By Abigail Yue Wang
Sharing a good sunny day outside the windows of New York and London, my skype conversation with Clifford Owens was one that seemed effortlessly acute. Performance art is a subject that requires, and is still in demand of, substantial research. And yet, its complexity often manifests in a candid manner, reminding us that being is in fact intuitive and vast, so is the body, so is human connection.
Cornerhouse in Manchester is now hosting the artist’s European debut Clifford Owens: Better the Rebel You Know.
This is your first solo exhibition in Europe and you have described Manchester as a city of similar attributes with your hometown Baltimore, Maryland: down-to-earth, unpretentious, working class; and yet “rebel” is the chosen word to sum up this exhibition in this particular location. Some may take this contrast as a parallel to the nature of performance art – prompting a situation out of the everyday commonplace. Do you yourself see such intention in forming this exhibition?
“Rebel” is an interesting title that the curator Daniella Rose King came up with. To me, the notion of a rebel is suggestive how performance art is historically an oppositional practice against the establishment. If we think about how it formed and how important it was to feminist practices in the 60s and 70s, in a sense, it is a radical practice. In terms of choosing Manchester, yes, it is an unpretentious city like Baltimore, but it doesn’t mean that Mancunians are in any way unsophisticated. It is because of the historical and political past of Manchester, the Mancunian audience is in fact, quite intriguing and complex. thought
Coming from photography, you are particularly interested in presenting performance art through photos, where photos of a past performance are often arranged not only as a documentation but reinstituted storytelling in your exhibitions. In fact you call it “photo installation”. From which point in your career did you start inspecting the archiving of performance art?
It’s an interesting question. I started to consider photographs of the performances as discreet works of art, probably around 2004. I started to think critically how I would present photographs among other media. Because of my training in photography, I have certain reverence for the photographic image. I think there’s a distinction to be made between documentation and discreet works as the outcome of performance art. The signification of photography is very important in my work. When I perform, I would make performances both for the camera and the audience. When I think about performances, I often think about the image first, not necessarily what the live experience is about. But it doesn’t mean I’m not invested in the live performances, I very much am. I have started a piece for Danspace in New York with artist Legacy Russell, in which the audience will photograph the performance using their cell phones. Similarly, in my other project for Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, I will use Instagram and social media as a means to disseminate and document a live performance. I’m interested in the subjectivity where audience members take photographs with their phones; therefore my performances are usually very controlled and literally framed by the photographic referent.
“I AM A VERY SOCIAL PERSON MYSELF, IT’S EASY FOR ME TO ENGAGE WITH STRANGERS AND BE COMFORTABLE WITH THAT.”
Interesting, because for me in a larger sense, your photo installations signify that the way we perceive the past via photography could be extremely static and yet viscerally attachable, especially when audience is an integral part in your practice. Beyond still photographs, a live piece could be re-performed with new audience at new locations over time; some performance artists try to maintain the many possible lives of their works in refreshed contexts. Besides your current project Anthology, is there any previous piece of which you can see this longevity?
Yes, the best example of that is Photographs with An Audience, which started in 2008 and I have done it seven times in seven cities ever since. It’s an on-going performance-photography-based project. I don’t know exactly what “re-perform” means, but if you think about the Fluxus scores, a lot of them are to be performed again and again by anybody. I think performance art really lends itself to be restaged and every performance I made is absolutely different, it’s never the same and I don’t want it to be. So when I did Anthology in New York, some scores were done a dozen times and every time was different. I liked that very much. I think in some ways, it’s the indeterminacy of performance art that interests me.
So your on-going project Photographs with an Audience as you mentioned, is more like footprints of cultural engagement in each city, from Houston, Philadelphia to Miami and so forth. This time afar from home, what’s the distinctive quality of the Mancunian audience by comparison?
I adore Mancunians and I adore that city. When I went into the project, I thought that the Brits have a reputation of being reserved, but I found it quite the opposite in Manchester. In fact performing in London was less pleasant than Manchester, as least in my experience. There’s a certain pretence that doesn’t exist in Manchester. Mancunians were so open, so brave; they made themselves so vulnerable and incredible engaging. They challenged me, actively in the performance. And I loved it. It was very different from any previous Photographs with An Audience. I experienced certain cool, disinterested engagement with art when I did Photographs with An Audience in big cities. But in Manchester, guards down. People in Manchester came in both nights and to the preview at Cornerhouse too. It was the way that a small community was built out of this project and how people become friends afterwards. I saw it happen, and it was really quite marvellous. I think it’s so far the best iteration of Photographs with An Audience.
That is brilliant. Also in Photographs with an Audience, you have composed some particular mise en scènes with the participants, very photographic, if I may say. The sheer engagement and camaraderie between you and the crowd have led to my next question: are you a people person in real life? Do you see it as an inherent quality for an audience-based artist?
Yes, but not necessarily inherent. I know performance artists who are very guarded from strangers, so it does depend on the individuals. But I am a very social person myself, it’s easy for me to engage with strangers and be comfortable with that. Almost 20 years ago, someone wrote about me as an audience-sensitive artist, at the time I didn’t know what that meant, now I think what they observed was my interest in people and audience. Although how I present myself in performances are not always sustainable as in real life. During performances I feel the responsibility to be very present for my audience, because they are very present for me. But sometimes when I finish a performance, get on the plane, come back to New York, I would suddenly get messages from audiences that could seem quite intense; or times when I made myself too available in a piece, it could get overwhelming, but also deeply intimate. For me to see audience make connections with each other is also a beautiful thing. How often do you witness a work of art bring people together and see that union grow into something else, a real social relationship?
