Interview with Alison Knowles and Hannah Higgins

Part One: Early History of Fluxus, John Cage, Humor in Art

Nov. 15, 2013
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            Conventionally, the interviewer is supposed to be as absent from the process and product as possible. The event is regarded as a sort of verbal homerun derby. The interviewer’s task is to lob a poem of a pitch over the heart of the plate for the interviewee to cream. Then, the miraculous crack of the bat and triumphant arc of the long ball entirely overshadow the pitcher’s delivery.

            Although Alison Knowles insisted that I was not, in truth, interviewing her and Hannah Higgins – Fluxus scholar, professor of art history at University of Illinois at Chicago, and Knowles’ daughter – but rather the ideas that informed and animated their work, it seems to me that a few biographical insights I gleaned are not without interest and illuminative import. So bare with me a moment while I step off mound before the interviewees step up to the plate.

            Knowles’ very insistence that she is secondary to the artistic convictions that render Fluxus a unified movement displays a humility and humanity that pervade her personality. The reader will notice that much of Knowles’ interview consists of grateful reminiscences on John Cages’ formative influence on her artistic identity. The same qualities were evident in the obvious parental pride that Knowles takes in Higgin’s many accomplishments.

            This is worthy of note not only for the contour it gives to the reader’s understanding of Knowles as a person, but most of all for what it reveal about Knowles as an artist. There is a widespread belief that the non-mainstream arts – I was going to use the term ‘avant-garde,’ before remembering that Knowles professed a dislike for the term – are inaccessible, pretentious, and empty. Yet the utter lack of pretension on Knowles and Higgins’ part gives the lie to the prejudice that these arts are little more than sanctimonious, self-serving pomposity. As the interview makes clear, they are well aware of the light-heartedness and humor that characterizes the art at its best.

            The generosity of the interviewees was also striking. Without prior notice, I had shown up to a rehearsal of Knowles’ pieces that were to be performed at Woodland Pattern Books’ Anniversary Gala. Despite the fact that Knowles and Higgins had only recently arrived in town I was hoping that I might scrounge a quick, ten or fifteen minute dialogue. It was much to my surprise, then, when I was invited to dinner at Beans & Barley and granted a forty-minute interview tucked inside a several hour conversation. Given the length of the interview I have broken it up into two installments, the first part of which I now present.

Tyler Friedman: You are associated with Fluxus, an art movement beginning around the early 1960s. How would you explain what Fluxus is historically, aesthetically, philosophically?

Alison Knowles: Well, beginning out we were up against something called ‘Happenings’. And the ‘Happening’ was a very extended form of presentation, usually on the land, involving a lot of organization of people who could run around and go up a hill. Fluxus was born because we had to stand on a stage in 1962 and we had maybe two minutes to present a work.

Hannah Higgins: Well, hang on. The ‘event’ format was first invented in [John] Cage’s 1958 class in new music and experimental composition at the New School and [developer of the “Happening” art form, Allan] Kaprow was also in that class. It’s just that his way was more multiplied and large scale where as [early Fluxus artist, George] Brecht’s way was these minimal, smaller events, but they’re not necessarily about the stage.

AK: No. But I can’t overemphasis the importance of the Cage class in new music.

TF: Were you in this class?

AK: No, but my husband was, Dick Higgins. And I did attend a class or two, not in that class, but it was ongoing with other people who picked up theoretically from it at the New School. There’s no way to exaggerate the importance of John Cage, because he stepped out of music and began to feel that the energy of new music could apply to activities. Not only did he believe that, but he allowed us on to be on musical programs with events like showing and telling about your shoes or making a salad, and he just opened the doors between music and performance art.

TF: I’m a great admirer of John Cage and I know that you had the opportunity to spend time with him and work with him and study with him. I was thinking of some of his works – in particular 4’33” – and one reading of that work is that it is reminding us that there’s more to our everyday lives than meets the eye, or the ear as the case may be. I was then thinking about some of your pieces and wondering if your work has a similar sort of task. That placed in the appropriate context of an art museum or gallery space or magnified to an unusual degree (as in Make a Salad) we are made aware of overlooked aesthetic dimensions of our experience. And thereby, everyday tasks and items are re-enchanted and transformed from the mundane to the magnificent.

