for this score for eight performers, each equipped with three accompanying notes (Question/ Answer/ Exclamation) and two wind-up toy frogs. The non-synchronized stops of the imperfect, mechanically bouncing frogs signal to the performers to eject their lutes until the sound collage of an evening pond finally arises. These system and structure are used as a crucial principle for the composition. In 2012, Patterson wrote “Ponds (up-dated)“ after he discovered a website listing 68 onomatopoetic frog sounds of the various human languages.

In addition to providing natural frog sounds, Frogs & Friends e.V. embraced the composer and instrumentalist Bernd Schultheis. The requirements for the realization of Patterson’s work was enabled by Schultheis’s extensive experience in improvisation, historical orchestral music, and the fortune of his recent intensive examination of frog voices that he recorded, collected and developed into a scientific listening station. He neither met nor worked with Patterson before, but he was partly aware of Patterson’s work enough to not reproduce signature patterns. The instructions and concept by Ben Patterson were clear and unambiguous, making implementation easier and, for us, his authorship clearer.

After analyzing Patterson’s work, a further approach to the ideas and the material was developed. Recordings of real frog voices formed the initial point and fundamental material. Eight frogs were identical in both locations: European Tree Frog (Hyla arborea), European Gras Frog (Rana temporaria), Moor Frog (Rana avalis), Dalmatian Frog (Rana dalmatina), Edible Frog (Pelophylax esculentus), Marsh Frog (Pelophylax rebundus), Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae), Green Toad (Bufotes viridis). In addition, Balkan Water Frog (Pelophylax kurtmuelleri) was added to the installation in Athens and the European Fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina) joined Kassel.

Their calls are genetically coded within their corresponding species anywhere in the world. The composition of the frog concerto, the idea of a “symphony of croaking frogs†5, is from field recordings comprising a montage of specific sounds that one would have not been able to experience simultaneously. Together they form a grid for the composition and loop in eight different planes:

/ Frog sounds from field surveys of real frogs
/ Frog sounds imitated by choirs
/ Frog voices imitated by children
/ The Frogs, Aristophanes: Choirs (in German, Greek and English)
/ The Frog-Prince, Grimm Bros.: Choirs (also in the three languages)
/ Recordings of Ben Patterson’s voice and music from the Ben Patterson Archives
/ Recordings by Ben Patterson from the existing material for this work
/ Collection of political statements, sayings and proverbs.

The composition is formally oriented to numbers and proportions. The number 8, as well as multiples thereof, plays a constitutive role. A sound installation on 24 discrete channels, eight levels of the composition play over 16 (Athens) and 24 (Kassel) camouflaged loudspeakers. Multipliers 1, 2, and 3 were borrowed as numbers also from Pond (1962), where the number of the syllables is measured by the enactment of participants.

A clear reference to the geographical locations of the documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel figures in two literary sources. The reference to Kassel and the Grimm Brothers whose world-famous collection Children’s and Household Tales includes The Frog Prince; (or, The Iron Henry) is placed first and may seem almost too obvious.6 However, this reflects a consistent approach in the artistic work of Ben Patterson. In his oeuvre, he was never concerned with encryption or secret messages for an educated bourgeois. He seems to present messages in a comprehensible manner by his use of precise analytical simplification, removing the often complex content and utilizing simple elements of everyday culture such as kitsch objects. Everyday objects, found or curiosities with a suggestively “childish† toy context, can be found in his performative, pictorial and compositional work. Patterson also acquired material secondhand from stores such as One Euro or dollar shops. The materiality of these objects eliminates the veneer of elitist art, and the extent to which Patterson positions slapstick jokes alongside deep knowledge reveals an occupation with humorous enjoyment and contemplation by which Patterson is known as a passionate angler who lures his audience.

But let us return to the story of The Frog-Prince and his nameless princess†”a mainstay of fairy tales†”whose golden ball is interpreted as a symbol for the sun around which events begin, center and move. Due to her boredom, a parallelism to the decadence of Dionysus, she sloppily throws her favorite toy into a deep well. Is this a symbolic entrance to the subconscious? This importance of the subconscious and Patterson’s esteem for it is evident from his founding and placing throughout the world monuments marking entrances to his The Museum for the Subconscious.7

Similar to Patterson’s The Three Operas series,8 the princess accelerates her own process of maturation by her actions and their consequences. She leaves the golden days behind her, as well as the innocence of her childhood.9 Her royal father, on the other hand, urges her to keep the promise, which is once given, but whose redemption is so opposed to her that she finally throws the frog on the wall full of disgust. SPLASH. The disenchantment not only liberates the princess from her ready-made promise, but at the same time negative magic is broken, and an active healing process can occur, a process also found in psychoanalysis.10

The final explosion of the three narrowing iron bands around Heinrich’s chest, the result of the transformation in the echo of the fairy tale, symbolically represents liberation and that one can “breathe again.† It strikes us with its parallelism to the Troika: the cooperation between the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and their negotiations on credit programs during Greece’s debt crisis.

