Steven Watson on William Pope.L
March 23, 2020
Yaddo Artist William Pope.L, currently “at the nerve center of the art world” (The New York Times), has been a guest at Yaddo five times. The cultural historian and documentary filmmaker Steven Watson recalls his encounter with Pope.L’s work when they were both in residence in the summer of 1997.
I recall the June evening in 1997 when a group of Yaddo residents gathered in the small upstairs library to watch William Pope.L’s videotape. He popped it in the VCR machine without an introduction to frame it. For the next 17 minutes, we watched Pope.L crawling along a street near Tompkins Park on a hot summer afternoon. The video work was rudimentary, the action apparently simple: a black man in glasses, dressed in a dark gray pin-striped suit, white shirt and dark tie, holding a green plastic flower pot with two blossoms, crawls a block. He is sometimes on his stomach, sometimes on his back, always pushing himself forward with his battered boots, never rising from the ground, always sweating, sometimes crawling in the gutter, sometimes past parked cars. There are relatively few onlookers—children on bikes, short-sleeved walkers, a policeman—and none of them seem to take much notice of him.
The “drama” of the piece occurs about halfway through, when a black man in a blue shirt crosses the street and asks “All right, brother?” Drawn in by concern, the onlooker stays on the scene and becomes outraged—at the fact that “a black man is crawling down the fucking street!”, at the fact that the crawler is ruining the kind of suit he paid to wear to work, at the fact that a white man is videotaping this apparently demeaning action for posterity. When Pope.L says that it is “an art project,” and promises to explain it to the onlooker when he finishes the crawl, which leaves the onlooker unsatisfied because he wants—no, needs—to know what it means “right now!”, two things are clear: 1) The potentially powerful effect of art, even when the audience is small; 2) The tangible sense of threat and vulnerability that William Pope.L has elicited; this arises not only from the onlooker’s angry incomprehension, but from the fact that one is vertical and the other is horizontal.
“I decided to literally put myself in the place of someone who might be homeless and on the street,” said Pope.L later. “I wanted to get inside that bodily condition. In New York as in most cities, if you can remain vertical and moving you can deal with the world; this is class power. But people who are forced by circumstance to give up their verticality are prey to all kinds of dangers.”
At Yaddo, when the video finished, the two dozen people in the audience were mostly silent, and I was one of them. The open-ended issues raised by the video resonated in my mind: Who is responsible for the crawling man? What does it mean that he is a black man dressed in the uniform of power? Does the silence in the mostly white Yaddo audience reflect the land-mined mentality around discussion of race? What is the power of the image that so offends the onlooker? Why don’t more people react? Pope.L’s work is a reminder that in art it is the question—not the answer—that matters.
By Steven Watson, from an exhibition curated by Barbara Toll as part of Yaddo’s centenary celebrations.
Copyright 2000 by The Corporation of Yaddo