Clifford Owens Reflects on Photographs with an Audience 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.

Clifford Owens’s work is included in the newly opened exhibition Deliverance at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center on view through September 16, 2012. Before he traveled home to New York, I had the brief but fortunate opportunity to sit with Owens last week to discuss his practice and recent live performances for the Atlanta iteration of his Photographs with an Audience series.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Owens is a black performance artist whose work combines photography, video, and live performance to address issues of personal narrative, race, and history. During his residency at MoMA PS1 this past year (November 2011-May 2012), he completed Clifford Owens: Anthology, an exhaustive performance series that featured scores—written or graphical instructions for actions—from 26 major African American artists that Owens enacted, photographed, and even performed live on certain dates, often involving participation from museum visitors.

Rachel Reese: Let’s begin by talking about Photographs with an Audience and how many iterations have you done before. How has the project evolved or changed over time?

Clifford Owens: Yeah, well, this iteration in Atlanta is the fifth. It originated in New York, and then it went to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then Houston for my solo exhibition at the CAM, and then Miami. Then finally Atlanta, which we just completed over the past two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, which was a crazy schedule. But I was really prepared, so I think it went really well even though it was really intense.

The works in the exhibition at [Atlanta Contemporary Art Center] are pieces from the Miami performance of Photographs with an Audience, a work from Anthology, and an early work from 2006.

Clifford Owens, Gregg Bordowitz, 2006, digital video (image is a video still), 3:19 minutes. Courtesy the artist.

RR: And what is that early work?

CO: It’s called Gregg Bordowitz: On the Politics of Emotion, and it’s a work that I’m always thinking about in my practice. In fact, this is how I came up with the idea for Photographs with an Audience. How do you somehow represent a past moment in performance? For me, it’s always been photography [or] video. So in this video it’s Gregg Bordowitz, the artist/activist/writer, recalling a performance he attended that I did in New York in 2005-2006. And he’s speaking directly to the camera about his own subjective memory and recalling his experience being at that particular performance.

You know, the history of performance art is based on a lot of mythology and urban legend. And the way we understand performance art, if not through photographs or video, is through word of mouth. So, performance art is a kind of oral history as well. So, it’s always interesting—I was thinking about in the Bordowitz piece how Greg’s understanding of the performance would be vastly different than you, or someone else.

RR: It really has to do with the way that performance art is documented, whether it’s ephemeral and really only exists by word of mouth or, in your case, you are really controlling the documentation.

CO: You’re completely right, and that’s exactly what Photographs With An Audience is about because there’s no video, there’s no transcript, there’s no audio recording. It’s just really these, sort of, dumb photographs of clusters of groups or individuals. You really have no context for how they come together, except in the title it will say, for example, Photographs with an Audience (Miami) Lovers. So it’s a conceptual work that really is about the problematic issues of documenting a live performance. And also thinking about, as I always say, how the history of performance art is a history of photography ….

RR: And why do you say that?

CO: Because photography and performance are so closely linked.

RR: Because of the artifact nature of the photograph?

CO: Exactly, the artifact, the presentation of the self in the presence of the camera: the way in which representation works historically through the medium of photography, traditions of documentary photography, of portraiture and photography. So all these things inform performance art. There are early uses of photography as a kind of tool in performance art. So, Photographs with an Audience plays with that history and questions what constitutes documentation of a performance and what constitutes a discrete art object that is the direct result of a performance.

Clifford Owens, Anthology (Dave McKenzie), 2011, 15 C-prints mounted to Plexiglas,13 x 19.75 inches each. Courtesy Collection for Sharing and Learning, New York.

RR: Do you feel there is a distinction to be made–do your photographs function as artifacts, or do you define them specifically as art objects in themselves?

CO: They are art objects. I’m glad you bring that up, because I’ve had these long conversations with critics and the press and people about this. For me, the photographs are discrete art objects after the performance.

RR: Is it important then for the photographs to reference the original performance? Or do you feel like they could stand alone?

CO: I want them to exist on their own, but to be somehow anchored to the performance in which they were captured or recorded. But, as I said, I do want them to function as their own as discrete art objects because a photograph/video—whatever form of documentation you choose—taken from a live performance will never have the same impact as actually being there. Being there is so crucial to the experience of performance art. So, yes, I make a clear distinction. And I take great caution and care with composing, lighting, and printing to achieve a specific quality to the images.

RR: I wanted to ask you—what’s the specificity of shooting film versus digital? I know the works exhibited here and the new live performances at [Atlanta Contemporary Art Center] are shot on film, correct?

CO: One of the works was shot with digital and the others with film.

The Anthology (Dave McKenzie) piece was photographed digitally. The Photographs with an Audience (Miami) photographs are on film, as were the new photographs taken for the live performances done here in Atlanta. And I chose film, a medium-format camera, because the mechanics of the camera—you can hear the camera being advanced, you push the shutter release and hear the pop, the strobe is going off, the flash—film slows you down in a way that digital photography accelerates documentation. So every photograph that I take on film has to be carefully considered ….

RR: They really have to count ….

CO: They have to matter! And when I travel I always worry when I go through the airport and things will be x-rayed and everything ruined. But I sort of like that, too, you know

RR: So we’d never know if the performance exists … because you don’t have the photographs anymore!

CO: Exactly! Exactly! And this was a big thing with Anthology. I must have taken 5,000 digital photographs. There is an arduous editing process of figuring out which images work and which don’t, so I like that film slows me down. And there’s also a kind of qualitative difference, although this is debatable, that the grain of the film is still there in ways that digital photograph sort of smoothes out. I just like the quality of the images—there’s a little more depth in the negatives that I like. But again, with Photographs with an Audience, it’s about the physical mechanics of photography.

