One of the principal dilemmas in performance art is how to document it. If a performance or happening only exists in its present action, what results when it is photographed or videotaped? Does documentation simply water it down, or does it completely fail to preserve the essence of a piece? Clifford Owens: Anthology at MOMA PS 1 features performance guidelines or “scores” that Owens collected from twenty-six multigenerational African American artists. During a five-month residency at PS1, Owens enacted these scores, subverting, altering or ignoring certain aspects of them. These scores demonstrate pieces previously done by other artists, or assignments given specifically for Owens to carry out, using himself as a vessel to anthologize this work.
Some instructions are specific, with detailed steps to illustrate the intended movements and feelings. Dave McKenzie’s score reads, “Pick a corner of the room and place yourself in it and against it. Try to conjure up a past that isn’t your own. Get ready to move. Don’t think too long about what you might do. Now act! Stop! Now think about the future after you. Make a phone call.” Derrick Adams assigned Owens to wash his face while listening P. Diddy. with step by step guidelines for how Owens should go about this, including ingredients for the performance, such as the type and color, (white) of face wash to use. Owens pushes further by having patrons of PS1‘s “Warm Up,” music series wash their own faces in the museum restroom, and taking portraits of them in bubbly whiteface. They too become vessels for parts of this anthology. Senga Nengudi’s score, “Sweep,” is inspired by the idea that most people worldwide, from the time they learn to walk, have engaged in the activity of sweeping. She instructed Owens to use a broom three times to move colored sand into changing designs and then to invite an audience member to create his or her own design.
Other scores ask for a large amount of interpretation before the participant can even begin to follow the instructions. Steffani Jemison told Owens to “Experience regret. Do not apologize.” Owen’s interpretation was to photograph PS1 patrons pouring water on him, ripping his shirt open, or slapping him on is rear end. William Pope L. simply said, “Be African American. Be very African American.” To which Owens answered by enlisting actors to chase a single line of white tape up the stairs at PS 1 shouting, “I am African American. I am very African American,” and asking visitors, “Who is your favorite black artist?” or, “Do you have any black friends?”
Anthology arose from Owens’ long-standing desire to create a compendium of often overlooked contributions of contemporary performance art by African Americans. Rather than exhibiting documentation of these works or collecting them in a book, Owens compiled them in a more personal medium–his own body. He becomes the anthology: authors collected within the author. What results is a living, breathing archive represented in the body of a person. It is as if he is taking cues from these other artist’s, but not leaving himself and his own work behind. He shows how an artist’s work is always informed by and through other voices.
The exhibition includes ongoing performances and visual representations of the scores, not just photographic evidence of their happenings. The scores appear to be work themselves, some presented as the emails they came in, and others as elaborate maps or visual cues or even notational patterns.
Some directly and necessarily address race, such as Rico Gatson’s instructions to recreate the black power salute of the1968 Olympics for five minutes, in which Owens represents not just artists of the present and past, but also historical icons. Others probe into identity politics such as issues in sexuality, embodiment, gender, and exposure, using the body as an appropriate and compelling site for these performances. In one video, four people reposition Owen’s nude and limp body, as if he is a sculpture or a doll. Kara Walker’s score instructed Owens to “French an audience member.” Asking him to examine and embody the role of a male sexual aggressor, she writes, “Force them against a wall and demand sex. They should be an adult. If they are willing to participate, abruptly turn the tables on them and you assume the role of the victim. Accuse your attacker and seek help from others. Describe your ordeal. Repeat.”
The exhibit shows a film of Owens walking through the middle of a circle of spectators, scrutinizing each audience member–mostly women–and finally choosing someone to kiss. When Walker learned of his plans to interpret her score literally, she asked to withdraw from the project. “If he goes through with it he leaves no room for imagination or freedom of choice,” she said in a statement to The Observer. They reached a kind of resolution when Owens invited Walker to join him in one of these performances. She followed him around the room acting as a kind of guard, her presence diffusing his machismo.
“I am of course responsible for creating this evil scenario,” Walker told The Observer. “The difference is, my proposal exists as a slip of paper, a planted idea–the performer reserves the right to simply not do it.” The score indeed seems to bear directly on Walker’s own work, with silhouettes, for example, representing master-slave sexual relationships. It evokes a brutal history between white women and black men, and challenges it. Yet one participant, Marissa Perel, a writer for Art 21 says the problem with the score is that it’s not complicated enough. She writes, “I wanted to believe that something was being worked out in this space, that we were all participating in some kind of exorcism by recapitulating the shared trauma of slavery and prejudice. It’s about a Black man being allowed to exercise a power in the museum that he could be arrested for if enacted in the public realm.” She says that Owens barely interacted with the men in the room, and that encountering people of a variety of gender identifications “would have destabilized identity and desire in a way that would have truly elevated the participatory experience to one of shared risk. But on the other hand, maybe I needed to be reminded of my particular subjectivity in this world in precisely the ways that Owens’ performance made me feel.”
On close inspection, the scores’ contents are teeming with conflicts on what it means to be Black, to be a man, to be inventing a history, to be re-staging a history, to be a vessel for history, and ultimately, to be inventing oneself on stage. Perel’s dilemna speaks directly to the undeniable presence of the real Clifford Owens in the room. Is he merely demonstrating a concept, performing a history of sexual aggression, or performing himself as a sexual aggressor?
Lorrain O’Grady’s score reads, “One, think of an ‘Other’: animal, vegetable or mineral. Two, create a record: audio, visual, or text of your interaction, real and/or imaginary, intellectual and/or emotional, with this ‘Other.’” Owens considers the possible definitions of her idea of “Other”; in terms of psychoanalysis, critical race theory, or postcolonial theory, deciding on animal, mineral and vegetable to play the three Others. Owens performs on a live feed that is projected to an audience of viewers. He holds the chicken in front of his crotch, chops vegetables, and slams a knife against the cutting board. Accompanying him is a naked woman, also playing with the food and the animals. Suddenly, the camera and live feed become a kind of mirroring Other, the chicken becomes the Other species, and we have gender Others as well. In reinterpreting, or in a sense, rewriting many of these scores, Owens rewrites history. It seems appropriate to document a history of performance art by reinterpreting it, not necessarily mapping the changes, but documenting that which has been influenced.
Anthology is a brave discourse on collective authorship that not only creates an appropriate medium for chronicling performance art, but uses that medium to plague further into the material of the art. Owens himself is not only the medium, or the vessel for the art, but also the content.
Hurry! Clifford Owens: Anthology will only be up at MoMA PS1 until May 7th! Follow Untapped Cities on Twitter and Facebook.