Deborah Goffe on Clifford Owens

score: a set of instructions, interpreted by a performer, which catalyzes action in the field of play. 

Contemporary artist, Clifford Owens, works in multiple media: performance, photography, text and video.  In his work, no one media is subordinate to the other.  Instead each mode drives the other, and has an integrity of its own as the live experience is crystallized or fragmented.  The resulting work, whatever its manifestation, serves to challenge expectations of race and gender, time and space, power and permission, performer and spectator.

Owens, a Baltimore native received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998, and his MFA from Mason Gross School of Visual Arts at Rutgers University in 2000.  It was during his time at Rutgers that his decade long concern with the history of African American performance art was born.  Despite the existence of blacks in performance art as historical fact, material evidence proved scarce.  So he determined to create the historical record in his own body.  Invisible history made manifest.  For his most recent work, Anthology, Owens gathered performance scores from 28 intergenerational African American contemporary artists.  He then brought each of the scores to life through a series of performances while in residence at New York’s PS1 in 2011.  Through text, photographs and video, each performance continues to live beyond the temporal moment as ritual artifacts.

While performance scores have long been essential tools of the trade in performance based art, and his previous work has been consistently informed by this practice, Owens’s decision to embody Anthology as a living archive is particularly potent.  Here interpretation is key as the notion of authorship is blurred.  The instructions, invented by another artist, have their fulfillment in Owens, and he has the power to control their manifestation.  With a kind of endorsement from the artists with whom he collaborates in this process, he has anointed himself conduit.  He is heir to their legacy, if only for the moment of performance.  The public receives history as Owens performs it, and he emerges as the primary author. In Owens’s own words:

 It’s an interesting gift economy.  The artists gift these scores to me and I internalize and process them.  Then I place them back in the public realm with my own energy in the work. I don’t know if these artists will be happy with the decisions I make in terms of interpreting their scores.  In the end, the identity of the author of the score could be lost which is fine.  I know that whatever comes out of the original score will be uniquely my own, unique to my own way of making art and thinking about making art.

From this position of authority, Owens invites his audience to collude.  Sometimes he demands it.  Their willingness to accept his invitation, or reject it, shapes the resulting work.  Active engagement, passive observation, and deliberate rejection all color the experience.  In either case, they all become co-authors with him.