Chapter 15. Provisional Objects: Alison Knowles’s Bean Rolls
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263 Chapter 15 Provisional Objects Alison Knowles’s Bean Rolls Nicole L. Woods How can everyday life be defined? It surrounds us, it besieges us, on all sides and from all directions.We are inside it and outside it. No so-called “elevated” activity can be reduced to it, nor can it be separated from it ...It is at the heart of the everyday that projects become works of creativity. —Henri Lefebvre1 Addressing the “event” of Fluxus retrospectively, George Brecht, artist , collaborator, and close interlocutor of fellow Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, argued that it was small multiple works such as her Bean Rolls (1963–1964) that signaled the subversive potential of the entire Fluxus paradigm. For Brecht, these small, humble offerings clarified and gave concrete evidence to a conceptual shift in the post-WWII era. Proposing that they deployed similar strategies, though they did not share an officially sanctioned aesthetic program, Brecht noted that Knowles and other like-minded Fluxus artists were sustained by “something unnamable in common,” which had a “nourishing” effect on the development of “original, and often uncategorizable” objects and events in a“strange new way.”2 Indeed, by 1964 the peculiar character of Fluxus works—scores, 264 Not for Art’s Sake performances, and multiples—seemed to necessitate careful recognition and defending. For instance, American poet Emmett Williams’s score, Voice Piece for La Monte Young (1962), simply asks if the experimental musician and composer, La Monte Young, is physically present . Its pithy proposition, its negation of the conventions of musical notation or instrumentation, and its solicitation of seemingly banal information or direction was similar to Benjamin Patterson’s Two Movements from Symphony No. 1 (1964) andYoung’s own Composition 1960 No. 2 (1960). Effectively closing the distance between performer/ spectator, Patterson’s Two Movements asks the gathered audience if they“trust”him. Based on a quick survey of their answers, in the affirmative or negative, the audience is then instructed to self-divide into two groups who sit in the dark as coffee grounds rain down among them. In Young’s elemental word piece, the textured nature of sound is amplified by directing performers to “Build a fire in front of the Audience.” These performances, and Knowles’s seminal Proposition: Make a Salad (1962), whose score simply requires any performer to make the meal, are exemplary of a renewed interdependency between artistic practice and audience interaction, intervention, and production .This return of the historical avant-garde and its ludic strategies of engagement, now positioned as the “neo-avant-garde,” shared certain dispositions with Fluxus works, namely: their oscillation between the strange and the serious; their minimally appointed (albeit still theatrical ) aesthetic; their subtle and explicit attentiveness to larger social and political realities; and their inherent disruption of extant orders of high art.3 In Brecht’s account, this productive mixing of disciplinary borders is uniquely suited to Knowles’s small canned readymade Bean Rolls, which he aligned with the more “professional anti-culture and down-withs” events staged by artists like Henry Flynt.4 Indeed, Knowles’s Bean Rolls presents the viewer with modest, cheaply produced containers and contents (culled from other contexts),anticipating and advancing the polemics of postwar reproduction, exhibition, and distribution—especially as it proposes a consideration of the banal rituals and routines of daily life. In other words, as Henri Lefebvre characterized it, of unearthing the creative potential of the everyday. This essay is explicitly concerned with understanding the conditions of Knowles’s aesthetic approach to the everyday in the early Provisional Objects 265 1960s.It draws upon previously unpublished documents and archival materials, including several interviews with the artist herself, and is primarily motivated by two questions.First,why are some of the most experimental artists in the 1960s, Knowles among them, drawn to the subject of food as an object of contemplation, consumption, and display ? Second,how does the expansion of the multiple,via a rethinking of the Duchampian readymade,play into these new forms and tropes? By examining a sampling of work premised on Knowles’s embrace of the provisional—an openness to indeterminate outcomes,objects,and experiences—my research reveals the ways in which Knowles effectively redefines the conditions of artistic and domestic labor.5 Using beans and the processes of daily life to propose an alternative model for understanding exchange value,materialism,and the limits of commodity culture,Knowles marks a specific connection between artistic practice and the rituals and rhythms of the body in social...