The Big Book

“It’s the book we’ve all been waiting for.” So declared critic Howard Junker on the pages of Newsweek magazine in spring 1968 of Alison Knowles’s large-scale installation, The Big Book (1967). Tracing a chain of book-inspired art projects from Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-enValise (1935–41) to the avant-garde publishing activities of Fluxus and Aspen magazine, Howard approvingly compared Knowles’s work to the experimental efforts of literary modernism: “[Her] radical reshaping of the book format is only the latest effort in an iconoclastic tradition dating back to the century-old suggestion by French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé that a book-in-a-box could have parts as well as lines.”5 Taking careful note of the imaginative nature of The Big Book’s concept and construction, he concluded that the “permissiveness” inherent in the discursive space it opened up was potentially “just what Marshall McLuhan’s post-literate man needs to revive his interest in printed matter. Freed from the linearity of type and the one-at-a-time strictures of pages bound together, the book is again a contemporary medium.”6

 

“She’s Close in Something That’s Far Out” (Alison Knowles with The Big Book [1967–69], Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), 1967.

“She’s Close in Something That’s Far Out” (Alison Knowles with The Big Book [1967–69], Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), 1967. AP Wirephoto. © Alison Knowles.

Taken collectively, the book works reoriented the domain of publishing and the very concepts of narrative, time, and experience. Yet what was so inherently radical or permissive about Knowles’s piece? Devoting more critical space in his summary to The Big Book than to the work of any other artist, Junker’s jaunty description provided a hint:

8 feet tall, weight about a ton, equipped with telephone, toilet, hot plate, art gallery, graffiti wall and—for the utmost in reading pleasure—a 4-foot sleeping tunnel lined with artificial grass. Blinking lights, a tape collage and a film complete with the visual impact of this eight-page volume…The Big Book is, of course, not really a book. It is something else, literally a book-world.7

In Junker’s view, the multimedia environment Knowles created was not a “subversive” redesign of the traditional book format, but rather a “book-world,” and one, in fact, that would meet an urgent need.

In 1967, Alison Knowles was pictured on the first floor of her Chelsea brownstone, standing on a ladder with her arms outstretched and carefully moving one of those oversized rectangular “pages” of The Big Book.8 The methodical and monumental work consumed her for almost a year; she conceived of it as a continuation and in many ways a synthesis of her performance pieces and objects of the early to mid-1960s. The Big Book was a veritable text-world and mixed media project that incorporated original silkscreen prints, papers, various found images, and mirrors, which were framed in wood and mounted on casters around a steel spine. A stepladder affixed to the outside of the structure supplied the viewer/reader with a tool for climbing in and out of windows. The multi-paneled environment was wired for sound with an electronic tape system that provided ambient music and “empathetic tones.”9 The construction also included actual items and spaces for living: a working kitchen, a telephone and electrical system with small colored and flashing lights, a library with books and a typewriter, a gallery with commissioned artworks by Higgins, Philip Corner, and others, and an artificial grass tunnel that could double as a garden and a bed. The Big Book contained a chemical toilet but no formalized waste system or disposal system—a slightly anarchic gesture that hinted at the relative impracticality and ultimately utopian possibilities of actually dwelling in the space.

To access The Big Book, the viewer/reader was directed through signs and arrows toward specific zones for entering and exiting. Despite the moving vertical frames that acted as both doors and windows, the book cover, or portal for admission, was a hole surrounded by lights located at the bottom of the first page. Activating and engaging The Big Book required a certain flexibility and dexterity; one had to crawl through the circular void to get to the second page. This sense of physical motility was magnified as the viewer/reader continued to navigate through the book environment, as each successive page consisted of tall and wide doors roughly eight-feet high by fourfeet wide.10 They were not, as one might reasonably expect of a book, made of paper but rather of two kinds of bonded sheeting, transparent and opaque, which hinted at what would be revealed on either side. Some of the framed sheets were subsequently covered with paint and penciled murals, collaged bits and scraps of paper, and most intriguingly, a series of Eadweard Muybridge chronophotographs from his human motion studies (1887), which Knowles had silkscreened as negative and positive images directly onto the wooden supports. The appropriated Muybridge images showed male athletes captured in various states of isolated movement (bending, twisting, standing, and jumping). With the inclusion of these images, The Big Book recalled the motion studies and photographic technologies that helped visualize and reorganize notions of time and duration in the nineteenth century. Following Knowles’s penchant for design, the photographs were scattered non-sequentially and pasted, almost decoratively, over the door/walled surfaces.11 One early viewer/reader of The Big Book noted the “ever-present naked gentlemen whose changing gestures ape one’s own” as one crawled, bent, stooped, or stood in and around the pages.12

