The Interview with Alison Knowles by Ruud Janssen


(question sent on 5-4-2006 by e-mail)

Ruud Janssen : Welcome to the interview. Before I start with an interview I always like to read through the biography of the person I am interviewing. Looking at such a career in Art I always wonder, do you still remember when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

(answer on 5-4-2006 by e-mail)

Alison Knowles : Yes, I remember well when I decided to be an artist. It was when my grandmother addressed me as one. She looked at my pencil drawing of an osprey’s nest built in the cross wires of a telephone pole and hung it over the piano. I was six, maybe seven years old.

(question sent on 6-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : You graduated in 1954 from Pratt University. Looking back at this study, what did you learn there, or maybe a better question is: what didn’t you learn there?

(answer on 11-4-2006 by e-mail)

AK : My graduation from Pratt Institute was in 1956. I had transferred from Middlebury College in Vermont. Because my father was an English professor at Pratt I was able to enroll at no expense in the Art Department

In the night school for three years I was able to study painting with Adolph Gottlieb a recognized abstract impressionist at the time. He said very little to anyone, but spoke directly in front of the work to each person so it was a personal critical dialogue about art with each one of us. He made me feel I could be a great painter. at the time I intensely admired Helen Frankenthal, and had acquaintance with the work of Pollock.
Franz Kline also taught in the class from time to time. During the day I studied graphic design and commercial layout. My best class in the day school was with the painter Richard Lindner. He was a philosopher and dedicated his thoughts to areas outside painting. We had discussions as a group. We also had an hour to draw together. His concentration drawing technique is really a mediation on time . We would draw for five minutes as slowly as possible with pencil on the paper, not taking our eyes off the subject. We began the class each week in this way. I learned very much from him and use this drawing technique with students today. What I learned there was that I am artist. What I should have learned there was that I am not a painter. However, in those days all artists were painterd.

(question sent on 13-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : In a text I read: “Alison Knowles is a conceptual artist doing performance art, installations, sound art and bookmaking”. Quite a variety and definitely no mentioning of painting. It seems that after your formal education some informal education took place. Is this somehow connected to the “New York Mycological Society” ?

(answer on 13-4-2006 by e-mail)

AK : Oh yes, the mycological Society was led by John Cage, who along with my father is my teacher. We went on Sunday walks in Upstate New York near where John lived. We went by bus, Dick Higgins my husband and myself to spend time in the woods together, studying mushrooms and having the time while walking to talk to one another. I find walking together to be the best way to exchange ideas. John was always willing to talk to people proposing an idea or observation. We all became acquaintances and then friends. I knew of John through the New School course he gave in the late 50’s and was eager to have some of that wisdom and daring rub off on me. As for painting, my attentions dwindled after a show at the Nonegon Gallery on 2nd Ave. in New York. My diverting to the New School class was gentle and then abrupt. I destroyed all my paintings in a bonfire behind my brothers country house. This is slightly distressing to me now, as they would be easily marketable in Italy.

However, this act of destruction on my part led me directly into the Fluxus family of friends and as I say, connections to the New School and George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Al Hansen and Allan Kaprow, among others. On our first Fluxus tour in ’62 I began to write performance events. But perhaps that is another question.

(question sent on 21-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : When did you meet Dick Higgins for the first time?

(answer on 21-4-2006 by e-mail)

AK : I was invited to a party at 84 Christopher Street by a friend Dorothy Podber and our friend Ray Johnson. It was Dick’s apartment. I stayed for three days.

(question sent on 24-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : You talked in your previous answer about “the Fluxus family of friends”. When was the word “Fluxus” first used in this circle of friends?

(answer on 25-4-2006 by e-mail)

AK : These friends who did concerts together performed under the banner Fluxus. Simultaneously I would say we felt like friends rather than say a group of actors doing a play together. The term family may be my own invention but I like it. No way to put a date on this, but early on.

(question sent on 24-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : The term family is also an indication of how these times must have felt. It is interesting that Ray Johnson also belonged to this circle of friends. Some say he also belongs to the group of Fluxus people but I also read somewhere that Ray never considered himself a “Fluxus artist”. How do you see this?

(answer on 27-4-2006 by e-mail)

AK : Ray Johnson was a mail artist, and founded the Correspondence School.
He never travelled with us, or wrote pieces for performance that we could use. I have many memories of his work, always absurd and interactive.

(question sent on 27-4-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : Could you describe one of your favourite performances of the early days. If possible I will publish the original score with this interview. But I am more curious on how you think back of the piece you choose.

(answer on 28-4-2006 by e-mail, booklets on 6-5-2006 by regular mail)

AK : like “shuffle ” a lot. It presents the group as a group entering and leaving the hall in a snake-like conga line. I would like to send you my pamphlet of early pieces called By Alison Knowles. It lists the event scores from this period. Please give me your mailing address.

