Savannah Knoop is ready to sweep you off your feet

Savannah Knoop (MFA ’16) is a self-described “intimacy hound.” Their performances recall and conjure interactions between relative strangers—from chatty bathhouse patrons to dancers at an after-hours club. And in the artist’s next exhibition, they’ll be inviting visitors to a tussle in Knoop’s own personal wrestling gym.

A graduate of the VCUarts Sculpture + Extended Media MFA program, Knoop’s practice is about social obstacles and the physical and cultural barriers that separate people or bring them together. They start their work by wriggling their way into secluded spaces—such as the 127-year-old Russian and Turkish Baths in New York—and integrating themselves into the subculture. There, they record a microcosm of resident languages and gestures, and reposition that landscape in performances that beckon audiences into an unfamiliar world.

Knoop will continue to explore those interpersonal relationships in a more aggressive way when they perform The Tripod Sweep August 7–11 at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. There, Knoop will invite visitors to literally grapple with social power dynamics as the artist performs Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves on anyone who volunteers.

“I’ve been studying wrestling for, I think, nine years now,” says Knoop. “I’m a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So, in some ways, I’ve been training for this project for a long time.”

The audience participates in Knoop’s performance The Two Slit Experiment (2016).

Despite how long they’ve been preparing the The Tripod Sweep, the upcoming performance at Leslie Lohman won’t be the premiere of the project. Knoop has iterated it since 2014, when they first introduced the interactive piece in a VCUarts sculpture critique. Last year, a version of the performance was curated by art history alumnus Owen Duffy (PhD ’16), who is also a wrestler.

The title The Tripod Sweep is derived from a basic sweep in jiu-jitsu, which Knoop has subtly transformed into a game of action and reaction.

“I take someone’s neck and hand, then I put my foot on their hip,” says Knoop. “Then I destabilize them immediately by falling on the floor, which breaks their posture. I’m destabilizing and I kind of merge to have three feet with them.”

Key to The Tripod Sweep is nonverbal interaction. Audience members sign a release form that waives them of accountability and lets them know that they can refuse to join the performance. During the sweep, the artist remains silent as the participants consider how they can outsmart their opponent.

“Every time I sweep somebody, I go back to a resting space in the corner,” says Knoop. “I lay on physical therapy balls and regather energy and reset. And then I go back out and I perform it again. As the game continues, people develop their own strategies. Some people will sit on the floor with me, and I reset. Some people know I’m going to put my foot on them, so they’ll go around me or block their hip.”

Knoop describes The Tripod Sweep as a kind of public learning experience, where the artist and participants learn a jiu-jitsu move as they come to understand one another.

“It considers these ideas about success and winning and losing,” says Knoop. “It can get very physically active sometimes, but a lot of it is very gentle and generous.”

As a trained wrestler, Knoop can seem like the antagonist of this piece, but they have a history of slipping into different roles for artistic projects. They famously acted as the public persona of fictional teen author Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy for 6 years, and recently echoed the shuffle of a vampire in the public performance Nosferatu on the Beach. But their head-first dives into unfamiliar circles aren’t simple costume shopping; the artist works to immerse themselves in a subculture, to learn foreign vernacular and rituals, while acknowledging their outsider’s perspective.

People are the most versatile material in Knoop’s work. In each performance of The Tripod Sweep, circumstances and reactions change based on who steps into the performance space. As the artist prepares to stage the piece once more at the Leslie Lohman Museum, they know that this manifestation of it will be totally unique.

“It’s so different every time,” says Knoop, “and I think that’s one of the strongest parts of the piece: the material is through the engagement of all of us together.

The Tripod Sweep, curated by Noam Parness and Daniel J. Sander, will be on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum August 7–11, 2019.