Radical Presence Panel at NYU Talks Photography's Role in Performance Art

Performance artist Clifford Owens asks the audience to take
his picture with our cell phones at the Radical Presence panel
New York, 9/25/13 
In conjunction with the Radical Presence exhibition, on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 NYU held a panel featuring some of the artists in this first ever survey of black performance art. I attended purely for my interest in still image's role as more than a document of performance art and left with a newfound appreciation for an art form I'd long ignored.

Derrick Adams' presentation at first seemed to be victim to "art speak" but his works spoke a universal language as he referenced "going to the mountain" and "the rock as foundation" in the historical speeches of black leaders like Martin, Marley and Malcolm. Adams tried describing his work before showing us some video and it was then I noticed the difficulty in verbally explaining a performance piece.

Images of Adams' past performances included "The Resurrection of Roosevelt Franklin" a puppet show and rap performance about the long defunct, radical Sesame Street character. It was his work "Communicating with Shadows" that really struck me, a performance in which Adams is in conversation with silhouette images of historical artists Joseph Beuys and David Hammons.

Though not in the show, Holly Bass spoke of "the participatory image" and said she was introduced to performance art through the still image, specifically those in the book Angry Women. Bass showed images of performances by Mendieta, Export, Finley and the "Venus Hotentot 2000" (1994) collaboration between Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Cox.

Bass' own works include Pay Purview (2008) "a progressive peep show" in which she dons two basketballs in place of her backside and the audience pays for her to continue the performance. NWBA (2012) photographs shot in a studio, riff off of the iconic Nike/Jordan ads. Moneymaker (2012) a "mash up of James Brown and Sara Baartman" at the Corcoran Gallery for 30 Americans show. Come Clean (2012) Bass invites members of the audience to wash her hair. Bass closed by saying that she's invested in collective performance.

Poster child for contemporary performance art, Clifford Owens opened his presentation by stating, "Photography is my first love but performance art is my mistress and sometimes we come together to have a poly-amorous affair." Speaking in a voice which I can only describe as sexy psychotic, Owens made several references to being intoxicated though he looked sober and was very much in control.

"We have all always and only performed for the camera," was his thesis for the evening which was the introduction for what turned out to be an impromptu performance piece we all participated in. Owens invited us all to "stand in front of the camera" (though there was no real camera) in answer to questions like, "How many of you have ever thought about taking your life?" The audience played along for the first couple of probes, but then got shy with questions like "How many of you have ever sucked dick?"

Clearly comfortable playing the controversial artist, Owens bigged himself up by proclaiming, "Photography is a dumb art however very few people can make a live performance piece." Citing Kathy O'Dell's 1998 book Contract With The Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s, Owens' interest lies in the "oral history of performance art" which unlike Adams, he has clearly mastered.

Xaviera Simmons showed stills of an impromptu 2012 performance on a train in rural Sri Lanka titled Number 14 (When A Group Of People Comes Together To Watch Someone Do Something). She described the anxious feeling she and her partner had when stepping on the train because Simmons herself was wearing a tank top and shorts in what is a traditionally Muslim country. To alleviate their anxiety Simmons' idea for this piece began as she covered/dressed herself with items from her bag while her partner documented the performance. Most interesting to Simmons, was this ideas of "brown bodies looking at another (foreign) brown body."

Referencing a past performance inspired by the time she spent investigating the MOMA archive for one year, Simmons spoke of "the museum as cause of political unrest" and "the museum as instigator". Her most recent "Underscore" (2013) piece currently on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum was born out of her desire to enter a "more visceral, experiential space" with her work. Praising Owen's performance during the panel, Simmons expressed aspirations for her audience to walk away with an experience rather than just looking at a photograph of an experience.

Danny Tisdale off the bat defined himself as a conceptual artist. The shortest presentation of the evening, Tisdale detailed his "Transitions, Inc." (1992) piece, during which he played a character named Tracy Goodman, the spokesperson for a fake company that sold products you can use to permanently of temporarily alter your physical appearance.  The performance was held as business seminars on the streets of several New York City neighborhoods. The company's products included skin whiteners and an accent removal service marketed by the company slogan "We turn minorities into majorities and majorities into minorities!"

Shockingly, many people didn't realize it was all an act and actually wanted to buy Goodman's products and services... Though Tisdale's performance exposed his "clients" insecurities that are formed by internalized racism, he said the performance made him realize, "Who am I to judge what makes a person feel better about themselves?" He ended his presentation by stating "the best art blurs the line between what's real and not real."

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art is the first exhibition to survey over fifty years of performance art by visual artists of African descent from the United States and the Caribbean. Presented in 2 parts: Part I at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (September 10–December 7, 2013) and Part II at The Studio Museum in Harlem (November 14, 2013–March 9, 2014).


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