A Collaborative Review of Futz: Autumn Knight’s Experimental Research Method and Performance Series
Autumn Knight’s work is among the most dynamic, interesting, and under appreciated happening in Houston. Now, at end of Futz, her five-month performance whirlwind at Project Row Houses, I am convinced of it more than ever.
As video artist Lauren Kelley asserted at Knight’s wrap-up artist talk on the series, “this was the most activated and interesting use of a Row House I have seen…ever.”
To attempt comprehensive coverage of the eleven works that she debuted, and to avoid replicating the frustration I feel with the lack of participant and viewer input in the assessment of works of performance and participation, here you’ll find a collaborative response to Knight’s series as described by its audience members, co-performers, contributors, participants, and collaborators.
While I was not present for all of the works, those I missed become part of my experience of the series in the same way that they are conveyed here: through multivocal hearsay from a range of perspectives. Go ahead and visit Knight’s website for more description and documentation, but to quote the artist herself “it’s just futzing, so receive it in the spirit of futz, conceive of it openly and don’t feel beholden to understanding.”
Futz: Roach Dance & Lament
Saturday, October 27, 2012, 3-5 PM and Sunday, November 4, 2012, 6-8 PM at Project Row Houses
Performer: Autumn Knight
Eyes lazily unfocused and manner skittish like all creatures scared of predators from above, “the piece began with Knight twitching and nibbling while a scientific voiceover explains roach behavior. Her dance alternated between being the roach and being the anxious party dealing with roaches, giving the audience a parallel experience of lives lived together, and simultaneously evoking feelings of terror and humor.” -Abijan Johnson, audience member
Knight can unreservedly sink into a perverse and perversely reviled “other” in one moment and then slide into a commanding, charismatic character the next. She works this joint so well that viewers may forgo the well worn long stare into an inventory of the gaps in what we validate. Instead, she forces an overlap of subjects so fleshed out that we are utterly disarmed. Before our judgment-passing triggers can catch up, she’s left comfort halted in mid-air and disgust fallen delightfully.
For example, Knight made a stilted, stretching, and fascinatingly gross motion “when this roach shed its hard outer skeleton…it was funny to watch, but disgusting to think about.” -Abijan Johnson
“The audience was asked to write about experiences with the dreaded, ubiquitous roach and read these tragic encounters aloud. It created this greater community of roach haters bonded by communal disdain for this prevalent household pest.” -M’Kina Tapscott, participant
Knight seems curious about scapegoats, freak shows, and the group behavior around them. Shes can slow burn communal contempt then add one note, just one little ingredient, that cracks open a response of empathy.
Performer: Abijan Johnson
Music: DJ Flash Gordon Parks, Lisa E. Harris, Natasha Turner
“Then yellow rain ponchos were handed out and on came the rain. Water misted from punctured hoses in the rafters above us.” -Emily Sloan, audience member
“Lament followed Roach Dance, how fitting. Abijan’s Johnson’s intensity and lack of self awareness made this heartbreaking movement of the body dramatic and beautiful. Abijan herself is graceful and light, but this performance required her to tap into the anguish of poverty, drug abuse and psychosis. Her dreary flesh toned costume was a neglected ‘skin’ bruised, dirty and discolored, with pantyhose material draped over her shoulders that mimicked collapsed breasts. This infertile wanderer scuffed across the floor, rolled along the walls and absently engaged the audience by reaching out to touch them, or staring. ‘Rain’ dripped from tubing attached to ceiling, ignored by the staggering dancer. The juxtaposition of the audience clad in bright yellow rain ponchos and this vulnerable non lucid character made the audience culpable for her actions. In a way we allowed her wallow in this sadness, we did not attempt to cover her, just watch.” -M’kina Tapscott, audience member
For the three performances of Lament, the performer, choreography, and staging were constant while Knight tested out music as the variable.
“I see the rain and hear live vocals by music artists Lisa E. Harris, Natasha Turner and DJ Flash Gordon Parks mixing Coltrane’s original and Trepverter’s string arrangement of ‘Lonnie’s Lament.’ The sounds swirling in Row House 47 allow for the timing and intensity of movement to be different in each performance.” -Abijan Johnson, performer
In one version, Knight guided vocalist Lisa E. Harris “in creating an atmospheric soundscape to the bizarre, haphazard, and emotional movements- but not from inside the shared space. I sang from OUTSIDE the window of the Futz House into the action.” -Lisa E. Harris -co-performer
Inclusion, exclusion, and confusion are other favorite itches of Knight’s. She confessed she likes to play with “language that we understand and use, but to others sounds like gibberish.”
