Interviews With Alison Knowles, July-October 2001, New York Cityby Ellen Pearlman
Alison Knowles: Ellen, it was great you came to the performance last night (at the Drawing Center). Tell me what you thought of it?
Ellen Pearlman (Rail): Yes, I thought your pieces worked on focusing attention on a small event, such as the sound of beans pouring through one of your elongated sculptures, or the sound of two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together, focusing on the moment, on what actually is going on around you. But I would like to know the origin of this, the entire origin of Fluxus.
The First Fluxus Concert
Knowles: The first concert was in September of 1962 in Wiesbaden, Germany. We had a week of concerts. A lot of activity in New York preceded this event, such as the Happenings by Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, poetry and music in New York by Jackson Mac Low, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, George Brecht among many others. There was the John Cage Class at the New School and the AG Gallery concerts of new music organized by George Maciunas. I had just graduated from Pratt and was still studying painting there with Adolph Gottlieb. In 1959 I felt the influence of new winds from all sides and stopped painting. A small group of us banded together around George Maciunas at 80 Wooster Street to plan a trip to Europe. He went over to pave the way. We assumed that the situation would be similar in Wiesbaden, Germany, comparable to the avant-garde art in New York: an intimate group of cognoscenti, mostly artists gathering to see new works by one another. The concert was done by young artists, some imported from New York, some from Germany and Scandinavia. The people who attended the concert the first night were not informed of the nature of the work. It was mostly urban folks who were used to attending the concert series at the Wiesbaden Museum. These were orchestra concerts and opera, basically conservative offerings to a fixed public. By the second night of our series the word had spread and a different crowd arrived. It was a boisterous dialogue with the audience, and people actually standing up in the seats and shouting at the stage, throwing eggs or tomatoes and making lots of noise. Others in the audience tried to act as molifiers to quiet people down so they could hear what was going on. I quickly learned as a performer to just proceed with what I was doing no matter what. The event scores were strongly flavored with Eastern philosophy because there were no designated players with parts, no costumes, no sets available, no scenario, there was simply an action to be performed. A film of “the loonies” appeared in local bars showing us performing upside down. The following morning we were forced to appear early, like naughty children to clean up the concert hall. I spent several hours scrapping dried egg off the back wall! Most of the pieces used musical instruments but in unorthodox ways, such as polishing them up, attaching toys, or taking a piano apart in front of the audience and then parts of the piano were auctioned off. The series became popular and we traveled like rock stars to Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, London and Paris. The book by Wolf Vostell, Happening & Fluxus, is an excellent record of the New York and the European Fluxus events of those years. The event score pieces were shocking to the German post-war audience. Hell and high water doesn’t describe the reaction we got. Some of us were locked up in Amsterdam after Vostell’s opening. That’s the time he dropped the television set from the top floor window. The performances bonded us forever, it not as friends then as fellow artists.
Return to New York
When we came back to New York, things were much quieter. We did events in a store front at 359 Canal Street where George Maciunas organized Saturday night gatherings. It was as if no word of what happened in Wiesbaden had gotten to home shores. However, small publications appeared, Dick Higgins’ Foew and his Great Bear Pamphlets from The Something Else Press, his own poetry and event series called Jefferson’s Birthday.
Rail: What exactly is an event score?
Knowles: An event score is a two or three line recipe for an action.
Rail: Such as?
Knowles: La Monte Young’s “Draw a straight line and follow it,” or Bob Watt’s “Two Inches.” The performance of these pieces is left to the imagination of the performer. What differentiates this idiom from theatre, is that one is told what to do and that is all. The classic performance of “Two Inches” for instance, the one Ben Vautier and I did on Canal Street, is to take a roll of ribbon two inches wide and stretch it across the street raising it from either side to stop traffic.
The Origin of an Event Score
Rail: And how did the idea to just perform an action originate?
