Visual Verses & Sonic Fades

Bittersweet Texture in Autumn Knight’s Complain/Disappoint

Perhaps the complaint is the bridge. 

—Autumn Knight

Autumn Knight’s 2023 experimental video Complain/Disappoint is a bittersweet symphony working across sound, text, and embodied performance. Overlapping images, voices, and missed expectations invite the spectator into a multimodal and multiaffective experience. Between audio narratives of grievances against infrastructural failure and a dark-humoured improvisational solo by Knight playing with various objects, the video drops the viewer into an emotional continuum subtended by continual complaining. The clever and courageous New York–based interdisciplinary artist administers the virtual space of disappointment, disillusionment, and the layered reverberations of ambivalence. Conceptually aligning this piece with other performances like Here + Now (2017) and Lament (2013), in which the colonial politics of the institution are displayed, Knight once more privileges and honors the minoritarian voice. Exposing the unmitigated injustices that ensue while labouring for/within any institution as a subject of difference and as an object of its ongoing grievance, Knight produces a sociality of lateral listening held together by a biting sarcasm, optical chaos, and fading sonic scores. 

Created in partnership with Purchase College, Complain/Disappoint features Knight as the recordkeeper of verbal accusations made by students and faculty. In collaboration with community sound, light, and animation designers, Knight co-plays as editor, DJ, and surrealist institutional ethnographer as this evocatively orchestrated effort advances a splicing and sampling of aesthetic scenes born of and bound to negation, regret, and absurdity. Between prerecorded sounds and time-based media, Knight engenders a ripple effect of looping notes and feedback while the complainant offers disappointment as a stream-of-conscious musicality. Throughout the video, these complaints fade in and out across several repeated and distinct voices governed by Knight’s unscripted bodily movements. Ranging in topics from racism, ableism, and homophobia to the limits of monogamy and poor medical care; from the deprivation of rest and sleep to death and COVID; and from the politics of gender to the difficulties of mobility and transportation, the artist regards each complaint by establishing a lateral listening sociality that blurs audio and optic lines and stories across animated text and her very own body. Approximately every five minutes the video segues into another incomplete grievance by yet another voice; however, a similar tenor and theme return throughout the larger composition. Rather than being just judge and jury, Knight teasingly improvises with objects while also lending sound to the displeasures of affective labour. By reframing the complaint via the disembodied voice, Knight gives the effects of institutional abuse a face, flesh, choreography; consequently, the viewer must look at her to witness the skull beneath the skin.

Every complainant’s story, however incriminating and meandering, is cleverly arranged as a fragmented miniscore that cuts the speaker off in middisappointment to then be looped back in time through the metascore. That is, the video presents the minor voice, prerecorded, continually aggrieved, and remanipulated by the artist in video time through narratological incompletions or sonic fades as conceptual markers of collective irresolution. These sonic fragments form the setting of Knight’s corporeal improvisations with various materials and objects—for example, office supplies like a label printer, cardboard boxes, paperclips, and gold star stickers mingle with art supplies like bubble wrap, balloons, tissue paper, bells, broken glass, glitter, and mirrors. The objects become Knight’s instruments, and as the voices sway in and out of memory to challenge narratological certainty, Knight explodes stories and genre through inharmonious and satirical choreography across overlaid critical text.

Take, for instance, the video’s first audio narrative. It offers a critique of the university health care system by featuring a queer complainant discussing the hardship of demonstrating bodily symptoms over a screen. Frustrated, the subject invents a story of having ticks to schedule a swift in-person visit with the school nurse. This story, while depicting the reality of care under COVID, quickly meanders into another complaint: this self-proclaimed hypochondriac, after their in-person visit, is shocked to have acquired a urinary tract infection. Having a penis, they explain, does not foreclose the possibility of infection, although it is not a very common occurrence. Still, waiting for proper medical attention produces the subject’s state of anxiety. As the voice continues through disillusionment with bodies and bodies of care, the viewer witnesses Knight’s hands printing labels like “WHY YOU DISAPPOINTED” and then placing them atop an overhead projector. Producing a series of screens within screens, or a series of smoke and mirrors, one reads this label to then see Knight’s middle finger appear to reread the scene. Sliding slowly down the screen, Knight’s finger hails us all. Could Knight be performing the tacit institutional policy in which the complainant becomes the aggressor rather than the one persecuted? Or is that finger a command? For Sara Ahmed, “the judgment of complaint can also be an order: to stop complaining as a demand to set things right.”¹ Perhaps the finger’s purpose is ambiguously presented, like the multiplying screens, to highlight the asymmetries of power and layers of injustice alive within every grievance.