Knowles published The Big Book with Higgins under their collaborative publishing house Something Else Press, and it was exhibited for a time in the Something Else Gallery, located on the first floor of their New York home. In 1968, Knowles was invited to exhibit The Big Book in Europe for the Frankfurt Buchmesse, with subsequent stops in New York, Chicago, and Toronto.13 Negotiating the tricky elevations where Knowles placed the ladder, tunnel, and windows, independent writer and critic Bill Wilson noted, in his review of the work in Art in America, how difficult it was to actually inhabit the space and implied that a key feature of the work’s achievement is the projection of an imaginative dwelling.14 In another article, published by sometimes Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell, Wilson described his physical encounter with The Big Book:

After wiggling through the tunnel, one enters the apartment, an illusionless reality, a world without artifice, the unpretentious Manhattan living-loft of the 1950’s and 60’s. This underworld, such as an epic hero usually enters, presents the processes of life nonchalantly, without varnish, for acceptance. The acceptance leads (led me) through the window of the apartment and up a short ladder, which I read to mean that when the apartment was felt to be sufficient, it ceased to be an underworld and became a means toward elevation. Others who read the Big Book, who take this journey through metaphors, will be on a different quest and will arrive at different goals, but necessarily while they are in the Big Book they will be as mobile, kinetic, audial, visual, energetic, and beautiful as it is.15

According to Wilson, Knowles played on several visual and environmental registers at once: text and texture; function and space; epic literary fantasies and mundane lived realities; and indeterminate experiences, “different quest[s]” meant to “arrive at different goals” for each viewer/reader. In this way, Knowles amplified the process of reading as a perceptual and physical event.

Gender Readings

More important are the ways in which Knowles expanded the material possibilities of indeterminacy toward a critique of gender as it is experienced spatially. Her project, like the feminist liberation movement emerging in the late 1960s, materialized from a discursive rupture with preexisting orders of representation—spatial, textual, aesthetic—that sought to reconsider notions of gendered subjectivity and the social forces (including domestic space) that aided in the process of self-actualization. The Cagean notion of indeterminacy was accorded a new framework in which to take sounds as they are heard in real time and space, and quotidian experience as it is inhabited in the flesh and enforced by the division of labor and production of gender. The collapsing of public and private realms evident in The Big Book points to a radical displacement of reading (artistic and literary) and architecture (postwar nuclear home) in a reconsideration of the structures of interiority. The viewer/reader is invited to experience an artist making plain the female body and the domestication of labor as a text and performance to be enacted by anyone.

In 1963, six years prior to the construction of The Big Book, Betty Friedan and other second-wave feminists challenged the institutionalization of patriarchal authority, and its “family romance,”16as the site in which the home acted as a unified familial order. What is unique about The Big Book is Knowles’s use of the expanded book form (tactile, literary, literal object) to dramatize the act of reading daily life as a social text and an enigmatic space of self-reflection. Less of an homage to a woman’s assumed role as steward or protector of the home, Knowles’s piece is more akin to that metaphorical “room of one’s own” trope as evocatively described by the writer Virginia Woolf. Here, the objects Knowles assembled spoke to a deeply personal and specific way of living (her books, her tools) that would enable one to ostensibly survive in the makeshift home without the support of a man or the structure of a family. Moreover, architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has argued that new images of domesticity that arose in the postwar period had an explicitly nationalist bent that “turned out to be a powerful weapon” of democracy that featured “expertly designed images of domestic bliss [that] were launched to the entire world as part of a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign.”17 In the context of the proliferation of homemade nuclear fall-out shelters of the 1950s and 1960s, and the rise of early feminist reevaluations of the domestic sphere, Knowles’s The Big Book environment seemed to insinuate the need for isolation, self-sufficiency, and an abundance of basic supplies for living in a moment of personal and political crisis. The Big Book symbolized Knowles’s shift from small, handheld objects in her early Fluxus works to large-scale environments that required more active participation and awareness of domestic, national, and global anxieties surrounding the home and enacted these realities in an elaborate performance of the book as world.

