William Pope.L, Broken Column, 1992–95, mayonnaise in jars, packing tape, foil. All photographs courtesy of Horodner Romley Gallery.
What has held my interest in performance art for over twenty years is not simply marveling at the weird things artists think up to do, but attempting to understand the motivation for these works of art. William Pope.L and I first laid eyes on each other about ten years back, when he performed with Jim Calder at Franklin Furnace. Using chain saws, hammers, crowbars, whatever, they took “deconstruction” literally. They destroyed the set. Then five years later, Franklin Furnace helped to mount a summer residency program, during which William performed nearly butt-naked in our store-front window in tony TriBeCa. He’s a wordsmith, a sculptor, and most especially, I’ve always admired William’s irreverence as a visual artist. His arsenal of materials, including peanut butter, manure, cornflakes and rat poison, goes way beyond the standardly imagined palette.
So I began my conversation with William with the appropriate questions: How does one decide to become a performance artist in the first place? And why would one don a suit to crawl in a Bowery gutter? Our discussion ended up being largely about race. As the constant that is ignored on every level within our culture, race is only now being acknowledged as an issue that must be addressed both by artists of color and not.
Martha Wilson All of your work is embedded in contradiction: painting, sculpture, spoken word, more full-blown performance art … Where did the fixation upon contradiction come from?
William Pope.L In my family, there was this tendency for things to fall apart. The conflict was in the desire to keep things together. The driving force in my work is recognizing those two tendencies and seeing them as ways to make things happen, i.e. how to produce a world or object with these types of tensions. For example, when I was young, we lived on Fifth Street, on the Lower East Side. The kitchen was yellow—a bad yellow, and old. In all the houses we ever lived in, no matter how screwed up they were, no matter how many holes in the walls, my mother always tried to make it a home. In this case, she’d discovered some old architectural plans of the building and used them as wallpaper to cover the holes. I found that very “artistic.” (laughter) Materially it didn’t solve the problem, but she always had this intelligence and this spirit about her.
MW I’m anxious to establish for the reading public why your work is embedded in contradiction, why you choose to use all the mediums that you do, and why you seem to be fixated on language.
WPL The reason for the contradiction is that I’m suspicious of things that make sense. Maybe I’m afraid of it. False security. Whereas contradiction does make sense to me. When I was able to accept that something could be true, and not true, I felt at home. This feeling felt threatening yet familiar. For example, one of the hardest paradigms is that your family can hurt you, and love you at the same time. How can that be possible? I believe if you do not accept that this can be the case, then you have to reject your family. Now, one doesn’t have to be with one’s family. But I have decided to be with them, to live my life with them. It was important for me to come to grips with the fact that I could love them and at the same time, not like them very much. This may sound simplistic, and overly autobiographical, but being able to accept that contradiction at this level has been a guiding principle for me; it’s not an answer, it’s a positioning that’s always unstable.
MW Do you end up reflecting these contradictions, or do you end up trying to overcome them, in your work?
WPL Presenting the contradiction neutrally? Without commenting on it?
MW For instance, when you were crawling in the gutter on the Bowery dressed in a suit, did you have an idea that you would change the world in any way?
WPL That’s a very funny thing to say. To change the world… I did that street work over a period of several weeks, and when I first began I believed in the image, that the conjunction of a black man and his suit, crawling down the Bowery could produce not just contradiction, but a feeling that would somehow transcend itself. My take on homelessness in New York was that we’d gotten too used to seeing these people on the streets. I hadn’t gotten used to it, but it seemed as if people were devising strategies in order not to see the homeless. We’d gotten used to people begging, and I was wondering, how can I renew this conflict? I don’t want to get used to seeing this. I wanted people to have this reminder.
MW What is the reason for the suit?
WPL Perhaps the suit is a useful cliché, but I told myself: the suit is an icon of privilege. Also, I thought: Is there a way to align myself with a people who have less than I do (materially) without making fun of them? I decided to literally put myself in the place of someone who might be homeless and on the street. I wanted to get inside that body. Like, what does it feel like? In certain yogas there are body-memory exercises. By treating your body in a certain way, by putting your body in a certain physiognomic situation, you can force it to experience in ways it normally wouldn’t. In New York, in most cities, if you can remain vertical and moving you deal with the world; this is urban power. But people who are forced to give up their verticality are prey to all kinds of dangers. But, let us imagine a person who has a job, possesses the means to remain vertical, but chooses to momentarily give up that verticality? To undergo that threat to his/her bodily/spiritual categories—that person would learn something. I did.