These overlapping screens, like Knight’s body and animated and real fingers, play leading roles in the video. In some instances, Knight fingers a bag of gold star stickers, plays a cowbell, places bubble wrap under her black shirt and over her belly to pop plastic, and continues to print labels like “AUNT PEARL IS DEAD” and “FUCK ARE YOU COMPLAINING FOR” against a background of warbling dissonant sounds when the voices of the complainants fade out. At other times Knight is rolling on the floor with a yellow balloon in her mouth, sending illegible sounds through a microphone, and climbing a ladder with white construction paper. Dressed all in black with a bright gold chain around her neck, Knight is often in close-up. At one point, Knight stares into a handheld mirror to stare back at the camera, and as the spectator gazes at Knight, the artist gazes into us. Creating visual verses across multiple lenses, Knight refuses to foreclose the ambivalent sways of judgment, sarcasm, and dark humour. Instead, Knight reminds us that someone’s right to be heard in complaining is someone else’s disappearance. As Black feminist site, Knight is the embodiment of complaint, producer of the hearing, and channel for complicated process, asking to be seen in visual verse against the communal sonic fade.

But what is a complaint if not an exclusive and singular experience, and who is allowed the luxury to complain? Who is not heard in the act of being “heard as complaining,” to think with Sara Ahmed’s questions in analyzing systemic abuses of power?² In countermeasure to the mechanics of institutional policy, Ahmed, like Knight, renders the grievance “as feminist pedagogy,” proposing a “feminist ear” be extended to give “complaint a hearing, by giving room to complaint, by listening to complaint.”³ In doing so, Ahmed shares that one must listen for the archival repositories of Black feminist thought in the struggle to be historically heard and seen.

By retracing the dissonant materiality of recording while prerecording the recording of someone’s record, Knight engenders a chaotic musicality in distinctive order to lend us a hearing. But Knight’s hearing is not composed of reports, lawyers, and reliable witnesses; rather, it prospers via multilayered screens, cynical humour, and unnerving sounds that produce the sonic blurring of barren expectations. These fading-in-and-out testimonies might symbolize what the institution, rarely liable, hears and sees when one is lodging grievances. However circuitously, Knight treats these interwoven sonic and visual shots as a bridge to something else, or as a durational passage on loop, reiterative moments toward a self via the testimony of others. As a “killjoy genre”4 amidst a history of hearing as Black feminist knowledge, the complaint as bridge is an invitation, an implication, a returning blur, a permutation of judgment, a wound made communal through lateral listening across pasts. Knight, as a woman-of-colour facilitator, receives and records these bittersweet looping ends as travel without exact destination. In a piece as demanding as this one, passages are tall bridges above deep waters.

In an online conversation with artist Jerron Herman and curator Christine Negus for LOMAA’s series Virtual Encounters: New Entanglements in Performance and Media, Knight shares that a complaint is the bridge. But from where to what, and from whom to how? Which gap is Knight minding, to think alongside Ahmed again, when she imagines the gap between what is meant to happen and what happens in complaint?5 In Knight’s unconventional piece, could complaint come to symbolize a connection to something else, someone other, neither entirely Knight’s to harbour nor ours to immediately hear? 

There are formal complaints and there is complaining. There are unsuccessful desires and there is just fantasy. Knight blurs these lines carefully to say something about the faces one registers when bearing the sounds of disillusion and harm. Manipulating the tenuous relations built from incongruous structures of power whereby consent is often a fantasy framed into a singular burden, Knight demands our complicity. In Knight’s performative world, the burden is eventually carried by everyone watching and listening—there’s no exit from complaint, even if incomplete, only the opportunity to carry the fade into one’s own nostalgia and grief. Perhaps Knight wants us to recall that while complaints are indicative of the brutality of neglect, they are also fragmented assemblages that grow into remainder as they disappear into someone else’s reminder. Everyday complaints are and aren’t like one’s dead aunt under a pandemic, but then again, under a pandemic one’s dead aunt returns one to the everyday.

