Interview with Dread ScottJanuary 28, 2016
Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.
As part of our partnership with Bad at Sports, we are pleased to bring you this abridged version of Duncan MacKenzie’s conversation with artist Dread Scott. You can listen to the full conversation on Episode 533.
Duncan MacKenzie: I went to the School of the Art Institute in 2000 and they were still talking about your grad show in 1989. It was the bane of a president.
Dread Scott: Yeah, which is good. People should hope to piss off that president. In fact, people should hope to piss off most American presidents. It was an artwork called What's the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? It consisted of a photomontage that included the text, “What's the Proper Way to Display A U.S. Flag.” Below that text were flag-draped coffins, and above it were South Korean students burning U.S. flags, holding signs saying, “Yankee Go Home, Son of a Bitch.” Then there was a book in which people could write responses to the question, and a three-by-five-foot flag on the ground that people had the option of standing on as they answered that question. It was the most direct way to get to the book, but you could also stand on the side, so it really was a choice. It was a major story in Chicago and nationally. George Herbert Walker Bush—Bush I—publicly called the work disgraceful, which I thought was a tremendous honor!
DM: And the legislation outlawed it.
DS: The legislation was about much more than my work, but it was significant that they felt so threatened by this work of art that they included specific wording to outlaw it. That tells you something about how fundamentally weak this country is. I was not Picasso, I was just a kid in Chicago making work, and they actually went to the extraordinary measure of trying to suppress the work, which actually talks about the power of art.
DM: Having that kind of firestorm around me would have been almost impossible for me to handle in my early 20s. How did you weather that moment?
DS: Well, it did put a lot of responsibility and weight on my shoulders. People were calling for my death, and the president was denouncing my work, so it was really like, “Okay, this work matters. It matters to the people in the ghettos and barrios, it matters for changing the world, so I better try, as much as I can, to understand the world as deeply as possible, and make the work in the interests of people.” The people actually gave me a lot of strength, and some political activist friends and revolutionaries I knew also helped me navigate the terrain, but it was really my confidence in the people's desire for a radically different world and their ability to contribute to making that.
DM: When reading through the commentary [that people wrote], I thought, “How is it that the American psyche can only tolerate one way to love this country? How is that Americans believe that we should just devote ourselves to one notion of America, and if we question that notion we are somehow outrageous and flawed?”
DS: Here's the thing: America likes to pretend that it has diversity of opinion, when quite frankly, it's a country that is almost always at war, at least during my lifetime, and it rallies people around this xenophobic America right-or-wrong, we-gotta-band-together thing. Right now, the police have killed over 970 people [in 2015] alone, and people are seeing unarmed black people running, fleeing for their lives. They’re murdered by the police or choked to death, and that is shocking to people, but for black people, that's our experience. The American flag being a symbol of greatness has been drummed into our heads from day one. In America, you salute the flag in almost every grade school in the country, and you're told this is the best country in the world. That’s the indoctrination and conditioning that they have here because, if you scratch the surface even a little bit, it actually doesn't look all that good.
DM: Your work prefigured Black Lives Matter and all the attention now being placed on police brutality, decades before the rest of us started to pay attention. Do you feel, “Yes, finally you're there!” Or is it, “Just now?! You're just getting this now?!”
DS: It's more like, “Man, I wish I was completely fucking wrong and my work was wrong.” I yearn for my work to be irrelevant. I don't want to make work about kids getting stopped and frisked and having their lives crushed out of them. And I'm happy that people are both engaging my work and, more importantly, engaging these ideas. It was wonderful to be out on the streets shutting down New York City when the non-indictment came in for Eric Garner’s death. It was great that there is this mass movement. I'm happy people are connecting with my work, and people find it resonant, but I just think we have to get beyond this. Look at the controversy at Missouri University, where these football students went on strike and said they’re not going to continue to live in an environment where they’re called niggers and there's a swastika made of shit painted on the bathroom wall, and the school doesn't say anything or do anything about it. One of the students asked, “Why is my existence is so threatening to you?” That's actually a really good question. Why is the existence of black people so much of a threat to certain sections of this society? I'm glad people are thinking about my work, but let's make revolution, get rid of this horrible [question], and then we can make work about other things!
DM: Calling for revolution is a scary and messy business, right? We can look to Syria as a place that is in the middle of revolution.
DS: Well, first off, that ain't the revolution I'm talking about, and secondly, the status quo is scary and messy for billions of people worldwide. Revolution is scary. Nobody who really cares about humanity is going to say, “Hey, let's overturn this system and bring forward a whole new radically different society, it will be easy!”
DM: One of the most interesting things about your work is how it functionally eschews the normal systems of art criticism. It seems to very quickly connect to or find an audience that is so beyond our usual. The work then gets criticized for its role in culture, not its role in the art system or its way of form testing the aesthetics of art making.
