If the sounds of paper could be recorded as language, how would it be written? How would you organize the sounds to create heartfelt poetry? Could you sculpt a paper figure? And if it could move, would its gestures be graceful or agitated, stiff or expressive? Curiosities about the living energy of everyday objects have long intrigued New York–based artist Alison Knowles (b. 1933). An early member of the Fluxus movement, Knowles’s artistic approach remains impacted by the experimental values of the post-War avant-garde group; particularly its attention to music, performance, and ready-made objects. Uniquely, Knowles has been the only Fluxus artist to explore the performative and acoustic possibilities of handmade paper.1 Beginning in the 1980s with human-scale, interactive pages, which by the 1990s developed into stand-alone paper instruments, Knowles merged the technical and intricate process of papermaking with the chance-driven, art-meets-life motivations of Fluxus. Through her handmade-paper sound sculptures, Knowles has not only opened the movement to new material, but also augmented that material’s multisensory characteristics by applying Fluxus principles.
Knowles has always questioned how artwork is defined and where dividing lines between art and life, visual and aural, observation and participation blur. Her oeuvre is not medium-specific. Although trained in painting, she is most often credited with printmaking and celebrated for her Fluxus performances. Paper is just one other realm for exploration and experimentation. Knowles specifically recalls her stay in a Japanese paper factory in 1975 as the first moment she considered paper’s capacity for sound making. The factory made robes for Kabuki theater and Knowles would listen to the workers “wrinkling and crinkling the paper, creating a steady whooshing sound…. These women didn’t know that they were making my kind of music. I began dreaming of instruments in paper.”2
Knowles earnestly intended not to master the technique of papermaking but rather push the material to new acoustic limits. Over the years she has worked with numerous esteemed papermakers to realize these ideas, marrying their technical prowess with her endlessly generative curiosity. Coco Gordon was the first papermaker to work with Knowles. Together they created one of her most important performance works, Loose Pages (1983). Eugénie Barron has been Knowles’s most consistent collaborator. Having first met in 1993 in Barrytown in upstate New York, they maintained a working partnership for some twenty years, including time spent together at Women’s Studio Workshop’s ArtFarm. Makers Paul Wong, Helmut Becker, Amanda Degener, and studios Dieu Donné, Carriage House, and Twinrocker, among others, also played a part in Knowles’s decades-long journey of testing new forms, methods, and potentials. As Knowles did not adhere to the standard rules and technicalities of papermaking, there was no singular or regulated way that she approached the process. However, she knew what she wanted and relied on papermakers to translate her ideas into something achievable. It was a partnership of strengths. “The day I walked into the studio to see Alison kicking a huge, beautiful sheet of handmade linen paper around on the floor, just to see what sort of sounds it made, I had to be willing to abandon my attachment to archival handling,” states Barron. “For her it was simply a new way of relating to the paper, to see what it could do.”3
Paper’s aural qualities were prioritized above all others. Knowles waited until a new sheet was finished and tested before determining whether it was “good.” She regularly used linen, hemp, abaca, and flax pulp. Flax was a particular favorite as Knowles describes it as “a real sound instrument. It really creaks and crackles.”4 Papermaker Paul Wong states that the variance in sound quality is due to surface texture. For instance, as flax is “a rougher, rawer fiber” and abaca can produce “a smooth, translucent sheet,” Wong explains that “the flax can have a higher pitched register than the abaca due to the sharp bumpy contour of its surface.”5 Barron similarly details that the pulp was long beaten for high shrinkage, translucency, and strength in order to ensure the sheet had “a good rattle when sounded.”6
While the scale of the works were always limited to what was manageable for Knowles to independently handle in performance (the largest being a bean turner made with Amanda Degener that roughly measures 3 x 7 feet), pulp was either poured or pulled in a vat. And, if the size extended beyond the capabilities of a press, weight and exchange blotters would be used, especially for heavily embedded work.7 Knowles opted for air drying so the material could curl and form on its own accord. Papers were naturally dyed or pigmented, and adhesives (i.e., methyl cellulose) were used if necessary. Occasionally Knowles employed a soft fiber, such as cotton, to create unique objects for performances, but overall she wanted hard, durable, vellum-like papers that created distinctive sounds while also withstanding travel, time, and handling.
