Colby Chamberlain on Alison Knowles

Alison Knowles, Proposition #2: Make a Salad, 1962. Performance view, Festival of Misfits, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, October 24, 1962. Center: Alison Knowles.

FEW TITLES ENCAPSULATE an exhibition’s argument as succinctly as “by Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022).” Curator Karen Moss borrows that “by” from a slim volume of the same name, a collection of the artist’s compositions issued through the “Great Bear” pamphlet series of Something Else Press in 1965. The preposition’s pliability is the point. Most obviously, “by” denotes authorship, as in a corpus of texts written by Alison Knowles, yet it also suggests facilitation, a process brought about by means of Alison Knowles, or proximity, i.e., close by Alison Knowles. In a work by Alison Knowles, agency is more a function of adjacency, attachment, or intimacy than of ownership. Keeping “by” in lower case cleverly accentuates the theme of open-endedness, though it may have simply been the result of a typo left unattended. In interviews, Knowles has acknowledged that her late husband, Dick Higgins, the polymath publisher of SEP, introduced into the galleys several errors and ambiguities that persist to this day.1 Thumb through the literature on Knowles and you’ll find the three words that make up her most famous score—“Make a salad”—identified variously as Proposition, Proposition #2, and Proposition #2: Make a Salad. I don’t want to say too many cooks spoil the broth, since Knowles herself certainly wouldn’t, so let’s mix metaphors: Cooks playing a game of telephone will mess with the recipe.

“by Alison Knowles” opens this July at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. An accompanying catalogue includes new essays by Moss, Lauren Fulton, Nicole Woods, and Caroline Ugelstad, as well as a foreword by Knowles’s daughter, the art historian Hannah B. Higgins. This will be the octogenarian’s first full retrospective, but Knowles has hardly been absent from the public eye. In recent years, she has performed Proposition to huge audiences worldwide. More than two thousand Londoners gathered to witness and partake in the sprawling salad that Knowles prepared on a tarp stretched across Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2008.2 Such occasions now exude an air of celebration. The festivity of a group meal doubles as a commemoration of Knowles herself, the sole woman onstage during the 1962–63 European concert tour that birthed the Fluxus movement and an early progenitor of incorporating food into fine art. (Not so subtly, Moss situates Proposition as an antecedent to relational aesthetics by including an undated photograph of Rirkrit Tiravanija visiting Knowles in her SoHo loft.) According to Fluxus artist Emmett Williams, a far different mood prevailed at Proposition’s 1962 debut at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. “The salad was made in a huge pickle barrel . . . by a dozen performers and served up to hundreds of spectators,” he recalled. “Before long not only was there total involvement of spectators and performers in the piece, but the Institute was transformed into a nightmarish, sticky urbane picnic.”3

Nightmarish. Sticky. Urbane. Such a pungent concatenation of adjectives. What did Williams apprehend in the first iteration of Proposition that eludes notice now? Though technically monographic, “by Alison Knowles” necessarily convenes an entire Fluxus ensemble. Isolating Knowles from Higgins, Williams, George Brecht, Philip Corner, Shigeko Kubota, George Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson, Nam June Paik, Takako Saito, Mieko Shiomi, and the omnipresent John Cage is like extracting the glue from a collage. In my experience, the best Fluxus exhibitions avoid grasping at epistemologically slippery questions about what Fluxus was and instead explore what Fluxus can still do. (For instance, at the James Gallery at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2016, curators Katherine Carl, Maud Jacquin, and Sébastien Pluot leveraged Knowles’s FORTRAN-poem-slash-fiberglass-domicile House of Dust, 1969, as a premise for soliciting contributions from an intergenerational roster of artists, architects, musicians, and poets.) Hopefully, “by Alison Knowles” can accomplish both, surveying past achievements while also tapping into current potential. By Knowles, with Knowles, through Knowles, we can locate models for collaboration and participation that remain tacky to the touch.

Alison Knowles, Nivea Cream Piece (November 1962)—for Oscar Williams, 1962. Performance view, Fluxus Musik og Anti-Musik, Det Instrumentale Teater, Nikolai Kirke, Copenhagen, November 23, 1962. From left: Arthur Köpcke, Emmett Williams, Dick Higgins, George Maciunas, and Alison Knowles.

IN 1972, the Italian art historian Daniela Palazzoli answered one of Maciunas’s semiregular calls for proposals with suggestions for an Adam-and-Eve set of multiples. Each box would contain selections of gender-specific smells, such as perfume and detergent for “Eve” or aftershave and petrol for “Adam.” She signed off by scrawling in huge block letters, IT’S TIME TO BRING OUT A FEMINIST FLUXUS LINE.4 The sentiment appears unduly dismissive of Knowles and other women already affiliated with the movement, but Palazzoli was not alone in failing to recognize a feminist dimension to Fluxus aesthetics. That same year, Knowles was teaching at CalArts and appeared so out of step with the Southern California women’s movement that she was barred from contributing to Womanhouse, the legendary installation organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Feminist Art Program, partly on the grounds that she permitted men to join her classes.5 An adequate language for articulating the feminist politics of Knowles’s work did not yet exist and would not become available until the advent of gender-performativity theory nearly twenty years later.6

