“I think the main value of this work is to transform our daily actions into art actions and thereby transform both. Fluxus uses found things and daily utilitarian things like spoons, apples, and a ladder. The importance is to put a focus on the ordinary activities of our lives in contrast to the huge spectacle art pieces we often see in museums and galleries, which is part of the drive to commodify art. Fluxus has just a different value system.” — Alison Knowles, interview in Brooklyn Rail
Signal-Return is a newly opened book arts/letterpress and artist co-op space in Detroit. A recently created exhibit there displays multiples and original works by the multifaceted Fluxus artist and teacher Alison Knowles.The Detroit Journal online includes a photo essay series of Alison Knowles “Loose Pages” performed live at the opening in the Signal-Return space. “Loose Pages” is a human-scale sound, body and paper piece she’s performed in various venues around the world.
Knowles works are simple, minimalist, “inter-media” and poetic. Using soft handmade papers, performance, Japanese screens, flags, torn papers, fabric, seeds, instructional directions and Fluxus boxes, Knowles is an inventive master, bending apart, opening up and re-framing how art functions and is defined. Her works can be small as a bean or epic in scale. They each still resonate as revolutionary artworks that contain elements of indeterminacy, humor and chance (through John Cage) and call into question the definition and blurred boundaries between art and life.
Knowles along with her husband Dick Higgins, were among the first practitioners of Fluxus, a community-wide 1960s anti-materialist art movement founded by George Maciunas (1931-1978). “..to promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY, to be fully grasped by all people…” –George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963
“I can’t mention Cage clearly enough in terms of his influence. Maciunas, for me, falls into a space of almost being used by these concepts, balancing them out with his own absurdities, clown-like ways, and interesting personality.” –Alison Knowles (Ruud Jansson interview, 2007)
Knowles and her husband Dick Higgins founded the landmark Something Else Press, an experimental artist-run press which helped spread conceptual art, performance art, Fluxus and documented almost the entire historical avant-garde with texts written by the artists’ themselves. The press’s influence in fields of contemporary music, performance and visual art cannot be overstated. In one interview Knowles said, “I feel that the Something Else Press was European based. We published so many poets from Europe. Fluxus tours and The Big Book ended up in Europe. The impact of the work was not immediately felt in the United States.”
A good selection of Something Else Press books, Fluxus histories and some of Knowles’ own Great Bear pamphlets (a series within Something Else) are on face-out display. The 1965 inaugural pamphlet in the Great Bear series, printed 17 proposals for Fluxus actions by Knowles. It included instructions for some of her earliest works like #1 Shuffle (1961): “The performer or performers shuffle into the performance area and away from it, above, behind, around, or through the audience. They perform as a group or solo: but quietly.” Proposition 1962: “Make a Salad” or #2a Variation #1 on Proposition (1964) “Make a soup.”
Many uniquely eccentric works are shown, including some beautiful large paper banner instructional paintings for a music/dance performance and several one-of-a-kind Emily Dickinson looking poem-dresses are seen mounted against the bare-brick walls, giving them a mysterious floating presentation and impact. Many works are simply laid out on long tables with some of the more fragile objects and older works kept in vitrines or pressed under glass. Knowles herself directed the layout. The variety of different displays creates an excitement of discovery and enchantment within the space. Its a rare thing to experience book arts and fine-printing done well and Signal-Return has done justice to the spirit of Fluxus. Bravo. The exhibition continues through March 31st.
The mission of Signal-Return states, “Our overarching goal is to create a hive for dynamic visual production… The collaborative spirit of Signal–Return will motivate participants to stretch their reach, as they expand their toolkits, vocabularies and means of production.” Its a valuable and welcomed workspace and creative exhibition area for artists and the city. There are ongoing workshops, classes, weekend dinner-salons where people make their own books and community outreach projects where the gallery presents films, archives and artworks in a friendly bright and buzzing space.
Signal-Return stocks a small curated selection of hand-made books and zines with an emphasis on those locally made. They also produce handmade letterpress invitations and posters for private and commercial events. Signal-Return is located at 1345 Division Street just off Russell in the Eastern Market area of Detroit. Their winter hours are Thursday–Saturday: 11AM–6PM.
Alison Knowles is interviewed and discusses her Marcel Duchamp print “The Coeurs Volant”: