INTERVIEW: AUTUMN KNIGHT AND PHILLIP TOWNSEND
Autumn Knight is an interdisciplinary artist working with performance, installation, video and text. Her performance work has been on view at various institutions including The Whitney Museum of Art, DiverseWorks Artspace, Art League Houston, Project Row Houses, Blaffer Art Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum, Skowhegan Space (NY), The New Museum, The Contemporary Art Museum Houston, and beyond. Autumn is the recipient of an Artadia Award (2015) and an Art Matters Grant (2018). She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2016) and holds an M.A. in Drama Therapy from New York University. Recently Autumn spoke to Austin-based curator and scholar Phillip A. Townsend about her artistic background, the meaning-making and self-realization that transpires in performance, and her new work M___R, which we are co-presenting with Women & Their Work at Fusebox Festival 2020.
Phillip Townsend: Can you tell me a little bit about where you are from and when you first became interested in art?
Autumn Knight: I’m from Houston Texas, and I became interested in art at a very young age. I’ve done art my whole life, really.
PT: Is there a reference point for your upbringing in your work?
AK: I think having the freedom to always do art from the beginning is also in my work. I’m starting my career a little bit later, but I’ve always had experience with multiple art forms. I haven’t been afraid to dabble in other things.
PT: You have a very nuanced approach to your art that I think is influenced by your background in drama therapy. Drama therapy is a little less conventional—what is it all about? Can you talk about how that informed your practice?
AK: I think it shows in the sensibility in terms of my relationship to the audience, and never being afraid to be intimate, or to break the fourth wall with audience members. And I think my experiences in drama therapy school taught me about boundaries, what I do, what I should allow the audience to do. I have a background in improv—
PT: —I knew it! It’s so apparent.
AK: Yeah, that really opened my world up. I grew up doing theater, so to transition from scripted work to learning how to do improv was very hard. It’s another muscle you have to learn to use.
PT: I’m a huge fan of Sanity TV. You talked about using that extra muscle, and to me there’s a quality of heightened perception in those performances, an uneasiness that people experience, that I think stems from two different places. One being this natural anxiety of being pulled into a performance, but also the presence of Blackness particularly when that Blackness is hyper visible. Can you speak about working through and in notions of discomfort?
AK: Discomfort is the meat of it. When I think about those moments of discomfort, I think about being held and holding. Holding the other, and holding myself—pausing and thinking about which parts of this are uncomfortable. There are different layers to the feeling of discomfort. Some of the immediate ones are having to participate and feeling in the spotlight, but also Black visibility and then the audience being able to see the Black gaze and become used to it. People are not used to it, and some of that discomfort is the Black gaze coming to the forefront and having to see one’s self within the Black gaze. Or even just any other kind of gaze from the margins.
PT: And how generative do you think that is? What do you think discomfort is doing for your audiences, and for yourself?
AK: I think there’s a possibility of thinking through survival in the discomfort. Just moving slowly through it and understanding that there is survival and even potential thriving on the other side of the discomfort, and that you’re not necessarily alone in the discomfort. As a performer, I make myself vulnerable, or present the appearance of that vulnerability, to share in that idea of the journey of moving through the discomfort.
PT: It appears that the work is centered in humanism in that it emphasizes or draws attention to the value and agency of people both individually and collectively. You mentioned that journey in getting to the other side of discomfort and knowing that you’re not alone, and I think it allows people an opportunity for self-realization, because in a lot of the audiences that I’ve seen, there seems to be a large attendance of white people. And there’s a tradition of Black performance and Black ritual that seems to be kind of insular. But I think with your performances, it’s not just an audience watching you but more of a collective engagement. I think that it allows people to think about how they are actually engaging with you, but also what their role is in this collective group. And it’s super generative, because for the most part when audiences go see performances, it’s just speculative—we’re voyeurs. But I love this gesture that you do with the broom—you move around with this broom, and people are moving and adjusting themselves in response to this, and that is self-realization if I’ve ever seen it in the most physical sense, that people are now aware of their bodies without you even having to say a word. It’s just a gesture that makes people think about their relationship to you, the performance, and other people. I think it’s brilliant.
AK: Something spoke to me to include that in the performance, and I feel like it’s from a deeply psychic, spiritual, and otherworldly ancestral place. You know, there is a desire to also have ritual very present. Obviously, performance is ritual. That’s at the root of it. But I think there was some unconscious message that told me to include that ritual. I mean, obviously there’s the old black taboo, “don’t sweep my feet.”
PT: Yes, run from it!
AK: That’s where it comes from. I remember the first few times I did it, I actually didn't know why. I just knew it was supposed to be bad luck, but I didn’t know what the bad luck was about. So, I think there's something in the silence and the motion of seeing how people respond to it, and seeing what their knowledge base is around this ritual and this taboo. Some people didn’t respond at all. Eventually, this young Black woman was like, “Oh, don’t sweep my feet! I’m not going to be able to get married!” And the whole audience got to find out, including me, “Oh, this is about bad luck, but more specifically about that.” I also felt like it was a way to connect what I felt immediately with the Black people in the audience, hopefully. Or that was my intention—that invitation to connect by introducing this taboo. I’ve been in New York, so I didn’t know if people were going to respond to this [reference] because I thought it was a southern thing. But it apparently, it’s in parts of the Caribbean, too. It’s the same rule. But there were older Black people in the audience that were like “Don’t you do it, back up!”
