On Place: John Knight

John Knight in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist


An in-depth conversation with the Los Angeles-based artist John Knight, who—since the 1960s—has been a fixture of American conceptual art and institutional critique. On the occasion of his participation in Skulptur Projekte 2017, he articulates his passion for architecture and the ideas of “in situ” and “residual objects” that have informed his practice.  


JOHN KNIGHT: I’m sure you were very close, at least in spirit, with the curator Harald Szeemann. He was Swiss, like you, yes? Was he a mentor to you?

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: He was never directly a mentor, because by the time I was starting out as a curator, he was in the later part of his life, and his signature style was very much centered on the authorship of exhibitions. I was never completely comfortable with that. I have always enjoyed working with artists and deriving from conversations the projects we could do together. Kasper König was much more my mentor, and I learned from Suzanne Pagé how to run a museum. But Szeemann was important to me at the beginning, as a teenager, in the sense of knowing that one could do that in life. I wanted to work with artists, but I didn’t want to open a gallery. I’m not interested in the commercial part of the art world. But I could be a curator.

JK: Was Szeemann’s outward-oriented personality unusual for a Swiss person?

HUO: He was a mercenary, and I suppose there’s a long tradition of Swiss physical—and also intellectual—mercenaries. Because it’s such a narrow country, surrounded by mountains, it’s very claustrophobic. It sort of pushes Swiss people out, so in that sense he was quite typical. Some people go into exile and never come back, but he always kept an attachment to Switzerland. When did you meet him?

JK: I met him in 1971 when he came to Los Angeles on his tour to see artists for documenta 5. Then I rarely saw him again. A few times here and there, but I’m not very social.

HUO: So even in the 1970s and 1980s, you didn’t spend much time in the art world?

JK: Not really. I’m not terribly interested in art, in a way. I have much more of a passion for architecture.

HUO: But you’ve mentioned in the past being put off by the architecture world’s briefs.

JK: Yes. It all started during my experiences in architectural studies. The programs offered at the time focused on large-scale schematic exercises of airports, city centers, et cetera. One would hardly scratch the surface of a problem and the semester would be over. I found this to be very unfulfilling and not at all like what happens in real practice.

HUO: So there was no complexity or depth.

JK:None. I remember the definitive reader on architecture at the time was Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941). That was the absolute bible of modernist architecture.

HUO: Like a dogma.

JK: A generation of architectural curriculum essentially ignored Mannerism and Baroque history, with the exception of those who would have gone to Princeton where there was a particular historian who made it a point to include these complex periods into his lectures; this was something that I came to learn only after reading people like Robert Venturi and Charles Moore. Both had attended Princeton. Anyway, for those reasons and others, I decided to leave architecture and found myself in the subculture of art, which seemed to be an amenable place to work. I have little formal art education, an informal but intense autodidactic understanding of both disciplines.

HUO: A bit like Dan Graham.

JK: Very much like Dan. He and I have a compassionate relationship in that way. He didn’t go to school at all.

HUO: But he also, in an autodidactic way, knows more about architecture than most architects.

JK: Systems, whether educational or industrial, are there for one to have a generative reaction formation with.

HUO: What are some architecture projects of yours?

JK: Well, aside from a few early projects in Venice, I did Dan’s Lower East Side railroad flat.

HUO: You designed it?

JK: Yes. It was one of the times he was hospitalized, so I thought about what I might be able to do—how I could engage with his situation, make a saner, more organized environment for him. So I did an interior remodel that included a proper bathroom, et cetera. What Dan responded to most was the discovery of two windows that had been buried behind the plastered wall of the side elevation in the middle of the apartment, something almost unheard of with railroad flats. The building next door was lower so you could see straight up to the Empire State Building.

HUO: Did you also move his books?

JK: No, I wouldn’t reorder someone’s books. But we have a forty-five-year dialogue. I know that he’s a fan of certain kinds of everyday modernism, so I included a lot of knotty pine detailing: bookcases, wainscoting, baseboards, and window casements, plus one example of a decorative pine switch plate cover, which he reinstalled in his new Spring Street loft.

HUO: That one I know very well. I’ve spent days there. I love the bookshelves separating the rooms.

JK: Dan loved his Eldridge Street flat, so when it came to considering how to create a semblance of what he had been used to for decades, the solution was to divide the generic loft box into two longitudinal rectangles based on the proportions of a railroad flat, keeping the domestic scale of Eldridge Street along the right axis, the “studio” on the left, and a central divider for storage space split down the middle—large enough to fulfill Dan’s demands—thus one has to “step through” the storage to get from one side of the loft to the other, which he liked, all the while complaining that he trips over the slight relief of cabinets, every time he goes across. I think of it as “a gentle reminder. The architects of record were Dillon & Stern, friends and colleagues of mine who practice in New York and Panama. Kurt Dillon was a student of mine at SCI-Arc many years before. At the time SCI-Arc was an amalgam of progressive thought couched in a bit of the bohemia borrowed from the AA.

