House of Dust

The most important thing to emphasize is the changing nature of the poem…. [It] is about dwellings, types of people and situations that sometimes do and sometimes don’t get together.

—Alison Knowles24

In 1967, while assembling objects for The Big Book, Knowles was also participating in an informal workshop on digitized language systems and computer mainframes organized by the composer James Tenney, who was a mutual friend of Knowles and John Cage. Over the course of several Thursday evenings in the living room of Knowles’s Chelsea home, Tenney introduced a group of artists and musicians, including Knowles, Cage, Higgins, Nam June Paik, and Steve Reich, to the rich potential of blurring the boundaries between visuality, poetry, musical notation, engineering, and computer programming. A resident at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey and an expert on the IBM compiling system known as FORTRAN,25 Tenney conceived of the workshop as a simple demonstration of the methods in which computers could be used as a tool of artistic practice. Demystifying the complexity of technocratic language and application, Tenney’s goal was rather modest: to show the artists that their previous experimentations with indeterminacy in fact “often resembled the way one programmed information.”26 Stimulated by this creative environment, Knowles began to conceive of a basic poetic structure in which random bits of information fed into a machine could streamline her experiments with chance-derived imagery. The result was “The House of Dust”—a digital poem composed of four separate categories prepared by Knowles in advance and programmed in FORTRAN-IV by Tenney, which was then processed by a mainframe computer at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (BPI). The refrain of the poem followed the formulation “A house of…,” with each category indicating the materials, locations, lighting, and inhabitants of a house in a series of repeatable quatrains (four-line verse). The four lists created by Knowles were then subjected to chance and random mixing by the computer’s internal logic. The results were often fascinatingly absurd, humorous, and evocative. For example, one set of permutations read:

A House of Dust
In Michigan
Using Natural Light
Inhabited by Vegetarians

A House of Roots
By a River
Using Natural Light
Inhabited by People Who Sleep
Very Little

A House of Sand
Among Other Houses
Using Electricity
Inhabited by People Who Love to Read

A House of Leaves
In a Metropolis
Using All Available Lighting
Inhabited by All Races of Men
Represented Wearing Predominantly
Red Clothing27

 

Figure 4.5: Alison Knowles with James Tenney, “The House of Dust,” 1968. Computer printout of poem. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Figure 4.5: Alison Knowles with James Tenney, “The House of Dust,” 1968. Computer printout of poem. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

When Tenney first ran it at BPI, he reported back to Knowles that almost a thousand quatrains were generated before a single quatrain of verse repeated. The total poem apparently runs for a quarter mile of computer printout,28 producing “a perpetually shifting set of mutual and modular relationships” among the material and “poetic choices” of the artist’s many lists.29 Unlike Knowles’s paintings in the late 1950s that used the I-Ching for color placement,30 the chance-derived structure of “The House of Dust” was not predicated or produced by a throw of dice but rather through the construction provided by a technological apparatus. The use of FORTRAN-IV as the interface between visual and poetic content was thus an important and innovative choice, since this particular computer language was known for its flexibility and modularity in providing for compilations favored in the organization of libraries, indices, and other assemblage systems of information.

