An interview with James Knott about queer pain, camp as coping, and why a lamp is just a lamp playing it’s role
Maddie: Okay, so let's just start by introducing yourself, your practice, and I don’t know... a fun fact.
James: Okay, well my name is James Knott- I am a Toronto based emerging artist and my practice mainly focuses on a multimedia approach to creating “experiences”. I approach performance, animation, audio and theatrics in a hybrid blender smoothie juice cleanse….and uuuuuhmmmm a fun fact- you’ll have to get back to me on that.
Maddie: Okay good, yes it will be your closing statement. So from all your work, I’ve always gathered a really playful adolescent narrative, but what I find really interesting is that there’s always this darker undertone to it- so I kind of just wanted to let you explain that because it’s something I pick up on but I’m not sure if that’s me projecting my own shit onto your work or if it’s intentional.
James: I’m really glad you brought that up because it ties into what I’m working on for my thesis. What I’m exploring stems out of how going through “art school” I got labeled as “campy”, and I used to have an aversion to that because it felt like I was being told it’s kitsch or that my work was all style but no substance. But in doing some more research I realized that camp aesthetic is something that's been historically used by queer people as a coping mechanism. So that’s how I started approaching this idea of camp and why it exists, I use it in my work and subvert it to shed light on the history within it.
Maddie: There is this thing about camp where people can either choose to just engage with it on a surface level, or they can try to understand it a bit deeper and that gives it this really unique power.
James: That’s what I love about camp-- it’s learning how to being able to laugh at atrocity, and something that can be used as a reminder that you can be above the pain for a moment.
Maddie: I think with queerness you have to learn at a young age how to laugh off pain.
James: That’s where my sense of humour comes from, and people either choose to embrace that or reject it. For a large part of the community, I think they’ve felt like they need to create or curate this persona to be able to survive.
Maddie: It may be about being able to survive but also about knowing that’s what people want from you-- to represent their comfortable version of queerness both aesthetically and emotionally.
James: A lot of these things that were talking about came up in this book I was reading that was maybe contentiously titled “How to be Gay”. It was based on a University class in the states in early 2000’s that when everyone found out was going to exist they were up in arms about. It was about the aesthetics of constructed gay male culture. Growing up queer you kind of understand that everyone is playing a constructed social role, because what you’re doing is not what you see all around you or what you’ve been told you should be doing—but there you are still doing it.
Maddie: That’s one of the reasons why I think homophobia exists, because people have an existential crisis when they realize that they’ve been conditioned to exist within a set of social constructs. When they see something that breaks that, they can't handle it.
James: Susan Sontag brought up in her essay about camp. In camp theatrics everything isn’t just what it is, it’s everything as playing its "role". So a lamp is not just a lamp, a lamp is a lamp playing its role.
Maddie: okay okay okay so let’s talk about the importance of performance throughout queer history.
James: A prof once said to me that straight cis white men don’t really do performance art because they don’t need to. I mean you can definitely find them (they exist), but when you think of really seminal performance artist’s you think of women, you think of people of colour, you think of queer people, you think of all these people that literally needed to carve out a space because none was given to them.
Maddie: Yeah, If no one is going to acknowledge your existence you have to be really loud about it.
James: We live in this time where the climate is that some people want to pretend like oppression doesn’t exist anymore. Like inclusiveness is celebrated if someone can make money off of it but when it comes to reality it’s still on the fringes. It’s like "Why are you so loud?" "Why does there still need to be a pride?" " Why do black people want space in pride?" "Why are you all demanding things, we just want you to be complacent and quiet and make us money."
Maddie: It is really terrifying that people genuinely believe that there is nothing we need to fight for anymore. As soon as we stop talking and fighting, all of the work that been done starts to evaporate.
James: Francesca Ramsey made a really great video about how not talking about something is never the answer. If you were to go to the doctor and they told you "you have cancer", you wouldn’t accept the answer to be “let’s just not talk about it”. If you don’t bring up the issues these things fester and get passed down. ( link to video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UO1PcovTk90 )
Maddie: And on that note- I want to talk about not talking about things.
