David Knox: Affect Finding Its Forms

David Knox, Between Two, video documentation of a live event, 13:31, 2014

by Joe Milazzo

David Knox's primary artistic materials are, in a profound sense, immaterial. By his own admission, Knox is "fascinated by air, breath, light, movement, sound, and time." As a consequence of these fascinations, Knox's work takes on an alchemical cast and his aesthetic flirts with notions of transmutation. In other words, Knox's work — which can variously be described as aleatoric, ritual, numinous, and carnal — communicates across apparent opposites. He stages real-time, in-person performances but also draws inspiration from documentary practice. While his performances engage with representational mechanisms such as marks and traces, Knox pointedly highlights the most liminal (often, the most analog) qualities of his print and video work.

Yet the more notice one accords the paradoxes in Knox's practice, the more phenomenological its orientation becomes. That is, it would be wrong to confuse Knox's raw materials with his medium. And what is his medium? The artist himself expresses a kind of agnosticism with respect to this concept. "I see the word 'medium” as a divider. A word that makes me feel trapped within a material or process. However, through my own art practice, I shift my mindset to see these 'mediums' not as individual areas of expression, but as an array of materials or techniques from which to choose in order to compose."

From composition to composure: one could argue that Knox's work is less expressive than it is responsive. It elicits, it seeks, and its architecture is social rather than paradigmatic. Further, one could argue that Knox's primary medium-cum-form is the range of reactions his audiences offer his work, from tropism — a sort of automatic "turning toward" the source of stimulation; a sort of preconscious apprehension — to different levels of emotional commitment. A Collective Breath from 2013 may be "staged" insofar as it relies upon performers versed in Bogart's and Landau's Viewpoints [1], but the piece's compositional shape is largely determined by the attentive rhythms of its non-performing actors: those individuals whose decelerating and accelerating gaits testify to how the piece interrupts vision. And what happens when those elements of the visual field we are accustomed to treating as portals to the rational — written language, windows, screens — provide access to something more incongruous, intuitional, even visceral?

The visceral is of particular interest, in part because Knox takes great pains to contextualize his work as intimate. As he states: "There is a distance when viewing artwork. This could be from the architecture in which we view the work — a gallery, a museum, a theatre. This structure creates a 'looking at.' As a maker, I am interested in creating a closeness — asking the question, how can a 'looking at' become a 'looking with'? What can we experience together as maker and viewer? How can I create this encounter?"

Yet intimacy is qualia, irreducibly and intolerably subjective. We speak of intimacy as shared, but we do so knowing that, at a fundamental level, intimacy is hermetic. Intimacy cannot completely bare itself without disintegrating. Intimacy exists (persists?) in a state of tension. So what if artificial constraints such as those that define aesthetic experience could create conditions in which the viewer's own experience of the intimate might assume substance and itself emerge as an object of perception?

Knox examines this question in a number of ways, but primarily by taking up the problem of beauty. Beauty manifests its value in his work via its cognate, the sensuous. But Knox's is not a beauty that aims to ravish. This beauty is penumbral, hesitant. After Tanizaki [2], it gleams rather than shines. Take, for example, the balloons that figure in several of Knox's more consciously time-based works (they are neither installations nor performances, but somehow both). Jig and twist (squirm?) as they might, these balloons do not connote the whims of a childish hand. Their relative colorlessness instead draws greater attention to their rudimentary anatomy: the balloon as a precarious deformation of skin that could rupture at any moment. The balloon thus metaphorizes our own anticipation, our waiting for that inevitable yet no less alarming — in the moment, at least — pop. However, as long as its pressures do not stagnate, a balloon's fate is to be buoyant. And in the play of this buoyancy, the balloon, like a camera, simultaneously reveals and records. In The Green Balloon (2012), the otherwise invisible currents and swells issuing from a mundane air vent disclose their dynamics via the titular balloon's uncanny reactive agency.

