Alison Knowles Workshop
October Gallery, April 3-4, 2009
See more images of this workshop here
Below are a few wide-ranging reflections of my experience of this event.
The Workshop: Organized by ICFAR, this workshop offered student researchers from various institutions the opportunity to work with Alison Knowles, one of the founding members of Fluxus. The two-day experience focused on developing a concert for which there was no audience: Everyone contributed, though Margus opted not to perform; he instead witnessed the event.
Together, the eight or nine of us chose and developed scores, some of which were variations on Knowles’s own work. Discussion about which scores to perform came in the morning on the first day, before we’d had much time to think about what this performance really involved—either in theory or in practice. This proved confounding for some of us and a good challenge for others. Feeling ambivalent, I was happy to work on the event scores of others and concentrated my efforts on Cecilia Gronberg’s variation of #9—Color Music #2 (October 1963), a piece Knowles wrote for Dick Higgins at a time when he was struggling with profound psychological doubt. She believed the colors might help with this, though how exactly I remain unsure. The score reads:
1st movement: orange
Cecilia's variation used complementary colors: First pouring orange juice over purple flowers; second, nesting blackberries in a blue bush; third, placing blueberries in a yellow bush. We performed this in a park near the October Gallery on the morning of the second day. I wore all white, Cecilia all black. The performance was well received.
Other components of the concert are detailed on the program.
The Event Score: Knowles likened this to a kind of recipe--sometimes a literal recipe. Witness Knowles’s #2 – Proposition (October, 1962): Make a salad, which was performed last year at Tate’s long weekend. Or consider #2 – Variation #1 on Proposition (October, 1964): Make a soup. These notations are as demanding as they are pithy—in fact perhaps because they are so pithy.
For Knowles, an event score is a kind of structure that bounds the performance giving it shape. While offering scope for interpretation, event scores also require fidelity to an idea/action. Staying true is part and parcel of performing the score; staying true is what makes the performance “art” and not something else. There’s an aspect of intentionality here that I think often gets overshadowed by Fluxus’s association with chance. Fluxus is frequently underscored as experimental anti-art, but I understand this attitude as blurring the relationship between art and life--not by making art into life so much as making life into art, however fleetingly.
Hence the importance of formal presentation (wearing black and white clothing, using props like a music stand). The strategic use of signifiers shows considered focus. It also, and importantly, (may) encourages a more thoughtful response. As Knowles hinted, Fluxus has not always been taken seriously, especially in the US (which, as she observed, is well known for it’s almost pathological obsession with instrumentalization). No doubt this is one reason for Knowles’s daughter Hannah Higgins’s important text, Fluxus Experience. As one reviewer of this text explains:
Her motive, beside her family background, was the astonishing fact that Fluxus, this influential post-World War II movement had been left out of the history of art.
It seems the tide is. The growing emphasis on mindfulness in popular culture may afford a context for the (re)reception of Fluxus. Exhibitions such as The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim, with which Knowles was involved, indicate an interest in mapping cross-cultural concerns related to art practice and/as the everyday.
Precision as a Way of Working: For Knowles, the precision of event scores has personal appeal: It suits the way she thinks through art and vice versa. She’s better at event scores than painting, asserted the artist. Knowles also prefers scores to happenings. That's the stuff of young male artists (Higgins and Kaprow). Had she done such a thing, she’d worry that everyone...well... Knowles raised the gendering roles with her frequent reference to being a mother and a grandmother. It seems there’s a reciprocity between her various roles and goals.
There’s something nice about the shape of the event score structure: how it accommodates intentional aspects while leaving others up to chance. In the case of our performance of Colour Music, we took a chance on the berries and their willingness to stay lodged in the bushes. I noticed that Cecilia stuck some of the berries on the end of stems. Broke their skins but they stayed put. I couldn't take that kind of violence. I tried balancing them instead. This wasn't always successful. Rupturing their skins! Antithetical to the performance--a gentle intervention, modest and transient. There was a special moment when a flock of pigeons became interested in our pouring the orange juice. Flapping their wings, they flocked into a secondary audience. Here again is an instance of how chance, in the form of happenstance, can affect a score's realisation.
Although my performance with Cecilia went well, it was clear that, as a group, we weren't prepared for our concert. There were moments of confusion, such as not quite knowing what to do with the images in "Photograph of Your Choice," a variation on "Shoes of Your Choice". This work involved soliciting images from workshop participants and presenting them face down on a kind of podium. Performers were then invited to choose an image and discuss it. But some participants became confused. They sought out their own image from the spread. This made for a kind of hybrid presentation—what might be called a "faction" (mix of fact and fiction); some conjured up fantasies associated with the images and others spoke about the actual events they indexed.
There was an especially curious moment after I’d discussed a black and white picture of a boy standing on what looked like a quay. I’d suggested he was my brother; I’d explained the edge of the photograph had become damaged one summer at the cabin; I concluded the child was now deceased. Knowles then continued this narrative by declaring we’d gone to the sea to go fishing; she gestured towards another image on the podium that read: “Gone Fishin”. This comment left me a little bewildered; I couldn't do more than lamely agree. Knowles was trying to move the performance in a new and responsive direction. Her comment was an invitation to play with the narrative, to embellish it via discursively connecting the photographs. But I was too slow. Missed her cues; couldn't make it work. Note to self: listen, listen carefully, not only to words but also to tone...
Rhythm: The workshop had a distinct rhythm. Long breaks (ostensibly for preparation?) punctuated group discussion...a sense of endless deferral. I remain unsure if this free-flow space/time encouraged possibilities or whether it was due to insufficient organisation. Striking a balance between structure and flexibility is often challenging and in this instance, Knowles’ own presence played an important role. I don’t believe I was alone in my reverence for her accomplishments. This, coupled with her warmth and accessibility, made for good one-on-ones. Yet Knowles’s aura also meant that workshop participants directed comments to her rather than the group, myself included. Of particular note was a long riff on Romeo Castellucci’s “Infirno” (playing at the Barbican at the time of the workshop). As only a handful of us, among them Knowles, had either seen the performance or was familiar with Castelluci’s oeuvre, this focus limited participation to a select few. I wasn't among them. I found myself meditating on my experience of being in the Members’ Room of the October Gallery--the comfortable feeling of sitting in a leather chair, the warm stale air, the large red and purple painting that hung above the bookcase. Other participants described something similar. They watched as Erica, the recording technician, held the recording boom, her arms straining under the effort; they sympathetically observed a member of our group succumb to jet lag by dozing off from time to time.
According to Knowles, this was the first time she’d done a workshop that culminated in a performance without an audience, and I wonder if this didn’t also influence the rhythm of our work. Would external addressees have made us more conscientious in our preparations and performance? They would have certainly changed the dynamics of the event.
Beans: And then there was Knowles’s long-term preoccupation with beans. She explained how she came to this subject honestly, through cooking for her family and artist friends. Recently she's become interested in the sound of beans as well as their nutritional value, a curiosity that has led her to create “bean turners”. These sound makers are similar to rain sticks but they contain only beans, and Knowles has spent many years studying which beans work best in the paper shell of the object. She compared her interest in beans to Cage’s interest in mushrooms. Yet she seems to lack the obsession that gripped Cage. Her appreciation seemed almost mystical in contrast to taxonomical. As she held up her various bean turners, Knowles looked at them lovingly, turning them with slow tenderness. There was compulsion to colonise her species of concern; her interest seemed closer to adoration or wonderment…. Either way, it's clear she find comfort in these edible seeds.