Alison Knowles, James Tenney and the House of Dust at CalArts

'Friends' gather inside the House of Dust for a screening, c. 1971

‘Friends’ gather inside the House of Dust for a screening, c. 1971

In the first few years of its existence CalArts’ faculty included some of the key figures from the Fluxus and happenings circles, including Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, James Tenney and Emmett Williams, among others. These founding faculty members, and particularly their interest in intermedia and interdisciplinarity, continue to influence CalArts’ identity today.

An example of the groundbreaking and unclassifiable work of this group that had a connection to CalArts is Alison Knowles’ computer-generated poem and sculpture House of Dust, created in association with James Tenney. The work had its beginnings at an informal Fluxus seminar in 1967 in which Tenney, who had been a composer-in-residence at Bell Labs in the early ’60s, demonstrated how the Fortran programming language could be employed in chance operations in artmaking. Knowles’ contribution to the session was a poem of the following structure:

a house of (list material) (list location) (list light source) (list inhabitants)

in which combinations of the variables were randomly generated. It’s generally considered to be the first computer-generated poem. Published in 1968, it led to a Guggenheim Fellowship for Knowles. She then embarked on the creation of a large interactive public sculpture and sound installation inspired by one quatrain of the poem (“a house of dust, on open ground, lit by natural light, inhabited by friends and enemies”), in which electronic sensors would control sound equipment in response to varying light levels.

“Inhabited by friends and enemies” would turn out to be prophetic. The sculpture was briefly installed on the lawn of New York’s Penn South housing co-op, but it generated opposition from residents and was ultimately set on fire by an arsonist, a surprisingly violent expression of hostility toward a work of public art. In 1970 Knowles brought the reconstructed House of Dust with her to CalArts, which proved to be a much friendlier environment. Installed on campus, it became the site of many performances in the early ’70s including a sound installation by Max Neuhaus.

House of Dust

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