Insubstantial as they are, Knox's balloons persist as powerful attractors. When balloons appear in his videos, they are the focal points. These balloons have positions and stations. And, via this protraction (replayable; loopable) of their wobbly endurance, Knox invites us to look past the little attentions the balloons command. To look, in fact, simultaneously inside and around the soft outline of the contrivance to the breathing fixed within in its valences of transparency and opacity. Ultimately, Knox's attitude towards the beautiful — and his embrace of immaterial thingliness (qua Heidegger) — can perhaps be best categorized as poignant.

Let us define poignancy as ambivalence animated by a sense of the courageous. The contrary emotions (joy, sorrow; pleasure, disgust; hopefulness, remorse) that impinge upon the subject in moments of poignancy inhibit and discharge affect in equal measure. Poignancy may perhaps be best likened to a catharsis that chokes on its own effluence: tears, bile, the humidly heaving masses of air expelled in an exclamation. But what is most brave about poignancy is the reconciliation it brokers between ourselves and the ephemeral — which is to say, between ourselves and the entailments of our own mortality.

Those idioms on which we lean for support in describing emotional being are instructive here, particularly in terms of scale. To have been "moved" is to have had one's reality profoundly shifted, to have passed through and emerged from that transformative ordeal the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis. To have been moved is to have progressed. Poignancy's sublimity, however, merely "pricks" us. Singular and contingent in its eventfulness, poignancy is the point to drama's line. As such, poignancy, like us, recognizes that its intensity risks meaningless should it flare outside the context of its dying away. As soon as our experience of poignancy ends, it carries with it the aftertaste of that permanent closure we know, at an existential / phenomenological level, is impersonal and inexorable yet somehow the outcome of our own devices [3].

To enter Knox's art is to displace ourselves into a similar state of wise unknowing, or stoic heartache. To engage with Knox's work is to elevate the reflexive to the status of the willed — and to fundamentally alter one's relationship to the palpability of present feelings (and felt presentness) in all its spatial and temporal emanations.

A Collective Breath, An excerpt from a live event, 2:55, 2013

The Green Balloon, An excerpt from an encounter, 1:37, 2012

To Draw Breath - Digital Scan I, archival inkjet print, 16 x 22 inches, 2013

To Draw Breath - Digital Scan I, archival inkjet print, 16 x 22 inches, 2013

To Draw Breath - Digital Scan II, archival inkjet print, 16 x 22 inches, 2013

To Draw Breath - Digital Scan II, archival inkjet print, 16 x 22 inches, 2013

In one sense, these images are literal. They depict the technology instrumental in their creation. The black that dominates these prints has been created by operating a digital flatbed scanner under empty circumstances. Here, there is no "original" and no copy. There are only the various surfaces — most particularly, the glass that enables the scanner to capture data — and components (physical, coded) of the device, their otherwise silent and invisible dialogue with each other made accessible to us courtesy of the artist having instantiated a feedback loop. (See also: Surfacing, 2014, in which this feedback loop takes the form of a trapped plastic bag, its fruitless attempts to dissociate itself from the camera collapsing into self-regard.) In another sense, these images are allegorical. Is the eponymous exhalation — present here in milky, cloud-like condensation that could be read as a blemish — pure breath, or the index of a unlistenable word? Both breath and language figure in many creation myths, and both forces often emerge from, interact with, and fundamentally alter the attributes of some void. Origins are seldom witnessed, but, with these prints, Knox opens up a cosmological space where genesis is liberated from functionality. This being an argument for why images should exist at all.

What is perhaps most surprising about Knox's performances is how they consciously implicate audiences in the experience of artistic production. Between Two is as much about the making of prints as it is about the content of what is thus printed. Between Two's text is "written" by Knox's own moving fingertips very precisely smearing individual characters on glass and printed by the condensing action of the performers' respiration. This echoes the lithographic process: where oil resists water, an image emerges. But where lithography is inherently technological — as are the touch capacitive screens of smart devices, themselves objects of some fascination because of their propensity for picking up and retaining the smudges of triggering digits — Knox relies on the human body's "natural" machinery. Perhaps the true process being revealed here is our habitual extending of ourselves into the world, a process which also requires that we admit, after Freud [4], to the weakness of our instincts. Art is prosthetic, which is to say art is a quest for compensatory capabilities that only ends in the acceptance of such efforts' failures.


