By Shalon T. Webber-Heffernan
Plenty of Fish opens with James Knott’s shadow dramatically shaving off body hair behind a dimly lit partition to an assemblage of sounds. The West Side Story tune “I Feel Pretty” harmonizes with the clamouring of an electric razor, sheep shearing, and the buzz of a lawn mower. Meanwhile, the famously cinematic score from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller film Psycho resounds. The figure behind the divider seductively unravels a pair of stockings as Nina Simone’s The Other Woman melancholically lingers quietly in the background. Knott eventually emerges from behind the partition scantily dressed in vintage lingerie and dramatically falls down onto a duvet, while the dimly lit lamps conjure a lonely night time scene. The audience is in the bedroom now, and we find Knott waiting like a lonesome queen.
After first seeing James Knott mesmerizingly sing and dance to Elton John’s B-B-B “Bennie and the Jets” at 7a*11d’s 2018 International Festival of Performance Art, it became clear that I needed to find out more about this electrifying artist. Intrigued by Knott’s exacting hybrid style, a perfect blend between theatre and performance art, I followed their trail. Soon after, Ella Tetrault, who runs the experimental art space Miracle Baby in Toronto’s Oakwood Village asked me to curate a performance show, so I called James. I commissioned Knott to develop the first iteration of their performance Plenty of Fish which was performed at Miracle Baby in February 2019. Plenty of Fish explores the socio-sexual displacement of the queer femme body through allegorical retellings of the artist’s own experiences. The piece employs associative leaps of thought, erotic imagery, audio composition, and pop cultural references. Through traversing fantasy and autobiographical experience, the work can be interpreted alongside histories of queer and feminist performance art as tactical move away from realism to express new forms of dramatic subjectivity. The performance is activated by sound and music and Knott orchestrates the viewer’s emotions through various sonic landscapes.
Loons cooing, a river flowing, wolves howling—nature and pop culture merge into a queer ecology of sound. The reiteration and citation of popular music and TV-show sound bites conjures up a camp motif, breathing new life into familiar cultural scenarios. Knott picks up a pair of binoculars and fixates on a lamp while simulating receiving sexual activity. We hear a recorded voice (Knott’s) sweetly reading:
Arch your back to receive warmth sliding down your spine
Descend into the soft bark of thickened thighs
Lay in your bed like a beached whale
Siren call into the night
A goddess in discount lace
Seeking backseat validation
My pussy became a graveyard for dying aspirations
Vivid scaffolding of imagery has a surrealist effect —a camp-meets-stream of consciousness-meets-écriture féminine-meets-Jungian dream theory-meets-psychomagic-meets-pop culture-aesthetic unfolds. We are awoken from this glimmering reverie by the jarring blare of a cuckoo alarm clock and the familiar sound of morning toast popping: the residue of reality. A satirical beautification routine follows. Beating, lifting, pinching, Knott applies the social mask:
I trace around my eyes the fantasy of a Warhol paint-by-numbers
And coat my lashes till they jet out like carbon branches
I dust over my nose to tap into the sexual potential of Rudolph
the reindeer meets a runny nose at the bus stop in February
I bully encaustic red into my lips to allow me the ability to speak
I now have a face
This will allow me to get through the day
Overlapping sounds of a ship’s captain, Morse code, and various versions of the song “La Mer” (Bobby Darin, Django Reinhardt, Charles Trenet) play out in keeping with the leitmotif of the sea. Knott’s audio composition layers Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and various department store style announcements which broadcast marketing notifications from the online dating apps Tinder & Bumble.
Around the midpoint of the performance Knott directly addresses the audience, rupturing the fourth wall. The contents of an envelope are emptied onto the floor, and slips of paper scatter to the ground. Knott begins to pick them up, reading each one aloud to the audience. There are many. It becomes clear that what is being read are direct messages sent to Knott—the person not the performer—through online dating apps. Breaking the fourth wall is a well known and deliberate theatrical convention wherein actors no longer ‘ignore’ their audience by disrupting the invisible divide between them. In performance art traditions, the choice to look out upon the audience and speak directly to them is almost always used.
