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Dread Scott performing “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a County Founded on Slavery and Genocide” under the Manhattan Bridge (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s hard not to be impressed by the massive scale of the archway under the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo. Its large stone blocks create a majestic space while supporting one of New York’s most famous bridges and evoking the power of an ancient ruin. This was the site of artist Dread Scott’s one-time-only performance “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide,” which took place yesterday.

A master of symbolic action and decoding the optics of oppression, Scott, in his new work, evoked the well-known images of 1950s and ’60s civil rights protests being interrupted by the violence of police water cannons. The mood of his Dumbo performance was stark and slightly somber, and it had the visual clarity of a Hollywood Western gunfight.

Retired firefighter John Riker performed opposite Dread Scott.

Hundreds of people, including approximately 150 high school students from Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, witnessed the 20-minute performance, which featured a former firefighter blasting the artist with a firehose.

Some of the symbolism, like the Ferguson-inspired hands-up gesture, was consciously choreographed, but the action felt largely spontaneous, responding to the whims of the water pressure and Scott’s evolving reactions to being hosed. The artist approached the firefighter a number of times and fell to the ground once, as the cobblestones were slick and wet.

I spoke to Una-kariim Cross, a teacher at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, who explained that the school administration and teachers thought attending the performance would be a unique educational opportunity. “We only have two art teachers, and if you only have two art teachers, you have to supplement the art some kind of way,” she told Hyperallergic. “And this was a free opportunity, and we thought it was important for them to see, as they don’t get to see performance art. Many students or adults don’t know what performance art is.”

Scott enters the archway for the first time.

When I spoke with some of the students, most of whom were African American and Hispanic, they were eager to understand what had happened. One student, Selena, told Hyperallergic she thought the performance “was amazing.” Another student didn’t identify himself but said it was “really exhilarating and exciting.” A third student, Molly J., was more vocal than most. “It was very touching — we got emotional. It brought back feelings, even though we weren’t there, but we felt like we could relate to it,” she said. “It was good. It felt I saw it before, because we had always heard about it.”

There was a wide range of responses from students, many of whom didn’t know how to express their thoughts and feelings about the performance. “Some were prepared and some were not. Some students have studied the civil rights exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum last year, so they were more prepared than others,” Cross said. “But we also read articles about what happened in Birmingham, Bull Connor, and that history, and we’ve been discussing what is happening to black and Latino males … well, it has been happening for a long time, but particularly what happened in the last summer, so we contextualized it that way.”

Scott performs the “hands up” gesture, which is associated with the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, where Mike Brown was murdered by police.

The art field trip was integrated into the curriculum, and Cross is prepared to help students unpack their thoughts. “Some are shocked, some don’t know what they are seeing, some have to process it, so it depends on their level of preparation, depends on their maturity level, depends what they knew going in. We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare going in. Some said they were disturbed, some were sad, and some wanted it to stop. What it was for them was an experience, and we are going to deconstruct it over the next couple of days.”

Retired firefighter John Riker, who performed opposite the artist, explained that Scott was blasted with 100 pounds of nozzle pressure, which is a fraction of what’s required to fight a major fire. “If I had blasted him with all I got, I would’ve knocked him a block and a half away, so we can’t have that,” he told Hyperallergic. “I asked him, ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ But he has his reasons and motivations, so I was fine with that.”

In the visual confrontation, it was clear what role the fireman was playing, but that didn’t bother Riker. “A young lady asked me what I felt about being the ‘oppressor,’ and I told her I never thought about that at all,” Riker said. “I spent my whole life helping people and all I’m doing is helping a guy with … [his] performance.”

After the performance, a few reporters eager to understand the project surrounded the artist. He explained that he was “exhilarated and a little wet and cold,” but said it wasn’t painful.

I asked Scott why it was important that this work only be performed once. “For me, with performance versus theater, theater is actually redone over and over again, and for me performance is about the direct relationship with the audience, and often with the magic that happens then,” he said. “I know very much what to be under a fire hose is like now, so once I have that experience, my response to that will be different. For those who weren’t there, they can see the photos or video.”

With a background in photography, Scott plans his work aware of the visual impact. “I often think, this image will be powerful, and that’s just the way I think … Unlike a photograph, when people are watching something live, you can’t just do the exact same thing for 15 to 20 minutes, so I had to think about how time would keep moving and how it would it be different for me experiencing it.

“If I can shape what the question people should look at is, and then they bring their knowledge to it, then it isn’t me teaching a history but shining a light on a brief moment,” Scott said.

“Dread Scott is always pushing people to pay attention to things that go away quickly,” Cross said, when I asked her how she thought “On the Impossibility of Freedom” fit into Scott’s body of work. “He always brings to fore things that we should really ponder and contextualizes it historically — he knows what he is doing, he’s a very smart artist, so his work is very important in the grand scheme of the world, in art today.”

Dread Scott’s “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide” took place in the archway under the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo, Brooklyn, on Tuesday, October 7 at 1pm. It was organized by More Art.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

13 replies on “Dread Scott Enacts the Images of Oppression”

  1. If Dread Scott was ‘free’ to perform, and people were ‘free’ to see his performance, then “Impossibility of Freedom” is kind of a stupid claim.

  2. The most affecting part of the performance was the moment afterward when Scott and the retired fireman shook hands and embraced. And that’s because it directly illustrated through a simple gesture the actual cultural shifts around the actions this performance meant to evoke: firemen across the nation increasingly don’t want to be on the wrong side of history following Birmingham, even going as far as to demand they be arrested if coerced by local police into giving access to fire-engines for use against protestors. Their increasing refusal to be an instrument of injustice (what that means, how that happened) is a much more important story to meditate on than a tame simulation of something that no-one in attendance learned anything further about through watching or participating in the action.

