Chelsea Knight by Sophie Buonomo

The artist on performing motherhood and marriage in her new video The Breath We Took and why “write what you know” is limiting advice.

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I first met Chelsea Knight last year at the cheekily-named Bushwick Basel during the Bushwick Open Studios weekend. She was one of the featured artists, and I was an intern helping to man the booth. During the sweltering hours we spent together last June, I was impressed by Chelsea’s political savvy, feminist views and highly original video art. So impressed, in fact, that almost a year later I asked her to be my first interview as BOMBlog’s Art Editor. We sat down in her Liberty Plaza studio to discuss her newest work, The Breath We Took (showing through June 1 at Aspect Ratio Projects in Chicago). It is a partially fictional yet deeply personal documentary featuring four generations of Knight women (both real and imagined), and explores the ways in which we perform motherhood, marriage, and confront femininity.

Sophie Buonomo Where was the original idea for this piece and for performing motherhood?

Chelsea Knight Good question. I always work with people who are authentic to their given field. I’m not interested in direct documentary, I’m interested in the way people perform their lives, professions and emotional selves. Performance is not necessarily a construction but there is a frame for it, there’s a front. Things don’t flow from humans 100 percent naturally all the time. I wanted to make a piece that was partially documentary and partially fiction to talk about that—because non-actors are so much more convincing than actors with certain subject matter. Sometimes you need an actor if you’re remaking another work—I remade Antigonelast year—and we needed actors for that.

But generally I like extracting specific kinds of truths from people based on their actual experience. But I want to undercut it with these notions of performance by adding in literally overproduced or theatrical or fictional elements.

SB And that’s really woven in very tightly in the video. The people will be having conversations and then suddenly become more aware of the camera and recite a part of a Harold Pinter poem [“It is Here,” written in 1990 to Pinter’s wife, Antonia Fraser] or one of his monologues. I was also interested in the difference between sincere performance and cynical performance because I noticed that when the people in your piece have more awareness of the performance, the engagement with the camera was much different.

CK I liked the idea of actually staging these excerpts from Harold Pinter’s monologue—it’s a piece from 1973—and then the poem is a separate thing, a tender moment. But there are little comments throughout where everything is Harold Pinter. I chose Harold Pinter because he’s the master of, in a way, cynical versus sincere performing. He uses language as a floating entity in the way that people speak to each other. I could declare ‘I love you’ but say it with hatred in my voice. And the hatred is the world that exists below the language and overrides the language. He’s also very male and very violent and I wanted to create a counterpoint between what these women and these feminist conversations are doing and this kind of theatrical space that is more conventional and manly. There’s not very much Harold Pinter in the video, it’s just the poem but there are a couple of places where my mother or daughter will look at the camera and speak his words.

SB So it’s actually your mother—

CK —It’s actually my mother and it’s a little girl named Pemma from the neighborhood playing my daughter.

SB So not professional at all.

CK She’s not an actor. She’s just a little girl. I didn’t want an actor to play this part. And she doesn’t come across as one, she comes across as a slightly shy little girl.

SB You have that wonderful moment in the piece when your mother is talking about locking eyes with you for the first time after your birth and in the next scene, you talk about that as well—saying that you were very connected during the pregnancy and once the baby leaves you it’s a separate entity in the world and you don’t have that level of connection.

CK Right and then that is all in bad faith because I’m making it up. So I’m talking about breaking connections and creating connections while I’m actually breaking and creating connections with the audience. Because people will or will not believe that it is a documentary. It’s parafictional.

SB Exactly, and they can also identify with you—I’m not a mother myself—but I can imagine listening to you talk and having this moment of identity with what you’re saying… and then to know that it’s not precisely true… it really changes the viewer’s interaction. With this piece, how much information about what’s going on do people who are just looking at it get?

CK There will be a credit list, and the credit list will list the name of the actress who plays my daughter as different from my name. Which sometimes happens between mothers and daughters, but I will probably say “actors” and then list their names. And my mother has a different last name than me so that will bring into question whether she is my mother.