To make her own mark in the process, Knowles incorporated unconventional elements. Lentils were freely tossed into the poured sheet to inflect color and texture; beans were dropped into cavities created from two sheets couched (laminated) together; and found objects were nestled within her wall pieces. Each of these elements involved their own technical demands. Beans, for example, would be baked for three hours, then frozen before being added so as not to sprout over time. “I learned that the hard way,” Knowles quips.8 But as a practice, these additions were enacted as an extension of her long-standing interest in the presence of chance and life in art, a value nurtured by Fluxus. A movement and term coined by George Maciunas in 1961,9 Fluxus gathered a collective of artists working primarily in performance and music that upheld an avant-garde perspective on the interrelatedness of art making, life, and socio-cultural experiences. Similar to groups of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism—Fluxus questioned the value and definition of art.10 Marcel Duchamp’s “the ready-made” was a critical point of influence for Fluxus artists. They perpetuated that it was not the physical object but our understanding and relation to it that necessitated experimentation and discovery. Fluxus artists interrogated the “affective presence” of objects, a term discussed by anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong. He describes how as we acknowledge an object as being “art,” its position shifts to a dual state of being both subject and object. Our behavior towards it shifts even as we see the object as an extension of a person.11 This can be understood in the care and respect afforded objects like paintings, instruments, or statues. Some Fluxus artists challenged this assigned value by, in the case of Nam June Paik’s One for Violin Solo (1962), destroying the “precious” object of our attention. Others, like Knowles, rather attributed “affective presence” to objects we might otherwise look past, such as paper, shoes, or beans.
Performance and the insertion of the body helped to reframe such everyday materials. Examining how a body engages with an object challenges the divide between subject and object. “Together subject and object create a changing and interrelated perceptual field for the investigation between actions, language, objects, and sounds,” details performance scholar Kristine Stiles.12 This nuance of the performer’s presence invited play and a relinquishing of control that included allowing viewers a role within the artwork beyond passive observation. As Marcel Duchamp stated, any “creative act” is incomplete until there is the presence and participation of “the spectator.”13 Thus, Fluxus did not stand by the traditional concept that art was observed through “a controlled gaze of single-point perspective.”14 Instead they shifted towards an experiential model of vision that incorporated sensation and emphasized the conflation of subject and object. This was accomplished through “ontological thinking,” a term conceived by philosopher David Kleinberg-Levin. This defines a viewer’s engagement as dependent on your whole being and experienced as multisensory.15 By framing performance and objects through the incorporation of the body, the perception and observation of Fluxus works become reliant on a viewer’s body and their ability to understand the art through this shared framework. Knowles fully embraced Fluxus philosophy in her handmade paper by reframing familiar materials into something wondrous through sound, performance, and utilizing the human body to offer a multisensorial relationship. Two sound sculptures especially capture her approach. Bean turners (often been described as similar to Mayan rain sticks) have beans added into the hollow of two handmade sheets couched together. Knowles handles the object, causing the beans to fall against the rugged casing and create sounds. Often held at the sides, Knowles will gently turn the instrument on a vertical axis. Her style ranges from vigorously shaking the sculpture, producing a near-deafening wave, to patiently waiting for each single bean to plip-plop down along the uneven paper texture at its own pace.16 “There wasn’t a preciousness to the paper itself particularly,” describes Barron. “[but] there was a preciousness…, a sense of wonder or curiosity...in how you interacted with something rather than what its purpose was.”17
Each bean turner is unique in appearance, “different members of a strange species,”18 and the sounds are irreproducible. While the materials are common, the performed instruments are complex with as much “affective presence” as a piano, violin, or clarinet. At times they are just one of many in a paper instrument orchestra of four or five performers. Other times, the sound is background to Knowles’s voice as she describes the weather, reads from her diary, or recites poetry. And other times still, Knowles has more significantly regarded the bean turner as a body with its own voice, even publishing a book of poems, Plah plah pli plah (2009),
