The Great White Way
Fulton Street to Reade Street, Manhattan
The socio-economic implications of Broadway are enormous, and examining what Broadway “represents” is the first key to making some sense of William Pope.L’s complex, ongoing street performance The Great White Way. Stretching from Manhattan’s southern tip all the way up the island, Broadway is the borough’s longest street. It’s also a signifier of distant dreams, lavish wealth, and commodity fetishism. It’s the passageway along which major financial transactions occur—the ebbs and flows of the stock market, lavish shopping expenditures, astronomical real estate sales, and of course, the wheelings and dealings of commercial art galleries.
But William Pope.L’s Broadway is an entirely different beast: one of despair, desperation, and degradation. Since the late 1970s, Pope.L has been infecting the streets of New York with periodic street performances, reminders that the country, city, and culture he lives in have a long way to go before the discomforts of race and stereotyping have safely receded. Pope.L works as a writer and visual artist (his terrifically stinky peanut butter painting was included in Ronald Feldman Gallery’s recent survey of new American art Ameri©an [email protected]), but it’s his performances that have gained him notoriety and caused sensation. He has poured Thunderbird wine over himself while sitting peacefully on a West Broadway sidewalk; he has publicly munched on the Wall Street Journal while sitting on an American flag; and he has tied himself to a Chase bank with a link of sausages, wearing only work boots and a skirt made of dollar bills, trying to hand out free money to the bank’s customers. A spectacle, yes, but a thought-provoking one. Still, none of these actions have gained Pope.L the same level of public attention as his crawls, in which he dresses up in various costumes and slowly drags his limp body along city sidewalks.
The Great White Way is Pope.L’s masterwork-in-progress. For this piece, he plans to traverse Broadway’s 22 miles via painstakingly slow and rigorous crawling over the course of five years. This appropriately began at the Statue of Liberty, from which he took a ferry to the Financial District. From there, the inching up Broadway (which is uphill for a while) began. You can take your pick of the symbols relevant to Pope.L’s Broadway. Within the Financial District, one of the first that seems relevant is a large sculpture of a staggering bull, prominently located on a small island in the middle of the street. The reminder here, in the context of Pope.L’s crawl, is multifarious. This bull, tamed by man and his surrounding culture of money-making, resonates nicely with Pope.L’s concurrent battle: a man battling not just nature, but outcast status among his own species as he crawls pathetically along the dirty, heavily populated street. American flags are everywhere down here in Trade Center territory, but Pope.L (when in character, anyway) joins the class most Americans prefer not to think about.
For this installment of The Great White Way, Pope.L began at Fulton Street and called it quits at Reade Street, about six blocks. He doesn’t set parameters on how long the crawl will last, he just goes until he can’t go anymore. And he tends not to go too far, since he insists on pulling himself along in the most laborious way possible, using only his elbows and knees. He wore a Superman suit and gloves, and strapped a skateboard (with a Superman logo on it) to his back with bungee cords, so as to cross streets expediently. Pope.L was flanked by a cameraman and a photographer, with a few in-the-know enthusiasts milling around. It was cold and windy and had rained hard the day before, filling the sidewalk’s convex pools with dirty water. The crawling is by no means fast or focused—this is not a sporting event—and without the small crowd of followers, Pope.L would probably be construed as an insane homeless man. After all, he’s not only wearing a Superman getup with a skateboard strapped to his back and dragging himself through puddles, he’s also black, like most of the other homeless men in the area. He crawled with seeming oblivion through the puddles, and stopped to breathe heavily, to grunt plaintively, and to wring out his sopping gloves. Pedestrians acted exactly as you would assume they would to a black man crawling on the sidewalk wearing a Superman suit: some with total indifference, some with open staring and laughter, a much safer reaction given the cameraman and the small crowd of followers watching his every move.
There’s an impulse to criticize Pope.L for hiring a cameraman to document the crawl so closely and obviously. Both the psychological influence on and response from spectators is potentially diluted by the realization that they’re seeing something planned, some type of theater, something that’s safe to stare and laugh at. If part of Pope.L’s objective is to make people confront something they don’t want to, he’s offering them a mechanism to subvert the psychologically prying dart he’s aiming at them. Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley are two other artists who have explored similar psychologically affecting themes like violence, grotesquerie, and humiliation. But their videos and performances have always had an art world connotation. By bringing his performances to the streets, minus the hanging-on and hullabaloo of the art world, Pope.L promises the potential to connect directly with pedestrians, who would have no idea what they’re seeing is considered “art.” But in the current format of The Great White Way, the crowds and camera signify it’s okay to gawk.
After all, the crawls are, I think, the most earnest element in Pope.L’s diverse oeuvre. While all of his work calls attention to the paradoxes of race and, more specifically, what it means to be a black man, he also tends to add a pinch of the absurd or hilarious to the cauldron, and it works. His art is accessible and exciting (check out his website, www.distributingmartin.com). It addresses sticky ideas without preaching. And in the case of The Great White Way, the Superman suit is that element of humor. But there’s nothing funny about a potentially crazy man laboriously pulling himself along a sidewalk. It conjures the concept of escape. There’s the obvious migratory aspect of Pope.L’s crawl, the notion of the impossibility of escaping your own skin or class, the pedestrian’s challenge of how to escape the impulse to stereotype. When at his best, he makes you confront what you’d rather not.
But sometimes it’s the camera itself that causes the type of confrontation and dialogue Pope.L seems to be encouraging. Consider Tompkins Square Crawl in 1991. Pope.L set out to crawl through the East Village’s Tompkins Square in a sharp black suit, holding a small flowerpot containing a blooming flower. A white cameraman documented the performance, immediately attracting a black pedestrian, irate at the thought that this white man was exploiting a black man’s humiliation. Then, after a cursory explanation, he became more irate when he interpreted Pope.L’s donning of a fashionable suit as a slight to his own integration into business society. “I wear a suit like that to work!” he cried. Race, class, and gender politics are all well-trod fields in recent gallery art—to the point where a lot of it feels derivative and tired. But the ability to prompt such emotion and resultant dialogue on the topic make Pope.L by far the most exciting and relevant artist working in the field of identity politics today.