MW You crawled in the gutter to challenge the way black people are seen, and a black person sure enough took you at your word and almost kicked you in the face to express how upset he was with this image you had constructed. What was he seeing?
WPL He thought I was degrading the image of black people. I wanted to get up when he said that; but then at the same time I thought to myself: Well, that’s why you’re here, that’s why you’re doing this—to offer, in a sense, an alternative he maybe doesn’t want to see. It’s like Malcolm X said: “What’s a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.” You have a job and you’re able to put food on your table, but it’s only provisional. If you lose your job, and certain things go down certain ways, you could be on your back somewhere with your hand out looking for handouts. My family life was very uncertain. I’ll never get rid of that uncertainty. We never knew from one moment to the next when we would move, what we were going to eat … You grow up scared. You realize that there’s not much difference between you and street people. People think they can sustain even a lower-middle-class lifestyle, that they are entitled to at least that, but …
MW I think the wealthy have the same fears. They build barriers of money to prevent this. In your youth, you were a bad boy in training. You used to blow up stuff and break into things and get hauled into jails by the police. Why were you doing that?
WPL I thought it was exciting. I wanted to forget. Now I crawl to remember. But then I wanted the tension. I wanted attention … When you grow up in a collaborative union, like a family, it’s like a collaborative theater group, only you didn’t choose it. You’re just a bit player, the artistic directors are your parents. In my family, I didn’t feel we had much control over things. It was all crisis, and more crisis. That was the basic theme. Everything falls apart all the time. It was like a sitcom, but it wasn’t very funny.
MW But now you are contemplating a work of civil disobedience, and the fallout, as an adult, could mean that you’d be thrown in jail. It doesn’t mean what it meant as a person under 18, to be thrown in jail.
WPL No. I fear it more now. I fear losing my job because I’ll be in jail; I fear what happens when you’re in those environments—having been in a couple of them. I fear the transitions, the disruption. And cops, you know, cops and black people—even if they’re black cops. But the more I think about why I shouldn’t do it, the more I realize that I should. When I was younger and always in crisis, I was always afraid. By going out and constructing crime scenarios in the street, I could construct my fear. I could put it in a framework that made sense to me, and I could control it. I was pretty good at constructing these scenarios and getting away with it. But now, yeah, you’re right, I feel my fragility more. And it’s important for me to be socially responsible when I’m going to do an act that could be taken as socially irresponsible. I have to take responsibility for the art. I want to feel good afterwards (even if I feel bad). I need to be able to say, “Yeah, I did that because I believe in it.” And I believe in it for reasons not just about me.
William Pope.L, Crawl (Tompkins Square Park, NYC), 1992. Photo by James Pruznick.
MW As an adult you’re much more careful about how you are controlling the result, the result being art instead of addiction. I want you to tell the story about your mom speaking lines of poetry while ironing in the living room. How you recognized that wordsmithing was a family trait, that it was valuable and could be used to your benefit.
WPL My mother, my Aunt Von, my Uncle Levert, and us kids would be sitting around and my mother who was ironing or whatever would start quoting Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes. Laughing and bubbling it up. It was neat. Then my Aunt or my Uncle would respond, making up their own lines. And it would fly like that. Like freestyling rap it would take on a life of its own. I was really impressed. These people—their hands and hearts all beaten up. My mother and my Aunt Von were nurses so their hands were always in cleaning fluids, my uncle was a carpenter, his hands were all beat to shit—and they’d all had off and on run-ins with drugs and alcohol, and here they were doing this wonderful thing with language. Again, it’s very contradictory. These people were very alive. But for more years than I can remember they sought their own deaths. Religiously. My Aunt Von found hers just a few years ago. That’s where I come from—that; I also come from this beautiful love of language, and yet … God knows what happened when they stopped voicing—but at that moment, it was fucking great.
MW The construction rather than the destruction.
WPL Yeah, I can choose how I construct the legend of where I come from.
MW But you haven’t left either of those facets behind. Your work consists of construction and destruction, the mayonnaise that self-destructs and the peanut butter that soaks into the wall. The difference is that now you’re deliberately choosing to include destruction as part of your work.
WPL Maybe I am more in tune with destructive impulses, because I accept it as an intrinsic part of making value. My family’s troubled past, and how it affected me—my big question was/is: How can I make myself a value from that value?