Maddie: You mentioned how in your thesis you’re exploring underlying subversive camp humour as a coping mechanism for queer pain-- ugh the term queer pain--
James: It should probably be the name of a band--
Maddie: --should it be the name of our band?
James: --yeah we just started it, it’s the name of our band.
Maddie: Okay great. So my original question was, What do you define as queer pain?
James: Well yeah I mean I think that there is this inherent trauma that is collectively understood or felt.
Maddie: I’ve been trying to find more resources on heredity trauma and mental illness. Like trauma that’s passed down through generations and how that sits in your body.
James: People tend to really ignore the physical ramifications of mental illness--
Maddie: Heellll ya. It attacks your body and I don't feel like doctors even believe you when you tell them that. I remember when I first started talking about my mental illness it was super terrifying because no one around me was really publicly talking about it. I remember feeling like realistically people may now view me as the "unstable chick" and that was something I was just going to have to live with- because no one could actually ever be inside of my body and understand what was going on in there but me.
James: That’s something that mental illness and queerness have in common, some people still don’t believe it’s a real thing at all.
Maddie: And if people don’t believe it’s real there is not gunna be enough support, research, documentation--- anything.
James: If you spend a night in bed shaking, unable to do anything, and no one believes it’s real- how debilitating is that? I mean you’re already feeling rejected by your own body, and then to have no one believe that it’s even really happening is heartbreaking.
Maddie: It can be so exhausting when large parts of your existence are “invisible”, because people only believe what they think is tangible.
James: And visibility is what we consider to be validation.
Maddie: Okay so here is my last question- is performance healing?
James: I had to think about that, but within the span of a couple seconds I realized no. I tend to abstract and make things ambiguous to try to allow people to see themselves in my work, but where performance is not cathartic for me is that I actually find it really difficult to perform. A lot of the time when people ask me to do a performance off the bat I think “ oh no” but then obviously I say yes but that entire day I’m a nervous wreck.
Maddie: -- also afterwards you realize you just made this really personal part of yourself a spectacle.
James: Well I think I’m a bit of a selfish maker. When I make things it’s deeply about personal narratives, but I think sometimes in being selfish you actually are really generous- because you’re honest and open. One thing that people don’t like is you telling their stories for them. So I think the best way to communicate is by being really vulnerable about your own stories, so that others can find themselves in them and feel less alone.
Maddie: I almost think of it like you have to rip off a band-aid to be able to pass it on to the next person (ew)-- but how are you going to be able to get someone to relate unless you’re painfully honest about your own experiences.
James: I read this thing about trying to find the queer narrative in Disney films with different archetypes, like the hero and the sidekick and the wise elder ect--which makes me think about how when you don’t have proper representation you seek it out wherever you can.
Maddie: Hoooonestly I think I find the queerness in everything even if it’s the most hetero thing ever.
James: Yeah it’s like this gay monster comes out and it’s like “WHERES THE GAAAAY” --and it’s just sniffing about like “ wheeereeee iss the gayyyyyyyy”…..
**Someone interrupts us to tell us to keep it down**
Maddie: Okay yeah, so what is your fun fact.
James: That I’m actually that monster I was talking about that sniffs out the gay.
James Knott is an emerging, Toronto based artist, currently studying Integrated Media and Drawing/Painting at OCAD University. Their practice combines video, animation, performance, audio art, and theatre to create immersive experiences for the viewer. Common themes and motifs include synesthesia and the visualization of sound, anxiety and mental illness, suburbia, inner dialogues, multiple selves, queer issues, and identity. They’ve exhibited/performed in Xpace’s Intra-Action, OCAD’s Festival of the Body, Feminist Art Conference, and the AGO’s First Thursday. https://www.instagram.com/jamesnotjames/.
Maddie Alexander is an artist, writer, and arts facilitator work and living in Toronto. They obtained their BFA in Photography from OCAD University, and their practice deals with themes surrounding queer identity, mental illness and art for social change.
Vist https://youtu.be/TgJZQf-uRCU to view James's video work.