On the eve of his latest artistic endeavor, Dread Scott talks about the moments that cemented his career as an artist and thinker, from prominent works such as: A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015), What is a Proper Way to Display a Flag (1988), and his latest contribution, In Plain Sight (2020), which amasses a collaborative and synchronized effort to educate and challenge immigrant detention. In advance of Independence Day, in collaboration with eighty artists and organized by visual and performance artists Cassils and rafa esparza, In Plain Sight is an activist artwork dedicated to the abolition of immigrant detention and the United States culture of incarceration. The artists’ words will be sky-typed over immigrant detention camps across the county, reminding Americans that these camps are hiding “in plain sight.” Throughout the weekend you can see the artists’ messages at XMAP. We spoke about the importance and failures of the archive, varying communist revolution uprisings, and the necessity of art.
Your art is very situational. Who were you trying to reach when you were making A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday (2015) and What is a Proper Way to Display a Flag (1988)? Since we’re in the midst of a pandemic and a race war, I’ve personally felt like I’m existing in a perpetual state of vertigo, where I’m like, the world now understands what I’ve known to be true my entire life. It’s astonishing that for the longest while, I’ve felt like wow, okay–so wait, you’re telling me that you finally see what I’ve seen and known to be a truth too? I want to contextualize the work that you did in 1988 and 2015 because of your initial intention and reception of the work and now the emptied-out version, where the meaning is being restaged to produce and create a new dialogue around dated subject matter that’s always already lagging.
Look, I made What is a Proper Way to Display a Flag in 1988 and it was a part of a larger project, “America Newspeak, Please Feel Free,” which was a series of installations for audience participation. I made this work in ’87-88, and at the time I was a young artist who was trying to make art to serve the people. And I was a revolutionary at the time and a communist, but I was trying to really figure out how to serve a revolution; how do you reach the people, and who are the people that you reach? The art world was an upper middle-class thing and predominantly white and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. And yet, I was doing organizing work with the Chicago Housing projects at the time and were connecting them to the revolution, so there wasn’t a thing where I thought that the people who were going to encounter the work needed to be at the forefront of the political movement. I thought it was important to make work that really discussed what it meant to have patriotism become much more discussed in America and what the United States flag symbolizes. One of the people interacting with the work wrote, “the police shot my brother, and then walked over and kicked the body to make sure that the nigger was dead,” that cop wore the flag, thank you for this opportunity. It’s for the people who have that kind of experience to give voice to that and give voice to those who feel victimized by America to have an equal footing to discuss what the United States is, what U.S. patriotism, and what the flag means to them. While I didn’t mostly think the work would connect the audience literally, I thought that it would be important to make the work and give that space. And then a lot of historic accidents happened and it did connect with that audience, which made the work a lot richer.
Right, there’s this Jacques Derrida concept in the Artifactualities chapter of Echographies of Television that I’m obsessed with where he talks about this idea of the L’arrivant, which is that if you can expect the happening and know the happening, then it’s not actually an event. You know, there are people that make great artworks and really moving artworks, and then there is artwork-as-event and I feel like the greater part of your practice has grounded itself in monumentally unprecedented moments. I think they’ve been anchored in time in such a specific capacity that have garnered a historical presence. You seem to be working with the idea of the archive in a very specific way and it definitely relates to what you were saying about patriotism and its reception, ideologically and in a visual register. To revisit the work, What is a Proper Way to Display a Flag? reminds me of the Colin Kaepernick case and the ways in which we’re supposed to yield to these institutional politics and disembody our own subjecthood to participate in this imagined idea of nationhood–especially considering that your work resulted in Supreme Court case in 1990, United States v. Eichman, which debated the constitutional right of burning the American Flag.
1989 was a long time ago and the internet didn’t exist then, so the way people researched it before, the work doesn’t pop up that easily, which I believe resulted in a general ignorance. I think the people that run this system–including major media outlets–definitely don’t want radical voices, and certainly not radical Black voices, and those which define and have an audience to be amplified and connected. It usually comes down to those who would make that connection thinking twice about doing so because of the implications. All of these people who have been cultural and radical icons talking about their relationship with U.S. patriotism and protest isn’t something that they want to come together with.
