Published  09/11/2015

Chelsea Knight: ‘We are all outsiders and insiders’

Chelsea Knight: ‘We are all outsiders and insiders’

The artist talks about working at the threshold between video and performance, her interest in language and ethics, and what she sees as her responsibility in her work

by A Will Brown

Chelsea Knight (b1976) is a New York-based multidisciplinary artist who works in film, video, performance, photography and installation. Her work addresses the performative and often confounding nature of language. Much of Knight’s work is collaborative and takes shape through stages, a performance that is made into a video, or a series of interactions that later become the movements for a score. The use of dance-based movement and choreography, theatrical staging and gestural repetition are three core strategies the artist employs to explore the complexities of human behaviour and many systems of communication, both verbal and performed.

A Will Brown: I want to start by thinking through a quote from your work, Searching for a Character, 2013. At one point, while driving, you look into the camera and say: “What happens to the performer when the performer thinks that she or he is not acting?” How does this play out in your work? Were you acting when you said that? This idea of acting v not acting, where one is potentially acting all the time, is difficult to parse, and perhaps, that instance of “What is happening to the performer?” is different for everyone, ineffable somehow?

Chelsea Knight: Basically, what I’m trying to do in that particular work is to use dramaturgical and sociological language to frame the ways that we live and behave in the world. We survive through negotiating the world around us with very sophisticated and intricate social methods, whether conscious of this or not, and I think we perform in certain ways not out of hostility or some kind of fakeness, but out of a need to ease all the multiple conversations, transactions and intimacies that we encounter in our lives. We have a front for this, an artifice.

I wasn’t acting, in the sense that I wasn’t trying to put on a front, and yet I was acting, in that it’s impossible not to have a front.

AWB: Much of your work incorporates choreography for dance-like movements and sequences. How closely do you work with a choreographer in works such as Posse Comitatus, 2014, and how much is left to chance and framing, instead of specifically defined gestures?

CK: I have been working with dance and movement as a kind of translation from the expression of an idea to the expression of a body, to see what is lost and gained in the movement from one form to another. In the case of the final live iteration of Posse (which I made in collaboration with Mark Tribe) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (we later showed a video and photo installation of the work at DiverseWorks in Houston), we worked with a choreographer and two dancers to create a perpetual rehearsal, something that never got resolved. We weren’t interested in something complete, a performance, as much as the body in progress making sense physically of a series of military gestures and movements. In order to do this, we needed a specific conceptual and formal framework, but, within that, the choreographers and dancers improvised. The gestures weren’t important in and of themselves: it was the movement towards and away from a psychical space that mattered.

AWB: The military interrogation techniques that you include in The End of All Resistance are so psychological and, watching the work without reading about it beforehand, I assumed that some of the techniques were therapeutic, used to treat problems. This distinction is interesting to me, healing v harming for information. Do you see overlap between therapy and interrogation? Your work seems to suggest so.

CK: In the case of the specific emotional techniques, I was employing (as described by the US army in a 2006 manual on interrogation), I was very interested in the ways the performance of an interrogation can be coercive – that it’s a psychological game of trust that can appear to be about support and listening, but is really about extracting evidence and, ultimately, often produces confusion and fear in the detainee. In re-enacting the techniques with real interrogators, in a sense I was trying to mirror real life: the games of manipulation we play with each other to get what we want. That is mirrored by my family’s performances, though they came up with their scenarios and improvisations in a domestic context. I also was playing with the idea of an acting exercise I learned in college, where you are always “playing a verb”, working with an action, because you’re always trying to get something from the other actor. These different scenarios intersected in ways that I found interesting.

AWB: As an artist working in video and performance, is there a line between these two distinct forms? You seem to be constantly blurring the boundary between the two – if there is one, that is.

CK: I would say that I try to work at a kind of threshold between video and performance. I mean, plying the boundaries between being a seer and a seen, extracting performances from places you might not expect, producing videos from moments that might not be conducive to video, and bleeding everything together as much as possible. In my newest work, Fall to Earth, I made each chapter of a video about the politics of language as a live film shoot in the basement theatre of the New Museum in New York. So the film was a collection of performances. But when you watch the final film you don’t need to know that – it just reads as a video with no establishing shots.  