Clifford Owens, Photographs with an Audience (Miami) Lovers, 2011, digital C-print, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy Gallery Diet, Miami.

RR: Can you talk a little about control in your works? Whether it’s controlling the photographs, as we’ve discussed, to controlling participants or your own movements? I’m thinking in terms of the artist having authority, being the author. How far do you take this idea of control with a willing participant, and has it ever crossed over into non-consent? There’s a social agreement there, so has it ever gone too far? Have you broken handshakes?

CO: I actually had a long conversation with a PhD student at NYU about this. She is writing a chapter in her dissertation about my practic,e and this issue of consent keeps coming up with her.

RR: Do you use waivers?

CO: I don’t. I did a project with the artist Shaun Leonardo where we had audience members sign a non-disclosure agreement, but that seemed too formal, and I stopped doing that. I’m interested in this book by Kathy O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s, about the implicit contractual agreement that occurs when you enter a performance art piece. That’s the kind of contract that interests me: the unspoken agreement between the audience and myself.

The issue of consent is really, really tricky. I’m interested in the performances where I’m not necessary controlling the audience. I’m trying to create a situation in which power is shared … meaning that we are, in the performances, somehow responsible for each other. But the audience is presumably responsible for their own actions. I’m responsible for mine, and together we have to decide if we’re going to be responsible for what we do together.

RR: I understand that, through this unspoken social contract, participants can leave if they get unconformable; it’s their choice. But these participants don’t know exactly what they’re getting involved in, especially since it’s not disclosed explicitly on waivers or even the website beforehand.

So, thinking about the feeling of being misled, and specifically within group dynamics, have you ever abused your power or authority? Given the added element of group dynamics at play, where there is a lot of psychology there, I’m assuming participants may not act truthfully, because they’re in a community of peers, or superiors even?

CO: That’s a terrific question …. I would say that I know, in certain contexts, I am really pushing things. And then when people agree to do certain things, and it becomes clear to me that they become uncomfortable, I always ask them to have a seat. I ask them if they are okay: Is everything fine? And then I’ll pause before going on. So, when I perform Photographs with an Audience, I’m always sensitive to the audience. Because I think you’re right–people agree to things or to participate or engage with the performance, but they are so within the moment. They don’t really understand the commitment they are actually making.

Group dynamics play such a role. There were a couple of repeat participants at both nights here in Atlanta. This one woman, for example, didn’t take a photograph in one instance on the first night. And on the second night, I asked the same question, and she stood and joined the group. I think that does happen a lot.

RR: There are a lot of social responsibilities there: the repercussions that go along with actions that someone may get into which are above or beyond his/herself. As the artist/author, you’re in the position of authority. How do you respond to this?

SCAD - Derrick Adams

CO: This is very true, and I think you’re right. Because in my performances–the way I’m moving around the room, my gait, my confidence–I’m clearly comfortable with myself. I know that I’m a very strong performer, and I carry a certain kind of intensity. However, while I do have a certain kind of command, it’s never that I’m forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. Even in the Anthology (Kara Walker) score, when I’d go up to people and try to french kiss them, I’d have clues like a hand stuck out into my face, or someone would turn and look down to avoid eye contact. Those are key signals to me that say, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” And I have to respect that space.

Clifford Owens, Photographs with an Audience (Miami) Gays and Lesbians, 2011, digital C-print, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy Gallery Diet, Miami.

RR: I just have to wonder how the mindset that someone brings into the performance affects the group dynamics and, in turn, the outcome of the performance? Here in Atlanta, did you have drastic differences between the two nights?

CO: It was so different. The first night here in Atlanta was so intense and raw. The second night was still intense, but there was a different energy from the audience.

RR: You think it had to do with their mindset coming in? Word spread from the first night maybe?

CO: Absolutely. [There are] things that people bring into it, things maybe they heard from the previous night. They were a bit reserved and guarded—not willing to let themselves be emotionally vulnerable. And some people, it seemed, even came to purposely not engage with me.

RR: To be skeptical?

CO: Exactly, to be skeptical. I think word spread quickly, and maybe some people came saying ,“I’m not going to do what he is asking me to do.” But, by the end, things were incredibly intense. People opened up and just stayed, just sat there, silent. It was very intense.

RR: Have you heard of stereotype threat? It’s a kind of new theory. It’s only really been studied for about 15 years. We all carry at least one social identity that is marginalized, like race or gender for example. Anxiety might occur when someone’s performance has the ability to confirm a negative stereotype, even subconsciously causing one to under-perform. I keep thinking on this and how it relates to your work.

CO:  I like this idea. I haven’t heard of it. I think this definitely relates to the social interactions or engagement with the pieces.

RR: Where does emotion play a role in your work?

CO: Everywhere. And that’s funny, because we started out talking about the Gregg Bordowitz video. His recent writings talk about how emotions play a role in every decision we make. He gave me this really wonderful analogy about people on the subway listening to their iPods. He said [that] people aren’t looking for really great music; they’re looking for music that is going to meet their emotional state of mind at that moment. So emotion defines a lot of what I do.

During Anthology, I was personally going through a lot. I am still dealing with the aftermath. Those moments and decisions most definitely played a role and affected my actions during those performances. And they always will play a part in my work. And emotions don’t always mean doom and gloom: What about happy and light!? I don’t think I’d make as strong of work if I wasn’t as in touch with my feelings, and I have to give them due justice.