As an act of architectural displacement, Knowles’s The Big Book actualized the reformatting and unfolding of lived domestic space into an exteriorized view. The interior was turned inside out and its daily, private operations were publically revealed. The environment was mobile and adaptable (the pages/ walls could be moved and removed), thus offering a new sense of the architecture of the home as book, perhaps, even an advertisement of a person’s life to be read and consumed openly by others. By transforming the ideologically defined domestic space into a destabilized book-world, Knowles undermined the spatial integrity of the nuclear home and effectively collapsed the complex social rituals that are inhabited and reaffirmed in its various regions—kitchens, bedrooms, etc. In exposing the house itself as an object and experience to be read, then, Knowles’s The Big Book is feminist in a concrete sense: she affords attention and value to the domestic sphere and the intimate rituals of reading/living in the delicate threshold of the everyday by revealing its affects.

Knowles’s deliberate excavation of the space of the home (her home) monumentalized the act of reading for its material and aesthetic potential. The readymade environment was called on to destabilize the traditional boundaries of domesticity by providing not only a real space to be lived in, but also the mobilization of a “different kind of space”—a space of discursive interaction between the woman and the house.18 The sounds of labor recorded by Knowles while constructing the piece (sawing, cutting, nailing of wood, sounds of her daughters crying, husband inquiring, etc.) were replayed in an audio loop during each exhibition, thus giving a sonic substance and texture to the experience of moving, dwelling, constructing.19 As such, Knowles explored a private economy of means: first, in the reminiscence of the textured affect of different materials and surfaces; second, in the book’s scale, which defies all means of stable topography (both material and physical); and third, the texture of reading and knowing as lived experience. As a result, the merging of architectural space with the zones of private interiority and public exhibition links biological and social concerns within dense webs of signification. In their most active rendering here, the efforts become the graph or signature of the feminine body and her labor in the architectures of house and body. Knowles’s articulation in material form of a kind of reexamination of dwelling implores the viewer to attend to the ways in which the space itself is explicitly gendered. What she stages for us is a reconfiguration of hearth and home—of public and private—revealing not only the blandly familiar but the utterly strange in reconsideration of the reading experience. This work invites us to act—to perform our potentiality, to re-read our abilities, our bodies, our spaces, and our narratives.

The interchangeable elements of The Big Book’s construction (again, mobile, compliant, adjustable) contained a central paradox: because the entire structure was so heavy, the pages could not be collapsed or closed easily. Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise editions of traveling artworks made in miniature, the object experience presented by Knowles needed to be stationary in some sense—either experienced privately at home (metaphorically, again, in a room of one’s own), or as a playground with the artist’s young daughters moving through it,20 or in a gallery space, book fair, or other public exhibition site that required an expenditure of time and leisure.

I want to suggest that this play between mobility (adjustable pages, objects) with structural fixity (a container of experience) might be understood as an implicit critique of domestic space that implies more than the material conditions of living. The Big Book also implies that the intimate, everyday rituals of domesticity, in their repetitive ordinariness, offer a novel way to read and understand how one comes to know the social body. Knowles proposes such a reading in her explanation of the environment:

I don’t want to drag the reader through the book simply on my own terms. I want [everyone] to see and hear enough of the pages and their background to know what it’s really all about…. Maybe having done The Big Book is better than going through it, but offering it to others as a performance piece is the best I can do.21

Indeed, we can read The Big Book as an example of a proto-feminist intervention where subjectivity, as constructed by space, disrupts the boundaries of inside/outside and is thus a threat to orders of patriarchal authority in both the public and private sphere. The large, methodically constructed, assisted readymade undermined the categorical nature of art (and by extension “woman’s art”) by including a variety of sources crossing medium and aesthetic boundaries in an atypical ensemble that expanded architectural and perceptual space. Knowles’s readymade was not rendered dysfunctional by a deliberate obfuscation of use-value and exchange, but differenced by the procedures in which we conceive of the work as a bridge between art and life. It did not, then, as Helen Molesworth has argued of Duchamp’s readymades, resist its “intended, mandated, standardized use” or “resist the working subject,”22 but rather offered an extended experience of the working body in the physical exertion it took to interact with the installation—squatting, contorting, standing, climbing, and turning the pages of the book in multiple arrangements depending on purpose, participant, and need.

