Alison Knowles Workshop

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The Workshop: Organized by ICFAR, this workshop afforded student researchers from various institutions the opportunity to work with Alison Knowles, one of the founding members of Fluxus. The workshop focused on developing a concert for which there was no audience: Everyone participated with the exception of Margus, who opted out.

Together, the eight or nine of us selected and developed scores, some of which were variations on Knowles’s, own work. Curiously, 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 convention of performance really involved—either in theory or in practice. This proved confounding for some of us and a good challenge for others. Being ambivalent about, I was happy to work on the event scores of others and concentrated my efforts on realizing Cecelia 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’m not sure, as the score reads simply:

1st movement: orange

2nd movement: black

3rd movement: blue

Cecelia authored the variation, which involved 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, Cecelia wore all black. The performance was well received.

Other components of the concert are detailed on the program.

The Event Score: Knowles likened the form of the event score to a kind of 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—indeed, 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 huge 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 concern with chance. Fluxus is frequently underscored as 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 indicates a kind of considered focus. It also, an importantly, conditions a kind of response to the event. As Knowles hinted, Fluxus has not always been taken seriously, especially in the US which 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] 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.

Yet one wonders if the tide may be turning. A growing emphasis on mindfulness in popular culture may afford a context for a broader (re)reception of the Fluxus attitude. Exhibitions such as The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim, for which Knowles did a performance, indicate an interest in mapping cross-cultural concerns related to art practice and/as the everyday.

Precision as a Way of Working: Knowles talked about the precision involved in event scores as being way of working that appealed to her personally: it suited the way she thinks through art and vice versa. She’s better at event scores than at paintings, asserted the artist. Knowles also prefers scores to happenings. The latter, she observed were the province of young male artists (Higgins and Kaprow). Had she done such a thing, she’d worry that everyone had their kit and knew what to do. This raised for me the whole question of gender issues…Knowles seemed to suggest as much through her frequent references 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, the chance aspect related to the berries and their willingness to stay lodged in the bushes. I noticed that Cecelia stuck some of the berries on the end of stems, thus breaking their skins. I opted to balance them to avoid this violence, a decision that ultimately failed the berries as it did the performance when many of them fell to the ground. Still, it strikes me that rupturing their skins to make them stick seems antithetical to the spirit of the performance, which I understood as gentle intervention marked by its modesty and transience. Indeed, a special moment in the performance occurred when a flock of pigeons became interested in our pouring the orange juice. Flapping their wings around us, they become a secondary audience, however unlikely. Here again is an instance of how chance in the form of happenstance affected the score’s realization.

Although my performance with Cecelia went well, it was clear the group had insufficiently prepared for our concert overall. This manifest most obviously in 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. These were presented down on a kind of podium. The idea was that one selected an image and discussed it. But some participants became confused and sought out their own image from the spread. This made a kind of hybrid presentation—what might be called a faction (mix of fact and fiction) where some participants commented on the images through self-conscious fantasies and others spoke about actual events arising around the pictures.

There was an especially curious moment after I’d discussed a black and white picture of 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 by saying the child was now deceased. Knowles then asserted that we’d gone to the sea to go fishing and gestured towards another image on the podium that read: “Gone Fishin”. This connection left me a little bewildered and I simply agreed with her. Retrospectively, I recognize this was an invitation play with the narrative, to embellish it further by fostering discursive connections among the photographs. Retrospectively, I think Knowles was trying move the performance in a new direction, but I was too slow and confused to either receive her cues or make this work. The whole experience reminded that listening—careful listening not only to words but also to tone—can prompt an unlikely but often more appropriate response.

Rhythm: The workshop had a distinct rhythm. Long breaks (ostensibly for preparation) punctuated periods of group discussion to enact a kind of endless deferral. I was unsure, at times, if this free-flow space/time sought to encourage possibilities or whether it was the result of insufficient organization. Striking a balance between structure and flexibility is often challenging and in this instance, Knowles’s 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 one-on-one conversation with her especially fruitful. Yet Knowles’ aura also meant that workshop participants tended to direct their comments to her rather than the group. Of particular note was a long riff on Romeo Castellucci’s “Infirno”, which was playing the night before at the Barbican. As only a handful of us, among them Knowles, had either seen the performance or was familiar with Castelluci’s oeuvre, this focus tended to limit rather than expand our group discussion. The result: I found myself meditating on my experience of being in the Members’ Room. Other participants described watching either a member of the workshop as she tirelessly held the recording boom or another member, suffering from jet lag, doze off from time to time.

Knowles also observed 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 our rhythm of work. Would external addressees have made us more rigorous in our preparations and performance? Certainly, it would have 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 other artists. But today she seems more interested in the sound of beans than their nutritional value, a shift in focus 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 marked Cage ‘s fetishistic relationship to mushrooms…a lack that presented most clearly in how she circumscribed her subject. Her appreciation seemed almost mystical. As she held up her various bean turners, Knowles looked at them lovingly and turned them with slow tenderness. She displayed no compulsion to colonize her species of concern; her interest seemed closer to adoration or even wonderment….Either way, she seems to find comfort in these edible seeds.

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