John Knight, October Files 16 (edited by André Rottmann), MIT Press 2014
The recently published book with critical essays on John Knight is the 16th in the ongoing October Files series published by MIT Press (which includes titles on James Coleman, Dan Graham and Louise Lawler).
John Knight’s body of work is surrounded by an almost mythical atmosphere. He is a thinker with surgical precision when it comes to placing the work in a wider institutional and geopolitical frame. JK (John Knight): My interest, however, is to participate in the larger cultural critical discourse and not some rarefied site of my own construction (p. 119). He is, first and foremost, an intellectual and makes work only when approached by an art type institution. Therefore the resulting objects and installations have to be seen less as artefacts in a historical and sculptural lineage, than as results of intense thought processes responding to specific sites. Thus Knight creates his own precise contexts. The individual works are unique in the sense that they cannot readily be connected to other artistic positions. A pronounced aversion to art history distinguishes his position from artist friends such as Michael Asher. JK: I have never shared, to the same degree of interest or depth of understanding, a project that is initiated from within an arthistorical perspective (p. 120). Knight does not want to fit into a narrowly outlined arthistorical corset; rather he tends to refer to a sociopolitic located outside the micropolitical boundaries of the art world (p. 121). But why, then, would he produce work only when asked by an artinstitutional body? JK: I step in, in order to receive the opportunities to function. For whatever sociopolitical reasons, this subculture seems to be the most compatible for the formulation of a base of operation (p. 122).
JK: I would say that the shift from image to a signaletic sign induces the symbolic loss of life (p.85). One of Knight’s base concerns and struggles lies in the thinking around corporate power and violence expressed through design (such as corporate logotypes). I use ‘struggles’ as Knight seems to care deeply about these issues in non-cynical ways. Is Knight a leftist type, a Marxist of sorts? Knight raises issues that could entail long excursions into Marx, but Marx is only mentioned in Birgit Pelzer’s footnotes, never by Knight himself. Knight writes a narrative of the logotype as a symbol that stands for the corporate omnivore, a movement that started decades (centuries?) ago and developed into an all-consuming force. Knight himself, in his meticulous, strategic project planning and critical sharpness has all the ingredients to run the perfect company or military corps – which he does, in a way, with a rigueur unmatched since Colonel Kurtz. What is JK’s family background? Was his father or mother a CEO or a teacher? Biography is not what matters most, but in JK’s case it would be interesting to know out of what ‘ideological’ environment he developed and started to operate the way he does ever since. Also because his art makes complex, geopolitical, objective (in the sense of non-personal) statements, but they are made by a quite unique individual with a private, intimate and personal history. From where did the conceptual and intuitive decisions that make JK’s art develop? Jay Sanders: Can you say a bit about your tactics of exposing the dominating effects of design and its instrumentation of power? JK: (…) the conscious hybridization of subjects or constellations of dominant subjects just might be one way to open up the possibility for the likeness of a counterspectacle as a tactic of recuperation – exaggerated and hyper-designed sites of agitation that attempt to insist on the utility rather than the autonomy of work (p.73). Here is a moment, where Knight introduces a non-personal position with a specific, subjective charge. Refreshingly, it’s not a clear leftist tactic.
I would say that the shift from image to a signaletic sign induces the symbolic loss of life. Why, then, repeat the sign, insist on it, rather than proposing something entirely different? Knight exorcises and exhausts the sign through repetition and alteration of meaning, hinting at alternatives enshrined in different types of signs. Knight as a shaman dancing in the corporate never-land?
How is violence and hegemonic power veiled by corporate design strategies? How can they be unlocked? There is a partial demand for the restoration of individual privacy and the making transparent of corporate and political actions. Yet persons like Assange and Snowden, hacktivists who in real life fight against mass surveillance and against the secrecy of corporate and state information, often come across like dangling puppets. Snowden, ironically enough, ended up in Russia, not exactly the nr. one country for free speech. Snowden in Moscow, Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. There is a strangeness in these two cases, as if they were both looking and striving for enclosed physical space for themselves.
