Will Clifford Owens ‘Force a Sex Act’ on His Audience at MoMA PS1 on Sunday?

'I’m going to take it there,' Mr. Owens said. 'And I’m really nervous about it.”

Clifford Owens, 'Anthology (Kara Walker),' C-print. 16 x 24 inches. (Courtesy On Stellar Rays)

Since November, when his solo exhibition opened at MoMA PS1, the artist Clifford Owens has intimately kissed and groped strangers, fondled vegetables, and handled chickens in a suggestive way. At least two people have walked out of his performances, which are enactments of instructions—he calls them “scores”—written by other artists, like Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon. This Sunday, for his last performance at the museum, he will go above and beyond what he’s done so far, at least where Ms. Walker’s score is concerned.

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Ms. Walker’s score reads, in full:

“Score: French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand Sex. The audience/viewer should be an adult. If they are willing to participate in the forced sex act abruptly turn the tables and you assume the role of victim. Accuse your attacker. Seek help from others, describe your ordeal. Repeat.”

In an interview with Gallerist at The Armory Show yesterday, Mr. Owens acknowledged that Ms. Walker’s score is “problematic on so many levels.”

Thus far, Mr. Owens’ interpretation of this has involved kissing, touching and groping audience members of his choice, creating a display of intimacy not often seen in public and an unusually charged atmosphere. But even with all this, the artist feels he has grown complacent. “I’m so in control,” he said.

“There’s a reason why I don’t try to force a sex act on the audience,” Mr. Owens added. “But Sunday, I’m going to take it there. And I’m really nervous about it.”

Mr. Owens is not taking the matter lightly. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I did a lecture at NYU the other night and I was working through ideas, working through the Walker score. So much of my work is about power dynamics. So I’m trying to figure out a way to make myself more vulnerable, but at the same time increase or intensify the tension.”

What Mr. Owens means by “sex act,” or what he thinks Ms. Walker might have meant, doesn’t necessarily entail intercourse.”Will it involve penis penetration? I don’t think it will,” he said.

But it will be more than the kissing and groping that has been standard fare for Mr. Owens’s performance of this particular score.

“I don’t think kissing somebody is a sex act,” Mr. Owens said. “I think in the last performance I went a little far, with that one young woman—touching her, groping her, being very sexually aggressive. But she acquiesced. She never pulled away. She seemed to enjoy it.”

What constitutes consent and force are murky areas, and what “seems” like consent to one person, we know from many a courtroom battle, may not be considered consent by the person deemed to be giving it. Perhaps it’s the presence of the audience members here and their complicity in the act that makes the situation even more complicated, and it may be that the piece draws power from this tension.

On the Art21 blog, Marissa Perel described one of Mr. Owens’ performances as follows:

“As he perused the audience members, I felt myself caught in the throes of desire and shame. I had to ask myself what I would permit if he were to approach me, only to be grateful when he moved on.  I wanted to believe that something was being worked out in this space, that we were all participating in some kind of exorcism by recapitulating the shared trauma of slavery and prejudice. It’s about a Black man being allowed to exercise a power in the museum that he could be arrested for if enacted in the public realm. When I later asked Owens about his performance of Walker’s score, he immediately referred to the threatening history between white women and black men, and his desire to challenge it.”

Mr. Owens says a few of the responses he has gotten after his performances have been that he only makes out with white women, that the piece is inappropriate, and that it is somehow exploitative because he slips into “the stereotype of the virile sexual prowess of the black man.”

“I think all of those critiques are valid,” he said. But he also asserts that he is not alone in his performances and the responsibility for what goes on cannot be put entirely on him. Ms. Walker’s score  clearly references the power dynamics that have been the focus of her own work, the master-slave relationships she illustrates through sexually explicit silhouettes.

“In the space of the performance, the audience always has a choice,” Mr. Owens asserted. And when it’s too much for someone—there have been moments when women have resisted and put their hands out—he responds by stopping what he’s doing.

“It’s a really tricky piece because I don’t know what women or men in that audience have been sexually assaulted or raped. So, I’m real careful. I have to know that I can approach the audience.”

However he resolves the situation, Mr. Owens will certainly be taking this participatory experience to whole new level on Sunday. Whether or not he breaks through his sense of comfort and succeeds in flipping the power dynamic remains to be seen.

We reached out to Ms. Walker to see if she had any response to Mr. Owens’s stated plans to carry out the score she wrote. She responded via email as follows:

“I wrote this piece for William pope L. originally- for a Moma fluxus event.  No one took him up on the offer, much as I anticipated, but when Clifford (whom I do not know) propositioned me for the piece I said sure. In the spirit of Fluxus the score lives in the world seemingly for all to perform. Isn’t it odd that rape and sexual terrorism are considered ‘problematic’ as an art piece—it is problematic as real violence!   The idea, I thought, would be to foster resistance in the victimized art viewer and to then mimic those power structures in the world that ignore, dismiss or absorb the cries of the wounded… Apparently art viewers like to be accosted—or maybe are too cynical to discern when something is wrong. Very wrong.
I am of course responsible for creating this evil scenario, the difference is, my proposal exists as a slip of paper, a planted idea—the performer reserves the right to simply not do it. I wasn’t aware of Clifford’s intentions for Sunday, but it highlights one of the main problems I have with performance art. If he goes through with it he leaves no room for imagination or freedom of choice.”

Mr. Owens’s performance, which is preceded by five performances of other artists involved with his exhibition, begins at 3 p.m. on the second floor of MoMA PS1.

Will Clifford Owens ‘Force a Sex Act’ on His Audience at MoMA PS1 on Sunday?