(On 6-5-2005 I received two booklets by mail. The first booklet: “by Alison Knowles”, 1965, A great Bear Pamphlet – New York. It contains a listing of 17 scores written by her. The second booklet: “MORE by Alison Knowles”, 1979 2nd Edition, Printed Editions New York. “These pieces in MORE are the writings, spoken parts, poems and events from my environments of the 1970’s. Given the opportunity to reprint MORE, I decided to leave out several of the shorter pieces in the first edition to make room for Three New Bean Events, The Shoemaker’s Assistant, and Bean see also Bein. The collage preface that follows was made by Philip Corner.” As a reaction I sent her some samples of previous mail-interviews that I published.)

(question sent on 6-5-2006 by e-mail, booklets on 7-5-2006 by regular mail)

RJ : Thanks for sending me the two booklets. I also looked on the Internet to find details about the performance “Shuffle”. Online one only finds fragments of what it must have been. On you own site (url: also a lot can be found on what you did. A booklet fits more to the times these first scores were performed. I probably will use the booklets as illustrations for the finished interview. As I read in your biography you came in contact with computers in an early stage. I quote:

“In 1967, Knowles produced The House of Dust poem, possibly the first computerized poem, which she produced with composer James Tenney following his informal seminar on computers in the arts held at her home with husband Dick Higgins in 1967”.

What does a computer mean to you nowadays?

(answer on 8-5-2006 by e-mail)

AK : Nowadays I use the computer for daily email contact and to sometimes
send a picture for card or publication. I don’t use it every day, and I am not a computer adept but it is a great tool we all agree. I do not use it to do artwork however. All my work seems to be tactile, touchable and musical sometimes (the beans falling down inside the
paper) or performances where real people look at real people.

(question sent on 10-5-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : When you talk about performances where real people look at real people I am trying to visualize that. The bean performance is probably a superb example of where this happens. It also involves the musical element. I found a photo of one of those performances (I thought it was on the site located at:
Where the 40 year celebration of Fluxus in France was documented. What I wonder is: Why beans?

(with this e-mail I sent the photobeans alison knowles
that is also besides this question)

(answer on 11-5-2006 by e-mail)

AK : beans are not usually used to make art or sound works so my position
in using them for both is unique. It opens up the world of art to
ordinary things such as edibles.

I discover rare information about beans in libraries all over the
world. The first of my publications was the Bean Rolls published by
Fluxus in the early sixties. The next was A Bean Concordance published
by Station Hill Press in the 70’s. I am always collecting new
information and I find everyone has something to say on the subject.
Also, I think it is healthy for artists to have outside areas of
research besides their own world. I am leaving for Venice now so please hold the questions for a few weeks.

(question sent on 22-5-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : How was Venice?

(answer on 24-5-2006 by e-mail)

AK : Today Venice is rainy. I am here with a performance and exhibition through July 1st.

(question sent on 24-5-2006 by e-mail)

RJ : Could you tell me more about what kind of performance you did and what you exhibited in Venice? It is raining here too……

(since I didn’t get a reply in September, I resent the question again with attached the concept for the Mail-Interview booklet.)

(answer on ….-10-2007 by e-mail)

AK : (interview was stopped)

1. New York Mycological Society
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, of which the vegetative growth is typically underground or in wood. Fungi serve a major recycling role in nature, breaking down dead trees and other organic material. Fungi also help nourish trees and other plants, thus playing a key role in the health of our forests. And yes, some fungi can also play a destructive role in nature by attacking living things such as trees. Most mushrooms are not poisonous and quite a few are very good edibles. But some are very toxic and a few are deadly! Unfortunately there are no simple foolproof rules to distinguish the edible from the poisonous. One must learn individual mushroom species if one plans on eating mushrooms. The most important point is that no one should ever eat unknown mushrooms! When in doubt, throw it out! Joining a mushroom club is the safe and fun way to learn about mushrooms and fungi. The New York Mycological Society is a non-profit organization of 150 members who share an interest in mycology (the study of mushrooms and fungi) as well as in mycophagy (the eating of mushrooms). The present NYMS was reincarnated some 40 years ago by the composer John Cage and a small group of other mushroom lovers and students. Mycology is mushrooming! (text from the NYMS – Site)

2. Dorothy Podber ran the Nonegan Gallery in the mid-1960s and she was associated with Black Mountain friends, the Mole People, the art world and the underworld. She is famous for shooting a stack of Marilyn paintings in late 1964, which she can she considered a performance.

3. #1 Shuffle (1961)
The performer or performers shuffle into the performance area and away from it, above, behind, around, or through the audience. They perform as a group or solo: but quietly. Premired August 1963 at National Association of Chemists and Performers in New York at the Advertiser’s club.

4. Beginning in 1962 Alison Knowles wrote an important series of event scores (instructions for events carried out) which anticipate do it. These event scores were published in A Great Bear Pamphlet (1965) which included scores for Shuffle #7, 1967 (“The performer or performers shuffle into the performance area and away from it, above, behind, around, all through the audience. They perform as a group or solo…but quietly”) and Proposition, 1962 (“Make a salad”).