Photo by Paula Court
Photo by Paula Court
November 11th, 2011 · Ingrid Chu and Savannah Gorton of Forever & Today, Inc.

Alison Knowles: An Interview with the Seminal Fluxus Artist

New York artist Alison Knowles is a founding member of Fluxus and performed worldwide with the group throughout the 1960s. Her influential performances, event scores, sound, sculpture, works on paper, printmaking, poetry, artist books, and book objects have been featured internationally at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art allin New York; Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The White House, Washington; Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Tate Modern in London, to name just a few; other accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, and educational appointments at Harvard University and Documenta X.

Forever & Today, Inc.’s co-directors Ingrid Chu and Savannah Gorton curated Knowles’s Beans All Day – a collaboration with her family (Jessica Higgins, Joshua Selman and Clara Selman) – to be presented at their Lower East Side space as part of Performa’s Fluxus Weekend. The two curators spoke to the seminal artist about beans, performance, books, working with family and the Fluxus Movement.

Savannah Gorton: What does Fluxus mean to you, and how has the idea of it shifted over time since the 1960s? How can its particular kind of everyday actions, use of objects, and language in art-making relate to the circumstances that we find ourselves in today’s world?

Alison Knowles: Well to put it very simply, I would say that Fluxus has maintained its visibility and its consciousness, if you will, outside of museums and galleries. As most of my fellow artists have done many street performances and performances in someone’s living room arranged for some guests—I think this is an important thrust for culture to be outside of museums and galleries, as well as in them. I have no objection to that, but I’ve seen that change since the 1960s, so I’d say Fluxus is important because it’s still kind of outside.

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Aison Knowles performing with her Red Run (1995) bean turner in 2009. Photograph by Sally Alatalo, ©2009. Courtesy the artist and Sara Ranchouse Publishing.

Savannah: And Beans All Day, which is the title that you selected for this event, not only includes two performances, but many bean-related artworks, such as your sculptural bean-turners, artist books, editions, poetry created from sounds made from dried beans, a textual wall installation of the resulting sounds, a free limited bookmark and actual cooked beans, to be served to the public.

Making food has been a part of your practice in many works such as Make A Salad or The Identical Lunch. Why have beans become so prevalent in your work? Do they represent nourishment, both physical and creative? And how did you arrive at their use for sound?

Alison: Oh, certainly, certainly, nourishment, but I think what is interesting about beans is that they leap over the fence to be sound works as well. So the idea that I can be serving a pot of red beans at your event as well as exhibiting what I consider musical instruments made with different kinds of beans is quite important because when I started to do this, I made a huge number of mistakes, which anybody in their right mind—I mean—you just can’t take beans and put them into an artwork. They have to be cured, they have to be dried, they have to be steamed, they have to become…you have to distill the live ingredient in each bean. In a way you are kind of killing them! And then, they’re free to be used in wet paper without sprouting, and as you see, they become visually interesting, too, on the surface of the instrument. I usually use either ceci- the garbanzo– or the tiny red adzuki beans, because they are round and they resonate.

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Make a Salad at the Tate Long Weekend, 2008.

Ingrid Chu: In terms of Fluxus history, the Chinatown/Lower East Side area near where Forever & Today is located is where many streetside and storefront events took place in the past. Because of this, we thought it would be appropriate to re-visit that type of New York experience today. As such, you will be performing two scores at Forever & Today. The first, Loose Pages with your daughter Jessica Higgins, who has been the primary performer of this work over many years, and the second, Shoes Of Your Choice, with your granddaughter Clara Selman. Joshua Selman, your son-in-law, will do sound.

Why did these particular performances stand out to you in your repertoire as ones that should be performed in this context, the F&T storefront which is at the busy intersection of Division, Ludlow and Canal Streets? 

Alison: When you actually hear the sound of these loose pages, when I put them on to Jessica, you will see that they compete nicely with the sounds of the cars, that the cars represent a kind of rushing sound…that tells us where we are in a city. The sounds of the cars relate to what goes on all the time on the street. And then, I’d like to have people make the jump to going home and listening—you mentioned Make A Salad—as they make a salad, or maybe for the first time [laughter] noticing the sound as they wrap paper around a box, and saying, “Hmmm, that’s kind of a wonderful sound, isn’t it?” [laughter] I’m trying to inform people to have their own sound experience.

Savannah: Another question we have is related to an exciting aspect of your Shoes Of Your Choice performance, since Clara Selman, your 11-year-old granddaughter, will take part in what seems like a growing family tradition. Why has the collaboration with family been so important to you over the years?

