Reading the Room

Autumn Knight's performance leaves space for chance.
conversation
Autumn Knight, NOTHING#122: a bar, a bed, a bluff at Performance Space New York. May 2023. Images courtesy of Performance Space New York.Photo: Rachel Papo

In the spring of 2022, I had the privilege of working with Autumn Knight to bring her performance M_ _ _ER to the theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where I worked as a curator. The theater is, at first glance, a very traditional one: there’s a clear-cut "fourth wall," a dark and cavernous stage, and rows of seats climbing upwards. But, as she always does, Knight sought to subvert the theater’s conventional architecture with her art. She invited audiences directly onto the stage through one of the backstage doors where, along with her light and sound design collaborators Tuçe Yasak and Rena Anakwe, she created a space which felt like both a cramped, adamantly festive birthday party and an indiscernible void-like expanse of flickering light, depending on the moment and how Knight’s improvisational decisions cued subtle changes into focus. The excitement of entering the dark, dramatically lit theater—and the uncertain potential for surprise, or the appearance of something inexplicable—was palpable. The effect was simultaneously grounding and disorienting, so that it was Knight, and Knight alone, who could build the logic of whatever version of her world might emerge that evening.

Over the last decade, Knight, whose background includes theater and drama therapy, has become known for performance works that use theatrical tactics and improvisation to carefully orchestrate social situations, throwing her viewers’ racial and gender dynamics into sharp relief in real time. Whether in a theater, gallery, or conference room—such as the Whitney museum office, where she memorably staged an imaginary talk show at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, turning viewers into actors—Knight mobilizes discomfort and humor to shed light on interpersonal power relations. No performance is the same, even when it’s been done before. Knight’s work, in particular, reminds us that performance is a living, breathing, ever-changing medium. Each new iteration of an Autumn Knight performance is forged in relationship with the audience, objects, lighting, and sounds present in the room where it occurs. She orchestrates and improvises entire worlds, but never completely from scratch.

Knight, a visual arts residency alum at Pioneer Works, just staged a trio of new works at Performance Space New York—NOTHING#122: a bar, a bed, and a bluff—which are slated to head to LA and Portland. I sat down with the artist to discuss these works and her practice at large.

Tara Aisha Willis

Let’s talk about the title of your new piece, NOTHING#122. Nothingness is often associated with a void, an absence, and maybe even nihilism. In Black thought these days, there's a lot of conversation around opacity, refusal, and the productive potential in being illegible to whiteness—but also around rest, care, and refusing productivity. How does the concept of “nothing” relate to your work?

Even framing something with nothing creates curiosity, a question mark, or an invitation, really. It becomes a door to somewhere else.
Autumn Knight

I think performance is a type of nothingness that you have to be present for. It’s this thing that will become literally nothing in just a few minutes; it will evaporate. Or if it’s happening in the future, it’s in the mind, which is invisible. Even framing something as “nothing” creates curiosity, a question mark, or an invitation, really. It becomes a door to somewhere else. I do recognize the extreme contradiction of a person being very, very busy and then making a whole bunch of work talking about the sweetness of doing nothing, the Italian concept of dolce far niente. But I think it demonstrates the ways we get caught up in having to prove our worth through work, and saying I’m doing nothing gives me the space to not have to come up with a whole world, even though I am world-building. I don't want to rack my brain or feel the pressure or the shame of not being able to put a frame around, or put words to something that I don't know if I can describe.

TAW

The nothingness is the frame, right? It's already the title of the work. Would you talk a little bit more about the three pieces: a bar, a bed, and a bluff?

AK

The first part is a bar, and it's based on “host bars” in parts of East Asia, Korea and Japan, where (in some versions) women pay for male companionship. I commissioned a bar sculpture that also looks like a stage set. There are drinks and a DJ, and I invite people to do certain things—feed each other fruit or flirt, for example, to set up certain charged dynamics. In the second work, a bed, there is a bed sculpture pushed into a corner, so we see this intimate space between two people and we're watching from a seating structure that resembles an amphitheater. The work is based on a video and performance I did in Rome (letto). This is the second time I'm reimagining it as a performance. It’s based on an interview I read between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Félix González-Torres where Torres mentions creating work that he realizes may be a sort of “rehearsing” for loss. The third piece is called a bluff, and is literally about doing nothing, having no plan, and not being afraid. There is an open-endedness in bluff that allows new possibilities within the production’s live-ness. There's a sociality within the first piece, and in the second piece there’s a couple interacting, and then the third is a solo performance. NOTHING#122 gets smaller, more intimate, and more internalized throughout the three pieces.

