the big book

The Big Book
Art in America, Summer 1968
Bill Wilson
Photographs by Peter Moore


Constructed of fantasy and plastics, of metaphor and familiar housewares, this creation is an abode for body and spirit – as well as a witty paradigm of our changing society.


The Big Book is an eight-foot-tall construction by Alison Knowles which has a front cover and several pages, and contains a stove, telephone, chemical toilet, art gallery, electric fan, books and other necessities of life. Alison Knowles has built the Book as a work of art to be lived in, physically and mentally, a place to contemplate useful and changing relationships.

Alison Knowles was born in New York City in 1933, and studied at Middlebury College, Pratt Institute, and the Manhattan School of Printing. Her work with silk screen, direct photographic emulsion and chemical transfers on canvas was extended in 1961–62 to environmental works. Since then she has been active in the Fluxus Movement, and has directed and performed in happenings, published a catalogue of her texts for performance, a T dictionary (in Four Suits), and has built and exhibited The Big Book in New York, Toronto and Chicago. She will travel with The Big Book to the Frankfurt Bookfair this October and deposit it, though perhaps not permanently, in a park in Copenhagen after the fair.

The cover of The Big Book presents a circular hole surrounded by lights, and this hole is the illuminating entrance. The act of entering requires some unbending, some yielding of the body, as a preface to other yieldings of mind or spirit. The cover is likely to move as one enters it, revealing then and there that the Book cannot be used without being modified and without modifying the user. The process of reciprocal modification is one of the themes of the Book: book and reader alter each other.

On the back of the front cover is an assemblage of wrappings and other trash accumulated in making the Book, neatly solving the problem of how to use what has apparently been destroyed in the process of making something, and also suggesting that one theme of the Book will be the story of its own construction. This theme is developed by a tape recording of some of the sounds of constructing the Book, which is in a state of continuous destruction and construction anyway.

The next page is of transparent vinyl with a large hole burned through it and images screened on it. The vinyl has qualities that the Book is trying to define: it is solid, but it gives; it is burnable enough for the hole to be made, yet it bears up under that destruction and is more useful for it. As Alison Knowles said, “One of the nice things about these plastics and about water itself is that even as a rigid form, like ice, or vinyl, you can see through it, and yet you can hold on to it.” This page of burned vinyl offers the reader a passageway to the next page through the qualities of clairity, hardness, flexibility and durability – an ability to yield to destruction in a way that renders it constructive.

The entrance through the burned vinyl is like the trial by fire which the vinyl has survived, and such successful passage through such a trial would, at least in literature, be rewarded. Here the reward is a delightful page of artificial grass and mirror vinyl. Grass and water are on the vertical, with a hole at floor level leading into a tunnel. This upended leaf of grass is frankly artificial, with natural forms (grass, water) imposed on synthetic materials. The result is mock-representational art, calling attention to the representation without damaging the illusion. We see plastic and vinyl, and know that they represent grass and water. Thus The Big Book pursues an artifice without pretense.

Under these circumstances, the grass-lined tunnel is a metaphor for many experiences. One of those experiences is the descent which is not a descent at all, for the tunnel is a pretended descent, an actual horizontal progress, and then a pretended ascent, for one emerges in the apartment. This page is modeled on Manhattan loft-living in the late 1950s: the style is the the domestic unpretentious, everything arranged for informal use. The teakettle, the aspirin, the stove, stool and cans of soup are themselves and cannot be falsified. The reader can make a telephone call, eat, sleep or use the toilet, but with a compression that makes the acts, however genuine, something of an imitation of life. While life in the apartment is unpretentious, the compressed scale delineates every domestic activity with so much care and awareness that it achieves the radiance of ritual. This matter-of-fact world is tinged with artifice, and the apparent descent into the domestic is progress along a continuum, for the apartment is on a level with everything else.

One exit from the apartment is through the window into the next page, where a ladder offers a means of ascent. The ladder is exactly what it seems to be, but it stands on easters between two pages which are themselves on wheels, so the pages can roll one way while the ladder rolls another. Elevation by means of the ladder requires acceptance of these changing relationships, this shifting balance. The ladder is an accurate and unsentimental image of the conditions which must be accepted in order to mound any heights, whether they are erotic, esthetic or ethical.

The Big Book is a way of thinking, not with concepts, but with things, words and images, about relation and about change. Alison Knowles demonstrates in her work that to relate to something is to change it; to change something is to relate to it. If something is inert and unrelated, she introduces it to change; and if something is dissipated in changes, she catches it in relationships. Changing is so much her way of relating that finally the two concepts coincide: relating is changing.

Such change implies use, and use entails destruction, but this destruction can be controlled by the mutual respect necessary for a relation. So the vinyl is burned in a way that respects its properties, that makes it useful and that reveals its strength. The most that Alison Knowles will demand in good conduct at her events, in The Big Book, or in children’s play, is that “nobody gets hurt.” She doesn’t care if people read The Big Book from the front, the back or the side. This reversibility, in structure, and this flexibility, in materials, are parallels of the flexibility, resilience and freedom of a mind that does not seek to impose relations on people or on things, but to find the relation of reciprocal unity and respect.

The test of utility in The Big Book is possibility; what increases possibility and makes more combinations works, while what diminishes possibility or novel combinations does not work. The giving of the materials is a clue to the giving of spirit demonstrated by the Book, wherein people and things yield to the presence of other people and things with care and respect for their possibilities. So in the apartment the necessary routines of life that must be repeated every day have the feeling of ritual, not because it is necessary to do them, but because it is possible to do them, every day. I have described the beginning of The Big Book, but I cannot describe the end, because it is a potentially endless structure. When a story keeps possibilities open and relationships changing, there is no conclusion, and the hero who survives such a story must be supple, resourceful and durable. The reader can participate in these qualities by using this massive book of changes, The Big Book by Alison Knowles.

Bill Wilson who teaches in the City University of New York, is at work on a long study of “energy in terms of art.”

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