DS: I've strove for a long time to make art that is accessible to ordinary people. It’s actually a real problem that you really need an MFA to have a basic understanding of what so much contemporary visual art is. If writers or musicians approached their craft the way visual artists did, nobody would listen to radio and nobody would read novels. If you know something about art history, you're going to see my work differently than if you don't know anything about art history, but both people can access the work. Yeah, it is true, I've had works vandalized by the Guardian Angels, I've had the police call for closing down museums for showing my work—
DM: Literally the police in New York called for the stripping of funding of a museum for showing your work.
DS: In 2008, I showed a work about police murder called The Blue Wall of Violence, which was actually made in 1998, at MoCADA [the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts] in Brooklyn. [Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President] Patrick Lynch thought that this critique should not be allowed and called for the museum to be defunded. That was what they politely said. There is this thing called PoliceLink, which is like Facebook for cops, and there they basically said that the museum should be blown up! The director of the museum had to get a bodyguard for the duration of the show because she was worried about what would happen to her when armed enforcers of the state are threatening to blow up the museum.
So people who are defenders of the status quo have reacted very violently to my work. I think they feel a bit stunned. After all, if you were a cop who had been getting away with shooting people and nobody questioned you, you don’t want somebody to say, “Why are you shooting on our people? Aren’t you supposed to serve and protect?” But really, they’re about defending and expanding relations of exploitation. You know what they're capable of. These are people who have gotten away with murder and wish to continue to do that. The response to the death of Eric Garner—none of them have been indicted, and people see that. They know what these police are capable of. I don't feel like living under the illusion that these are mistakes. The police are defending an oppressive system, and part of their role includes the callous murder of people, including driving up to see a 12-year-old [holding a toy gun] and 1.7 seconds later, he's dead. They cannot convince me that these are accidents or aberrations, or that they're doing anything other than having contempt for life in general, and particularly for black folk. There is no constraint or restraint on them in terms of the courts, the judges, or the laws.
DM: How can it be a free society if any member of that society is above the law?
DS: Well, that says a lot about what a free society is. You read the U.S. Constitution, and four paragraphs in they're talking about three-fifths of a man in relation to black people. Slavery is very much at the heart of how these United States were formed. There were thirteen different states that came together to form one union, and they had to negotiate different things, including slavery. The concept of freedom that the so-called founding fathers had was rooted in the ownership of other human beings.
DM: I was talking to a colleague last week about the push toward, then withdrawal from, work in the ’90s that was more engaged with politics and identity politics. Now that work is so clearly back. Her position is that this is when it's going to stick. This is the push over the hump. I wondered if this is the moment that we will come together or if it will require more seismic social change.
DS: If this moment is going to stick, it will require not just a movement in the arts, but much more social upheaval. The art movements that have been transformative, such as the Russian avant-garde, stuck so because there was also a major social movement and revolution. We could see more radical or even revolutionary change in the not-too-distant future in the U.S., but I don't have a crystal ball, and all this could get shoved back. The people that have been writing history, broadly speaking, have been people who have been defending an outmoded society. Hopefully, that will radically change. So what needs to happen this time around? I encourage people who want to see a different future to fight like hell to wrench a different future out of it so we can have art that's worth looking at.
DM: So what does that positive future look like? I don't have an answer anymore. I feel like the neoliberal economy has been so successfully integrated into our lives, and I worry that as we defang identity models, as we normalize every position, we make consumers. Then we all functionally make ourselves isolated individual traders, and total subjects under capital.
DS: Look, shopping is a national pastime in this country and that's a problem, but that's not the problem. Capitalism isn't whether you and I buy shoes; capitalism is a tiny handful of people controlling the wealth and knowledge—that humanity as a whole has created—for profit. It's people not being able to survive unless they sell their capacity to work to somebody who owns and monopolizes the means of production. In this age, it also means war after war after war. That's really what capitalism is and needs to be. If you don't want millions dead from world wars, if you don't want women to be unsafe anywhere on the planet, you should be against capitalism and take up the fight to actually eliminate it.
I do think a vision of what this future society would look like [includes] a new socialist society [as] a transitional period to worldwide communism, where you've actually eliminated classes and the production relations upon which those classes rest, and therefore, the way things are produced. It also eliminates the social relations that correspond to those production relations, so you won't need managers and workers in the very narrow and utilitarian sense, or even the family unit for distribution of goods. Then you've also eliminated the ideas that reinforce all of that. That is a profound vision of how I think the world could be radically different. As part of getting there, you need people to radically transform themselves in making this revolution.
It is not your daddy's communism. It is based on standing on the shoulders of the past, but it really is a reimagined, reenvisioned communism that we would actually want to live with, and it would be vibrant. It would not be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns flying out your ass. That's not what this is. There's a lot of struggle, but it's based on deeply understanding the world and people being emancipated, which is a very profound and radical vision. So I've got a lot of hope. Let's go forward and get to a world that is full of intellectual life and ferment, but really working to get rid of classes and people as exploited or exploiters.
DM: How will art help us get there? How does work like Dread Scott: Decision help us get there?
