The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

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MAR 2019 Issue
Critics Page In Conversation

Alison Knowles with Carolee Schneemann

Edited by Phillip Griffith

I am saddened by the sudden loss, yesterday, of Carolee. What you see here is a conversation we had recently. Coincidentally, it was destined for publication today. I am grateful for this last meeting with my long time friend.
– Alison Knowles, March 7th, 2019, NYC

Alison Knowles and Carolee Schneemann. October 16th, 2018 at Alison Knowles's loft. Photo: Jessica Higgins.

Alison Knowles is known for introducing such performance actions as Make a Salad (1962), an event for the end of a Fluxus Concert at the ICA in London. Offered by her performance score Proposition #2, the instruction simply says, “Make a salad,” but leads to making a salad for the entire audience. The process of making a salad is the concert material itself, as in the event’s 2012 performance on Chelsea’s High Line where Knowles tossed a mountain of prepared greens over a balcony, onto a tarp and served a dressed salad to over a thousand people. Knowles is one of the founding members of Fluxus, along with her partner Dick Higgins, who ran the Something Else Press, and with other artists who came to downtown New York’s early 1960s John Cage era to work with the group, among them George Brecht and Nam June Paik. In her 1971 artist’s book Journal of the Identical Lunch (published by San Francisco-based Nova Broadcast Press), Knowles records the description of a tuna fish sandwich lunch she was in the habit of eating each day, as a work, and collects descriptions of their experience from other friends and artists, using the performed action as the basis for a new way to develop media. “The Identical Lunch: a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a large glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup was and is eaten many days of each week at the same place and at about the same time.” Some of the participants include Dick Higgins, John Giorno, Philip Corner, and Susan Hartung.

Knowles’s artistic and social world overlapped with Carolee Schneemann’s in the avant-garde milieu of 1960s New York. Schneemann’s partner, the composer James Tenney, collaborated with Knowles on her 1967 Guggenheim award winning poem, performed by artificial intelligence, titled The House of Dust. Tenney and Knowles, along with Higgins and John Cage, belonged to the New York Mycological Society. Knowles and Cage, when not scouring for varieties of mushrooms, produced the decade’s most important snapshot of notations to be performed: Notations, by John Cage (edited, designed, and produced by Alison Knowles) Something Else Press, 1969. Knowles and Schneemann, in their own ways, indelibly shaped performance art’s trajectory throughout the late 20th century. In October of 2018 the two artists met at Knowles’s Manhattan loft to discuss Fluxus, feminism, life with partners, friendships, families, and art.

Alison Knowles: I’m happy to have had this loft for so many years. I’ve been able to design the space and meet the maintenance.

Carolee Schneemann: It’s full of good memories for your friends when we get here. It’s like, “Oh I know this place!” I’m in my old farmhouse where I’ve been since 1963. It has a bluestone walkway up to the house—the house was built in 1750—so all my cats are buried under each of these bluestones, and now it’s crowded. We just buried Ms. Lily Grey.

Night Crawlers, (1967) at Montreal Expo. Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney collaboration. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Carolee Schneemann

I remember when Jim Tenney and I escaped Illinois and were first in New York City. We saw you and Dick and were very curious. We thought, “Look at this. They’re artists, they look like artists, they’re our age, what are they doing here? We better find out who they are.” You were the original, equitable, young artist couple for us. You were printing in your studio on Canal Street.

Knowles: I had a silkscreen press, and I would pull the prints and try to sell them or hang them up because I had the loft on Canal and Broadway. I could print there and have access to Canal Street, which is probably still my favorite street in New York. Because you’re only a few blocks from Chinatown, so you can take people to eat there.

Schneemann: It used to be full of things we needed like old, broken plastic, broken motors that you could rehabilitate, strange costumes that were left over from some little shop that did Halloween.

Knowles: I still like to scour the streets. That’s where I found this ficus tree that’s trying to escape through my skylight. It was three feet tall when I found it, that was 40 years ago.

Schneemann: And then you were in that house on West 20-what?

Knowles: 238 West 22nd Street.

Schneemann: I loved that house. Amazing things happened there. The first exhibit of the European artist that Higgins brought in was Dieter Roth. The influx of the European artists was very influential for all of us, vitalizing. They brought something unique, often conflicted, but very engaging.

Knowles: Dick Higgins put out Dieter Roth and Dick made the scene very lively because he was publishing.