In 1968, Alison Knowles won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to transform one quatrain of the original “The House of Dust” computer poem into a large outdoor sculpture: A House of Plastic / In a Metropolis / Using Natural Light / Inhabited by People from all Walks of Life.31 It was remarkable that Knowles would choose spatial, domestic architectural, elemental, and environmental (even climatic) materials for her poem composition, given that the computer program used to construct the original poem, classical FORTRAN, had been crucial for handling computationally intensive areas, such as numerical weather prediction, finite element analysis, and fluid dynamics.32 In the application materials for the prize, Knowles proposed a public works project to be situated in the Chelsea district near her home. A friend of Knowles, William N. Berger, an architect and teacher of aesthetics at Pratt Institute, spent eight months assisting her in the development stages and successfully managed to see the blueprints through the New York City Building Department. Securing a permit for an acre of land between 28th Street and 8th Avenue, it was decided that the precise location for Knowles’s “home for the houses” would be the Penn South Housing Co-op, funded by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The director of ILGWU, Henry Marguiles, approved the design and convinced the board members of the co-op to place two huge fiberglass domes on its lawn. The smaller dome, which was the first quatrain of the poem and weighed a total of two tons, was fabricated from plans Knowles designed at the George Krier foundry in Philadelphia. That same year, Knowles began to work on its façade, collecting and adhering objects she had found in the surrounding streets to its rough limestone exterior shell. The computerized printout of the poem was programmed to aid in the further evolution by taking elements from the poetic text (home, materials, lighting) and determining its structural coordinates. When the location was fixed, Knowles then commissioned Max Neuhaus to add ambient sound and light to the environment. He chose thermal circuits sensitive to sunlight.33

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1969–75. Two structures at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1969–75. Two structures at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1969–75. Film screening at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1969–75. Film screening at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

While working outdoors at the co-op, Knowles encountered growing resistance and resentment from the tenants, whose apartment windows had a clear view of the House of Dust structure. Many were unmoved by its status as public art and instead took it as an affront to their privacy and considered it a “disturbance of the peace.”34 Knowles met with the director and co-op members to discuss participation with the object by “children and artists” living in the building, but disgruntled tenants organized protests and walking petitions. Part of the polemical nature of their resistance had to do with the fact that House of Dust had no recognizable taxonomy or designation; they simply did not know what to call it or how to interact with it.35 Indeed, as Knowles recalled: “There’s quite a difference between a sculptor doing outdoor pieces for a decade or more and a visual artist doing performance and intermedia looking for a place for her three-ton poem!”36 The frustration reached a boiling point when, in the early morning of October 23, 1969, the gardener of the ILGWU was bribed to drench the house with kerosene and throw a torch, effectively destroying the work. A few days later, Knowles received a color photograph of the blaze in the mail. The perpetrator was never discovered or convicted of arson. In shock and disappointment, and fearing the work was irretrievably damaged, Knowles set the project aside.37

In 1970, when she was invited by Allan Kaprow and Paul Brach to join the fine arts faculty at a new experimental arts campus, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Knowles negotiated to have full reign over an acre of ground where she could have the ruins of the New York House of Dust moved. On a patch of green meadow near the tennis courts, above the Golden State 5 Freeway, Knowles used the remaining funds secured from her Guggenheim grant to commission two new “object/poems,” this time inspired by the quatrain: A House of Dust / On Open Ground / Using Natural Light / Inhabited by Friends and Enemies.38 Both were larger than the original work; one cave-like building (the “large house”) measured twenty-three feet long by twelve feet high, and a similarly shaped structure (the “small house”) was twelve feet long by four feet high. Each was fabricated from wood blocks and fiberglass sprayed with gray sand. Knowles again commissioned Neuhaus to add sound to the smaller of the two houses. Neuhaus chose thermal circuits that were sensitive to thermal and solar changes and thus “would pick up the path of the sun moving over the HOUSE each day and would change that heat into sound for the people sitting inside.”39 In a letter dated from1977, Knowles recalled how the small house with “electric eyes” was the perfect spot to host film screenings with her students.

This sense of participation was a key difference in the House of Dust iteration at the CalArts campus. Often lacking office space at her new post, Knowles conceived of the poem houses as “active” sites for meaningful exchanges with students and colleagues.40 The sculptures also functioned as alternative spaces for poetry, music, meditations, performances, and happenings in the art and music schools. One of the more notable events was the “Poetry Drop Event,” organized at the site by her student, Norman Kaplan. The postcard announcing the performance read: “Computer Poem Drop: An Event by Norman Kaplan. Over the House of Dust: Sculpture by Alison Knowles. 1000 feet of poem dropped from the skies. 2 P.M. May 20, 1971.”41 For this event, another student of Knowles’s, Jeff Raskin, contacted a friend at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and asked him to print out a second computerized printout of the original poem. The long printout of the computerized House of Dust poem was dropped from a helicopter over the physical structure, with Knowles directing the timing by radio.