SB And whether or not she’s an actor.

CK Exactly. I think people need to bring their own experiences to this piece, their own intellectual interaction with the emotional or affectual space of caretaking, childbirth—only some people will relate to the piece at all. People who have experienced that, or people who may be mad that I’m making up things as I go, or people who have been mothers or have been married. I’ve picked milestone events that occur in a young woman’s life in this day and age. And I’m kind of in a way slightly questioning why those are the milestones. Why weddings are so important?

The Breath We Took

Still from The Breath We Took, 2013. All images courtesy of the artist.

SB Well and especially if they can be redone. You have this really kind of funny scene with your grandmother—is that really your grandmother?

CK Yeah.

SB Okay. There’s the funny scene where you’re talking to your grandmother about your mother’s wedding and saying, “Oh yeah it was Halloween and she was wearing orange,” or what have you. And your grandmother says, “No she wasn’t, she had this beautiful wedding dress.” And saying, “No, not that, not her first wedding, but the second one.” It raises the question of “What do you remember?” Do you remember the original one with the white dress where it’s done to tradition, or do you remember the one that took, or do you remember the one where a child comes out of it—if these are milestones then by definition you only get one, so how do you sort of—

CK Interesting. How do you negotiate that?

SB Or do you conflate it and sort of pull the best of each piece of it?

CK I don’t know. For me this is a less critical piece than I usually make, it’s just sort of a series of questions that I’m asking with the piece and those include what does it mean to perform oneself, what does it mean to be a feminist in this day and age, what did it mean in the 1970s when my mother had me. This reminds me of this Shulamith Firestone article in The New Yorker that came out a couple weeks ago, it’s about Firestone and her recent death and talks about the scathing things she wrote about childbearing. She said it was like shitting a pumpkin.

SB (laughter)

CK But she never had a child. She didn’t know what it was actually like. And I read that and felt so energized by her saying that. Why can’t we say things like that? Why can’t we theorize—it seems like if we can’t it’s an attack on being a woman. And I like that she makes that statement, it’s a speech act that makes you see the, well, sometimes gore of childbearing, and I just think that we should be having more conversations about that without fear of treading on some kind of natural territory that women inhabit.

SB Along with that there’s this sense that in this sphere you can only comment on somethingyou yourself have experienced with your own body and there can’t be any intellectual or critical comment.

CK That’s a big piece. Why everything in art is still based on identity politics is beyond me. I’m trying to shop around this project right now that’s about Islam—well, it’s about Salman Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses—and nobody wants to touch it because I’m not Muslim. That’s what I think.

SB How boring.

CK Well it makes sense, why would someone want to give me money to make something they think I can’t possibly know anything about because I haven’t experienced it for myself? So I wanted in a way, this piece is a little bit of a fuck you to conventional rules of “write what you know.” I’ve thought a lot about childbirth and weddings and in a way I like the fact that there is this authentic moment [in the piece] where I get married [Knight’s own wedding video is incorporated into The Breath We Took]. But right after that, you see me wearing the wedding dress years later standing around in my bedroom and lying on the bed. And you don’t know if it’s from that time or from this time or what time or what’s constructed.

SB The only thing that tipped me off that there was perhaps some distance of time between the two is the different camera with which it was shot. And it really is the only clue you have. And even in later scenes where you and your ex-husband are on a therapist’s couch—at least that’s how I was reading it, it’s very ambiguous—I was wondering, Wait, is that the same guy?—I was trying to remember back to the footage of the wedding and remember his face. Is that the same guy, and then thinking, Wait, does it matter? Does it have to be him?

CK That’s interesting. No, it doesn’t. He’s a stand-in. It is him, it is the same guy and I got him to come to New York and do that scene. Now, after the fact. Because I wanted to, again, create this documentary fiction and I wanted to work hard to do that. And so he came and we did that scene—he comes up very briefly in the piece because it’s about women and that’s clear. But he does weigh in a little bit on some things. And I liked again that his presence made undeniable in some way that this must be—maybe could be—real.