AK: Certainly. I would agree with that and I would say that John was my mentor there too. He would record the sound of, if not his cat, his- I did a lot of cooking with John and I was really aware when he was cooking-

HH: Oh it’s a great tale.

AK: Cooking with Cage. He was very exact about his vegetarian diet, his macrobiotic diet, and it really changed his whole way of being in terms of food, which had been very different before he met [scholar of Eastern philosophy and religion, D.T.] Suzuki and decided on that Eastern path, which was an Eastern path in sound. But this path infected everything in our lives, our options, our dress. I remember buying several work shirts after I met John and discarding a different kind of identity as a woman, and finding that this other identity made me feel more serious. I was borderline feminism always but John helped me into a sense of self, which I hope is human, humanist.

TF: Is that the sort of effect he had on younger artists, that he was helping them find their own identities, not so much imposing his on them?

AK: Right, he wouldn’t impose. On many evenings I had with him, first of all you’d cook and eat together, and then you’d talk if Merce [Cunningham – dancer, choreographer and Cage’s partner] was there in the room at 8th street, and you’d listen to something. It was the weaving of art into your everyday experience. “Are you warm enough?” “Can I get you a jacket?” “Do you want more asparagus?” “Is it overdone?” I think what John did for me more than anything else was move me from art school into working from a source out of my everyday life.

HH: One thing I was going to say is that, while I don’t think Cage imposed his will, his example was strong enough that he almost didn’t have to. It would have been clear what was outside of the purview of his interests. Some super hammy, or super theatrical, or hyper-technologized thing would have been outside of his realm and I think that the folks who weren’t responsive to his manner were the folks who were doing those things that would have been outside of his manner. And so I’m a little – dubious is the wrong word – but this idea that someone who doesn’t impose their will but has a huge influence is somehow more virtuous for it, is for me a really problematic idea.

TF: So he exerted a gravitational pull.

HH: Yeah, right, exactly. And it was amazing.

AK: A more engaging and attractive man, you’ve never met. I mean he loved to talk with different people from different countries.

HH: He loved to laugh and smile. And his laugh… you just would work to get the laugh out.

AK: He and Merce would be cooking there in the kitchen and we’d be sitting there drinking quite a lot of wine-

HH: Scotch.

AK: -after the scotch. He was a good drinker, John. But it was based I would say in his profound love of life itself. Music was a way he could express that. And so he had to take it to a place where he was separated from people who narrowed life down into being a musical experience only.

HH: The comparison would be, or the contrast would be, Stockhausen’s genius. There you have evermore refined structures and more complex structures as a way to critique the dominance of whatever the current structure is, you kind of push more and more in the direction of order, even if you add random elements. Versus Cage’s way, which was just yielding the whole ball of wax.

TF: To indeterminancy?

HH: Right.

AK: But Cage’s nature was such that he spoke ill of very few people. Even when he was trying to work with Stockhausen, I never heard him speak ill of Stockhausen. It was just, “It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my path.”

TF: Were they going to collaborate?

HH: So Stockhausen’s wife, Mary Bauermeister, had an atelier in Cologne. And Cologne is really important for post-war German culture and art because the radio station there had an experimental format. They allowed all kinds of crazy stuff. After the war when the German cultural structure was reorganized, it was completely decentralized, because centralization was associated with the Fascist ideology. So there was this tremendous tolerance for multiple formats, and Cologne became this important center. And Stockhausen was at Darmstadt, which was nearby. His wife, Mary Bauermeister, had a studio in Cologne where she invited Cage to come and do performances when he was traveling. So they weren’t collaborators, but they had a very important alliance and friendship.