Alison Knowles with Norman Kaplan, Poem Drop Event, May 1971, House of Dust, 1969–75

Alison Knowles with Norman Kaplan, Poem Drop Event, May 1971, House of Dust, 1969–75. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photogra- pher unknown. © Alison Knowles.

Alison Knowles with Norman Kaplan, Poem Drop Event, May 1971, House of Dust, 1969–75

Alison Knowles with Norman Kaplan, Poem Drop Event, May 1971, House of Dust, 1969–75. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photogra- pher unknown. © Alison Knowles.

A staff reporter from the Los Angeles Times who covered the performance took note of the multifaceted nature of the coterminous activities: “As the paper fell on the campus, students acted out, symbolically, lines of verse.”42 Like many events and happenings at the House of Dust, the poem drop captured a pause in the routines of daily life and created a space in which new ideas and experiences were offered and new platforms, sensations, perceptions, and moods were shared. This sensibility was evident in another performance event by Knowles, known as 99 Red North (circa 1971–72). Here, the surrounding space of the object/poem consisted of ninety-nine red apples arranged on a colored quadrant that pointed north.43 Participants were invited to exchange any one of the apples for an object. Many people left something behind (e.g., car keys), but many of the apples also sat in decay for several weeks. As Hannah Higgins has observed, the work “initiated an exchange of ideas or experiences, as well as the profoundly social nature of eating.”44 Seen this way, Knowles’s performance work on the CalArts campus continued the artistic themes she had been pursuing since the early 1960s: using chance to both assert and suppress her own subjective impulses through an expression of the tenuousness and tediousness of life as it is lived. By encouraging such an open approach to propositions, performances, objects, and spaces, Knowles consistently allowed for the easy slippage of any one of us into her place.

Michael Bell, Meditations at Dawn Event, c. 1971–72, House of Dust, 1969–75. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed.

Michael Bell, Meditations at Dawn Event, c. 1971–72, House of Dust, 1969–75. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

In the context of working at CalArts in the early 1970s, when the feminist art movement was just emerging, Knowles created and participated in artistic and environmental projects that presented new territories to be explored. The art critic and curator Lucy Lippard described both iterations of Knowles’s House of Dust as distinctive for their ability to make “stories become true occupants of the space.”45 Describing a narrative component seen in the “fictionalized” and “transformative” space of Womanhouse (1972)—a month-long installation piece created by the students in Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Feminist Art Program (FAP) at CalArts—Lippard noted that “living space is an extension of the body, and biological as well as social experience influences a woman’s preoccupations with the relationships among outside, entrance, and inside.”46 Indeed, both House of Dust and Womanhouse were important domains of activity for artistic, feminist, and studentgenerated happenings and performances in Los Angeles. Since Chicago and Schapiro famously favored a women-only admissions policy in the FAP,47 and Knowles opened her classes to all students, many of whom were male, frictions existed between the artists, and Knowles was refused a request to participate in Womanhouse.48 Despite feeling a deep sense of alienation from her female peers, in an interview with her former student, Aviva Rahmani, Knowles recalled the stimulating environment at CalArts:

I had been working alone, as most women artists did then. It was new and exciting to work visually along with others. …I hadn’t had access to women of that stature. All the artists I had worked with were men…[but at CalArts] I found women working everywhere. It forced me to take a harder look at myself and what my own history had been.49

It is important to point out, as Carolee Schneemann did in 1991, that there appeared to exist no theoretical framework or interpretive or institutional structure to ground what Knowles and other women and performance artists were doing prior to 1970, “no feminist analysis to redress masculist tradition,” and certainly “no semiotic or anthropological scan of archetypes that could link [women’s] visual images.”50 Given Knowles’s aesthetic of minimally produced events/environments premised on the notion of openness where performers/viewers carry out simple tasks, perhaps the struggle between Knowles and the FAP was less a sense of what was or was not permissible for a woman artist to do, but rather, a matter of taste and preference.51

