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Robert Wilson: Introduction. KVL Bulletin. 2020.

In early 1973 a man named George Klauber, who had been one of my professors at Pratt Institute, gave me an audio tape he thought might interest me. At the time I was beginning work on a theatre piece called THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSPEH STALIN. It was a piece involving visual landscapes arranged architecturally in time and space; a twelve hour piece that I was calling an opera. I took George’s tape home and listened to it.

I was fascinated.

The tape was entitled “Emily Likes the TV.” On it a young man’s voice spoke continuously, creating repetitions and variations on phrases about Emily watching the TV. I began to realize that the words flowed to a patterned rhythm whose logic was self-supporting. It was a piece coded much like music. Like a cantata or fugue it worked with conjugations of thoughts repeated in variations, governed by classical constructions and a pervasive sense of humor. The effect was at once inspiring and charming.

I was impressed and called George to ask who had made the tape. He told me the young man’s name was Christopher Knowles; that he was in a school in upstate New York and that his parents lived in Brooklyn.

After learning this I called Chris’ parents, explained how I’d come to hear their son’s tape, and asked if I could meet him. I was told he was almost always at school and rarely came to New York City.

Time went on and I kept listening to Chris’ tape. I also had it transcribed. Doing so I learned that the construction of the words had a great visual sense. The words had an obvious, careful, architectural patterning which created a whole new language using the building blocks of ours. It also seemed that Chris was able to compose words visually; as though he spoke having already seen the words precisely mapped out before him. I saw this as a very special and unique view of language with strong connections to my own work at the time and ideas for the future.

More time passed and just before the opening of “Stalin” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I called Chris’ parents again. I told them about the performance and invited them to come and bring Chris. Luckily Chris was in town that weekend. They said they would come to the opening night; but certainly Chris couldn’t stay the full twelve hours.

A few minutes before curtain on opening night, I was in my dressing room preparing for the performance. There was a knock at the door and when I opened it there was Chris with his mother Barbara Knowles. She introduced herself and Chris. I remember Chris was very shy and withdrawn; he stared at the floor offering no eye contact. After a moment of silence I said spontaneously, “Chris, would you like to be in the opera tonight?” – I had worked carefully on this piece for nine months. It was twelve hours long, had a cast of 125, and no parts were improvisational. The theatre seated 2000 people. – Chris did not answer me but his mother asked, “What would he do?” I said I didn’t know. Again there was silence. Again I asked, “Chris, would you like to be in the opera tonight?” Again no answer but his mother’s demand, “What would he do?” I said, “We’ll have to see.”

By now it was time for the show to start. Mrs. Knowles went out into the audience and I took Chris by the hand. We walked out in front of the house curtain. I had almost no idea what to do. I began by quoting from Chris’ tape:

RW
em
m
em
m
emily
emily likes
em
emily likes the
tv
because
because A
CK because b
RW because A
CK because she likes bugs bunny
RW because
CK because she likes mickey mouse
RW because
CK because a
RW because B
because she watches it

This went on for about five minutes. As we left the stage I turned to him and said, “Hey Chris, that was pretty good.” Chris remained withdrawn and non-committal, staring down in silence. I asked if he would like to appear in the first act.

We went on again in the first act and did a dialog from another of Chris’ tapes:

pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup
pirup birup pirup birup

When we came offstage Mrs. Knowles was there and said it was late and time for Chris to go home to bed. The next morning I got a call from Chris’ father. He said Chris had really enjoyed himself at the theatre. He and his wife were amazed and pleased that Chris had been able to communicate so well in front of a large theatre audience. From our talk that day it worked out that Chris was able to appear in all four performances of “Stalin” in New York.

At this point I became worried that Chris’ unique talents were being stifled by the program of his school. I arranged a visit that confirmed my fears. While the head of the school acknowledged that Chris had exceptional mathematical ability in patterning and organization, he dismissed the works as the product of the unconscious mind, meaningless in their content. As an artist, I found what Chris was doing beautiful to look at and listen to. His instructor however looked on the pieces as a deterrent to his social development.

After this visit I worked to have Chris taken out of his school and brought to New York. At the time I was working with a community of people on theatre projects. It was arranged that Chris could come and live with me. We became collaborators and friends. He co-authored a show called A LETTER FOR QUEEN VICTORIA and performed in it throughout Europe and New York. In subsequent years we continued to work together. Chris would co-author pieces and his texts would appear in works such as the opera EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH. A very special pleasure were the pieces Chris and I wrote and performed in together called DIALOGS. In these works Chris proved himself a skilled performer capable of winning any audience anywhere in the world. His prowess results from a cultured sense of spontaneity and humor. These are qualities also present in his personal artwork. Even in the darkest colors of his paintings or the deepest despair of his writing there is joy.

I am forever fascinated by the decisions Chris is able to make, while maintaining control over a continuous and elegant line. He has a unique ability to create a language that’s immediately discernible. Yet, once he has invented his verbal or visual language, he destroys the code to begin anew. His art holds the excitement of molecular reaction. His product is constantly genuine and always a reflection of his own imagination, humor, and good will.

The bulletin of the exhibition can be downloaded here: www.kunstverein-langenhagen.de/publications

Edited

13/08/2020

Originally Published

2020

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