I miss Christopher; I miss his work being close at hand. Asked by Kunstverein Langenhagen to offer thoughts and experiences on Christopher's work after organizing the 2015 exhibition Christopher Knowles: In a Word, with Hilton Als, am stumped for anything more profound. It was an honor to host Christopher, his work, and those for whom he cares. I miss them all.
To elaborate on just how I miss Christopher's work, it might help to mention my deeply ingrained suspicion to the idea of curatorial practice. Such a thing doesn't exist, at least in any intellectual way. As with so much of living, the crux of curating is: learn to listen, learn to ask questions, learn to discard accepted paths and histories, learn how to spend time--hopefully with someone, learn how to care for values and people unfamiliar or unlike yourself. Learn to not know. Learn to open space for expanding experiences, learn how to extend politics and attentiveness. Learn to be wrong. Learn you are not the center. So, in short, working with Christopher was no different than with any artist. Sure, the experiences and stories are distinctly individualized, but in the everyday ways. You learn how to slow down enough to listen to what is important for him--rather than look for the works that fulfill predesignated values and frameworks of your own.
Time with Christopher is something I had been working toward for decades. In 1989 I first knowingly encountered Christopher Knowles, via the expansive chapter dedicated to him in Laurence Shyer's Robert Wilson and His Collaborators. Already smitten by Wilson's theater works, and a budding fan of Paul Thek, Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs and many others who did time in the Wilson orbit, the chapter hit me. What drew me initially to Wilson's theater works was the pacing and the use of language. The abstract yet hummingbird precise, stoney, and seemingly always under construction language is often riveting. And that dart quick speech against geological movement can be otherworldly. Despite some condescending comments toward Christopher, Shyer's book clued me in that much of this language was actually developed by, or took heavy influence from, Knowles. Given how influential Wilson's performances were, not to mention the shadow cast by Einstein on the Beach (libretto partially by Knowles) on contemporary music, here was a major contributor, Christopher Knowles, with an outsized influence on contemporary performance, music, and poetry, and barely any recognition for his work. The hunt was on. When in the early 2000s I finally leapt over the wrong side of the tracks to curatorial work, Christopher was never far from my thoughts as the dream exhibition.
In 2015, opportunity finally landed. Frustrating, initially: no scholarship, few reviews or interviews, not even a viable catalog of known works. When initially asking Christopher what he might want for the show, he offered no guidelines. And so I sat; listening and wondering more than ever. During a visit to the ICA, while walking through the exhibition spaces Christopher offhandedly noted, "Lego flags go there." and continued walking. Snap. Attend and gather these types of microgrooves. His collaborators. Noah Khoshbin, Andrew Gilchrist, and Clifford Allen, and Lauren DiGilio, also Bridget Donahue, those who have spent time in professional settings with Christopher in recent years. Accept all offerings and unwrite what I was looking for. Listen as Silvia Netzer and Christopher interact. Soak in his numerous jokes, walking tours of important places, and jovial sharing of favorite records. Click. Notice his apartment. Pause. Think within the family home in Bellport and the interactions of his parents Ed and Barbara. His sisters. What I learned to appreciate was detail. Also that sheer draping of time obscuring any one detail. Human corners and humorous flourishing are everywhere in Christopher's works. As an initial reader, it is the abstraction and language play that broadcasts. But with attention you recognize that the building blocks of the typing and painting and sound collage routines are the things he is invested in, the names are those of friends or people that are present for him, shapes borrowed from familiar architectural details, listing streets he knows, beloved games and times of year, and those hopping hits of the 60's and 70's that move him. Which isn't to say the work is simply biographical.
"Beeeescope." I hear the motoric clack of typewriter keys and see the permeable seductive nature of letters, the concrete abstraction of languages. "Beeeescope." Now I also recognize the hissing of a steam radiator warming a longtime family apartment. "Beeeescope." A regulating rhythm that sets the routine of living in a placed pacing. Christopher quite remarkably cuts a deceptively simple path to formal possibilities in the material closest at hand--those small traces often unnoticed as the day-to-day. He rewires personal traces so often taken for granted with his attentiveness for denotation and a sly play with syntax, placed in unobserved patterns, to open rooms and landscapes intimately structured if also unfamiliar and newly furbished.
His language and forms are always embodied. If you don't have time for people at the periphery, or worry there are more important things to attend to, if some are simply beneath your concern or take too damn long, Christopher's work can never open to you. To spend time with Christopher's work is to spend time, quite literally, with his world as it is being built. Not with a proposition for a world along cited references and beliefs, but an actual lived one unfolding--here and now--of friends, familial spaces, favorite songs, and frustrations as forms to attend. What I learned working with Christopher is that important things are so very rarely recognized as important, and therein lies their politics. Knowing the work even more intimately than before makes me wish I had more time for Christopher, and his family, and friends, and all of you reading this remembrance for that matter. So many stories left to place.
Anthony Elms is Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (where he organized 'Christopher Knowles: In a Word' with writer Hilton Als in 2015). He has independently curated many exhibitions, including A Unicorn Basking in the Light of Three Glowing Suns (with Philip von Zweck) and Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68 (with John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis). He was one of three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.'
The bulletin of the exhibition can be downloaded here: www.kunstverein-langenhagen.de/publications