Autumn Knight Tears The Kitchen Apart

The artist’s bracing performances demonstrate that institutions – and perception itself – can never be neutral

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BY Madeleine Seidel in Reviews | 27 AUG 20

Autumn Knight is an agent of controlled and righteous chaos. The interdisciplinary artist and performer uses audience interaction, interpretation and confrontation to expose the absurd societal norms and mechanisms of power in the arts and beyond. Although her May residency at The Kitchen, New York, was originally postponed due to COVID-19, the artist chose to live-stream her three new performances via Twitch, without a physical audience, over the course of three weeks in July.

Autumn Knight
Performance of Autumn Knight at The Kitchen, New York, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and The Kitchen, New York; photograph: © Paula Court

For the duration of each two-hour performance, a small crew and multiple cameras track Knight’s every movement as she slowly dismantles The Kitchen’s interior while delivering monologues both slyly comical and emotionally charged. She rips up the carpet, raises her own flag on the rooftop and wreaks havoc on the previously dormant space. This live feed is interspersed with security footage of The Kitchen’s bathroom and animations of hand gestures by the artist Adebukola Bodunrin. Knight’s actions frame The Kitchen as a complex setting: the institutional space is simultaneously described as a ‘cage’ in which racial, gendered and classist power mechanisms are at play, yet it also provides a blank slate for her artistic exploration of these societal ills. Knight’s negotiations of space are most poignant in her final performance, in which she takes calls from the livestream audience as a receptionist for the wish-granting wizard from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Through this, Knight reflects on her role as an unwilling intermediary between the communities to which she belongs and institutions that have historically excluded them. Her undeniable agency in this space – her body, her booming voice, the footprint she leaves – rebukes this imbalance. As Knight observed in a conversation with Tennille Mack, published on The Kitchen website to accompany her residency, these performances reflect her artistic discourse on ‘the way that Black femmes hold, take up, are given and denied positions of authority in various spaces’.

Autumn Knight
Performance of Autumn Knight at The Kitchen, New York, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and The Kitchen, New York; photograph: © Paula Court

Like a nightmarish ASMR video, the soundtrack features the squish of citrus fruit, the scratch of wire hangers and the rumpling of shaken plastic sheets – a hyper-real sensorial experience that questions the ways in which our perception of events is directly shaped by identity. Most notably, Knight includes various recordings of her voice warped by vocoders and exaggerated accents to create a cast of ‘characters’ within the performances that showcase rage, humour and defiance, allowing her to explore various viewpoints and the intricacies of race and class. These characters – a smooth-talking radio DJ, a flamboyant French philosopher, a Southern woman likely drawn from Knight’s Houston hometown, and two troubled contestants from MTV’s long-running reality series The Real World (1992–ongoing), among others – discuss the ways Black identity can shift in predominantly white ecosystems.

Autumn Knight
Performance of Autumn Knight at The Kitchen, New York, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and The Kitchen, New York; photograph: © Paula Court

In Knight’s second performance, she writes a series of messages in chalk on the walls, such as ‘JUST A PERSON LOOKING THROUGH THE OBJECTIVE EYE’ and ‘COMPLICIT/NOT BENIGN/NOT INNOCENT’, which directly challenge notions of authority and objectivity under the presumed white gaze of the institution. In such statements, and in her bracing, irreverent monologues, Knight frames racism as an ever-present feature of the American psyche. Individual perceptions in such a violent system can never be neutral, but are always irrevocably shaped by race and class. There’s no use saving structures that enable complicity. As Knight implored during the opening of her final performance: ‘WE DON’T NEED NO WATER! LET THAT MOTHERFUCKER BURN!’

Autumn Knight's performances at The Kitchen, New York can be viewed online here

Main Image: Performance of Autumn Knight at The Kitchen, New York, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and The Kitchen, New York; photograph: © Paula Court

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