AWB: What types of emerging narratives, from the media and world events, or specific to your life, interest you most, and how do you decide on which to make work about?

CK: I try to make one larger, more constructed piece, each year and several smaller performances and videos. I pull from the everyday, in particular themes that have to do with how language fails us, and how power gets enacted through language. I am currently starting two new projects, one about conversations with people we have casual interactions with every day, that create the matrix of what we know as social, which I will shoot on my phone, and one more formal video and performance work about incarceration in New York City, and in particular the life of Kalief Browder, who killed himself this year after being released from three years in prison on Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. The case was later dropped, but not until they had essentially tortured Kalief by repeatedly beating him (as caught on surveillance camera) and denying him food, mental health care, physical care, and legal justice. I’m in the research phase for this piece and, hopefully, will start shooting next spring.  

AWB: For those readers who don’t know, Browder was a young African-American man who, as Chelsea stated, was imprisoned for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack, without being convicted of the crime. Browder who took his own life was allegedly assaulted and not properly fed while being kept in solitary confinement for his nearly three-year imprisonment on Rikers Island . Tell me aboutDon’t Tread on Me and your central ideas and aims with it.

CK: I was reading Atlas Shrugged, the Ayn Rand novel about free-market capitalism, in 2010, when the Tea Party movement had just taken up the book’s lead character, John Galt, as a sort of messiah for neoliberal thought, and I was thinking how it might be an interesting project to use the reading of that book to initiate a conversation with Tea Partiers and see if there were any areas where we could bridge our ideological divide. I didn’t agree with Rand’s theories, but the book was an interesting fantasy about what happens when the real makers and thinkers and drivers of a society abandon the society and leave all the bottom-feeding bureaucrats and socialists to fend for themselves. It’s a very funny book, actually. So I went to some meetup groups for Tea Party and Ayn Rand enthusiasts, and started doing interviews with the participants in which we disagreed about everything mostly. And then I thought it would be interesting to keep pushing and ask the participants to re-enact conservative speeches, and to do some simple choreography related to their ideas. So I worked with choreographer Rachel Cohen and we all started making this quilt of a video about our conversations about freedom, Reaganomics, the free market and Ayn Rand. And it became a somewhat abstract, 20-minute performative video with a companion 1.5-hour video of the raw interviews.

AWB: Throughout nearly all of your work, I see a distinctive investigation of, and creative relationship to, human behaviour. How important are notions of behaviour in your work?

CK: I am really interested in thinking about the world as an anthropological endeavour, but instead of the cultural anthropologist being a singular, outsider and often elite entity, I think we all need to take responsibility as anthropologists, helping each other make sense of the world, sharing information about our rituals and rites and relationships, finding instances of intimacy, and studying and interacting with each other in a way that can evoke great care for one another. So behaviour is really important to that. We are all outsiders and insiders, and how we move and behave in the world has great implications for our future as a society.

AWB: Along with behaviour, language seems to be a key element in your projects. Can you describe your interest in language specifically? I see your use of language cross the gestural, verbal, written, behaved and emotional. Would you add to that list or take away?

CK: My interest in language is like the umbrella under which I’m investigating a cocktail of cultural anthropology, theatre, psychology and sociology.  Language is the anchor, it’s the common element in how we communicate. I mean, we also communicate with our bodies, with our votes, with our refusals, with our silence, but language is fascinating because it’s both a bridge and an unbridgeable abyss. I seek to just draw attention to its powers and its evasiveness.

AWB: I’m always interested to hear from artists about other artists. Who are you really excited about, and whose work do you look to and at frequently? What artists would you point me to that I wouldn’t normally know about?

