A Very Specific Form of Touch, an essay by Savannah Knoop

In the middle of March, I asked Savannah Knoop if they wanted to write something about touch. At that point I had left New York, having a compromised immune system, a careful doctor, a family that lived out of the city, and a way to escape. When I emailed Savannah I had gone from touching who knows how many people a day, to being within hands reach of just three. I was missing touch; strange or familiar, pedestrian or performed, accidental or sincere, powerful or inane. I figured Savannah was missing, at least, the specific form of touch of their Brazilian Joy Jitsu practice. 

In Brazilian Joy Jitsu, touch dissolves the layers and barriers between the two fighters, becoming "a singular mass rolling around in conflicting sets of interest." At the time of publishing this piece, another very specific form of touch has created a mass. The abusive touch of cops upon Black bodies, lives, and communities. To counteract the inhumane and repulsive physical and emotional violence inflicted on Black lives, protesting bodies are coming together, a social-distanced singular mass (careful in the ways they merge and touch, touch can be careful and caring too), to act and revolt, demanding Black Lives Matter. Another form of touch and touching. Of course touch contains multitudes, can kill or heal, can wield power or create calm, can kick or caress . 

I wanted to be reminded of the nuance of touch and Savannah's piece does just that. 

-Lydia Okrent


Rolling with a partner in Brazilian Joy Jitsu does to your brain what a thorough green sponge scrubbing does to the inside of a glass. Unfortunately, there is no way to socially-distant wrestle and it has been three months since I have been able to push against some stranger’s weight like their mass is a door that must not be allowed to be opened. I, therefore, resort to other systems.

Phase 0:

The Evolution Of Horses: To fall asleep my Baby and I listen to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, the discursive podcast which brings on experts to explain to Melvyn about such topics as the Magna Carta, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cephalopods, Fungi, or the departed Doggerland, to name only a few. Like popping an ambien, Doggerland is…(snore). Occasionally one episode gets stuck on Heavy Rotation because of the particular lilt of an academic expert’s voice, or a detail that passes you through the gates of sleeping and back out the other side, awake again: “The mycelium of fungi, like licorice boot straps.” My Baby’s spirit animal is the gentle hard-working donkey, and so for some very obvious reasons, the evolution of horses has finally edged its way to the top, the star of our dozing. But something about it keeps me sending me awake; I replay it once, twice, sometimes three times in a night. Did you know that 50 million years ago, wild horses were the size of small dogs with three toes in the back and four in the front? The earliest signs of horse husbandry, somewhere around 5500 years ago, in Kazakhstan, has been found through clay pots left with traces of horse milk. With the influence of humans, horses eventually evolved legs like pogo sticks, becoming some version of the one toed high endurance runners that we are familiar with today (12 Horse Power). As they are bred ever more to move forward, and maybe a bit backwards (if they really have to), they have lost the ability to move side to side. Horses are often said to be humanity’s greatest, lasting technology. It strikes me in my third listening liminal waiting room that this is a terrible twist in our own evolution, the moment that the noble horse and the cart got confused, so to speak. To quote Tiger King, “I’m in a cage.”

I don’t really enjoy relaxing. Alone, news on, I jump up and down, side to side on a step outside my apartment, berating myself for not doing as many jumps as I set out to but also in a state of discontent that I am not upstairs working—but then the writer’s block sets in, and you can’t eat your way through writer’s block, though, heavens knows, I try. Back to work, I write, I scratch my eyes until they burn with the pleasure of an act that is forbidden, I sink my spine with one eye glued on the minute-by-minute humiliations and travesties of our country, and the other eye on some dippy short meditation exercise. I watch a little round spider build its web from countertop to shelf.

