Autumn Knight’s Sanity TV

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Autumn Knight’s Sanity TV

By Ana Tuazon October 2, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Autumn Knight is the delightfully absurd host of a talk show called Sanity TV. Her talking points quickly transition from a critique of a jellybean (popcorn flavored, taken from a child in the audience) to a puffed-up turf war with a woman from the audience who claims to be from Houston (Knight’s hometown). Knight as host contains multitudes, and over the course of her hour-long performance, she leads her audience into less a state of disorientation than an embrace of the therapeutic effects of irrationality. Sanity TV made its Oregon debut at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2018 Time-Based Art Festival (TBA). The annual festival, founded in 2003, brings artists from around the globe to Portland for cutting-edge performances, exhibitions, and workshops, and occupies an important place in the city’s contemporary art landscape. 

Autumn Knight. Sanity TV, 2018; performance. Courtesy of Akademie der Kunste Berlin.

At the outset of Sanity TV, attendees discover that chairs are arranged haphazardly, and Knight instructs them to move the chairs into increasingly complex configurations. This anarchic seating arrangement means that all audience members have different views of the room and the live projection that occupies its entire back wall. Knight has done away with the stage-and-couch setup that is typical of a talk show and instead roams among her audience, choosing who to interact with, provoke, and/or interview while audience members choose whether to watch her IRL or on the projection. It becomes clear during the first interview that the subject being questioned is not actually the person who has been chosen but is instead a whale. Specifically, the subject is a Pacific Northwest orca that recently received global media attention as a symbol of climate change’s impact on endangered populations of animals; the orca carried her dead calf on her nose around the Pacific Ocean for weeks. Knight positions the interviewee as a fictional relative of the distressed sea creature: “Your niece is a dead baby whale and was dragged around the ocean for weeks because your sister did not want to let the baby go. Talk to me about the moment when you came out of whatever you were doing—eating fish—and you saw your sister dragging that baby and couldn’t let it go. And then what happened after? And what did y’all eat at the repast?” Knight asks them. In confusion, the interviewee responds, “Am I…am I a whale?” 

Later in the performance, Knight asks three audience members if she can lie down on their laps. When no one protests, she climbs on and begins having a conversation with the man whose lap her head is occupying, looking straight up at his face. This becomes one of the few moments when the interaction seems partially staged. Looking up at him, Knight says, “I bet your name is Mark, or something.” He replies that his name is Lex. Knight continues, “Lex is my cousin. Lex, what’s your full name?” Lex responds, “Lex Knight.” In a gesture of defiance, Knight continues to address him as Mark: “Now Mark, besides the obvious historical dilemma that presents itself in this moment (with us sharing a last name, and you being a white man)…” she trails off. “Actually, let’s throw the gender out the window, because it doesn’t matter. You [sic] white. Well, maybe you’re not even white. Are you white?” Knight probes. Lex reveals he does not identify as white. At this, Knight stands up, lightning fast, in affected outrage, while the audience erupts in laughter. Sanity TV clearly aims to draw attention to the room’s racial demographics and the spatial division of who has chosen to sit near whom—a tension that many feel is ever present in the Portland area (often called the “whitest big city in America”). This is undoubtedly a bold thing to navigate during a live performance hinged on audience participation. Lex (who is perhaps a caricature) serves up the trope of a "colorblind" white liberal whose well-intentioned desire to disidentify with whiteness is really a dis-acknowledgement of the privilege whiteness affords.

Autumn Knight. Sanity TV, 2018; performance. Courtesy of Akademie der Kunste Berlin.

During a later TBA artist panel, Knight shared that the origin of Sanity TV dates to a residency during which she had felt stuck, unsure of how to best make use of the studio space she was provided, as someone who works in performance. She began staging interviews with a chair as her subject, filming these exercises as part of an imagined talk show called Sanity TV; the title originated from her questioning her own sanity as the sessions became more involved. Eventually, Knight interviewed other artists, and she has performed Sanity TV with audiences in several cities. This iteration appeared especially stripped-down, with the audience sitting in plastic chairs in a presentation room at the Pacific Northwest College of Art; previously it had taken place in theaters with traditional seating rows, sometimes with Knight conducting interviews on a stage. Knight has said her performance work is sometimes informed by her prior training in psychodynamic therapy. Her host character is often brazenly provocative with her audience but never actually cruel—a tactic that may have been cultivated through this mode of therapy work. Sanity TV generates a palpable tension and uneasiness, but by frequently cutting that tension with collective laughter, Knight creates an awareness of the less-than-sane logic governing the time and space we inhabit—and she has fun poking holes in it. 

Autumn Knight: Sanity TV was on view at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2018 Time-Based Art Festival from September 14-15, 2018.

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