SB And I did love on that ambiguous couch where you’re talking about how you relate to the child and he says, “The way I relate to her I think is a little bit less aware than the way yourelate to her.” There was almost this implied criticism in his words: You’re not natural, the way you interact is not naturally feminine. Even though nothing really in the tone of voice implies that there’s any criticism, but even just applying “natural” to an interaction with a child to a man and not to a woman somehow feels unnatural, if you will.

 The Breath We Took 2

Still from The Breath We Took, 2013.

CK That’s part of one of the main questions of the piece, cynical being “aware” and sincere being “natural,” and the equivalences created by the pairing of those words is complicated. Because who wants to be cynical? Nobody, right?

SB We want to be aware, though.

CK Irving Goffman in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life gives an example of a couple that run a bed and breakfast and they’re kind of working class. And they service people who are middle class and so they’re cynical at first. They’re performers who are cynical, because they see themselves as lower class. This is in England, so it’s even more pronounced. And then, over time, they become more bourgeois because they’re working in this place and trying to create it and design it for these middle class people and they become sincere—they suddenly start seeing themselves as middle class. And I just really liked that idea, the shifting from cynical to sincere and back again, and wondered: Could I engage that threshold area in a piece about what women do and how women perform their roles in these—I don’t want to say conventions—in these areas that are seen as naturalistic? Getting married is so natural, having a baby and being a mother should be natural, and I want to suggest that it’s okay to be a cynical performer if you are doing those things. It doesn’t diminish the experience, necessarily.

SB And when you were performing it yourself, did you find that you shifted in any way from cynical to sincere or from sincere to cynical?

CK That’s a good question. What did happen … I started exercising a certain kind of neurosis in a way. I think that is produced by the video being fiction. That, in a way, it makes sense to “write what you know” because you can experience the gamut of emotions and affects and things that come with it, and when you’re making it up it becomes an intellectual exercise. So I had moments where I felt close to this girl but I never was like, in love with this girl. I related to what my mother said but some of the things that she said kind of hurt. Though being an adult allowed me to appreciate and relate to what she was saying in a new way. It was a cathartic piece that I wanted to make, it’s a piece about my mother. I wanted to bring in other elements but it’s really about that rapport. To try to answer your question, I think I stayed cynical because it was an acting exercise.

SB I sort of have to check myself even asking that question because I feel like the assumption, even not fully thinking about it is, Oh you don’t have a child and you are a woman pretending to have a child, that must have had a big impact, that must have felt like something. I think it’s like so ingrained that these are huge emotional moments, huge emotional experiences.

CK If anything I felt a little bit guilty that I didn’t feel that much. I think my mother had a stronger reaction to this little girl, because she probably would like to have a grandchild someday, and expressed at some point that she—it was strange for her to be acting as this grandmother for this little girl she didn’t know. Whereas for me it felt fine.

SB Do you think it was because you were more in control of the situation than your mother was because it was your construct?

CK I was distracted by the fact that we were making a film. This is why it’s sometimes good to be just the director or just the cameraperson or just the actor. It’s hard to act and direct at the same time. I was distracted by that I was also doing a social experiment with this piece, in a way, on a very small scale. I wanted to see what it was like to take really compelling information from my mother about what she felt about mothering and childbearing and marriage and create a fictional fabric around that. That was meant to enrich and engage the elements were not acted. You can tell when she’s speaking that she’s not acting. That’s the one thing that makes you question all of the acting and wondering if it’s true. She becomes the ballast of the piece. She grounds the piece.

 The Breath We Took 3

Still from The Breath We Took, 2013.

SB Absolutely, I think that’s very apparent. Even at the end where she’s doing her part to perform the Harold Pinter poem, it’s still—it’s very jarring in that moment because you realize in that moment how authentic and natural she seemed previous to that. It really creates this good sort of counterweight to have that recitation of the poem at the end.