Parsing Knowles’s practice requires two concepts coined by the men around her. First comes Brecht’s “event score,” the tersely worded prompts that formed the basis of Fluxus’s call-and-response collectivity and furnished the repertoire for their concerts. The event score has often been likened to the typewritten statements of Conceptual art, but, as Natilee Harren shows in her 2020 book Fluxus Forms, its origins lie in the graphic compositions of Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff.7 An event score establishes a diagram of agents, actions, and objects that can be endlessly substituted and rearranged, like pieces on a chessboard. Second is “intermedia,” Higgins’s term for artworks that “fall between media.”8 Distinct from “multimedia,” intermedia does not amalgamate media so much as collapse the divisions among them. Pointing to John Heartfield’s photomontages (“the land between collage and photography”) and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (“between sculpture and something else”), Higgins predicted that artists would eventually explore territories as arcane as “the intermedium between painting and shoes.”9 Knowles arguably did just that in 1991 with Broken Line with Slippers, which can be either worn on your feet or hung from the wall.10

Knowles’s earliest compositions reveal the capacity of event scores and intermedia to unsettle the identity categories that Palazzoli’s Adam-and-Eve proposal took for granted. Consider Nivea Cream Piece (November 1962)—for Oscar Williams:

First performer comes on stage with a bottle of hand cream, labeled “Nivea Cream” if none is available. He pours the cream onto his hands, and massages them in front of the microphone. Other performers enter, one by one, and do the same thing. Then they join together in front of the microphone to make a mass of massaging hands. They leave in the reverse of the order they entered, on a signal from the first performer.11

As a score, Nivea Cream Piece establishes a web of relations that interferes with what Judith Butler calls “materialization”—the iterative process by which bodily matter is made intelligible according to preexisting norms.12 A row of smartly dressed performers lose their individual attributes and become a “mass of massaging hands.” (The turn of phrase strikingly prefigures the title of Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 “inventory of effects,” The Medium Is the Massage.) As intermedia, the piece unleashes squeamish, gurgling music from a configuration of lotion, skin, and electronic amplification. Forget telling the dancer from the dance: How do you distinguish the instrumentalists from the instruments when the sound you hear arises from the absorption of unguents into flesh?

What else renders the body porous? The salad in Proposition; the beans in the half-edible, half-legible multiple Bean Rolls, 1963–64; the tuna-fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce, no mayo, and a glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup in The Identical Lunch, 1967. These are all store-bought commodities that nominally connote feminine domesticity, yet Knowles exploits their material properties to dissolve all manner of boundaries. Perhaps we might most immediately perceive the “nightmarish” character of Proposition by replicating how we experience most nightmares: with eyes closed. Just as a dollop of raspberry-balsamic dressing permeates a bowl of ingredients, the intermedia concert of smells, sounds, textures, and tastes emanating from so much chopping, chewing, clattering, and swallowing envelops a crowd. This is a scene of conviviality, but not in the cheerily social sense Nicolas Bourriaud employs it in Relational Aesthetics.13 Rather, it comes closer to theorist Jasbir K. Puar’s definition of conviviality as an event wherein bodies slip free of fixed identities and merge into vulnerable, potentially risky new assemblages.14 In other words, a sticky urbane picnic.

Alison Knowles, Broken Line with Slippers, 1991, Japanese mulberry leaf paper, twine, approx. 12' 1 1/4

“BY ALISON KNOWLES” will cover far more than the handful of works discussed here. Of particular note are Knowles’s architectural intermedia projects The Big Book, 1967; The Book of Bean, 1982; and The Boat Book, 2014, as well as her long-running experiments with printmaking. It merits mention that several of Knowles’s silk-screen pieces predate those of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Why, then, is the technique principally associated with her art-star male contemporaries? The question answers itself, but an additional factor could be Knowles’s deliberate lack of investment in definitively authoring her work. A silk screen “by Alison Knowles” was a strategy for collaboration or the enactment of a score.15 Knowles regarded a silk screen as something that passes between people, the residue of an encounter that sticks with you. 

“by Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022)” will be on view July 20 through December 18 at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Colby Chamberlain’s book Fluxus Administration is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. This summer, he joins the Cleveland Institute of Art as faculty-in-residence.


1. Julia Robinson, “The Sculpture of Indeterminacy: Alison Knowles’s Beans and Variations,” Art Journal 63, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 99.

2. Alison Knowles, “Fluxus Long Weekend,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 31, no. 1 (January 2009): 140–48.

3. Emmett Williams, “The Big Book of Alison Knowles,” 10, 1967, I.55.14, Jean Brown Papers, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (JBP). Williams published an early draft of the essay as “Alison in Wonderland,” BOOKS (September 1966): 10–12. My thanks to Nicole Woods for sharing this bibliographic information.

4. Daniela Palazzoli to George Maciunas, March 23, 1972, I.31.22, JBP.

5. Nicole L. Woods, “Object Poems: Alison Knowles’s Feminist Archite(x)ture,” X-TRA 15, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 22–23.

6. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 65–81; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).

7. Natilee Harren, “Diagramming Form, from Graphic Notation to the Fluxus Event Score,” in Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 27–70.

8. Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” The Something Else Newsletter 1, no. 1 (February 1966): 1.

9. Higgins, “Intermedia,” 2.

10. Robinson, “The Sculpture of Indeterminacy,” 110.

11. Alison Knowles, by Alison Knowles (New York: Something Else Press, 1965), 3.

12. Butler, Bodies That Matter, 4–12.

13. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon, France: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 30–32.

14. Jasbir K. Puar, “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility and Capacity,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2 (July 2009): 168–69. See also Colby Chamberlain, “Critical Care: On the Art of Park McArthur,” Artforum, October/November 2020, 155–56; Colby Chamberlain, “Prescribed Performances: Fluxus and Disability,” October no. 177 (Summer 2021): 39–45.

15. Harry J. Weil, “Sandwiches, Silkscreens, Swatches, and Scores: A Conversation with Alison Knowles,” Afterimage 38, no. 5 (2011): 15–17.

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