In a 2011 interview, New York-based artist Chelsea Knight asserted, “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.” This notion forms the heart of Knight’s practice and first solo museum exhibition, which consisted of two works: Frame (2012), an installation with an 11-minute single-channel video as its centerpiece, and The End of All Resistance (2010, 29 minutes), a single-channel video projection. Considered together, Knight’s videos probe and provoke words, raising questions about their capacity to define roles traditionally perceived as fixed.
For Frame, created during a Freund Teaching Fellowship in St. Louis, a gallery painted black was occupied nearly to its perimeter by a steel building frame. Three large-format color photographs hung on one end of the skeletal structure, each depicting an atmospheric angle of the museum’s expansion project, currently in construction. The video, projected on a screen in the gallery’s center, presents six male and female construction workers of various races and ages. They assemble steel girders (echoing those in the gallery), while discussing feminist theory, contemporary literature and their own lives—quoting texts, paraphrasing ideas and improvising. The textual recitations are the most disjunctive. A line from Clarice Lispector’s novella The Hour of the Star (1977), for instance, is repeated by two different male workers: “What I am writing could be written by another. Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.” The bravado of the artistic conceit is undermined by the rawness of the worker’s beleaguered, hard-hat reality.
For The End of All Resistance, Knight worked with two U.S. army interrogators from the Iraq war, who enact interrogation techniques derived from a U.S. Army Field Manual that Knight found online. These scripted scenes are also interpreted by two young actresses and a middle-aged married couple (the artist’s father and stepmother). Each pair appears in a different environment (an interrogation room, a rehearsal space and a home, respectively), though the footage is edited with sharp cuts and double exposures that juxtapose analogous confrontations.
The video is divided into segments, each dedicated to a distinct technique. For the section on the coercive utility of repetition, the army interrogators stare at one another, each relentlessly chant ing the phrase “what insurgent organization are you in?” The actresses strike and hold various bodily contortions, as if to the beat of the repeated phrase. The married couple sings the words to each other, evoking a comedic opera.
Knight’s ambitious work wrests unexpected poignancy and humor from its complex orchestrations—successfully saying something new with language’s most rigid prescriptions.
Photo: Chelsea Knight: The End of All Resistance, 2010, video, 29 minutes; at the Saint Louis Art Museum.