We found the English edition of Aristophanes’ The Frogs (1964 Penguin Classics, David Barret) in the library of Ben Patterson, even with a price label in Greek Drachmas. In the extremely popular antique comedy, Dionysos, the god of wine, women and Virtues†”topics not neglected by Fluxus artists†” wants to travel into the underworld. In his mission to bring his favorite and recently deceased poet Euripides back to the upper world in order to rid his great boredom with the beloved poetry that he lacked, Dionysos unexpectedly fills the role as referee for the contest between the arts: Euripides, free thought and romanticism, and Aeschylus, the rather conservative poet of traditional values and morals in opposition.

On his way to Hades, Dionysos must cross the river Styx where he then meets the eponymous choir of frogs, in Aristophanes’ characterization representing the Athenian society of decadence and decay. Dionysos is mocked by the frogs and their singing: “Brekekekéx koax koax.“

Contemporary theater received intense attention in ancient Greece. Especially in the comedies, poets dared to present the state’s decision-makers with corrosive criticism of corruptibility and misjudgments. In order to witness the festival character of the Dionysia, organized annually between the month of March and April, visitors even traveled so far as from the vassal states.

The themes and conflicts of the time were presented in more than 1,000 dramas and 500 comedies right at the foot of the state’s political power center†”the Acropolis, with 17,000-person Dionysian Theater. In the year of the premiere, Aristophanes’ Comedy The Frogs emerged as a result of the imminent victory of Sparta over Athens and Athenian Attic and the consequently humiliation of the Athenians and Attic people.11 The comedy, which was quite present in Greece until today, is not only a reflection on traditional, conservative and moral values in times of crisis, but also a viewpoint on the surprising contemporary and political references to Europe and its recent development, world politics, society and art. Humor as a weapon of the defenseless is a form of active resistance, also used by Ben Patterson in his own eventful life. The relationship between the intellectual precision and playfulness that characterizes his work and the wisdom of “catching more flies with honey than with vinegar†, he reiterates points made earlier in his career. In his 2001 self-conducted interviews, Patterson stated, “But personally, when making art (and therefore culture), I prefer to use humor as it often provides the path of least suspicion/resistance for the implanting of subversive ideas. Remembering, as I mentioned before, that I grew up as a black in an America of legalized racial segregation, which allowed few means of protest (please know that we blacks used satirical humor as a protest form).†12 With humor, those discriminated against succeded in preserving the honor.

On the one hand, documenta 14’s working title “Learning from Athens† refers to tradition and fundamental human values; on the other hand, it is breaking many comfortable and hegemonic traditions of Europe.“We have to resume responsibility again and act like political subjects, instead of simply leaving it up to the elected representatives†, said artistic director Adam Szymczyk. Ben Patterson’s testimony as early as 1964 conveys similarly. He wrote: “I have asked of an experiencing (not a passive observer or listener) to use his person in the event as performer, interpreter and even as creator. I have not been interested in stimulating nets or eardrums, but I have undertaken to speak of the ability (s) responsible for integrating experience.†13

Am I or am I not responsible for this project?† Or, to close with one of Patterson’s last recordings on his cell phone: “okay out."

Elke Gruhn

Julia Elizabeth Neal



Ben Patterson - Pond Performance, Weston Art Gallery 2015, Cincinnati, USA

Frogtastic THANK YOU /

Ioanna Alexandri, Fuat Arslan, Maria Rebecca Ballestra, Ute & Michael Berger, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Luigi Bonotto, Gürkan Buyurucu, Stelios Chaziktoris, Daniele Crippa, Eirini & Melina Charalampous, Kerstin David, Deutschland Radio Berlin, Björn Encke, Sigrid Fischer, Antonio Flamminio, Fondazione Morra – Naples, Stefan Fricke, Frogs & Friends e.V., Marcus Gammel, Edda & Enzo Gazzerro, Nanni Ghio, Götz Göbel, Axel & Keno Graumann, Antonio De Gregori, Hans-Jürgen P. Groth, Elke Gruhn, Caterina Gualco, Tilman Hatje, Hessischer Rundfunk, Niklas Holzberg, Helena S. Hungria, Areti Katraki, Christina & Jürgen Kelter, Die Kinder: Ahmad, Alan, Julian, Lina, Neriman, Semir, Tuana, Yaghmur, Evelyn König, Elfi Kreiter, Gisela Krey, Kulturamt der Landeshauptstadt Wiesbaden, Helge Lingen, Ann Noël Williams, Gino di Maggio, Giuseppe Martucciello, Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden e.V. – Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst, Inge Naumann, Julia Elizabeth Neil, Patterson Family, Christoph Platz, POLYPHONIA BERLIN - deutsch-griechischer Chor e.V. (the singers: Martin Hüttel, Gerold Hens, Johanna von Kuczkowski, Irmela Splett-Neumann, Barbara Klinker, Sabine Bode, Christiane Henke, Luzie Nierle, Valentina Dimitriadu-Karagiannis, Fanny Marina Papoulia, Elpiniki Reister, Claudia Heidenreich, Alfred Neugebauer, Theo Sarafis Moschos, Chrysostomos Papadimitriou, Iannis Karanlik, Joachim Kreimer de Fries, Pigi Mormouri, Stephanie Busse), Christine Romeiser-Paterok, Erika Rosenkranz, Monika Szewczyk, Renate Seidler, Christel Schüppenhauer, Bernd Schultheis, Kerstin Skrobanek, Ulla Sommerlad, Anne & Klaus Spätgens, Reinhard Spiegel, Giorgio Teglio, Nicola Trentalance, Wolfgang Träger, Immo Tetzlaff, Benny Trapp, Gerrit von Velsen, Ben Vautier, Darius Vöhringer, Peter Wenzel, Heiko Werning