I haven’t spent this much time at home since I was about eight or nine years old. Back then my older sister had flown the coop, my parents’ relationship was in free fall, my mother was newly going back to community college, and my father was always away. Everyday after school I fine-tuned my own systems of existence. C and C music factory on high volume, yes. Homework; done sparingly. The main attraction was watching television, specifically Duck Tales; a slow plummet from there through a few episodes of crappy Rom Coms, then to watching (and rewatching) a dubbed copy of Paper Moon on VHS. All watching was to be done sitting in a wicker laundry basket as if it was a lazy boy, padded by a pile of either clean or dirty laundry, it did not matter much to me for my purposes. This was a habit which always caught the wrath of my mother later— obviously clean laundry was supposed to be folded, not sat on; and if there was dirty laundry why wasn’t I doing it, and while I was at it, I should be doing the dishes without her having to ask. Treats were scarce in the household (my mother was an early convert to the health food movement), but sugar was the name of the game, and I portioned out raspberry flavored kefir, and or homeopathic sugar pills (or just spoonfuls of white sugar!) throughout the afternoon into the evening, now I can’t remember what the pills were exactly for, but maybe when you took them without believing, they didn’t much work anyhow. Addie’s style in Paper Moon was amazing. I wanted to learn to hustle from the patriarchy just like her! I had recently started stealing and my mother had caught me with a roll of cookie dough under a pillow, putting the kibosh on the whole project for the time being, but I was looking forward to doing it more in the future— I would study the change for five dollars scene at the dime store as if hoping it would pass into me like osmosis.

Not designed for such slothful delight, the interlacing on the goddamn basket eventually popped. A drag for my mother but an even bigger drag for me. For when I was alone it was my rules. And my rules were to sit in the basket. And after it broke, I was the one who had to suffer through it, because the system for sitting in the basket had not changed in my mind yet; the revised system for still sitting in a now broken basket was simply AVOIDING the parts that had ruptured. Yes, you got a few scratches on your legs from the loose wicker but, as I had mentioned earlier, it was the rule, and although most rules were there to break, this one was not.

At the studio, it’s a relief to be moving around and touching something. I slather aqua resin on the daily rolled and free woven news that I have been working on for the last 8 months. Each day’s news will be rolled once a day into straws– I’m way behind, but that’s sort of the point. I attach and guide it into snarls and roils, and then weed the studio garden– the raspberries have been strangled by the milkweed. I’m ever grateful that all this can keep me busy but a familiar old question nags and incenses me as I listen to the slap bass of Democracy Now!: what is art for? What’s the point? What can it do?

In wrestling, we have an activity called hand fighting: the first barrier as two opponents approach. As with other parts of wrestling it only works through a contract: the other resists. Because of this, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu produces a very specific form of touch. As touch is always a language relaying a message, the touch of BJJ (as those obsessed with it like to call it) is almost mechanical. It is firm and competent– if it’s not, the move might not work. Touch in the game can be used in different ways. In some cases, playing offense, pushing and pulling is used to unbalance the other without much commitment, simply to grab for an opening. Touch can also be pointed; a person glues parts of their body to a partner’s in order to try and direct the other towards chosen positions, and also sometimes staying close is safer. It seems obvious when you say it but each moment of touch potentially breaks down a layer of separateness; the barrier of the hands, elbows, legs as frames that show you where the center of a person is, can eventually be dissolved until one finds oneself merged with one’s partner, a singular mass rolling around in conflicting sets of interest. Touch is risky, but without it, the game is frozen. Generally speaking, the one who is eating space is acting offensively, and the one attempting to create space is in defense. Offense can be compared to speaking; defense, a deep form of listening; one feels and anticipates for openings, surprises, and the opportunity to flip the script. Defense is hard work. Defensiveness on the other hand, is potentially, the opposite of listening, something else altogether.

Phase 1:

Helicopter blades incessantly churn overhead. Cherishing capital ALWAYS over black lives. Spikes of adrenaline and rage as the incessant mantra of white supremacy repeats itself through actions. At the studio I fill a bag with sand and thrust it through the air by its handle, then get on my phone and dumbly scroll– frantically signing petitions, sending clumsy copy and pasted messages to my local representatives, check news, thrust bag more. Not fluent, barely literate. Posts flit around my feed– I copy, I paste. I realize soberly that without my ex-studio mate, a fearless dyke with a heart of gold, to keep me in action, I'm basically drifting on a flotilla of organizing ignorance. I post a little but I check the thing less and less… only then to scoop up more activism-for-dummies links. Someone’s gallery posts that they’ve donated fifty dollars to BLM.

I realize, again, soberly, that I’m gonna have to step up to being my own they/them/theirs dyke with a heart of gold on this one. Even though these actions feel inane, because I don’t understand how legislation works exactly, and that is sort of just the way that copy and pasting messages feels, there is time to learn– but that learning has to be done On. The. Hoof.