AK: And WDR in Cologne, the radio, was such an opening for all of us in Fluxus. We could go over and read our texts and make our sounds on the radio. I remember holding up bean shakers and pieces of paper. It was incredible to me that I was allowed to make sounds that were broadcast all over Germany and to say a few words between and to consider it to be kind of art. I could imagine doing it on the stage, but on radio, for so many people to be available to the nature of that work… it’s my homage to Cage. He really freed me from thinking too literally about almost everything.

TF: Was there any sort of crossover between the avant-garde musical circles? If this was taking place in New York in the early and mid-60’s, at the same time there’s a lot of wonderful avant-garde music happening in New York that is coming out of the jazz tradition, individuals like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. I wonder, was there any sort of crossover?

AK: Cecil? Oh, what a man. (Laughs) No, they all didn’t go with Cage. Cage used something called chance operations and that was very negative for a lot of people who wanted to use their own intuition.

TF: I’ve read an article in which Cage speaks somewhat critically about jazz and about improvisation.

HH: Right because improvisation is the imposition of the self.

TF: What’s the criticism though? That’s an accurate observation, but what’s the problem?

HH: The reason it would be negative from a Cage-ian standpoint is because the whole idea is to remove the centralizing force of ego from the production of music. The key though in preparing the performers for Friday’s performance [at the Woodland Pattern Gala] is the idea that you don’t want to ham it up. That means you’re not inserting yourself into the simple instructions.

AK: It’s funny, I think that’s so self-evident. 

HH: It’s not though. If you go to a lot of boiler-plate performances, many enthusiastic young people who read the scores and think they’re funny go very quickly from a sort of Zen humor to slapstick. It’s a very slippery slope and in the end they are just trying to get a laugh.

AK: I think they have personality problems of their own.

HH: No, this is the legacy of Fluxus. It is dominated by a lot of young folks. I saw this thing in Chicago a couple years ago they were out there squirting a piano with neon paint. They thought it was part of [Philip Corner’s performance piece] Piano Activities. “Do things with a piano.” They missed the point entirely. How do you go from exploring and destroying and therefore creating, to just… urinating? I mean it’s such a slippery slope. But they got a laugh, and the audience likes to laugh and so the same stupid curator is inviting them back. It’s agony.

AK: They are not serious people. Those are entertainers in the art.

HH: They’re entertainers but they think they’re serious. The thing is, the humor is there. You don’t have to put it in. Little things happen that are just amazingly funny. For example, when Alison did her Make a Salad at the Tate Modern. The Tate Modern is in a turbine factory in London and it has a walkway across the entire factory. She made the salad up above on the walkway, and then threw it down into tarps, and people in sterilized clothing were tossing the stuff with rakes. She hadn’t tried to scale it to be funny. It was a very practical problem: how does one person make a salad for 3000 people? You need the rakes, you need the tarps, you need the sterile clothing. None of that was set up to be funny. But it was amazing, because, of course, one person making a salad for 3000 people results in these weird accidents of scale. That’s what an event is. The humor is what happens when you do things in life and weird things happen.

TF: So the humor plays an essential role in the art?

AK: It’s incidental.

HH: Who’s piece is it where the ensemble comes in the auditorium and each performer has to decide what is going to make them leave the stage and they don’t tell anyone else, so only they know it?

AK: Oh, beautiful. Eric Anderson.

HH: Usually it’s something like, “Well I’m going to leave the stage when someone sneezes.” Or, “I’m going to leave the stage when, someone coughs, or when a light flickers, or when I need a cigarette.” or whatever it is. Well, in this one instance two performers decided that they were only going to leave the stage when the other person leaves the stage. And they both decided it without consulting each other. Everyone realized at a certain point what must be happening. It was hilarious.

AK: And it gives you a clue into what is really fall-down funny. It’s a profound ingredient in the art that we would stand there after everyone had left just because the instruction said so. And that differentiates the Fluxus group from organized theater. It’s key to the audience. Humankind is not cued to any script. It’s about you, your life and my life. How can we make it real, more real? Well I’ll show you what it’s like to even make a salad for a 3000 people. 


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