Text by Lumi Tan
“Audience participation” in performance art is often perceived as a threat. Undoubtedly, it prevents a certain public from attending any performance where it is seen as even a remote possibility. While audience members can assert their own passivity by staring down at their feet or their program in order to avoid eye contact with those on stage, it is futile; to be a viewer of a performance is automatically to become a participant. The audience sets the tone, allowing the performer to react to perceived energies. Audiences have agency— they can boo, try to quietly sneak out the back, go as far as to get on stage and confront the performers if they like. (As a performance curator, I’ve seen it all.) The sense of power can flip in a matter of seconds. In her ongoing performance work Sanity TV (2016-present), Autumn Knight puts these dynamics at the forefront, skillfully navigating rooms comprised of a handful of people to hundreds in cities internationally. For the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Knight traversed the building and tailored the performance to create intimate moments in glassed-in conference rooms, the Trustee Room at a moment when the museum leadership was being scrutinized and protested against, and eventually landed in the museum’s theater. Playing the host of a television talk show, she zeroes in on her “guests” within the audience with incisive humor and distinct authority; it is evident that she is not merely the host, but also the director. As a respondent, the pressure is on to keep up with her improvisation, which proves impossible. Knight’s role as interrogator implicates you in something, no matter what character you inhabit. In your attempts to be clever, play by Knight’s rules, or go for authenticity, you have likely revealed a latent bias or an unseemly desire to assimilate to the groupthink.
Knight’s persona never cracks, even if the audience’s emotions (veering wildly from levity to tense anxiety) are right on the surface.
Somehow, in this situation where the power should lie within both performer and audience, you leave unsettled, far more self-conscious, and absolutely in awe of Knight’s capacity to read human behavior.
Sanity TV may be the clearest demonstration of Knight’s academic background in both theater and drama therapy, yet she never allows her work to settle into any predictable space of discomfort. Creating a prolific body of work in her native Houston before relocating to New York in 2016, Knight’s projects in theaters, galleries and beyond question the institutions that seek to regulate and violate black female subjectivity. The pervasiveness of this institutional control means Knight’s work can remain malleable and far-reaching, lending itself to a wide-range of forms and approaches. On the occasion of Knight’s WALL (2014-2016) being acquired by the Studio Museum in Harlem—the first ever performance to be added to their venerable collection—it was performed at Danspace in October 2019, which is located in the sanctuary of the church of Saint Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. It is a charged space that is the oldest site of continuous worship in New York City, while being a locus of experimental performance since the 1960s. Ten femme, black-identified performers embodied concepts of the wall, with an initial departure point from Jerusalem’s Western Wall, as it is known in Hebrew, or the Buraq Wall in Arabic. The site is one of reverence and prayer, and also one of deep conflict resulting in riots and death. Using local performers in each iteration of the work, the walls that are conjured by these performers are myriad: physical borders meld into psychological barriers and systemic limitations. Sharing this stage is Knight and collaborator Natasha L. Turner; while they interact with each other, they do not interfere with the ensemble, who are seated and perform in a line facing the audience. The ensemble may be unified by their blue costumes, but refuse to recede into a single body. Knight ensures that they retain their individual rituals and strategies that carry multitudes of lived experience. The audience members of WALL are not the direct participants as enacted in Sanity TV; we become more aware of the divergences amongst the ensemble and amongst ourselves, as receivers and witnesses. The wall created by the ensemble’s positioning is not a confrontation of the audience, nor one that flattens subjectivity and reception. Rather, it is a reminder of theorist Édouard Glissant’s concept of relation as put forth in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation; relation must be acknowledged through difference. To highlight the difference between one side of the wall and the other, insiders and outsiders, performer and audience, is not a divisive procedure. It is one which advocates for more demanding articulations of who holds power and how.
This extends to Knight’s video work, where she still maintains a performative command over her audience, often through a canny use of language. While performance and video have long been entangled, Knight eschews any one-to-one relationship between the two. For instance, Knight describes her video Pong! (2019) as “mixture of intervention, performance, installation, and documentary work.” Here, the camera is fixated on the determined face of a white woman adeptly playing ping-pong; her opponent is never shown. The percussive and particular sound of the ball creates a constant rhythm with which to read the overlaid text, which establishes the historical context before moving into a first-person narrative about the shock of a white childhood girlfriend’s casual racism. At first, the historical details seem relatively “objective,” listing facts about the price of milk and popular culture. The historical references which follow the story, however, now appear far more loaded, citing Jesse Jackson, Benjamin Carlson, and Prozac. Still, they remain facts of the same year; even if the camera has not moved off its subject, our viewpoint has shifted. Knight extends these moments of exposure and encounter to a creature not typically recast as a subject of empathy: the cockroach, which has held a role as a specter of fear in Knight’s work since 2013. Videos such as Roaches Aren’t the Easiest Creatures to Milk (2017)—a riff on the absurdity of pharmaceutical commercials which announce themselves with sunny images of an unencumbered life, and conclude with an increasingly dismal list of harmful side effects— use the cockroach as a vehicle to speak of survival, prejudice, and shame. The camera is cropped tightly to Knight’s mouth, as she drinks (cockroach) milk, pure white and luscious. While persuasion is a primary quality of a powerful performer, Knight correspondingly employs doubt as a generative tool.
AUTUMN KNIGHT is an interdisciplinary artist working with performance, installation, video and text. Her performance work has been on view at various institutions including Krannert Art Museum (IL), The Institute for Contemporary Art (VCU), Human Resources Los Angeles (HRLA) and Akademie der Kunste (Berlin). Her performance and video work is held in the permanent collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Knight participated in the 2019 Whitney Biennial as a performance and video artist.
LUMI TAN is Curator at The Kitchen in New York, where she has organized exhibitions and produced performances with artists across disciplines and generations since 2010. She will be working with Autumn Knight on an upcoming residency and performance project in May 2020.
Cover: Lament, 2017, Krannert Art Museum, IL Photo by Paula Court.
Video by Daniel Carroll Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art
All images Courtesy: the artist