Despite her direct “access to feminism for the first time,” Knowles’s practice was never explicitly ideologically motivated, nor was it engaged with the more radicalized movements sweeping the United States in the postwar era. But a close reexamination of Knowles’s work reveals how much it did in fact respond in feminist ways to many political and social crises. In other words, while Knowles was not a part of the overtly feminist educational program at CalArts, she was nevertheless actively engaged in its nascent political consciousness. Knowles took great pleasure and satisfaction in the 1970s from her work with women art students. In a letter to her then-ex-husband Dick Higgins, dated August 11, 1974, she wrote: One of the things in my life that is rewarding for me now is my relationships (influence one might say) with young women students I had at CalArts— [Barbara] Bloom and [Lisa] Mikulchik— to see how they live and what they are doing, and that my work and image is very meaningful to them.52

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1969–75. Two structures at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed.

Michael Bell, Meditations at Dawn Event, c. 1971–72, House of Dust, 1969–75. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA. Destroyed. Photographer unknown. © Alison Knowles.

Conclusion

I have been arguing that Knowles expanded the material possibilities of indeterminacy toward a critique of gender as it is experienced spatially. Her projects, 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 collapsing of public and private realms evident in The Big Book and House of Dust 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.

Rather than instigating a radical break (or rupture) with her previous work in Fluxus, in these multimedia projects, Knowles expanded the tropes intrinsic to time-based art practice—movement, memory, duration, information, experience, participation, and perception—and productively joined them in polemics surrounding new ideas about space and subjectivity in the late 1960s. In each instance, the work of artistic practice is characterized by a set of shifting terms and dialectical procedures: immediate and measured, public and private, literal and metaphorical, practical and imaginative, modest and confident, intelligent and humorous. The scale, sensation, texture, and affect of her installations demonstrated how objects perceive and are perceived in that delicate residue of human experience that seeks to make life meaningful.

Knowles’s art practice, then, is one that carefully reexamines art as itself a social relation, an occasion of contingency. It is in these infinitely visual, sonic, and textured contexts that her work reactivates perception at the locus of sensorial experience. Her audience-activated environments, sculptures, objects, and events amplify the semantic range where things can be differenced.

 

Nicole L. Woods is a visiting lecturer of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently working on a book entitled Alison Knowles, Fluxus, and the Enigmatic Work of Postwar Art, and a second project on food in contemporary art practice. This essay is dedicated to the memory of James Woods.