Here Knowles reinterpreted her being-in-the-world through the lived experience of the everyday and called our attention to the way in which the domestic sphere is implicitly dramatized. In 1967, after viewing the work alongside Allan Kaprow’s installation Words (1962) at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the critic Harold Rosenberg observed that Knowles effectively offered the viewer/reader “a physical metaphor that literally contains everything. It is the story of the artist’s life presented through copious examples of her domestic and cultural surroundings; it is both individual and collective.”23 Indeed, in The Big Book Knowles opened up the site of domesticity to all viewers/readers by emphasizing labor in which each performer, entrant, and viewer experiences a highly individuated and personal encounter with the text.

Footnotes

  1. Howard Junker, “Pandora’s Book,” Newsweek, (April 29, 1968), 88. The review is accompanied by a black-and- white photograph by Robert R. McElroy of Knowles standing in front of The Big Book, with a caption that reads: “Knowles: Reshaping the book for post-literate man.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The American photographer Peter Moore took the photographs I have been describing, in which Knowles is dwarfed by the installation’s height and weight. Several of these installation shots taken by Moore would later illustrate an article on Knowles for Art in America by the independent writer and critic Bill Wilson, in the summer of 1968.
  5. I have relied on the artist’s papers, photographs, and personal recollec- tions to describe details of the work, as well as several contemporary accounts, including two unpublished but formal essays written by the artist and poet Emmett Williams, located in the Jean Brown Papers at The Getty Research Institute; and two reviews: Bill Wilson for Wolf Vostell’s Dé-coll/age 6 (July 1967), unpaginated; and Bill Wilson, “The Big Book,” Art in America 56.4 (July–August 1968), 100–03.
  6. Alison Knowles, e-mail exchange with author, April 9, 2010.
  7. A second set of images was of a goat print found in the New York Public Library. Knowles sent copies of the print to a dozen artist friends, who then “collaged it, cut it up, bottled it, etc., and sent it back to make up the goat gallery.” This detail was recorded by Alison Knowles in conversation with Charlie Morrow in “A Dialogue: The House of Dust,” New Wilderness Newsletter 17 (May 1980), 22.
  8. Emmett Williams, “The Big Book of Alison Knowles,” 10. Emmett Williams Correspondence File, Jean Brown Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Williams also noted that “cookies in the shape of the ever-present naked gentlemen” were found in the kitchen next to coffee, headache remedies, and cigarettes.
  9. Touring sites included: Kunsthalle, Cologne; Nikolaj Kirche, Copenhagen; and The Jewish Museum, New York. It eventually made a stop in San Diego before falling apart from the ravages of travel and poor packing by various exhibiting venues.
  10. Wilson, “The Big Book,” 100–03.
  11. Wilson, Dé-coll/age 6.
  12. Sigmund Freud, “Family Romances,” Collected Papers 5, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, [1909] 1952), 74–78.
  13. Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 12.
  14. Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 157.
  15. Around the time of its construction, Knowles also created a short film of The Big Book in her studio. Providing a variety of perspectives, from extreme close-up to wide-angle, both Knowles and her then-husband Dick Higgins are shown walking in and working through the environment. A later filmed version shows her then-young daughter, Jessica Higgins, experiencing and “reading” the book as well. Viewing selections of the film has been crucial to my understanding of the work and its meaning. A copy of the film is located in the Alison Knowles Studio Archive, New York City.
  16. Interestingly, Knowles resisted specific signs of motherhood within the book- world she created. The Big Book did not include objects that related or identified her explicitly as a mother—even if her young twin daughters were invited to interact with the structure in an elaborate pop-up book environment of learning.
  17. Knowles quoted in Williams, “The Big Book by Alison Knowles,”
  18. Helen Molesworth, “Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades,” Art Journal 57.4 (Winter 1998), 50–61.
  19. Harold Rosenberg, Artworks and Packages (New York: Horizon Press, 1969), 150. His review of The Big Book originally appeared in “Museum of the New,” The New Yorker (November 18, 1967), 224–35. The exhibition in Chicago was entitled Pictures to Be Seen/Poems to Be Read.