Dread Scott—the artist who sparked nationally debated controversy in 1989 as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with his installation What is a Proper Way to Display a US Flag?— is currently exhibiting his work at Rowan University Art Gallery at High Street. Dread’s work has been integrated into academic curricula and What is the Proper Way… is discussed in many art history classes.
This exhibition, A Sharp Divide, shows a survey (works from 1987-2014) of his public engagement and performance-based works, placing emphasis on the racial disparities that remain volatile and relevant today—especially now. Presented through the lens of photography, video, recordings, and audience interaction, Scott’s work thrives through his passionate use of audience participation, which becomes a valuable form of education and the catalyst for pro-active change.
We were able to interview Scott shortly after his panel discussion at Rowan University. Elizabeth Roan reports.
Elizabeth: Your work calls for audience participation, which is “an active element of the artwork” especially evocative in Wanted. Has there ever been a participating audience member whose response spoke out to you? Has audience participation resonated in your projects that follow?
Dread: I deploy audience participation in many of my art projects because the work is about the ideas (and aesthetics) in the work and not about me or my ideas. And because many people, including ordinary people not steeped in art jargon, have many insights that I and my audience can learn from. It is also a way to get the audience to have an investment in the art and the ideas addressed. It is a strategy I’ve used at times since 1987. There have been many active audience members who have touched me. From a woman whose brother was killed by the police who was happy to have the opportunity to stand on the flag in What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? And tell the world of her views to a woman who disrupted the roll I assigned to the audience in Dread Scott: Decision and literally embraced each of the Black performers who were being degraded as part of the performance, I have been moved by how my audience engages with my works.
E: You exhibit a lot at universities, which is a great way to engage with students. What brings you to Rowan University?
D: I was invited by the curator, Mary Salvante. I’m an artist, I go where people want to show and engage my art.
E: In Stop, you denote the facts about selective stop-and-frisks bluntly, yet have a unique way of connoting awareness and cultural connection quite beautifully through the video projection. It’s difficult to imagine finding beauty within the truth. How do you find ways to communicate poetically?
D: If I didn’t find a way to address these issues aesthetically and poetically, the ideas would be reduced to political slogans, facts and theory. It would be uncomplying art and boring to look at. We need a movement for revolution and as part of that need political slogans, facts and theory. But we also need art and poetry as part of that movement. So as an artist it is my job to find the ways to look for beauty. I find the people, ordinary people, beautiful. And in a country where white supremacy is woven into it’s fabric and in which Black people are demonized, it is important to show Black people as beautiful and as agents of fundamental change16. The revolutionary leader Bob Avakian recently noted: “There is the potential for something of unprecedented beauty to arise out of unspeakable ugliness: Black people playing a crucial role in putting an end, at long last, to this system which has, for so long, not just exploited but dehumanized, terrorized and tormented them in a thousand ways—putting an end to this in the only way it can be done—by fighting to emancipate humanity, to put an end to the long night in which human society has been divided into masters and slaves, and the masses of humanity have been lashed, beaten, raped, slaughtered, shackled and shrouded in ignorance and misery.” In Stop I wanted to show the contradiction between who these young men are, good looking young Black men and how this system views, controls and attempts to crush them. And as part of this present these men as thinking about how the police treat them and being active participants in stopping this brutality.
E: It’s interesting to see how both Presidents George H.W. and G.W. Bush are associated with you, Dread, and your namesake, Dred Scott. George H.W. Bush deemed your ‘What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag’ as “disgraceful” and George G.W.’s comparison of Dred Scott’s case to Roe v. Wade. Have you found any positive impressions with the incumbent administration? Or at least its constituents?
D: Obama is the latest in a long line of leaders of a country founded on slavery and genocide. It is built on exploitation and oppression. What is positive about being head of an empire that drones families in Pakistan, has police that kill unarmed men and women (including disproportionately Blacks and Latinos), legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ people, despoils the environment, prevents women in huge swaths of the country from controlling their reproduction and has a campus rape culture, etc? I’m for a world without oppression. Consequently I don’t see anything positive in the leaders of the main impediment of humanity getting to that world.
E: What challenges, besides general hate-o-rade, get in the way?
D: Hate-o-rade is just part of the struggle to get free. I try not to worry about it too much. There are many obstacles that need to be overcome in making revolution and in making revolutionary art and having it connect to an audience. But that’s just part of the job description.
E: Your vision of a radically different world, where polarization, exploitation, and suffering are eliminated, calls for action to fellow artists to raise society’s awareness of this cyclical epidemic. Do you have a call-to-action for non-artists and art-admirers?
D: The call is the same, if you are opposed to oppression or particular oppressive relations, fight through with what you understand to end this oppression. Be willing to go outside your comfort zone to for it. Ultimately, humanity needs revolution. I encourage people, artists or not, to get into this. And when getting into revolution, I’d encourage people to get into the writings and speeches of Bob Avakian (revcom.us)
You can see Dread Scott’s work from now until November 5th at Rowan University Art Gallery, located at 301 West High Street, Glassboro, New Jersey.