The work of john Knight addresses the veiled but coercive violence of an order characterised by symbolic constraint by making certain invisible conjunctions tangible (Birgit Pelzer, p. 98). There may lie Knight’s labour, in the unraveling of underlying powerstructures of our current world dominated by mulitnational corporations. In Knight’s work, the corporate, repressed, hidden violence emerges not freed, is not completely dismantled or unraveled, but concealed anew. A double repression of sorts. Alberro: For viewers looking at the building from the outside, it is at once a greeting that can barely be deciphered, and a welcome that is hollow. In order to fully appreciate the specificity and inherent doubleness of Bienvenido… (p. 144). Buchloh: (…) it’s not a position of pure negation, it’s a position that intricately engages with the condition of cultural production and with the concept of the response that you provide to those conditions, namely, corporate cultural demands for pure utility. JK: (…) the need for a position of resistance, which I think resides in the inversion of the order of need, which can allow an artist the opportunity to touch upon subjects of consumption and exchange, and the design strategies that sustain their presumed purpose within the culture industry, without reverting to the role of a cultural custodian (p. 131). Inherent doubleness: a spiralling down of meaning.
What is JK aspiring to? Alexander Alberro: (…) the sign (JK) is employed to point emphatically to something else (p. 142). Knight’s tactics, negations point towards an ‘Other’, a parallel vision, the artist’s very own sparks of hope. Maybe John Knight lives to see these sparks of his making.
For Knight, each new project is an opportunity to challenge existing structures. Ready on call, like a secret agent or a contract killer, Knight delivers. The shows and projects are executed knifelike with absolute precision and intellectual rigueur. Unlike collectives with a sociopolitical activist attitude, Knight works alone. As mentioned before, he does not work out of a straight leftist position like, let’s say, the Danish artist group Superflex. Knight is politically more ambiguous, a loner type with a curious mind, removed from constraints, sitting in a – somehow – designed chair tinkering deeply over the next project at hand. Competitive, JK is an executioner of projects that do have sociopolitical conscience (among other special topics, successfully tapping into white men’s disturbed unconscious).
Inherent doubleness: doubleness of intent, too?
Yet a certain political fuzziness might be Knight’s strong card. Isabelle Graw notes the reason that your work doesn’t figure on (a list of so-called ‘political’ artists) could be that it doesn’t fit into a general desire for thematically reductivist, so-called political works, works that are supposedly ‘dealing with’ a certain subject matter (p. 126). Knight found his niche, not completely apolitical, but not narrowly positioned either. From there he operates in his own ronin trickster style. His work does point to multifaceted issues concerning our world. Knight has strong allies. From early on, a tight group of critics followed and continued to follow his trajectory. The focus and clarity of the critical engagement shines bright throughout the book. A certain conceptual coherence is crucial for JK. There is an intellectual thread that links his series and individual projects. In this regard, one can imagine Knight being a bit of a control freak that tightly controls not only his output, but also what is being published on his work.
Heretic intermezzo: Why are the October Files authors so sure that Knight’s negation tactics are that watertight as they proclaim, when his political stance is near impossible to grasp? Whatever that stance might be, could it be that his work is so ambiguous, so ironic and complex, that it may even be able to fool the critics? Knight might elevate ambiguity to a new level (some sort of Knightian Meta-Ambiguity). Knight’s critical castle has been erected, and the October essay do shed a lot of light on Knight. The castle is exclusive (musings). He is not Andrea Fraser’s L’1%, but its 0.001%. A spy who came in from the cold. Yet what about (ironic or not) subliminal demonstrations of an awareness of elevating an artistic position into such an exclusive position? There is a seriousness underlying all essays and interviews, and I doubt that seriousness is a good match for Knight’s ironies (more on irony later). There is no breathing in a vacuum. Also, Knight does influence legions of young and smart Städelschüler and other ambitious artists who will be sucked into the global art market. Knight does influence belief systems and artistic strategies. Because of his relative outsider (and deep-insider) position, he is very attractive, a confirmed negator of market tactics. In short, there are elements that are not alluded to in the October Files book, and maybe they lay outside its critical reach. Are there really no artists in Knight’s vicinity? Even if Dutch design collective Metahaven does not share many connection points, they surely do think hard about economical and geopolitical representation under advanced capitalism. An essay on Knight’s entanglement in, and his impact on the art world could be an interesting addition. Knight as a light house-castle and aggregator, his position as an intellectual-conceptual force in a global idea sharing network economy etc. I guess if no company will adopt Knight’s tactics, he somehow does deserve the title of a master of negation.
