“At Sanity TV, we don’t promote sanity or insanity.”
When my partner and I walked into Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Mediatheque on Thursday evening for Autumn Knight’s performance of Sanity TV, it was down to standing room only. We found a relatively empty corner and stripped off our jackets, surveying the ordered disorder around us—audience members seated on plastic chairs arranged in arcs and clumps, facing every which way, some on raised platforms, most not. Videographers scanned the room with their cameras, occasionally focusing on a single audience member, their subject projected larger than life on the back wall.
Autumn Knight, a black woman wearing a brightly-patterned head wrap and jumpsuit, moved through the space with a microphone in hand. Seemingly arbitrarily, she directed people to switch seats. Occasionally she explained herself, making comments such as “go sit with that other curly-haired person” or “I don’t like to see people sitting alone.” When she requested everyone in the audience move their chairs to right angles, someone asked, “Right angles to what?” “Anything,” Knight responded dismissively, waving her hand. Laughter bubbled out of the crowd.
Over the next hour, I felt at times unsettled, hysteric, and freed. Unsettled, because I wasn’t sure what would happen next or if the artist would pick on me. Hysteric, because the performance was often strange, funny, and tense, resulting in uncertain laughter. And freed, because Knight acted unpredictably and spoke nonsensically, appearing to perform her stream of consciousness, so I felt no obligation to react in a reasonable way.
When Knight asked an audience member how they felt about their sister dragging her dead baby around the ocean for three weeks, why they didn’t try to stop her, and what they ate at the repast, I wondered how I would respond if a stranger on the street asked me that question. I would probably assume that they had a mental illness, smile silently, and move past them. Instead, in the art festival setting, I hoped the interviewee would play along by pretending to be a grieving whale.
When Knight lay across four audience members’ laps, her head in the lap of a light-skinned, blonde-haired person who introduced themself as Lex Knight, the artist called her second interviewee “cousin” and asked if they identified as white. Lex answered, “I do not identify as white. I identify as human.” I gasped or scoffed (maybe both), along with many other audience members. Autumn Knight retreated across the room without a word and crouched beside her sound board. Her image projected on the wall, we watched her whisper—whether to herself or someone outside the frame, I couldn’t tell. A few minutes later, she returned to her former position, head propped in Lex’s lap, and suggested, “Let’s sing a song. It’s called ‘I do not identify.’ You start.” After leaving Lex’s lap a second time, post-interview, Knight belted out another song. “I know why we have the same last name,” she sang. “Slavery! It’s because of slavery! Your ancestors owned mine!”
When Knight knelt close to yet another white-appearing audience member and asked the cameraperson to zoom in on them, I felt uncomfortable for that audience member, their every twitch and blink scrutinized by everyone else in the room. But when Knight began caressing the person’s hair and face, rubbing her cheek against theirs, the interaction came across as surprisingly poignant. I wondered if the audience member had experience with theater, because their face took on a beatific expression, and they began to move in sync with the artist. At the same time, I wondered if Knight meant the interaction to reference and reverse white people’s historic treatment of black women’s bodies as public property—open to comment and touch. And, for that reason, should I feel deeply uncomfortable and self-conscious as a white woman? I didn’t. Instead, I laughed.
During and after the performance, I tried to eke a single message, about race and gender dynamics, mental health and ableism, performer and speculator. But I couldn’t (and can’t yet) understand the art piece as anything more or less than a collection of disparate thoughts and actions. I believe Autumn Knight meant to raise questions about all of these topics and more, and I don’t think she wanted them easily answered.