A House of Dust
Köln/New York, Germany/USA: Verlag Gebrüder König, 1967
20 pp., 39 x 31.5 cm.
Edition size unknown
One of the earliest examples of computer generated poetry, A House of Dust grew out of a series of lectures by composer James Tenney that Alison Knowles hosted with her husband Dick Higgins in the Something Else Press Gallery, which was also their living room.
Tenney spoke about FORTRAN, a general purpose computer programming language developed by IBM in the 1950's, to an audience of avant-garde composers (Steve Reich, Joseph Byrd, Max Neuhaus) and artists affiliated with Fluxus (Nam June Paik, Phil Corner, Jackson Mac Low, etc.).
"[John] Cage had a discussion group about Buckminster Fuller, that he invited some of us to and it was at Dick and Alison's place. We would meet once a week, get wildly drunk and talk about Fuller. I then invited some of the friends who had been involved in that group to learn about programming," Tenney told sound art expert Douglas Kahn in Toronto, in 1999.1
"So here was this group of friends of mine, who knew nothing about what I was doing except from hearing the results of it. I thought they might be interested in learning a few things about computer programming and, in fact, they did get interested. Dick and Alison each did a piece. Alison's A House of Dust was a result of that little series of lectures. I helped her in the programming, but she programmed it."
Using a Siemens 4004 computer, the work created stanzas by moving through countless iterations of lines with changing words from a finite vocabulary list. Four word lists were translated into code and randomized. Each of the lists contained terms that describe the attributes of a house: its materials, location, lighting, and inhabitants. For example:
A house of dust
on open ground
lit by natural light
inhabited by friends and enemies
A house of paper
among high mountains
using natural light
inhabited by fishermen and families
A house of plastic
in a metropolis
using natural light
inhabited by people from all walks of life
A house of steel
Among high mountains
Inhabited by people who sleep almost all the time2
"The text has a category for what the house was made of, a category for where it was located, how it was lighted and who was inhabiting it. So here’s a house of dust in a deserted factory using natural light, inhabited by people who enjoy eating together. Here’s a house of roots in Japan, using electricity, inhabited by people who eat a great deal. So, on the house by the sea, using all available light, inhabited by lovers. So, one quatrain is not like the next. How I did this was—I just made lists," Knowles told Chrysanne Stathacos in 2013.
"[I] gave it to Buchhandlung König Verlag there in Cologne and they sent me four feet of poetry. And that’s a man named Kasper König and his brother Walther. They were very helpful. Without them it would never have had the attention that it got as a computer poem."
The work fuses Knowles' interest in the poetics of the everyday, chance operations and score-based work. It is often exhibited as a dot matrix printer, spewing out page after page. The König publication consists of 20 sheets of green and white computer paper, accordion folded and housed in a plastic pouch.
A House of Dust has been re-staged numerous times, including last week at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland, where it was selected by Artsy.net as one of the standout works at the fair:
"In shocking contrast to the busy walls elsewhere, James Fuentes’s booth is almost bare, inhabited only by a Dot Matrix printer in the center of the space that, as if by magic, spits out a line of poetry onto perforated paper every five seconds. This generative project by Fluxus artist Alison Knowles (who made a splash at Art Basel in Basel’s 2016 edition with a performance of her 1962 work Making A Salad) is one of the earliest computerized poems. Each stanza consists of “a house of” followed by a randomized sequence of materials, situations, or group of inhabitants. It’s a landmark work in algorithmic text production, an area that has had a huge impact in both the art world and our everyday lives—the chance of coincidence meeting technology’s determinism.
The odds of the poem being repeated are very, very slim, according to the gallery representative I spoke to, who had been adjusting the speed of printing to suit the mood of the fair. “I slowed it down to every 45 seconds this afternoon,” the representative said on Tuesday. “I thought the machine needed a little rest.”"
1. Tenney was teaching at York University at the time. Kahn was a former student, from Tenney's time at CalArts. Tenney is best known in the art world for his collaborations: he performed alongside Michael Snow, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman in Steve Reich's Pendulum Music on May 27, 1969, at the Whitney Museum of American Art; he has performed with Harry Partch, John Cage, Philip Glass, and Carolee Schneemann (in her 1965 silent film of their lovemaking, titled Fuses). Tenney died in 2006 of lung cancer.
2. Nick Montfort, a poet and professor at MIT, has created an approximation of the program, here.