Schneemann: Who was the big, messy, German artist that became accepted into Fluxus? Wolf Vostell! Dick would make these exceptions for Expressionist artists that weren’t really Fluxus in the strictest sense, but he wanted their presence. Vostell, and Dieter Roth, and Claes Oldenburg sometimes.

Knowles: Also, Daniel Spoerri. When we were touring Daniel provided us with places to stay. He had apartments.

Schneemann: I met him in ’64 in Paris when he was still a starving Romanian refugee. It was ’64 when Meat Joy was invited to create a work for The Festival of Free Expression organized by Jean-Jacques Lebel in Paris. That’s also when I met Christo and Jeanne-Claude. She’d been excommunicated from her family. Her father was a general in France and she fell in love with the Bulgarian refugee that they hired to teach her brother how to draw. It was a disgrace and they cut her off completely. That’s why they were wrapping empty wine bottles in Paris. They were penniless. When she comes to New York City, nothing’s stopping her. Christo can’t speak English, and Jeanne-Claude says to me in her French accent, “Who is the most important person in this room right now? Who is part of this museum?” She marched right over to the curator and said, “I am Jeanne-Claude and this is my husband, a great artist.” And it worked.

Knowles: With Something Else Press, we had this guy who fought for our work and would publish us when no one else would.

Schneemann: And when did you meet Dick? How’d you meet each other?

Knowles: We met through Dorothy Podber and Ray Johnson. They introduced me to this guy they thought I would like. Three days later we went out to buy some food. We really hit it off.

Schneemann: And you kept buying food for the next 25 years. You also spent a lot of time with John Cage.

Knowles: We published his work Notations (1969), and we had an excellent friendship. John was a great cook, macrobiotic. We would cook and talk about art together. There was no haphazard food. It was made specifically to design with certain oils and certain seasonings. Then we would eat with Merce [Cunningham]. There were usually six people at the table.

Schneemann: We would go mushroom hunting with him. And Higgins made these incredible mushroom dinners, right? They made you poop like crazy, but they were delicious. And John was very close with Tenney. Tenney produced Cage’s concerts early on, while nobody was supporting us or helping us. He was forming a group called Tone Roads at the time with Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner, and Phil Glass and Steve Reich were participants. I always cherished time with Jim and John talking about sound and natural formulations, but we were divisive on politics. John didn’t want to have conflict, it was his defining position. He didn’t discourage us from going to anti-Vietnam war marches, but he wouldn’t join in any way. We loved him. He was generous, spirited, engaging.

What about George Maciunas? He hated me! He said I was narcissistic, overly sensuous, operatic, involved in self-display—everything that was against his principles for Fluxus. And he sent out a broad sheet at some point instructing true Fluxus artists to having nothing to do with me whatsoever, but we had layers of friendship and association. Really beyond Maciunas, Fluxus was international. Fluxus included sensuous people. And of course in Europe I was invited to join with Fluxus artists. I toured London lecturing on the distinction between Fluxus, Happenings, and Events, and collaborated with Fluxus publications associated with the Beau Geste Press.

Knowles: They came from all over the globe. Asia, Europe—once we started to travel we picked up people along the way that wanted to work with events. We intentionally called them “events.”

Naked Ice Skating, (1972), Fluxus event photographed by Anthony McCall in London.

Schneemann: More women than you would have expected of that time because the Expressionist group of male painters did not encourage female participants, with the exception of Vostell. He always fought for my work and would look at some painting constructions and say, “This should sell for a quarter of a million dollars.” Sure, let’s hope the mice don’t eat it all up first.

So the European men often had what I called a cunt mascot—an exceptional woman artist was embedded in European tradition—but that didn’t really apply to the United States. Macho painting guys would let you hang out if you were attractive enough.

Knowles: I think at that time painting was still the main mechanism of art making. Avant-garde is still the word for the events and activities we were doing, and acceptance is still a long way off.

Schneemann: I agree the Abstract Expressionists were still very macho and self-important, but Fluxus was always flexible. They would set up a certain rule with Maciunas and everybody would ignore it. Then he changes his gender just to confuse us even more. Aha! That’s what was going on and Higgins was very rough on me.

Knowles: Yes, he was rough on a lot of people. He was really very intent on getting manuscripts and being acknowledged as the publisher that he was, because no one else would publish this work. So it was very important what Dick was doing, no question about that.

Schneemann: He took a whole world for us and made it alive.