PT: That’s hilarious because I’m from Louisiana, and I thought it was just this weird southern Black ritual. But I feel normalized now that I know that it’s happening in Black communities all over the world—that they’re also thinking about that broom. Okay, so now we have to talk about this performance. How do you say it? I know it’s “M” and some dashes, and then “-er”, so, “emmer?”
AK: You know, I actually didn’t think about this when I was making up the name! Until someone said it to me and I realized I’d never spoken it out loud. I’d only thought about how to write it.
PT: I think, on a note of semiotics, there’s a sense of humor or ambiguity in those little blank spaces. Tell me about the performance.
AK: I left it open-ended, but I was thinking about the words “matter” and “mother.” My therapist was telling me about how mother and matter have the same root, and that was just fascinating to me. So, I was thinking about hoarding and about what that means in terms of matter—the act of gathering matter around you. Not necessarily recreating the womb, but just using that space as a buffer.
PT: Yeah, it’s a cocoon you use to insulate yourself.
AK: Absolutely. So, I was just thinking about the relationship between buying things and holding onto them, the universal relationship of mother and the inevitable attachment there—not in the same way a hoarder holds onto things, but a similar idea in the notion of a mother not only being a material thing, but also the mother as an idea.
In the performance, I have a paper-installation—huge rolls from the ceiling. So, each performance, more and more paper is pulled down to basically form a nest. There’s a sound component as well, and in the second half of the performance, I interact as everybody’s mother and become this projected space of “mother,” and all of the things that align with the idea of “mother” or whatever we need “mother” to be. “Mother” was also an idea that came out of a Sanity TV performance. I arrived to one of my performances late and apologized to the audience, and this older white man responded, “it’s okay, Mom.” And I was like, “Okay, Son? Glad I’m forgiven?” And so the rest of the performance, I was everybody’s mother. That was just so deep in the places that it went. I did a lot of making people siblings, so it was no longer just my relationship to them, but their relationship to each other, and then their relationship as a group. I wanted to explore that more, because it was so generative that everybody had some relationship or some idea of whether it was good, bad, or even just complicated. And I started to think about all of the different ways in which a mother is a complicated figure in one’s life, whether they are there or not. So, it’s a birthday.
PT: That’s interesting. From the beginning when we talked about Sanity TV, and the sweeping of the broom, and the “M____r,” it seems like relationship building is at the crux of your practice. You said earlier that it’s open-ended. Because of that, do you think audiences will come in with an expectation of something different than what you have in mind? And does that even matter?
AK: It doesn’t even matter. I mean those are some ideas, but there are so many words that I think fit around the themes and the concepts that I want to talk about. That if they think “Oh, master” or “murder”—
PT: —Yeah, it’s all wrapped up in motherhood, anyway. The complications of motherhood, all of those things are there.
AK: Yeah, just what the mother represents and how we mother ourselves.
PT: Self-care, yes.
AK: And how we are called upon to mother other people. Because it’s, in part, formative of what we come to expect from other people.
PT: Right, unconditional and caring love. You mentioned how important improv was to your work. But humor is another part of your work, both in the jovial sense but also its role in serious performances and how nuanced that has to be. What value does that bring to your work or your practice in general?
AK: Humor is so important. To even be able to get to a point where I could bring humor back into my practice was so important. There was a point where I started making more serious work in which it didn’t really dawn on me to even use humor, but it is really important to me because it’s a tool for analysis. It’s a way of processing information. Everything can be tragic and everything can be comedic.
PT: I think you’re right, things are tragic and comedic. I think that’s an incredibly poignant thing, to recognize that things are both.
AK: I think what a lot of people don’t understand about humor is that it’s most often from a very dark place. It’s the underbelly. It’s after you’ve reached the depths of this despair. I feel like I’m very much in touch with trying to get to the bottom of pain, despair, hurt, and discomfort. I think I need to reach underneath there to get to the humor. Sometimes, people think humor lives on top, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it’s evidence of things being thought about, because it’s never the first thought.
PT: In your performances, generally, is it Autumn or an avatar who’s performing?
AK: It’s a little bit of both. There’s definitely distance. I think the thing about Sanity TV, specifically, is that it’s really just going off the dome the entire time. It’s one of the most stressful and complicated performances, but also the most free because I’m just relying on my own mind and I am actually a part of my own persona. But it is an avatar. Not a character, but an avatar. I think there needs to be a space that the people in the audience can project onto without them necessarily thinking that they are talking to me. I need them to be able to say whatever it is they want to say. Like in the instance of the white man calling me “Mom.” I’ll let you say “Mommy,” but I do need to address the fact that you just called this Black woman “mommy.’”
PT: Which has a whole complex, problematic history of references to the “Mammy” figure.
AK: But those things come out all the time, and I need an avatar to respond and say, “Yes honey, but also I am in the body of this Black woman. So let’s investigate why that was the first thing that came to your mind and why you need a Black Mommy. I’m not going to deny you of it, but let’s talk about why.”
AK: Yes, Self-realization.
Phillip A. Townsend is a doctoral candidate in the Art and Art History Department at UT-Austin who studies Modern and Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora. His research focuses on the politics of space, theories of displacement, and their intersections visualized in art produced by Black women artists of the African Diaspora. Phillip is a co-founder of Neon Queen Collective—an independent curatorial cooperative and the Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon Research Fellow in African American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art.