The Boat Book by Alison Knowles
By MARK BLOCH, JAN. 2014
Anyone who happened to be navigating the south Florida shoreline in early December 2014 may have been surprised by an unexpected nautical presence in Miami. The buoyant octagenarian Alison Knowles, First Woman of Fluxus; Soho real estate pioneer; early feminist-by-example; collaborator with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp; author of world’s first computer poem and one of the world’s seminal performance artists, will be launched her newest project. “The Boat Book,” is a “book sculpture” with 4 by 8 feet pages that roll, allowing viewers to make their way through it, was all within James Fuentes Gallery’s survey booth S12 at Art Basel Miami Beach.
The Boat Book is a completely new work but it also offers a fresh 21st Century look back at her important earlier project, 1966’s “The Big Book” that made waves in art and book circles without a nautical theme when it traveled the world—from New York to Canada to Europe to California—48 years ago.
The Boat Book, like The Big Book before it, is just that: a big book, composed of eight 4' x 8' movable pages—anchored to a metal spine. “This walk in construction was equipped with casters, which made it possible to leaf through the individual pages. Each page had access to the next, opening up different spaces between them where a reader could spend some time,” as it is described in a more traditional book brought out this year by Passenger Books called Alison Knowles’ The Big Book.
Unlike The Boat Book, The Big Book contained a toilet, an artificial grass sleeping tunnel, a gallery with works by artist friends illuminated by black light and tungsten, a library, a telephone, a window to open, close or climb through, and other utilitarian objects in the spaces between the pages. “I remember in Cologne they had to kick a man out of the tunnel who stayed overnight,” Knowles recalled.
But like its predecessor, The Boat Book contains a soundtrack, a guest book, blinking electric lights, a stove for making a cup of tea and instead of a grass sleeping tunnel, a blue plastic tunnel is provided, keeping with the mariner theme that is maintained throughout the work. “This time,” continued Knowles, “the grass tunnel will be replaced by a hoop structure between two pages covered with blue silk like the ocean.”
It also contains a giant porthole for climbing through, fishing nets and a fishing pole, an anchor and many other accoutrements of water travel for visitors who navigated its pages as they did with the first two incarnations of Knowles’ large book concept, The Big Book and its follow up, The Book of Bean which combined two of her trademark interests.
Knowles has been a pioneer in the book-as-object and artists book field since the early 1960s. Her first book object was the hand-scaled, non-sequential “book,” Bean Rolls, which featured bean lore and information on paper rolls in a retooled cigar can as part of the 1965 Fluxkit, a Fluxus Edition compiled by Flux-czar George Maciunas. The metal tin with an offset label and offset printed scrolls containing dried beans marked one of the first deconstructions of the book as an object, simultaneously elevating it to new status as a three dimensional art object while dressing it down to a mysterious non-sequitor that one might find in their mother’s kitchen—but, like the other objects in the Fluxkit—only if it were to appear in a strange dream.
Her next book project, the aforementioned Big Book in 1966, was built in the Something Else Press offices in New York City. The late Dick Higgins (1938-1998), Alison's husband, was also a Fluxus artist who started that press and the couple operated it together following the early Fluxus years.
Knowles, Higgins and the carpenter Masami Kodama built The Big Book with help from others starting in 1965 in her studio using found materials and damaged silk screen elements. (The Boat Book also incorporates screens into the structure of the book, referencing Knowles’ extensive background as a screen printer and expert in industrial graphics processes.) It was subsequently “published” like a normal book by the Something Else Press but never received an ISBN number, in mock fear that in order to do so they should ship a duplicate copy to Washington DC for filing. Nevertheless, The Big Book was designed so it could be packed into two crates, and eventually traveled to Chicago MCA for the “Pictures to be Heard, Poetry to be Seen” show; in 1967, the Pollock Gallery in Toronto; in ‘68, the Kunsthalle in Cologne, the Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen and a book fair in Frankfurt where due to excessive wear and tear, it began to fall apart. In 1969, the Jewish Museum showed it as part of their “Superlimited: Books, Boxes and Things” show and what was left finally made it to La Jolla, California’s UCSD University Art Gallery.