Presenting the psychological and social setup for disappointment like a simultaneous producer, composer, improviser, therapist, and data analyst deriving discontent from avant-garde composition, Knight arranges these miniscores into a multisensorial overture. Key to all of Knight’s work is the deployment of the score—often written by Knight for another performer, other times improvised in real time, and sometimes an extended collaboration produced across space and source. This aesthetic strategy allows one to witness fragmented scenes of harm, suffering, hostility, racialized and sexualized hate, for example, with proximal entanglement. In this way, Knight distorts our senses by supplying various optics, from the camera lens to the computer screen, the overhead projector to the mirror within the mirror. 

So, does Knight return us to ourselves as we undergo the process of seeing her see us? All these screens brilliantly highlight the complicated layers of representation, testimony, dissatisfaction, and power imbalance within institutions, across aesthetics. They also expose the emotionally prismatic continuums and synesthetic stimuli that form the bedrock of virtual performance: the spectator as actor as ensemble member; the performer as audience member within the screen; and the screen, not merely a border for detachment, but an animated, upright stage. 

Via the strategic ordering of incomplete scores and visual chaos that dominate the virtual scene, Knight takes us to the bridge. These sonic, cultural, and political scores pulsate with ambivalence as a coping mechanism, ambivalence as the necessary bridge of complaint. Or the miniscores engender the rhythm to the bridge—as disappointment pours out, Knight develops bittersweetness as the essence of her symphony. “I don’t know if I can stay deeply in one state or another,” shares Knight about this piece; for her, “bittersweetness provides the cathartic experience” for expressing different modalities. Bittersweetness, then, as textured essence in life and aesthetic, enables Knight to traverse mediums and ride the affective line of pain and hope that cuts across play and seriousness to meander through tears and laughter. And Knight refuses to subsume any feeling under another; as such, this bittersweetness does not become a singular ontological state, but extends outward as an entwined aesthetic-life-world. This world is framed by visual, sonic, bodily, and textual cuts, acerbic embraces across shot-reverse-shots, smiles and full grimaces, the grief within grievance, the shade that laughs at laughter itself—all of this is the tension that lives at the centre of Knight’s body of work.

Knight reframes complaining as a site for Black feminist pedagogical and aesthetic encounters. By leaving the listener with only a portion of a grievance without full context other than the paracontextual that often denies Blackness a hearing, Knight offers us her inner metronome or the negative feelings one experiences when expectations aren’t met, which in the case of Blackness, is the quotidian hearing. The video brilliantly ends with the visual verse and sonic fade taking us to the bridge. Countering the mechanics of the institution that negate Black life, an autonarrative plays: “I am often an angry woman, and I am Black and I complain. I see things. I see issues. I see solutions and I complain. If I were a different color, if I had different organs between my legs, if my hair was different, I might be seen as a really valuable asset, but instead I’m an angry Black woman complaining.” This voice is and isn’t Knight’s; it is a sonic representation of quotidian life for Black women that becomes sound legible in sight. However personal, complaining carries entangled sites and stories, partial through lines, and inadequate ends, for what is truth in this time is just a meaning in another. Yet, the complaint above shows how most times the complaint is made prior to sound. In suggesting that we must also ask: What does it mean to be a Black woman in a world that demands one’s diversity but never listens to one’s grievance of failing equities? Forever a pedagogue, student, conceptualist, and artist, Knight teaches us that disappointment is not simply a negative feeling one singularly feels, but instead a symptom one might wear to someone else’s hearing. 


¹ Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 3.

² Ahmed, Complaint!, 1.

³ Ahmed, 3.

4 On the first page of Ahmed’s book, the author suggests that complaint is a killjoy genre.  

Ahmed, 30.

Sandra Ruiz is the Sue Divan Associate Professor of Performance Studies in Theatre and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ruiz is the author of Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance (NYU Press, 2019), Left Turns in Brown Study (Duke University Press, 2024), Tears for Tears: Aesthetics in Grief Minor (NYU Press, forthcoming 2025). Ruiz is coauthor with Hypatia Vourloumis of Formless Formation: Vignettes for the End of this World & The Alleys. Additionally, Ruiz is coeditor with Uri McMillan and Shane Vogel of the book series Minoritarian Aesthetics (NYU Press)