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How Alison Knowles’s ‘Event Scores’ Offer Recipes for Action

Following the opening of her exhibition in the Forum Gallery last May, Alison Knowles held a small workshop at Carnegie Museum of Art with a group of local artists. Among the participants were Kim Beck, Brandon Boan, Lenka Clayton, Valerie Herrero, Jennifer Meridian, Liz Park, and Blaine Siegel. At first, the artists sat around a table and talked, sharing their personal connections to Fluxus, Knowles, and her body of work. For some, Fluxus was a new concept, while for others, early exposure to the movement served as a foundation for their artistic practices. A name taken from Latin denoting a continuous passing or flowing, Fluxus is an international collective of artists, composers, designers, and poets that took shape in the 1960s, intent to merge different artistic media and disciplines.

After Knowles led a personal tour of the gallery, artists had the opportunity to experiment with several of her event scores. A pivotal aspect of Fluxus, an event score is a minimalistic performance piece, or as Knowles explained, a “one- or two-line recipe for action.” They practiced Shoes of Your Choice and Song of Your Choice in the theater before heading out to perform in front of an unsuspecting audience. For Shoes of Your Choice, each participant was invited to reflect on the shoes they were wearing, sharing aspects such as where they were from, how long they have had them, and what they look like. For Song of Your Choice, the participants chose their favorite tune—singing their respective songs simultaneously while the composer, in this case Knowles, directed the group.

Founded in 1961, Fluxus was viewed as “the most radical and experimental art movement of the 1960s” by co-founder George Maciunas. In their work, Fluxus members attempted to close the gap between art and life. Maciunas’s Fluxus Manifesto urged its readers to purge the world of “bourgeois sickness, promote a ‘non art reality’ to be understood by all peoples, and fuse the cultural, social, and political revolutionaries.” Choosing to work outside of the “culture industry” (i.e. the museum and the art market), Fluxists created their own venues for performances, exhibitions, and sales. Knowles was one of the leading figures of the movement, performing on the streets of downtown New York and collaborating with influential artists such as John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.

For artist Valerie Herrero, Fluxus was completely new yet surprisingly familiar. While introducing herself to the group, Herrero held out a plastic container molded in the shape of a miniature TV. She shared that this was one of her many containers filled with messages. Lifting it up, she said she wasn’t certain where the idea was going, but that now it all made sense. Herrero first heard of Fluxus during gallery attendants’ training for the exhibition, just weeks before meeting Knowles in-person. She studied printmaking in college and, like many of the participating artists, was not taught about Fluxus as part of her traditional art school education. But she quickly realized that her own art practice shared parallels with the movement. Similar to Knowles’ event scores—Identical Lunch and Make a Salad for example—most of Herrero’s works include food and other aspects of everyday life. For her, one of the most striking moments of the workshop was how Knowles ended the practice round of Shoes of Your Choice: she raised her arms and exclaimed, “Okay, that was it! That was the performance.” Through this simple remark, Herrero was reminded that you can just jump into a piece without the usual hours of preparation. In the empty theater, the artists were both the audience and the performers in that moment, and as Herrero put it, “that was enough.”

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Kim Beck, Liz Park, Valerie Herrero, Eric Crosby, and Lenka Clayton gather around Alison Knowles in the museum’s Forum Gallery as she shows them several artifacts from her Spring Street studio. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In a later discussion, artist Kim Beck noted the Song of Your Choice performance as one of her favorite parts of the workshop. For Beck, the collaborative nature of Fluxus is most inspiring. While nearly all of the artists at the workshop have worked with each other at some point, everyone in the group has singular art practices. “We’re not working as collaborators the whole time,” Beck explained. “It was nice to be in that group and subvert the ego—we’re all just part of [Knowles’s] composition up there.” Having studied studio arts as an undergraduate, the Carnegie Mellon professor initially learned of Fluxus in one of her theater classes. With a strong focus on object-making, her art education was much more conservative. “No one talked about Fluxus as an inspiration. The schools just didn’t think about that as the type of work you were making,” she said. “For me to learn about her work through other ways felt alternative and subversive somehow, so it was really amazing to get to see Knowles.”

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During the workshop, artist Jennifer Meridian discusses her personal connection to Fluxus. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Many Fluxists tended to gravitate towards art activities that fell between classical genres of artmaking as a way of bringing together art and everyday life. A visual artist and director of short films and site-specific performances, Jennifer Meridian attended a graduate program centered on intermedia, a term attributed to Fluxus artist Dick Higgins. Intermedia describes a series of interdisciplinary art activities that occurred during the 1960s. Meridian considers herself a Fluxus artist, having made past works such as The Long Song, a piece sung by 21 performers that stretched for more than a mile. Exhibiting the continued relevance of the movement, her works incorporate Fluxus ideals and borrow its spontaneity of setting. Meeting Knowles emphasized the essential qualities of Fluxus that have permeated Meridian’s work from the start, reminding her that “art is loose, open-ended, ephemeral. A spirit versus a product. An approach versus an outcome.”

While all of the artists that took part in the workshop have individual art practices, the gathering brought them together in the context of Knowles’s work. As Beck explained, the museum didn’t “put” the artists in the gallery by hanging one of their paintings on a wall or placing their sculpture on a pedestal, but rather they became part of the art. She likened it to a research space. It wasn’t about what they had each created in the past, but what they could make together. Brandon Boan expressed a similar sentiment. “It’s pretty rare that you get to see a group of people, that you know their individual work, but have them interpret somebody else’s,” he said. “It brings in all of these things that we do and their connection to Fluxus.” The assembled group pointed out the formation of a dialogue between the artists and the art, between the artists and the museum. And whether the workshop allowed them to think in new ways or simply reinforce their past experiences and training, it stimulated conversations and connections that will continue beyond the life of the exhibition. It’s the type of subtle but substantive change that Knowles has encouraged through art for more than five decades.

Alison Knowles is the 77th installment in CMOA’s Forum Series and will be on view through October 24, 2016. This exhibition is organized by Eric Crosby, Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Carnegie Museum of Art. Support for the Forum Series is generously provided by the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation. Alison Knowles is sponsored by Orr’s Jewelers. General operating support for Carnegie Museum of Art is provided The Heinz Endowments and Allegheny Regional Asset District. Carnegie Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.