Chelsea Knight is a New York based video artist. She recently completed residencies at the Whitney Independent Study Program and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and was a 2007 Fulbright Fellow in Italy. She is a current resident at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program. Her video installations tackle the dynamics of political and social control. Her narratives blend fiction and reality in a singular fluid motion. Her subjects have included professional dancers, military instructors, prison inmates and the artist’s own parents. She encourages her characters to improvise, creating a tension between the personal and the scripted. The artist’s videos examine the ways in which both governmental and domestic forces control our emotional, political and social reality. It is Chelsea’s great strength to lay bear the wires by which humans manipulate and entrap one another. I recently had a chance to stop by her studio in lower Manhattan to chat about her work, recent projects and future plans.
Howard Hurst: Your recent piece “The End of All Resistance” features two U.S. army interrogators as they role-play official “emotional interrogation techniques” taken directly from the Army Field Manual. You then had two female actors and your parents improvise upon a re-enact the script. Where did the impetus for this project come from?
Chelsea Knight: I was reading a book about non-violent interrogation by Matthew Alexander (How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, Free Press, 2008), and I found it really interesting to think about removing the physical extreme of torture from an interrogation, being left with a series of nonviolent, institutionalized emotional manipulations. I feel like the American population is so galvanized for or against the use of physical interrogation techniques but aren’t having many mainstream conversations about the nature of verbal interrogation, do we need it, what should it include, what does it mean, etc. The army manual on which I based my project (US Army Field Manual 22-2-3, 2006, available free online) has a specific list of “emotional techniques” that seems to borrow from popular culture —one technique encourages the use of good cop / bad cop, and is named “Mutt and Jeff” after the cartoon characters. I was interested in making a work that backed away from torture and focused more on the way emotional manipulation in these techniques borrows both from the language of intimate relationships and the media.
HH: In “End of All Resistance”, as well as other projects, there seem to be a focus on relationships of power.
CK: I feel relationships of power are at the core of every social interaction, they affect the way we use and interpret language, and in like manner, language affects the way we understand and use power. I’ve always been drawn to writing and art that reveals roles of authority or control in extremes: work that either lays itself bare and exposes its intention, or hides itself, its violence, its power and its truth in language. In “The End of All Resistance” the power relationships are laid out in the manual very clearly, almost embarrassingly so. I was fascinated by this as an openly published thing, almost as if a secret was being revealed. What wasn’t being addressed in the manual was the accepted fact that this is how interrogations should be carried out, this was the way bodies should be regarded, played with, manipulated. It was treated as self-evident. I began thinking about the ways we learn social codes from watching others, and how our intimate lives mirror these unspoken rules and the play element of power. I wanted to make work about that.
HH: Your videos seem to be quite complex, and labor intensive, is there a finished product in mind from the beginning? How much of the process is intuitive?
CK: I set up a specific framework for each piece, and then within that framework there is a fair amount of improvisation. The participants I work with are usually people authentic to a given field: interrogators, or diplomats, Tea Partiers, etc., so they drive a fair amount of the content within each piece, and we always discuss how much of a piece will be true vs. fictional, intimate vs. alienated, etc. So yes, the process is intuitive to a degree, including the editing, but is also mapped out in a pretty specific way beforehand.
HH: You are a graduate of the Whitney Studio Program. The director Ron Clark is known for his very specific theoretical focus. How was that experience?
CK: I enjoyed the ISP, we read an interesting range of theories: feminist, psychoanalytic, queer, economic, etc. The main thread for me was the formation of the subject, and the ability or inability of that subject to resist larger frameworks of power, both on an intimate or self-reflexive level, and in relation to larger ideological frameworks. I think the program affected my work in lots of ways; I’m still processing it.
HH: You recently screened an installation of your project Don’t Tread On Me at Momenta Art. The video takes members of the Tea Party as its subject. What drew you to this project?
CK: After my year at the ISP, which was very politically left-focused, I felt I wanted to experiment with political persuasions different from my own, and see what bridging (if any) might be possible. So I collaborated on the piece with members of the Tea Party, libertarians, and Ayn Rand enthusiasts who are right-leaning, to see what conversations might arise. An important part of the final performance and video was some physical choreography by the participants based in some ways on their ideology. Though we weren’t able to find many common points of view, the image of their bodies moving through space creates a vulnerable counterpart (the body) to the firm and fixed authority of the political views being spoken.
