Fifty years later, CalArts revisits ‘House of Dust’

CalArts students and faculty are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the conceptual “House of Dust” project by building a new house inspired by a computer-generated poem.

The California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, is looking back at a conceptual art project that brought the campus together and set the groundwork for what the school would come to embody: an open-minded, cross-disciplinary approach to creativity.

Fluxus artist Alison Knowles created a “House of Dust” inspired by one of the first computer-generated poems. The house was “activated” by performances and other projects at CalArts that reflected the political, social and intellectual movements of the time.

Now a group of students and faculty have built a new “House of Glass” inspired by the same poem, that also reflects today’s concerns.

Knowles and fellow Fluxus associate James Tenney (a former composer-in-residence at Bell Labs, and later a CalArts music faculty member) generated the poem using the Fortran IV computer programming language in 1967. Each quatrain of the poem resulted from a random selection taken from lists of language Knowles compiled – indicating a type of house, a material, a site or situation, a light source, and a category of inhabitants.

The stanza that was chosen reads:

A HOUSE OF DUST
ON OPEN GROUND
LIT BY NATURAL LIGHT
INHABITED BY FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

“And then, this poem is translated into an architecture,” said Sébastien Pluot, a Paris-based art historian and curator and co-director with Maud Jacquin of Art by Translation.

The sculpture was made out of fiberglass and covered with a thin layer of plaster. It was built by an architect in New York and briefly installed on the lawn of the Penn South housing co-op, but residents didn’t want the public art there and someone even set it on fire.

Alison Knowles, House of Dust, 1967-70. Installation, mixed media. All images courtesy of Alison Knowles.

When Knowles came to CalArts, she insisted the “House of Dust” come with her. It was put on a truck and brought to a temporary campus at the Villa Cabrini, a former Catholic girls’ school in Burbank, where CalArts was first located, and then brought by helicopter to its permanent campus in the northern LA suburb of Valencia.

“This was part of Alison’s original conception, was that the house would move to different spots, and engage different communities, and have different activations,” said Janet Sarbanes, who teaches in the MA Aesthetics and Politics Program at CalArts.

Sarbanes interviewed Knowles in 2011 about the project and her intentions in creating “House of Dust.”

“She stressed how open, in a sense, the learning experience was here in ’70, ’71, when she came,” Sarbanes said. “There was no set curriculum, there was no grades, there were experience reports. There wasn’t even a set timetable to graduation. In the beginning CalArts was an experiment in how to do a school, that was something more than a school, that was a community of artists.”

Pluot and Jacquin collaborated with Sarbanes and artist and faculty member Ken Ehrlich to reactivate the “House of Dust” project at CalArts.

“We want to really gather a lot of material and reconstitute this history, and also open it to today’s proposals, to artists, architects and students,” Pluot said.

Unlike a linguistic translation that attempts to replicate the meaning of an idea from one language to another, Pluot sees “House of Dust” as a series of abstract translations: from computer algorithm to poem to architecture, and then to sound and light installations.

“It leaves space for interpretation. It leaves space for various fields of imagination,” he said.

When “House of Dust” was first created, architecture was becoming standardized and industrialized, Pluot said.

“It was happening at a time when architecture was rationalized to its extreme… to a point where people felt the need to open that and consider that architecture could be something completely different,” he said.

In a sense “House of Dust” was a response to the rationalist architecture of CalArts itself, Sarbanes said, which Knowles and others jokingly called the Dow Chemical Center.

By bringing the curved, bulbous “House of Dust” to the campus, Knowles wanted to create an alternative to the “rectilinearity” of the CalArts building. “One architectural critic referred to the building as Hotel Modernism,” Sarbanes said.

“House of Dust” became a site for art installations and performances throughout the early ’70s. In one of the initial activations, Knowles organized a “poetry drop” in which a helicopter dropped four-foot printouts of the computer-generated poem onto the house.

“It was reminiscent of that time of the Vietnam War, and the distribution of propaganda fliers from helicopters,” Sarbanes said.

Alison Knowles, Poem Drop over the House of Dust, 1967.

CalArts students are marking the anniversary of the “House of Dust” project by building a new house. They’ve constructed a “House of Glass” in an inner courtyard. It’s inspired by this stanza of the original poem:

A HOUSE OF GLASS

ON AN ISLAND

USING ALL AVAILABLE LIGHT

INHABITED BY COLLECTORS OF ALL TYPES

In a sign of the cross-disciplinary approach of CalArts, the Winter Session workshop, taught by Sarbanes, Jacquin, Pluot and Ehrlich (who has overseen much of the building process), includes students from throughout the institute, including programs in visual arts, aesthetics and politics, music, experimental animation, and dance.

“To see them having conversations is really interesting, and this act of building can bring them together,” Sarbanes said.

Knowles has continued to be part of the “House of Dust” story. She read from the poem at the White House in 2011:

And she was consulted on the new “House of Glass” as students workshopped the idea.

Reframing The House of Dust: Activations, a day of performances in the newly-constructed “House of Glass” on the CalArts campus, will be held on Friday, March 23 from 3 to 8 pm.

Current faculty, students and guest artists will perform pieces scored or inspired by Knowles and other Fluxus artists who once taught at CalArts. Knowles herself will participate in performances of her iconic scores “Newspaper Music” and “Make a Salad.”

Reframing the House of Dust: A Symposium will be held at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, March 24 from 10 am to 6 pm.

Presenters at the symposium will consider questions of radical pedagogy (both Fluxus and feminist), participatory ecology, and cross-pollinations among poetry, architecture and early cybernetics.