“This is a fucked up town.” At the beginning of his Miami show Photographs with an Audience, photographer Clifford Owens made several similar pronouncements. “If you take my photo,” he said, hands busy opening a bottle of Moet, “you owe Nina (Johnson, owner of Gallery Diet) $5,000.”
The premise of Photographs with an Audience is simple. An empty room surrounds a medium format camera, a few lights, Owens, and an audience sitting Indian style on the ground. In a move reminiscent of freshman hall icebreakers, Owens asked audience members a series of questions. Depending on their answers, a selection was asked to stand in front of the camera, where Owens negotiated postures with the models before they were photographed. The questions veered from the innocuous (“Who’s from Florida?” “Who voted for Obama?”) into darker territory. Answers about suicidal thoughts, infidelities, and criminal records all led to popping flash bulbs. Likewise, poses ranged from the lighthearted to the more sensational. Those willing are photographed nude; Owens staged a suicide attempt. The piece isn’t about performance, but “photography’s relationship with performance.” For Owens, the camera is a mirror, and the piece should reflect our identities.
The performance’s creeping moroseness had another source. Owens alluded to something that he couldn’t talk about, saying it “would be bad for his future in Miami.” Apparently, the de la Cruz Collection, having taken umbrage with the occasional nudity in his performances, waited until Owens arrived in Miami to renege on a promised residency. Keen on highlighting the byzantine workings of the South Florida art world, Owens photographed the Miami-based artists while asking questions about patronage. Then, the Miami curators present were called up. After a photograph, they were asked to name their favorite Miami artist. All remained silent. “Choosing a favorite isn’t supportive,” said a curator from MOCA, North Miami. All of the factious drama seemed to play out in real time: the underrepresentation of Miami’s artists, curatorial hands bound out of courtesy, and the supercollectors swiveling between coddling and apathy.
Those outside of art world politics weren’t spared any of the intensity. The pupil-shaking flash flipped the gallery for a split second, darks became lights, and vice versa. Temporary flash blindness, as this is called, occurs when the retinal pigment is oversaturated with light, bleached. The optical inversion also upended the divide between the audience and the subjects. The photograph, so often accused of separating the subject from its surrounding context, cropping, as it were, here bonded the audience and the model together. Occasionally, this bordered on saccharine. When Owens asked to photograph all the gays in the room, he said triumphantly, “This is what gayness looks like.”
But it is Owens’s menace that saved the performance from a group hug conclusion. Performance art has the potential to engage, and to be swallowed by, notions of celebrity. By plucking members of the audience from anonymity and probing them in front of a white void, Owens brushed aside lifestyle brands to engage both the subject’s actual self and the fear or desire of alternative paths. This catharsis was then transferred to the audience, resulting in a level of empathy counterintuitive to contemporary examples of spectatorship. As such, Photographs with an Audience, with its cramped floor seating and awkward pauses, stands as an antidote to the distance and simulacra currently dictating how people interact with each other and themselves.