They say in theater that timing is everything. It is the key to successful delivery–the difference between a joke that lands effortlessly and one that falls flat. Timing shapes our experience as an audience by creating momentum onstage, plotting out a rhythm as scenes unfold from one to the next. During moments of stillness, time feels attenuated. We can sit contemplatively as our thoughts range freely through images associated with what we see onstage.
Years ago, Christopher Knowles’s longtime collaborator, the theater director Robert Wilson, told me casually–over lunch–that he thought Christopher always knew exactly how long to do things. At that time, I was just beginning to work with Knowles as a dramaturg on his solo performance The Sundance Kid is Beautiful with Christopher Knowles, directed by Noah Khoshbin. Wilson’s comment stayed with me as I watched Knowles expertly shape time through movement and stillness throughout his performance. The Sundance Kid is Beautiful with Christopher Knowles was developed over a series of residencies and public showings from 2012-2015. In the work, Knowles moves through an installation of his own design–speaking old and new poetry, playing audio tape recordings of his voice presented in signature cut-up form, and dancing to popular music from the 1970s, which serves as reference material for much of his work. The performance functions as a kind of moving retrospective that carefully brings together myriad aspects of Knowles’s artistic practice in a live setting. It also presents his work as a function of temporality.
Performance, of course, occurs in time; but Knowles’s particular focus on marking time draws attention to the way that it creates patterns. There is a moment in the middle of the performance where he approaches the edge of the stage and stops to look upward. He stands in this position for several moments, his face calm and expectant. He raises his arm toward his face to look at his watch and slowly brings it back to his side. The lights are bright and we hear the faint sound of birds. We watch Knowles looking at the sky, noting the time, and waiting. It is unclear what he is waiting for. Is he timing the movements of clouds, waiting for a storm, or for a bomb? Finally, after several long moments, the sound of a plane passing overhead fills the space. After it leaves, he turns and walks toward the back of the stage. At each distinct moment in this sequence, Knowles takes his time. His movements are slow and deliberate. Each pause throughout the sequence is long enough for us to see the image of his body within the landscape of the set. His stillness renders these gestures concrete. They accumulate over time, measuring its passage in embodied terms.
Knowles’s interest in the depiction of temporal measurement is characteristic of his activities both on and offstage. Paintings and typings of clocks and watches abound. So do references to the marks of time: dates, years, days of the week, times of day, birthdays, and even phases of the moon are noted in oral and written narratives. Typed lists of songs on the Billboard pop charts create aural snapshots of particular days in the 1960s and 1970s. These references to specific moments often become layered in performance, when Knowles moves back and forth between speaking live and playing recorded text.
Knowles accesses memory by manipulating temporal signifiers. In 2019, Knowles performed a short work at the Center for Performance Research that I organized in Brooklyn titled Recent Poems. Onstage, he played tracks from his vinyl record The Typing Poems, which was recorded live during a poetry reading he gave at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York on March 22, 2015 in conjunction with his exhibition 12 Large Typings. In Recent Poems, he walks back and forth between a chair and a record player, playing to a track of his recorded performance before giving a live reading of the same poem. As each track plays, he stands and looks out at the audience, listening to the sounds of his own voice performing live, four years previously. When the poem ends, he turns off the record player, walks to the other end of the stage, and recites the poem. The performance of the live poem has the effect of dialoguing with the recorded version–Knowles seems to be offering a contemporary answer to his earlier statement. The poems on the record, produced by White Columns in 2017, are divided into old and new. Recent poems are presented on the first side, and older, classic poems appear on the flip side. Yet even Knowles’s “new” poems in 2015 harken back to previous moments in his life. “Let’s Play Slippers”, the first poem on the record, describes an early memory of sliding down the hallway of his childhood home while wearing his father’s slippers, oversized for his small feet. “Ray Stevens” narrates biographical facts of the American singer-songwriter Ray Stevens, who wrote many of Knowles’s favorite songs, including the 1970 pop hit “Everything is Beautiful.” The content of these poems points to a further layer of temporal reference. As he walks to and from the record player, listening and speaking texts that recount memories, he attunes us to the ways that time can loop back onto itself, finding points of connection to previous moments by marking the present through the enactment of his performance.
Knowles’s everyday life is similarly punctuated by the rhythms of marked time. The moment depicted in The Sundance Kid is Beautiful with Christopher Knowles, in which Knowles waits for a plane to fly overhead, is taken from his interest in timing the passing of airplanes. He loves the sound of an alarm clock, and has collected brightly colored clocks with double bells since the 1970s. Punctuality is of utmost importance: his arrivals and departures from daily activities are carefully planned, and he expects the same level of consideration from those he meets.
Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Henri Bergson describes time as a concrete entity. For Bergson, time is not abstract, but rather shaped by the substance of embodied experience. In Knowles’s work, memories are accessed through the invocation of temporal elements. We are invited to experience these memories with him, on his own terms. By manipulating time in these performances, Knowles shows us images in exactly the way he intends. As his work moves between references to the past and present, layering memories with articulation of the current moment, it helps us understand time in an embodied way. Regardless of the message’s content, it always arrives right on time.
Lauren DiGiulio is a writer and curator whose work focuses on linguistic embodiment in postmodern and contemporary performance. She met Christopher Knowles in 2007 at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center and has written about his work since 2011. In addition to contributing notes to the program book for the 2012-2015 Einstein on the Beach international tour and a catalogue essay for Knowles's retrospective exhibition Christopher Knowles: In a Word at the ICA Philadelphia in 2015, organized by Anthony Elms and Hilton Als, she worked with Knowles as dramaturg and associate artistic producer of The Sundance Kid is Beautiful with Christopher Knowles (2012-2015). In 2019, she curated and produced his performance Recent Poems at the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn and directed a solo performance by Knowles at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn.
1 Suzanne Guerlac, Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 1-4.
The bulletin of the exhibition can be downloaded here: www.kunstverein-langenhagen.de/publications