Although gravity is ever present in Jiujitsu, moves can often be done from any which angle. When I first began BJJ, it was the touch that got me hooked first. I liked both giving and receiving this mechanical touch but as a beginner my body felt like it really was just a dynamic sack of potatoes for anyone who was better, and I would find myself directed here and there, flying through the air, or stapled to the ground with no ability to wriggle out and with no real understanding of how I had gotten there.. But what I did know was that the touch felt good even right before I tapped. The other person’s weight on mine was even and it felt like someone tucking me into a well made bed and then sitting on the covers. After many years of training, this delight has expanded with more understanding of how to problem solve through tight situations, as well as execute my own intentional bed-making for someone else. I wrestle as a hobby but I also wrestle like it’s my job. Occasionally I get ready for a competition but having been indoctrinated by Feminism and Art long ago, I overthink the rules of the game too much to be a truly avid competitor. What I notice in competition is how moves develop, mutate, and shift. This filters down into training as well. Styles of games are developed and counters to the new styles of game mutate in response. Before Covid hit, a game of leg attacks had taken trend, and in class we were training one variation called “Fifty Fifty”, a position equivalent to having your skis crossed, where one person threads their leg through the inside of another’s. In this position both people can equally attack the other’s knees and ankles. I often feel that my teacher, Marcelo Garcia, espouses in style and rhetoric the antithesis of what can often feel like a toxic masculine approach to BJJ. As “Fifty Fifty” comes down the pipeline and filters into our classes, he pointedly shows us how to familiarize the move just enough to “immediately, just get out of that position if you can.” Although the game in BJJ is always a bit of an arms race of effective moves, training “Fifty Fifty” to me feels like the End Game. A Cul de Sac. The Fucking Middle Ages. The BJJ version of the NRA’s slogan of “Guns don’t kill, humans do.” It suddenly reframes the whole question of the game. True, these musings no doubt quell my hype beast trendy competitor’s game (again!) but … threatening to blow out my opponent’s knee is just not where I am at in my offensive dialogue. Yes, we say that the object of the game is winning or submitting your opponent, but, for me imbedded within that goal lies a mode of conduct-- a good game is about style; a good game celebrates Excellence over Exceptionalism.

Other home-alone activities as a kid, besides sitting in the basket, included stop-motion LEGO animation with a small video camera that my dad had lent me (papa shot and made documentary films and he allowed me to take a camera out on lease from him). Characters dressed in all of the regalia a square of toilet paper could produce lived out hyper dramas in a stilted choreography. Plots transpired through the open roofed LEGO rooms and gardens with much straight arm gesture, and an occasional dialogue card done in sharpie on a notecard to clarify. On many of these tapes, Everybody Dance Now played in a brash hiccup stop-motion remix. Sometimes, when it didn’t feel belabored, there was another very secret activity, the innermost chamber; the Zone. My mother had been an artist but had put it to the side when I was born. Using my mother’s tools alone was forbidden as I always ruined them, but, nevertheless, I would pull out of her desk her finest brush and watercolor set to make a series of garden landscapes. The process felt adrenalized with the danger of damaging the tight ponytail of sable hairs, like wielding a chainsaw that could always kick back into your own face. Each landscape was about the size of my palm, each one under severe weather— once again the blossoms had sprung too early and were now being blown off the trees by a snowstorm, that is—if they weren’t getting struck by lightning! The calamity landscapes served as a sort of child’s ontological reminder that the worst thing was always happening, that if you hadn’t fucked it up yet (be careful with that brush) it might happen soon. That therefore you had to recognize these worst things as a fact, and proceed delicately, and with care for those around you– because your mom already seemed pretty stressed out.

When I ask my bedmate to hand fight with me, she does so by raising a frankly cocked brow and little frog fingers. Our touch between one another is more of the dancing together slow and heavy variety… more of the lick the plate of a delicious meal variety. More of the drug that seeps into the bloodstream and makes you feel peaceful variety. Delicate and extremely spindly, she is ultimately more in tune with reading books and cracking jokes than being my Bulgarian Sheep Bag, but she obliges me in the hand fighting. Our activity is a different game altogether.

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Savannah Knoop

Savannah Knoop is a New York-based artist who insights strategies of permission through writing, performance, and object-making. In 2001, Savannah Knoop founded the clothing line Tinc, which ran until...
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