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Two nibs


Alison Knowles
in conversation with
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett
September 2006

This piece is about 11 printed pages long. It was conducted by email over a couple of weeks in September 2006.

Alison Knowles and the Gift

Alison Knowles was born in New York City in 1933. She is a visual artist known for her soundworks, installations, performances, publications and association with Fluxus, the experimental avant-garde group formally founded in 1962. In additon to numerous teaching engagements and minor awards, Knowles has been acknowledged for her profound contributions to contemporary artistic practice in the form of a Guggenheim Grant (1967), NEA Grants (1981 and 1985), a collaborative New York State Council on the Arts Grant (1989), a Dokumenta Professorship at the Kunstakademie Kassel, Germany (1998), the College Art Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2003), and Anonymous was a Woman Grant (2003).

paragraph 1

Much of our everyday morality is concerned with the question of obligation and spontaneity in the gift. It is our good fortune that all is not yet couched in terms of purchase and sale. Things have values which are emotional as well as material; indeed in some cases the values are entirely emotional. Our morality is not solely commercial.[1]


In 1998 you participated in the conference ‘Re-thinking the Avant-garde’ at De Montfort University. Can you tell me what issues were raised and whether any struck you as particularly relevant to your own practice?


The conference in Leicester was stimulated by the remarkable Nicholas Zurbrugg. The subjects we spoke of concerned concepts like avant garde, collaboration, Dada and what we could say of our own Fluxus interaction over years and what had been salted out. I had the pleasure of staying with Nicholas in his little house and sipping tea at breakfast served on a fresh white table cloth from an english tea set. beside a window looking out on green. He always wore a white shirt and a cab was waiting for him every morning. What a pick up from the death of my husband Dick Higgins who had died that same year. It was Nicholas who offered me the silk screen lab and working with Kevin to do the prints. All my experience and much of the experience of others is relevant to my practice, however I am slow to digest.


You made a series of screen prints for the occasion, entitled October Suite. I believe that you dedicated these prints to a number of artists. Can you tell me about the artists you selected?


I made an edition of ten each of the five male artists I selected to honor. Nicholas invited Richard Hamilton to come to Leicester and give a small introduction to the performance I did which is titled Loose Pages. Richard sent a lovely letter of refusal and as I remember the performance went very well.

Loose Pages


Here it is briefly, and there is a gift idea in it somehow: walking onto the stage with a female performer I place her on a riser (platform). Opening a portfolio I take out one at a time the “pages” of a book. I dress her.She becomes the spine and each page becomes part of her dress. Arm flaps, head flap, pants pages are carefully put on and finally foot covers. Each page has a different sound. It is paper I have hand made and formed loosely into body parts. The papers are made of cotton(soft muffled) or flax(sharp, hard and strong sound). When she is totally clothed in the edition I help her off the platform (she is blinded by the head flap) and in the wide slipper pages we shuffle off the stage. Perhaps the gift here is that the audience has seen the performance evolve from still pages into a sound work. we have seen the artist(me in this case) present a work created (wrapped) before our eyes. The audience partakes in the dance.


The screen prints were dedicated to Richard Hamilton, Emmett Williams, Dick Higgins, George Brecht and Hermann Braun: a.(Richard Hamilton).


Richard introduced me to Marcel Duchamp in order to execute the screen print Coeurs Volants. The Something Else press needed permission to use the image of the flying hearts on a cover of a book called Sweethearts by Emmett Williams. Gifts for me are above all else a way to thank someone for something done for you: connections, love, admiration, a rich idea, lots of things but personal. For Richard , I did the Leicester print for him to be grateful for connecting me and the Press to Marcel Duchamp. I had tea with Marcel and there are stories to tell but not right here. I sent Richard two prints, the dedicated one to him from the October series and the print I did of Coeurs Volants with Marcel. He responded to me with his own print The Critic Smiles. In other words we made an exchange.


I find emotional values to be the source for my work. In terms of survival I have had incredible luck and fortuitous chance factors kicking in all along. More the trails of a spider than the leap of a tiger! If I am obligated to give a gift it is not my own artwork but something purchased.


b.(Emmett Williams) The print dedicated to Emmett concerned our many performances of my event score by that name, Nivea Cream. The October suite shows the blue plastic jar with the white label that we all used for skin cream years ago (I still do). For many years Emmett worked as an editor of the Something Else Press in New York. He was and is a dear friend who gave me the insight that my artwork is a collection of insights into my own life. He influenced and helped me make the Big Book at my 22nd st. studio in 1967.


c.(Dick Higgins) friend, collaborator and husband. His press was really a threesome with Emmett. I included in this print some of Dick’s music as well as some poetics. With Dick I really learned to read and through his Press I published several books. His concept of intermedia allowed me to do poetics, do sound works and do screen prints. That’s all okay in fact he felt that all artists should have a variety of avenues. We are speaking here of the 60’s of course but I find my closest associates do a number of artforms.


d(George Brecht) a chemist by trade and the creator of many of the best event scores I know. Without him Fluxus would have bent to much to the french(Ben Vautier).


e(Hermann Braun) this collector of Fluxus is as well as the others a dear friend. We once took a weekend at the North Sea when I was a documenta Professor in Kassel. On that beach I found some of the finest specimens of shoe parts piled up for no reason on a loading dock! I have some of them still. The print pictures Hermann facing into the wind with his inevitable cap pulled down tight.


