A conversation with Alison Knowles

Alison Knowles in her Soho studio © 2013 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

When you first started out, you started studying painting and then you gave up painting and ended up in FLUXUS. How long a period of time was that and what was the progression?

ALISON:

I value my study with Adolf Gottlieb and Richard Lindner tremendously. They were at Pratt when I was going to school there studying painting. But then, when I got out of Pratt, I had a big painting show and somehow it was very sobering to me that it didn’t mean more in New York. I don’t know what I expected of New York or myself but I began to consider other expressive avenues. My husband, Dick Higgins, was running a wonderful press called Something Else Press and I had opportunities to do something else called performance art.  The FLUXUS group appealed to me because they offered me a chance to present things live. When I think back on high school  and grammar school, I definitely was drawn to a live expression of some sort; whether it was playing charades on Sunday night with my family or dancing on the street on July 4th. Somehow painting wasn’t holding me that strongly anymore. I enjoyed having two exhibitions but then I found that I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to as an artist. I began to travel with the FLUXUS group.

Here’s a wonderful book by my daughter Hannah Higgins, FLUXUS EXPERIENCE, and it tracks us as we went all over Europe to perform. Now performance art is so run of the mill, it’s so accepted. I’m pleased to say that I was in at the very beginning of performance art in New York City. The pieces that I did were done first in Europe and then coming back to New York. In Europe, the 1962 Wiesbaden performance was, I think, the first huge salad that I made. I have a piece called Make a Salad. I also performed there a piece called Child Art, where I put a two or three year old child on the stage alone as long as that child…

CHRYSANNE:

Was that one of your children?

Make a Salad, 1962

Make a Salad, 1962

ALISON:

Usually I was traveling with Dick, maybe alone, with my children taken care of in a Kinderheim (preschool) in Germany so I could travel and perform. It was very nice, those early years because it was a very fresh, new attitude about artists, that maybe you were a painter, or performer but maybe you also could make pottery or you also could dance. Now we have a much more categorized society where—I think it’s fine—to make your way as a dancer, you can’t do much besides dance and the same with maybe being a painter—I don’t know, because I’m not a painter. I worked myself into print making because I liked the idea that I could do ten or twelve of something and they could all be different. I could put a different color in, I could sign a bit differently. So somehow in those years book making, because of Dick, my husband, and print making were quite an avant-garde adventure. I see that the idea of prints and books and performance—now I think an artist is free to do just about anything as long as there is a kind of thread.

SUSAN:

When I was researching your work, I found out that Make a Salad was dated 1962. And the piece seems to be in part about communal eating, about creating community and I thought about the artist who comes many generations later, Rirkrit Tirvanija, who I don’t want to diminish in any way, but I do remember his work being greeted as if it were entirely novel but I would think that one of the major precedents for his work is your work. Are you familiar with him?

Make a Salad reperformed.

Make a Salad reperformed.

ALISON:

Yes, I am. I’ve met him. I think Make a Salad is a piece he didn’t know before he made his own salad and I don’t feel protective of the piece because I have so many pieces that I can do and I very often go to a school or somewhere where I am invited and I ask them what they would like to do. Usually, I can get four or five performers together to actually perform with me. So, I’m not really a solo type performer, although, a piece that I have done solo many times is Shoes of Your Choice, where I do need a microphone. Once I’ve described the shoes that I have on, I take them off and I show them to the audience. Then I can lure people up on the stage to do their own solo of that piece. That’s a piece I did many, many times in Europe on our tour—in ‘62 and in ‘72. Every decade we could go back to the same museums and spaces and usually do the same pieces that we were invited to do.

Ken's Shoes, 2011

Ken’s Shoes, 2011

SUSAN:

Does the person who comes up on stage describe their shoes?

