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An Evening With Clifford Owens’ ‘Photographs With An Audience’

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We were unsure of what to expect as we made the short walk from University Place to one of Manchester’s leading arts venues and cinemas, The Cornerhouse, back in mid-October. All we knew is that for two consecutive evenings, an unknown number of ‘participants’ would be encouraged to react to the words and actions of the American artist Clifford Owens, described as the “ringleader and provocateur” of the piece. Photographs would then be taken of the madness that we believed would follow.

The performance was actually very different to what we had pictured beforehand. Around twenty of us sat on the floor of the Cornerhouse’s, ‘The Annexe’, whilst Clifford walked amongst us, musing on various different topics including cocaine, women and suicide. Occasionally, he would turn whatever the topic happened to be on to the audience, asking something like – “Anyone who does cocaine regularly, go and pose for a photograph” and at first, everyone was a little apprehensive, I mean, who wants to admit something like that to a room full of strangers? However, soon people were filling the photographic area after every question!  Clifford’s performance played a big part in this fairly quick increase in audience confidence, as he was eager to establish connections with audience members in order to create the best, most powerful, photographs. However we also sometimes felt that his macho and sometimes aggressively, dominant character alienated some members of the audience; particularly those with which he didn’t express he felt ‘connected’ with. At one stage, a young woman in the audience challenged Owens, questioning his arguably macho and overtly masculine attitude and suddenly the atmosphere of the room completely changed. Solidarity formed between participants as Owens and the young woman engaged in a passionate argument over the effects of his performance and her own involvement in the evening so far. It was interesting in a room of strangers to see how easily the atmosphere could fluctuate. However, although we both had an overarching feeling that we were all pawns in the palm of his hand, the sheer honesty of our fellow participants undeniably inspired a sense of ‘group’ and community between us after the first evening’s performance.

We came back the following evening for the second performance, expecting Clifford to maybe delve deeper into some of the issues, ideas and stories touched upon in the previous evenings’ performance. We prepared ourselves for what could be an uneasy and possibly emotional evening, expecting the performance to be wrought with the same sort of tension found in the previous night. However the second performance became much more about the show; those that had been singled out before as Clifford’s ‘favourites’ came back to take over the stage. People were butting in and making the atmosphere pantomime-esque with heckling rather than the uneasy silence of night before. Quieter audience members were alienated and we were left with a feeling of not wanting to join in.

What was most interesting with this piece was the constant confusion as to whether Clifford had no idea what was going on or whether his vagueness was actually part of the ‘performance’. This idea of ‘performance’ was another interesting aspect – was Clifford performing or was he playing himself? We were sometimes touched by the experience but at other times cynical. It was really interesting to see the reactions of the other participants, observing those who chose to engage with Clifford and on what terms – theirs or his. We came away on the first night feeling irritated, worked up; like people had been slightly taken advantage of. On the second day, we felt maybe like it had been a waste of time, irritated by the audience this time, rather than by Clifford. However in retrospect the experience was extremely valuable and both Clifford and the reaction of his audience left us interested and intrigued. Keep your eyes peeled for more performances in the Cornerhouse’s Annexe, it’s definitely one to watch.

Tags: Clifford Owens, interview, performance art, The Cornerhouse

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