Meet The Female Artist Who Programmed A Computer To Make A House In The 1960s

Meet The Female Artist Who Programmed A Computer To Make A House In The 1960s

From the Guggenheim Museum to the Seagram Building, Manhattan had a longstanding reputation as an island of avant-garde architecture when Alison Knowles first built the House of Dust in Chelsea. Erected in 1967 and standing for less than a year, her structure is almost unknown today, yet it was more radical than anything ever conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Technically the house was not designed by Knowles. Rather it was generated by a computer, using the Fortran programming language to describe hypothetical architecture by randomly selecting attributes from a list that Knowles supplied to her collaborator, the computer music pioneer James Tenney. The software generated hundreds of permutations, output in the form of a poem. Knowles selected the following quatrain: “A House of Plastic / In a Metropolis / Using Natural Light / Inhabited by People from all Walks of Life.”

A founder of Fluxus, and one of the few Fluxus artists still alive today, Knowles has only recently begun to receive attention for her work at a level that collaborators such as George Brecht have enjoyed for decades. This month the recognition reaches a climax with an expansive retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). There are many revelations, including silkscreen paintings executed before Andy Warhol started using the technique. But her most significant work remains the House of Dust.

Knowles’s ‘60s architecture was innovative for the technology she used, yet what was most groundbreaking was the way in which she treated the built environment performatively. Before she made her house, she engaged in the Fluxus practice of creating event scores, simple instructions for instantiating a work of art. The instructions were typically simple enough for anyone to follow, a tactic by which the creative act was demystified. For instance, Knowles composed a score reading simply “make a salad”. The score has been performed countless times since 1962, when she first staged the work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

In a way, the House of Dust was an event score that Knowles composed for a computer performing random operations. From another perspective, it was a set of event scores composed by the computer and performed by Knowles through the act of construction. But Knowles did not see the house she built as static. On the contrary, the house was an event score in its own right, to be performed by the people inhabiting it.

The full realization of the event had to wait until Knowles moved from New York to Southern California where she took a teaching position at the California Institute of the Arts. There she decided to perform another of the architectural permutations, building her house “On Open Ground / Lit by Natural Light / Inhabited by Friends and Enemies”. The house became a space where she held classes and meditation sessions, and where artists and composers responded to the structure with events of their own composition. More broadly, the House of Dust served as an open score inviting variations on the art of living.

The idea that architecture scores the behavior of inhabitants had antecedents in Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist houses, the design of which was guided in part by the way he envisioned future activities of his clients. And the German Bauhaus advocated behavioral research on a more formal level, especially in the buildings designed by Hannes Meyer, who directed the Bauhaus before Mies van der Rohe.

But Knowles offered something more dynamic. From the standpoint of professional architectural practice, the closest equivalent was a methodology developed by Lawrence and Anna Halprin in San Francisco in the same period that Knowles was teaching in Valencia. Anna was a choreographer whose work included composition of Fluxus event scores. Lawrence was the architect of innovative developments such as Sea Ranch. Together in the late ‘60s, they developed an approach for communities to score their own urban infrastructure by performing a series of loosely-orchestrated actions in open spaces. The outcome was meant to guide planners and builders.

The Halprins’ collaborative work ultimately held more sway over artists than architects, especially through the publication of a book titled The RSVP Cycles. The influence on dance, for instance, has been profound.

Perhaps because it was never formalized as a methodology, or translated into a meta-score for intermedial practice, Knowles’s remarkable approach to art and life has had less discernable impact. As her House of Dust is excavated to be inhabited by a new generation, and her ways of working are elucidated by art historians, her all-encompassing mode of interactivity cries out to be applied in surprising new ways.

It’s easy enough to get started. Just make a salad.

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