Ahead of her retrospective in Berkeley, Calif., the artist Alison Knowles talks about her Fluxus roots, the appeal of beans and the power of interactive artworks.
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Visitors to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will soon be seeing red. To mark the opening of “By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022),” the artist is taping a large grid on the museum floor and inviting visitors on July 23 to place one red object in each square. It’s a reprisal of a work she conceived in 1962 called “Celebration Red” (later titled “Homage to Each Red Thing” for Hans Ulrich Obrist’s influential show of artists’ instructions “Do It.”) It’s also one of Knowles’s most famous — and vivid — participatory artworks in a long history of making them.
Best known as a member of Fluxus, a loose group of avant-garde artists who embraced the use of chance and “intermedia” or interdisciplinary forms in the 1960s, Knowles, 89, has continued over the last five decades to make interactive, inviting and category-defying artworks. They range in scale from tiny hand-held sculptures to eight-foot-tall, walk-in installations that look like giant books. Speaking recently from her longtime SoHo studio in Manhattan, where she lives, the artist discussed some of her signature themes and materials. Here are edited excerpts.
A lot of your work is participatory to the point of being generous: Art is something you give to people.
I like that very much. I want my work to expand the terms of engagement. I don’t want people looking passively at my work but actively participating by touching, eating, following an instruction about listening, physically making or taking something, or joining in an activity.
Beans are a favorite material in your work over the years. You’ve used them in so many ways, whether embedding them in handmade paper or placing them in paper sleeves to create sound-makers called Bean Turners. What’s so appealing about beans?
Well, they’re affordable and available everywhere, and there are many different kinds you can cook and work with. Everyone knows the different names of beans in their own culture. And when beans are dry, they make a great sound. My study of music was minimal — a little work on the piano and I loved singing but I never had a lot of formal study. Beans became instruments for me to make sound in performances. They gave me an action to punctuate the text. Beans are acoustic and capable of projecting sound, which is important.
Other women were associated with Fluxus later on, like Charlotte Moorman and Yoko Ono, but I understand you were the first woman to do Fluxus performances in the ’60s?
I was the only woman included in the Fluxus performance group of 1962, on a stage with public performance dates in Europe as Fluxus went from being an idea, project or name to being the group of performers taking on new music and intermedia. I was very glad to be on tour doing work. I was honored [to be the only woman] and tried to use the opportunity well.
I read that you were hit in the face with a rotten tomato in Wiesbaden during one of those concerts.
There was a lot of aggression about what we did onstage but frankly I don’t remember the rotten tomato. I remember people would stand up and leave — and often did. But I had work to do, I performed the work no matter what.
Some of your early works like “Proposition #2: Make a Salad” (1962) — which consisted of preparing a salad onstage and serving it to museumgoers — must have seemed radical at the time. Later you revisited that work for venues like the Tate and the High Line. Do you find that your audience or its sense of outrage has changed over time?
Performance art now allows for so much human activity that was never available when I started out on a concert stage. The concept of performance now includes food, children, the weather, you name it, everything — I like that.
What were the ingredients in the original “Make a Salad” piece?
The salad had to be made with ingredients selected during a trip to the local market. Salads are more available nowadays, at least in this country, but the idea in 1962 of having green food available for a performance was extremely odd. It was also difficult for people organizing the concert who usually worry about sound to suddenly worry about getting good, green food for people to eat.
How would you explain the idea of a Fluxus “event score?”
George Brecht, artist and founding member of Fluxus, came up with the “Event Score” format, and we used it for a proposed action performed like music on a concert program. It was our own way of scoring our actions or performances in a manner as serious as a score by Satie. A sentence like “Make a salad,” that’s the event score.
You collaborated on books and performances with John Cage. What he was like to work with?
It was a great friendship. We enjoyed working together, cooking together, eating together, hunting for mushrooms together. We would find mushrooms, and if we didn’t, we would find greens. The important thing was working together in the open air on the trails.
He was a little bit fussy, he didn’t get along with everybody. He honored my work and that meant a lot to me, and I found his work very basic to what I was trying to do: using chance operations, using an available instead of a chosen audience.
I heard you inadvertently gave your husband, the writer Dick Higgins, the name for his publishing house, Something Else Press?
Yes, Dick told me he wanted to call it Shirt Sleeves Press. I didn’t like that idea, so I said, “Call it something else.”
Along with designing books, you’ve made sculptures inspired by books: walk-in installations where the walls look like pages of a book, and props for a performance where the spine of a performer’s body evokes the spine of a book. What about the book form resonates with you?
I’m interested in transforming hand-held objects into full-scale architecture, and the book has been an accessible tool to explore that. The person or performer engaging with the work can step into the object and activate it. Hand-held objects can become models. With Something Else Press, I did editorial and graphic design on some of the books Dick was publishing. I eventually designed a walk-through, live-in book to be published by the press as a single copy and called it The Big Book. I continued designing books as environments.
For the Berkeley show you’re doing a new version of “Celebration Red” (1962). Could you imagine celebrating another color, like blue or green?
I’m very drawn to the color red, and I associate it with courage. But it’s not really about the color — it’s a chance to access the relationships that the color offers. Your shirt, your hat, your beans can all be red, it’s a very common color in food and clothing, so it gives me a chance to activate a network of people, objects, actions.
The museum said you are hoping to fly out to Berkeley for the opening weekend. Will you add a red object of your own to the grid?
I definitely want to be there, and I would be happy to add something. I just might add a tomato.