So, is everything performed? I feel like going back through your work and seeing gender performed and seeing class performed, seeing race performed, seeing religion, seeing political affiliation, it really makes me question whether every part of everyday life is a performance in some way and if we start to think about it that way, what happens?

CK My job is to ask the questions. Ideally, people will see this and ask that question and become more aware of what is performed. Especially relationships of power and the everyday. All the different kinds of small transactions you make with people, all of those are performances. We’re very sophisticated about those performances, we’re very sensitive as humans. Just the fact that we can navigate all these people outside every day and the way that we negotiate space with a group of people or the way that you deal with your mother or the way that you deal with your lover and the kinds of levels of closeness that you can achieve with these performances. I think people want to be happy and they want to feel close to other people and they are willing to fake it sometimes.

SB Watching this piece, I kept thinking, Oh wait, when you think about motherhood… is itactually performed—are people pretending to be natural because they think they’re supposed to? Is there almost a performance of the natural? We know what natural is supposed to look like, after all.

CK It’s subtle. I think with a non-actor performance is more subtle because they’re not necessarily as self-aware that they’re doing it. Like if I brought in an actor to play my mother and had her play naturalistic I think you would have known that she was an actor. Because that little girl is so young and she’s a non-actor, she doesn’t look like me so it seems likely that maybe she’s not my child but people may or may not be able to tell that.

I was really influenced by this video by Gerard Byrne, Hommes a Femmes, that he showed at the Venice Biennial in 2007. It’s a re-staging of an interview between Catherine Chaîne and Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1970s. And they’re talking about chauvinism and feminism and sexual relations between women and men. I watched this film and I knew that it wasn’t really Sartre but I overcame that disbelief. I was so engaged in what they were talking about that I almost didn’t care, I almost believed that it was him. I wanted to engage—like he was manipulating me in a way because that guy was an actor he just happened to be a really good actor. But I was so curious, more curious about engaging these kind of emotional and political performances. Because he was a real chauvinist about women, and he was this brilliant person but we forget that you know, famously—and I just found this out, that when Stokely Carmichael, who’s one of my favorite people, was asked what was a woman’s role in the New Left movement, he said, The only position for a woman is prone.

SB Oh, gross!

CK Ugh. This is also in the Shulamith Firestone article, you should read it.

SB I really should. I’m so depressed!

CK (laughter) It’s like, No, please!

SB Close to the beginning, there’s a scene where Pemma is washing her feet in the sink and you have this sort of odd moment where you say, “This piece is a little about loneliness.” You comment directly on the construct of the whole thing. Why did you do that?

CK I wanted to jar the viewer out of a kind of comfort zone that one can be lulled into with the piece.

It’s not that I don’t trust the viewer to figure it out, I have it in because I want the piece to be explicit and almost didactic about what it’s talking about. And I find that sometimes it’s good to rely on images and narrative to do that and sometimes it’s okay to look at someone and declare, I wanted it to be a declarative gesture in the piece.

Someone else watched the piece, a friend of mine, and said, “I don’t need you to tell me these things.” And I’m like, “I’m going to tell you.” Because the piece already involves a lot of potential for misinterpretation in terms of people getting caught up in what’s real and not real. But some people won’t read it that way at all, some people will read it as pure documentary and some people will read it as pure fiction and I don’t want to mince words about the deeper point of the piece, I guess. Even though it’s fractious, it’s a little about loneliness it’s a little about childbearing, it’s a little about weddings, but it’s really about the roles we play as women. And you can take the piece for whatever you want but if it gets you to think about what the roles are a little bit more, especially if you’re angry at me for faking it, then it still got you to think about those things.

The Breath We Took is showing until June 1, 2013 at Aspect Ratio in Chicago. For more on Chelsea Knight, check out her website.

Sophie Buonomo is BOMBlog’s Art Editor and a master’s candidate in History of Art and Design at the Pratt Institute.

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