Footnotes

  1. Alison Knowles and Charlie Morrow, “A Dialogue: The House of Dust,” New Wilderness Newsletter 17 (May 1980), 21.
  2. The name FORTRAN is an acronym for FORmula TRANslating System— a computer program invented at IBM (International Business Machines) in 1957 that quickly became a vital structure for the early evolution of compiling technology (now seen in C++ and Java software).
  3. Philip Corner (with Larry Polansky), “Delicate Computations,” Perspectives of New Music, 25.1–2, 25th Anniversary Issue (Winter–Summer 1987), 473.
  4. Knowles has been invited to recite the poem many times. Most recently, in May 2011, she performed “House of Dust” and other works at A Celebration of American Poetry, hosted by the White House (http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=-68Z708lFsY).
  5. A small edition of twenty-one pages of the computer printout, run off by the Siemens 4004 in 1969, was packaged in plastic sheeting with a silkscreen label and published in Cologne by Kaspar König. Now a collector’s item, one edition is located at The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
  6. Hannah Higgins, The Grid Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 249.
  7. For more on Knowles’s early paintings, see the first chapter of my dissertation, Performing Chance: Alison Knowles, Fluxus, and the Enigmatic Work of Art, University of California, Irvine, 2010.
  8. Alison Knowles, “House of Dust History,” typed summary dated 1981, Alison Knowles Studio Archive, New York City.
  9. Michael Kupferschmid, Classical FORTRAN: Programming for Engineering and Scientific Applications (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2002), 15–17.
  10. For detailed information about the House of Dust sculptures, I have relied on archival materials, photographs, a short film, and multiple interviews with the artist.
  11. Alison Knowles, “The House of Dust: A Chronicle,” New Wilderness Newsletter, 17–24. Knowles is careful to note that the “champion” of the project, director Henry Marguiles, had died a week after its arrival, thereby setting off a chain of destructive actions.
  12. This reaction to public art is, of course, not unique to Knowles. For more on the antimonies of public art projects, see Miwon Kwon, “Sitings of Public Art: Integration Versus Intervention,” One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 56–99.
  13. Knowles, “The House of Dust: A Chronicle,” 22.
  14. lison Knowles, interview with the author, December 2007, New York City. The remains were shipped by flatbed truck back to Philadelphia and re-dipped in fiberglass.
  15. The chanced-derived nature of the poem created the possibility of multiple manifestations in physical form (e-mail exchange with Knowles, May 2012).
  16. Knowles, “The House of Dust: A Chronicle,” 17.
  17. Ibid., 18. The House of Dust sculptures were also mentioned in a short Rolling Stone article, dated April 1972, on multimedia artist Dana Atchley, the author/editor of Space-Atlas, Notebook One (1969–71). In 1972, Atchley was an artist-in-residence at California College of the Arts in Oakland, California, where he proposed relocating the sculptures and using the area around Knowles’s “poem-in-progress” for events, installations, and happenings.
  18. Postcard advertising the event addressed to Emmett Williams from Alison Knowles, Jean Brown Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
  19. “Campus Poetry Drop,” photo-caption of the performance, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1971, Times Photos, SF10.
  20. See Hannah Higgins’s “The Media Are the Messages: An Introduction to Alison Knowles’s House of Dust,” in Muse in the Mainframe, ed. Douglas Kahn and Hannah Higgins, forthcoming from the University of California Press. My thanks to Hannah Higgins for sharing her manuscript with me.
  21. Higgins, “The Media Are the Messages,” unpaginated.
  22. Lucy R. Lippard, “Centers and Fragments: Women’s Spaces,” Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, ed. Susana Torre (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1977), 187.
  23. Ibid., 188.
  24. See Miriam Schapiro, “The Education of Women as Artists: Project Womanhouse,” Art Journal 31.3 (Spring 1972), 270.
  25. According to Knowles, she felt alienated from the FAP, Chicago, and Schapiro, as well as some of the female faculty in general, because she was known for “working with men.” Interview with the author, November 2009.
  26. Aviva Rahmani, “Alison Knowles: An Interview,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Susan Bee and Mira Schor (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2000), 364. In the course of the interview, Rahmani tells Knowles of the important mentorship she provided, calling her the “most supportive” of all her teachers at CalArts.
  27. Carolee Schneemann, “The Obscene Body/Politic,” Art Journal 50.4 (Winter 1991), 31.
  28. In chapter two of my dissertation, I discuss this distinction further by detailing how Knowles changed certain performance features of a score written for her by another Fluxus artist, Nam June Paik, in Serenade for Alison (1962–63) by refusing the score’s instruction to undress. Similarly, as Kristine Stiles has noted, Knowles did not participate in another work dedicated to her by Nam June Paik, entitled Chronicle of a Beautiful Princess (1962), which called for “a woman to stain the flags of selected world nations ‘with [her] own monthly blood’ and…expose [herself] in a beautiful gallery.” Knowles shared with George Maciunas certain misgivings about the expressionistic nature of Paik’s pieces and, thus, her objections were on aesthetic grounds, not necessarily moral ones. Alison Knowles, interview with the author, November 2009. See also: Kristine Stiles, “Between Water and Stone, Fluxus Performance: A Metaphysics of Acts,” In the Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1993), 62–99.
  29. Alison Knowles, typed letter to Dick Higgins, 1974. Dick Higgins Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
Further Reading