HH: What seems to unite your various projects is an interest in peeling back layers of perception, fictional and otherwise. This involves a mix of scripted performance, improvisation, and actual interview. I imagine each piece as an evolving performance, where the juiciest bits happen in the margins, off script. I am thinking especially of “Acting Out”, where you filmed prisoners inside the County Jail in Skowhegan, Maine performing scenes from Ubu Roi. How does this process work? When you embark on a project, when you choose a script, what are you hoping to find?
CK: Each project is a collaboration in some sense, though I ultimately edit or co-edit the pieces and have control over how they are seen, but in many ways the meaning is arrived at collectively. In “Acting Out,” a collaboration with artist Austin Shull, we chose the location, the script, the actors and even a director, but the overall project was driven by the convergence of all of those elements. The piece re-enacts a nineteenth century political parody play, with some absurdist twists, within the confines of a jail. We were struck most of all by how prejudiced our ideas about confinement were, what it meant to be “in jail” and to perpetuate stereotypes about what a prisoner does and who he or she is. Recognizing this, we chose the title based on Freudian term “Acting Out” which denotes an inability to work through something, the tendency to perpetuate it by acting it out over and over again. The piece therefore isn’t documentary but isn’t strictly fiction either, it’s a depiction of how people respond to an environment beyond their experience but firmly fixed in their imagination.
HH: How do you fit into this process? How has making videos like “The End of All Resistance” effected you? Are the results expected or anticipated?
CK: I’m always surprised by the results of my projects. The End of All Resistance turned out much the way I originally envisioned it—that piece was more based on transcription and careful planning than some of my other work. And yet I was not anticipating the intricacies of my father and stepmothers’ interpretations of the process of interrogation, nor the fact that the actresses would choose to interpret the interrogative transcripts as though they were on a cop show, or the kindness and professionalism of the army interrogators themselves. Each relationship I filmed and participated in both contracted and expanded as we went through the process together.
I was surprised, perhaps naively, most of all, by the outcome of the Tea Party project, “Don’t Tread on Me.” I expected to find points of convergence and softening between myself and the participants. Instead I found I got along well with the people involved, but felt myself completely shut down by their views, and polarized more to the left by what I was reading, hearing and understanding. Reading right wing essays left me feeling enervated and depressed, I expected to be more resilient.
HH: You also have done several projects of photography. How do you view your prints in relation to the videos?
CK: In my work with the Tea Party, I used photographs as ancillary to the videos, connected but also stand-alone. The images in that project depict stereotypes about freedom in the US, and include an image of two wall-street executives wearing Greek masks. The videos don’t have any direct reference to the photographs, but there is a kind of slippage between them. In other cases I make photos without any accompaniment, but they always relate heavily to themes embedded in my other video and performance work. In a recent project dedicated entirely to photography, “The Historical Contemporary,” I appropriated old filmstrip images from 1970s educational filmstrips on European, Asian and African cultures. Some images show women being instructed by men in various industrial and commercial environments. Others show women instructing their daughters in domestic spaces. I was interested in the way women were portrayed as workers in these images, but always childlike, under the watchful eye of a man, and in turn they are allowed to instruct their daughters—actual children—but only in matters of the home. That series was shown on its own at a recent group show at Harvard University, but will be shown again alongside a current project I am working on about women and labor.
HH: What are you working on currently? You just finished filming a project at the Met?
CK: I just finished a collaboration with artist Elise Rasmussen, where we explore Antigone in its references to the roles of women in ancient Greece. We read the play as both a proto-feminist play and a misogynistic one, where the protagonist engages in acts of brave civil disobedience, but is also used as an example of a stereotypical feminine tendency to feel rather than think. Elise and I try to draw attention to the way language is used against women in the play, its loss and gain of intention through time, and its relevance today. We were lucky to be able to film part of the project at the Met museum. I’m also working on a collaboration with writer Melissa Seley, a colleague of mine at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Program, with a performance and video to be shown at the LMCC open Studios on May 13-15.