Knowles: Yet as an art student, someone going into art, we had to study painting. There was no access to performance art or to actions and events. There was no making a salad as a concert as in Proposition #2: Make A Salad (1962), or putting a pair of shoes on a music stand and telling their history as a piece of music as in Shoes of Your Choice (1963).

Schneemann: I’m a painter. I trained as a painter, and my history is painting. Everything I think about comes from that lost, precluded time. It was with my PS1 retrospective Kinetic Painting (2017 – 18) that people finally saw the origin of my work. Most of my friends had never seen my early paintings. It’s a baseline for me, but that work was rejected consistently throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

Knowles: I studied painting—with Adolph Gottlieb , Franz Kline and other painters—for a number of years. Facing a blank canvas making marks, I began to project words onto the painting and make collages with brush and with the camera. I had a graphic arts camera in Vermont, and I could make images, which I could then put on a silkscreen and print onto different surfaces or print on the wall. I became experimental with two-dimensional art and its mechanical reproduction. Consequently, I was interested in setting up performances, like The Identical Lunch (1967 – 73), which informed journals and screenprints, Shoes of Your Choice (1963), I still update some of my visual works with chosen shoes, or my first food event, Make a Salad (1962), which relates to many of my prints and other works based on foods. This became part of conceptual art. Yet, I’d be asked to go to another city, to Cologne or Berlin, and make yet another salad, which was kind of off the wall, but in Europe women were in the kitchen.

Schneemann: With exceptions, there’s always an exception. In my lifetime, my work in Europe meant that I could enter the realm of the exceptional artists. But all my women artist friends were usually in the kitchen while I was being exceptional.

Knowles: However, I was not in the kitchen as a performance. I was making a salad, the public was there as the witness and we ate it together.

Schneemann: Taking the kitchen out. That was crucial: to use what was lived instead of the hierarchical removal of the indomitable controlling male. It was crucial that I would never ask any performance person to do something that I wouldn’t do. I would not maintain that separation and hierarchy of self-importance. If I wanted them to crawl, I had to start crawling. If I wanted them to throw paint, I had to figure out what was the energy and gesture and help that fulfill itself.

Alison Knowles performs Proposition #2: Make a Salad (1962/2019) at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the LA Phil's Fluxus Festival. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber courtesy of the LA Phil

Knowles: We were going from our own immediate lives into art. That’s not so exceptional anymore, but it was then. It was amazing for a woman to get out on stage and make a salad.

Schneemann: “Who let her in here? She’s taking her pants off.” [Laughter]

Knowles: My father, Ned Knowles, encouraged me to be an artist. He was a wonderful teacher at NYU. He would look at my work and say, “A little more this way or that way.” He really guided me and encouraged me to take steps into what I was doing. I’d write things down, and he’d pin that up on the wall to look at it.

Schneemann: I had no support like that. My dad, a rural physician, had been my influence. He gave me Grey’s Anatomy to study all the innards and parts. And then one night I was painting a watermelon in my bedroom, and he came in provoked by my mom, threw the door open and yelled, “Drop the brush!” I thought, “Okay, that’s the rest of my life. I have to drop the brush. I get it.” He wouldn’t send me to college, with the exception of typing school. I was not encouraged. I ran away.

Knowles: Bravo!

Schneemann: Brava! [Laughter] It was tough because I depended on his presence and his approval. I had been a little dream child, and then I became this self-determined person wandering in the world of what it is to be an artist. I realized that whatever was going to happen to me was going to be “Drop the brush!” So I got a scholarship, full room and board with tuition to Bard, and they said, “Well, you’re here but you’re an anomaly. Don’t take yourself seriously, you’re only a girl.” And that’s how it went. I wrote the book Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter (1974 – 76) when I was in my thirties because I was searching for significant women precedents.

Knowles: Only a girl, I remember that very well. As a girl it was okay for me to make a salad. It was okay for me to do Shoes of Your Choice,but not to take it too far.

Schneemann: As a painter, I had a crisis in graduate school in Illinois. I did my first active, outdoor performative installation because a tree crashed through our kitchen window after a tornado. My eighty-year-old landlord would take months to show up. Our cat, Kitch, took this branch as a walkway from inside to outside. That was another key for me, my cat physicalized a dimensionality I needed. I was painting landscapes outside and bringing them in. I realized I was going to do something beyond painting, that I had to extend it. It was going to be in space with extended materials. I thought, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to have this transformation, but it has to happen.” It was scary, but then I read about [Allan] Kaprow and met Oldenburg. When I first came to New York City I wandered into Oldenburg’s Store on Second Street and this guy said, “Okay, come back tomorrow, you’re going to stand on this shelf and I’ll give you a knife and you’re going to stab the wall. We’ll get you a dress.” They got me a beautiful purple, spangled dress and a knife and I was in [Oldenburg’s live performance] Store Days (1967). It was all confirming and transformative.

