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.
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.”
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.”
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.