Autumn Knight’s Tricky Performances Turn Doing Nothing into an Art Form

On a recent Friday evening at Performance Space New York, a group of hiply dressed New Yorkers sauntered into a smoky room where, at its center, stood a table, some seats, and some citruses. Many wandered over to the bar, where free tequila cocktails were on offer. It seemed to be the start of the weekend as usual. Then came the artist Autumn Knight, shouting as she rode inside on a bike wearing all white.

Around and around she rode, speeding up with each loop. She pedaled perilously close to others, forcing some to quickly shuffle away, then she hopped off her bike and began making her way around the room. Periodically, she would invite people to the center, where she seemed to coax them into feeding each other fruit and flirting while a DJ played music with thumping bass lines.

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Any of this would have seemed odd were it not for the fact that Knight has been staging performances such as this one for roughly the past decade. Past works have taken even more outré forms: a group therapy session in which spectators became unwitting participants and a mock TV show in which viewers acted as the cast, for example.

These are pieces in which power dynamics are inverted, upended, and entirely reorganized. As you watch them, they can feel dangerous, thrilling, possibly even sexy in some strange way. Always, they are unpredictable, fraught with racial and gendered dynamics. It’s a testament to Knight’s abilities that they often involve little more than herself, her collaborators, and the audience. Few props are necessary.

Aptly, many of her pieces are part of a series titled “Nothing,” of which the Performance Space work, NOTHING#122: a bar, is but one example. (It’s part of a grouping of three new works making their debut at Performance Space this month; the last, dealing with the space’s architecture and titled NOTHING#122: a bluff, will be staged tonight and Saturday.) Sitting on a couch in an otherwise unfurnished room, Knight said nothingness interests her because “it has particular politics around it that have to do with labor, who can do it, etc.”

Then she paused and noted that, in attempting to do nothing, she actually had done quite a lot—a contradiction she embraces. “It’s part of my practice, failing to do nothing,” she said. “But I’m still attempting to do some kind of nothing.”

That kind of nothing has drawn plenty of admirers. Knight landed a coveted spot in the Whitney Biennial in 2019, the same year that the Studio Museum in Harlem acquired one of her works, making it the first piece of performance art to enter the collection. Last year, Solange even threw her support behind Knight, saying, “I’m in awe of the way she marries theater, raw expression, psychology, and choreography to evoke feelings of Black feminine interiority.”

In an email, Jenny Schlenzka, the outgoing director of Performance Space New York, described Sanity TV, the faux TV show piece Knight produced for the Whitney Biennial, as something of a religious experience. “The show was simultaneously funny, intelligent, absurd, critical, and uncomfortable without being cringy,” Schlenzka wrote. “The audience stopped being an anonymous group. I remember leaving the performance thinking that if church was more like Sanity TV I would actually consider going.”

A group of laughing people on a couch embracing a smiling woman who leans back and kicks up a foot.
Autumn Knight, NOTHING#122: a bar, 2023.
Photo Rachel Papo/Courtesy Performance Space New York

Initially, Knight didn’t have ambitions of becoming a performance artist. She had attended New York University for her master’s degree in drama therapy. It didn’t take long for her mind to change. “I knew two weeks into the program,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is not Keri Russell, Felicity!’”

Even as she moved closer to a form of art-making that’s often labeled experimental, the program’s teachings resonated with her. Her only Black professor was for a class on group dynamics, which taught her the multitude of ways authority functions. “I do think that’s one of the things that saved my life in graduate school,” she said.

Some of the first mature works Knight staged following her graduation from NYU in 2010 were done in Houston, the city where she was born 30 years earlier. That same year, with the artist Robert Pruitt, she created the collective MF Problem, whose activities involved facilitating domino games and cookouts. The project was meant to combat drug use at a particularly dangerous corner store in the Third Ward, and it worked. Ryan N. Dennis, then a curator at Project Row Houses, wrote in the 2017 catalogue for Knight’s first-ever museum survey, at the Krannert Art Museum, that crime suddenly diminished there.

Three years later, for Project Row Houses, the famed space set in shotgun houses in the city’s Third Ward, Knight created An experimental freezing of a room through metaphorical means (2013), in which she gave each spectator an ice cube and told them to “look straight.” Next, Knight, garbed in white, enacted movements involving other bags of ice while audio from the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin played. This performance was first done one week after the acquittal—the wound was still fresh.

“Being a viewer (and at times a participant) of her work, I recognized a clear departure from what I was experiencing with other artists,” Dennis said in an email. “Autumn leads with humor and curiosities in really incredible ways, but it also, at the end, seems like you have been cared for, even if you have gone through a few layers of complexity.”

She described Knight’s performance art as a form of catharsis: “It is like the therapy appointment you never knew you needed.”

Knight’s work has grown increasingly minimal, utilizing little more than some performers, a videographer, and the audience. Many of her works also lack a script beyond a short description, or even a plan—Knight improvises by reading the room.

In some cases, the performances have even involved taking elements away from the spaces. The artist recalled that when she was in the process of making art for the Whitney Biennial, she was given a tour of the museum. She was asked what she had hoped to see: Did she want to go to the boardroom, the director’s office? “I was like, ‘Yeah, open all the cabinets,’” Knight said. (The Whitney gamely did so, she added.)

A man standing on top of a bed stares down at what appears to be a form wrapped beneath the sheets. An audience can be seen in the dark watching on a set of bleachers.
Autumn Knight, NOTHING#122: a bed, 2023.
Photo Rachel Papo/Courtesy Performance Space New York

At the Kitchen in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, she staged a work that could only be viewed online in which she ripped up tattered carpeting and rooted through trash—an excavation of what really lay beneath this hallowed New York art space.

“I think part of me [wanted] to expose some of the inner workings of the institution,” Knight said. “I think that project made me want to tear things up more and approach the materials of the space. How can we turn this over? How can we use everything you all have? Because I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I could come up with something that’s better than what’s in this room.’”

The “Nothing” works derive from a similar ethos. When Knight received the Rome Prize in 2021, her winning proposal had been “to come there and learn how to do nothing.” Drawing on the Italian concept of dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing—Knight has since been engaged in the process of finding innovative ways of enacting just that.

The irony, of course, is that Knight has hardly sat idle. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship last year; earlier this year, she had her first New York survey, at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. But as we spoke, Knight seemed humbled, even surprised by the suggestion that she held any sway over her art’s viewers.

“When you’re an authority figure,” she said, “who you are really affects the room. I think unconsciously, I’m trying to continue to study that.”

She recalled how some people reacted to NOTHING#122: a bar. “‘Yeah, you were kind of like a dom!’” Knight said, pitching up her voice and mimicking how one spectator-turned-performer reacted. She smirked. “Yeah, I think that’s what you want.”

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