In the course of its travels, the book gradually disintegrated into its individual components, so that by the time it departed from the final venue, only a few pages remained. In 1981, in conjunction with the Franklin Furnace Archive, Knowles and Yoshi Wada, an artist, musician and carpenter built a “sort of sequel” entitled The Book of Bean now residing in Milan, Italy at MuDiMa.
While The Big Book and The Book of Bean were designed to be shipped easily, The Boat Book is bulkier and heavier, more like an enormous piece of furniture built to last and thus required quite a bit of shipping for its debut in Miami.
Alison’s other book innovations include a smaller creation for the audience’s hand, The Finger Book of Ancient Language, which is a 1987 book in Braille and other tactile languages intended for the blind reader, now at the Emily Harvey Foundation, and others such as By Alison Knowles and More by Alison Knowles (Something Else Press and Printed Editions, 1965/1979), Spoken Text (1993), Bread and Water with Left Hand Books (1995), as well as a solo catalogue, Indigo Island (Staatsgalerie Saarbrucken, 1995).
More recently, her Event Threads consist of found objects (material events), often dipped in paper, hanging loosely from a single, suspended thread. Until The Boat Book, which actually contains some Event Threads, as well as some Bean Turners, a musical instrument she created out of handmade paper, Knowles’ books shed their binding in favor of free hanging pages that form books without a unifying spine, per se.
Alison Knowles was born in New York in 1933. She transferred from Middlebury College in Vermont to the Art Department at Pratt where her father was an English professor.
She intensely admired Helen Frankenthaler so for three years she studied painting with Adolph Gottlieb, a recognized abstract impressionist who “made me feel I could be a great painter,” she said. Her favorite teacher was the painter Richard Lindner, who was also a philosopher about areas outside painting. “What I learned from him was that I am an artist but what I should have learned was that I am not a painter.”
In 1958 after her first one-person show at the Nonagon Gallery on Manhattan’s Second Avenue, she destroyed all her paintings in a bonfire behind her brother’s country house.
It is that brother, who still lives on the east end of Long Island in their father’s house, to whom she has dedicated The Boat Book. “My brother Larry, who is a great fisherman, had his open boat and supplied the Easthampton fish market for years. He could look at a fish and tell you if it was caught in the last day or sitting on ice for a week. One glance at the eye at he had all the information he needed. I remember traveling with him on Canal Street in Chinatown and he said, ‘Never buy fish here.’”
A homesteader in the 1950s on Canal Street and Broadway and later on Spring Street, Alison Knowles was an integral part of the downtown New York artist community that later became SoHo. By the early 60s, Knowles was centered within a circle of neighborhood artists evolving out of the work of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, and toward Pop Art, Minimalism and Happenings. By 1962, a group of these friendships coalesced as Fluxus, whose founding tour brought instructional performance events to Europe, which later spread to Asia and then back to the United States. Knowles and Higgins joined Maciunas on that now historic journey creating havoc and causing scandals in European capitals performing simple event scores that were the result of Cage’s class at the New School which in which Higgins was enrolled. Knowles designed and edited Cage’s Notations book of experimental composition and Marcel Duchamp’s last print, Coeurs Volants, in 1967. Both were published in partnership with her spouse, Higgins, whose Something Else Press and the Great Bear Pamphlets published early work by Knowles and other members of Fluxus, Happenings, and the concrete and experimental poetry scenes within the context of the historic avant garde.
Knowles’s travels through the Fluxus idiom and its aftermath have included a focus on performance, indeterminacy, and in particular the event-score as first developed by George Brecht in Cage’s 1959 class and then expanded in her work by crossing the fourth wall into homes, kitchens and other environmental dwelling structures. Her projects combined conventional domestic tasks (Make a Salad, Make a Soup), objects, memories, chance and occasionally her own personal preferences to create rituals and grounded experiences for performer and audience. In The Big Book and other book sculptures, her installations provided Intermedia resting stations where performance, poetry, the personal and in the opening salvos of her structure House of Dust, even punchcards, could manifest investigative experiences of the new relationships between author and reader.
