Clifford Owens doesn’t do performance art, he does “visual art performance.” From his Studio Visits series in 2004 to 2008’s Photographs with an Audience, to his current series, Anthology, the Yale lecturer, sometime photographer, and Louis Tiffany Comfort award winner is notorious for going deeper in his works, which are as much about human connection as they are personal exploration. On the eve of Anthology’s opening at MoMa PS1, Owens expounded on the many forms of artistic cowardice.
BULLETT: I was reading in a BOMB interview that you think a lot of young artists don’t really feel that history is important. I wanted to start off talking about that, and about how you think laziness can be combatted in young people.
CLIFF OWENS: I’ve been teaching for 11 years at the college level and right now I’m a lecturer at Yale in the Graduate Program, but when I was in college in the ’90s, it was the height of the culture wars, and people were very invested in art about the social world around us. The wave of feminism in the ’90s, the wave of critical race theory in the ’90s, the wave of queer theory in the ’90s—all this was happening when I was 18 or 19 years old. And it was a much different conversation that was happening between institutions. Not just educational institutions, but also museums, and even the gallery system in part, was part of a really rigorous conversation about the past, and we kind of experienced a revisionist history in the ’90s, where people were calling into question what preceded that particular moment in art and culture, etcetera.
So when I talk about younger artists having no sense of history I really think it’s more about awareness. Perhaps there’s a sense of history, but there’s a serious lack of awareness. I’m not sure why that is. I think the marketplace is seductive to younger artists, and the potential of art world celebrity. We’re at a moment where commodity has eclipsed criticality with younger artists. It’s the way in which we receive information, too. I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times recently about the Internet and performance art. We can get information so easily, so quickly, that no one goes to the library anymore. Remember the Dewey Decimal System?
It was created to dissuade you from reading books.
I think so. So there’s a way in which young artists just get clips of information, and now for young artists it’s about a certain sort of visual literacy. But not a real deep investment in ideas. A lot of my African-American students, or African-American artists, and a lot of women in particular—the women don’t want to deal with feminism in real, serious ways, and the African-American artists don’t want to deal with content and context in a very serious way. Because it’s very easy to make work about hip-hop culture, it’s very easy to essentialize our experiences as black people. But it takes more work to sort of flesh out the ways in which that representation has been constructed, vis-a-vis popular culture, literature, art history, whatever. So like you said before, there’s just a lot of laziness going on. And like I said, I think it’s because I’m so old. I’m 40!
When you think about why that laziness exists, it’s also the way higher education itself is being called into question now. A college degree doesn’t get you a job anymore, and in college you have to learn to question everything, but the minute you get out you realize if you go on questioning everything, you’ll just kill yourself.
And people stop reading books after they get out of college.
No one wants to deal with any kind of social injustice because in college it’s all beaten to death in a way that doesn’t seem applicable to the real world. But why is there that gap?
I’m not sure. I think for many people it’s about doing what you need to do to survive. Sometimes when you’re too challenging or too critical, people push back away. There’s a way in which people—perhaps artists in particular—are trying to find ways in which to assimilate. And to be too critical or to present a certain challenge to the structure, you sometimes don’t get ahead as quickly. Suddenly, performance art is a very viable commodity in the art market. But years ago, people chose performance art because it was explicitly not about the market or the gallery system.
It was really on the fringe, on the bounds, and in the ’90s even or with feminism, particularly what was going on in Los Angeles in the ’70s, women were trying to carve out their own creative, intellectual space—they wanted to be outside the kind of male-dominated system. But that moment is over. And I’m not waxing romantic for the past, it’s just to say like, Where are those moments of counter-cultural movement within the art world? I know there’s a lot of places in Brooklyn, people have galleries in their apartments and all these other things, but it always becomes a kind of insider conversation. Always. I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches at Cooper Union. And he asked his students, “Who has gone to Occupy Wall Street?’” In a class of 15, 2 went.
And they live like three blocks away.
[Laughs.] That is the level of engagement with many young artists. And teaching at Cooper Union and other places, they don’t want to talk about, become engaged with, or think about politics. They don’t want to be political artists, which I understand in part. But they don’t want to engage with ideas, and I’m not quite sure really what that’s about. Careerism, lazy thinking, who knows.
But talking about performance art—you were saying how it used to be so counter-cultural. It’s maybe not as lazy as not doing anything, but it strikes me as more cowardly if you’re doing a performance piece online and there’s a screen—because it seems the way you do performance art, it’s about audience engagement, and about figuring out what you have in common with people by expressing something weird.
That’s right. People want to feel. And to be in an audience at a performance, you must be present in mind and body, and you’re being asked to integrate those things in the presence of a performance. And the Internet is about a certain kind of distance. But in my work and my performances and when I see really interesting performance artists, people are excited to be engaged, to recognize that we are all a part of something bigger. That’s what got me interested in making performances from 1991 when I was in college. It was about being present and making oneself vulnerable. In my work I ask people to do that. The Internet is a really easy way to reach the masses. But performance art is so magnificent and so wonderful because it’s really about this intense shared experience that lives in your body after you walk away.
