Visitors to the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive will soon see red. On the occasion of the opening of “By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022),” the artist sticks a large grid on the floor of the museum and invites visitors on July 23 to place a red object in each square. It is a cover of a work she conceived in 1962 titled “Celebration Red” (later titled “Homage to Each Red Thing” for Hans Ulrich Obrist’s influential artist instruction show “Do It”.) It is also one of Knowles’ most famous and vivid participatory works of art in a long history of creation.
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, 89-year-old Knowles has continued for the past five decades to create interactive, inviting and category-defying works of art. Their scale ranges from tiny portable sculptures to eight-foot-high single-story installations that look like giant books. Speaking recently from her longtime SoHo studio in Manhattan, where she lives, the artist spoke about some of her signature themes and materials. Here are edited excerpts.
Much of your work is participatory to the point of being generous: art is something you give to people.
I really like that. I want my work to expand the terms of engagement. I don’t want people to passively watch my work but actively participate by touching, eating, following a listening instruction, making or physically taking something, or participating in an activity.
Beans have been a favorite material in your work over the years. You’ve used them in so many ways, from embedding them in handmade paper to placing them in paper sleeves to create sound generators called Bean Turners. What’s so appealing about beans?
Well, they’re affordable and available everywhere, and there are many different types you can cook with and work with. Everyone knows the different names of beans in their own culture. And when the grains are dry, they produce a great sound. My music study was minimal – some piano work and I loved to sing but never had much formal study. Beans have become instruments for me to make sound in performances. They gave me an action to punctuate the text. Beans are acoustic and able to project sound, which is important.
Other women were associated with Fluxus later, 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 1962 Fluxus performance group, on stage with public performance dates in Europe as Fluxus grew from an idea, project or name to a group of performers tackling new music and intermedia. I was very happy to be on tour to work. I was honored [to be the only woman] and I tried to take full advantage of the opportunity.
I read that you were hit in the face with a rotten tomato in Wiesbaden during one of these concerts.
There was a lot of aggression in what we were doing on stage but frankly I don’t remember the rotten tomato. I remember people getting up and leaving – and often did. But I had work to do, I performed the work no matter what.
Some of your early works like “Proposal #2: Make a Salad” (1962) — which involved preparing a salad on stage and serving it to museum visitors — must have seemed radical at the time. You later revisited this work for places like the Tate and the high line. Do you find that your audience or their sense of outrage has changed over time?
Performance art now allows for so many human activities that were never available when I started on a concert stage. The concept of performance now includes food, children, weather, etc., everything – I like that.
What were the ingredients in the original “Make a Salad”?
The salad had to be made with ingredients selected during a trip to the local market. Salads are more available these days, at least in this country, but the idea in 1962 of having green food available for a show was extremely odd. It was also difficult for concert organizers who usually worry about sound to suddenly worry about getting people good green food.
How would you explain the idea of a Fluxus “event score”?
George Brecht, artist and founding member of Fluxus, imagined the “Event Score” format, and we used it for an action proposal played like music on a concert program. It was our way of marking our actions or our performances in a way as serious as a score by Satie. A sentence like “Make a salad” is the score of the event.
You have collaborated on books and performances with John Cage. What was he working with?
It was a great friendship. We loved working together, cooking together, eating together, hunting mushrooms together. We would find mushrooms, and if we didn’t, we would find green vegetables. The important thing was to work together outdoors on the trails.
He was a bit difficult, he didn’t get along with everyone. He honored my work and it meant a lot to me, and I found his work very basic to what I was trying to do: use random operations, use an available audience rather than a chosen audience.
I heard you inadvertently gave your husband, writer Dick Higgins, the name of his publishing company, 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.”
Alongside designing books, you have made sculptures inspired by books: single-storey installations where the walls look like the pages of a book, and props for a performance where the the spine of a performer’s body evokes the spine of a book. What about the shape of the book that speaks to you?
I’m interested in transforming portable objects into large-scale architecture, and the book has been an accessible tool for exploring that. The person or performer engaged in the work can enter the object and activate it. Hand-held objects can become models. With Something Else Press, I did the editorial and graphic design for some of the books that Dick published. I finally designed a book of passage to live which will be published by the press in a single copy and called it The big book. I continued to design books as environments.
For the Berkeley show, you do a new version of “Celebration Red” (1962). Could you imagine celebrating another color, like blue or green?
I am very attracted to the color red and associate it with courage. But it’s not really about color – it’s a chance to access the relationships that color offers. Your shirt, your hat, your beans can all be red, it’s a very common color in food and clothes, so it gives me a chance to activate a network of people, objects, actions.
The museum said you were hoping to fly to Berkeley for opening weekend. Are you going to add your own red object to the grid?
I really want to be there, and I’d be happy to add anything. I might just add a tomato.