HUO: It’s remarkable that the AA was never completely destroyed. On the contrary, it has kept its strange energy, and people who would teach in no other architecture school teach there. A poet friend of mine is teaching a weird class there on poetry.

JK: Do you think that’s the kind of European spirit that American culture tries to emulate with little success?

HUO: No, I think it has to do with the dean. They’re always lucky in that respect. It could easily have been destroyed if an idiot had

JK: The original SCI-Arc director, Raymond Kappe, definitely captured the spirit, which was totally lost in the subsequent years of the school.

HUO: Now the AA has Brett Steele, and it harbors intellectuals like Mark Cousins, who is a genius. He has never really written a book because he hates the thought of being frozen in books, but he’s a public intellectual in residence there. The idea is to give such people space. It’s a free zone.

JK: Remember the school in Paris that was short-lived?

HUO: Yes, the Institut des Hautes Études. Did you teach there, with Pontus Hultén and Daniel Buren? Many students of that school are now artists of my generation, like Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

JK: I was a visitor there. Aside from my engagement with a few schools in the States, I have done a great deal of visiting lectures and seminars during my working travels. In fact, pedagogy has played a central role in the manner of my socialization within the art world, no doubt fostered by an urgency to invest the time and energy I felt was sorely missing in my educational experience. In response, I would offer extensive critiques often lasting eight to ten hours as a counter to the flimsy, superficial pedagogy too often found. However, I never considered myself a teacher, but a visiting artist.

HUO: So it’s more about listening.

JK: It was about a patient but intense engagement with a group of young elastic minds exercised over uninterrupted periods of discussion, together with interludes of nervous silence.

HUO: It’s a methodology.

JK: A malleable one.

HUO: Can you talk about some of the unrealized rants, the unrealized project proposals? With architects, a high proportion of projects are usually unrealized. Even very well known architects usually have ninety percent unrealized. How is it in your case?

JK: For myself, and others who work in a similar vein, there are many unrealized possibilities, of the relatively few opportunities that come along. It is partly to do with things like asking for artist’s fees, which is a door-shutter to this day. The labor and expense to crate, insure, and ship an artwork for a short period of time, and at the same time the unwillingness, or inability, to consider paying a modest artist fee for a work specifically produced for the occasion, speaks volumes about the place of value.One recent example of this happened for a major American museum invitation, when I requested an artist’s fee. “We can’t give every artist a fee.” My response, “I’m not asking on everyone’s behalf… everyone has their own way of working.” After a lengthy conversation on the subject of labor I proposed the following: “I’ll forgo my fee if the two of you agree to forgo your salaries from this moment until the end of the exhibition; I don’t get paid, you don’t get paid.” In short order the problem was solved.

HUO: They agreed to pay you?

JK: Yes! [laughs] It’s a silly story but it’s not a joke.

HUO: No, it’s not a joke at all, it’s very serious.

JK: A comprehensive survey of my realized and unrealized projects will be on public view in a soon-to-be-published book by the art historian André Rottmann.

HUO: One hopefully to-be-realized project is the upcoming one for Skulptur Projekte Münster. But what about the previous ones? They were not built.

JK: If you’re referring to Münster, there were two unrealized proposals, in 1987 and 1997. The first was a bicycle project. Now, of course, one couldn’t possibly do that because every young artist has crawled over everything, so to speak, but then it was a different story. The project and my fee would have been paid for by an advertising campaign attached to the bicycles made available for viewing the exhibition scattered about the city.

HUO: You anticipated Citi Bike.

JK: Could be. The second proposal involved utilizing the existing public lighting grid located within the entirety of Skulptur Projekte Münster’s geographical boundaries, and designating a specifically coded color of light in order to highlight the topological relationships between the other realized projects by way of civic illumination. Ironically, my project would have only been visible when the exhibition was closed.

HUO: It would be a way of tagging the sites.

JK: It would be a way of mapping the exhibition.

HUO: I’m very interested in that. Now, obviously, we have hashtags, and I actually think that you early on invented this tagging thing with your documenta 7 piece about tagging a site, the JK.

JK: To be fair about history, I would not have called it tagging then. I can tell you that projects along this line of approach would never have made the cut had it not been for the tenacious efforts of Coosje van Bruggen, the curator in charge of North America and Canada. This particular documenta was grounded in the director’s newfound embrace of the specter of history production literally presented in terms of German Romanticism. My impulse was to materially refer to the language of consumption: about the utilization of a site with zero inherent spectacle value, a backdoor approach, by using the secondary utility staircases as an aesthetic moment. Presenting repeated oblique views of a series of unique international tourist posters installed in the stairwell landings, greeting viewers as they made their way from one heroic space to another. Kim Gordon wrote a terrific text around the structures of consumer reception for my exhibition at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1984.

