PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 68-72
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America's Friendliest Black Artist
William Pope.L interviewed by Chris Thompson
Mobilizing media ranging from Pop-Tarts and mayonnaise to his own body in a capeless Superman suit, combining humor with trenchant social critique, artist and Bates College professor William Pope.L has for twenty-five years been grappling with economic, gender, class, racial, and cultural differences—with the contradictions of American culture—in an attempt to spark his viewers to feel deeply and think critically. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote: "What is really at stake is one's image of oneself." In his performances, installations, and critical writings, Pope.L has placed himself in the uneasy, high-stakes space between our spectral images of ourselves and others and the palpable realities and inequities that produce and sustain them.
In his recent Black Factory project, which transformed media images of African-American culture into items for sale at the end of the parody factory's assembly line, he served up a productive satire of simplistic definitions of blackness in twenty-first-century America. In March 2002, in addition to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, he had shows in Harlem and Los Angeles with his gallery The Project, and was included in the New York Center for Media Arts' show Video Jam. His recent notoriety in the mainstream media arose from the National Endowment for the Arts' decision to withhold funding—their policy dictates that they not explain their reasons—for a traveling retrospective exhibition of his work originating at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art. In the midst of the sound and the fury, Pope.L found some time to chat about life, work, and his friends at the NEA with Chris Thompson who received his Ph.D. from Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he investigated the 1982 meeting between Joseph Beuys and the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet, and is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at the Maine College of Art.
You have mentioned that you consider yourself to be giving voice to the NEA.
Since the NEA chooses not to speak, it has chosen me to speak.I think that the NEA is my friend. I don't love it, but I do respect its reach. I think that the NEA, in a sense, is an underachiever. I think it can do much better than it does. I'm not going to come out in heavy criticism of it; I want only to say that I [End Page 68] think its action goes against certain democratic principles. We live with the notion that, from very early on in American history, Americans have tended not to do things in the official way. And the spirit of my work is very much about that. My job in a way is to remind Americans about what self-image they want of themselves. Do we want an image of fear and compliance, or of adventure and democracy?
The National Coalition Against Censorship recently issued the following statement with respect to the NEA's response to your work: "A brief look into art history would prove that the most controversial art has been the one to open new avenues for aesthetic thinking. This art will, of course, appear with or without government support. But in a country where free inquiry and innovation are founding values, it is a shame to have the leading national art agency shudder at the sight of anything that might trouble the most conservative of congressional representatives."
Do you have a specific strategy for this voice-giving process?
I think that this is already occurring. By creating a space in which they don't speak, they have created a space in which I can. As a strategy, their silence is supposed to render the artist mute. But I think that it is working in reverse. It is only encouraging language. The NEA has chosen not to put anything...