Interview with Alison Knowles and Hannah Higgins
Tyler Friedman: You’ve referred to yourself a number of times as a member of Fluxus. Many artists reject these labels, classifications, and –isms, feeling that they’re unnecessarily restrictive or just marketing tools. Of course the word ’Fluxus’ comes from the Latin ‘to flow,’ from where we get the phrase ‘to be in flux.’ This leads me to wonder whether Fluxus is an anti-label label. Is it a sort of declaration of independence or a license to be always already creating one’s self anew – to always be in flux?
Alison Knowles: I’ll tell you, as a woman, and an artist doing rather poorly after painting school and trying to find my way, the idea of performing an idea in front of people was a godsend.
Hannah Higgins: What do you think of Fluxus as a label? Is it limiting or not?
AK: Oh no, no, I’m fine with it.
HH: I want to actually intervene with just a little thing. Kristine Stiles, who is a performance scholar at Duke, has used, I think very usefully, the idea of voluntary association as something that people do when they feel they’re under a kind of cultural pressure. And that is very different than what you’re implying which is that a name for a movement is a kind of hollow shell that artists seek out or it is something a critic invents that is besides the point. I think there are many examples of that, certainly ‘Fauvism’, or ‘Abstract Expressionism’ works as kind a marketing tool. Think about what’s happening in the United States in the late fifties and early sixties. You have to remember that it’s the pressure cooker of the Cold War, it’s the Cuban missile crisis, it’s generational rebellion against parents. And I think that a voluntary association is a way that youth empower themselves against an oppressive system. The important thing about voluntary association and the reason I use that phrase – and this is Kristine Stiles’ idea – is that in a voluntary association, not everyone has to agree. So you don’t have one style. You don’t have one ideology. It’s not like everyone’s Catholic. This is George Brecht’s idea: if you ask fifteen Fluxus artists what their political bend is, you’ll find every possible perspective in that group. But their friendship trumps everything else.
TF: And that’s what unites them as a group?
HH: And that’s what I mean by voluntary association.
AK: Well, one thing that I wanted to mention is the importance of someone named George Maciunas. Otherwise, I never would have gotten out of America to perform in Europe. Never. My conception of myself was changing from being a painter, for which I never had a major show, to being something else, and that something else has driven my art activity ever since. It’s that, I can say something to people on my feet as a living person. And it dovetails well with my upbringing in small theatre groups, in Presbyterian school plays. I’m interested in where people come from. My background: I was the daughter of a NYU professor and a nurse in Scarsdale, New York, an unlikely place to live for people who are not economically privileged. And I found at school that I was not at a certain level with the other students. One of the things that drove me to art is, I think that the value of art is available to everyone. I’m very happy to espouse a totally democratic position, not only in the prints I make but in where I show my work and in my attitude towards people. When I meet people and speak to them, I’m interested in what they are doing and what they are trying to do. That’s the only thing that holds any water.
TF: Those were my big questions.
HH: Have we provided small answers?
TF: No, this is absolutely fascinating. Where is Fluxus going? Does it have a future? Is it a healthy, vital, group art form?
AK: I think the group art form has to be fed and maintained. I’m invited as an individual performer now. I feel like I have no group anymore. I work with Fluxus as a label that is important from another time. I meet students and they don’t know the term.
HH: That’s not true anymore, Ma. You were in the survey book.
AK: You see, I adore my informed daughter. What we had was groups of performers who had work to do and we had an impresario who said “Look, I got a little space in Europe. I can get you over here and we can go to a couple of places in Europe.”
HH: It turned out to be about six months of performance after performance after performance. They were living in cars and going city to city. Part of the important legacy of Cage is that in the era of land mail, he had this network of people who were interested in his music. When Cage was traveling in the late fifties in Europe he was performing pieces written in his class by students. When Cage performs in Cologne, in the audience is Nam June Paik and Ben Patterson and they realize they have common interests. Similar stuff is happening in Germany, and they’re writing letters to Cage’s students in the Unites States. So when Maciunas is setting up the Fluxus concerts he goes back to Cologne, because he knows that in Cologne there are these people, and these people know other people. There was a network set up in the shadow of Cage that gave people a place to start. The idea of community is really important.
AK: This great man founded a community like nobody else in my time.
HH: In terms of the legacy of Fluxus, it’s like the legacy of any avant-garde movement: it was of its moment. Its critique was important. Its joy was equally important. And the current generation, the people who are twenty-five or thirty, need to find their own thing because the critique has been thoroughly institutionalized. It’s pathetic, it’s so sad: you go into the most commercial space and you see work that pretends to be critical as it’s almost climbing the wall.
