Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Sculpture of Indeterminacy: Alison Knowles Beans and Variations, Julia Robinson

Sometimes the piece of tempura is in stages ... but the contour is so light that it becomes abstract: the foodstuff has for its envelope nothing but time, the time (extremely tenuous, moreover) which has solidified it ... refined by the Japanese techniques of cancellation and exemption, it is the nutrient of another time ... a kind of meditation, as much spectacular as alimentary (since tempura is prepared before your eyes) .... [It is] on the side of the light, the aerial, of the instantaneous, the fragile, the transparent ... but whose real name would be the interstice without specific edges, or again: the empty sign.

[The chef's] activity is literally graphic, he inscribes the foodstuff in the substance; his stall is arranged like a calligrapher's table; he touches the substances like the graphic artist (especially if he is Japanese) who alternates pots, brushes, inkstone, water, paper; he thereby accomplishes ... [an] arrangement, not of time but of tenses (those of a grammar of tempura), makes visible an entire gamut of practices, recites the foodstuff not as a finished merchandise ... but as a product whose meaning is not final but progressive, exhausted, so to speak, when its production has ended: it is you who eat, but it is he who has played, who has written, who has produced.

--Roland Barthes, "The Interstice," in Empire of Signs

In the process of papermaking particularly the shapes formed by the wet pulp as it is left to air dry are respected and become indigenous to the sculpture. In performances I am drawn to objects for their sound. My orchestra consists of beans, toys, papers, and words .... Each instrument comes out of silence, makes its performance, and returns to silence.

--Alison Knowles, Statement.

Prelude: Proposition #1--Make a Salad (1962)

As Alison Knowles stood with her assistants before an audience of more than a hundred people, preparing to perform her renowned 1962 score Make a Salad at the Baltimore Museum of Art in fall 2003, there was an air of uncertainty as to how this now "historical" piece would be understood. More than forty years since the inauguration of Fluxus and more than a decade since the death of John Cage, the original motivations and intentions behind such works have become somewhat opaque. The short, "open" score (or "proposition" as Knowles calls it) using everyday objects as instruments can hardly make the same points it made to its first audience in 1962 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, but perhaps now it makes different points. In the afterglow of the presentation Knowles made in Baltimore as part of the touring exhibition Work Ethic, new questions emerged about the conceptual bases of early 1960s performance and about Knowles's role as a key figure in the "labor-oriented" artistic practice defined by this exhibition. (1)

The 2003 Make a Salad looked very different from earlier interpretations of the score, all of which occurred more than three decades ago. Before a vast audience (by 1962 standards) and on the grounds of a major visual-arts institution as opposed to in a concert hall, the sense that this was a musical piece extending the boundaries of composition seemed to require particular emphasis. "After two or three generations," Knowles has observed, this kind of piece "no longer comes as a surprise." (2) Although she knew she would not shock her audience as she stood before them with her fellow performers, their knives poised for a marathon of swift and rhythmic chopping, the sheer aesthetic pleasure of piles of carrots, radishes, lettuces, and cucumbers loaded on the long table in front of the performers threatened to dilute the reading of the piece. Knowles sensed the value of bracketing her own music of chopping, pouring, and tossing with conventional musical performances (selections from Mozart were chosen and a cellist and a violinist played their pieces before and after Knowles's performance). The juxtaposition of conventional musical pieces with one composed of everyday sounds dramatized the sense of both rupture and continuity within Knowles's composition. Without the Mozart these aspects may have been elided, the Make A Salad performance reduced to a gesture of mere iconoclasm. The audience was therefore given the opportunity to perceive the radical expansiveness of Knowles's practice, its role in extending musicality, through the subtle explicatory power of its presentation.