Knowles: I’d struggle with the paintings, with this or that gallery. They hadn’t gone anywhere, but as the only woman in the Fluxus performance group, I could cook an egg or take off my shoes. That was sensational because the guys were all working with iconoclastic scripts. I was working with everyday life. While I had a lot of support from Nam June Paik, who made some pieces for me—some of which I did, some of which were too revealing—I progressed a lot for being the only woman and for keeping the focus on the value of everyday life. A woman—at least in those years—was concerned with what she was doing with her hands, with her food, with her children, with everyday life.

Schneemann: I was intensely supported by the male associates of Jim Tenney. They believed in my work like crazy monkeys. Malcolm Goldstein and Phil Corner and Jim.

Alison Knowles, at center with a large mixing bowl, performs her Proposition #2: Make a Salad (1962/2019) at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the LA Phil's Fluxus Festival. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber courtesy of the LA Phil

Knowles: Absolutely wonderful.

Schneemann: They loved everything I made and they believed in it and then Kaprow came and looked at some of my work that had been considered despicable. It was that torn apart Colorado House (1962). He said, “This is wonderful. It’s between sculpture and painting.” There were bits of encouragement against the major discouragement, but I couldn’t enter the real art world without being insulted. After one distinguished dealer denigrated my painting constructions to the extent that I saw them turn to crap and fall from the wall, I could only lie down on my couch to read the life of the mass murderer/rapist Ted Bundy. It was endless discouragement. Every gallery that you could name that did anything interesting in the ’60s or ’70s came through and said, “This isn’t art.”

Knowles: I never could have done it without introduction and help. Otherwise I would have been turned down. You can’t put homemade paper objects up on the wall like that. It’s just, “Come on. Are you kidding? You gotta paint a picture.”

Schneemann: Mary Beth [Edelson] found me a gallery initially. She sent Max Hutchinson over, advising, “You’re going to like her work.” And he came to the loft and said, “Oh I love it. I want the floor. I want the walls. All of it. This is fabulous.” And then he sent his assistant over who said, “This is shit. Max can’t sell this. Who do you think you are? You call that a photograph?” I said “Oh crap, I lost it again. What do I do?” So I took a couple weeks. I called Max and I said, “Your associate didn’t seem to have as good a feeling for the work as you did.” He said, “Oh, that stupid asshole, I fired him last week.”

Knowles: You really couldn’t depend on a dealer to necessarily like or take a hold of the work. So, for me Fluxus was a real break from what had been thought of as high art.

Schneemann: And then Emily Harvey gets us.

Knowles: Wonderful. Emily Harvey. There was a woman who could take us on and look at what we were doing as most women could not. Many women were still in the hands of a male dealer.

Schneemann: Emily comes in with a full heart, a dynamic aesthetic, accepting all our most marginalized, criticized work. And we had a base.

Knowles: Emily Harvey Gallery was wonderful. I never felt I was contributing as much to art with painting as I was talking about my shoes to an audience in front of a microphone. I was interested in participating with the audience. I could point to someone who had a nice smile in the third row and get them up to talk about their shoes. It involved me with the audience in a way that painting a picture couldn’t.

Schneemann: I always thought we were marginal and on the outside of productive, commercial, successful art. In the late ’60s there was a very famous panel at the Artist Club, featuring five renowned male artists. And there was one woman artist on the panel, Marisol.

Knowles: Oh yes.

Schneemann: I said, “I have to go.” Arman was on it, Gottlieb and Herman Cherry were participating. Artists whom you would remember. But there at the end of the table was a beautiful woman wearing a full face mask. She never spoke a word. I thought, “Okay, I get it.” You’re here but don’t you make a move.

Knowles: Not a word.

Schneemann: She wore a mask like that of an indigenous native. Marisol was such an important figuration for other women. She was one of the rare ones that had a gallery, Sidney Janis. I observed her composure, she could sit at a table in Venice and barely move. Just beautiful and poised. Involved, but excluded. It was a double position. You’re in, but you’re not really part of this.

