Alison Knowles, Shoes, and Gertrude Stein January 16, 1978

The life-as-art approach has lost a good deal of momentum in the past 10 years. Painters no longer frame their dirty rags, sculptors no longer make constructions from odds and ends found on the street, choreographers have lost interest in working with nondancers, composers have given up writing for car horns and typewriters and vacuum cleaners, and happenings are all but forgotten. But a few artists have continued to work within these general parameters and have found ways of doing so that make the basic attitude still viable today. Alison Knowles is one of them.

When Knowles presented an evening of her work at Franklin Furnace a few weeks ago, the highlight of the evening for me was a 10-minute interpretation of two old shoelaces, performed by violinist Malcolm Goldstein. Knowles’s score was a large sheet of vellum, perhaps four feet high and 10 feet long, which had been run through a blueprint machine with a couple of old shoelaces stretched end to end along the center. With the sheet mounted on the wall, a sharp sepia image of the two shoelaces could be seen, actual size, with all the little kinks and frayed ends characteristic of well-used shoelaces.

Goldstein treated the wall hanging as an explicit musical score, beginning at the left and gradually working his way across, observing the contour of the line as he played. The music came out in a long, sustained sound, with gentle rises and falls, and a curious twist here and there. The tone became a bit frazzled as he interpreted one frayed end. He played the duller, smoother stretches with as much care as the curious kinky stretches and, since the image was large enough for the audience to see clearly, we could follow the score ourselves quite easily.

The rest of the program included a short group interpretation of another Knowles blueprint, which did not work so well, and some selections from Knowles’s recent ‘Gem Duck,’ which were quite pleasant. ‘Gem Duck’ is a book, recently published by Pari and Dispari, which is devoted to old shoes, graphic images of shoes, graphic images about shoes, legible and illegible texts on shoes, and a glossary of shoe-manufacturing terms, all collaged into a seemingly random assortment of pages that are most gratifying to look at. Much of he material is also nice to listen to. At this performance Alison and her daughter Jessie took turns reading segments, each prepared on a different kind of paper. Whenever one of them came to the end of a segment, they fluttered the page a bit before putting it down. I didn’t pay much attention to the sounds of the fluttering papers at first, but after a while I began to tune in on this, and to appreciate the vast difference between the sounds of different kinds of paper.

It is not surprising that Knowles would have wanted to explore paper sounds in this context. While her background and training is largely in graphics, she has also presented music events involving dried beans, making a salad, amplified footsteps, and other everyday sounds. A few years ago she assembled large collections of small found objects, wrote brief instructions suggesting how to sound them, and passed them out in audience-participation contexts. She has also designed many ritual events, produced many conventional prints, and set up semi-theatrical environments, but in all cases her sources are usually ordinary, non-art objects.

It seems to me, however, that the ultimate Knowles work is probably the organization of the public readings of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. For four years now, increasingly large groups of well known artists, unknown artists, Stein fans, SoHo residents, and passers-by have come together to pass the New Year by reading and listening to this 925-page book. This year the 50-hour marathon took place at the Paula Cooper Gallery.

I am on shaky grounds when I attribute the origin of this project to Knowles. Knowles herself eschews credit, insisting that at least two other people were equally responsible for getting the Stein reading off the ground that first year. And there are probably at least six people who would like to claim credit for it. But my own observations that first year led me to conclude that Knowles was probably the main instigator and, in subsequent years, I have begun to feel that the project is one of her most personal and most characteristic statements.

To begin with, Knowles never invents her own material, but works with things that already exist. In some cases that means using beans or shoelaces or a glossary of shoe-manufacturing terms. In this case it means using a Stein text. Knowles is also concerned with the social implications of her pieces. In some cases that means setting up audience-participation events to perform a food ritual together, or to scrape on found objects and listen to them together. In this case it means bringing people together to read and hear a neglected American classic. Also characteristic of Knowles is an exceptionally modest stance. In some cases that means refusing to take credit for the sounds produced by a piece of metal found on the street or for the rich implications of a well-worn heel she photographed. In this case it means refusing to take credit for the fact that other people are reading and listening to a Stein text.

Perhaps most characteristic of all, every Knowles piece seems designed to allow her to remove herself eventually from her artistic role. When she asks musicians to interpret old shoelaces, she seems to be hoping that the process will go on, and that musicians will continue doing such things without her requesting them to. When she suggests, as she did in ‘The Identical Lunch,’ that we go to a cafe and have a tuna-salad sandwich as if we are performing a piece, she seems to be wishing that people would bring a greater sensitivity into their daily lives, so that artists would no longer have to encourage them to do so. And when she set up—or helped set up—the first Stein reading, she seemed to be hoping that more people would discover this remarkable book and would enjoy coming together to read it, and that readings of this sort might continue without requiring any leadership from her. That seems to be exactly what has happened.

The composer Charles Wuorinen once wrote: ‘My career in composition is directed toward integrating myself with my work, and my work into the world; so that both of us can disappear together.’ I’ve always liked that statement, though it never seemed particularly appropriate to Wuorinen. It does, however, seem to express what Alison Knowles wants to do—and does.