CLIFFORD OWENS Anthologyby Cora Fisher
MOMA PS1 | NOVEMBER 13, 2011 – MARCH 12, 2012
For Anthology, Clifford Owens asked 26 inter-generational black artists to provide him with scores for performance works which he interpreted in situ during a residency at PS1 last spring. What results is a living archive of black art for the present and future that probes at the indexical nature of an archive and the tenuous translation of performance documents to live action. Above all, Owens’s call-and-response format is a springboard for collective authorship and, simultaneously, creative license taken in individual adaptation.
Owens’s project explodes that familiar expression “to take cues from” so often used to indicate scripting, second-string enactment by a performer, and artistic influence in general. The project is etymological, improvisational, and interpretive. He presents the “scores of a slew of black artists on a simple looseleaf sheet reminiscent of conceptual prompts by the Fluxus group. These original documents are posted alongside video and photo documentation of his live actions. We could say Owens takes cues from the many artists he has anthologized and invited, some like Coco Fusco, Saya Woolfalk, and Malik Gaines more intensively involved with performance, others like Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon working in two dimensions primarily.
Yet the results of Owens inhabiting the “scores” of so many significant black artists are as divergent from the original as they are informed by it. “Taking cues” is aptly polymorphous in its description of an iterative process so essential to both conceptual performance art and theater. Between the ephemeral action and the remaining trace—deliberately staged—is a range of interpretive gestures from literal mimesis to radical departure. Artistic license, homage, conceptual armature, and signature riffs: The scores and performances work reciprocally, in parallel, and upstage traditional notions of hierarchy or a sense of who can claim authorial dominance. Taken as an ensemble, Anthology captures a polyphonic collectivity that cuts across time via the body of one individual artist through a grand communal and celebratory labor.
The shared creative enterprise is permitted in part by the fact that the scores are works unto themselves. Some have elaborate maps or visual cues, while some are simply type-written lists, narratives, or songs. Coco Fusco’s score directly addresses the theatrical aspect of Owens’s project, already inscribed in his co-authorial vision when she asks him to haunt the transit museum to revisit the mise-en-scène of Amiri Baraka’s seminal play, Dutchman.
The living archive of this contemporary artistic milieu embraces difference and complicates tactics of identity politics. Many of the scores explicitly and necessarily take up aspects of blackness, while others emphasize bodily scenarios, sexuality, or the psychogeography of embodiment. Kara Walker asks Owens to inhabit the role of a male sexual aggressor in a crowd of participants, who is then to “play the victim.” Yet rather than reproduce this uncomfortable zone of male aggression, Owens alternatively discomfits and pleases a line-up of volunteers in a room at PS1, approaching and gently or seductively kissing some of them. Shinique Smith quotes a song by Native American writer/poet Sherman Alexie about a cousin that is more beautiful than all the white girls, incorporating other voices to echo dominant racial perceptions; Steffanie Jemison directs Owens in an evocative quip whose actions are open-ended but whose subjectivity is to be non-negotiable: “Experience regret. Do not apologize.” Malik Gaines provides a notational pattern. Several of the scores play on the role of archival document as equal to live action, like Owens’s precursor Photographs with an Audience (New York City), 2008–09, where the audience and performer are captured in several moments of posing and staging. Some, like Rico Gatson’s prompt to reenact the black power salute of the ’68 Olympics, play on the reproduction of pre-existing iconography.
The body is a compelling site for this sprawling Anthology. In one video, four people reconfigure a nude Owens, as though he were dead weight or a sculpture. They move him here and there, hoist him back to the middle of a tape-lined area on the floor, set him down, and adjust his arms and legs. Here Owens takes on the passive and vulnerable pose of the Marat.
The title Anthology indicates history—in this case not only art historical or cultural reference, but also the urgent necessity to have on record under-represented black performance works. In an interview with ArtForum this past spring, Owens said he realized there was no existing compendium of black performance histories in his research. That historical fault line was grounds to conceive of the project in 1999. A parallel push to give the formidable history of under-acknowledged black performance art its due has been taking place at L.A. MoCA for Pacific Standard Time, a major initiative bringing the work of Senga Nengudi and many others to the fore through exhibitions, events, and new commissions. Owens’s project is both timely and timeless.
The masterful William Pope.L’s score speaks to the heart of Owens’s project and black performance as existential above all, a recognition of race as itself an elaborate, continuous feat of embodiment: “Be African American. Be very African American.”