HUO: From advertising?

JK: Yes.

HUO: The residual objects are interesting. Your talk at Institut des Hautes Études, when you and Michael Asher went to talk to Pontus Hultén’s students, had a very big impact on artists like Philippe Parreno. You call it the “residual object,” and Michel Serres, the French philosopher, talks about the “quasi-object.” It’s like an auxiliary object or trigger that only gains significance when we interact with it. How would you define a residual object? Would you relate it to the Michel Serres idea of the quasi-object?

JK: I would defer to the greater view of Daniel Buren, that it’s a “souvenir,” although I would not say that Daniel necessarily followed through on that in the strictest way. He does have a production machine going, which is very differently defined. But, to use the language, to think of it in those terms, I find it most interesting when these residual objects are put elsewhere or find a home elsewhere, and remind us that something was done somewhere else. So they’re fragments of something, but exist in their own right as they pass through the exchange process, while maintaining a reminder of their original utility and, at the same time being out of one’s control as it moves through the world.

HUO: It’s like with children: once the child is grown up, you can’t control its life.

JK: Absolutely.

HUO: There’s never been a solution for that. I mean, a lot of artists tried by using contracts, for instance Seth Siegelaub’s artist contract, which Daniel was involved with.

JK: You lose control. The child has grown up. What remains is this kind of wishful desire that it might still maintain a relationship to its origins.

HUO: But you can’t control it.

JK: Of course not. But the resulting complexity or contradictions are interesting and welcomed. At least, interesting to think about, but not necessarily something to obsess over.

HUO: It reminds me of the show you did in the mid-1980s at Marian Goodman, with mirrors. Are the mirrors residual objects?

JK: Yes, but only after the moment of their initial reception as a work in situ.

HUO: The resistance is implicit in the system. As Giorgio Agamben says, it’s not resistance to some outside event, it’s within your system, correct?

JK: I have a soft spot for Agamben. Work in situ is work at a certain time and place, which takes us back around to the architecture. This approach is of course against the historical model of the autonomy of the place of production:the studio. From my vantage point, autonomy is a delusional notion.

HUO: I don’t know if you saw the book of Buren’s collected writings. It’s very thick. I did three interviews with him over the years, and in the first conversation he told me his definition of “in situ.” I was wondering, from your side, where the notion of “in situ” appeared for the first time?

JK: I was introduced to it through his writings around the time of documenta 5. Which was also the time when I became aware of, had direct contact with, many of the artists who had had a big influence on my thinking in terms of how one might approach producing in alternative ways to the historical problem of production. Rather suddenly I found myself in the midst of enormously interesting artists who were thinking in ways that I had been considering, but without a direct support structure to bounce off of, with the exception of Michael Asher, which marked the beginning of a lifelong and deep friendship.

HUO: And you had a conversation.

JK: I had many conversations. It has been my fortune to have had certain support figures over the years that become representative models of possibility; had I had to practice without these kinds of outside contacts, I would have either slit my throat or quit many decades ago, because the support system for such practices as mine and a few others was nil in Los Angeles. I’ve done very few projects in Los Angeles in forty-five years. It was very important to encounter someone like Daniel, who exercised certain ways of working not altogether tethered to history.

HUO: You’ve addressed this idea of having nowhere to go, which you call the “third curve.” Can you talk about that?

JK: It was not an issue of having “nowhere to go,” but rather the direction that I had begun to go, to be understood independently from Asher or Buren. The thought projected of a “third curve” was a discussion brought to the work from the critical perspective of others the likes of Buchloh, with reference to the too often repeated referent subject of the Asher-Buren-Knight triad. Whereas the former two were oft explained, my approach seemed to remain a mystery as to a “legible” entry point into my practice. After a certain period of time and a better exposure to those referential influences on my thinking (Smithson, Venturi, among many others) it seemed to make clear the existence of a “third path.”

HUO: And Charles Moore.

JK: Charles Moore is an enormous figure for me. His writing is so rich. You Have to Pay for the Public Life (2001) is a great book.

HUO: His writing is his best work, in a way.

JK: His writing and his engagement in education.

HUO: That I know less about.

JK: He was the dean of several architecture schools, and every place he went, the program became richer. For example, as soon as he arrived at Yale, he invited Denise, who in turn brought Venturi on board. Interestingly, she had tried to do the same at UCLA but the administration had no interest in him. Once again, it comes down to who’s at the helm. No?

HUO: As someone who comes from architecture, it must be very weird to you to exhibit in museums. I’ve rarely heard you comment positively on museum architecture, but you’ve said very positive things on several occasions about the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary), which you’ve called Frank Gehry’s best building. How do you see museum architecture in the twenty-first century?

