Owens prefers not to be called a “performance artist,” but an artist who makes performances but works in video, photography, and sound as well. Nonetheless a thick strain of his work in all of these media takes up and reconfigures difficult questions stemming from the history of performance art – questions about shared responsibility, liveness, documentation, and embodiment.
Owens’s Studio Visits series, begun during a 2004 residency at Skowhegan, have engaged an older generation of established artists in pointed collaborations. This work with performance art “legends” has raised questions about the myth-making by way of which performance art has entered art history. Studio Visits: Skowhegan (William Pope.L) (2004), for example, consists of 36 small black-and-white photographs of Owens and Pope.L flinging mud at canvases in Owens’s studio. The photos recall the famous 1950 Hans Namuth photographs that mythologized Jackson Pollock and drew critical attention to performance as such; their small scale and seriality seems to both offer and withhold information about the event of their collaboration. And instead of Pollock as a figure for solitary genius, white working-class authenticity, or masculine expressivity, we see a collaboration between two 21st- century African-American artists whose work has critiqued and challenged much of the history initiated by Namuth’s photos. Instead of paint, they fling mud.
Subsequent collaborations with Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, and others in this series have explored similar questions about documentation and the production of art history. Studio Visits: Studio Museum in Harlem (Joan Jonas) (2005), produced during Owens’s residency at the museum, has Jonas using Owens’s limbs to make drawings on large sheets of paper. In another performance in this series, Carolee Schneemann covers Owens’s naked body with an oily lotion, recalling the unctuous messiness of her 1960s and 70s performance work. In these collaborations, as in much of Owens’s work, the body is a point of exchange, the conductive sensory material on which relationships may be staked.
Owens has also performed a number of Ben Patterson’s Fluxus scores in his series Four Fluxus Scores by Ben Patterson (2006) – most notably Lick Piece, which Patterson wrote and performed in 1964. In 2009, Owens also realized the score for Patterson’s 1960 Paper Piece. But Owens has not been constrained by these scores, or rather by the scores as they have been realized and documented.
If performance art tended to be driven by the score or instructions, the form that Owens’s work relies on is the contract. Kathy O’Dell has suggested that the “extreme” performances of the 1970s exposed the structure of performance as an unspoken contract between performer and audience that forces the audience to share responsibility with the performer for what unfolds. Owens’s work, which is explicitly engaged with questions of audience desire and responsibility, often makes this contract explicit.
This contract is sometimes verbal (as in the 2009 Chapel Hill performances of Photographs with an Audience, when Owens asked audience members to take responsibility for the actions he asked them to perform, and to leave if they felt uncomfortable). And it sometimes takes written form, as when he and Shaun Leonardo asked audience members to sign a nondisclosure agreement for a “secret” performance at Brooklyn’s Momenta gallery in 2008.
Owens’s explicit and implicit reliance on the contract form to mark the boundary of the performance is not without precedence (most notably Ron Athey, who, after the 1994 controversy over his use of blood, required audience to sign consent forms). Owens, however, invokes the contract not only to protect and contain the performance space, but to actively foreground flows of desire and fear between audience and performer, and to solicit and restrict audience actions and reaction.
Photographs with an Audience (2008-) has gone through a series of permutations, based on a changing set of questions and instructions for different audiences in New York and in Chapel Hill. In each performance, Owens asks audience members to respond in various ways to questions (“Have you lost anyone to HIV/AIDS?” “Have you ever been in love with a black man?” “Do you trust me?”), and to pose in front of the group for photographs. Once respondents are positioned in front of the flashbulb, Owens jumps out of the frame, or joins them in a way that reconfigures their relationship. He might divide his photographic subjects by race and pose naked between them, or lie down in front of them on the floor.
In Photographs with an Audience at UNC-Chapel Hill, Owens demanded that those who thought the piece was “bullshit” stand, remove their shoes, and hurl them at him; only one person refused. In a 1998 performance called Baltimore, Basketball, and Beyond, Owens told his audience to throw basketballs at him, then refused to catch them as they flew toward him, allowing the expectation of a harmless participatory game to fall, as it were, on its face.
Photographs with an Audience may be said to take the problematic relationship of live performance and photographic capture to its extreme limit, since in this work, documentation is the substance of the performance. And yet those photographs, which offer posed arrangements of audience bodies, reveal little of the tensions and desires involved in their production. In attempting to reduce performance to its documentary and art historical residue, Owens reveals precisely how much of performance they fail to capture. But for Owens, this is a generative failure, producing mystery and desire in excess of the time and space of the performance itself.
Conversely, Owens’s 2008 collaborations with Shaun Leonardo at Momenta – which relied on secrecy or the leaving of material remnants of performances in the space – allow us to think about the way in which a lack of documentation can produce desire and mystery around performance art. A recent video features artist Gregg Bordowitz describing one of Owens’s performances, thus literalizing the way in which word-of-mouth has functioned to both bring critical attention to performance art and at the same time limit live access to small circles. Gregg Bordowitz also experiments with documenting the affective force of performances that photography cannot capture; Bordowitz talks about how Owens was feeling, how he wanted to hug Owens, how women in the audience responded with exasperation to Owens’s demands for participation and attention.
The role that sound plays in Owens’s work has not been sufficiently recognized. In Photographs with an Audience, Owens uses his voice in a way that is more commonly associated with the hand – to manipulate his medium, to compose arrangements of audience bodies, and to delineate the boundary of trust and participation.
Another sound-related piece is the video Belt Piece (2005), in which Owens stands facing the wall, flinching as two other performers beat the walls and floor around him with a belt. Owens has spoken about this video in connection with a childhood punishment for stepping on a trumpet and bending it in half (itself a sound piece). The belt doesn’t touch him, but its cracking sound registers on his flinching body, and ours. The sound of it not touching him forms a kind of sonic outline of the space of trust and fear it carves out around his body – a space not unlike the space in which his performance work is conducted. In California Love (2003), likewise, the percussive sound of Owens’s empty hand hitting the screen in a masturbatory gesture creates a literal echo chamber of lack or loss, the sound touching us where he’s (not) touching himself.
Recently, Owens has taken an apparently new turn, making still color portraits of the Afro-Ecuadorian community of the Esmeralda Province, Ecuador, where Owens’s wife is from. His own body, which figures so prominently in most of his work, even in his Text Piece (2006), is absent from these images. Yet this new body of work pushes his work’s longstanding investigation of the documentary and portrait functions of photography in new directions.
– Amalle Dublon, December 2009
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