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Monday, August 27, 2012

Einstein on the Blog: Christopher Knowles’ Typings

Christopher Knowles in The $ Value of Man at BAM, 1975. Photo: Domonique Ponzo
The versatile artist, performer, and poet Christopher Knowles caught the attention of the New York art world through his collaborations with Robert Wilson in the 1970s. While still a teenager, Knowles appeared in Wilson’s 1973 production of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin at BAM. He then went on to contribute to—and to highly influence—many of Wilson’s key early productions, such as A Letter for Queen Victoria and Einstein on the Beach, for which Knowles was the main librettist. In the second half of the 70s, Knowles and Wilson performed everywhere from St. Mark’s Church to Shiraz in their antic DiaLog series, which Knowles co-designed, co-wrote, and co-directed with Wilson.

Though his collaborations with Wilson continue to this day, for the past three decades Knowles has been building a unique body of work as a solo artist, for which he has lately begun to receive long overdue acclaim. Among other highlights, he recently re-imagined his 1975 piece The Sundance Kid Is Beautiful at CUNY’s Segal Center, and was included in Kenneth Goldsmith’s and Craig Dworkin’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, and in the MoMA exhibit Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language
from Typings, Vehicle Editions, 1979

The work included in Against Expression comes from a corpus of text-based pieces that Knowles refers to as “typings,” many of which were produced in the 1970s and 80s, in an era when many downtown poets were using the typewriter as a formal constraint in their poetry. The sly Aram Saroyan (famous for his controversial one word poem, “lighght”) wrote that his work was largely determined by the limitations of his typewriter, while Hannah Weiner made use of those same limitations to help harness and control her psychic faculties in her Clairvoyant Journals. Knowles’ typings likewise reckon with the materiality of the typewriter, and the language of his typings cannot be separated from the potentials and limitations of that now archaic instrument. While we can scan and view Knowles’ typings digitally, we cannot retype them in Word—to do so would efface the visual grain of language, and much of its power and charm would be lost.

from Typings, Vehicle Editions, 1979

Knowles’ poetics were decades ahead of his time. It’s curious that work created via an outmoded technology, the typewriter, presaged the poetics of so many avant-garde poets of the last 10 years, during the rise of digital poetics. Call this some sort of historical irony. Or just take pleasure in the playful energy of Knowles’ typings.

from Typings, Vehicle Editions, 1979


  1. Is there anything of C. Knowles' typing that is published and more reasonable in price than the $2K+ listed for a used edition of his book ? I was hoping to give someone a gift for a cost of about $40-$50.

    1. The ICA Philadelphia is producing a book (exhibition catalogue) on Knowles this fall.


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