Knowles: You better not open your mouth.

Schneemann: Were you looking as I was at [Helen] Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell? There were a few other significant women artists, but they were all consolidated with a significant man who advanced their history and their presence.

Knowles: That’s right.

Schneemann: So you felt like a spider in the wrong culture, wondering, “Why is this like this?”

Knowles: I was helped a lot by Something Else Press because Dick Higgins could publish things that I was thinking and writing, and he was putting out books.

Schneemann: They were brave and radical. You know he created a whole alternative culture for us. But there weren’t many women featured. I kept waiting for him to do a book just of your work.

Knowles: There’s By Alison Knowles (1965) and I have other books of my work that he helped put out.

Schneemann: I don’t approve of retrospective complaints demanding feminist interpretations before that critical theory had proportionately developed. Radical aesthetic activities take time to be absorbed. People complained to me about Site (1964) with Bob Morris then. They’d ask, “Why didn’t Bob Morris lie on the plank with the cat collar?” He made a brilliant intercession between painting and sculpture, and I was honored to be the historic figuration for it. Paradoxically it interfered with my own work for quite a long time because everyone thought, “You’re the nude in Site. You don’t mean anything else besides that.”

Knowles: I never considered myself a feminist artist because the Fluxus performance group gave me a chance to do whatever I wanted to do as the only woman. I’ve never really thought that through, but that was the case.

Schneemann: I had a different experience. I was a proto-feminist starting in the ’60s, and I was with a wonderful supportive partner. I had equity in my life, and I had ecstatic sex, and animals, and nature, and the things I cared about were aligned with Jim. He was completely equitable. We influenced each other and were always thrilled to share our creative efforts. Tenney chose to be in Fuses (1967) and Meat Joy (1964). We worked together creating the sound for my early Kinetic Theater work, Chromelodeon (1963), as well as the sound edit for my Vietnam atrocity film, Viet-Flakes (1966). In our early years we lived in places where I would hear him practicing Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, Carl Ruggles piano works, Webern, Schoenbergthrough a thin wall day after day after day. His music influenced my fracturing of imagery, discontinuity, and harmonization. Tenney would come in to my small studio, studying the collage and the structures I was tearing apart. It was passionate and idyllic.

Knowles: My husband was helpful in terms of my career because he had a live, free press. Not only did I have lovely children, but I could publish work that I put together. I had an outlet, which was not so available to others. We shared taking care of the children. He had an active career, but I could depend on my evenings for thinking. As a partner he gave off the feeling of someone distracted by what other things he could be doing, but he was perfectly kind. I can’t complain. We met, hiding from a police raid, under his bed in the apartment on Christopher Street when they came to shut down the party.

Schneemann: But the surrounding culture was utterly rejecting and demeaning. In the ’70s separatist feminists formed our own galleries and committees, since the men we collaborated with always presumed that they were going to solve our gender issues and our aesthetic dilemmas. This was in contrast to the fluidity of Fluxus. Women artists established alternative galleries and alternative journals and alternative theories. And out of that came art and the early magazines, and finally that began to subdue its exclusivity and become part of the culture. But the separation time had to happen. It was painful. The women felt damaged and imperiled by having to separate from the main strands of male culture. But it took off, it worked, and it had an incredible dynamic finally.

But, A.I.R. [the first all-female artist cooperative gallery] was really sad for me. I couldn’t afford the $40 per month membership. I was so thrilled to be invited, but I just couldn’t do it. I was working as a dog-dryer in a pet shop and as an extra in porno filmsbut I couldn’t get 40 bucks for the month. That’s important history, right?

Knowles: I was always able to leverage male culture because of Dick Higgins. I was included in a scene with four or five men where I injected women’s work into the group: Child Art Piece (1962), Make a Salad (1962).

Schneemann: What you say about injecting Fluxus with women’s work makes me think of Charlotte Moorman. Charlotte was not a feminist, but she did the most incredible cultural/social integrations. But because it was this eccentric, self-determined, uncontrollable female who made these incredible social connections, her work was denigrated and probably not appreciated until now. Did you work with her?

Knowles: Nam June wanted to infuse contemporary art with erotic content. He asked me to do this with him, Serenade for Alison (1962), and though I wasn’t interested, he engaged Charlotte. I had the Fluxus group and respected her work with Nam June. The Fluxus performance group clearly benefited from my impact and I eventually participated in the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York that Charlotte organized with the help of Ben Patterson. Charlotte was one of the best organizers we had ever seen. I was honored that she invited me.