Benjamin Patterson
When Elephants Fight, It Is The Frogs That Suffer. A Sonic Graffiti (2016-17)

8 layers of variable sound constellations (24 channel random access playback device) endless in time, variable in space

Realization Bernd Schultheis in cooperation with Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden /E. Gruhn & B. Patterson, 2017

Commissioned by Documenta 14 / Adam Szymczyk
16 channel sound field (16 camouflaged loudspeakers) at Christian & Byzantine Museum Athens

24 channel sound field (24 camouflaged loudspeakers) Küchengraben at Karlsaue, Kassel

Edition /
HiRes PCM 48kHz, 24bit sound file / binaural earphone edition

Location Kassel /

Location Athens /


[1] Benjamin Patterson, New York November 14th 1964, in: Becker and Vostell, Happenings, Fluxus, Pop Art. Benjamin Patterson, Bekenntnis, Hamburg, 1965, p. 241 (Source lacks the original English quote; the German source was translated into English).

[2] Ben Patterson, email to Adam Szymczyk (March 22nd 2016) 

[3] Adam Szymczyk in an email on March 23, 2016 to Ben Patterson.

[4] BBC News, May 4, 2015: “Greeks see cash run out in undeclared default.† By Giorgos Christides, Thessaloniki, Greece

Atlantic Community. Org:, January 29, 2015: “The Greek Moment: Facing the Reality.† By Valbona Zeneli and Joseph Vann. (quoted both April 21, 2017).

[5] cf. Note 2

[6] In Ben Patterson’s library, we found a copy of: Die schönsten Kindermärchen der Brüder Grimm, Stuttgart (K. Thienemanns Verlag), without year, (with a dedication from 1937).

[7] The first public entrance to the Museum for the Subconscious was cemented in shape of a stone on December 1st, 1996, on a rock wall of a small mountain in Okandukaseibe, Namibia. In the following years there were several entrances added: at Jerusalem Beach of Tel Aviv in Israel (1999); in the nest of a Condor on a mountain in der Province of Salta, Argentina (2010); at the border between the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and The Jung Center of Houston (2010);  in the form of a gully in front of the Nassauische Kunstverein Wiesbaden (2012); and the last in Blois (Spidernest) and Tokyo (Mount Fuji-San), both 2014.

[8] The Three Operas: Carmen (1990, Bizet), Madame Butterfly (1993, Puccini) and Tristan and Isolde (1961-93, Wagner):“I do a Reader's Digest of the things, in which I save only the best parts†”a summation of the music and then a theatrical scenario underneath or on top. (...) You barely hear the music because you know it so well; it's like wallpaper. My digesting and transformation of the works open your ears again to the original music.† (Dec. 11, 2013).

[9] cf. also the interpretation of Fairy Tale Philologist Lutz Röhrich. Röhrich, Lutz: Froschkönig. In: Enzyklopädie des Märchens. Volume 5, p. 410–424. Berlin, New York, 1987

[10] cf. Helga Deppermann: Das Märchen als therapeutisches Medium in der psychosozialen Arbeit. LIT Verlag, Münster 2003, p. 38.

[11] Niklas Holzberg (Ed.): Aristophanes, Die Frösche. Stuttgart (Reclam), 2011, p.99-110.

[12] Benjamin Patterson: I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question, in: Valerie Cassel Oliver (ed): Benjamin Patterson - Born in the State of FLUX/us (Exhibition Catalogue, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012), p.115. Originaly published in German language: Benjamin Patterson: Ich bin froh, daß Sie mir diese Frage gestellt haben. In: Kunstforum International, Bd. 115, September / Oktober 1991, (166–77) p. 176.

[13] cf. Note 1