The brevity and openness of Knowles's textual "proposition" allows for great freedom in the realization of the piece, and it includes the audience from the outset. Although it was Marcel Duchamp who first argued that the spectator completes the work, it was the sphere of performance and the radical scoring practices developed by John Cage that provided the impetus for Knowles and her peers to incorporate duration and experience into the very conception of the works they created. Disavowing convention and sacrificing structure, they made experience a kind of medium, as important as any other. The Work Ethic exhibition rightly includes Knowles as a representative of Fluxus strategies, but what seems called for now is a closer examination of the ways in which Knowles has developed devices like the score and other Cagean and Fluxus models toward a sustained practice that demands its own unique terms. (3)

Shaping Indeterminacy

The concept of indeterminacy stands as a source of the earliest affinity between Knowles and certain of her peers--particularly those closest to Cage--in the years leading up to the 1962 inauguration of Fluxus. While Cage had established (and taught) indeterminacy within the framework of his course "Experimental Composition," those artists who adopted the concept took it in substantially different directions in their own projects. Indeterminacy created the preconditions for a work of art (or a performance) to be arranged by an artist without the artist knowing exactly how it would turn out. (4) So rather than composing a score note by note, so to speak, the artists developed scores that operated as templates, open to expansion in the arena of realization. Elements of chance were incorporated into the temporal framework so that each performance of a single score might differ greatly, far beyond the expectations of the composer. The radicality of the concept of indeterminate composition lies in its mandate that the artist intentionally give up control of the work's outcome. Such a notion flies in the face of every idea of mastery bonded to the traditional work of art. In its complete disavowal of the unilateral decision-making process that would define a work of art in its entirety, indeterminacy split artists of the early 1960s between those who felt liberated by it and those who could not accept it.

For several artists momentarily associated with the Fluxus group who did not adopt Fluxus but instead made Happenings or shifted in altogether different directions--artists such as Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, and Wolf Vostell--the purely indeterminate work closest to the musical model of Cage was not desirable. (5) The obvious divide between Fluxus and Happenings, which turns on this issue, is illustrated by the great difference between works by these latter artists and those of an artist like Knowles or her close colleague George Brecht (both of whom made the release of the work a kind of ur-principle of its formation). As two well-known modes of 1960s performance that have so often been discussed together, Fluxus and Happenings might be set apart through consideration of the level of the artist/composer's control over the work, from conception through to realization. This division emerges partly from the enduring proximity of Fluxus to music. Scores by Fluxus artists premiered at New Music festivals in Europe, inserted into the programs of a vast, preexisting sphere of radical musical production. In contrast, Happenings were defined almost exclusively in America (specifically out of the New York scene) and quickly abandoned music, save for transplanting the score component of the Cagean model and transforming it into a set of increasingly programmatic instructions. (6) For the few artists (like Knowles and Brecht) who pursued the bilateral operation of indeterminacy (as conceptual foundation) and the score (as structural foundation), the combination of openness and preestablished limitations proved enormously generative.

Score and Sole

Proposition #6

Shoes of Your Choice

A member of the audience is invited to come forward to a microphone if one is available and describe a pair of shoes, the ones he [sic] is wearing or another pair. He is encouraged to tell where he got them, the size, color, why he likes them, etc. (7)

In the period that Knowles conceived and premiered Make a Salad, she produced another important score, Shoes of Your Choice, which was performed at the same concert in London at the ICA in fall 1962. On the occasion Knowles walked out on the stage and announced the score to the audience. In a now memorable response, the British Pop artist Richard Hamilton rose to his feet, removed one shoe, and embarked upon a long and detailed description of it, one that involved intricate justifications for the particular heel height and witty explanations about the color and the overall rationale for his "choice."

Shoes of Your Choice is a lucid illustration of indeterminate composition. It suggests the difference between Knowles's term, a "proposition," and a conventional score, which would be composed from beginning to end. Like much of the art of the early 1960s, Shoes of Your Choice incorporates the everyday, the found object, into the frame of aesthetic consideration. But through its indeterminate nature, this score allows for an open work whose whose ultimate form and duration can never be known until each performance of it is complete. A dynamic of spontaneity helps define the found object (which also is or becomes a readymade). Shoes of Your Choice represents shoes as if for the first time, constructing them out of a kaleidoscopic constellation of perspectives. Unlike the consumer items that appear as painting or sculpture in Pop art, for example, the shoes Knowles represents do not parrot reified object relations. They are neither the simulacra of the shop window (echoed in art) nor the unilateral view of an object from the mind of the artist....

NOTE: All illustrations and photos have been removed from this article.

above copied fromL http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-3559447/The-sculpture-of-indeterminacy-Alison.html

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