Clifford Owens in conversation with Lydia Bell

CC Editor Lydia Bell talked with artist Clifford Owens in his studio as he was working on Anthology, an exhibition of performance scores that is on view at MoMA PS1 through March 12, 2012. On Saturday, December 17, 2011 from 2-4pm, Owens will perform selected scores from Anthology at MoMA PS1.


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Interview Date: September 1, 2011

Thumbnail photo courtesy of On Stellar Rays


Lydia Bell: [Walking into studio] Wow!

Clifford Owens: These are the scores for Anthology.

Anthology is a collection of performance art scores written for me to perform by a group of intergenerational African American artists, including Lorraine O’ Grady, Kara Walker, Aisha Cousins, Steffani Jemison, and Maren Hassinger. I reached out to all of these artists to ask them to contribute to Anthology, and the performances have been enacted throughout all of PS1 throughout the summer. The resulting photographs, videos, installations, and objects will comprise the exhibition.

The concept of Anthology came from a historical oversight I see in performance art, specifically the ways in which black artists aren’t included in the canon. I was trying to think about how I could make a work that would address this interesting legacy that most people are not aware of. Benjamin Patterson, who also contributed a score, was one of the architects of Fluxus in the 50s. He organized the first “Flux Fest” in Europe. He was the starting point of my investigation into this legacy of U.S. black performance artists.

But, I want to distinguish “performance art” from the “performing arts.” Performance art is not necessarily informed by a dance, song, or theater. It’s really informed by the visual arts. Patterson comes up from the music tradition and fluxus was a kind of avant-garde music movement that transformed itself into a more visual art expression. It’s not to discredit dance as a visual art, but just to say that this [performance art] is informed through other channels, modes, and modalities of thinking about performance.

Lorraine O’Grady wrote a score for Anthology, which I can read for you.

“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.’ Send a low res, low tech, low value copy of this record of interaction to Lorraine O’Grady for her archives.”

I dealt with the first two directives in the score. It’s a complicated score. It’s really quite vague, to say the least, and ambiguous and certainly ambitious. “Think of an ‘Other.’” She has “Other,” capital O, in quotation marks. “Other” in quotations suggests a few things. “Other” in terms of psychoanalysis, “Other” in terms of Critical Race Theory, or Postcolonial Theory. And “Other” in terms of sort of a philosophical position.

I can show you what I did on video. [Plays video]

I thought about how I would do this with three different elements: animal, mineral, vegetable. There was a camera in the corner of the studio space and this room where we’re in was the space for the performance, as you can here in the video. That projector was sending a live feed on the opposite wall and the audience came and sat down. They watched the performance on a large projector.

I used three elements. A hen, a girl and foodstuff. This will be presented in the exhibition as a three channel, flat screen monitor exhibition. They’ll be one channel: one with the hen, one with the girl, and one with the food stuff, and they will be played simultaneously.

In the performance there are ways in which I am perverting all of these different elements. In surrealist imagery, there is always a chicken. The chickens convey a state of “Other” or “Others.”

Lydia: Yeah, they come up in Butoh, too.

Clifford. Exactly. So, there was the chicken and me engaging with the chicken. Quite often in the performance there is a relationship between self as “Other” and the camera. What Rosalind Krauss articulates in “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” was that in early video art, the monitor was a kind of mirror. The mirror in Lacanian psychoanalysis is what distinguishes me from you and you from me. So, there’s a way in which the large projection, me looking at the monitor and interacting with the camera, creates a kind of mirror identity. That was an idea to think about the notion of “Other”. As the audience looks at this projection of me looking at them, it is about that limited space between me, “I” as subject, and you as “Other”. Or, you as subject and me as “Other”. That’s the chicken.

Then the second part is the girl. In this case, I am a man of color, here’s a woman of color. There’s this notion of Otherness. In Lorraine’s work, in fact, she has done a lot of about desegregation and mixed racial identity. Here, clearly, you’ll see a tension about sexual others unfold. For this piece there was a section about two others othering each other.

It’s interesting. I am not a dancer. I’ve never trained in dance. I don’t understand the nomenclature of dance but I understand how my body functions sometimes.

Lydia: Half of dancing is presence. So, if you have that, you’re halfway there.

Photo Courtesy of On Stellar Rays

Clifford: Yeah, I don’t have the physical aptitude to be a dancer. But, things like picking up, putting down, playing with the frame. The space of the frame—

Lydia: The gaze.

Clifford: The gaze, absolutely.

At this point, you can hear me telling her what to do. You get a sense of what’s going to happen here, right?

Lydia: No, what’s going to happen?

Clifford: Well, nothing bad [laughs].

This is the second part with the food stuff. It’s like a still life. She gets dressed. This section of the video considers Julia Kristeva’s theorization: articulation of the abject. The notion that what we find abject is what we try to shield ourselves from. An abjection can take many different forms but, it’s those things, the excesses of our body or our psyches that we try and protect ourselves from.

I’m doing all kinds of naughty things with food [in the video]. A lot of references to castration anxiety [laughs]. So, you can see what started out as kind of still life is transformed. Then I start throwing the food stuff against the wall. Again, thinking about “Other” in terms of abjection. It’s all so grotesque. That gets hard to watch.

Lydia: Did you and Lorraine have any back and forth before or after she sent you the score?

