Living in New York in the 1970s and '80s involved a certain level of daily acquaintance, if not downright intimacy, with the perambulating eccentrics, avenue exhibitionists, shuffling monologists, street preachers and wandering habitués of the pavement who comprised a hefty portion of the populace. There was the wild-eyed septuagenarian who referred to himself grandly (as did everyone who crossed his path) as 'The Mayor', whose elaborate shtick involved roller-skating up and down Upper Broadway in gym shorts and a pinwheel hat, stopping only to enter shoe shops or delicatessens to denounce loudly any possible Trotskyites within. Notorious too was 'Ugly George', a once legit pornographer who ended up roaming the streets with a fake video camera and a satellite dish fashioned from tinfoil strapped to his back in search of women willing to undress for him on his late-night cable TV show of the mind. There was also the cravated gentleman who stood, rain or shine, a stone's throw from Carnegie Hall feverishly reciting romantic arias of his own invention in frantic bouts of sweat-drenched ecstasy. Then there was the man who pushed a loudspeaker in a rhinestone-encrusted shopping trolley from his home in Harlem several miles south to Midtown on sweltering summer weekends to share the bossa nova he loved with the general citizenry. The roster of down-and-out flâneurs and blaspheming prophets goes on; the 'floating existences' that Baudelaire once shadowed at night.
It is good to keep all the unrecorded acts of personal defiance and creative survival in mind when considering the life and times of William Pope.L, who since the late 1970s has been, one way or another, giving poetic corporeal form to public invisibility and disenfranchisement, reminding us 'of where we all come from, reinventing what is beneath us'. What lies beneath us all is the bottom line of the street, a place where Pope.L has spent much of his professional life as an artist - a 25-year span that includes performance, theatrical monologues, writings, objects and video. Not really the street-corner exhibitionist or political activist that he is sometimes taken for by the average passer-by, Pope.L might be better understood as a sort of neo-Dadaist agent provocateur shaping and magnifying the social unease of the city's passing throng. His instrument is his body, and he is willing to use it in ways that can be uncomfortable, buffoonishly comic and traumatic - both for himself and for anyone who may happen across him. These ways, however, are always derived from the greater social absurdities and ritual indignities of the street.
When Pope.L set up shop as a street vendor in 1991, for example, as part of a summer-long series of street performances that he called How Much Is That Nigger in the Window - selling dollops of spoiling mayonnaise and single aspirin tablets for astronomical prices ($100 a pill) or approaching cars at intersections with the offer of free dollar bills - he was not only elaborating on David Hammons' famous 'blizzard sale' of (reasonably priced) snowballs at Astor Place in 1983, but also inverting and poeticizing the economic conditions and hierarchies that already exist. It is the ubiquity of seeing the homeless peddling objects gleaned from the dumpsters and gutters of the city, or unbidden posses of 'squeegee men' wiping down car windscreens in hopes of a hand-out, that may explain why drivers acted put-upon by Pope.L's attempt to redistribute a little wealth from the street up, and why no one seemed to get the punchline of his priced-to-stay-put painkillers.
It is his 'crawl' pieces - gruelling feats of physical and mental endurance in which he painfully shuffles through urban environments on hands and knees or on his stomach, boot camp-style - that epitomize how, in a city held together by the mythos of verticality and the purposeful time-is-money stride, horizontality can be an affront, an accusation, a politically precise act of stubborn abdication. As such, Pope.L's crawler is a nightmare version of the 19th-century flâneurs described by Walter Benjamin in his Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project, 1927-40) dandies famed for promenading through Parisian shopping arcades with pet tortoises in tow, the better to aestheticize their unwillingness to conform to the quickening commercial tempo of the street. As if echoing Benjamin's indelible image, in 1992 Pope.L was observed dragging a little white baby doll on a string around New York and Cleveland. The innocuous plastic toy, which went everywhere he went, like a dutiful puppy or an unshakeable curse, is both his helpless charge and his relentless pursuer, alter ego and millstone. He can neither hide from it nor ignore it, because it is part of him despite himself. 'I am White Culture', Pope.L sardonically intoned in an assumed persona in a related monologue, 'but it's the Negro in me that makes me what I am.' While by his count there have been nearly 40 such street works since 1978, Pope.L only began to register in the consciousness of a broader public in the winter of 2001-2, when he embarked on the epically arduous The Great White Way: 22 miles, 5 years, 1 street (2002-ongoing), a Herculean project to crawl the length of Broadway, from the southern tip of Manhattan to its northernmost extremity. When asked why he was doing it, Pope.L answered simply 'because it is there'. But for the extreme conditions of The Great White Way he is not outfitted as a dilettante alpinist but wearing a capeless Superman costume, as if reimagining the fantasy of the all-American superhero's skyscraper-bounding invulnerability as a flightless act of glacially paced struggle and determination.
When Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG) and others began synthesizing home-grown forms of Conceptual street performance and Body art in New York in the late 1960s - whether by following randomly selected strangers through the streets (Acconci) or innocuously criss-crossing Manhattan with a towel stuffed in her mouth (Piper) or splattering pig's blood and entrails across the lobby of the Whitney Museum (GAAG), their works of unannounced provocation showed that, when it comes to catalyzing public reactions to any form of social estrangement, context is everything; add race and class to the mix, and things start to get educational. Consider two of Pope.L's performance pieces from the 1990s: In Member (Schlong Journey) (1996) he strolled the length of Harlem's main commercial thoroughfare, 125th Street, dressed in a talc-white suit with a long cardboard tube emanating from his crotch and a rubber surgical glove stretched over his head, the fingers of which rose and fell on the crown of his head with each breath. He looked like a deranged rooster - the original cock of the walk. In the short-lived ATM Piece (1992), which occurred in the city's Midtown business district, Pope.L 'chained' himself to the door of Chase Manhattan Bank with a string of sausages, dressed in a hula skirt made of dollar bills - greenbacks that he was happily prepared to distribute to any customer entering the bank.
Whereas Uptown Pope.L was treated by giggling passers-by like a harmless local fool, in Midtown he was sized up as something else altogether: a thing to be avoided, a flesh-and-blood bubble of discomfort, a potential threat. In a video documenting the event, lunchtime customers can be seen first approaching, then shying skittishly away from, the entrance without breaking stride, evidently performing the instant mental calculus of risk and reward based on what they assume to be happening, and deciding that they don't need that extra cash after all. Here, in the context of concentrated capital and power, nobody is laughing (certainly not the cops, who arrived on the scene in a matter of minutes). Such a response prompts the question of whether, if Pope.L can so easily change how he is publicly defined by simply taking a short subway ride, other signifiers of identity are equally arbitrary.
Pigeon-holing himself, in the catalogue to his recent mid-career retrospective 'Eracism' (Artists Space, New York) with the tongue-in-cheek moniker of 'Friendliest Black Artist in America©' - a title that he has taken the time actually to copyright - Pope.L is wryly messing not only with what the established (white) contemporary art world thinks contemporary black art should be, or with what other black artists think black art should be, but with what exactly this supposedly 'post-black' historical moment means. For him the very idea of blackness, as nebulously defined by both black and white culture, is 'a rabbithole' down which, as in Alice's Wonderland, nothing is what it superficially seems. Like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man (1952), who discovers in a flash of insight that his own otherness as an African-American has conferred on him a certain invisibility in plain sight, Pope.L has learned through the trials and errors of his own black male body that it is possible to be both painfully present and unseen. Nowhere is this clearer than in his video-documented Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), in which he laboriously dragged himself through the gutters of the East Village one steamy summer afternoon in an impeccable business suit and tie - passing skipping children and their parents, a policeman walking his beat, people parking their cars - without anyone really noticing or much caring. (Only one man seems to see him, a nearby black resident who is at first concerned for and then outraged by Pope.L, by what he takes to be a cynical mockery of the homeless and the dignity of the striving black male. 'I wear a suit like that to work!' he shouts down at Pope.L, close to tears, before setting off to look for a cop.)
No less contradicitory is Pope.L's bafflement over white culture (which he readily admits is as much his burden and inheritance as black culture, as if either were so easily defined or extricable) or his notion of whiteness and who gets to 'own' it. Using white substances and objects - flour, milk, talcum powder, RediWhip, chalky laxatives (recalling the way that other Conceptual shaman Joseph Beuys once used animal fat) - Pope.L often applies these talismanic manifestations of purity and whiteness to his own body in the course of performative rituals. In Invisible Man, Ellison noted how certain African-American men about town in the 1940s would stroll through Harlem with crisply folded copies of the Wall Street Journal under their arms, not necessarily to read but to partake in its quasi-mystical aura. It is a fetish of American power that fascinates and repels Pope.L as much as it did Beuys (who used freshly delivered copies of the Journal as bedding and litter box for his wild coyote companion in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me in 1974). In Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000) Pope.L conflated the trickster figure of the coyote and the shamanistic persona of the artist by solemnly ingesting strips of the newspaper in a several-days-long ordeal of consumption and purging, performing a kind of biological alchemy while sitting high atop a throne-like toilet, his body sprinkled with refined flour.
Meanwhile, his expedition of one, The Great White Way, continues. Recently traversing the financial district's 'Canyon of Heroes', a parade route reserved for adventurers and champions who have achieved some feat of national greatness, this prostrate, sidewalk-scaling man of steel had his ear close to the pavement. With most of Manhattan before him, the artist looked as though he were listening to and amplifying with his body the other voice of the city, the one that even its own inhabitants may not recognize as their own, a tongue in which the debased and disillusioned speak as if in a collective, somnambulist's dream. It takes a measure of faith to keep such an act of compassion - there is no other word for it - from de-scending into one of humiliation. But faith may be, as Pope.L has said, the 'new and ultimate material'.
First published in Issue 83