ALISON:

Yes. They are alone up there with the microphone. So often you get the temperament of the person. You get an angry young man or you get someone who gets scared up there and just says, “These are my shoes,” and then runs away. I’m interested in involvements with the audience. I have pieces which involve scrolling down the aisles with papers. A piece that I’ve done often is called Loose Pages. I have a co-performer. Here’s a Tee-shirt that I put on the co-performer and it lists the head flap, the foot covers—all the different types of paper that have gone into the making of the piece. Here for instance is the hat. This is the last piece to go on. Here are the shoes and as you see they all have different sounds. This is also flax but it’s very thick so that when you pour it onto the bed to dry, either to dry by sucking out the water or air dry, it has a different sound than say—this. This is pure cotton and has almost no sound.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you make the paper?

ALISON:

I make all these papers. I can go to Cave Paper in Minneapolis or I can go upstate to Women’s Studio Workshop. This is flax. I made a flax umbrella, you can’t describe this sound. So now, if I have the two arms on, and the hat and the vest, I become a theatrical figure of some sort. And with the feet, I can slowly exit making all these sounds.

Cave Wall, 2003

Cave Wall, 2003

CHRYSANNE:

And wasn’t there a large book that you made that traveled around Europe?

ALISON:

Yes. This publication just came out: it’s called The Big Book. It was produced by Corinn Gerber, who came to me as a student and felt that this book had inspired her own work somehow. So she collected the articles about The Big Book, and here is the front cover. And she says:

The Big Book is just a book comprised of eight movable parts, eight feet tallconnected to a metal spine. This walk-in construction was equipped with casters which made it possible to leaf through individual pages. Each page had access to the next opening, different spaces and different ways the reader could approach.”

(Pointing to the book cover.) I’m climbing on a step ladder, which is provided, in order to step into the next page.There was a Muybridge print called The Exercising Man, and here you can see a little bit of him. I used about four or five different postures imitating what you might have to do to go through the big book.

The Big Book, 1967

CHRYSANNE:

Does The Big Book still exist?

ALISON:

The Big Book has quite a number of articles written about it. One called Alison in Wonderland by Emmett Williams, a wonderful poet. So I took it to France and Italy and it had a very vigorous life. Let me put it that way. Because it was available to go through physically. And so it gradually began to wear out. I got it as far as Milano and it just wouldn’t stand anymore. Because, there are just two by fours holding it up, so if too many people are engaging in the book—it just wore out. I gave it to someone named Gino DiMaggio, who has a museum in Milano and as far as I know it is standing in his basement today.

SUSAN:

It seems that you were one of the very first artists to generate a literary text with a computer. And this is interesting because even today, there is resistance in certain quarters in the art world to thinking about computer generated work as art. And this is something you were doing in the sixties.

ALISON:

Would you like to see it? I’ve got a portion of it. (Brings over a small framed fragment.) It’s called The House of Dust. It’s on computer paper. It’s pretty pale. I have many pages of it as a print out. This is just a small fragment that I framed. So, I built this in California at Cal Arts.

SUSAN:

That’s where I went to graduate school.

Event Thread 3, 2006

Event Thread 3, 2006

ALISON:

I got a Guggenheim grant and I got the money to build one. So (reads from fragment): “I built a house of plastic in open country using natural light inhabited by people wearing all types of red clothing.” So I had a chance to make each of the permutations different. And that was maybe an unusual idea.

SUSAN:

So was it that the text was generated by computer and determined how the people would appear?

ALISON:

The text has a category for what the house was made of, a category for where it was located, how it was lighted and who was inhabiting it. So here’s a house of dust in a deserted factory using natural light, inhabited by people who enjoy eating together. Here’s a house of roots in Japan, using electricity, inhabited by people who eat a great deal. So, on the house by the sea, using all available light, inhabited by lovers. So, one quatrain is not like the next. How I did this was—I just made lists. What is the house made of, where is it, how is it lighted and who is living in it, and gave to Buchhandlung König Verlag there in Cologne and they sent me four feet of poetry. And that’s a man named Kasper König and his brother Walther. They were very helpful. Without them it would never have had the attention that it got as a computer poem.

