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by Emily Nathan
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Alison Knowles takes her tuna sandwich without mayonnaise. She also takes it on buttered whole wheat toast with lettuce, and she prefers it to be accompanied by either soup or a glass of buttermilk. "The buttermilk really dates the whole event," she admits.

Knowles, who founded the experimental 1960s group Fluxus with the likes of John Cage, George Maciunas and her husband Dick Higgins, is radiant and humble-as-pie, and she’s having her sandwich -- her famous Identical Lunch -- at a long, sea-foam green table in the Museum of Modern Art’s Café 2. She’s been joined for the occasion by several friends and new acquaintances as part of the museum’s ongoing performance series.

The Identical Lunch, whose origins are found in the mists of the 1960s, consists of consuming that very same meal, usually in company. Supposedly inspired by her friend and fellow Fluxus artist Phillip Corner, who remarked once that Knowles ate the exact same thing for lunch every day, the work initially involved asking people to try the meal with her, often at a local diner, and to write about their experience. This "event score," as Knowles terms it, has been performed again and again, in New York and beyond.

"We were all living together, really," Alison explains, "in a building at 238 West 22nd Street. Dick (Higgins -- with whom she worked at Something Else Press in that same residence) was a busy man, and we frequently had interesting people come through who we wanted to get to know. So I started inviting them to have lunch with me."

For many years, the meal was had at the Riss Diner, now a noodle shop, which was located around the corner from the Chelsea home she shared with her partner and friends. (Corner rented the top floor, and another Fluxian, Ben Patterson, had the third.) "At one point," she continues, between bites, "Corner did his own take on the meal and went through the entire Riss menu. It was really just a forum to talk to people, to learn about one another."

The performance in its various iterations has been documented over the years to some degree -- though Knowles laments a certain intangibility of product, at least financially speaking -- by way of screen-prints and published editions that were composed and compiled by Knowles and Corner. These are objets d’art in and of themselves: gorgeous yellowing booklets that integrate the testimony of attendees throughout the years with reflections on the quality of each meal, the guest-list, and the liveliness of conversation, not to mention photographs of the old diner and even images of receipts.

Towards the end of the meal, Alison declares in her warm, lilting voice -- weakened at the moment by a battle (she is winning!) against pneumonia -- that she will now stage George Maciunas’ version of The Identical Lunch. She excuses herself, gets up from the table, and disappears, but not before announcing Maciunas’ recipe:

"Place the identical lunch in a blender," she says. "Blend until smooth. Drink."

Uh-oh -- there are shudders at the table; everyone looks around.

Suddenly, Knowles re-appears behind the cafe counter, brandishing a Cuisinart and wearing one of those white chef caps sported by burger-flipping boys in films from the ‘50s. In goes an Identical Lunch, in full: one tuna-fish sandwich (lettuce, butter, toast and all) and a cup of buttermilk. We watch, horrified, as the speckled mixture is churned and roiled until it resembles a banana smoothie, and the mischievous Ms. Knowles -- whose smile lights up a room -- decants the gloppy libation into small paper cups, one for each of us.

Without so much as a wince, she takes a sip; we reluctantly follow suit. Ah, the things we do in the name of art. Bon appétit!


Alison Knowles, The Identical Lunch, part of "Performance10: Alison Knowles," Jan.13-Feb.4, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019


EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.