As an original Fluxus player, and the only female in its first generation, Knowles uniquely proposed and moved forward the use of unconventional materials within previously untried strategies to bridge the art-life gulf. She sidesteps those who cite her role as a feminist pioneer by attributing her position toward the fact that when she did the first Flux-tours of Europe, there simply were no women to work with. While she sympathizes with people who have been terribly treated or victimized in the art world, she does not allow abuse from men or anyone else and never encountered it. Yet occasionally, as in Women’s Work, a 1975 book she edited with Ann(e)a Lockwood, which brought forth scores by women who used texts as an instructional form, and at other times, such as when being honored alongside other women of the pre- and post- Fluxus era such as Sari Dienes, Charlotte Moorman, Simone Forti, Carolee Schneeman, Yoko Ono, Takako Saito or Mieko Shiomi, she is happy to accept acknowledgement as an artist who happens to be female.
Her performances distinctively draw on 50 years as a concept art practitioner and aficionado as well as her experiences as a mother, wife, sister or daughter such as during early 2011, when Knowles could be found at the MoMA serving up a reprisal of her Identical Lunch (1969), “a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo, and a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk.”
In 1966, Knowles, as part of electronic composer James Tenney’s experiments using mainframe computer technology to aid in the production of chance based art, created House of Dust, programmed with Tenney, recognized at the time as the first computer poem on record, winning her a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968. A stanza of the poem, “A house of dust, on open ground, lighted by natural light, inhabited by people from all walks of life,” was realized as a sculpture in New York, which she then brought to CalArts, where she taught from 1970-72 in synch with the new institution’s Intermedia and experimental approach to the arts in those early days after Walt Disney founded the school and Allan Kaprow created its fine art atmosphere.
For over fifty years Knowles has remained active on the performance and exhibition scene in the United States and Europe, working periodically with students in residencies that include a Berlin DAAD (1983), Documenta X in Kassel, Germany (1997), and a residency at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study- Harvard University (2009).
Knowles’ work has been increasingly featured in benchmark performance, Fluxus and related exhibitions in the United States and internationally—from her prize winning broadcast of Bohnen Sequenzen (Bean Sequences) at West Deutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne, Germany in 1982, to the Tate Long Weekend in London in 2008, where her well-known event score Make a Salad drew a record audience of 3000 people. In January, 2009, she exhibited and performed every week with her Bean Turner, during The 3rd Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim Museum welding her large, hand held paper object filled with thundering beans for delighted crowds. Finally, in 2011, as part of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Three Star Books series, Clear Skies All Week was published, bringing into the world a new generative computer poem by Knowles.
This latest project for Art Basel Miami, commissioned by her gallerist James Fuentes, began, among other things, as an exploration of the disappearing book format that is succumbing to digital influence but she soon jettisoned discussions of form and returned to memories of her past which became content for The Boat Book. “My brother Lawrence Beckwith Knowles and I stayed in my grandfather’s house on the shore in Avalon, New Jersey for many summers growing up,” she reminisced.
She continued, free associating, "I've already made a big book with a library and image of a goat and an exercizing man to go through, so I was looking for an image that would be different. So this one will have extensive nautical imagery, boating equipment, rope ladders and other fishy tidbits that are accessible to me because of my brother.” Indeed, Fuentes and Knowles made a trip to Long Island’s east end to visit Larry and his wife and to pick up bric a brac that ended up as part of the Boat Book project.
Decades ago, Dick Higgins, speaking about The Big Book discussed Knowles’ knack for shaping accumulation in her art, how she was, at the time, “making an environment out of her accumulation… of stock material…an accumulation of ideas concerning books… Not about format, but about situation, accumulation, experience, the things that we go through and the process of developing our attitudes toward things… Accumulations of energy if nothing else, even in her abstract expressionist days that was true.” Then, finally, he concluded, “I don’t think it would have very much to do with accumulation of subject matter… she may very well surprise us as she always has to date.”
Alison Knowles has surprised us again. In the interest of full disclosure, as one among many people who helped Alison plan The Boat Book, I was often pleasantly astonished by her process. It was an experience not unlike a journey at sea with Alison at the helm. In a poem she committed to memory as a girl which is now silk-screened across one of the pages of the new work, John Masefield’s Sea Fever describes what it was like for me to work under her guidance: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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