DS: Dread Scott: Decision is a performance piece that happened [in 2012] at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in the BAM Fisher space. It consisted of three basic elements. One was me reading the text of the Dred Scott Decision, the 1857 Supreme Court case, which, if you know a little bit about history, you know includes the words, “There is no right that a black person has that a white man is bound to respect.” The Dred Scott decision was the most articulate argument for white supremacy I've ever read. It is written by the Supreme Court, and it is rooted in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
There are also four nude black male performers who are being corralled and controlled by live German shepherds and their handlers. Instead of sitting in chairs, the audience has to line up and vote. But in order to vote, they have to cross this line of black men. Sometimes the black men are shoulder-to-shoulder so [the audience members] have to push them away. Sometimes they're lying down on the ground so they have to step over them. Other times, they're far enough apart that you can just walk by and pretend they're not there. And the dogs are barking all the time. In the voting booth, the audience was faced with a questionnaire that asked about the relationship between slavery, mass incarceration, and their vote. It was an ethical question. In many ways, [the performance] gets to the heart of the question. Here is this democratic country that many people think is the best social organization that exists on the planet, and yet they also know that it deals with mass incarceration, that it had slavery, and ending slavery wasn't done through a vote. So where does that put them ethically? Everybody is against slavery. I would suspect everybody from Barack Obama to George Bush to Donald Trump is against slavery.
DM: Even Donald Trump.
DS: Even the Donald is against slavery. And most people coming to the performance [probably] have contempt for mass incarceration. Now what do you do with that? What is your vote doing to either eliminate or reinforce that institution? Thinking about those questions, about things that people are morally and viscerally opposed to, yet don't have a way to act on, actually helps get to revolution.
DM: It makes me grapple with so many questions around how we educate people in our society, the permeability of the class structures, and your ability to move within and above and around them. The problem seems so deep and so endemic in the society. How do you deal with it without a revolution?
DS: You don't. I don't want to be dogmatic, but while they could figure out how to allow people to be educated, there are other things that are much more entrenched. I do not see black people being treated as full human beings in this society. Most of the undocumented people in the society are never going to move into a status of equality. This society is not suddenly going to treat women as full human beings. Society now is different than it was in, say, 1812, but fundamentally the basic social relations are pretty much the same.
Frankly, poor black inner-city kids are basically surplus in this society. Black people have always been a problem in this country, but at one point we were useful labor, and now we are surplus. So if you're trying to solve that problem, let's get real. Unless you're going to suddenly eliminate white supremacy, educate all these people, let some of them be CEOs and not have an exploitative relationship, change how things happen internationally in terms of what gets produced, where it gets traded, and who it gets traded for, you can't change things. It's not as simple as a moral question. Capitalism is a system. Even the people who benefit greatly from it are beholden to some of the rules, and the main rule is leaner, meaner, faster, and most profitable. Wherever the most profit is, capital goes. Even the wealthiest people can't actually escape that fact. The corporations can't escape that fact. It's why healthcare in this country is crazy expensive, yet pretty bad, and why the pharmaceutical companies creamed their jeans when they heard of Obamacare.
DM: It’s terrifying. The complexity of the problem is so big.
DS: And so simple. It's actually pretty simple. Capitalism is the problem. Everything flows from it.
DM: But even the people who don't benefit from it seem to grab onto it with both hands.
DS: There’s a big fat middle class who lives well. They aren't at the top of it; they don't control the shots. But they go along with society’s indoctrination. That's not permanent, and that can fray. I'm hoping to fray as much as I can, to help people rip out of it. People gotta see what we're living in. I'm confident that large sections of the population, as they have in the past, can see this is not the best or only way to live. A lot of people know there's something fundamentally wrong. Most people are not wealthy, and they know that it's not fair, but they don't see a way to change it. That's actually what revolutionary periods and social upheaval are like. It gives people who have been going along with the basic workings of things a way to say, “No, I'm not going along with this anymore.” You look at something like Ferguson—there are a lot of Fergusons. There are a lot of black guys that are killed by the police. There are a lot of towns where black people are put in debtor's prison or small white communities living off the sweat and bones of people. There were a lot of those around the country. Why did that particular one turn into this watershed moment? There are some reasons, but a lot of it is by accident, and there will be more of that. Now that Ferguson happened, get Baltimore. After Baltimore, you get people on college campuses from Mizzou to Yale saying we don't want to deal with racism on our campus anymore. Whether this becomes full-blown or not, I don't know. I don't know confidently that today's empire is tomorrow's ashes. So do we look at the way the world is and say it’s the way it's always been and always will be, and there's nothing we can do? Or do we say, let's actually work, because maybe the stars will align during our lifetime and we can take out an oppressive empire. And then people will look back and dance in the streets.
Dread Scott makes revolutionary art to propel history forward. He first received national attention in 1989 when his art became the center of controversy over its use of the American flag. His art has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and at the Pori Art Museum in Pori, Finland, as well as on view in America Is Hard to See, the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition in their new building. In 2012, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented his performance Dread Scott: Decision as part of their 30th Anniversary Next Wave Festival. In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts presented Dread Scott: Welcome to America.
He is a recipient of a Creative Capital Foundation grant, a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant, Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was a resident at Art Omi International Artists Residency and the Workspace Residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
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