AK: It is a hard time. I agree with you.
HH: But that’s always been the case.
AK: It wasn’t the case in the early sixties.
HH: Yes it was. The beginning of Vietnam. The Kennedy assassination. You were just living in your art-head, lady.
AK: Yeah, but still, art-head was more viable at that time.
HH: I don’t know, was it? You were part of a community where it was possible to live and create. I have students going to Asia who say they feel that way in parts of China. It’s just moved.
TF: Feel that freedom, that sense of freedom?
HH: Yeah. A sense of potential. That something can be done here, because it’s an informal situation. Informality is really important. We’ve institutionalized everything, monetized everything.
AK: Right. Some of my most fragrant memories are performing on the streets of different cities. Standing out there in front of a building, mixing up a salad and trying to get people to take it and eat it. Or showing my shoes and taking about them and saying, “if you take off your shoes I’ll talk about how I perceive them in front of this microphone.” Street art. It’s just lost… Joseph Beuys was an important figure for me.
TF: Important how?
AK: Well because he was someone who had existed outside of galleries and espoused work that was – I hate the term ‘avant-garde’ – but was not necessarily designed to be in museums and galleries. He was one of the people who helped us in Europe. There was a group of people, of dealers and artists, who enabled us to get over to Europe. And once we went over to Europe and did these pieces we had been acknowledged as artists. Then we felt that we had something to offer this new crazy country America, culturally. We felt we could come back and help to build an American culture.
HH: How is that different than an abstract expressionist American culture? Or a pop art American culture? I mean it’s got a whiff of nationalism about it.
AK: I think that those artists were dealing with galleries and finished works and we were dealing with experiential work and audience participation. And none of those artists, Warhol included, would ever actively include an audience in their work. An audience could change [Knowles’ participatory performance piece] Shoes of Your Choice. Someone could get up there and we’d have to stop because they’d gone on for ten minutes. And for me, performance art has to have that element of extemporaneousness, and if it doesn’t it might as well be theatre. That’s a strong statement, but…
HH: But Beuys…
AK: Oh I know, but he helped us so much.
TF: What are your reservations?
HH: I love Beuys, I really do. My first big art experience was when Guggenheim had their big Beuys show in 1979. I was about thirteen and it was down the street from my high school, and I went on my own multiple times, so I have a real sweet spot for Beuys. On the other hand, I look at something like the piece with the coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me. It’s utterly theatrical, right? It created like the sort of illusion of him living with this coyote in the René Block gallery, but actually, we know he was taking the back door at night, hanging out in an apartment, going back in the morning and it would look like he had been there with the coyote. For me, Beuys is amazing as a cypher for a lot of really valuable primary ideas.
AK: It’s the cypher that’s important. It doesn’t matter if he’s living the back room for a few hours.
HH: But it pisses you off when you find out later. It turns out with Beuys that there’s a lot of fiction involved.
AK: It’s a theatrical element.
HH: So it’s a wonderful, extended, persona-based performance piece that is the production of Joseph Beuys, as a kind of art star. But the value of Fluxus, as I see it, lies precisely in not doing that. It didn’t have its Jackson Pollock, drunken American hero. Beuys for me is very complicating.
AK: It’s complicated, but he thrust himself out. He did his work, he theatricalized it, and he helped us get a place.
HH: He opened the door to Dusseldorf Academy for them in that first tour which was huge.
AK: The conception of art that I came into as a young artist was that art is painting pictures. Just figure out what you want to paint. I studied with [Richard] Lindner, and [Adolph] Gottlieb. They were wonderful painters, but it wasn’t right for me. I had to do something else, and then I met this wonderful publisher, Dick Higgins, and he said, “you gotta write this down and make these items and do this work and I’ll support you.” One thing led to another, and I began to find that performance art was a viable discipline, one that was coming from my own country. How exciting it was that there was an idiom that we could offer to European art! Set it on end. Everything didn’t have to be a painting.
HH: Well they had Dadaism, which had a pretty strong performance tradition, but didn’t affect mainstream museum practice the way that you guys did.
TF: Any final words?
AK: My view is that we may have fine paintings, we may have good installations, but for me the vigor that has been injected in to the art world in the last part of the twentieth century is performance art. An artist can stand out and face a public and deliver some kind of remarks from their own being about their lives. I’m so happy to be born into this particular time and life because I’m a lousy painter.
HH: That’s not true. She was making silkscreen paintings before Warhol.