Knott’s decision to break the wall only during this particularly vulnerable segment of the performance is an intentional act, and has the effect of destroying the protective barrier between performer and witness, disrupting lyrical flow and forcing viewers to be present with the artist. Knott looks out at the audience members directly and fumbles through the voluminous messages—no longer ‘performing,’ the words range from comedic to tragic. Spectators become implicated in the scene as they become aware of themselves “seeing”; there is an awkwardness, a difficulty in watching, and an affective rupture. Intimate encounter between performer and audience is a central feature of autobiographical performance. The meta-technique of meeting ‘face to face’ with the crowd unsettles traditional theatricality by forcing viewers into a more intimate relationship with the performer. Knott’s choice to reach out to the audience and speak directly to them challenges the barrier between the real and the performed, and while the device of breaking the fourth wall is very old theatrical and performative news, in this instance it is particularly poignant. This strategy includes viewers in the performance and challenges complicity—it exposes the fact that anyone in the room could be sending (or receiving) these anonymous messages. Even though the messages are embarrassing and often cringe-worthy, Knott muddles through the vivid sexual imagery of each off-colour private message, reading more and more, leaving the audience to anxiously wonder if they will ever end.
Here are only a few of the messages Knott reads aloud to the audience:
Are you the tranny on Bumble?
I want to plow your gushing little butthole
Uber you to my place
Stick my tongue deep in your ass
and clean it with my spot.
I may just be a serial killer
Bruce Macarthur is goals.
Honestly can’t decide whether to
respect the fuck out of you
or fuck the respect out of you
do you have a preference?
Hey Sexy. Ever been pounded
While 10,000 feet in the air? I’m a
private pilot so could probably do
that for you 🙂
Knott laughs at the absurdity and atrocity at once. The direct address during this segment makes for a calculated social encounter between spectator and performer reminiscent of feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s articulations of the ‘stranger’ and hybridity in her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Ahmed’s notion of proximity as a key component of an encounter suggests that ethical communication is about “holding proximity and distance together: one gets close enough to others to be touched by that which cannot simply be got across”. (1) While humorous in performative delivery, the seeming limitless messages are also violent and vitriolic, highlighting that alongside the many different iterations of contemporary online hookup culture are equally popular iterations of transmisogyny.
Plenty of Fish constructs a palimpsestuous dreamscape. The performance dissects the complex push and pull between the magnetism of desire and the paranoia of shame. In this case, these tensions are projected onto Knott’s body by both admirers and detractors, illuminating the intertwined and coexisting nature of these tensions. It’s form, too, is hybrid: the performance is at once too theatrical for the gallery; too ‘performance art’ for the theatre. Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes that “[h]ybrid catches the fragmentary subject formation of people whose identities traverse different race, sexuality, and gender identifications” (2) and Plenty of Fish lyrically navigates the fragmented intersection between cultural influence, politics, desire, shame, and queer identity. Muñoz’s theory of disidentification is descriptive of strategies minority subjects practice in order to “negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship.” (3) These tactics move within and outside of dominant public spheres simultaneously, like ghosts.
A longing haunts Knott’s work, pulling viewers into a wistful and curious interiority. Another voiceover reads an excerpt from Frank O’hara’s poem ‘Mayakovsky’:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
Now donning a ball gown, Knott holds up an empty picture frame and struggles to fit ‘self’ within it, less concerned about that which is in the frame but rather grappling with the frame itself, illustrating the theatricality of not only the physical frame, but also social and gendered behavior. After struggling unsuccessfully with the frame and putting on a white men’s dress shirt, Knott recoils. The spectral sound of whale calls layers onto Mitski’s song “Washing Machine Heart” and it is as if Knott is tumbling back into water, with all the other fish in the sea. Plenty of Fish illuminates the amorphous and oceanic affair between shame and desire, and reminds that we see things imperfectly, multitudinously, and only in part. The performance ends with Knott waltzing alone in the room before laying down on the bed to sleep, and to dream.
- Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge, 2000. 157.
- Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 31.
- Ibid., 4.
Plenty of Fish was performed in 2019 by artist James Knott.
Feature Image: Plenty of Fish, 2019 by James Knott performing at YYZ Artists’ Outlet. Image courtesy of the artist.