Futz: Portobelo: Food, Humor, Movement
Friday, December 21, 2012, 8:30 PM at Project Row Houses
Co-performers: Autumn Knight and Denise Frazier
“Autumn Knight and Denise Frazier in the same space speaking English and Spanish and all sorts of variations in between. Frying plantains, burning oil, leaves and palms above our heads. Chants and dances, and questions. And answers! The sorority displayed between these two women, the maternity and omniscience exuded from Dr. Frazier, the language sometimes a barrier but more often a challenge about to be overcome…” -Lisa E. Harris, participant
“The space at Row Houses was constructed to evoke the tropical feel of Portobelo and to convey a sense of ‘outside/inside’ space. Bags of water cut with small holes hung on the ceiling, softly and subtly dripping to the floor, on the foreheads of the audience, conjuring dampness and humidity. The crackling sound of the sweet coconut oil on the hot plate created a warmth. ‘What makes you laugh?’ ‘What foods do you like?’ We re-enacted video interviews that Autumn conducted during a residency in Panama related to how women lived their lives and how their lives were defined by the domicile. Autumn gave me various tasks to perform: I washed myself, I looked in the mirror, I took facebook pictures of myself with audience members, I asked the audience to help me place little pieces of paper, plastic, etc. on the clothesline, and I cooked plantains all while talking about what made me happy. It was important to her that I not retell the stories of the panameñas in the video, but that I recount my own stories.” -Denise Frazier, co-performer
Frazier was tethered around the waist at a length that allowed her to tend to her cooking and the clothesline, but which stopped her short of stepping outside.
Other audience members described this performance as an uncomfortable and offensive attempt to perform a culture. I wasn’t present, but as someone too inhibited to find out how stupid my attempts at speaking Spanish sound, Portobello seems like an excruciatingly drawn out cringe. In terms of congenial social practice, it pretended to be a party while relentlessly amplifying the antagonism between good intentions and the undermining never-enough-ness of trying to interpret a culture that is not your own.
“This relieved me as I responded in Spanish to her questions. Her role as the interviewee, perhaps, mimicked the frustration of someone whose Spanish was catching up with the complexity of their thought. I was supposed to use more English but got caught up with speaking in Spanish. Autumn asked the audience to ask questions, but there were few questions asked. Some audience members spoke and/or understood Spanish and were not caught off guard, but in general, the audience was quiet. It took the rum being passed around for everyone to enliven. The performance turned into a banter between Autumn and I, friends of twenty years, as we reenacted a comforting performative childhood.” -Denise Frazier, co-performer
Futz: La Querelle Des Monstres
Saturday, December 8, 2012, 7 PM at Diverseworks
Co-performers: Autumn Knight and Megan Jackson
“I came to the show with my husband but we were joined to other audience members by velcro straps at the arm. Sun Ra’s ‘The Sky is a Sea of Darkness’ played as the twins emerged from their cozy space. Their costume was elegantly irregular, with two arms that were extremely long and almost measured the size of their bodies. They went through different phases of adolescence to adulthood exhibiting love and animosity between sisters. As a viewer physically connected to someone else, I started to notice small struggles between my attachment and I as he tried to take photos. Because we were seated, both of our arms had to be raised in order for him to get a good shot. I reassured him that it was ok to take pictures whenever he needed but I felt this sense of guilt from him as if he didn’t want to bother or make me uncomfortable. His consideration kept him from obtaining the amount of photos he would have normally taken. When one of the twins dies, the other mourns and then climbs out of the suit. Only having moments left to live, she lights a cigarette, builds a tribute to her sister, and addresses the audience with questions. Although we are now in a melancholic moment, there is a comedic air about her character. When she is within her final moments, she slips back into the ‘suit’ and dies next to her sister. The audience walks out while the twins lay peacefully together.” -Tyres Donnett, viewer and participant
Futz: What is Seen as it is Seen
Saturday, February 16, 2 PM at DiverseWorks and 8 PM at Project Row Houses
Collaborators: Autumn Knight and John Pluecker
At its Project Row House’s iteration, John Pluecker stands at a podium on the porch, nervously fumbling with bright green papers, repetitively pushing up his glasses, desperately clearing his throat: accentuating all the pauses, glitches, support, and scrapes before “content.” Knight is seen through the door at a podium in the back of the row house, but just as Pluecker haltingly manages to mumble her introduction, she leaf blows his notes away. The audience laughs, instantly deciding whether to catch papers with their feet, to yield to the ferocious blowing or refuse to concede to her force. He, still in some ambivalent awe of her, and her, blankly adamant, lead us into the house. His tender recitation of a scroll pulled from her mouth is followed by an all out waging of war between his and her cognition.
