Visual arts

‘by Alison Knowles’ at BAMPFA: 62 years of participatory artwork

Even in the disruptive early days of his Fluxus-related practice, Knowles retained the transformative power we attribute to art, as evidenced by other scores of food-related events, including make a salad and The same lunch. Documentation of both is well represented at BAMPFA. In each, the obvious and ordinary ingredients such as lettuce or a tuna sandwich become the scaffolding through which one could see and hear the world again. It elevates everyday actions familiar to all into rituals imbued with symbolic meaning. We literally consume and complete its scores, pursuing its intentions within our own bodies.

Knowles is best known as the only female co-founder of Fluxus. But it is the concept of “transenvironment” that she invents with the creation of The big book (1966) which also places her in an alternative trajectory of conceptual art. The big book, which no longer exists, was an eight-foot-tall sculpture composed of illustrated “pages” erected along a central spine that could be walked into, into or out of, or even over. “Transenvironment” was the term she used to describe an alteration in perception that occurs in an environment, a perceptible shift in consciousness and context, a “disruption… [and] radical transformation of texture and text,” as she noted in a 1982 conversation with George Quasha, included in the retrospective catalog.

Alison Knowles, “Curiosities of the Iliad (Greene Street)”, 2010; found objects and cyanotype on fabric; 24 x 108 inches. (Courtesy of Alison Knowles Studio, New York)

In this conversation, she gives the text the capacity for self-reflection “to tell you what to think, what to think about it, what not to think about it”. She also imbues the text with a mastery of space and movement, noting that “it can at any time cause a break in the reading plan”. A significant example of this commission is the 1983 performative sculpture, Loose pagesin which the performer literally embodies the idea of ​​a book, becoming the spine as Knowles drapes the pages over the limbs and trunk.

Associating this transformative power with text places her conceptually and historically alongside later artists such as Vito Acconci, whose forays into concrete poetry brought reading to the fore as a performative act, and Robert Smithson, for whom the meaning is born from the materiality of the text. Each artist invites the audience into awareness through a navigation and collision with the text, moving across the page, moving through and around the shape of the words.

In this spirit, we can approach by Alison Knowles as a reader rather than a visitor, especially since the exhibition is heavy with photographic documentation, wall texts and material placed in glass cases, which produces a second-hand account of her work and obscures some of his sly humor. Our distant perspective is inevitable given the performative nature of much of Knowles’ career, which emphasizes the ephemeral, the incidental and the impermanent.

Alison Knowles surrounded by ‘Celebration Red’ at BAMPFA on July 23, 2022. (Ximena Natera; Courtesy of Berkeleyside)

To approach this exhibition as a text, however, is to understand how radically Knowles used participatory gestures to alter our perception of authorship. A material object cannot be separated from the artist; his act of creation is still present in the physical evidence before our eyes. The text, however, begins its life with its author, but the longest phase of its existence resides with its readers, whatever form the text takes: a book, a sculpture, a can of beans.

In the act of reading, the visible structure is the means by which one sees into the unknown and is voluntarily transformed by this vision. In more than six decades of inviting us into ordinary gestures and chance encounters with her, Knowles has happily led us beyond a sense of certainty to accidental and unexpected moments of beauty. Where it stops, our knowledge begins.