That’s very true. Putting yourself in the hands of the audience, some of your pieces are performed on completely open grounds. For example, in Tell Me What To Do with Myself (2004) you performed instructions by visitors including running headfirst into a wall. This year Better the Rebel You Know exhibition also showed you performing Maren Hassinger’s score* Repose, where you lied nude in a space allowing audience to place your body around. Rendering a performer or audience vulnerable in certain condition has always been prominent in your works, so ten years apart between these two pieces, has this power shift between two parties evolved in your work? Do audiences become more active and do you still experience the same vulnerability over the years?
[* a score is a set of instructions to perform given by various artists, some are articulate, some open for interpretation]
That’s a really nice observation. I really appreciate the question about Tell Me What To Do with Myself,because for me it was such a massive project but no one really asked about it. In that performance, I literally built a wall that separated me from the audience. Our only means of communication was through a hole at the bottom of the wall, a live video feed and microphones to speak. I think I did that in part because I was terrified. Tell Me What To Do with Myself was a very hard piece to do. I think I was more object than the new work (Photographs with An Audience) in which I am subject. The intimacy is different between the two pieces.
”I’M ASKING THE AUDIENCE TO BECOME VULNERABLE WITH ME, SO WE ARE IN IT TOGETHER.”
This exhibition at Cornerhouse coincides with another one that you are part of – Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art - the first exhibition to survey black performance art, which had toured in New York, Harlem in particular and soon in Minneapolis. You mentioned when you came into performance art in the US, artists of African descent were nearly “invisible”. Adrian Piper, William Pope. L and Benjamin Patterson were some from the early generation to open up this dialogue for black artists. It’s been 36 years since Ulysses Jenkins attempted to crash the TVs of black stereotypes in his Mass of Images (1978), in your practice today do you still feel, how shall I put it, a sense of expectation to self-identify as a black artist in the art world at large?
Interesting question, although I would say Anthology precedes Radical Presence as the first to survey black performance art. Anthology is also a group exhibition in a way, as it’s comprised of scores from 28 African-American artists. In fact the curator Valerie Cassel Oliver and I were planning a book project on US black performance art, but then I got the opportunity to do Anthology and she started working on Radical Presence. In 2001, I was in the groundbreaking, watershed exhibition Freestyle at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where the term “post-black” was coined. That was where young artists made works on not just being black, but dealing with black subjectivity in a particular way as the predecessors. Now because of Freestyle and politics in this country, some artists still feel compelled to deal with stereotypes in their work. They are generative and important, but I’m not personally interested in that. I think lots of work has been done to deconstruct stereotypes of black representation, we need more complex ways to express this subjectivity. Ulysses’ piece happened in a historical moment, but it may not make the same impact as now. So yes, things have definitely shifted for the better.
Nonetheless here in Britain, some artists work in poetic forms of portraying the diaspora and African heritage as well. For example, John Akomfrah, who also gave you a score for AnthologyUK. Do you see it as a responsibility to not forget your roots but still represent it in a more nuanced perspective?
Yes absolutely. I won’t pretend that there’s no problem, racial issues still persist in this country, but I think you’re right, we need new models, new paradigms to approach black subjectivity. Interestingly in Britain, “black artist” entails not only African diaspora, but also South Asian, East Asian or Middle Eastern artists and so forth. “Black” is not as it’s understood in the US, the conversation in Britain could be more complex, dynamic and richer.
There’s a 58-photos lineup on the wall in Better the Rebel You Know, which depicts you using white paint to perform Sherman Fleming’s score, installed specifically to the architecture of Cornerhouse. You also utilised space in MoMA PS1 during Anthology US, especially interesting are the boiler room for sweeping sand and staircases for white tapes (interpretation of William Pope. L’s score: “be African-American, be very African-American”). But there’s seldom outdoor performance of yours, is this an artistic decision? How important is the spatial confinement, or rather, the theatrical effect of interiors for your work?
Another interesting observation. I don’t like to do outdoor performances; I like them in museums and galleries. I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to that. [Laughs] Sometimes outdoor performances just look like spectacle to me. I like to work in museums and galleries because I’m interested in integrating performance art into all other arts. There should always be performance pieces happening in MoMA and all these institutions. I want it to thrive in gallery spaces where people are willing to pay attention. Wouldn’t it be quite a treat to go and see a painting and sculpture, then look at a work of performance art?
It would be indeed. My last question, is Anthology an on-going piece? If so, in what scope or direction will it continue?
Yeah I think it’s going to go with me to the grave. In the sense, that I haven’t actually completed all the scores, both the US and UK iterations. There are many more scores I didn’t finish because of resources and time. I may never complete all of them, but that is the goal. It will go on and on for years.
Will it travel with you?
Yes hopefully. I would like to travel with it to other places. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my new project A Forum for Performance Art. Between these and Photographs with An Audience, I have works for decades.
Clifford Owens: Better the Rebel You Know
Sat 10 May – Sun 17 Aug 2014