Knowles: Not just to perform any action. The events were written up and rehearsed if possible. The event score was preceded by concrete and visual poetry. An event we did often was an event of mine, “Make a Salad.” You can put Swiss cheese and artichoke hearts in your salad and I might put something different like escarole and vinaigrette. For two hundred Danes we didn’t use blue cheese. It wasn’t entertainment. They waited for us to cut and chop the vegetables. In fact it made a statement concerning the importance of daily life. Eric Andersen who provided the vegetables from his music school budget was kicked out of school! They showed a pile of vegetables in a photo in the local paper. Having a live piece of food on the stage and “composing” a salad for everyone present, about 200 in Copenhagen, maybe more, you can’t imagine how shocking it was to the German audience. We put on these event scores for one week. Actually “Make a Salad” premiered in London for maybe 100 or so. It is the first of my event scores that was actually done by our troupe.
Rail: Do you remember exactly when?
Knowles: The fall of 1962. It was about 12 people who performed including Emmet Williams, Ben Patterson, Ben Gautier. It made the consciousness of the group, if you will the sangha, richer because it challenged us to write scores and do them right away. It was a further breakdown of a 19th century isolationist mentality in art. You know, just wipe the ideology clan. “Do it,” go out and make a salad! People in post-war Germany, lots of them got very angry over that performance.
The event score works are poetic more than anything else. They are koan poems to be worked out to perform for people. I don’t think John (Cage) would mind if I say that.
The Influence of John Cage
Rail: How much of what Cage did affect all of you? Were you aware of it?
Knowles: The zeitgeist at that moment was that half of the group had been in John Cage’s class at The New School. George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Al Hansen, Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, and Florence Tarlow, a wonderful actress who was at many of our events. These people took a class in experimental composition, not new music. Cage was interested in intermedia, a concept later put into language by Dick Higgins. I wasn’t in the class but I was very involved in doing poetry pieces with a lot of these people.
Rail: What year was this?
Knowles: 1958 and 1959. I did have the opportunity to do several books with John based on chance operations. Jackson was also a personal friend of John’s and Jackson used chance operations to write poetry. I used chance much more loosely, if there is such a thing as loose chance operations. By this I mean let’s fold a cloth, dip it in blue paint and unfold it to designate an area or boundary to work in. It’s not as if you are designing a house to get a specific area, a blocked out area to work in, even if the edges are fuzzy with paint.
Rail: Can you talk about those books and projects?
Knowles: John and I did a book called Notations, published by the Something Else Press, a collection of manuscripts by people who were doing work with sound. Each composer was asked to write about notation, as well. We provided each person with the number of words he/she could use in what they chose to say about notation. An example of that is…let’s say you are given three words to say about notations in the 20th century, so you might say ‘notation is absurd.’ That is three words. The choice was made by the I Ching, up to 64 words like the 64 hexagrams. So some people got to write a great deal. Some people got very angry about being told how many words to use and just didn’t do it.
We did another book called Writing Through Finnegans Wake after the Notations, published through Steinhour Press in 1978. Steinhour Press was an excellent press where type was set by hand. For this we used the mesostic form, going down the middle of the page and having the words of the text float out of the sides. It’s a hard book to read, Finnegans Wake, and the mesostics were very appropriate to Joyce’s masterpiece. I mean, I think Joyce would have loved what John did with his text. John also mesosticized The Bible and other books.
An Example of a Mesostic Text
From the original Finnegans Wake spelling out James Joyce:
A night Marching
HavE for techertim tomdigby
A seasiCk trip
A govErmet ship for Teague o’flanagan
Rail: What did you do with Cage?
Knowles: I did writing through Finnegans Wake as I said. We took the punctuation out of the book and then replaced it back into the book by chance operations. This was not random or improvisation but pure chance operations. It flies across the page like dust and it took us the whole month of August to place the punctuation there. Of course it was in Barton, Vermont so John could also look for mushrooms.
The Difference Between Randomness and Improvisation
Rail: What do you mean by improvisation?