Books punctuate the floor and the space is tight, engaging and implicating us to varying degrees. A flashlit book hunt puts us all on guard, but then, standing on chairs, they peep into a hollow support column, reading to one another. We are not allowed into their interactions at this moment, so we want to be all the more. Their antagonism fluctuates, balancing on the edge of pity, threatening to resolve who is victim, then ricochets back before we could say for sure. The books are missiles, physical bodies, and pivot points in a contact improv dance. In a fast paced series of variously staged duets, each one fights to absorb slivers of language while being physically and verbally provoked by the other “sticking a hand in a book one is reading while the book holder slams it shut, and lighting pages on fire that the other is attempting to read. Interruption seemed to be the overarching goal in their interactions.” -Emily Sloan, audience member
I thought of all the violence in relationships that needs to be silent when you’re at school, and I thought of the fulcrum of power between teachers and students.
Images courtesy of Diverseworks. Photos: Rachel Cook
Futz: Hands In Your Lap
Saturday, November 24, 2012, 3-5 PM and Sunday, November 25, 2012, 3-5 PM at Project Row Houses
Co-performers: Autumn Knight and Megan Jackson
The conditions of absorbing education and viewing performance are also examined in Hands in Your Lap.
“We were teachers preparing a group of students for a theatrical performance at their school. Now, I’ve done this many times, and I have to admit, I have been that teacher wanting my kids to just sit still: criss-cross applesauce, hands in your lap. I tell them how they should behave, how they should sit, how to respond to be a respectful audience member. Don’t move, don’t talk, just look at the show. Don’t laugh too loud, don’t laugh too long because you’re going to miss something…” -Megan Jackson, co-performer
So the audience was given sack lunches, marched around in a single file line, told to be quiet, gotten ready and prepped and instructed, all to watch videos of current students describing this process.
Futz: El Diablo El Cristo Negro
Friday, December 28, 8 PM and Saturday, December 29, 8 PM at Project Row Houses
Co-performers: Autumn Knight, Phillip Pyle II and Maurice Duhon
“As the audience entered, the space was dark with one red bulb lit. My husband Nathaniel and I were dressed according to theme, he in white as an angel and I in red as a demon, provoking jokes between friends. We are by no means professional dancers but we danced as a diversion. A diversion to what you ask?” -Tyres Donnett, co-performer
“To look up to the ‘heavens,’ temporarily located in the rafters of the Row House and see Maurice Duhon and Phillip Pyle II make birthday cake, have popularity contests, and feed demons while in a love triangle with a psychiatrist…too much fun!” – M’kina Tapscott, audience member
In a work featuring such blatant figures of good and evil, Knight shows her propensity for tangling synapses and compelling a laugh instead. This was the only performance in the series that was scripted, but Duhon and Pyle have such chemistry and comedic timing that most people had to ask. In contrast to “the Devil” of some cultures who “is thought about so much it becomes worship,” Knight notices, “we don’t really talk about him as much as we used to- so then who do the doings and the dealings of the Devil get pushed off onto?”
Futz: Here AND Now
Saturday, January 19 7 PM at Project Row Houses
Co-facilitators: Autumn Knight and Kelly Hershman, MA
Conference PERFORMANCE INFORMATION
What you are entering into is part performance and part conference. This temporary EXPERIENTIAL educational institution is devoted to the studying and experiencing group behavior and the social, cultural, economic power dynamics informing the making and consumption of art. Various events within the performance will support and promote your education and understanding of group relations. Participants will rely on and use the challenging, glorious, confusing exchanges that emerge in the life of the group as material to create understanding and inquiry.
This conference/experience/performance will:
• Enhance your understanding of how groups function
• Engage your performative tendencies
• Be an experience you’ve never had before
You can expect:
• NO LECTURES
• NO PRESENTATIONS
I agree to be a part of this performance project. I understand that this experience IS NOT THERAPY, nor does it claim to be. Any therapeutic results are coincidental.
-excerpts from a preliminary intake form related to the performance
While earning her Masters in drama therapy at NYU, Knight became a group dynamics consultant and administrator. As summarized by Tamika Evans, one of Here and Now’s participants, group dynamics is a live study of “What keeps a group from doing the task at hand and does every single thing have to mean something?” The experience was scheduled for two hours but lasted for four, with folks vehemently reviewing the night’s events even as it was time to go.