MW You did a performance at Franklin Furnace where you were nearly naked in the front window with your butt facing the street. You were covering yourself with mayonnaise on your chest and your legs, your arms and face. What were you hoping to accomplish in this performance?
WPL Mayonnaise is a kind of make-up. It has an impressive coverage. But the longer it remains, the more transparent it becomes. Not to mention the smell. I was interested in doing something futile. For me, mayonnaise is a bogus whiteness. It reveals its lack in a very material way. And the more you apply, the more bogus the act becomes. The futility is the magic. I wanted to poetically reconfigure the mayo. Sometimes the things we take for granted are the things that are most dear to us. Like, for me, mayonnaise and peanut butter, those “cheap” foods we ate as kids … I like these materials. This brown goo, and its evil twin, this … white goo. Once used, they don’t stay in their original form: they change, they oxidize … Which leads to an an interesting query: What is brownness as opposed to whiteness? Mayonnaise gave me a quirky material means to deal with issues black people claim they don’t value very much, e.g. whiteness. Black folks’ political and historical circumstances are at odds with whiteness, whether we want them to be or not. There are societal limitations to how much one can reconstruct one’s conditions. We are born into whiteness. On the surface, it seems wholly to construct us, and the degree to which we may counter-construct sometimes seems very limited. But, I believe we can be very imaginative with limitations. And I am lucky that today I can hold that point of view … Mayonnaise was a very useful and fresh way for me to get out of this dead end: whiteness constructs blackness. Mayo and peanut butter allow me to think about race in a more playful, strange, and open-ended way. For example, the idea that there’s a pure good blackness or a pure bad whiteness is untenable for me. I use contradiction to critique and simultaneously celebrate.
William Pope.L, Harriet Tubman Spinning the Universe, 1992, peanut butter, charcoal, joint compound, collage, acrylic paint, 10 × 15 feet. Photo by Stuart Horodner.
MW Do you think civil disobedience as, say, it changed the terms of British rule in India, can change the social structure?
WPL I’m aware of the consequences for such acts—the danger. The importance of this sort of commitment. Putting yourself in the position of someone who has less choice than you. Unlike solo art performance which can be very secure and self-indulgent, I act out in the street for myself, but also because I see myself in the street. When I work in the street, I wear a suit and I enter into the paranoia and anxiety that comes with an intimate relationship with the street. That fear. That freedom. I don’t want to speak for street people or in the name of street people. I want to poetically recreate street images and experiences that reconfigure the troublesome feelings we all go through when we encounter these ‘sides’ in the street. I want to renew that troublesome spirit. Make it more difficult to be denied. I want people—even if it’s only the policemen who arrest me, especially policemen—to experience my contradiction. Me, that person with a schoolteaching job, an artist …
MW A middle-class guy.
WPL Who’s on his semester break and he comes down to the big city to act out and wallow in signification. Cops have asked me, “Are you crazy?” And I always tell them no, “I’m working.” (laughter) Humans can make a difference with culture. It’s a leap of faith to do any sort of cultural work. I choose to make troubled culture …
MW What about the troubled culture? The bags of manure, and then you did a piece with rat poison. What is the function of the toxic and the smelly stuff?
WPL It goes back to my experiences in the church, how performance and culture was constructed in church. Visceral, visceral, and more visceral. It works in your body as well as your soul. Language, voice is a part of it. The body. Dust to dust. Language is more than the intellectual. It orders your body. It writes. It has a rhythm: the way things are spoken; the choir comes in at certain points; people in the audience jump out of their seats and talk in tongues, sound surrounds, enters you. There’s all of this, foaming, ranting, and cacophony. Joyous noise. Uh huh. I want the visual to be more physical. The materials that I use oxidize and transform. When things oxidize they give off molecules … like smells. It’s a way of giving the work back to the world, acknowledging the humble origins beyond our “noble” intentions …
MW Unlike the chocolate syrup that Karen Finley smeared on her breasts, the manure is not a metaphor for the relationship of black folk to white culture. There’s a lot more going on in that bag of manure than our first impressions suggest.