Alison: I think probably it all began with my husband Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press. He started that small press, I wouldn’t say on a shoestring, but in a very modest way, with books by people that we knew who weren’t published very much. We had one secretary, Nellike Rosenthal, who very efficiently put together and sold our books. We made small editions, just 400 books, which is a shame, actually, because people ask for these books and they just aren’t around anymore. The family—and everyone—helped, and we all lived in the same house on 22nd Street, we rented half of it out to Ben Patterson, and other artists like Philip Corner; and people like Ray Johnson, Daniel Spoerri, and Emmet Williams lived in the house for a while also. Our daughters Hannah and Jessica became performers. It was a family business, no question about it.

Savannah: And it continues to be, even now.

Alison: I guess it does in a way, yes. Hannah’s got her second book out, and Jess will be performing for your event.

Ingrid: It’s really interesting that you speak about the idea of the history of your book works, because for this event, we are very pleased to have many of these books on view, as well as to offer the public a free, limited edition bookmark, which we often create for artist whose work we show.

This bookmark, created in letterpress, features a bean sound poem adapted from your artist book, Plah plah pli plah, from 2009. In essence, the bookmark relates to beans – the theme of the day – but also speaks to your love of artist books. How did you begin making your own books and editions and why have these continued to be part of your production?

AK: Well, my father was an English professor at Queens and NYU, and I grew up reading. We read most of Dickens at the dining room table. And I was committed—he committed me actually—to be reading all the time. We read when we were going to sleep at night, and you had your book for Saturday afternoon you could always read. Even now, for me, books outdistance electronic media as a source. You know, people say they just read a good book online, I don’t even know how to do that [laughter] that’s just not something I can manage. So I guess the physical book has been very important to me. Something that the physical book I think balances out with nicely are these little editions, small book editions that I’ve made.

[Knowles opens a small box with a dried bean inside on top of green felt]

This one is called Jacob’s Cattle, State of Maine, and so here’s the green grass, and here’s Jacob’s cow, a bean that appears like a cow that is both brown and white. This bean is only found in Maine. And so there’s a little edition…and these were produced in Europe, by curators who chose to do small editions by artists.

[Knowles opens a small light blue box]

And this one is by Edition Hundertmark. It’s the Blue Box, and it’s a “View of the World,” “Blick auf die Welt.” And this bean inside is sort of like a half moon, right? A view of the world…

[Knowles opens a small, clear cylinder that rattles with the sound of a dried bean inside]

And then here’s the Sea Bean, which is also Hundertmark. This scroll gives you direction: “Empty out the bean, put cylinder to the ear, hear the sea.” It also shows how important Germany was to those of us in the Fluxus group…

[Knowles places empty cylinder against Gortons’s ear]

Savannah: Mmm.

[laughter]

Alison: Hear the rushing waves?

[sounds of waves]

Savannah: I do, it’s very much like the seashell held to the ear.

Alison: Yes, exactly.

SG: Same idea.

Alison: The seashell idea.

Alison: So this is what happened in Europe, we did these small editions with publishers and others such as Irmelin Lebeer who has done several books with me and with George Brecht. It seems as if the art world now is—maybe I’m overstating–that it’s galleries with paintings, and maybe something like these editions, or these books that we are talking about, they don’t have a place there anymore.

I may be wrong with that, but in this period in the '60s and '70s, it was an artist they were looking at, whatever the artist did…it could be editions, it could be books, it could be paintings, it all kind of went around the person and I was fortunate enough to work with Emily Harvey here on Broadway, who felt that way. She said, “Oh well, if you’re going to have an opening, you have to have a performance.” [laughter] So there you would have books, performance, pieces on the wall…it was the concept of a kind of a grand view of your production…

Savannah: And that’s why we are so enthusiastic, too, to be presenting Beans All Day, because we hope that by including all those different aspects that you just mentioned, it will show a view of the overall practice and production.

Alison: Well I’m very honored to be performing like this with my family on Saturday; I think it’s going to be neat.

Ingrid: We are so happy to speak to you today about this; it’s something that we try and do at Forever & Today, to maintain that space for artists in whatever means that they work in, to create that platform.

Alison: And—l mean—look what you are doing, you’re doing a bookmark, you’re doing an interview, you’re putting up a show…even if it’s just for a day.

[laughter]

 

Ingrid Chu and Savannah Gorton are the Co- Directors and Curators of Forever and Today, Inc.

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