The current show at Z contains two works: Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film Solaris, and Clement Hurd and Margaret Wise Brown's 1947 bedtime classic Goodnight Moon. This unlikely pairing is the second in a series of exhibitions devised by artist and graphic designer David Knowles. Hosted in his bedroom, Z's premise is deceptively simple: for $50, anyone can rent Knowles's room for a night (reservations are made through his Airbnb profile), and spend the evening with the current exhibition (through Mar. 15th).
On the one hand, it's as simple as that. Knowles suggested as much when he told me that "it's a series about surfaces expressing only themselves," insisting that there is no latent meaning being withheld from visitors. On the other hand, upon hearing Knowles discuss the project it becomes clear that this succinct arrangement is thoughtfully designed, and stems from a dense set of ambivalences about how art is predominantly circulated, consumed and funded today.
The series was sparked by Knowles's frustration with Contemporary Art Daily, the now-ubiquitous repository of gallery and museum installation shots. If the gallery system and its attendant ritual of marathon "gallery runs" encourage the idea of low-stakes, rapid-fire viewership, Contemporary Art Daily only accelerates these habits by subjecting works to the limitations of the screen and the act of careless scrolling. With Z, Knowles seeks to present an alternative economy of attention, one which encourages durational, intimate absorption of the works on view.
For this reason, you will never see any photographs of any of the exhibitions. Arguing that documentation will inevitably feed into the habits he's trying to defuse, Knowles limits the audience to those who experience it directly. (The first Z show, featuring Portland-based artist Kristan Kennedy and Bauhaus textile legend Gunta Stölzl, had an audience of exactly four: Knowles, Kennedy and two Airbnb-ers.) The secondary audience is instead produced through words. Knowles writes an essay for each iteration, which he posts on Facebook and the Z website. He hopes that his prose will generate imagined installation views in the minds of his readers. The lack of documentation also builds an air of mystique around the project, generating interest in a way that runs counter to the strategies of that most predominant art text: the press release. He hopes that as the project grows, other people's descriptions will add to the mythos, be it through word of mouth or reviews on his Airbnb page.
Systems of compensation are also central to Z's conception. Knowles takes issue with the gallery's asymmetrical funding structure, where the public's admission-free viewership is supported by wealthy collectors' purchases of artworks. Instead of this "secretive feudalism," Knowles advocates peer-to-peer compensation and adopted Airbnb as a means to this end. He is transparent in where the money goes: $30 to cover his rent for the night, as well as laundry costs for sheets and towels, and the remaining $20 is split among the living participating artists. This arrangement, Knowles hopes, is mutually beneficial for the artists, the viewers and the works: the artists are supported by their entire public, like musicians or novelists; the viewer, by fronting some money, has more incentive to make the experience worthwhile; and the works are given more prolonged attention as a result.
The current exhibition came out of thinking about pre-sleep rituals and the space between waking consciousness and dreaming. Knowles recounts, "I was watching Solaris on my laptop as I was trying to fall asleep, and two things hit me. First, that Solaris is basically about the same thing as Goodnight Moon: the blurring of reality and fantasy as we drift to sleep. And second, that watching movies on a laptop is our adult take on the bedtime story-I had Goodnight Moon to help me sleep then, and I have Solaris to help me with that now."
This association manifests organically and poetically in the exhibition. Hurd's book rests on the bed's soft white comforter (the Spanish translation, Buenos Noches Luna, is also available), and Tarkovsky's film is projected off of a mirror and onto the ceiling above the bed-in order to view it, one has to be lying on one's back. Crucially, the sound is turned off and the subtitles are turned on. This "makes Solaris into a picture book, too," Knowles told me as he pressed play on his way out. He then encouraged me to keep it playing as I fell asleep, "so that it can also act as a nightlight."
By figuring the film as both a picture book and a nightlight, Knowles blends two distinct modes of viewing: the focused absorption of reading and the ambient absorption of atmosphere. In Z's domestic context, the two don't seem mutually exclusive, but complementary. As Knowles writes in the first Z essay: "If I find myself at any point puzzling for too long over these surfaces I look at other things in the room-at the surfaces adjacent to the surfaces, the walls, the chairs, the bed."
Reading Goodnight Moon, my eyes kept drifting up from the page toward the lights which casually lit the room, and the shadows that they happened to produce. Watching Solaris, too, I found myself transfixed by atmosphere-I was as immersed in the film's spectral imagery as I was by the softness of my pillow. Truth be told, I was asleep within the film's first half hour, awash in the projection's flicker-my nightlight. And in the context of Z, this is as much viewership as anything.