Derrick Adams for Performa 05. Photo by Paula Court.
Derrick Adams for Performa 05. Photo by Paula Court.
April 9th, 2012 · Adrienne Edwards

“Performance is a tool that uses me”

Derrick Adams in Conversation with Adrienne Edwards


Derrick Adams is a New York City-based multi-disciplinary artist whose work is rooted in Deconstructivist philosophies, and the formation and perception of ideals attached to objects, colors, textures, symbols and ideologies. Adams focuses on fragmentation, manipulation, and refraction of structures and surfaces. Particularly concerned with the shape-shifting forces of popular culture, Adams explores identity through the relationship between man and monument as they co-exist as representations of one another. Following his March 11th, 2011, performance of The Entertainer as part of Clifford Owens: Anthology project and exhibition at MoMA PS1, Adams and Performa's Adrienne Edwards discussed processes, evolutions and influences.

Adrienne Edwards: The work you’ve shown, beginning in January of this year, seems to be a definite departure and also an evolution from your previous works. Tell me what brought about this shift. Where are you going with this new work? I’m thinking here about the Deconstruction Worker series and The Entertainer performance.

Derrick Adams: The current direction of my work reflects a new sense of maturity I feel as an artist. Although the conversation between my past and present work has stayed consistent, I’ve learned how to present complex notions of self-image - spawned from outside influences - more effectively and in a simplified manner, which in turn heightens the level of complexity and still keeping it fun and open ended.

Your work references both black cultural history and the art historical canon in interesting and complex ways to realize performances and objects that are absolutely of our contemporary moment. For you, what’s the significance of these histories in your overall work and particularly in The Entertainer? What do you think makes a work contemporary – what qualities or characteristics?

I’m drawn to the history “of the now”, which for me means how did we get to this place or moment in time; who and what brought us here; and now that we’re here, where is this here we’re in. 

Media and television are some of the god-like conduits from which culture is imprinted upon us. So I used it as a reference to go through the documented history of black entertainment and to witness how the entertainer’s performance highlights their significance as cultural producers of our history. 

The Entertainer is live work you made in collaboration with Philippe Treuille and Ramon Silva. Talk about your process for making the piece.

The Entertainer piece came about, starting a year ago, when I emailed composer and friend Philippe Treuille the definitions of white, grey and black noise and asked him to respond to it with a score. I was relating the three to static, distortion, and interference and in my mind as a TV, microphone and speaker. I imagined that the static of a weak TV signal and the high pitched squeals from a bad mic and the various popping and hum sounds of a speaker would combine to create a natural rhythm- or at least an interesting disturbance. I am attracted to ideas of disruptions and disfunction in the norm.


Philippe came back with four tracks which we named static, distortion, interference and combined (all three together). I loved it. The plan was for me to perform the final piece live with me mimicking various media related programming and entertainer's voices and sounds.

I also invited multimedia artist and friend Ramon Silva to collaborate by creating a video projection piece in his graphic style based on the score of static, distortion and interference and incorporating an archival and contemporary footage and images of black American entertainment chronologically.  

We brought it all together for the first time at MoMA PS1 for Clifford Owen’s closing party: Philippe mixed my live audio as I performed in front of Ramon’s video with Philippe’s score.  

Why do you work in performance– what does performance as a way of making and presenting work allow you to do that other media does not?

Performance is tool that uses me. It tells me what to do when I listen carefully to what it has to say. There’s no failure involved in this relationship. You're out there experiencing it at the same time as the audience - you can't take it back; you can't decide not to show it; you can't throw it out. It's done. It's been expressed.

Whose work particularly resonates for you– historically speaking and among your peers?

David Hammons’s work and artistic practice resonates with me. He reminds me of a visual chemist constantly mixing things up to see how they react to one another and how they affect others.

In my practice I think that all of my peers inspire and challenge me to keep refining my voice and to speak through experience and from an understanding of various points of departure.


Derrick Adams received his MFA from Columbia University and BFA from Pratt Institute and is a Skowhegan and Marie Walsh Sharpe alumnus. He is recipient of a 2009 Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, and is an honored finalist for the 2011 William H. Johnson Prize. Adams exhibition and performance highlights include: MoMA/PS1 Greater New York, New York (2005); Performa 05, New York (2005); Brooklyn Museum Open House; The Kitchen; The Bearden Project at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2011-2012, and a solo exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery in 2012. Adams will present a four-night performance in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's new Fisher Theater in September 2012.  

Adrienne Edwards works with Performa and is a PhD student in Performance Studies at New York University. She has written on the work of Lorraine O'Grady and Tracey Rose and is a contributor to the catalogue for Clifford Owens: Anthology

All photos courtesy the artist.

End of article