Still from Chelsea Knight's video "Searching for a Character" (2013). Image courtesy of Chelsea Knight.

Still from Chelsea Knight’s video “Searching for a Character” (2013) (courtesy of Chelsea Knight and Aspect Ratio Projects, Chicago, IL)

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes the best scenes and characters come to writers and performance artists through improvisation. Drop the script, implied social codes, and cultural indoctrinations of “normal” and anything can happen. This notion was part of the impetus for Chelsea Knight’s “Searching for a Character” (2013), a 22-minute video that she started working on during a cross-country road trip and that came full circle as a performance two years later as part of sometimes in the office of ltd los angeles, an ongoing program curated by Meghan Gordon and hosted by ltd los angeles.

For Knight’s video, she traveled across the country hiring amateur actors through Craigslist. When meeting up with them, she had them perform monologues that they chose in whatever way they wanted so long as they eventually broke character. A somewhat somber meditation on the role of the actor, Knight completed this long-form project in Los Angeles, the place where actors move to make their cinematic dreams come true, find themselves, or do something else all together. For the one-night-only performance, Knight hired performers Patrick Michael Ballard, Bill Kates, Fred Schmidt-Arenales, and Phillippa zu Knyphausen to read monologues for the gallery-goers. Hyperallergic caught up with Knight by phone after she’d gone back to New York.

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Alicia Eler: I’m thinking about affect theory in relation to your video, “Searching for a Character” (2013), because you’re asking these actors to perform monologues with or without affect. What were your thoughts on affect as you worked on this piece?

Chelsea Knight: I think about affect as a psychoanalytic thing. In Shame and Its Sisters, Silvan Tomkins talks about how something like shame is an affect as opposed to an emotion, and that it comes from this feedback loop that you have with your primary caregiver that you had as an infant. When that chain is broken you have primary affects like shame.

Actors have a combination of production of emotion and affect, and artificiality, and I’m interested in tapping into that. I don’t usually work with actors. I wanted to make a work that looked at performance in the everyday. I often work with non-actors on improvisational works: interrogators, construction workers, Tea Partiers, etc. In “Searching for a Character,” working with actors, it was similar. We improvised in order to make a loose script or score from which to work.

Documentation of the performance sometimes in the office of ltd los angeles presents CHELSEA KNIGHT (image courtesy of Meghan Gordon and Chelsea Knight; video still credit: Theo Burtis)

AE: What’s the full story of “Searching for a Character”?

CK: The journey itself happened in 2013; I drove cross-country and I hired actors off of Craigslist along the way, and I wanted to make this epic journey about authenticity, sincerity, and truth. I would ask these actors to meet me in public places, some at their house, and we would do monologues of their choice and then break character, and negotiate what that means.

During the road trip I was thinking about manifest destiny, the landscape of the US, and how we interpolate ourselves into these constructions of our cultural identity and personal identity, and I was just curious to talk to people whose job it was to represent the selves of others. What was the essence of their “self” and is that what happened when they came out of character? I wasn’t sure what would happen.

In the ltd performance the actors were encouraged to be really amplified and exaggerated in their theatricality at first, and then take it down and be conversational and just be themselves and then trouble the relationship between being sincere and being cynical. Here I am using the terms from sociologist Erving Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; being sincere is trusting and believing in your own performance and being unconscious about it, and being cynical is being aware of your mask. I was interested in oscillating between the sincere and the cynical so that the audience is implicated in their own performance.

Documentation of the performance sometimes in the office of ltd los angeles presents CHELSEA KNIGHT (image courtesy of Meghan Gordon and Chelsea Knight; video still credit: Theo Burtis)

AE: You’re based in New York but decided to do this last leg of the performance in Los Angeles. What made you decide to come here?

CK: I am interested in choosing identities like trying on a cloak. Then you have to be very introspective about who you are. I was a theater major at Oberlin College until I switched to English. From when I was five years old, I knew that I wanted to be an actor very seriously. I think the project is partly autobiographical in that I was really invested in performance and what that meant, but at Oberlin I was doing classical theater. I didn’t know anything about performance art. It wasn’t introduced to me until later. I really liked this sort of lacuna, or empty space, where you reside — you are performing all these other things all the time. Then you have to go to a very private place where you are not that. I couldn’t handle the emotional roller coaster of risk-taking that you are constantly on. I’m really happy to take risks in certain contexts, but I would fall in love with people I was doing a play with and then at the end of the play I would realize that we weren’t friends at all. It wasn’t real.

I am thinking about what is visible, too. In visual culture, you analyze and try to understand what you are seeing — as an actor, you are being seen. That’s also a feminist trope, a Mulvey thing — I didn’t want to be seen, I wanted to be a seer.

In college I took a directing class and found it really difficult. Now I am slowly going back to that position.

Still from Chelsea Knight’s video “Searching for a Character” (2013) (image courtesy of Chelsea Knight and Aspect Ratio Projects, Chicago, IL)

some times in the office of ltd los angeles presents CHELSEA KNIGHT took place on January 17 at ltd los angeles (7561 West Sunset Boulevard, #103, Hollywood).

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...