Alison Knowles: 'That's when I rolled all the paintings up and burned them'

A talk with the 83-year-old Fluxus co-founder ahead of her Beijing show

Alison Knowles performs 'Make a Salad' at London's Tate Modern in 2008

Performance art is an oft-neglected field in Beijing. As 798, the city's largest art district, has commercialised and calcified over the years, its emphasis has shifted to work that can be more easily commodified, consumed, bought and sold. To rectify this, Beijing-based curator Jonas Stampe is launching Beijing Live, a new, annual performance art festival that will run from October 14-23.

The first Beijing Live festival features performances from over 30 artists hailing from China, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Ireland and a handful of other countries. In addition to live performances at the Danish Cultural Centre in 798, the Beijing Live programme also features a series of film screenings and lectures at the nearby Goethe-Institut, as well as a workshop led by UK performance artist Nigel Rolfe at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Find the full schedule of performances here, and plenty of supplementary info at Beijing Live's official website.

Stampe, an art historian and curator specialising in performance art, has assembled quite an impressive lineup for this year's inaugural edition. Among the highlights are Huang Rui, a pioneer of performance art in China who, in 1979, founded avant-garde art group The Stars, and Alison Knowles, who launched her performance art career in the early 1960s as a co-founder of the avant-garde movement Fluxus. In Beijing, Knowles will perform one of her best-known pieces – Make a Salad – which entails, as the name suggests, the communal preparation and consumption of a massive tarp of mixed and dressed greens. Knowles's son-in-law, Joshua Selman, will join the performance, adding a layer of improvised sound art to the physical, visual, and gustatory aspects of the piece.

Ahead of the 83-year-old trailblazer's first trip to China as a performer, Time Out asked her a few questions about her early life as an art student and painter, her close relationship with the avant-garde composer John Cage, and her role as a foundational figure in New York City's tumultuous 1960s Downtown art scene.


Alison Knowles (right) performing with her daughter Hannah Higgins at the Fluxus Semicentenary in San Francisco, CA in September, 2011 (photo by Allan J. Cronin).

You were a homesteader in downtown Manhattan in the 1950s, in what would later become a breeding ground for the city's various avant-garde art movements of the '60s and '70s. What space is left for creativity and radical art activity in New York City after decades of commercialisation and gentrification?

Alison Knowles: Early on I moved north to SoHo. In my opinion radical art starts outside the commercial domain, wherever it is occurring. For an emerging artist, networking the city's street festivals and studios, meeting places and back rooms provides opportunities. Conditions offered by artists make it possible for new kinds of work to be realised. This model took root in New York City, outside the gallery system, and has been exported to other locales. For me, what has changed is that an artist's studio is where action is planned. The visuals or sounds, texts or materials that we end up with are by-products and that still has a high potential for radical engagement.

Did you visit Asia at all when Fluxus and the idea of intermedia art initially took root with Japanese and Korean artists?

AK: Fluxus in Wiesbaden, 1962 gave this work a platform and a place to take it. In the time between 1960 and 1962, though Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono did travel to Japan and Nam June spent some time in Cologne, they migrated to New York City where George Maciunas and John Cage were living. It was the city where Fluxus and intermedia could develop for the long term. I spent those years in New York City and touring Europe.

Is this your first time coming to China? Are you familiar with any contemporary Chinese art or artists?

AK: This is not my first time visiting China. For familiar contemporary Chinese artists, Ai Wei Wei and Cai Guo-Qiang come to mind. Coming to Beijing is my chance to become more familiar. I'll be happy to meet other artists while I'm there.

In Beijing you'll perform your well-known piece, Make a Salad. Why have you chosen to repeat this particular performance, as opposed to some of your other famous event-scores like Identical Lunch? Is there a special significance to the salad?

AK: Salad is a favourite piece of mine and one that allows me to feed people. Salad is very common in meals in Europe and in the USA. It will be interesting in China. In 1962 I brought food as an offering to performance art. Since the first performance, Make a Salad will have made its way from England to the USA to Europe, and I'm pleased to have its next venue in China. The Identical Lunch is also about feeding people, but it is more appropriate to New York City.

How much do you experiment with the form of the performance of Make a Salad? I mean, how much of the act is dialled in on a deep, sub-conscious level, and how much is dependent on improvisation or chance?

AK: For Make a Salad, we actually prepare a giant salad and invite the population to share it. When I use the word performance it doesn't signify any kind of re-enactment. It means doing something new each time, or with new ingredients, or with what I find in each city, and with new people to eat it. The whole thing is new every time. There is no acting at all in any of my works. I like the word activity – they are activities as in our daily life, where we make a salad. The confusion is that I'm an artist.

Joshua – you're also a composer and artist, and have collaborated with Alison Knowles on a number of pieces. Will you contribute a sound performance in Beijing?

Joshua Selman: I've been working with Alison since 1988. We have a number of sound works and some intermedia collaborations as well. I will contribute performances to Make a Salad and to Fishes of the Philippine Seas. Also, something from a work titled Full Message. Though they do work with sound, they are full-blown intermedia performances, using action and objects.

This year Beijing has hosted major retrospectives for a few progenitors of the Downtown scene, including Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Both artists were active in New York when Fluxus began, and you also personally had worked with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. Which artists were most influential to you when you were young, and in the early stages of the Fluxus movement?

AK: Each one contributed to my own art experience, and I'm grateful that I knew these men.

Given the benefit of hindsight, which of these artists or their works do you consider most culturally durable? Which of your own works do you think have best withstood the passage of time?

AK: Make a Salad and The Identical Lunch are very enduring works. I think Cage will prove to be most enduring as well. Though I worked on a print with Duchamp, I was closer with Cage. We made dinners together. Rauschenberg and Warhol were both acquaintances, though I did know Warhol a bit better.

You helped set the atmosphere at Cal-Arts as one of its early professors, from 1970-72. Do you have any experience with the academic side of the art world today? What is the situation for young artists studying in such institutions?

AK: I'm very glad I had the opportunity to go to art school, studying at Pratt with Richard Lindner, Adolph Gottlieb and Franz Kline. I stopped painting when I became affiliated with the Fluxus group and performance activities. Painting didn't make any sense to me anymore. That's when I rolled all the paintings up and burned them. I've had lucky breaks all along the way. It was Allan Kaprow who invited me to teach at Cal Arts. Last year I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Pratt Institute. The problem of corporations in education is something we all need to deal with, whether you're outside the institution or inside. My Father was a professor of English Literature at Pratt and NYU. Humanities are what we live on.

I've read in other interviews that you are reluctant to attach the word 'feminist' to your art practice, but you do occupy an important role as a pioneering woman in Western art history. Are there any challenges within the art world that women artists face today, challenges not faced by their male peers?

AK: The more that women are included and developed in the arts, the richer the cultural result. Now is the time for China and the rest of the world to open all the doors and forms of support to women, who have waited and nurtured our cultures for all time.

You have a long history of working with generative poetry, including creating what is acknowledged as the first recorded computer poem in 1968. Have you kept apace with technology in this field? For example, have you explored emerging technologies like artificial intelligence as a source of generative poetry or culture?

AK: James Tenney said to me that artists and poets should have access to emerging technology, and we engineered The House of Dust. We ended up with miles of poetry that no human could have written. The technology was almost completely inaccessible to the general public. Jim Tenney worked at Bell Labs and gave me the rare opportunity to use that technology. This resulted in my Guggenheim Grant. Today the technology is ubiquitous. I think Jim was right about bringing down the barriers between artists and engineers. Who could imagine what they will come up with?

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