A School Based on What Artists Wanted to Do: Alison Knowles on CalArts

by Janet Sarbanes
Date Published: August 7, 2012

This interview with Fluxus artist Alison Knowles took place in her Soho apartment in June 2011. Knowles describes being recruited for the original CalArts faculty by Allan Kaprow, the assistant dean of art; what it was like to teach at the institute in the first two years; the kind of student she encountered there; and the radical nature of the pedagogical situation. She also describes several pieces she did at CalArts, including an iteration of her famous House of Dust.

Alison Knowles, <em>House of Dust</em>, 1967-70. Installation, mixed media. All images courtesy of Alison Knowles.

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1967-70. Installation, mixed media. All images courtesy of Alison Knowles.

JANET SARBANES: What drew you to CalArts?

ALISON KNOWLES: I had taught only sporadically. I had taught things like a workshop or a summer program, but Fluxus, once I got into it, really took us all over the place and gave me a kind of credential for teaching because I don’t even have a master’s. I graduated from Pratt Institute as an artist. I never thought I’d be teaching, really. But then I began to feel that teaching should have to do with the real experience of the teacher rather than only book learning or whatever you want to call it. And CalArts offered that. It offered positions to people who didn’t necessarily have a degree background. And so, since I had been traveling with the Fluxus group and had some opinions about new forms, I was able to jump in and enjoy teaching in Allan Kaprow and Paul Brach’s department. I had little to do with the Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro situation, but it was very, very lively and a number of my students were involved with it. I just didn’t have time to do anything more than I was doing.

JS: Who recruited you for the School of Art?

AK: It was Kaprow and [Maury] Stein [the first dean of critical studies]. I think Stein was behind it and he was a wonderful organizer, but I was hired by Allan Kaprow. And Paul Brach came to New York, and we had meetings with him. But Kaprow was the thinking behind the school as far as I’m concerned. Brach simply wanted to be sure it was very different from UC San Diego and that it had his mark on it. And that he could ride his horse around in his hat—not that he wasn’t a fine guy, but Kaprow, I think, had the vision of a school based on what artists wanted to do rather than what the school wanted them to do.

JS: How would you describe the sense of community at CalArts at that time? Because that’s kind of the mythos of the school—that it aspired to be something more than a school, something approaching a true community of the arts.

AK: Well, so many things went on that were not particular to one or another department. Like the theater department or the intermedia department, the visual arts, painting—we all sort of supported each other in various things that were going on. We attended, we participated. And I would say that as one school, it was very much interlocking departments.

JS: There wasn’t a set curriculum, was there? So how did you structure a typical day?

AK: I think each person did pretty much with that idea whatever they wanted to. I was putting up something called the House of Dust so I had these huge sculptures coming in on a flatbed truck and they had to be activated. I mean, I wasn’t going to have them just sit on the land. They were weird-looking things, but they were important because the building itself was so unfortunate—the CalArts building—I felt you might as well put an apartment house there. So I would have my classes and my meetings out at the House of Dust, and we had a rail to run sound lines out there so we could do readings, and we had quite a number of food events out there. I had a piece called Gift Event II, where people would bring things to eat and things to present.

I also did a piece called 99 Red on the tennis court of the first CalArts campus [the Villa Cabrini in Burbank]. I lined up 99 apples, not all in one line but in three lines, and the idea was that you could take an apple if you put something in its place. So I have a wonderful slide of someone who left his car keys because he’d always wanted to walk to work. [laughs] He took his apple and left his car keys.

Alison Knowles, <em>99 Red</em>, 1970.

Alison Knowles, 99 Red, 1970.

That broken tennis court also provided me with the very first base for the House of Dust. There were two sculptures, but one went down after the first year with an earthquake or something, so then there was just one small amoeba-shaped house. It was so different not only from the Villa Cabrini, but also from the big building we moved to in the second year, which we always called the Dow Chemical Center. [laughs] The house seemed very refreshing in its weirdness compared with the rest of the school. It had a circular hole in the top, so people who were into serious meditation could start at five in the morning out there under the light. I remember Michael Bell did several events—Michael Bell was a student of mine who was finally asked to leave the school. He was doing pretty outrageous things. But that’s fine because that’s kind of what this little house was for. And people could study and read out there.

JS: What was it made of?

AK: It was a shell that these sort of struts were put over in a shape, and then onto that we put blocks of one-by-twos, and then the cement was poured over that, and on the outside I threw chips of stone, chips of gravel, very finely ground so it had this sort of pavementlike quality. I made it; I went to somewhere in Connecticut or Massachusetts to a special foundry and made those two huge houses. The second one—it was interesting to have two, but it was perhaps ill-conceived because it was about eight or ten feet inside the large house and it couldn’t withstand the rocky atmosphere of CalArts and it split and had to be taken down. But the small one was more the size of a large couch, maybe higher. No, I shouldn’t say couch, but it would fit in this room.