I have been thinking about the function of the gift within contemporary avant-garde poetic practice, as a mode for exchanges motivated by aesthetic and social interest rather than by economic profit. In Mauss’s The Gift, Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, he notes the importance of the gift in promoting alliances. When you dedicate your work (eg. October Suite) to artists/friends/colleagues, how do you see these dedications functioning on a social level, and, following on from this, do you see your use of dedications as a political decision that is at all linked to your conception of the role of the avant-garde? For example, by dedicating your work to select individuals, are you in effect choosing your audience, along the lines that Craig Saper outlines in Networked Art,[2] where he describes the sociopoetic work as that produced with a fixed “network of participants”[3] in mind?


Not particularly, nor do I think that there is a particular fixted network of participants in mind. I do hope certain people would be present when I perform or present, but if not, others seem to turn up and ultimately these others extend the network. Preaching to the converted is not the idea.


Let’s talk about your work in relation to Fluxus. Ken Friedman has described Fluxus as: “a laboratory practice.”[4] How meaningful a description do you find this and how do you see your own work functioning in this way?

Rainbow photo 1


The Fluxus event scores for me have a Platonic pearliness, a perfection that some performers can reach that sets ego aside as well as extraneous materials (bad lighting, buzzing air conditioner) and presents an abstraction of excellence in use of the materials and human interaction. Somehow” social practice “includes the ordinary without the Platonic element. hmmm mm the most focussed performers seem to elevate the most simple turns(moving a chair) into magical occurrences.


Rainbow photo 3


When George Maciunas tried to formulate a group ideology and aesthetic for Fluxus in his letter no. 6 dated April 6 1963, there was widespread opposition. He wrote to you and Dick saying that he couldn’t understand your opposition to using terrorism to: “reduce the attendance of the masses to...decadent institutions... (eg. museums)... and to instead...“turn their attention to Fluxus.”[5] Would you agree that one of the functions of the dedications in your work is to indicate that rather than courting: “the attendance of the masses,” your practice encourages a sharing of work between like-minded artists?”


“Between like minded people” okay.


Do you see your use of a network of participants (as indicated by the use of dedications) as continuing the territory explored by Fluxus mail art from the fifties onwards, where this method of distributing work provided an alternative to the dominant gallery system of distribution? I’m thinking particularly of the 1979 issue of Arte Postale! where the only way to receive the publication was to send an artwork or text in exchange. Do you see the dedications in October Suite as re-negotiating the currency of artistic commerce from financial to artistic exchange?


It’s not either or, I distribute my work by gifts and donations and don’t connect the act with commerce. I am not averse to selling work however.


Mauss notes the importance of the reciprocal nature of the gift exchange. Do you see your readers/audience as having a responsibility to engage in a particular way with your work?


No it’s in the nature of a gift that it asks no response and rises from a need in the giver. Nor is it a potlatch where objects must be upscaled to prove status or superiority (Incans I think).


Do you think that the reciprocity in gift exchanges works against Phelan’s[6] description of the binary set up between performer and spectator, by turning responsibility to respond onto the spectator, unsettling static positions, as spectator becomes participant? Do you see this happening in any of your Event Scores?


Unsettling static positions, yes.


Joan Retallack has stated that: “an important characteristic of performance is that it usually doesn’t happen in all-day, ordinary time. (Aristotle based an entire Poetics on this fact.) And even if it did, it’s time could not be coterminous with everyday-life time, since the framing of an event as performance is in fact a kind of time-bracketing (as Cage called it) that transforms the time-sense (as Stein called it) within it.”[7] When your Event Scores occur as part of everyday life, such as #5, Street Piece (1962), where the instruction is to make something in the street and give it away, how does this affect the time sense of the performance?


It is interesting to have Joan Retallack as a neighbor here. I live around the corner from Bard where she teaches. It was circumstantial that she came to look at work when I was writing to you!


The bracketing of time is something we all do all the time even when trying to write or whatever, not to be interrupted. Or like Cage, accept the interruption and get back right away into the bracket. sometimes one does that too. What is different with Aristotle is that the material he was writing is itself a bracket of his mind, a construct of his thinking which he writes down and it appears onstage. What distinguishes a piece like Gift Event, or its full title Gift Construction #16 from anything Aristotle did is simply that the time bracket doesn’t really exist. One could wander a street for days finding things to finally put together as a gift for some stranger. when this piece was performed in Canada at the W.O.R.K.S festival I had the report that it wasn’t that hard to make something from street cullings.The hard part was trying to get a stranger to accept the gift. They finally were able to talk someone into it. So is that open ended time when a person has to be convinced to take the gift also part of the piece. Of course it is. The piece in my mind is not bracketed since the elements cannot be fortold nor the time span. Also all the happenings could be considered bracketed. The whole day becomes performance time, bracketed. This is a gray area since most of the happenings I know of were existing in the mind of the artist and planned out with indeterminate factors of time length left more open or indeterminate within the whole Happening experience of a day or long evening. This relates more to Aristotle. In my mind most of the happenings I was involved in were simple outdoor theatre pieces.