I think the people that run this system–including major media outlets–definitely don’t want radical voices, and certainly not radical Black voices, and those which define and have an audience to be amplified and connected.
There’s this Kendrick Lamar BET performance from 2015 that I often revisit, and it has this giant flag that was waving in the background above these police cars that are graffitied and abandoned with Black people dancing on top of them. I wonder if Kendrick’s creative team knew about William Pope.L’s Trinket (2008/2015) because its presentation mimicked it in shape and size. But at the same time, I think it’s interesting that there are all these people in various arenas of culture and black intellectual life that are targeting America and its flag in very public ways and not backing down. A lot of times, when people who challenge the status quo they retract that gesture, but Colin Kaepernick, for instance, has not backed down and it's commendable.
Exactly, and it reminds me of David Hammons’ African-American Flag that debuted in Amsterdam in 1990. A quote from the catalog essay for it by Thomas Hirschhorn reads, “African-American Flag is not only an artwork, it is a flag for a new nation, a flag for new insight, it is a new flag for a new form and a new truth. David Hammons creates a new truth–what more can art do?” And I feel like it’s important to contextualize your work around those who are thinking through similar issues at the same time. Which raises the question: what does a future look like with a reckoning of a time and a history? Could you walk me through the process of A Man Was Lynched by the Police Yesterday?
I was a lot older when I created that piece, so I had a lot more understanding of the audience and how things could exist both in the art world and in public space. It was made very quickly in response to the police murder of Walter Scott in 2015–he quite literally feared for his life when he got stopped for a broken taillight, and ran and the cops shot him and it was recorded by a bystander on their cellphone, which undermined the cop’s narrative of what happened and their lie didn’t hold up. I made that very quickly because I had known about the NAACP flag but had also been reminded of it because Terry Adkins had used it in several of his performances. When it came to me I thought it was a really great work but didn’t think anyone would care about it because it was conceptual. But it was specifically drawing on Black history in a way that many people, I thought, weren’t going to care all that much [about] because I had done so much work that talked about police violence and the history of lynching in America, thought that it would be cool and was something I enjoyed but that it wasn’t going to have a huge audience. The first time it was displayed was in a small show in Des Moines, Iowa; it was a cool show, but nobody paid that much attention.
Months later, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. I happened to be in a show that For Freedoms had organized with Jack Shainman Gallery. I called up Hank Willis Thomas and asked if he thought Jack would be interested in showing A Man Was Lynched by the Police Yesterday, because the show had already been curated and the works were placed, and I said, “look, we should include this in the show and they did. I don’t think a lot of people at the time would necessarily by themselves say that the police are the inheritors of lynch mob violence, which wasn’t a huge leap for a lot of Black people to understand when I found myself with the piece walking through Union Square at one of the protests in 2020. It wasn’t something that we had completely formulated then but had acted upon and now with George Floyd there has been another reckoning of sorts. I think a lot about the connection between the past and the present and in my work, I talk a lot about how it shows that the past sets the stage for the present and focuses on how it exists in the present in a new form and how this theory shifted from it being labeled as murder to being understood as a lynching.
Yeah, it definitely makes a lot of sense. For me though, I take issue with the merging of a past and present, existing in that binary in that I’m always asking myself what propels us into the future. Recently, I was reading this catalog essay by Hilton Als for Robert Gober’s MoMA Retrospective, The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, where Als talks about his first encounter with Gober’s Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper in 1989 or 1990, which depicts an ambiguous lynched Black figure in white trousers hanging from a tree branch, positioned next to a white man sound asleep beneath his white covers. Als writes,
“When I first saw the wallpaper, it seemed to go on and on, which meant that the vulnerability of that sleeping man and the vulnerability of that murdered body went on and on, too. There was no getting any distance from it. Sometimes, when I look at a work of art, the hard thing that an artist is saying about place or history, or their combined effects on the body and on the psyche becomes glossed over, worked out in such a way that I can 'take it.' The beauty of his line confused me; did it express a distance from or a triumph over the chaos of the times? A ridiculous thought–all times are chaotic."