I remember saying to Allan that I could come to CalArts only if they brought the House of Dust, too, and then there was sort of a long pause of a week because they had to fund the truck to bring it out from New York. But, as I said, it functioned very well not only next to the Villa Cabrini, where CalArts was temporarily, but also at CalArts itself. The small house was transported there from Villa Cabrini by helicopter.

JS: Wow—did it seem like they had unlimited funds at that time?

AK: It did, it did.

JS: Because their budget was so much bigger than the CalArts budget is now. [laughs]

AK: [laughs] Well, you wonder why I took that job. I had never been offered a real wage like that or been considered a real teacher like that or been able to do exactly what I wanted with people to do actions. And I was given everything I needed. And Dick [Higgins, Knowles’s husband] had a job there, too. The girls could go for two years to a California school, which they loved. I think CalArts is a great thing, and so it’s a different school now, so what? I mean, schools change, and I think CalArts couldn’t really have gone on in that direction much further.

JS: Why do you say that?

AK: Well, some things began to happen that were not supportable, things that would be going on all weekend or things that were not supervised, and we had to keep the trustees somewhat with us.

JS: Could you tell me about the poetry drop you did from a helicopter?

AK: Because of the access I had to the jet propulsion labs with Jim Tenney, I was able to get four feet of poetry generated from the computer. The folded paper had these very beautiful green lines. We’ve had the poetry drop reproduced in various situations, but it’s never been as beautiful as what we dropped over the House of Dust. It was the old computer paper. Very fine, very lovely.

JS: So you had it cut up?

AK: [shows the original] No, see it was in one piece like this, right? That was what was dropped from the helicopter over the House of Dust.

JS: That’s great. That’s not what I pictured. I’d imagined something more like fortune cookie fortunes.

AK: [laughs]

JS: It’s such a beautiful poem, the House of Dust poem. [“A House of Dust on open ground, lit by natural light and inhabited by friends and enemies…”]

Alison Knowles, <em>Poem Drop over the House of Dust</em>, 1967.

Alison Knowles, Poem Drop over the House of Dust, 1967.

AK: It may be the first computer poem, I don’t know, but that’s what they say. When I read it at the White House, I dropped it down like this and stood holding it. So you see the thing that’s important about CalArts is that the people who were involved out there were not only usually not professional teachers, but they were let go to do what they wanted with their students, and so that meant in my case that I would listen to what the students would like to do with me. If someone had a sudden idea about going to LA and seeing a show that they liked, we organized that. I had no foregone conclusion as to the curriculum. And I think that’s what most people remember, that we would decide as a group what we were going to be doing.

I had access to silkscreen production, making silkscreens and producing limited-edition prints. So we had the means then to advertise what we were going to do at the House of Dust with silkscreen posters, which meant they were learning a printing method as well. The department allowed me to buy a 20-by-24 graphic arts camera for I can’t imagine how much money, so the students also learned how to use that tool, which, of course, could go to offset once you had the negative or you could make paper prints or something. The lab that I set up there was just magnificent. It had two darkrooms, big printing tables, and then out the window was the House of Dust.

I think students coming in there for their first year—it kind of blew their minds that they were going to such an unorthodox college situation. If people didn’t like Paul Brach’s class, they could come into mine or they could go into Judy Chicago’s feminist program. They found out what was available that day and went there. It was outrageous. [laughs]

JS: It sounds pretty nonhierarchical, as far as faculty and students were concerned. What was your relationship with the administration? With Robert Corrigan [CalArts’ first president] and Herbert Blau [CalArts’ first provost]?

AK: They were wonderful teachers. I think Corrigan had some problem with the structure of the school, but he was a great guy. Blau, too. Blau was really fine people to be heading a school. But I think they both left after the first two years or year?

JS: Blau was fired by the trustees after the first two years. Corrigan left a few years later.

AK: I think those trustees were really hoping from the beginning that the students would be directed into Disney’s work. And when they discovered that that was the furthest thing from our minds, they became more and more churlish and disappointed with us. And I certainly didn’t want to stay any longer than I did because I felt them kind of closing in. They were paying our salaries and what did an evening event on the land mean to them? Or Celebration Red with 99 red apples? I mean, just the mindset—not there. And so I was not surprised that finally we were all gone. Also, for an artist living in the east and New York City as I had all my life except for a couple of years at Middlebury College, California was another continent, another world. It was nothing to drive three hours to a party or drive a couple of hours to get your groceries. [laughs] I just couldn’t do that. I had my car, I did the best I could, but I didn’t even learn to drive until I was 20. So it wasn’t a natural place for me to live. Although we had a wonderful living situation up in the hills of Piru. Richard Teitelbaum and Barbara Mayfield had their house, and I had room for my children and I think somebody else—Peter Van Riper—was up there at that time. And Simone Forti, who’s still a dear friend, was practicing her nudity on a rock in the backyard every morning. And just amazing things going on. I think they were orange pickers’ houses that we lived in.

JS: I wonder how the students seemed to you—did they seem like a different kind of student than you encountered elsewhere?

