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Don't Call the Cops!

On February 1, William Pope.L, top right, led 25 volunteers on a crawl from the Fourth Ward to downtown.
David A. Brown

One day in July 1991, William Pope.L, dressed in a nice dark suit and clutching a small flowerpot in his hand, lay down in the street near Tompkins Square Park, in New York City's East Village, and began to crawl west. He intended to crawl clear across town, to the Hudson River. He had gone only a block when two black men from the neighborhood hurried over. "You okay, brother?" one of them asked Pope.L before rounding angrily on his white cameraman. "You're shooting him lying in the street with a flowerpot? You're showing black people like this? Is that what you're doing?" Pope.L intervened, saying that it was an art project, and that he'd be glad to talk about it when he was finished. (He might have explained that New York police had recently dismantled a shantytown in the square and ejected the homeless who were living there.) But the man didn't want to wait. Before rushing off to find a policeman, he got to the heart of his distress: "You make me look like a jerk!"

William Pope.L frequently gets to interact with the police. In 1997's ATM Piece, conceived after a New York City ordinance forbade panhandling within ten feet of an ATM machine (homeless panhandlers would open doors to ATM lobbies for people, seeking "tips"), the artist used an eight-foot length of Italian sausage to chain himself to the door of a 24-hour banking center across the street from Grand Central Station. Pope.L was wearing a skirt made of 80 $1 bills; the plan was to detach them to give to the people for whom he opened the door, neatly inverting the panhandler/ stalwart citizen relationship. But almost immediately a security guard alerted the police, who put an end to such a subversion of the natural order of things.

If you wander into DiverseWorks to view "eRacism," a survey of William Pope.L's career that includes installations, collages, paintings and videos, please don't call the cops. There's no reason to be alarmed, for, as the exhibition catalog's title assures, Pope.L is "The Friendliest Black Artist in America©." Born in 1955 in Newark, Pope.L (his surname includes the first letter of his mother's name, Lancaster) grew up in New York and northern New Jersey. As a consequence of poverty, his family moved a lot, and his relatives have experienced incarceration, homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction. Pope.L attended the Mason Gross School of Visual Arts Graduate Program at Rutgers University to work with Fluxus artists Geoffrey Hendricks and Bob Watts. He also has studied with the experimental theater group Mabou Mines. For the past 11 years, he has taught in the Department of Theatre and Rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (the least diverse state in America, notes the catalog).

Co-curated by Mark H.C. Bessire of Maine College's Institute of Contemporary Art, Stuart Horodner of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and DiverseWorks's own Diane Barber and Sara Kellner, the exhibit comes trailing a bit of controversy. In December 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts withheld funding for this survey, the only proposal refused, ignoring the recommendations of the agency's advisory review panel and the National Council on the Arts. (See "Take Your Grant and…," January 30.)

Pope.L's practice (he's not entirely satisfied with the word "performance" to describe what he does) is, as you may have guessed, concerned with race, class and consumption. He has sat on a toilet atop a triangular scaffold "eating" The Wall Street Journal. In 1996, for a piece called Member (a.k.a. "Schlong Journey"), he took a stroll through Harlem with a long white cardboard tube resting on the rolling base of an office chair, and attached to his crotch, a white plush-toy bunny in a supporting role. And just over a week ago in Houston, he and approximately 25 intrepid participants crawled from the Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in the Fourth Ward to the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church downtown, in the shadow of Enron, to call attention to the continuing development/destruction of Freedmen's Town, the largest intact freed slave settlement in the country.

By now it should also be apparent that Pope.L is something of a provocateur intent on upsetting preconceptions and comfortable certainties. Consider what he does with food in his visual art (not all of his practice is performative). The main gallery at DiverseWorks is dominated by The Beginning of the World (2002), a sprawling painting -- executed in peanut butter, along with more conventional media -- of an ambiguous figure birthing a deformed but recognizable U.S. of A. Opposite it is The Map of the World (2002), a backward map of the United States made of hot dogs screwed to the wall. Some have expressed discomfort with the idea of wasting food to make art (and, yes, it is art) when that food could go to the indigent. But the food Pope.L uses evokes the kind of foodstuffs that many poor people turn to for sustenance (not to be confused with nutrition): inexpensive and highly processed, with a long shelf life. Consumption and waste are at issue here (the floor beneath each work is strewn with empty peanut butter jars, bottles and other sundry detritus), as is entropy (the organic material oxidizes, breaks down and begins to smell). And the thing about smells is that they don't respect boundaries. Factor in the brown of the peanut butter, and the fact that only Mom and apple pie are more American than the hot dog, and the trail of associations threatens to become dizzying.

Another of Pope.L's favorite practices is to send postcards stamped with the message "I AM STILL BLACK." The point is that our culturally conceived notions (of race, class, sex or any other identification) are not fixed definitions, but must be constantly negotiated and, hence, re-evaluated. If they are not, they harden into prisons to which someone else holds the key. For Pope.L, of course, this potential prison is "blackness" as defined by someone else, "an uncertainty of someone else's making" -- in one example, a white woman alone on an elevator becomes visibly upset when Pope.L gets on. He refuses to be defined in this way, and his work can be seen as a series of strategies to negotiate these cultural notions: the "power" of the vertical vs. the "submission" of the horizontal; the "negative" (or "lack," one of his favorite expressions) of black vs. the "positive" (or "having") of white; the "rightness" of possession vs. the "wrongness" of non-possession.

During the Houston crawl, some men were grooming the strips of grass that frame an Ampco parking lot at the corner of Crosby and Dallas, spewing grass and dirt directly in the path of the crawlers. Politely asked to hold off while Pope.L and his volunteers made their way past, the mowers refused, secure in the vertical power of their righteous labor against the horizontal foolishness that threatened their sense of order. Like the man who halted the Tompkins Square crawl, they were operating inside someone else's definitions. "I'm working here," one argued. "What are you doing? Are you working?" As a matter of fact, the crawlers were working -- very hard.


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