WPL In this country, there’s a history of black people being constructed as valueless or threatening or nothing. If you hold up a mirror to certain white liberals, and you say, “Hey you know, you’re right! You’ve got a point. Black people are pieces of shit,” they’d get nervous. Me, I’ve always rejected whites when they spoke about blacks, as if what they had to say had no credibility. But then I thought, What if I reversed it? What if I explored what whites think about black folks as a kind of truth. Especially liberal whites. There’s a whole nest of vipers and ambivalence there … It’s sad. I don’t speak about blackness with most of my white friends. We very rarely talk about race, and if we do it gets very uncomfortable …
MW Even though you collaborate with Jim Calder, who is white, you don’t actually spend much time discussing race as a subject?
WPL We have discussed it. White people don’t seem to think about being white or “raced.” They don’t have to think about it. That’s just my take, from what I’ve observed. When you get into a discussion with someone white about race, either one or two things happen: It either peters out and there’s nothing to say; or there’s everything to say and you say nothing. It seems there isn’t a common ground where you can take a position and maybe have some back and forth, yeah, and maybe it gets a little fractious. So what!? But at the same time, perhaps you get to share your concept of the world in terms of race. Basically I don’t think that conversation happens very much. At least not productively.
MW In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison did an analysis of whiteness that suggested that because it’s invisible, it’s transformed into the norm, and so when I discuss race, I’m questioning my hegemony as a white person, my normalcy as a white person. So I don’t want to do that, it makes me nervous.
WPL I’m very familiar with not having anything. Have-not-ness permeates everything I do. But now—I’m a middle-class black male! Still, I was raised underclass. I try. But I’m not used to this middle-class way of life. Getting more stuff was one of my reasons for doing street theater. My class status was changing. I had just gotten this job at an expensive college in Maine, and it didn’t sit right with me. I would go home and be reminded that my brother or my aunt was on the street or God knows what, and felt—distant, guilty. I had to reconcile that in some way. I didn’t want to lose those experiences, that connection.
MW Art is a healthy way to respond to the contradictions that are inherent in all of our lives as we occupy our positions in society.
WPL Lewiston, Maine, where I live now, is a very depressed, white, working class town. The first week I was living there, I noticed all these white people walking around in the middle of the afternoon. They had food stamps and made little pilgrimages to the neighborhood corner store to buy cigarettes, beer, and candy. It reminded me of home. I said to myself: “I know this life, I know what this is about, but I can’t talk to these people about it.” It’s a complexification of race and poverty. You think you know what whiteness is, well, maybe you don’t. You think you know what blackness is, maybe you don’t. Those discussions have to be renewed over and over again. At the same time it is easy for middle-class artists, like me, to move ourselves outside the conversation. Most of the time, I feel caught in the headlights of contradiction. “This is uncomfortable. This is good,” I say. My job is to negotiate these differences, and my art should suggest imaginative ways of negotiation without claims to complete reconciliation. Huh. That’s where the magic be …
William Pope.L, Rebuilding the Monument, 1994, bags of manure, latex paint, xeroxes of Martin Luther King. Photo by Paul Fortin.
MW You once wrote “gayness” on top of a file?
WPL In what way? (laughter)
MW Well, we have race, class, and sexuality. You’re pulled in two major directions and then one more which is not visible, but which you can choose to make visible to college people or poor black folk or family or whatever.
WPL Yeah, let’s be everything, why not? When I was growing up, there was this guy called Weird Harold. He was a fag. It was like he was a ghost or a big invisible cloud. All the kids were afraid of him. He was everywhere, and he was nowhere. We knew he was a man, but we also knew he could take different forms. He was like some Native American—
WPL Yeah, or witch or something like that. Spook. What’s interesting, though, was that when my family moved to another town, I found that my mother had been friends with this man. In fact, he came to live with us. So here’s this ghost-guy, Weird Harold feller, who suddenly enters our home with a suitcase and some heartache and sleeps in our living room. He wants us to call him Aunt Harold. He became flesh and bone, and smells and make-up and complaints and noises; he was a person—too much of a person. I didn’t want my friends to come over and see Harold, but eventually I just said, “He’s my mother’s friend and he’s just hanging out.” Homosexual people, at least when I was growing up, were bugaboo, these people were an invisible problem in my little African American village.
MW They threaten the other stereotype of black machismo, which is so vital to white understanding of black.
WPL And black folks understanding of themselves … What is that Latin phrase? “Words are womanly, deeds are manly?” Being drunk with words as a kid—that was a threat to my image as a manly young guy. I had to hide that. I was clever at it. See, I found out: if you use words well, use them to hurt people, then it will be …
MW No problem.
