Post originally written for AADAT:
Artist Clifford Owens performed his piece, Photographs With An Audience, over two nights at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery earlier in October. The set-up is fairly simple: a large, characterless room equipped with two studio strobe lights and a medium format film camera. Owens acts as a ringleader or ‘provocateur’ of sorts, posing various questions and statements to the audience who, if they can relate, stand in front of the camera to have their portraits taken. The instruction given: do not blink. Owens, who has performed Photographs with An Audience in major cities across the US, reacts to the demographic and general ‘feeling’ of the audiences who have come to see him perform. This lends itself to a sense of unpredictability, with both the artist and audience bouncing off each other’s emotional and physical cues, however subtle.
The questions Owens asked ranged from the harmless (‘Who here lives in south Manchester? That’s the part that has money, right?’’) to the extremely personal (“Have you ever lost anyone to AIDs?”) over the duration of the two hour performance. In a vast space, audience members were encouraged to be open with anecdotes and personal memories. Some state that performance art is a performance of the human condition itself, in that we are forced to confront issues that may otherwise be seen as ‘uncomfortable’ or even ‘taboo’ in other social settings.
At one point during the performance, Owens scanned the room before proclaiming, “Wow. There are three black people in the room this evening. I want the black people in the room to stand up so we can take a photo.” In fact, four people stood up, facing the white audience who remained seated. It may be noted that the demographic of visitors to cultural spaces such as museums and art galleries tends to be fairly narrow in definition – the majority are white and middle class. The ‘other-ness’ Owens highlights could be seen as challenging the status quo, and forcing the audience members to think about race as a concept of power and privilege in today’s society.
The true strength of Photographs With An Audience lies in Owens’ ability to choreograph participants without inhibition or self-consciousness, as well as dissecting issues that many would find too uncomfortable to approach head on. As one of the leading artists in the world of contemporary black performance art, his work looks at the history of other African-American artists and utilises what has been studied, photographed and performed before to create his own vision.
An exhibition of photographs created during the Cornerhouse performances of Photographs With An Audience will be shown in Manchester, UK in May 2014.