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The Possibilities of Performance: Deliverance at ACAC

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Clifford Owens, Photographs With An Audience (detail), 2011, C-print, 20 × 16 inches, Courtesy the artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

On two consecutive nights the week prior to the opening of Deliverance, exhibiting artist Clifford Owens staged his performance Photographs With An Audience at the then-empty gallery space at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC). After hearing anecdotes of Owens’s infamous final performance during his Anthology exhibition at MoMA PS1 earlier that afternoon, I sped on my bicycle to the second night of his Atlanta performance. I arrived just as the artist asked all audience members with cellphone cameras to step in front of his camera to have their picture taken–so I did.

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This performance would be my introduction to Deliverance. The exhibition is primarily a presentation of documentation from four artists who use performance in their practice in a variety of ways. Owens facilitates experiences to make photographs. Laura Ginn artfully documents herself as she learns various survival skills. Anya Liftig creates absurd scenarios (such as dancing with chickens or fellating a cactus) to act out a kind of sanctioned insanity. And Jayson Scott Musson deconstructs the art world in character as urban cultural pundit Hennessy Youngman.

In addition to the material on view in the gallery at ACAC, the exhibiting artists have presented live events that relate to their practice: Owens staged his Photographs With An Audience, Ginn led a rat skinning workshop and barbecue, and Liftig’s explained 20th century Western history to a frisky pit bull. A scheduled discussion with Musson in character as Hennessy Youngman was unfortunately canceled.

These events have been the real substance of Deliverance and the documentation presented in the gallery show seems to reinforce the value of experiencing live performance. In an effort to fully experience Deliverance and the work of each of these artists, I attended each of the live events.

In Photographs with an Audience, Owens would ask a question, and the audience would respond by getting up and being photographed or by staying seated, either because the question was irrelevant or in conscientious objection. Things soon became more personal, moving quickly from banal questions about cellphones and tattoos to questions about race, divorce, and sexuality. At one point Owens chose four women from the audience, saying they were the ones wanted to “fuck,” and photographed them. He followed this by having audience members who thought he was a “misogynistic asshole” have their pictures made.

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Owens stripped naked in a self-conscious use of what he described, in so many words, as the performance artist’s go-to shorthand for making themselves vulnerable. One male audience member also stripped and had photos made. Owens then had one of the four women he had previously selected repeatedly beat him with his own belt.

The performance finally ended shortly after Owens, now clothed, shared a long tearful embrace with a member of the audience who stood to be photographed when Owens asked for the audience members who had considered suicide.

The entire time, I felt simultaneously uncomfortable, incredulous, and exploited–in the best way. The experience of Owens’s performance was jarring not because of the questions he asked, the nudity, or the tears, but because of the deeply conflicted internal dialogue it elicited within the audience members. This internal dialogue created a space where choosing not to be photographed was more revelatory than being publicly exposed in front of his camera.

The persistent trouble of displaying performance art in a gallery is the inherent ephemerality of the live performance. Both Owens and Laura Ginn have, in a way, usurped this ephemerality by using the performance as a means to create a photographic image. Owens frames Photographs With An Audience as a means to create interesting pictures. Ginn skins roadkill raccoons and brains deer carcasses to learn tanning techniques, but documents the process with the eye of a skilled photographer.

Where these two differ, however, is that the experience of Owens’s performance is an empathetic gateway to the appreciation of the images he presents. Ginn’s beautiful, if jarring, photos of skinned raccoons and severed deer heads stand more firmly in the world of fine art photography rather than what’s traditionally expected of performance documentation.

This is what differentiates Ginn from the other artists in the exhibition. Her practice is not about performing for or with an audience; her practice is about performing for her camera. She creates scenarios for herself in which she can learn and practice various survival skills and frames them with her camera lens.

Ginn’s live event–the rat-skinning workshop–was more of an educational experience than a performance. Even so, the skinning, disemboweling, and eating of a rat was unnerving in a way not dissimilar to Owens’s Photographs With An Audience.

Anya Liftig is probably the most traditional performance artist of the group, though traditional is a troublesome word for describing her work. The gallery displays a video document of the performance The Human Factor, where the artist wears a translucent plastic garment and dances with, kisses, chops, blends, and drinks a large fish. In a video of another performance, Chartwell Eat, she quietly eats and then spits out grass while laying on an English hillside.

The video of Liftig’s The Human Factor is displayed in immediate proximity to Ginn’s photographs, a placement that highlights major differences between the artists’ work rather than the superficial similarity that both artists are interacting with dead things. Ginn interacts with dead animals for the purpose of learning a skill, whereas Liftig’s piscine revelry has little reason other than a delight in the absurdity and spectacle of the act. A display of photocopies from Liftig’s notebooks show something of the visual research and playful thought processes that feed the performance work

Liftig’s live performance for the exhibition, Yesterday Is Tomorrow, greatly contrasted with some of her previous, more provocative performances. It was certainly lower key than I’m A Groucho Marxist, her peanut butter-coated homage to revolution and Double Dare (the 1986 children’s game show) that she performed in Atlanta the week prior to the opening at ACAC.

In Yesterday Is Tomorrow, Liftig lounged on a blanket in Piedmont Park and explained the 20th century, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the the end of the Cold War, to a frisky pitt bull. It only took Liftig around 35 minutes to explain the gist, though judging from the dog’s distracted barking and bored yawning, I don’t think much information was retained.

Jayson Musson’s Art Thoughtz videos feature the artist in character as Hennessy Youngman, who addresses his internet audience directly and nicely frames the reading of the Deliverance exhibition. In the video titled Performance Art, Youngman defines performance art as “a pre-internet method of annoying groups of people using your body and voice working in conjunction in order to create a compelling spectacle that heightens said annoyance,” and offers valuable tips on how to be a contemporary performance artist.

I’m almost glad that the Musson’s live event was canceled because the Hennessy Youngman persona exists so much in the online realm and uses the the internet as a framing device so well, that a live version could never have lived up to expectations.

Deliverance, as a gallery exhibition, functions more as an educational presentation of documentation of the various artists’ work, rather than a visually meaty presentation of performance documentation. By contrast, Shana Robbins’s 2010 exhibition at ACAC, Supernatural Conductor, was an example of how the physical presentation can transform a space and allow a kind of experiential access to a performance, even when only presented with documentation.

Though this spatial transformation was not the goal of ACAC’s latest exhibition, the memory of Supernatural Conductor made me wish for something more dynamic out of the gallery portion of Deliverance. The work presented in the gallery is at times consumed by the empty wall space around it–feeling more self-consciously sparse than intentionally minimal. But the gallery exhibition is only a component of the whole of Deliverance, and the experiences of the various artists’ live performances fleshed out Deliverance in areas where the gallery show may be lacking.

The exhibition Deliverance is on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through Saturday, September 16.