Autumn Knight’s multimedia exhibition explores leisure, productivity, and Blackness.
By Muni Suleiman
It was an hour into our visit to the Nothing #26 exhibition when I voiced a potential irony to my friend: We’re doing a lot of interpretative work for an exhibition that calls on its audience to do nothing.
From Feb. 3 to March 12, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery housed Nothing #26: The Potential of Nothing is Everything (Wallach) by American interdisciplinary artist Autumn Knight. Knight’s title places the exhibition in conversation with Jenny Odell’s 2019 novel How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, in which she argues for action that ignores the internet era’s demand for productivity. By bringing Odell’s ideas to life in Nothing #26, Knight extends her own years-long multidisciplinary experiment on dolce far niente, an Italian phrase that means “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
The exhibition’s relevance on an Ivy League campus is clear. The college admissions industrial complex introduces students to an unreasonable conception of productivity at an absurdly young age. In the cutthroat arena of ACT scores and Common App essays, students are taught that they must do everything and anything to be seen as worthy by their desired schools. Doing nothing is self-indulgent. Hobbies are means to resume-build. These are the rules that govern young, high-achieving students during their formative years. In this context, “doing nothing” is not just unproductive; it’s destructive.
However, as the description of the exhibition outside of the gallery explains, Knight’s work relies on Blackness as a lens. She contends with indulging in dolce far niente as a Black person navigating socio-cultural stressors and combating structural inequalities. A moment of prose appears in one of the exhibition’s videos: “I know how to have freedom … I can take a type of freedom seriously.” After rewatching the clip in which the quote appears, however, I realized that I had read those lines as questions instead of statements. “Do I know how to have freedom from racialized social expectations for success? … Can I take this type of freedom seriously?”
Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal famously contains a scene where Papa Pope explains to his daughter Olivia that she has to work twice as hard to get half of what white people have. The phrase sharply identifies the additional work required of Black students in competitive environments. It is this understanding, perpetuated by structural and systemic inequalities, that makes “doing nothing” seem like a leisure reserved for the privileged.
Though Knight does not explicitly outline a racialized and gendered intention, it’s telling that the exhibition’s videos predominantly feature women paired with expressions such as “I wish to be as beautiful and useful as a machine.” “Black girl boredom” has been coined on TikTok as the phenomenon in which Black women still feel the need to get ahead during times of leisure. This phenomenon pertains specifically to a small, certain class of Black women, those who are privileged enough to attain college degrees or enter academia. User @mary.ish explained how she returns to school to pursue advanced degrees and certification whenever she is “bored.” The comments are filled with women echoing Mary’s thoughts, elaborating on the tendency to take courses or accumulate degrees when they’re supposed to be taking a break. Of course, even for the majority of Black women who do not possess multiple degrees or have access to these spaces, there’s an exceptional urge towards perceived personal productivity in times of leisure tied to the legacy of stereotypes like the Mammy.
Even in moments of celebration or vulnerability, Knight depicts a lingering capitalist ethic. For example, a corner of the exhibition features a video of water pouring in various jugs, none of them ever completely filling. Whilst this plays, a voice-over expresses frustration at the people of “this country” and their inability to be vulnerable. The voice is joined by others urging them to put a warning of vulnerability on a T-shirt and “workshop” it. It speaks to the idea that even our vulnerabilities can, too, be commodified.
For Knight, the landscape of the interior is exploited by the attention economy. Illustrated faces that adorn some surfaces in Nothing #26 feature eyes which look in various directions with no central focus and are underlined by bags which emphasize the very labor of attention. The exhibition’s only sense of centrality is produced by a black chair which sits on a circular, rotating platform. With it sit clay formations that seem to attempt, but never quite create, an imitation of a “perfect” clay animal on the outer edge of the platform. Following its motion with your eyes or your feet feels like running on a hamster wheel. Apart from nausea, it also imparted upon me the idea that we can never be as efficient as a machine that does not tire, nor can we perfectly recreate moments of creativity generated by doing nothing.
Both Odell and Knight recognize that it is chance encounters—happenstances, disruptions, and time wasted—that makes living worthwhile. Life is made meaningful in times of leisure, which are scarce in a culture that champions efficiency and productivity above all.
Nothing #26 examines “nothing” as an intentional pursuit towards nonsense and unproductivity. In her videos, Knight handles common objects, such as gloves or a banana, in ways that seem nonsensical. But within such seeming meaninglessness is where free-range creativity can truly arise. Her work allows visitors to engage in as much or as little labor as they like; they determine what is worth simply seeing and what is worth extensively interpreting. They can, as Knight commands in the exhibition’s brochure, choose either to “do something or nothing here.”