“Be African-American. Be very African American.” Thus reads a typed instruction on an otherwise blank piece of paper sent by veteran performance artist William Pope.L to Clifford Owens as part of Anthology, the latter’s crowd-sourced performance project staged last year at MoMA PS1. The cryptic directive, together with the other performance scores that Owens solicited from an intergenerational group of 26 black artists, is now on view in the first installment of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Through its simplistic address of race, undercut by slippery punctuation, Pope.L’s instruction raises questions about the possibility of performing black identity that this much-needed exhibition casts informed light on.
No meager undertaking, Radical Presence aims to provide a history of the emergence and development of black performance art from the early 1960s through to the present moment. It’s a timely initiative, since scholarship on this chapter of performance art’s history is still scant (an awareness of this also provided the impetus for Owens’s Anthology). First exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston earlier last year, the New York presentation is split between the Grey, where its run shortly concludes, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Both exhibitions are bolstered by scheduled performances that activate select works on show, in addition to a robust performance program co-organized with Performa for the biennial’s 2013 edition.
Striking out to write the unwritten, the presentation at the Grey is an exercise in making history. As the exhibition’s curator Valerie Cassel Oliver (a senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) explains in a recent Art in America interview, her agenda was to show that “younger artists working in performance are not working in a vacuum; they’re part of a larger conversation … beginning with a whole constellation of artists around Fluxus.” Accordingly, the exhibition develops outwards from an event marked by Oliver as foundational: Benjamin Patterson’s Pond, first performed in 1962. As starting points for this history go, it’s an interesting one since Patterson’s “action score” — which brings together live participants with a floor-based grid and wind-up frogs to produce a cacophonous musical composition — is more concerned with the exploration of chance than identity, let alone black identity. However, Oliver’s decision to make this work the exhibition’s starting point reveals the subtlety of her curatorial vision; Pond makes sense here as a work by a black artist that de-stabilized conventional aesthetic values and implicated the viewer, opening up possibilities for further developments.
Continuing in this multivalent vein, the narrative that the Grey’s exhibition unfolds is almost as diverse as the wide-ranging performance art that has been produced by black artists over the past fifty years. By privileging shared interests over chronology, Oliver has created an exhibition of multiple histories. A discourse on media and role-play emerges between Ulysses Jenkins’s “Mass of Images” (1978), in which Jenkins threatens to smash the monitor that alternately records his movements and displays archival stills of popular black entertainers; Dave McKenzie’s on/off adoption of Kevin Spacey’s feigned Usual Suspects limp in the video Kevin and Me (2000); and the astutely comedic ART THOUGHTZ YouTube series by Jayson Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman, “aka Hennrock the king, pimp of the one-liners.” Another strand of exploration centering on the body links a video recording of Sherman Fleming’s fetishistic wax-dripping endurance test “Pretending to be Rock” (1993) with Jean-Ulrick Désert’s “Negerhosen2000 / The Travel Albums” (2003), the travel snaps from which we see Désert touring Germany wearing lederhosen of a so-called “Caucasian” hue. Yet for all these shared connections — suggested by the works themselves, rather than signaled by text panels, which the exhibition eschews — the main interest remains the differences and variations between works, where the richness of this history can be felt.
An additional line of inquiry that the exhibition raises is the perennial question haunting all institutional surveys of performance art: is documentation alone up to the job? While certain works successfully make the leap from documentation to performance (Daniel Tisdale’s 1992 Transitions, Inc. is a case in point, as the promotional materials for Tisdale’s fictional cosmetics company are both framed on the wall and available for visitors to pick up, re-activating their original distribution by Tisdale in the street), there are many examples where documentation falls flat. This is keenly felt in the case of Pope.L’s “Eating the Wall Street Journal” (2000), for which the artist read, ate, and regurgitated the Journal over several days, seated throughout on a toilet mounted on a tower; and Clifford Owens’s Anthology performance of a score by Kara Walker that instructs the performer to “french kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand Sex.” In both instances the documentation — a small monitor displaying a recording for Pope.L; glossy framed stills for Owens — feels tinny compared with the force of experiencing these visceral acts live. Rather than a failing, however, the frustration that results constitutes one of this exhibition’s subtle successes. Through selecting works that are awkwardly resistant to documentation, Oliver has managed to underscore the vitality of this strand of performance art, which resists conventional viewing — and societal — structures.
A recent ideological tussle with one of the exhibition’s featured artists, Adrian Piper, has given Oliver occasion to further explore the intriguing role that documentation plays in this presentation. Following Piper’s request at the end of October that footage of her 1973 street performance The Mythic Being be removed from the exhibition, on the grounds that its singular focus on black performance regressively cordons off the achievements of African-American artists from “the art world at large,” a sheet of paper has been placed over the monitor on which the recording had previously been playing. Containing excerpts from Piper’s correspondence together with a response from Oliver — “it is clear … that stigmas about blackness remain not only in the public’s consciousness, but also in the consciousness of artists themselves” — this pasted-up page is at once highly performative and documentary: a physical trace of a past action. A canny conceptual addition to the exhibition, this unassuming sheet of paper has become the highly charged locus of a fierce critical debate, driving home just how dynamic this radical presence of an exhibition is.
Radical Presence is on view at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through December 7 and at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th St, Harlem, Manhattan) through March 9, 2014.