Fluxus artist Alison Knowles makes a salad for Earth Day, and for hundreds of spectators, on the High Line
3:46 pm Apr. 24, 2012
Alison Knowles is serene; on the phone and in person—lanky, with close-cropped snow-white hair and small wire-frame glasses—she is calm, unflappable.
It's not exactly the stereotypical demeanor one expects of a performance artist—Knowles, who also works in sculpture, sound art, and printmaking, was an important member of the Fluxus art collective, which formed in the 1960s under the influence of John Cage's Experimental Music Composition classes—but it’s one that served her well on Sunday, as chilly weather and rain threatened to dampen spirits on the High Line, where celebrations for Earth Day included a re-staging of Knowles's iconic event score "Make a Salad."
The performance was curated by High Line Art, which was founded in 2009, and Knowles’s performance is the first event in a new series, High Line Art Performances. The goal is to transform the High Line into a platform for "open air theater,” in the words of Jeffrey Walkowiak, who works with P.R. firm Blue Medium.
An event score is, more or less, a loose script for a piece of performance art; everyday events are scored to music or otherwise recontextualized. For Knowles, daily experience is “the core idea.” Among the artist's other event scores are "Shoes of Your Choice," which involves members of the audience coming up to a microphone and describing a pair of shoes, and "Child Art Piece" in which a child is led onto a stage by a parent and then allowed to behave however he or she wishes; the performance ends once the child decides to leave the stage.
"You wouldn't guess the things that could happen!" Knowles exclaimed when we spoke the day before the High Line event, discussing her experience staging the child event score, which debuted at the Fluxus Festival at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf in 1963. "The child could sit down. The child could start to cry. The child could run off the stage. The child could go up to the front and look at the audience and wave." Unfortunately, she was only able to stage that particular piece a few times, because of what she described as "bureaucracy." Children "four years or younger," she said wearily, are "not allowed on the stage. The mother has to sign papers."
"Make a Salad" is a decidedly less controversial piece, though Knowles believes it does have a political "flavor that would not be interesting to the right wing." There are rough guidelines—there is often music; Knowles and her collaborators chop salad ingredients (a massive quantity; on the High Line there was enough salad made for up to 1,000 people); everything is tossed together and then served up to the audience—but every staging is open-ended, unique. The point—or one the of the points—is not in the details of the execution, but in the democracy of the form, of the radical equality that it enforces on its participants.
"The idea of having such a quantity of food served to everyone was … kind of astonishing," Knowles said, recalling the piece's original staging in 1962 at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London. She was interested in the idea of "everyone, eating, not only together but … the same thing. And they usually eat the same quantity, the same portions."
Cecilia Alemani, the Curator and Director of High Line Art noted that 2012 marks the performance's fiftieth anniversary. It was conceived, Knowles, said, when she was having lunch one day; she was asked what she would be presenting at the I.C.A. She looked down and said: "Well, maybe I'll make a salad." The response was immediately positive—and continues to be, decades later. ("Make a Salad" has been restaged several times since its debut, most recently in 2008 at the Tate Modern in London; the performance drew a crowd of 3,000.) At the ICA in 1962, there wasn't a large enough container for the salad mixings, so Knowles and Dick Higgins, her late husband and another artist associated with Fluxus (he founded the independent publisher Something Else Press) improvised with a pickle barrel they'd found in London and rolled down the street. They mixed the salad with "some sticks" and served it. Knowles characterized the event, with a hint of nostalgia and a Katherine Hepburn twang, as "really fine."
At the High Line on Sunday, the set up was a bit more sophisticated. Under the (mercifully covered) upper level of the Chelsea Market Passage, a row of tables with cutting boards had been arranged. large plastic tubs of vegetables were stored beneath; plastic bags were in front of the tables, against the railing that overlooked the lower level of the Passage—these would store the chopped food until the salad was ready to be mixed. Knowles was assisted by her daughter, Jessica Higgins—herself an artist—and a rotating cast of High Line volunteers.