as heard through the sculpture’s produced sounds. Knowles’s daughter and fellow performance artist, Jessica Higgins, recounts how “in making these [bean turners], she really takes into consideration the taking art and putting it into motion and making sound. It’s part of the intermedia of it.”19
Loose Pages most fully captures the essence of how Knowles brings together handmade paper and Fluxus. Related to her interest in books, the performance of this work transforms the human figure into the spine of a book with loose “pages” placed over each limb. Before a seated audience, Knowles enters the stage with a portfolio of folded up, handmade pages. After identifying a participant, often Higgins, Knowles proceeds by retrieving various pages from the portfolio and situating them onto the body—arm flaps, shoes, leg flaps, a hat. Gradually, the body as subject, an identifiable person, dissolves into a sculpted object formed from paper.20 As the voluntary figure, there is a “sense of surrender,” Higgins describes, as Knowles “[i]s literally sculpting with me....I had to see in another way and I had to trust.”21
After dressing the volunteer, Knowles manipulates the arms and legs to sound various parts. Sometimes she reads aloud the paper ingredients or excerpts from Alice in Wonderland. Each detail is a calculated aspect and enables all present to participate beyond the passive role of observer. “The thinner papers would really “creakle” and crack so that I usually used them for the hats and for the ear sounds for the person I was dressing,” Knowles explains.22 And then, with a great sense of care, Knowles would move the feet of the dressed figure to exit the stage and pass by the audience. This invited viewers not only to hear up close the wondrous, scraping sounds of paper, but also to “really take a good look at this clothed figure all in paper.... It was meaningful for people to see the person very close with these papers on, close enough to reach out and touch.”23 The work could therefore be understood by an audience member not only through sight, but also sound, touch, and the observed comprehension of what it means to perform paper. It is Knowles’s holistic presentation that illuminates paper’s multisensorial presence, transforming it beyond unidirectional, passive viewing.
Although not a papermaker by trade, Knowles’s creative inquiry into the process of hand papermaking exceeded expectations for what the material could achieve. “She was an innovator,” declares Barron, “and expanded on its potential.”24 As with the expanse of her practice, Knowles’s decades-long interest in handmade paper was motivated by a desire to explore something new about something ubiquitous. Through performative activation, a multisensory approach, and a genuine devotion to celebrating the everyday, Knowles’s paper sound sculptures open up viewers to reimagining how to encounter paper in our own lives. Even as the maker, Knowles concludes that “I think the main thing I’ve discovered about paper...is that...you get something which you could never predict.”25
1. John Cage was a Fluxus artist who expanded the visual to touch and taste in his three series of handmade paper editions: Edible Drawings (1989), Wild Edible Drawings (1990), and Medicine Drawings (1991). See Bernie Toale, “The Edible Drawings of John Cage,” Hand Papermaking, vol. 7, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 22–23.
2. Eugénie Barron, “Headflaps and Bean Turners,” Hand Papermaking, vol. 17, no. 1 (Summer 2002): 3.
3. Alison Knowles, quoted in Beth Wilson, “Alison Knowles,” Seed to Sheet: The Women’s Studio Workshop’s ArtFarm Project (Kingston, NY: Women’s Studio Workshop, Inc., 2004), 14.
4. Alison Knowles, interview by the author, May 25, 2019, New York, NY.
5. Paul Wong, email message to the author, August 4, 2019.
6. Eugénie Barron, email message to the author, August 4, 2019.
8. Alison Knowles, interview.
9. Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss, In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 26.
10. Ibid., 30.
11. Ibid., 85.
12. Kristine Stiles, quoted in Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 25–26.
13. Armstrong and Rothfuss, 67.
14. Higgins, Fluxus Experience, 12.
15. Ibid., 38.
16. A video of Alison Knowles demonstrating a bean turner (July 31, 2016) is available online, https://www.instagram.com/p/BIifVINjFU_/ (accessed January 16, 2020).
17. Eugénie Barron, phone interview with the author, July 25, 2019.
18. Alison Knowles, Plah plah pli plah (Chicago: Sara Ranchouse Publishing, 2009), 1.
19. Jessica Higgins, interview by the author, May 25, 2019, New York, NY.
20. A 2011 performance of Loose Pages (1983), presented by Other Minds, is available online, https://vimeo.com/233042589 (accessed January 8, 2020). For a 2011 performance of Loose Pages, presented by Artist Organized Art, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE2CB6gMWiY (accessed January 8, 2020).
21. Higgins, interview.
22. Knowles, interview.
24. Barron, phone interview.
25. Alison Knowles, quoted in Julia Robinson, “The Sculpture of Indeterminacy: Alison Knowles’s Beans and Variations,” Art Journal 63, no. 4 (2004): 113.