Trackings (Up to and Including Her Limits) at the Avant Garde Festival in Grand Central Station organized by Charlotte Moorman.1973. Photo by Tal Streeter.

Schneemann: Jim and I were very devoted to Charlotte. She’d call me all the time and say, “Carolee, I want to talk to the mayor because I want Central Park for my next event. I think I’ll call Mayor Lindsay. He’s nice, right?” I’d say, “Charlotte, we have a transit strike, I don’t think you should call the mayor.” And she’d say, “I’m going to talk to his secretary of events.” She was such a pest, such a nuisance, so relentless. So we had Central Park for her Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York (1963 – 80). The city gave us Grand Central Station and empty boxcars in which to perform. Charlotte contracted for events on the Staten Island Ferry. And no matter how dismal the event experience was—she was always late or the equipment was missing or somebody wasn’t there—we did it.

Knowles: I remember the Staten Island Ferry event (1967). I was in that one. I lined people up against the railing and we did Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (1962). Also Build a Bean Garden (1973) was made for the 12th Annual Avant Garde Festival around 1975 at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Schneemann: I created a sleeping space like a cocoon in the middle of the boat out of big plastic foam extruded pieces. Whenever you encouraged people to do something sensitive, they usually tore it apart and shredded it. But this time they slept. It was nice.

When Charlotte Moorman was surrounded by police and arrested [for playing the cello nude from the waist up in 1967], she hurriedly gave me her rings. Jim and I had to hide out from the police for a very long time. Previously I had undressed her for her cello descent from the balcony. She said, “No, no I’m too fat.” And I said, “Honey, you’re beautiful. I’m going to wrap this and it’s going to unfold and you’ll be splendid!” Then, when it happened, she said, “That was wonderful.” We couldn’t get her dressed again. It was exciting with Charlotte.

I had more censorship than anything else. My first extreme censorship was with Fuses (1965), my self-shot erotic film that was motivated by the shameless regard of our cat, Kitch. Jim Tenney and I had this incredible, small grey cat who was so insightful, responsive, and protective. She was responsive to all our domestic activities. It inspired me to say to myself, “What does this intense relationship between these two people look like?”It was considered obscene or some weird science because there was no precedent for this intimacy. It was very hard to have Fuses projected without being curtailed or removed. The most recent censorship was in Texas eight years ago. They arrested the kid who was projecting the film, working for $1.50 an hour. They didn’t know what was obscene so they took everything out of the auditorium. And, of course, there was Eye Body (1963). I wanted the naked body to be absorbed as a collage aspect against the Western obsessive traditions with the idealized female nude. But that wasn’t working in those years. That piece would be censored, or I would be told, “This is a lot of shit. Put your clothes on and paint if you think that’s what you should do.” That went on for many years. Then Interior Scroll (1975) ruined the whole game again. It began as a simple dream of extracting a text with a message. I thought it was valuable because vulvic sensuality is full of denied information: birthing, maturation, pleasure, orgasm, history. I wanted to visualize my thoughts, but I didn’t want to perform it. Finally I had to enact the image at a feminist festival. They said, “Remember that little action? If you do it live, it’ll mean something instead of just being a drawing.” I think I lost a lot of teaching jobs for doing that. And now it’s in every avant-garde textbook.

Knowles: But also I remember Nam June Paik’s Serenade for Alison (1962) where I had to take off pairs of underpants. I had on something like 40 pairs of underpants.

Schneemann: I loved it.

Knowles: And I threw them into the audience and left myself with an open tunic so you could see I didn’t have anything on. We’re talking about women and art; this was not about easy access, and we used our bodies.

Schneemann: Explicit sensuousness.

Knowles: Yes.

Schneemann: And even if it’s innocent and should be normal for us, for most audiences it still belongs to a vicious taboo—terrorist, oppression, fascination.

Knowles: But for us it was an entrance.

Schneemann: It was simple in its way.

Knowles: I certainly can’t forget Franklin Furnace because we could do things there that we couldn’t do anywhere else. It was not a huge audience, but I performed Natural Assemblages and the True Crow (1979) thereand I installed The Book of Bean, with walk-in pages, there in 1981.