For an hour and a half, Knowles and her assistants chopped an impressive amount of produce: 36 heads of escarole, 72 heads of romaine, 36 bunches of carrots, 15 pounds of cucumbers, 25 pounds of onions, 12 heads of celery, 15 pounds of mushrooms, and 72 bunches of radish had been provided by the sustainable catering company Cleaver and Company. All the produce, Alemani was quick to mention, had been sourced from farms no further than 60 miles from New York City. From the upper level, where passersby—the odd tourist or jogger—could only see the bent backs of the eight or so participants, it might have been an open kitchen at an upscale restaurant, or a cooking competition.
But from below, the event asserted its origins in the avant-garde: there, Joshua Selman—an installation, new media, and sound artist, as well as Jessica Higgins's husband—was doing something with his guitar. He wasn't exactly playing it, though there was sound—guitar chords, as well as a spoken word element: a robotic, female voice disjointedly, dispassionately described the history both of Earth Day, and of "Make a Salad." (The music was turned off when the chopping began, to allow for what Knowles described as "chopping music" but was later turned back on.) Selman, meanwhile, in a suit whose jacket he had turned inside out and clear plastic safety goggles, was calmly, methodically, affixing vegetables to the neck of his guitar—mostly chard and kale, but leeks and sheets of seaweed as well. There was a paper shredder involved too—he ran the sheets of seaweed through it before giving them to audience members, or threading them through the guitar strings. A cell phone, for a time, was also attached to the guitar; it appeared to be playing a video of a similar performance.
Around noon, High Line staffers began opening a huge green tarp on the lower level of the Passage, and a palpable thrill went through crowd, which had swelled to more than a hundred. Suddenly there was a sense of urgency: cameras shot up in the air; there was a scramble to find standing room on a picnic bench in order to get a better vantage. Knowles and her assistants dumped the produce, then the dressing (a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, and tarragon) over the railing, and the volunteers below shook the tarp to mix the salad, to cheers from the audience.
Knowles came down and mixed up the greens with an actual rake—an appropriate utensil, given the size of the dish—and then it was ready: the salad was scooped into large wooden bowls, and high-school students who had worked on the High Line over Spring Break served it up in single-size, compostable bowls. It was quite tasty—fresh and crisp, if not perfectly suited to the chilly day.
"I though maybe a little more dressing," Knowles said, chewing over her portion. "That was hard to judge ... how much oil and vinegar." Nevertheless, she proclaimed herself, "happy with it!"
Alemani, too, was happy with the performance—though she admitted it might have been even "more amazing" on a sunnier day. Knowles was asked to come, she explained, not only because of her importance as an artist in New York City but because her performance "brings people together, and that's what public art is supposed to do." "It's a participatory piece, it's a communal meal … it's got,” she continued, “all the qualities that we want in art on the High Line." Alemani's task is a difficult one: to curate an art series speaks both to Chelsea locals and also the "four million people [who visit the High Line each year] that are really not necessarily an art crowd.”
Not coincidentally, Knowles's philosophy seems almost designed to address the difficulties that Alemani is facing. She recalled the initially chilly reception that Fluxus received in Europe in the '60s, when the generic reception they got was "the crazies have come to town." But eventually the movement caught on, and has "become part of world culture; whether you like it or not is something else." (The MoMA certainly likes it, having built a sizable collection of Fluxus works, many of which, including Knowles' art, were on view for a special exhibition this winter.)
One of Knowles' goals now is to try to "get people to see the nature of performance art as simple and direct and personal," she said. She mentioned Joseph Beuys' concept that "everyone's an artist" as a particular touchstone: "the idea of of elevating the artist into some special echelon of life that is not for you, I try to break that down." Knowles drew a direct contrast between theater, which requires "a special script" and "asks for skilled acting, and performance art, which "is not asking those same kinds of demands at all … it's available for everyone."
And on Sunday, so was the salad.
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