CHRYSANNE:

A number of your works have a giving capacity, an audience interaction and the idea of an exchange. Not necessarily a gift but a giving capacity and a playfulness with the audience. So many artists are very possessive of their work and there is something beautifully mischievous at play in the idea of the ego of the artist engaging the audience.

video ©2013 by MOMMY

ALISON:

My answer to that would be that other people have given me ideas all of my life, just by working with them and talking to them.

This book by Alison Knowles was the first published book of my works in 1964 and I look at these pieces and I’m still doing them and I’m still pleased with them—Tie Up the Audience—I did that, or how about Shuffle. And this is a wonderful way to begin a concert, I get to perform with people behind me and we are all making a sound by shuffling our feet on the floor and there is Make a Salad. The one that was always very shocking was called Nivea Cream for Emmett Williams because most of the time, when you had an audience and a microphone, you had a theater work. So people, in a way, subconsciously, were expecting some dialogue that had to do with theater, not Shakespeare, but a pre-existing concept, that was basically theater, perhaps memorized, but it was known by the performer what would happen. So that’s where this work is extraordinary. In a piece like Nivea Cream an audience person is invited up to let me give them Nivea Cream all over their hands and their arms and I maybe start with myself and then I say, “Is someone else going to be interested to do this in the audience?” Then you get a little line of people to come up and then we sound the “squidging” (pressing the hands together) at the microphone. On one occasion somebody slapped Nivea Cream all over the microphone and I had to get that worked out later.

Wall in Alison Knowles's studio_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Wall in Alison Knowles’s studio_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

This book was published in 1965 by Dick Higgins in the Great Bear pamphlet series. And he went ahead to publish a great many of them: Phillip Corner, Al Hansen, Robert Fillou, Claes Oldenberg—I think is still alive, Dieter Roth—no, but they were all people who were doing work that was not really acceptable in the art world or on the theater stage and Dick would publish them. So we are very grateful to him for doing that.

And as I say, my daughter Hannah has continued with a lot of FLUXUS pieces and observations in The Grid Book, which is the most recent.

SUSAN:

Your daughter Hannah is an art historian?

ALISON:

Yes. And this was just produced for the fiftieth anniversary and indeed you do have a CD that you can play, which has the pieces that we did at the fiftieth anniversary. I’m very pleased that Jessica Higgins, outdoors, is being dressed in her paper suit.

Clear Skies All Week (installation view at James Fuentes Gallery)

Clear Skies All Week (installation view at James Fuentes Gallery)

SUSAN:

This past year was also the hundred birthday or would have been, of John Cage. Online, I came across a flow chart of the history of the FLUXUS movement by George Maciunas, that’s actually annotated in spots by you, and at the very center near the top of this flow chart is John Cage. In researching your work, I found that sound is very important to you, and I wonder if your interest in sound developed in part because you knew him or worked with him?

ALISON:

I think for me, what was important was the action of the performer, which, by the time you’re dressed in paper or eating a salad involves sound, but perhaps I could say John cued me to its importance in what I was doing.

SUSAN:

So it was already there.

ALISON:

But it was there along with text and action. Actually, Dick Higgins was in John’s New School class and I visited once to see the tremendous influence he had. I just got this book and I must show you a wonderful illustration— it is a text that has become a notation for performance. In other words, something like this, here on the right side, it’s something that I could present to a class and ask them to go home and come back the next day with ideas for a sound in whatever square they chose and in fact, do a performance. And these were people who were used to thinking of notation as being notes.

SUSAN:

But it is a score of some sort?

ALISON:

Yes, it’s a score of a sort.

CHRYSANNE:

Isn’t there another book the press printed about John Cage? One you helped design?