You know what's so funny about a bluff? I thought, "Okay, for the last one, I need a ‘B’ word.” I did a google search and came across bluff, and I thought, "I love the way it sounds and that it's a linguistic middle finger."

TAW

When I first read bluff, I thought of it first in terms of a cliff overlook, but then I thought, "Wait a second, that's not necessarily the key definition here." I mean, maybe it's present too; I think the nothingness gets me there as well. What are we jumping off of to be in this space?

A stage flooded with rainbow gameshow-esque lights feature a woman tying someone to a chair.
Autumn Knight, NOTHING#122: a bar, a bed, a bluff at Performance Space New York. May 2023. Images courtesy of Performance Space New York.Photo: Rachel Papo
AK

There are many entry points, I think, to the idea of doing nothing with this work, but it involves a lot of social interaction, definitely in parts one and three. The first piece does involve creating an immersive experience and connecting personally with a few audience members at a time, one-on-one, in a way that's very intimate. It's a thing that I haven't really done before. I’m also training a host (during the performance), and that process resembles how I understand therapists being trained to listen, to care, to hold a lot of really intimate material for people.

TAW

Who is the host?

AK

Originally, I wanted to train a group of people to be hosts, but because of time restraints, I hosted. I’m kind of learning by doing, and then training others to host during the performance, in real time. Hosting in the host bar context is a non-sexual yet transactional exchange where there is also intimacy. It is about making the person feel desired and making sure they have a good time.

TAW

It’s so fascinating, because it sounds like the training that you might have wanted to do prior to the performance has actually now become the performance. When we worked together last year on M_ _ _ER at MCA Chicago, what struck me throughout that process was your constant ability to adapt—you had to change your plans several times to fit different spaces in the museum, and your ideas continued to evolve once you were in a consistent space. As much as we can plan, so much of your work unfolds in real time, as you take in the present moment and respond to what's happening: the dynamics in the room, the particularities of what the prop is doing today, all of that stuff.

There are these tools in your toolkit as well—these therapeutic tactics—that require carefully setting up different situations and then dealing with them as they shift. I wonder if there are any key moments you might share where you felt one of these approaches coming into focus for the first time.

AK

There was one moment I remember during a M_ _ _ER performance in Seattle, when I was feeding people ice cream, and there was a row of people who were like, "No, no, no." After many people had eaten it, there were then people who were suddenly inspired to refuse. I threw the ice cream on the ground, and said, “Enough. I'm out of here." I had a local creamery specifically make nut-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, everything-free ice cream so it could be eaten by anyone. (Or so I thought.) Of course there can be refusal. But I think for the first time I realized, "Oh, I can respond to this refusal. I can refuse too. Bye." From that moment on, I was able to think about which improvisational moments are not humorous and which ones can be used to really go there. But there's also something about the sensory experience of touching and eating. The tactility is another layer. When I performed at BAM, I gave everyone balloons, so people had a job to do. This busyness happened for the first time at the MCA, with the amount of props I used in the performance.

A man lies face down in a softly lit bed.
Autumn Knight, NOTHING#122: a bar, a bed, a bluff at Performance Space New York. May 2023. Images courtesy of Performance Space New York.Photo: Rachel Papo
TAW

Why do you think that strategy came up? Was it something about the setup of that space, or just the feel of audiences in Chicago? Or perhaps just the phase you were at with M_ _ _ER, having done it a couple of times before?

AK

Chicago seemed like the place to do it. It helps when the audience and the artist make the performance together. At the Whitney, I asked the audience to move television screens, a cart, and other things around the space. It kept the space active. Let's all be in it.

TAW

The MCA show also had all these screens, and there was a live stream that was a work in and of itself. It was not documentation. But it sounds like, because there's no other media in this new work, there's more of an investment in impermanence. You said earlier that nothingness is also what happens after the show.

AK

To a certain degree you've got to create that exclusiveness, to put a premium on the art form. It is live art, and that's what actually makes it what it is. You have to get on a plane, you have to make the trip, and if you want to see it, then you have to come see it. That's it. ♦

MORE FROM BROADCAST
Change the frequency.
Subscribe to Broadcast