The Nothing #8 | Autumn Knight And Silvia Calderoni In Conversation
Following her international premiere of The Nothing #8: Spazio Griot @ Mattatoio, the Texas-born, New York City-based interdisciplinary artist Autumn Knight traces with performer Silvia Calderoni her artistic journey in improvisation, her relationship with the audience and the concept of doing nothing—at the core of her residency project as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome—applied in her work and in society.
Silvia Calderoni: Hi Autumn, first of all, thank you for being here and sharing your work. This is the first time we have the opportunity to see a performance of yours in Italy. I would like to start asking you about your artistic and educational journey. And how improvisation has become a writing practice in your work.
Autumn Knight: I took improvisation class, a series of workshops and I learnt to let go of the training that acting provides, which is following another person’s direction, and having my own thoughts. Surprisingly, for a lot of actors it’s very hard to transition from a script-based-art-practice to improvisation because as an actor you make up a lot with your own body within the world of the script and the director’s instruction to you, but improvisation allows you to create worlds. So, this is the first point: learn to invent things. The second point, I studied the psychology of groups, and part of the study is to observe what the group is doing and how they relate to each other and how they relate to you as a consultant to the group. So, I think the combination of these two things is the foundation for the type of performance I presented here and a sort of path to working like this, to doing how I do, what I do, when I do it.
SC: Don’t you think that this has also to do with the fact that you are the author of your own work? So, as an author, wouldn’t you have the same freedom if you were writing a script on your own with respect to improvisation?
AK: Yes, I would have the same freedom if I would be writing a script on my own to create the worlds. But I’m not a writer and I don’t write in that way. Well, I don’t mean that performers and writers do not create worlds. They do, especially performers like you, there’s a lot of autobiographical and original work, but the improvisation allows for the world to be created differently each time it is performed. When you do a performance with a script, a world has been built, you dig deep into that one world every time you perform it over and over again, whereas I think when I do improvisation the world gets created and flattened every time, that is, it’s created and collapsed every time.
SC: What you said is beautiful and it also makes me think about my work, and also that we work in opposite ways, like a mirror. Because when I’m rehearsing, I start with improvisation and then I put it down, I come to something that I then incorporate and repeat. It feels like you do the opposite, you start from something static that becomes improvisation.
AK: Well, it’s a similar place. I think I’m interested in the collapse and in the thing almost being swept away, because I have a background in theatre. At the end of the process, in theatre, when you finish the entire show you strike everything and there’s nothing. So, it’s a very similar process, but one is stretched out and one is shortened.
SC: Talking about the title, The Nothing #8: Why this number? Are there any earlier or later versions of this work? What happens before and what happens after this number?
AK: No… you know… I wanted to lean into the nothing, not meaning to have a sense. I feel that I needed to start to make sure that everything that I made during this period started to have a name that I would put in a particular time and space, like a new body of work. And I do realise that maybe if I gave the number 8 people would come and think, ‘Oh, I better see this one because I didn’t see [The Nothing] number 1, 3, 7’, or maybe they would think I’m further along than I am.
Thinking about the art world, it’s almost like when you make a painting—or a video—and then you make the prints, and each print is numbered. So, you have to have the total number of the prints that you’ve made. So, it’s like you have print number 3 out of 4. Basically, there’s a significance to that number. In some way, I’m speaking about the imagery value placed on these types of things and their scale. Maybe the next performance will be number 101. And people would think, ‘Maybe we need to figure out a way to collect the others.’
SC:[addressed to audience]: First of all, I’m sorry that some of you haven’t seen the work last night. We are trying to tell you something about it but also to get deep into it. As an audience member, the strongest information I got yesterday was first of all the space where the performance was held. The stage space was completely non-hierarchical. To me non-hierarchical means a place where everything, from lights to the audience, the seating, the tech people, the performers, they all had the same potential. This to me was very clear from the beginning, but because your work was improvisational in this setting, I was also wondering if there were any guidelines at all or was it completely improvised?
AK: It was completely improvised. Well… when I started studying improvisation—the two things that I mentioned before, learning how to do improvisation and learning about group dynamics and psychology of groups—on the one hand I studied long form improvisation, so you are trained to improvise for as long as possible, so keep making up the worlds, keep coming up with where we are, new clues and new problems, and you keep making things up for a long time, until someone comes to tag you in, and you go out and they come in, but you just do it until someone stops you.
And the second element I talked about—group dynamics,—basically you sit in a group and you kind of let things emerge and rise so, no one says, ‘what are you thinking about?’, but you kind of notice things and you comment on them and then you start to have a conversation. But every session has a time limit. It’s basically a real-life improvisation with the time limit. And you cannot go past the time limit. It’s very firm. In terms of the improvisation, it is all improvised but I keep the boundary of the time to stop, because anything can happen in this time. So, at the beginning of the performance I asked the audience: how long do you want this performance to be?
S.C.: I want to talk about the audience. There’s a lot of relationship with the audience in your work. It doesn’t feel like a forced one, but it feels necessary, I would say. How do you build a relationship with the audience? And how do you deal with a non-English speaking audience, who only partly understand.