ALISON:

Do you know that book? I’ll go get it if you like. So here is unfortunately a stained cover of the Notations book, (Notations edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles, page composition by Alison Knowles, 1969), produced by Something Else Press and probably its most well known production. So what I did here was to invite maybe forty people. I sent out letters inviting them to say what they wanted about musical notation. And you can imagine Cage’s list of musicians were people involved in all kinds of art but using sound. For John, sound, I think I can say, was the core of his music, not notes. And so all these people sent me what they thought notation was.

All along the pages, but related to the texts in question were ideas about notation. And then the fun I had, because I had access to many different type faces, I was able to, with chance operations, have different weights of letters. Again, not to make one thing more impressive than another but just to make the page more interesting. So that these musical notations on the left hand page have nothing to do with the notations I put together on the right hand page. This was an astonishing book and we printed by permission of the composer, everyone who sent us something and wanted to be in this book. We’re talking about 1964. A lot of these works are from ‘63, ‘64. So you see, there is a lot of interest in sound that’s not related to notes but is related to gesture or action.

Reads from Notations:

“This book illustrates a collection of music manuscripts, which was made in recent years to benefit the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art. The collection was determined by circumstances rather than by any process of selection. Thus it shows the many directions in which music notation is now going.”

The manuscripts are not arranged according to kinds of music but alphabetically according to the composer’s name. No explanatory information is given. Then it goes on to discuss the process of employing the IChing, and chance operations to give the different weights to the texts. And interestingly enough, there were some composers who objected to what we did with the text. In other words, didn’t care for the different weights, the way that it looked on the page. So this was a wonderful adventure that the Something Else Press put me up to.

This is a mesostic that John Cage made for me in ‘87 when I was off to do a show in Cologne. I produced the announcement card from this lovely mesostic, which had the names down the middle. It reads: “We look before we listen, who see windows where before there were walls that were nothing but notes.” I love that.

Mesostic by John Cage, gift to Alison Knowles_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Mesostic by John Cage, gift to Alison Knowles_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

Could you talk a little about your more recent piece Time Samples?

ALISON:

This was something that Steve Clay helped me with. And the idea was that you could hang the book up (Note: The book emerges from a box like an accordion and each page is like a flap with an image on the front and a text on the back.) and take a page and read about it and take a page and read about it. This page is green China silk bought to act as a sun shield over a skylight, because I made this in the room where I have too much sunlight. A footprint, a silkscreen fragment, an announcement, a poster. Oh, this is waxed flax paper. You’ve seen all this flax paper here—well this is when it is coated with wax. And here is flax paper with imbedments of beans. At that time in my life I had access to a graphic arts camera so I could produce all of this myself and send it to Steve Clay at Soho Letterpress. It was bound by Judith Ivry.

CHRYSANNE:

Is each book different?

ALISON:

Well, yes, because with a page like that I would make a large quantity and then cut it up. Same with something like this. No two the same. But you don’t get somebody to make a box like that every day. In other boxes—here’s a Bean Reading Kit with real beans in it. I had a friend who would do the sewing. These objects are things that had to do with beans: railroad track through the bean—actually a watch band. So this is something I would do as a performance. Whoever would buy the box I would do a performance for. Sometimes, I didn’t make so many of these, it depended on what the publisher wanted, if he wanted ten or twelve: this is number twenty-three and this is from 1981.

Thunder Bay, 2003

Thunder Bay, 2003

SUSAN:

Would each buyer get a private performance or was there a public performance around the sale?

ALISON:

Something like that. I don’t think I sold very many, maybe ten. If someone was interested in having the performance, I would do it, of course.

SUSAN:

How did beans become such an important material for you?

ALISON:

Well, for the sound. These drawings I have on the wall: I call them Bean Chimes, and very often I will start a performance by throwing a handful of Chi-Chi beans or Limas or the black bean—the round ones resonate more. So I would shake the chime and bounce the beans up in the air without spilling and that was a nice sonic beginning for an evening.