Clifford: We did. We talked on the phone once. And, then she came to the performance and she liked it very much. She said, she knew it was going to become something like that. She expected that it would be this sexualized interpretation of her score. But, none of the artists really give me specific feedback on how I should do it. Anthology is not a collaboration. It’s a conceptual project and it’s a kind of gift of art. Somebody else said that. I like to quote it. The concept is about bringing other artists into this conversation that I am trying to have about the historical slippage of performance art with respect to U.S. black artists. I am sure that there is the same frustration in the dance world.

Lydia: Well, it’s interesting in the dance world because there is the Alvin Ailey sort of track of black dance and then there are black artists working in an avant-garde tradition that is not necessarily aligned with Black Dance with a capital “B” and a capital “D.” Which is what Ishmael Houston-Jones is highlighting in his Parallels project [a Danspace Project Platform that opens on February 2, 2012.]

There have been times in the avant-garde dance tradition where a so-called neutrality was really valued. With artists from the Judson Dance Theater, the faces are often blank. They are referencing a symbolic body, which is something I think dance really struggles with. In the act of dance you’re performing yourself and your own identity, but the conceptual track in dance sometimes tries to deny that.

Clifford: That’s so interesting. That’s true. I never thought about it that way. I never thought about that, that postmodern or avant-garde dance is really emotionless.

Lydia: But, I think that’s something that’s changed. A lot of young dance artists are using a flamboyant quality—the work is more directly expressive.

Photo Courtesy of On Stellar Rays

People sometimes point to YouTube as a place where a lot of dance and performance art lives. You just went there [laughs]. [Owens recently wrote a piece about performance art on YouTube for The New York Times.]

Clifford: There is one YouTube artist particular I find incredibly problematic, grating, and sort of silly. It infuriates me what’s going on with that because, I don’t think that it’s really about critique. It lacks a certain self reflexivity that I think is necessary if you’re putting ideas out to the world in the way in which he is doing it. It reduces identity to such a degree that it becomes a caricature. In the 80s and the 90s, there was a completely different conversation going on in the culture. Especially with African American artists. Black artists. Black men. It’s almost as if people forgot about Thelma Golden’s seminal exhibition, “Black Male.” It’s almost as if people have forgotten about Rodney King. They’ve forgotten about the disproportionate number of African American men in jail, prison, murdered.

It’s like the art world has no sense of history whatsoever. I think YouTube just reinforces that disinterest in history, antecedents, legacy. I know it’s a little bit old fashioned when I say these things but nothing compares to the experience of being there. For dance, performance art, for art. I’m guilty; I look on YouTube for things. I’ll look at dance things online and they are amazing but I’ll be like, “Wow. It would be much better if I was in the room while it was happening.” Because it feels different, doesn’t it? To be at a real dance recital than watch it on YouTube? Anyway, that’s my rant [laughs].

Lydia: Have you come across the show at PS 1 from the early 80s, Afro-American Abstraction?

Clifford: No, people have talked about it. I should just try and look in the archives here [at PS 1]. But, that was pretty groundbreaking when it came out.

Lydia: I read on Lorraine O’Grady’s website that she was reacting against that show for the first performance of the Mlle Bourgeois Noire.

Photo Courtesy of On Stellar Rays

Clifford: I never knew that was the inspiration for that piece.

Lydia: Yeah, that’s why I was interested that you were doing Lorraine O’Grady here.

Clifford: I never thought about that. It’s interesting too because my interpretation of Lorraine O’Grady’s score is kind of that abstraction in a sense. Abstracted. Still Life. It’s what it became: this abject, grotesque attraction.

Lydia: Meat Joy.

Clifford: Meat Joy!

Lydia: It’s like Meat Joy with vegetables. [Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy is a performance piece from 1964.]

Clifford: Absolutely. It’s all there. Those histories are certainly there. I wished I talked to you before because I didn’t know that’s what O’Grady was thinking about with that piece.

Lydia: Is it important to you with the Anthology project to record in other ways the conversations you’re having with these artists? To more literally rewrite history?

Clifford: Yeah, which you know, could use some revisions to say the least. We are doing a book, which is going to come out in late 2012, early 2013. It’s an artist book, but it’s also an academic book.

Lydia: Who’s publishing it?

Clifford: MoMA PS 1. And, we’ve secured two scholars. Art historian, John Bowles, who teaches at the University of North Carolina and has done extensive research into black art in general and black performance art in particular. And, then this other brilliant young brother, who’s at Northwestern, Huey Copeland. He’s a genius. So, they use their book in the book as sort of bookends and we’re going to work with two curators and trained historians to do interviews with people who attended performances. And, I am going to do a section where I do a round table or individual interviews with artists who contributed scores.

Lydia: Will that be a live or public event?

Clifford: No, that will probably be in the book. We are working on some public events to have round table discussions about Anthology in particular, but about these artists’ practices and the whole canon of performance art in general. I really hope that gets things going. Then, in 2012, Valerie Cassel Oliver is doing the first group exhibition of U.S. black performance art from 50s to the present. I am going to be in that show and I am working with her. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. And, she’s doing a book. I’ll write something for that. And, there are other writers who will be contributing. So, there’s a lot of wonderful conversation happening right now.

Again, going back to YouTube, it just kind of gets my goat. I just think we can do better than that. So, having these books and this project, I think it’s so important. People have to come to museums and recital halls. That’s the only way the work lives. And, that’s the only way artists can survive. Not just financially but spiritually, emotionally. As a dancer, you know, there’s a certain thing you get from making live work. Something happens in the body, and something happens in the mind.

Photo Courtesy of On Stellar Rays

Lydia: A friend of mine says going to performance is like going to church. Spiritual exchange is an in-person exchange.