Knowles: Improvisation is to work expressively and personally with say, music. It is very dependent on your individual feeling and about the music. At least that is the way I understand it. When you hear great jazz improvisations, it has to do with reciprocity of sound among performers and great skill with the instrument.
Random structures and indeterminacy are closer to improvisation than chance operations, which predetermine all the sounds and factors beforehand.
Let’s say I have the words “shoe, rain, and silence.” I have three minutes to actually say those words. There are a lot of very beautiful word constellations that can arise from that. You can say all three words in one minute, you can say shoe, silence, rain, or you can wait for two minutes and say shoe, then rain, and then have silence. The events score says you only get one chance to do this.
Or another time the score says you can say rain once, shoe five times and silence three times, a poetic concept which works its way into sound. Cage says this structure of randomizing sound is indeterminacy.
I taught in Kassel for a year, I taught a class using random and indeterminacy combining numbers and colors and patterns. What we want is to use new methods and get new possibilities from an event score that says for example, “use blue and the number four and make a collage.” We had some very interesting graphics and photo montage pieces done in that class. An event score, however, is not a chance operation.
Rail: This is very much like meditation practice, which is designed to deal with habitual patterns and cut through them and open you up to new things.
Judson Dance Theater Workshop
Rail: When you came back to the United States, did you interact with Judson Dance Theater Workshop, was there overlap or cross-fertilization? Were you aware of them?
Knowles: Oh yes, we were involved with some of the Judson Dance Theater groups musically and I had a show at the Judson Gallery in 1961.
Rail: That is when they first started, in 1961 to 1963.
Knowles: Right. We saw a lot of their productions. Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg performed at the gallery so that period was very lively. Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti danced and Carolee Schneemann performed too.
Rail: What medium had you worked in before?
Knowles: Painting. I had a show of abstract expressionist paintings at the Nonagon Gallery. There were only two of these left. I destroyed the others. This show was in, I think, 1958. At the Judson, I was projecting objects onto canvas, filling them in and then silkscreening directly onto the canvas. I had a job at a silkscreen studio and I would bring the abandoned printing plates (silkscreens) home to print onto my artwork. These projection paintings I showed at the Judson. Shortly afterwards Andy Warhol discovered the same method.
When I came back from Europe there was a Fluxus explosion right here in New York. We brought this work back to Canal Street and had a Flux theater once a week at 359 Canal Street. We had a shop window with musical instruments in it by Joe Jones, and plastic boxes that were later used and collected by George Machunas to sell in the shop. These items, which were for sale, turned out to be real museum pieces as time went on and traveled with the Fluxus show that started out at the Walker (Art Museum) in 1992. Cage began his class (at the New School ’58-’59) and gave Fluxus a kick into Europe (1962) and when we came back the performance we did with event scores was something that Cage himself wasn’t sure he understood or wanted to have a connection with! We established something quite different from Cage, yet he had a great influence on us.
Fluxus Influence Today
Rail: How do you see the influence of Fluxus carrying on today?
Knowles: Well, for instance, there is going to be a concert Saturday night connected to the Art in General anniversary exhibit “Looking for Mr. Fluxus: In the Footsteps of George Maciunas” that has gone on this month. The students of Geoff Hendricks at Rutgers plus Larry Miller will put on an evening of event pieces at the Emily Harvey Gallery. I’ll contribute a piece by Bengt af Klintberg. It is titled “Canto 2” from a series called Calls.
It goes like this: We approach each other, myself and Larry calling to one another by name from doors across the room. He says, “Alison I can hardly see you.” I say, “The light is terrible in this gallery.” We observe light conditions, noting people present. Then he says, “Alison have you come down the stairs yet, I can’t see you.” And I say, “I have to step over these people. I’ll be there in a minute! We slowly approach each other. We finally meet; “Hello Bengt,” “Hello Dick” (original performer with Bengt af Klintberg was Dick Higgins). I think we will decide to use our real names, Larry and Alison.