    1. Thanks for this note. It strikes me that the gesture of embrace would have made the piece for me, given your description.

      I’ve seen work like this before. It was done back in 2009 at part of ArtHub Asia’s Conference Making of a Meeting. An artist name Onno Dirker, I think was blasted with a firehose and actually did get hurt, scraped his elbow as he fell, and we could see blood and his pain. That kind of work, where pain is part of the performance does tend to read very differently than what is described above.

      1. I actually think in the context of the history he is interested in exploring this was a very clear experience. Pain may have made it feel shallow for me. Going into the performance, I assumed he would be exposing himself to pain but when it stopped short of that it gave the work a more pensive feel, and in the eyes of the students it seemed to prove a concise image that they could explore. We honestly don’t need more images of black men being harmed or tortured, as we we see them almost everyday on the news. In that way I think the identity of the performer does impact the performance.

        1. Yes, his identity as a black man was crucial (if that is what you are getting at); and yes, the concise image that the students experienced would inevitably correspond to the scenes (unforgettable for me) from filmed footage of protests in the Civil Right Movement. I think I agree that in visual art images or performance of black men being hurt are overdetermined and can feel plodding and obvious. I wish I could have seen the embrace at the end of Scott’s piece. That kind of generous interaction is so rarely made public.

        2. I’m not sure about pain not being present or not being a desired element for Scott. The whole setting (as you note at the beginning of this post) seemed to play up the exertion involved in the action–making it monumental–and the crowd’s reaction while the piece was going on accordingly often sounded like people cheering on a long distance runner or some endurance-based sportsman (“Go Dread!” “Yeah!”).

          Another thing that didn’t feel right about the piece to me as it was unfolding which feeds into my thinking physical pain and endurance were an intended part of the spectacle was the way Scott followed the fireman (him taking a step away from Scott and Scott following). I got the uncomfortable and somewhat ironic impression of a moth seduced by a flame while also noting that the fireman was never an aggressor apart from the audience’s preexisting notions of what the relationship of a black man and a white fireman is. Because of that, the embrace (which was marked by Scott as being outside of the performance) really seemed more of an accident of the piece that gave lie to its trite shallowness otherwise.

          1. He told me he wanted to stay open and didn’t want to choreograph it. Maybe that was the way he felt it should unfold. I think the whims of the water pressure were also a factor that no one seemed to be able to control fully — which was probably a wild card. I really love reading your thoughts. What did you anticipate before you arrived?

          2. I first became aware of Scott when I met him at a brief talk Hans Ulrich Obrist gave on the occasion of an opening he organized of work by Gustav Metzger. I was there just because I was walking by on my way to the chinatown bus while briefly visiting New York. In Philadelphia (where I was visiting from) I was working 10-hour days in a large factory producing countertops for chain stores and, while I found Scott a nice, seemingly well-meaning person, his views of the ways in which art could be political seemed two dimensional and naive to me based on my then-current experiences. I looked up his work online and didn’t see anything in it that changed that impression. That was about 4 years ago and, having now transitioned back into living in New York again, I’ve seen a few scattered pieces of his around, none of which has changed my mind.

            I hadn’t seen any of his performance work in person and so, when a friend of mine helping to facilitate the performance (who knew I now work around Dumbo) texted me about it I was interested to see. I didn’t have any anticipations other than my experiences with other non-performative pieces I’d seen plus my short conversation with him years ago, so I was interested to what another vein of his work would be like and also hopeful that it would change my mind. I actually like seeking out things I don’t expect to appreciate because the optimism involved in seeking them balances the skepticism that I’m coming to it with (which I like to think of as a critical distance). In theory I’m neither expecting too much or too little and can potentially look at a thing more clearly. In my experience I’ve fallen in love with or been deeply affected by things I didn’t expect to be affected by more often and more deeply than things I walk into expecting to like. So that’s that story.

            I can easily believe that there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the choreography of the performance, but it seemed to be producing the image of a heroic, male messianic figure that is familiar to Scott’s work and his application of politics to art (especially the times he turned his back to the stream of water with his arms raised at his sides, which also called up the related, but sort of mixed-metaphor of the ongoing protests in Ferguson [“hands up don’t shoot”])

            Independent of responding to you I have been continuing to think about this performance, so I am glad I went. The embrace at the end of it really redeemed it for me but actually made me want to question the rest of the content of the performance. And you’re right to point to the school children present. That’s a very interesting audience for work with the ambitions this one seemed to have.

  3. Exposure to performance art and dance in secondary school offers young people an opportunity to view bodies in motion as they come to terms with their own bodies. Furthermore, this performance operated within a political and historical framework, which encouraged students to think about the meaning of bodies and physicality across time. The society in which we live encourages a cylindrical body, but breaking the cylinder in interesting and meaningful ways, as Dread Scott has done in this performance, allow us to come closer to the Impossibility of (physical) Freedom from ourselves and our society.

  4. As a student studying dance I found this article very satisfying for a number of reasons. First of them being the incorporation of the arts and performance into the curriculum of these students. By witnessing a piece like this, they are being allowed to grow creatively while also thinking about and experience history and social situations. This brings me to my second reason. This performance highlights the communicative nature of movement. Dread Scott was able to evoke emotions in the viewers and bring a piece of history alive to make a powerful message. Movement is a universal quality that can touch a number of people whether they identify as dancers and artists or not. Movement can communicate more than just choreographed steps. It can embody social aspects, history, and emotion.

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