So mostly, this FLUXUS group was responsible for performances on Canal street. That’s how we publicized ourselves. Saturday afternoon performances. So you could come and see Ay-O, Daniel Spoerri, Lette Eisenhauer, Dick, myself, perform these pieces. Here’s Ben Vautier in France brushing his teeth and it’s a performance. And here are two of my favorite people; here is Takako Saito who has a special piece with liquids, I don’t remember specifically what it is, and here on the left is Tomas Schmit, who was just honored in Cologne. He spent a whole weekend pouring a bottle of water from one bottle into another bottle until the water was all gone. It took him about 48 hours.

This is nice. This is a picture of me fluttering paper on the street. And there is Ben Vautier, who came to New York and actually Daniel Spoerri was here too—but I liked the idea that I would sit there and do my paper sounds publicly on the street and of course, from time to time, someone would stop and say, “What are you doing?” And I’d say: “Oh, this is the sound of raw flax. You mean you don’t know?” And then I’d engage them and teach them a little something.

Greene Street, 2003

Greene Street, 2003

CHRYSANNE:

I’m curious, being in your studio space, if you’ve been to Asia or Japan?

ALISON:

Both.

CHRYSANNE:

Did going to those places have any influence on you?

ALISON:

I’ve been to Korea. I’m wearing a Tee-shirt from the International Paper Art Festival where I performed Loose Pages, and then Japan, which I think was just a regular FLUXUS festival. They brought three or four of us over to Tokyo.

SUSAN:

I do have one additional question. You began your career in the early ‘60’s and it was before the women’s movement become prominent and I am wondering what it was like for you as a woman artist in that period, how much you were facilitated or not by your male peers and whether or not you noticed a change in the way you were treated or perceived once the women’s movement became visible?

ALISON:

Someone titled it the princess syndrome—that I was the only woman among performing male people and probably I was only there because I was Dick Higgins’ wife, although I’m not sure whether I could have had some recognition on my own before entering with him. And I noticed that pretty soon after being in FLUXUS, you had other performers like Carolee Schneemann or Mieko Shiomi, who were coming right along as individual women, without a group, and I certainly admired that very much because as women artists they didn’t have any support financially. It’s not as if they were walking out on a stage like a man would. So, I’m very pleased to be associated at all with the women’s movement because I’ve never helped at all. I’ve been on some programs with only women performers but I never—you see, I had the opportunity to be somewhere else as a performer—meaning with this FLUXUS male group. So I have admiration for those women Carolee and Mieko, but I was simply in a different position.

SUSAN:

And were the members of FLUXUS supportive of having a woman in their midst?

ALISON:

Very supportive. They loved to have me there. They loved the princess syndrome.

CHRYSANNE:

Who coined the expression: The princess syndrome?

ALISON:

Some newspaper.

Alison Knowles with her work in Soho © 2013 by Susan Silas

 

4 thoughts on “A conversation with Alison Knowles

  1. excellent interview. in recent times a lot of young women artists have taken to performance art. i dont think they know about the history of performance art in the west or elsewhere.has this interview been published anywhere?if not may be i can get it published i n a magazine called art and deal published from delhi. it has some committed readers though it does not claim to be a very intellectual/theoretical magazine, still many read this magazine.let me know
    best
    amit

  2. What a great interview. All of Alison’s work, words and performances are always fresh and inspiring. She truly is ‘in the moment’, authentically living and inventing as she goes along. A pioneer.

  3. This is a wonderful conversation/images about Alison, it really captures her and her work. It was also nice she mentioned Cave Paper, she has been to Minneapolis to work with us six times, it is always an adventure!

  4. Oh, this is fantastic. In all my years making paper, I’ve never run across another artist so fresh and facile with the medium. It just looks right every time. And that is hard to pull off with a material that seduces you like a siren! It points to the true visionary nature of Knowles’ work.

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