Which I think lands at the feet of what we’ve been talking about. In that, we’re faced with reckoning with a past and an overdetermined present/presence and so what do we do to step outside remembering something we are unable to forget, which also remains a lived truth countlessly denied. There’s this haunting that is happening. How can we step outside that cycle?
The thing is, I don’t look at the past only as haunting. It’s not just some binary where the past is replicating itself in the present but the past is setting the stage for the present. Sure, the threads that we pull from could produce similar outcomes but there’s also the pregnant possibility of learning from people who were striving to change things in the past in ways that didn’t fully materialize, who we can take notes on and whose shoulders we can stand on. I think a lot of the work that I’ve done, Slave Rebellion Reenactment is trying to grapple with the same thing. I think slave revolts are really badass and so showing how that past sets the stage for the present–what happened with it–and how people can learn from enslaved Africans and how people that are descendants of enslaved Africans and others, can actually apply that spirit of here’s how we can get free, we overthrow the system of slavery; that’s how we get to a future.
I don’t look at the past only as haunting. It’s not just some binary where the past is replicating itself in the present but the past is setting the stage for the present.
For the last few weeks this question has been plaguing me, which is: what would you create if you weren’t making work about Blackness?
I don’t exclusively make work that deals with Blackness. This answer is kind of a copout but it’s somewhat true in that I, like most artists, make work about the times and often the country that we are in. So, a lot of my work is about America and it just so happens that one of the key things to understanding America is understanding the position of Black people in American society in all our complexity. And I do make other things than just blackness or even just America; I have a project that’s actually looking at the arc of the Communist Revolution from the Paris Commune in 1871 up to the end of the Chinese Revolution in 1976, with the death of Mao Zedong, which in a certain sense has nothing to do with Black people but then has everything to do with Black people [Laughs].
[Laughs] I know, I was just thinking the same thing. Isn’t it crazy that we live in a world where Black people are viciously and continually murdered?
Yeah, it’s really fucking nuts. I was just looking at something today that read, “Black people will exist in the future,” and the billboard that was taken down offended some people. Not only are we being killed but also for saying we’ll exist in the future offends some people.
For me, I struggle with the failures of the archive and archiving of Black art and culture. I remember when I went to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia some years ago and walking around infuriated that it was a collection of mostly white artists and couldn’t grapple with the loss of life and preservation of Black art and genius. Black people were denied an existence then and to then enter into an institution as a writer and artist myself and having knowledge that people are still excluded is such an immeasurable, immense loss.
…with fury and anger! I’m lucky to have some stuff in the archive, but personally, What is a Proper Way to Display a Flag (1988) has never been collected by a museum. It’s like wait a minute, this is a part of a Supreme Court Case; was denounced by the President, George H. W. Bush, and is a part of Art History and is taught in basic 101 art classes, and yet no museum is interested in owning a copy of it.
What topics have you been talking about in other interviews that you feel have been glossed over and would like to give more attention to its subject-matter?
What about the relationship between African-Americans and immigrants and how they’re pitted against each other? One of my desires to participate [with In Plain Sight} in rectifying that wrong but also in enabling the positive experience of Black people, understanding our long history of being shut out of this country and brutalized and have that understanding favorably impact how the battle around immigration is fought.
Some people in the immigrants-rights community want immigrants to become Americans and have an understanding that if they presnt themselves as "model immigrants" that they will accept us. Well, Black people tried this strategy of being “model citizens” for a long time and it didn’t quite work out. Instead of going down that road, learn from our experience and let’s link and we can do a lot better. That’s one thing–that would also be of service–would be to talk about fascism. While Obama has deported more people than Trump, what Trump is doing is pushing America toward a fascist state and a part of that is virulent attack on immigrants. And then there’s art, this beautiful, imaginative project—In Plain Sight.