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Clifford Owens: Performer/Audience/Dynamics

At the opening of his solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in January 2011, Clifford Owens presented Photographs with an Audience, a live participatory performance that set the Houston art world abuzz. This was the third iteration of the work which was previously performed in New York and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In fall 2011, Owens brings the work to Miami and also opens a new exhibition at MoMA PS1, Clifford Owens: Anthology. MoMA PS1 assistant curator Christopher Y. Lew discusses with Owens exactly what happened in Houston.

Christopher Y. Lew: Your performance, Photographs with an Audience, took place at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in a room adjacent to the exhibition. What did the audience encounter upon entering?

Clifford Owens: When the audience walked into the space, they were confronted by two large strobes with soft boxes and a studio camera; all pointed towards a blank, white wall. They came in, sat on the floor, and I then started the piece. It’s a work about both photography and performance art, and how the history of performance art is in large measure a history of photography. Through my direction I brought particular groups of people together by asking a series of questions or propositions. Those individuals who share a commonality would get up and have their photograph taken. In a sense, I’m directing the audience to perform for the camera. The resultant photographs take the form of an installation. So at the CAMH exhibition there was an installation ofPhotographs with an Audience that I did in New York in 2008. There are 18 16 x 20 inch photographs that form the work. In Houston, I asked those who voted for Bush I and Bush II to have their photograph taken. I asked fathers with sons to have their photo taken and I included myself since I’m a father with two sons. I asked people who were immigrants to take a photograph, again to perform for the camera. In another one I asked people who were native Houstonians to take a photograph.

CYL: The questions and images are specific to the place?

CO: Yes, that’s true because of how the audience responded in New York was different than how they responded in Houston. Presumably in New York the art crowd is much more liberal. And my presumption was that in Houston it would be a much more conservative environment, but in fact it wasn’t. Obviously I wouldn’t have made in New York the photograph with audience members who voted for Bush I and Bush II.

CYL: You would have far less people standing up.

CO: In New York there wouldn’t have been people coming out in support of Bush I and Bush II even though we know there had to be people in the audience that did. The culture of New York City…

CYL: Is one of self-censorship?

CO: Yes [laughs]. In Houston people quite proudly claimed their support of Bush I and Bush II.

CYL: How much of that is planned? When you’re in the performance it feels very improvised. You are riffing off of the audience and responding to what they are doing, but you’re clearly playing off of stereotypes and there are specific things you want to address. Still it felt free flowing.

CO: There’s a structure to it and I work within that structure. At some point that structure starts to fall apart and I start to relate to how the audience is responding to the performance. So some things are unplanned, but there is a basic structure.

CO: Again, it’s about context. This was my first time in Houston and I came with certain presumptions about Houstonians and the culture of Houston as a city or Texas as a state. One presumption was about conservative ideology or people who support the Republican party. In fact the photographs support that – when people came together to take a picture because they supported Bush I or Bush II. And then the issue of immigration came up and of course “immigration” is a conservative keyword for Mexicans, illegal Mexicans. In Houston, I believe there were one or two Mexicans in the audience, and others came from around the world, much like you’d find in New York.

When I did the project at the University of North Carolina, it was in a college town. There’s not only that but also the fact that the UNC was built by 300 slaves. Race in North Carolina is a big issue and when I went there for a ten-day residency many of the students and faculty wanted to talk about race. So that formed the questions I ask the audience. It seemed like it was something they wanted to discuss with me.

CYL: Did the Houston audience want to address any issues in particular?

CO: In Houston, one of the audience members, Enrique, is still discussed and spoken about. He came in and profoundly shifted the dynamics of the group even before he decided he wanted to perform. And he did want to perform. He wanted to take over the space.

CYL: What was he doing from your perspective? As the artist you are leading the conversation and then you have someone else jump in and wedge himself into the situation.

CO: Once I had a sense of where his energy was I wanted him to follow through with it. For example, he really needed to speak about his identity as an immigrant and he needed to assert his agency in the performance. And I encouraged him. It was necessary to do that. I think everybody in the room had assumptions about the others in the space. There were rather affluent people who were members of the board of the CAMH and then there is this guy who is perhaps not as affluent who comes into the space and asserts himself in a much different way.

CYL: He came in and created a tense situation. No one, including you, knew what would happen. You were the main person interacting with him. What responsibilities do you have in that kind of situation?

CO: Enrique made me realize what I’ve always known and considered as an artist. It’s an old-fashioned notion that artists have a certain responsibility to their audience or audiences they are presumed to serve. I always have a sense of my social responsibility whenever I do a performance piece and in Houston that sense of responsibility became very clear. As the person directing the conversation and movement within the room I was really in control of what would be said and done. When you have someone come in with some hostility or resentment, they make you responsible for what you’re doing and what they are doing. That sort of play was really potent for the Houston performance. I learned a lot about what a simple project like this can do to an audience. To bring a group of people who are relative strangers into a room and have them come together to take photographs based on some commonality, that is a powerful thing.

CYL: At this point you’ve enacted the performance three times in three different places. Are there things that you are looking to do with the project that you haven’t done yet? Are there certain images or issues you want to bring up?

CO: In the beginning, in New York, I was present in most of the photographs and at UNC, I started to withdraw from the images, taking myself out of the images.

CYL: Is that intentional?

CO: Yes. In Houston I don’t appear in a lot of the pictures at all. I see that I’m removing myself from the photographs and taking on another role. I don’t want to say “director” because that sounds too formal, more like “provocateur”.

CLIFFORD OWENS (American, b. 1971) lives and works in Queens, NY. He has been exhibiting work since 2001 and recently opened his first solo museum exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. He has also participated in exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Queens Museum of Art, the Kitchen, and Art in General (all in New York); MIT List Visual Art Center, Cambridge, MA; Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe, NM; and Parasite Art Space, Hong Kong. Owens was featured in Greater New York (2005) at MoMA PS1.

CHRISTOPHER Y. LEW is Assistant Curator at MoMA PS1. He joined the museum in 2006, and for the past three years, served as Manager of Curatorial Affairs, overseeing the day-to-day operations and myriad details of the museum’s exhibition program. He has curated exhibitions and programs in New York City at venues including Artists Space and Aljira, as well as at MoMA PS1, and written broadly.