Alison Knowles, <em>Poem Drop over the House of Dust</em>, 1967.

Alison Knowles, Poem Drop over the House of Dust, 1967.

AK: Well, already they were sort of extraordinary to want to come to that school. I think in any class after a little while there are five or six people who are really doing it and the rest are waiting for them to do it and to follow, and so that fell out quite naturally. The students, at least, in my situation, were engendering their own ideas about what to do, whether it was events at the House of Dust or the zoo in LA or whatever it was that they conceived of as a project. What distinguished them, I think, was a real push into their own lives. If they didn’t wish to do Gift Event II, they weren’t required to, though they might be required to come up with something of their own to offer to the group. I was just so delighted that people actually graduated from that school. They’d had so much experience in so many different parts of the school, with so many different people in the school, that I guess generally a degree was just given if they held out a couple of years there.

JS: It sounds like your teaching there in some ways fit the model of the [Fluxus] event score, in the sense that you’d give students something fairly simple to do that could be interpreted in any number of ways.

AK: Yes, according to the personality or the dimensions of the person doing it. Certainly one of my best-known pieces, Make a Salad, has been done in the simplest possible way, but as long as you know that you’re doing it as a performance, it has a different aura. It’s my favorite thing to be faced with students putting actions together for a performance after two or three days. I was talking to my host yesterday for a workshop in Virginia, and she said, “You don’t have to bring anything. They’ve got all these pieces they want to do. It’s going to be up to you to edit which ones they do.” And that’s kind of thrilling to me.

JS: How would you say teaching relates to your art practice?

AK: For me, they’re not that distinct. As I said, I have no credentials to teach, but I’m kind of teaching with you now and I’ll do this once in a while. Again, I have no formal way to present—say, as Allan would, having taught for years. But I listen. I like to listen to what people have to say back to me and it helps me to make new work that they have a strong reaction to. Of the hundreds of salads that have been made, there has never been one the same as the other. I had a salad yesterday out on the street while I was doing errands, and I noticed that I never would have put wedges of tangerine in a salad—I never mix fruit with lettuce. So one has one’s idées fixes about salad.

JS: There are a few people I haven’t been able to find much information about concerning their time at CalArts, and I thought you might be able to tell me something about them. One is Maury Stein, who was the first head of critical studies, and the other is Nam June Paik, another Fluxus artist who was also there when you were there.

AK: I know quite a bit about when Paik was there. Stein was a very busy figure and sort of off in the clouds. I certainly met him sometimes and liked him, but Paik was always a close friend. It was very strange for him to take this teaching job, and he didn’t know what to do. He said, “I don’t know how this is going to roll for me.” Also, he always had understandable but crazy English. Paik was always struggling not only to be understood but to figure out what to do. I remember going into one of his happenings in New York, and he still didn’t know what he was going to do really. He had the equipment there, and there was Charlotte Moorman waiting to do something with her cello, and the audience was there, and he was really just putting it all together and in a terrible sweat and terribly nervous about it, running back and forth. But that was always part of the spirit of the piece, and it was not anything that was trumped up or in any way false. He just became terribly nervous when the moment arrived. And so you enjoyed that.

JS: What school was he in at CalArts? Art? Music?

AK: I think he struggled with Shuya Abe to make a video class. Shuya Abe was a very skilled videographer so Paik kind of sat behind Shuya while he taught. But these guys from Tokyo, these two guys really brought video over here in a big way. No question about it.

JS: Did you interact much with people in the schools of theater, music and dance?

AK: Absolutely. I mean, Jim Tenney was a live wire out there. He would eat his lunch at the piano, so every day from twelve to one you could hear him play. It was a very avant-garde piano that he was interested in playing. All those ideas of Cage’s prepared piano were carried by Tenney to CalArts, not that he didn’t have his own way of composing. And he was so outgoing and so friendly that you could ask him about his work and he would talk about it. Certainly one of the highlights of CalArts was Jim Tenney.

JS: So how many years were you there total?

AK: Really two. Dick left after one, and we had two daughters he took back to the East Coast, and I was feeling like I would lose touch with the family if I stayed any longer. If he had stayed out there with the family I might have stayed on. But I was also beginning to wonder about whether I wanted to go on being a teacher or whether in fact I wasn’t losing track of my own work.

JS: What do you view as the failings of CalArts and the way it was organized or not organized in those early years?

AK: Well, I’d just say that we came in there without the organization that a good teacher usually imposes. So I think the people who couldn’t get along there were people—and I mean students—who couldn’t relate. But we really had people all around to help the people who had more traditional backgrounds, the ones who were uneasy about trying to make their own work right away or work outdoors or do something with two dogs and a fish. I mean, whatever was proposed, we’d have people to help and to get something out of that person.
Janet Sarbanes is the author of a work of hybrid theory, Letters on the Autonomy Project, and two short story collections, Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. The recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation art writer’s grant, she has published art criticism and other critical writing in museum catalogues, anthologies, and journals. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MA Aesthetics and Politics program in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.