“I think I misunderstood the performance description. Uneasy, but so curious and alternately annoyed. But curious again. Relieved when it was over.” -Abijan Johnson, participant
Photos: Dean Liscum
STACKS: Eviliene: Upcycle Queen
Friday, January 4, 7 PM at Art League Houston
Co-peformers: Autumn Knight, Jamal Cyrus, M’Kina Tapscott, Tyres Donnett, Megan Jackson
“I saw scavengers and cadavers being transmuted into ringing rolling GOLDEN BALLS, vibrational manifestation from the petticoat of Universe herself. The Black witch, the LAVA, molten core, Queen of Space, magician. Churning trash right back into Gold, every time. Oh, it’s Haute Couture too, baby. How did the pyramids get to where they are? They were worn there. By Her.” -Lisa E. Harris, audience member
“The gallery became this darkly light, mysterious place. This leftover, forgotten, and trashed land. Autumn’s performance was a reincarnation of the movie WIZ’s character Eviliene. The WIZ is a 1978 musical, based on the The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, featuring an entirely African American cast. Eviliene is the wicked witch of the west who forces oppressed and tired workers to toil away in her dreary sweatshop in the sewers of New York City. In Autumn’s interpretation, the 5 performers acted like the wicked witch’s flying monkeys sent to capture their prey, Dorothy. Yet, these flying monkeys were of a greener and kinder sort, they scavenged the Art League gallery floor, sorting through charged refuse to give to their leader. Scattered across the floor were nylons stuffed with the STACKS shredded materials, resembling limbs detached from bodies. Eviliene arises from the truncated pyramid structure, to gather all that was collected for her. She then by magic, or resourcefulness, manages to recycle these abandoned things into sparkly silver slippers.” -M’kina Tapscott, participant
“There was trash, beauty, and beautiful trash. As we sorted through piles of trash, each of us had a specific category of items to collect. We then chose a body and went to our designated spaces. Queen Eviliene emerged and came to collect her offerings in her magical pyramid. She appeared to float from space to space inviting the audience to breathe in her purpose.” -Tyres Donnett, audience member and co-performer
Saturday, February 2, 8 PM at Project Row Houses
Performer: Autumn Knight
Beard was inspired by performance artist Jennifer Miller and variations of personal maintenance rituals along the spectrum of gender.
“…I was intrigued. She was very connected to her masculine side…or rather comfortable with it…almost flaunting it. It was inspiring in a lot of ways…then to see the different stages…levels and then finally embracing her femininity…It didn’t feel like a drag show but simply an exploration of self.” -Megan Johnson, audience member
Futz: We’ll Wait For You
Friday, March 1, 7 PM at Project Row Houses
Co-performers: Jawaad Taylor, Lisa E. Harris, Jamal Cyrus, Nathaniel Donnett, Abubakr Kouyate, Robert Pruitt, Abijan Johnson, Megan Jackson, Abidemi Olowonira
“Outer space is the only space where there’s space and that’s how far you have to travel, time travel, to get out of this stuck way of thinking” – Robert Pruitt, co-performer
A parade of celestial time and space travelers made their way down Holman Street. In the row house Sun Ra and his Arkestra waited behind curtains, only intermittently glimpsed by the audience when Knight’s character felt like allowing it. More than half of the performance was momentum building, so before anything ever happened, they all sang and danced about it at length. What ensued resembled an evangelical spectacle complete with deity, disciples, and converts. My favorite moment from this performance was Knight violently and comically scuttling across the floor on a chair, her rain poncho head dress sliding down her forehead to tempo. It reminded me simultaneously of a hyper child, a religious zealot, and a possessed objector. As one of her backup dancers described, “Autumn likes dance and has said as much, but I think her interest lies not in trained and formed movement, but in the organic and natural movement patterns of the performer.” -Abijan Johnson, co-performer
At some point in the fanfare, after a song and dance about it, of course, the time travelers declared that we all had to be tested to gauge our worthiness of receiving limited tickets to ‘the spaceship.’ The evening’s improvised music fed into a call and response with Knight asking “and what kinds of tests should we give them?” and the Arkestra insisting “multiple choice!” “Physical fitness!” “IQ!” “Feats of strength and endurance!” “Essay questions!” The time travelers performed their absurd tasks with the utter seriousness of devotees making arbitrary but official measurements. I had the skin between my thumb and finger tasted, heard someone being repeatedly asked “one or two,” and saw several folks being stretched and prodded awkwardly, but purposefully, before the time travelers convened to make their final decisions.
Where the spaceship traveled, I cannot reveal. But as M’Kina Tapscott describes, “Knight’s performances give the audience an opportunity to become directly involved. Not merely as a viewer, but as catalyst for the actions that take place, making each performance this intimately personal experience.”
Pulling from moments of performed pedagogy, or power, or perversion, Knight drops us into collective memories of our society’s absurd but agreed upon methods. Without comment but collaged together, at any moment there are multiple points of focus. And while the action is recognizable and relatable, it is not predictable because the curiosity has been left intact while the qualification of it has been withheld.
Knight herself is strong and self possessed with an ebullient sense of humor. She has training and experience in classical and improv theatre and a degree in drama therapy. She uses these methods to stage and examine moments of everyday drama which I suspect she has diligently cataloged in a vast cerebral library.
“Futz,” says Knight, “is an experimental research method. Later on, in performance series called ‘For Real,’ things will tighten up.” But, we hope, not lose the anxious, exhilarating magic that is conjured up for herself and for all the variations of audience that she inspires.
All photos courtesy of the artist and Robert Pruitt unless otherwise noted.