Autumn Knight, originally from Houston and lately based in New York, is best known for her charged performance works. Intense and disarming, these pieces play off the social dynamics of her audiences, amplifying the race, gender, and power relationships in the room—often to absurd (even hilarious) effect. At the University of Illinois’s Krannert Art Museum, “In Rehearsal,” Knight’s first solo museum exhibition, was conceived around four such performances.
The first two were lively, improvisational group events presented this January and March in the single-room gallery that anchored the show. El Diablo y Cristo Negro (The Devil and Black Christ), a partially scripted comedic dialogue that drew upon Panama’s traditional Black Christ Festival, featured actor Chivas Michael and student Xavier Roe performing the title roles in thrift-store glam attire, while Knight interjected as both Black Christ’s therapist and a flesh-eating monster. The piece invested a conversation about African diasporic conceptions of evil with the energy of a queer variety show. In Here and Now, a collaboration with the New York mental health counselor Kelley Hershman, audience members subjected themselves to what might be described as team-building exercises from hell: impromptu group performances and conversations produced in response to intentionally vague directives. A slight modification of actual intragroup dynamics workshops used to train psychologists, the event centered on the awkward spectacle of participants passive-aggressively negotiating control in indeterminate situations, struggling to work through or around the racism and sexism of their social reflexes.
At the time of this writing, Krannert staff were preparing to present the next two performances outside museum walls. Lament, created with choreographer Rebecca A. Ferrell, would be staged at the university’s Stock Pavilion, an indoor arena for animal science demonstrations, and would feature dancer Abijan Johnson performing a graceful vocabulary of movements modeled in part on those of a female drug addict. For An Experimental Freezing of a Room Through Metaphorical Means, set to take place at the university’s Olympic-size pool, Knight would perform solo to a soundtrack of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
In addition to the four main performances, the exhibition has included a number of concerts, talks, and other activities held in the gallery space. Usually, however, the room has been without such events, leaving visitors to settle their attention on three video projections that feature selections from Knight’s personal archive of amusingly loaded vintage television clips, from a Whoopi Goldberg stand-up routine to a loan-shark commercial to an early “Sesame Street” sketch about Africa. With brightly colored light washes on the walls, wooden cube seating, and freestanding partitions on wheels, the gallery evokes the simple setup of a black box theater, its haphazardly strewn contents suggesting props left out between rehearsals. This was, of course, a central conceit of “In Rehearsal.” Prior to the Krannert show, the four primary performances had each been presented once, and by smuggling theatrical frameworks into a visual art context Knight positioned both the original and current iterations of the pieces as rehearsals—as moments in open, unresolved processes. In doing so, she not only eschewed the conservationist fixation on “re-performance” that has marked performance’s art-world resurgence but also demonstrated the disciplinary promiscuity that is so valuable in her work, which agilely brings together art, theater, dance, psychology, and other fields traditionally kept separate from one another in a university setting.