The event pieces are wonderful studies of Fluxus as performance art. These concerts are like koans (a Japanese meditation form of non-logical questions) in contemporary culture. It’s the audience that is different nowadays, they are pensive and generally enthusiastic about what they see and hear. The pieces that have survived thirty odd years are usually the shorter pieces, two or three minutes. At the gallery this Saturday, the Emily Harvey gallery at 537 Broadway in New York, there will be some longer pieces that may overlap with shorter ones.
There is a rich Fluxus legacy in performance that is constantly revived, and new works appear regularly in the right spirit. There are also lots of objects in plastic boxes arranged by George Maciunas that are in Detroit in the collection of Gilbert and Lila Silverman. Skuta Helgason, an Icelandic artist living in New York, has arranged the Art in General gallery space presentations. He has gathered an amazing library of Fluxus books and catalogs to display.
I think the main value of this work is to transform our daily actions into art actions and thereby transform both. Fluxus uses found things and daily utilitarian things like spoons, apples, and a ladder. The importance is to put a focus on the ordinary activities of our lives in contrast to the huge spectacle art pieces we often see in museums and galleries, which is part of the drive to commodify art. Fluxus has just a different value system.
I think people really need this work. These pieces are right at home in any culture because they are part and parcel of our living experience. The contexts to see and hear these pieces is within a tight interactive community of poets, writers and artists. I tend towards poetry in my appreciation of event scores. Others tend towards a musical interpretation.
Contemporary poetry has a center right now in Granary Books run by Steve Clay. Another series of decade performances is underway for France and Germany; even California has gotten involved for the year 2002, which marks the fortieth anniversary of the Wiesbaden Fluxus concert of 1962
It’s a very lively time for culture worldwide and for Fluxus as well. If art is not based on spectacle or commodity values you just have to look harder and suddenly a whole new context opens up.
My recent work is collaborative with performers and musicians. I am developing paper sound sculptures, making prints, and sometimes giving performances as I always have. I seem to have a different energy for what I do now and work more slowly. I take work to Europe, mainly Germany or Italy each year. These are modest situations and suit me well. From time to time something appears in a museum.
Community, Art, and Buddhist Thought
Knowles: Cage tried very hard to work with the need people have which is unrecognized, for art, for poetry, and for music. In New York it happened, but it was only a small group.
Rail: Actually as you said, it was an informed community and lineage. Ideas did not just get communicated through thin air, they got communicated through people. And people had relationships with each other.
Knowles: I had been an artist for many years before I was 20. I concentrated on either writing books of poetry or drawing pictures. As a young artist and teenager I found myself working alone without much contact with my schoolmates. But I was always encouraged by my father, Edwin B. Knowles who taught at Pratt Institute. I had few female friends and I worked and performed with men in the Fluxus group. I felt validated as an artist by my Fluxus experiences. There weren’t any women at all who were artists, or visible to me.
Something Else Press
Knowles: When we came back to New York we published Something Else Press. Dick Higgins started with his own accounts of a journey he called Jefferson’s Birthday/Postface. There were also books published by poets Emmett Williams and Robert Filliou. Another thing we did was print a series called the Great Bear Pamphlets which were event scores and poetry by many artists.
I did a print with Marcel Duchamp at the Press. I also did a silkscreen print with John Giorno and Claes Oldenburg. I had a community within a community, and our house was overrun with artists, we had a whole house in Chelsea and I had a first floor studio, and there I built the Big Book. That was in 1967. I did a print with Marcel and he died in 1968.
The Big Book was built downstairs in the house. The seven pages were 4 feet wide by 8 feet high. It contained Muybridge silkscreen prints on vinyl. There were complete living facilities, a gallery and a makeshift bed within the pages of the book. The Big Book traveled all through Europe and fell apart in San Diego. It was later rebuilt in New York City for a show called “Fluxus Crazy Publishers” in ’67.
Rail: How long did the Something Else Press go on?