You ask how the Event score effects the time sense of the perfomance. I would say the time sense changes in tone and even in its meanings depending on presentation on a stage, outdoors or alone in the kitchen. Event scores have an open frame from daily life from non actor performers and from found materials. This is a long way from Aristotle (thank goodness).

knowles onion skin photo


How do you situate your practice in relation to Bourriaud’s[8] conception of relational aesthetics, which presents inter-human communications as the most important function of contemporary art?


I don’t use words like “most important” in this case, rarely do. Has the same problems as “genius” or “the best.” These words get art historians into difficulties, but then I am not one and don’t know what they are up against to categorize and list artists from one to ten. I would say that interhuman communications
are among the important ingredients in the area of performance art.


Bourriaud characterizes much art from the sixties, including Fluxus art, as a series of “relational programmes to be carried out.” Is this a helpful way to view Event Scores?


Actions to be carried out.


Bourriaud’s conclusion that: “it seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows,” shows that the artist can not change culture, he or she can just make it a better place in the present time of the art work. This seems different to your utilization of methods of production and distribution that challenge dominant economic methods of exchange and present alternative models for contemporary culture. Would you agree with this?


Let’s just bet on what we are trying to do right now. Colored though it be by yesterday and tomorrow. Looking around too much shows a lack of focus. I like what you say about my utilization of methods. Yes, I agree with your assessment thank you.


Can you explain the function of found materials in your work?


Found materials are simply gifts from the street.


Mauss writes that: “everyday morality is concerned with the question of obligation and spontaneity in the gift.” Do you think your use of found materials exemplifies the spontaneity in the gift?


Yes, my use of found materials is a mysterious gift from somewhere. When I pick up street items, a shoe heel for instance, it may be just a dialog of walking, of pausing and observing on my way to the post office. I pick it up and put it in my pocket. It gets cleaned, and observed on a small table with other such things under the sky light. After time I well may abandon it. Its use was simply a casual encounter on my way to the post office, and useful as such. Greene street where I have lived on a corner for many years used to open onto small businesses all the way to Canal street. Small, usually metal items would catch between the bricks items that were custom designed for special uses in industries were then crushed and changed by the traffic. Making their origins unknown and giving them a context for me as abstract and significant.


Dick has said with respect to his event score Danger Music Number Fifteen: “we like quite ordinary, workaday, nonproductive things and activities.”[9] Would you say that you share this view, and that the use of “ordinary, workaday” found materials works against the commodification and fetishisation of art objects in your practice?


I agree.


Footnotes contains work in many stages of process, from draft notes to printed text, drawings, diagrams and scotch tape. Would you say that your use of work in different states of process continues the function of found material in your practice, to establish alternative models for art objects?


The use of scotch tape which I intentionally included in the photographs constitutes an homage to Dieter Roth and his something else press book 246 Little Clouds.


Ann Waldman has spoken of a “poetic economy”[10] as the set of exchanges within a community developed to promote collaborative, creative ventures. My thesis looks at how gift culture can be used as a model for this type of economy. Do you think it is helpful to view your practice as operating within a poetic economy?


This is a nice idea, provided it doesn’t create a closed system in your mind. Sometimes I titled things poem objects.


Are you aware of any other contemporary artists whose work develops the idea of a poetic economy?


I love the work of Eva Hesse.


Are you aware of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa and the Bowery Poetry Club in New York and of how these institutions operate within a poetic economy? Do you think that they provide useful models for contemporary poetic practice?


The Bowery Poetry club is a great space for poetry in NY. I have performed there in the works of Jackson Mac Low.
Good luck and thank you.


[1] Mauss, Marcel. The Gift, Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, (trans. Ian Cunnison) Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1954

[2] Craig Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Subsequent references are to this edition.

[3] Saper, p.4

[4] Friedman, Ken. The Fluxus Reader, Academy Editions, 1998

[5] Maciunus to Higgins and Knowles,1963. Located at Archiv Sohm.

[6] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, the Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993.

[7] Joan Retallack, “WRITERS – READERS – PERFORMERS, Partners in Crime,” How (2) 1.6, 2001

[8] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel,France, 1998

[9] Barnes, Sally, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body. Duke University Press, Durham and London,1993, p.202

[10] Ann Waldman speaking at The Bowery Poetry Club, August 2005

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a poet and editor living and working in London. She studied English at Oxford, Poetic Practice (MA) at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Applied Poetics at Bowery Arts and Science, New York. Publications include This Actually Happened (Vox Pop, New York, 2005) and Bowery Women: Poems (YBK Publishers, Inc. New York, 2006). She also teaches Creative Writing and performs across the UK and US. She is interested in the possibilities for poetic economies, digital writing and performance, and is currently researching these interests on the PhD in Contemporary Poetics at Royal Holloway.