JK: I don’t think much about it at all. The biggest problem with museum architecture—and most building typologies—is the fact that there’s an architect involved. The problem with architects and building programs is poetically described by Venturi’s Architecture as sculpture with a resented roof.

HUO: So what do you like so much about the Temporary Contemporary? The open program?

JK: It’s reminiscent of other programs but not necessarily other spaces. The Kunsthalle Bern is quite a lovely building, but when you’re tasked with building a contemporary museum in an urban context, the idea to retrofit an existing space instead of going through the endless political and economic nightmares it takes to build from the ground up is in every way ecologically sound thinking.

HUO: And it was low-budget. And you can install in any function you want. It can be used for anything.

JK: Remove the doors, jackhammer the floor, cut holes in the roof. A building in service of its intended program of presenting aesthetic opportunity—all actual examples. Of course, as the name made clear, against a backdrop of big pushes by a few, to the contrary. The handwriting was on the wall from the get-go.

HUO: To me the Temporary Contemporary is one of the few realized examples of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace idea, with its limited lifespan. The Temporary Contemporary was a very Fun Palace, a very radical thing.

JK: Price is an important person in terms of this kind of thinking.

HUO: Dan Graham told me to read Price when I visited him for the first time. Eventually I became close friends with Cedric and I was the only one who could work with him, because he refused to work with the architecture world. It connects back to that idea of the art world being able to do things with architecture that no one else can do. He hated the architecture world, but we did many books and shows together.

JK: You’re lucky. So many of these people I’ve never met but from afar, yet feel a deep connection to.

HUO: Let’s talk more about permanence, another idea that has inspired a lot of artists. With Michael Asher, there was the idea of the “reversible situation,” like when he did the radiators in Bern, which I went to see twenty years ago, where the radiators were subsequently moved back. It was like a reversible readymade, where the intervention eventually gets reverted. With Asher it doesn’t stay, it’s just there for the duration of the exhibition. Whereas you have said in multiple interviews that you are interested in the idea that a gesture can actually become permanent or long-term. When did that enter your mindset?

JK: It entered the work very early, but not so formally. It’s grounded in the idea that what’s problematic about the assisted readymade notion is that it too easily gets detached from its referent and is susceptible to premature rarefication. Work needs to maintain its presence as a work and simultaneously maintain its utilitarian moments so as to be more resilient to changing conditions over periods of time. Reversibility is certainly a viable alternative to absolutist conventions of total erasure, a position that Michael outgrew to the delight of his very best work, in my humble opinion.

HUO: Your piece from the Whitney Biennial is currently in storage.

JK: Not exactly. After the exhibition ended, I asked them to remove the didactic and informed them that it was no longer operating as an aesthetic moment, and had reverted to its utilitarian function of a rain chain and scupper. And would remain that way until such a time that it would become a part of their collection. As a work of art, it was in storage. In fact, it remained “in storage” until the Metropolitan Museum took possession of the building, at which point all of the work owned by the Whitney was removed. At that point, the curatorial staff approached me to ask what I wanted to do with my work. I told them that if they had no interest in purchasing it, then it should be tossed into the rubbish. There were others without my sentiments. At the present, it’s floating in a suspended state of being.

HUO: It has a sort of double code. Felix Gonzalez-Torres talked about that, when he said that the artwork has to have multiple codes. It’s got to be like a spy, in a way.

JK: My preferred term is “slippage.”

HUO: So for the moment the Whitney piece is in this limbo state?

JK: At this juncture I would have to say, it’s a done deal. For the preparation of the Koons exhibition every existing piece of art on site was removed. Even pieces made in situ years ago like Charles Simmons’s installation in the central stairwell.

HUO: So they had to remove it because of Jeff Koons. And now it’s in situ and ex situ. In the pollution.

JK: Yep.

HUO: A few last questions. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a famous little book containing advice to a young poet. What would be your advice to a young artist?

JK: Oh, I have no advice. It would be preposterous and pretentious for a dyed-in-the-wool twentieth-century figure to turn to a twenty-first-century artist and say, “My advice to you is…”

HUO: One last question. Tell me your Muhammad Ali story. I am very curious.

JK: Perhaps we should save this anecdote for another time.



John Knight lives in Los Angeles and works in situ. He will be participating in the fifth edition of Skulptur Projeckte Münster, 2017.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (1968, Zurich, Switzerland) is Co-Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne  de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.


Originally published on Mousse 59




Related Articles
Of Familiarity: Polys Peslikas
(Read more)
Driving the Human: A Three-Year Development Process Combining Science, Technology, and the Arts
(Read more)
A Sculpture Looking at You Whilst Touching Itself: Jesse Wine
(Read more)
Ficting and Facting. McKenzie Wark, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
(Read more)
the pleasure principle: Stephanie LaCava
(Read more)
Portraits of Landscapes: Tau Lewis
(Read more)