WPL But if you use them to construct beauty, or for the sake of themselves, watch out, motherfucker.
MW I wonder if rap has changed those values of late. If you can wordsmith now off the cuff, then it’s okay.
WPL I guess so. Yeah, poetry, freedom, individuality, territorializing with a big stick of words … I don’t think it’s necessary to be always having to establish your own power over and over and over again. You’re on the street all the time trying to protect your manhood, trying to do this, trying to do that, it just gets boring after awhile. You don’t have to construct somebody as less than you in order for you to be more. Language can be a prison, and rap is no different. When I was younger I used to think it was A against B. But that wasn’t the problem, it’s much more complex than that. Yowza, you can create a three-dimensional chain of words, a whole nebulae; a flurry of language events in some kind of oscillating network. By layering events, subtending celebration beneath contradiction, you can get depth as well as flowing narrative.
MW You’re going more deeply into complexity and length, using longer texts, combining those things to see where that goes.
WPL I’ve been working on this performance-theater piece called Eracism. The big challenge was to find the chain of rhythm of the text; an oscillating linguistic theatricality which worked, meaning vertically and horizontally. I consciously wanted to divide my audience when I was building the piece. Imagine: in the theater you have, hopefully, a multitude: whites, blacks, reds, yellows; males, females; gay folk, somnambulists, vegetarians—I wanted to talk to each particular group and have their differences communicate, collide, disagree, augment each other. I wanted to talk about everyone, everything at once as being mutual commodities on the shelf of the marketplace. Blackness, whiteness, femaleness, communicate and contradict each other. On certain levels we’re just folks, on the other levels we’re Americans, Nazis, niggers, Republicans, protein chains, you name it—the audience has the task of hearing, (active listening), while our sharedness is given flesh in word; the audience’s job is to juggle, swim, and contest to find their relation to the issues, as I struggled and continue to struggle to find mine. The text never lets them come to rest, and in concluding the text, there is no summing up.
MW Is the purpose of your work to change the world in some tiny way?
WPL That seems arrogant to me, somehow.
MW Well, no, the opposite would be self-indulgence, which would be much worse than the arrogance of trying to change the world in some small way.
WPL Hmmm … You think you know what that change should be …
MW Ah. That would be arrogance. To believe that you have any control, whatsoever, that anybody would listen, that anybody will actually do anything differently, that the media, the social structures … would change.
WPL In the art world there’s a certain idea of being “cool” about judgment. A kind of performance style for example, where the idea is: “Hey folks, I’m not really performing. I’m just pretending I’m performing.” I come from a more histrionic tradition, like James Brown. You feel like screaming, you scream. You want people to feel hot and bothered. So, yeah, I believe you have to leap into the void and say, “I have faith we can make it a little better.” It’s not that I have the arrogance to believe that I know what should be done, in fact, I’m afraid of the responsibility, but something should be done. And if I can construct works that allow people to enter themselves, thus, enter the mess—then it’s a collaboration and maybe, possibly, who knows, why not—I’ve nudged something. That’s something I learned from theater. You can construct performances that allow people to enter them. One of the challenges is to construct something that leads to conversation or participation.
MW White folks try to change the world with intellectual leverage, and maybe you’re impatient with that. You’re saying, “I want change, but I want it on a visceral level or else I don’t believe it myself, and so why should I do it?”
WPL Intellectuality is to whiteness what the visceral is to blackness? No, that’s not what I meant … The body is also a thinking organism. And black folk are bodies that think. We think all the time. Maybe that’s our problem—we’re too intellectual! For example, some people construct art performance as historically white, or European. You learn that shit in school. Cubism was influenced by African art. Well, Futurist and Dada performance was also influenced by African art. That’s rarely discussed. Mentioned perhaps, but not theorized. The Futurists, Dadaists were very much interested in so-called negro rhythms disrupting Europeanisms. This was in the ’20s when the black jazz spirit was dawning in Europe. So, people who are working in forms that are supposedly dependent on European antecedents—e.g. Futurism/Dadaism—are actually working in forms that have been founded partly on Africanisms. If that was more well known, then maybe black people might own performance art more as a tool that’s useful to them. That’s one thing I’ve come to grips with. People say, “How can you, as a black person, choose to work in this white form?” I’ve discovered that performance art is as black as the skin on my ass. Black folks have just as much right to it as anyone, hey, maybe more …