To Draw Breath, video, 2:46, 2012

Knox's employment of human breath as an artistic medium further situates his work within traditions largely parallel to the visual arts. Experimental musician Bhob Rainey (nmperign, The BSC) has observed that true improvisation is not invention ex nihilo but an exploration of "a feeling that sounds, as they enter, have had a life before you hear them, and will continue beyond the duration of the music." [5]  Rainey is referring here not only to ideation (that "life before" sounds are sounded) and reception (that domain beyond musical duration in which what was audible might be audited again in recollection) but also to the syntagmatic physics of playing a musical instrument. Utterance links the lungs, throat, tongue, teeth, and lips in an elaborate and liquid superstructure. (Respiration doesn't utter on its own, but utterance is impossible without respiration.) And, where Knox embraces the casual and the indeterminate, Rainey eschews conventional virtuosity. Rather, in pushing his breath through his soprano saxophone by means of specific extended techniques, Rainey aims to produce sounds that "approach a kind of state of matter." Knox, in visualizing breath, or making breath speak, likewise works to locate virtue in excess.


Suspension, An excerpt from a live work, 1:42, 2012

As noted, several of Knox's works are essentially texts, although perhaps it is more appropriate to call them poems. And to consider these texts as poems is to refute the notion that their materiality is so solid as to be inert. Where we typically think of the imagination as the primary activator of the poem, and reading as analogous to ingestion, Knox's work assigns a primacy to the interpretive apparatus of coherent bodies: retinas and shoulders and fingers and veins and sulci and gyri all cooperating to activate the interfaces of the linguistic field. To "read" one of Knox's texts, one must fully inhabit one's own volumes. To negotiate his texts' various zones of legibility and illegibility, readers must traverse as well as hover. Knox reminds us that readers are the original drones, pitching, yawing, and rolling. And comprehension of Knox's interactive texts depends upon an externalization — the simple act of exhaling — whose momentum traditionally propels poetic origination. Again: respiration doesn't utter on its own, but utterance is impossible without respiration. Like the poet whose self-assigned duty is to make his or her most intimate experiences less private, Knox's work dares to cross a horizon. Suspension is not strictly textual, but it is nevertheless poetic. It alludes. Not unlike Rainer Marie Rilke's ball [6], Knox's balloon is constituted as "not thing enough / and yet sufficiently a thing." The poignancy of Rilke's ball is that, while it is "still uncommitted // to either fall or flight," its relationship to us remains one of desire. The ball "abducts and liberates the throw" of the child who casts it upward. When the ball can rise no higher, it "pauses" for a fraction of a moment before succumbing to gravity. But it is in that instant when the ball has spent all "its" force that it is most imbued with a power of its own, one which it showers over rather than exerts upon those who would grasp it. The ball "shows those playing a new location / arranging them as if it were a dance." Both plastic and concrete, Rilke's ball and Knox's balloon are similarly conceptual. They contain realms of direct experience by indexing art's ambiguous articulateness.


[1] The artist elaborates: "Anne Bogart is a Co-Artistic Director of the Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI). Viewpoints, her philosophy of movement, is a responsive improvisational movement practice for actors and dancers. During graduate school at Ohio State University, I practiced this method, becoming aware of the present moment and all of the decisions that are available to me in that moment. I was able to see chance, surprise, contradiction, and unpredictability inside and outside the studio and apply that to my work. This practice has influenced me as a maker and also [in terms of] how I communicate when working with performers."

[2] See his In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper, Leete's Island Books, 1977).

[3] For an excellent philosophical discussion of poignancy, see Karl Duncker's essay "On pleasure, emotion, and striving." (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 1941; 1: 391–430.)

[4] Civilization and its Discontents (trans. James Strachey, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

[5] All quotes in this paragraph come from "The Stylus Interview Series: nmperign," conducted by Joe Panzner and published in The Stylus, May 2004. Available: http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/weekly_article/nmperign-the-stylus-interview-series.htm.

[6] The complete text of "The Ball" can be found in New Poems: A Revised Bilingual Edition (trans. Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2001). For a brilliant close reading of this poem, see also Heather McHugh's essay "The Store" (in: Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, Wesleyan University Press, 1993).