Because on the Internet I can scroll through things, fast-forward, my sense of time is not the same experience of art as my sense of time with the performance piece. In a sense, John Dewey put this forward decades ago, with “art is experience.” Doing and undergoing. It’s an old-fashioned notion, pragmatic philosophy, but it’s still kind of interesting. In my work the audience is doing, and I’m undergoing. I really like that exchange. I’m not anti-Internet at all.
Because you’re not asking from an audience anything more than an actor is asking, which is, “Believe me.” Or, “Don’t believe me, it’s ironic,” which is not so challenging.
Parody can be politically engaging when it’s fresh, but it’s fresh for such a short period time, and the Internet repeats itself.
And I think artists who make performance art on the Internet are quite often, to me, cowards. They don’t take risks. They’re fearful. It’s easy to have that screen. It really mediates that relationship between you as the artist and the audience you presume to speak to, with, for, and on behalf of. It’s cowardly, there’s no risk. There’s no real intensity. It’s just out there. I say this and people don’t like it, but I say sometimes: Art is not for everyone. And I think performance art, on the Internet, is about a kind of populist appeal. On Facebook, YouTube, whatever they do—it’s about appeasing the masses through parody, through comedy, through “irony.” It’s a literary term, but still. And when I say art is not for everybody, it doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t engage with art or be interested in art—it’s just to say that the specificity of performance art is peculiar.
You can put these things out there on the Internet or do whatever, but popular culture has no sense of where it’s coming from. In other words, if we put forward on the Internet work that’s about characters or dress-up, singing chorally in front of the camera, if that’s what we put forward as performers, especially black artists—it’s the same exact conversation we had 60, 70 years ago with Amos and Andy and whomever else, it’s the same coonery-buffoonery shit. It’s the same thing. And why do artists put forward these kinds of representations of black experience and package them and present it as performance art? To what end? My question is always, Do you have a critique? What is the critique?
But do you think film, if it’s just telling a fictional story, has no capacity to do anything in the world? Are there exceptions?
There are exceptions. There’s a difference between films and movies. Films are about art, movies are about pop culture. There is a distinction—often when I tell people—actually, in fact, I’m not just a performance artist. I started out with photography, I’ve done video and other things, but when I tell people that I’m a performance artist, their first question is, “Oh, you’re an actor?” Or, “You’re a dancer?” That’s why I want to dissociate from actors and acting, because performance art is a form of visual art, what Roselee Goldberg aptly describes as “visual art performance.” For Anthology, people will see photographs, videos, etcetera. They are discreet art objects, carefully choreographed, and here I cautiously use the word choreographed because of its connection to dance, but carefully composed, well thought out, discreet art objects. It’s so important to make that distinction for me.
It’s interpretation of music as well—even “visual art performance” doesn’t quite describe what Anthology is doing, because there’s another level, sound comes into it.
There are quite a few sound pieces. Malik Gaines contributed a brilliant score composed from the names of each artist in Anthology. He wrote a musical score that a musician played for me as I’m walking down the halls nude. I’m always taking off my clothes!
And the book?
The Museum of Modern Art, PS1 is going to publish a book about Anthology, which will feature two scholarly essays and interviews with people who attended some of the performances and images. I’m going to write something.
And that book then goes back out as a historical account. This book will hopefully in a sense give people, the reader, a sense of the history—a history—of performance art that is not so well known, specifically how U.S. black artists have been working in performance art since the 1950s. But as I’ve said before, the history of art is preoccupied with the white European body much more than it’s been interested in the black U.S. body. So I think Anthology was—what did Toni Morrison say? “If you haven’t read the book you want to read, you should write it?” That’s what Anthology is. And that’s what the book is. I want my sons to read Anthology when they’re 10. No, I’m joking. I mean I really want Anthology to start a conversation.
Why not? Ten’s a very formative age.
It’s true, because my son does what you say—he’s 4—and it’s really brilliant the way he assigns meaning to things through his—he knows all the letters of the alphabet. He’s like, “What is that papa? Cup? C?” I love it, it’s brilliant!
I know, it’s such a good system! But I like that this is a history of a performance and in the performance there’s a history that’s not even written—I like that idea. Kind of this triple thing.
Absolutely, and I think one thing that I’m becoming acutely aware of that others might find problematic, and if they do I understand, is how I have placed myself at the center of a discourse about U.S. black performance art, which I hope people don’t read as being dangerously narcissistic.
Have you ever seen The Five Obstructions?
It’s Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, and the two of them are just talking in the room. Leth made this film in the ’60s, and von Trier thinks it’s the perfect film, so he’s like, “We’re going to remake it, I’m going to give you instructions.” And the whole movie is about Leth remaking the movie with new instructions, and he always gets it wrong.
I love it.
But that’s kind of the point, he can’t just follow the instructions, because then it would be Lars von Trier’s film.
That’s absolutely the same with Anthology. And when I do it live during the exhibition it’s going to keep changing again. And when it travels—hopefully it does travel, looks like it might—it will be another iteration of Anthology, and it goes on and on. Even when I’m 60. I won’t be taking off my clothes when I’m 60. Though you never know.
Anthology is on view at MoMa PS1 until March 12, 2012.