AK: Because my performances are mostly about mic changes with the audience, the audience is really one of the most important parts of what I’m doing. I have to see who’s in the room and who I’m working with. So, I start counting the number of the people, how I manage the size. And I observe what’s the racial breakdown, what’s the perceived gender breakdown, what’s the age. Then I’m looking at the body language, at the beginning of this. So, I see who’s got their arms crossed, who’s coming in the physical space shut off, and I’m just thinking about: ok, what kind of work do I have to do to engage all of these different types of people? Are they pairs of people who came together? Will they be more open if they’re with someone else? Are people taking photos right away to kind of let me know what they want to do in the space. They want to be the documentarian [she laughs]? I have to give them the space to be the documentarian. So that’s the initial process.
Then, at the beginning of a lot of my performances, I go around to give everybody eye-contact to let them know that I do see you. I have the lights up, you are not sitting in the dark, I recognize you as a person and we are going to be here for the next hour together. I give eye-contact to every single person. And I have to observe every single person to see what they’re doing. Because maybe they think: I’m anonymous. But I’m like: no, I noticed the red flats that you have on, I noticed the yellow water bottle, I noticed the confused look in your face, I noticed the brown glasses, the red shorts, the crossed legs with the phone, the pink lipstick, the braids, the glasses hanging down… I have to take in all of this information, so people are not like: I’m not here. Yeah, you’re here. I see you.
With regards to the language, this is one of the first experiences I have worked with an audience that I assumed that doesn’t speak as much English as I do, but having all of these different elements, as you said—the lights and the video—it’s important to have different points of entry and I think that trying to be connected physically to the audience can communicate something that the language could not. And I understand that maybe there might be something that some people pick up from other audience members, the sentiment of the piece.
SC: As an audience member I felt like there was a bit of short circuit, because you were calling the audience to do something but at the same time you were asking them to be in the nothing, and to do nothing. You were asking us something really interesting, that in some way is also political. You were asking to put ourselves up there with our bodies, which is very political to me. Would you expand on the concept of dolce far niente [the sweetness of doing nothing]?
AK: Throughout my time in Italy I have seen different versions of far niente [doing nothing]. With regards to dolce [sweetness], I still have to work to try to better understand the dolce part, here and abroad. I don’t think the far niente is for everyone, and I think that in my performance I wanted to try to see if in that moment we could try to physicalize dolce far niente in the body. Dolce far niente has probably existed in the mind first, but I don’t know your mind, so how could we put it in the body first? Because, as I said, the far niente exists especially in your mind, and I think that you have to fight to get the experience in the body. I think that is the resistance to get to show and demonstrate, maybe in a very public-private way this idea of far niente, so to actually physicalize it, because it’s not enough to get the experience in the mind. The body is where you get the experience of violence. So, to actually have the opportunity to experience the dolce far niente, it has to move beyond the mind, it is the privilege to experience it in the body.
SC: Yesterday you asked us to relax ourselves, to do nothing. As an audience member, I realised that it was very hard work for me to do that. So, that really made me wonder.
AC: I was doing a very bad job in doing nothing. Did you see me with the plastic wrap? I was doing a lot. I was doing too much.
SC: Yes, and then this request to do nothing, for someone like you and me, who are trained to be there in that place, in that way, producing, “doing” continuously: you ask me a new question with regards to that place. And maybe, beyond that space, we live in a hyper-productive society, we should take a rest, but it seems difficult for us.
AK: For me, the performance, in terms of far niente, The nothing #8, I wanted to basically say to myself: you know, nothing in particular needs to happen. The nothing is to let go of my expectations of what an audience might expect to happen, because they don’t know, and if they don’t know, [the] nothing needs to happen.
SC: Moving to the political aspect, I would like to ask you—and maybe there is no answer yet, maybe it’s more an open question—according to you, which are the bodies that are allowed to rest and which are not?
AK: I can’t speak for all of the bodies, the many different types of bodies that are not allowed to rest. I came to this project thinking about the projection of laziness onto people of colour, onto Black people specifically. The nothingness that is projected onto Black people that is like decimated and pulverized in existence, into nothingness. Therefore, under economic pressures not being able to experience this type, of I guess, active far niente, or even feeling they deserve to even entertain the thought, right…? When I think about who is allowed, I think of all the different people who end up supporting the grand idea of dolce far niente, who make it possible for those to get the experience with ease. In my experience of this particular location, I feel that here, in this place, the division of leisure is very politicized, in a very subconscious way: it’s bordered, it’s structured. It’s not that you can’t have it, it’s for everyone, but there’s this invisible sort of border that doesn’t allow this cultural value—dolce far niente—to be widely distributed. So, when I think about the bodies that are not ushering into this, when I’m out and look around in this place, I think about issues of citizenship and immigration.
The Nothing #8: Spazio Griot @ Mattatoio was part of SPAZIO GRIOT’s summer artistic program SEDIMENTS. After Memory. It includes an exhibition (June 30-September 4) with Victor Fotso Nyie, Muna Mussie, Las Nietas de Nonó, Christian Offman, curated by Johanne Affricot and Eric Otieno Sumba, and a public program with a final event on Sept. 1, a performative action by artist Muna Mussie at Pavilion 9a of Mattatoio museum in Rome.
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