CK: I’ve been recently looking at the work of Martine Syms, Christine Sun Kim and Shane Aslan Selzer. They all are working with ideas of symbols, gestures and language in experimental ways that generate new potentialities for rethinking how we see and experience the world. And my old go-to artists for thinking about reality, isolation and performance are film-makers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Věra Chytilová and Chantal Akerman, who died this month. I was just rewatching Akerman’s [1974 film] Je, Tu, Il, Elle, and thinking about the politics of waiting. And how isolation and imprisonment in the self, the body, in silence, can be freedom, can be a totally unique kind of language.

AWB: If you could discuss one project that has been the most challenging for you, one that pushed you in new and exciting ways, what would it be? Tell me about the process?

CK: There are many that I feel have been pretty challenging, but probably Don’t Tread on Me was one of the most. I’m constantly feeling like I put myself and others in precarious positions so that I can explore a certain linguistic or psychological construct, and I am always grappling with the ethics of what I am trying to do. I am not interested in exploiting people, even in Don’t Tread on Me, with the Tea Partiers, I wasn’t interested in making them look like fools. I wanted to hear them speak, and let myself speak, and see where it took us. The desire to activate the bodies in that piece as sites of performance was not to be funny, though it was about achieving levity, about translating the body, about letting go a little bit. But the piece ultimately fails, in that it doesn’t achieve any bridging whatsoever. Nobody agreed with me. I didn’t agree with anybody. We went home more galvanised into our respective corners than we were before. But if that can generate conversation for others, then perhaps I’ve at least opened some doors.

Also, my newest piece, Fall to Earth, which I made as a research and development artist in residence at the New Museum this spring, working with Johanna Burton, was extremely challenging, because there were so many voices involved. The piece takes texts that are considered blasphemous or dangerous, mainly Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and enacts scenarios based on themes of silence, violence, conversion, blasphemy and resistance. Each scene was a collaborative effort with a different sound artist. I worked with Mathew Paul Jinks, Ryan Tracy, Nick Hallett, and Christine Sun Kim on the scores for each chapter. And each chapter was shot live at the museum for a live audience. So by the time I got to the editing room I thought I might go insane trying to keep the themes clear but allowing and listening for the video to edit itself, to listen to the characters – to, as playwright Harold Pinter says, get out of the way of my characters and just let them speak. I never storyboard, so editing is a completely intuitive process for me, during which I take thousands of notes and weave things together as I go. The piece ended up intertwining all the chapters into a kind of dance about intimacy, violence and words. The piece was ultimately screened at the museum and shown as an installation at Aspect/Ratio Projects in Chicago, and I have been getting good feedback, but it was not an easy process.

AWB: Your 2009 work Immigrant Palace would seem to have a great deal of resonance currently, and, yes, while immigration crises happened before the current situation in Syria and continue to happen, how has the present situation led you to reevaluate, or lent new meaning to the 2009 piece?

CK: Well, in that piece I was mainly interested in talking about the way migrant and immigrant populations – in this instance, a group of three Moroccan men who had immigrated to northern Italy – perform themselves in public versus in private, and how those spaces are different and dependent on how they are treated like second-class citizens, at least in a violently xenophobic country like Italy. How they act in public changes. Their bodies change. I was thinking about this again recently while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which explores, among many other things, the way US politics and policies, and racism and police violence take a physical toll on African American bodies. I think this idea still resonates in today’s migrant crisis in Syria in the ways that Europeans and Americans characterise Syrian and other migrants so extremely negatively, despite the blatant fact that so many of these people are trying to escape a conflict zone in large part created by policies and wars started by the US and Europe. It’s like people in power are so insistent on not taking responsibility for their warmongering that they are compelled to invent a full and fictional narrative that blames the victim. We see this all the time – not just with migrants – between people who have power and people who don’t. So I have been coming back to these ideas, and will continue to do so.

AWB: Your work is particularly socially conscious, but not didactic or idealistic. What do you think is your responsibility as an artist?

CK: I’m not sure, really.I just want to tell stories that ask questions. I want to mix fiction and documentary, or make whatever hybrid I need to make in order to tell the story that guides us towards conversations about the future. I think about ethics. I think my responsibility is to be ethical, and to think about what that term means, as it changes through time.

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