Knight notes that product design, interior design, and installation design are all deeply implicated in capitalist ideology. It’s the primary lexicon for substantiating neoliberalism. It’s the off-the-shelf language of hegemony (p. 123). Design can implicate corporate propaganda, but it also can help to find solutions for better organising life on earth. Spacecrafts to explore radically different planets are all about design. Design means, to a large degree, progress. What Knight might be alluding to is the darker, more sinister side design can have, for example when design is used by corporations as a propaganda tool in order to hide ecological, financial or other wrongdoings. For logotypes, well-intended NGOs or other non-evil institutions have their own logotype. Logotypes have simply become signatures in a diversified global market place. The logotype is only one small design aspect of bad companies. Of course the logo design can be used as an artistic strategy to point at what is behind the logo. But the logo is only a first door to enter a whole series of secretive, often highly complicated and semi-legal corporate structures where dubious tricks and strategies to gain market shares and more profit are puzzled out. Knight might allude to such ‘evil’ processes, but not sure if insisting on the logotype helps to dismantle evil corporate intelligence. The courageous strategies employed by artist ‘reality hacking’ duo The Yes Man might be more helpful in pointing towards corporate wrongdoings than Knight’s fuzzy rambling against neoliberalists. Melanie Gilligan researched the vocabulary common in the financial marketplace in order to turn it against itself, thus revealing its underlying absurd irrationality (Gilligan is mentioned by André Rottmann in footnote 40, p. 197: For a more thorough discussion of the relation between finance capital and artistic production see Melanie Gilligan, ‘Derivate Days: Notes on Art, Finance and the Unproductive Forces,’ in Texte zur Kunst 69 (March 2008): 146-153).
The brilliant Worldebt series (1994) of credit cards. Buchloh notes that The credit card project from Worldebt (…) clearly interrelate different geopolitical systems or expanded notions of geopolitical distribution, and construct at an early moment a sense of the inescapability of culture as being suspended within globalized forms of conflict and interest and exchanges way before the whole talk of globalization became an issue in cultural practices (p. 124). The world wide monetary system can be seen as a modern day slavery system, which Worldebt conveys perfectly. JK: Global crises exacerbated by the World Bank and IMF policies (p. 126). Deleuze: Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt. (cited by André Rottmann in footnote 41, p. 197).
Knight’s play can be found bouncing somewhere between resignation and emancipation. The play exhibits shades of irony. Knight’s favoured weapon of resistance is a vocabulary of irony. Irony can open up spaces for thought and possible alternatives. The notion of irony, or irony itself, comes up at several instances throughout the book (p. 44, 103, 108-109, 115, 124, 129-130, 136, 140, 182, 186, 192). But JK proceeds in a spirit of irony, questioning art’s symbolic stakes, allegiances, and economic purposes. As an immemorial strategy, irony is to be found in a certain tone of John Knight’s work. Irony is necessary when it is not enough to reply on a logical level, in moments when it does not suffice to refute claims with rational arguments and when dialectical objections run aground. What is called for then is a ruse, dissimulation, multilayered language, that splitting that makes you look like trespassing onto the field of the other, in order to reveal inconsistency. Irony, as we know, was one of the resources of the Socratic methods to meet the argumentative excellence of the Sophists (Birgit Pelzer, p. 103 and footnote 31, p. 115). Irony saves Knight. Yet what exactly makes the work ironic? I would wish to read more on ‘John Knight and the Ironic’, also about irony as a form of control. Who of the handful of critics or Institutional Critique-type PHD students will write the essay? Being around Knight can feel exclusive. Who is aloud to use irony? When? John Knight – the Ironist with an Iron Fist.
JK’s irony: A melancholic variant could come from the tension between the relative simplicity of his installative proposals and the endless complexities that radiate from the associative fields the work opens itself up to. John Knight’s work is minimal, surgical, well thought-through artistic gestures. As soon as the wider range of implications is discovered, the reception receives a powerful twist. Irony thus accompanies the gestures and unfolds its charge gradually rather than as explosive one-liners. The hidden, unseen part conceals the ironic potential; it has to be sensed before it can reveal itself.
Mimic that, multinationals.
JK the logo – The most individual and supposedly unique feature of the artist becomes incorporated in an anonymous design, whereas the audience’s demand for the innermost revelation of an authentic and individual aesthetic truth receives its response in the language of public and collective mythology (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, p.34). In the creation of his brand, Knight has completely mastered/transcended capitalist ideology. He speaks to us from the beyond of ideology, from his very own JK realm and territory. The artist’s objects, ironically conscious, inherit an exclusive status, achieved by successfully integrating its negations. The essays in October Files are proof.
There is more to say about John Knight. It makes the work’s reception rich.