By Davis Rivera
Ted Knighton is not your typical filmmaker. After instantly impressing with a trilogy of terrific shorts in the eighties, Philadelphia-based Knighton has gone on to work in a wide variety of different mediums and prove himself as an artist that confronts his audience with the necessity of redefining seemingly familiar experiences. In his latest exhibition Street Trees, Knighton has created a site-specific showcase that, in addition to film, includes drawings and “installations that respond to, or emerge from our everyday surroundings, specifically the side streets, vacant lots, and public buildings of Philadelphia.” A good starting point before venturing over to International House for the show, which opened on July 11th, is his artist statement, which succinctly explains the aims of Knighton as an artist:
“I think it’s good to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. We get used to the world around us and it’s easy to stop seeing how amazing, strange, and fascinating it all is. Through art and film, I like to move the furniture of life around a little so that we see the room again.”
When I interviewed Knighton, he was passionate about his allegiance to site-specific art and the world he has created in these once seemingly invisible and often passed-over spaces.
“You couldn’t set this installation up somewhere else. There’s a general theme running throughout of sight-specific works, or works that are inspired by a landscape or connect to it in some way. It also includes projection that’s specific to that spot. I hope that it will give people a new way of looking at this spot or thinking about it. Make people aware of the room. Noticing the landscape, rather than just passing through it.”
One of the defining examples of Knighton’s sight-specific work, which doubles as a highlight in the exhibition, is the 2013 film 3rd & Arch.
“3rd & Arch is a presentation of a piece was that projected onto a building in Old City in January of 2013. It could only be shown two nights because of limitations and logistics, but one of the programmers at International House just so happened to be there one of the two nights and thought it deserved a bigger audience.”
Knighton’s decision to isolate such a unique and often forgotten element of film art in order to subject it to intense scrutiny breaks new ground in not only the aesthetics of film but also all of cultural politics. The focus placed on the visual characteristics of each individual setting evokes cerebral responses from the audience and seems to exist in its own sphere of spatial reverence. However, according to Knighton, there are two films that must be mentioned for the role they played in his championing of the landscape.
“There are definitely two films: Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The two might not seem related but they are in many ways. I’d say specifically during the sniper scene that happens toward the end of Full Metal Jacket. That reminds me quite a bit of Stalker. Also, in both films, a lot of the dialogue is one guy telling other guys, “be careful how you move through this area.” And, of course, in each one there’s an invisible threat. In Stalker it’s a bit more opaque, really it’s the landscape itself. But in Full Metal Jacket I get the feeling, because the threat is invisible, what’s crucial is being aware of the lay of the land. Both films are almost like a big game board: you can move up to here but don’t go past there. Both landscapes are ruinous so you’re more aware of them as geometry rather than as buildings with purposes. The purposes are long gone.”
This awareness of his cinematic forbearers reminds one of Marx’s remark that, “if you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person.” Knighton is certainly that and has put together a remarkable show that is totally deserving of his celebrated thirty-plus year career as a genre and medium-defying artist.
Davis Rivera is a filmmaker, writer, actor, musician, and Rap Genius contributor from Texas. He lives and works in Philadelphia.
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