Schneemann: The most dangerous censorships now are all in terms of political information. We’re all in deep shit. It gets worse and worse everyday. An artist’s life is peripheral to students not getting lunches, to books being banned, to funding for libraries being cut, to the over 1,000 abandoned immigrant children who have no home and no way to get home. It’s just an overwhelming nightmare. Every time I open the paper it’s more grotesque and frightening.

Knowles: Rather than acknowledge it, I purposely find an alternative way to live, but you’re right. That culture is roaring along in the wrong direction.

Schneemann: The outside is very fragile, and we’re part of an ecology, an immense ecology, that will be savage forever. It’s not recoverable. It’s too extensive; our technology, from my point of view, is too intensive and extensive to be able to protect ourselves this round, not with men controlling technology and political structures. Change can happen but that idea is not getting a proportion of male power to adhere to it, or with us. That’s what frightens me the most, in addition to the violence against women that #MeToo has brought forward. That seems like such a depth of fury and rage and envy and domination in terms of male culture. I feel like we’re squirming within it with whatever luck we still have.

Knowles: Yes, today’s female culture is being violated by a fundamentalist male culture, not only because of some president, but because the drift of culture across the world is dominated by politically powerful, conservative men. The problem is insidious as it spreads to people who are starting up, starting out to have a voice.

Schneemann: I think so, too. And we count on them and really look to them. Come on, you guys. You see the whole thing here. Put your force into it. Put your energy into it.

Knowles: We’re with you, don’t be afraid to put your foot down!

Schneemann: Grab the culture. It’s there.

Knowles: While I benefited from being part of Fluxus, now I work on my own. I refer to my work as intermedia. If I collect objects for a print, a panel, or a zone of exchange, if I exhibit works in a gallery, like the pieces you see on this wall, I’m still working with the everyday in events and intermedia as a conceptual artist, but apart from Fluxus.

Schneemann: Everything is a performance now. You have somebody passed out drunk on the street, “Oh, an alcoholic performance!” I had a concussion in a museum, was lying there, and people came by and said, “Wow, Carolee you’re really putting your energy into this.” It’s everywhere. It’s like a plague or a buzzing. How do you take it?

Knowles: I don’t concentrate on performing to the neglect of other practices in my work, I never did. Fist Grips (1997), the paper pulps I’ve squeezed with one hand, or found shoe heels, ground down by everyday use, are properly mounted, or used in prints. As a performance, I still make a salad.

Schneemann: Well that newer work is more of an intimacy. It’s sculpture. It’s permuted. It’s alive through your hand, and it doesn’t require an audience as such or a time or a rehearsal or a backing.

Knowles: It still requires process and is a form of intermedia. When I show it, I’ll have to get a piece of wood, laminate it, and pin them down. Either that or have them on a string so they can be touched and moved.

Schneemann: My next exhibit is going to be of my cat, La Niña. She’s a very remarkable little cat, who, instead of tearing stuff apart, puts things together. Now she’s doing meditation in the earth. She digs a little hole. She sits there looking entranced and then shoots off into the leaves. Thinking it all through. It’s kinetic. It’s thoughtful. Fluxus. [Laughter] What did Fluxus give to you?

Knowles: Fluxus offered me a chance to develop my work with the everyday through a network that George Maciunas was designing. The performance group offered an additional medium, a live audience. Because I accepted that offer, I wrote and performed in “events” while I was designing objects, making printed works, recording sounds, writing computer aided poetry, building transvironments, offering relational works and helping to raise a family. I’m lucky I took them up on the offer. Opportunity like this comes along rarely. Don’t let yours pass you by, grab it!

Schneemann: Your presence in Fluxus was inspiring to me because it was so exceptional. So I felt aligned with the Fluxus guys even though I wasn’t ever Fluxus as such. We worked with each other on different events at different times, and you were there as a beacon, an illumination.

Knowles: For me, you were the solo performer par excellence. You were doing things that I’d never seen women do on the stage. So, in different contexts, I think we influenced each other.

This conversation would not have been possible without the inspired thinking of Ann McCoy and Katrin Lewinsky, who were the first to recognize the opportunity to bring Alison Knowles and Carolee Schneemann together.


Alison Knowles

Alison Knowles is one of the original members of Fluxus. She has worked continually since then as a visual artist, doing sound works for radio, performances and installations. She has authored a number of books and articles. As poet and writer, she continues to expand the spirit of Fluxus in her recent work.

Carolee Schneeman

Carolee Schneemann is a multidisciplinary artist.

Phillip Griffith

Phillip Griffith is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City. 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

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