Knowles: From 1960, or 1961 when it began, it went on a good decade and then we changed the press to be with John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, and Jackson Mac Low and myself and Dick, we turned it into Other Publishers. Then it became Unpublished Editions, because Jackson liked that title better. Time was at such an essence in terms of doing your work and producing books, raising a family, and having a house. I feel that the Something Else Press was European based. We published so many poets from Europe. Fluxus tours and The Big Book ended up in Europe. The impact of the work was not immediately felt in the United States.
Rail: How many children do you have?
Knowles: I had twin daughters. Hannah is an art historian and Jessica is an artist. They are tremendously successful women, and beautiful people. I feel they are my sisters as well as my children. I also have many collaborative friendships that seem to have carried us, rolled us along into the next decade, and the next decade.
Rail: Where are all these works now?
Knowles: The complete edition is at Northwestern. Hannah has a book coming out called Fluxus Experience, from Southern California University Press in the fall of 2002. Perhaps one of the more valuable outputs from the Press are these small books of everyone’s works; Oldenburg, Cage, etc. Jackson could be making large canvases with broken down words in them or I could be making sound works and performing. These traditional forms were broken up.
Raill: That is almost like Diane di Prima and Yugen and the Floating Bear Press. She also had a press…it is very interesting.
Happenings vs. Fluxus
Knowles: I never would say Fluxus versus Happenings. I would say Fluxus and Happenings. I just saw a video of many Happenings from this period of Oldenburg, Whitman and Schneeman at a show in Paris, “Les années Pop”, Years of Pop. It does not include Fluxus because Fluxus began in postwar Germany. In New York there was not even a great reception for these very simple events. We just met Saturday nights to do a few events and talk together on Canal Street. But it was still part of this whole sense of the ’60s, but it wasn’t Happenings at all. Fluxus had a Carnegie Hall concert that was very festive and wonderful. However, it was sparsely attended probably because of poor publicity.
Rail: What would you say is the difference between Fluxus events and Happenings, because in a lot of people’s minds they blend together?
Knowles: As I said before, the Fluxus event is a recipe for action. A Happening is a theater piece, usually outside, directed and produced by the artist. History likes to make a blend, doesn’t it? But different artists were involved in the two forms. The people did not overlap. Happenings had no basis in the original John Cage class at The New School. Only Allan Kaprow was in that class. He wanted something more expansive and demonstrative and even operatic in his artwork. I know Allan’s work the best. Claes Oldenburg’s Happenings were mostly inside the store. They involved objects, artifacts, and were never open-ended the way Allan Kaprow’s were. They were contained within four walls and he used big figures and baggy costumes with slapping water and bananas, a more happy less angry form.
Happenings had a completely open and improvisatory score. Allan writes well about his work. During a certain period he made his Happenings, which interfaced with John’s classes, but they took a very different direction.
John Cage and Happenings
Rail: What do you mean when you say they interfaced with John’s classes?
Knowles: Well, he was in the class.
Rail: Did he do them while the class was going on?
Knowles: I’m not sure. But I mean he interfaced with the ideas and concepts that John put forth. George Brecht wrote events scores and he actually coined the term. Precision, which was something that John generated within random structures, was not something for Allan Kaprow. Yet it was wonderful that Allan came up with these extraordinary Happenings in caves called “Eat,” or more like Carolee’s “Meat Joy” at The Judson were wonderful because they were so free, such a free for all.
Fluxus and the Cultural Landscape
Rail: Fluxus has become more a part of the cultural landscape and its vocabulary is taken for granted now. Intermedia seems so normal as a form. But there is no real understanding of where it all came from and how deeply radical it was at the time. That is why I am interviewing you. These days any creative person cuts their baby teeth on the use of intermedia, mixed media, performance and sound.
Knowles: A salad. Well the question to these things now is just to accept they were a huge deal. It was a really big deal, for which each one of us involved is forever grateful. How can anyone understand it anymore? A salad. It meant so much then.