The RW Interview

Dread Scott:
Making Art and Revolution

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1107, June 17, 2001, posted at

In 1989 President George Bush, Sr. publicly denounced artist Dread Scott for his audience participation installation, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? Congress passed legislation outlawing this type of art and rabid veterans organized marches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where Dread's piece was on exhibition. Since then Dread has developed into a multi-disciplinary artist whose art speaks to issues that are being debated out in society today and consciously tries to do this from a revolutionary communist viewpoint. Dread approaches these questions from the standpoint of the oppressed and the "have- nots" and they are often the subjects of his work as well.

Dread is a founding member of the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! and, in September 1999, he joined with other artists to mount a visual arts exhibition at 15 galleries in New York City for Mumia 911, the national day of art to stop the execution.

His recent work includes Danger, Police in Area, a poster that has become so popular among the people in Los Angeles that knock-off versions of it have appeared on T-shirts hawked by street vendors in downtown L.A. His installation Historic Corrections was one of the major pieces in the Capital Art on the Culture of Punishment show, dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica this past winter. He is currently working on a piece called Lockdown which uses a combination of photographs and interviews to bring out the humanity of the young generation criminalized and thrown behind bars.

A little while ago I visited Dread in New York City. He had a new piece--Jasper the Ghost --inspired by the brutal 1998 lynch murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a truck by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. We took the train from Brooklyn to the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. It was one of those days that sit on the cusp of winter and spring--sort of warm and cold at the same time with the sun playing peek-a-boo behind big gray clouds. The Sculpture Park is on the bank of the East River. Loud, crowded, always-moving Manhattan hovers in the distance. A large housing project is within walking distance of the park.

As we walked and talked about the other art works in the park I kept scanning ahead to pick out Dread's piece. It kind of snuck up on me. I stood there and looked. Dread moved back out of the scene.

The murder of James Byrd Jr. had a huge impact on me. I wrote a piece on it for the RW right after it happened. And now, there it was stretched out in front of me, a lonely back-road in Texas showing up in Long Island City.

I looked down 50 feet of blacktop, and at the far end--menacing--was the bumper off a pick-up truck. Hundreds of feet of chains swung from telephone poles along the side of the road. The chains and poles formed a tunnel over the roadway. My eyes fixed on the bumper and I was pulled into the piece. Standing on the blacktop, all the outside noise disappeared. I could almost hear the racist taunts and billy-bob laughs coming from the truck. I could feel the terror in Byrd's heart.

Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes. It was then that I really caught the rest of the piece. When I looked up at the chains there were big bones and slave shackles--neck rings and leg and wrist irons--hanging from various spots on the chains. They hung there, bringing images from hundreds of years of the oppression of Black people. I was overwhelmed. I stopped breathing. I cried. The hatred for the society that did this pushed into my mouth and forced its way out. I gasped for air and stood there, hands at my side, stunned.

Later, Dread told me some of the stories about this piece. We went on to talk for a few hours over dinner about his work and what guides and inspires him in his art.

MS: There's a quote on your card that reads, "Revolutionary art propelling history forward." What do you mean by that?

DS: It combines two things. One is that I'm a revolutionary--I'm a Maoist and I want my art to serve the people. That's what the art is about. It also comes from something Mao said in Talks at the Yenan Forum--that revolutionary art should help the masses of people propel history forward. I used this to try to synthesize the essence of why I make art. My art is art that is helping to change the world and is doing this in a way that is helping to bring about what Marx said is the march forward of history--leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what my art is about.

MS: How do you see your work doing this?

DS: My work does this in large ways and small. I've been really lucky to have my work at the center of a national debate. One piece in particular, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S.Flag?, was at the center of a national debate about what U.S. patriotism means. The president, George Bush the first, publicly denounced me and I thought this was a great honor. It meant that I was doing something right.

This was the first series where I was trying to deal with more openly political subject matter, and I didn't really know how to do it. There really isn't a lot taught about that. So I started to do these works that had text on them but which were also somewhat conceptual and asked people questions. There were photomontages, photo collages, on the wall. And then there were texts, political quotes that people could respond to. And below that there were books where people could write responses. You could say that I was an asshole or that the work was fucked up and communists should go to hell, or you could say that you would be down with the revolution and I'll be beside you with my gun.

So I was doing all these pieces like that and a lot of them started to have American flags in them. I hated U.S. imperialism by the time I was doing that work; I was a revolutionary by that time. Bush was running on a flag factory trying to get elected and all these other flag-factory candidates were trying to get elected and it all kind of came together. I decided to do one piece about U.S. patriotism and called on people to debate that. One element of the work was an American flag on the floor and in order to write in the comment book people had the opportunity to step on the flag--and many people did.

The rest is history.

MS: We just came back from seeing your sculpture Jaspar the Ghost. It's a very powerful work. What led you to create that piece?

DS: That piece was actually somewhat unique for me. Often I start thinking about a particular idea in society that pisses me off and that I want to comment on. This piece came to me almost as a whole. I heard about the incident. I read various things about it. Within days I had the basic idea. I didn't really work on it, I had this sort of vision.

On a fluke, I applied to put this piece up in Socrates Sculpture Park and they accepted it. Then the piece developed a bit as it got built. There is some specificity to the particular barbaric act--there was a person named James Byrd Jr. who was dragged 10,000 feet to his death behind the truck driven by three white supremacists. There is that particular history, but that is part of a broader history that includes slavery and jail and prison in current days. I wanted to try to have the piece rooted in that particular specific brutal act but try and draw on the whole history of brutality and terror that's been meted out to Black people in our whole history of being here.

There's an interesting story about how some of the features of this piece developed. It's a really big piece, and I didn't have nearly enough money to do it. So I had to try to unite with people to do various things so I could get the piece done. I actually might have had more leg irons and collars in the piece--not a lot more--if I could have. But in trying to do them I had to go and find blacksmiths who would do it.

I eventually got put in touch with a blacksmith who really loves the history of blacksmithing and who has done work that depicts the history of the craft. A lot of that history also overlaps with slavery. I told him a lot about who I am--including my history, that I'm a revolutionary, I burnt the flag on the steps of the Capitol and did this famous work that President Bush hated. In the course of discussing this piece with him he told me that he had been in the Navy and liked it. I thought he would never like working with me. But he actually really liked the piece and liked contributing to it. So he made the slave neck collars for free. This was really an incredible thing he did, and it really strengthened the piece. The piece wouldn't have been the same without his contribution. He really researched the history of how neck collars were made and he made them as close to the way he understood they might have been made in the period of slavery or right after slavery.

The leg irons were another interesting story. They're made by a company called Hiatt-Thompson, and the ones I used were modern leg irons that are used throughout the world. But they made them by using the die that was used to make these leg irons 150 years ago. And this is a company that is quite proud of its history, as they put it on their web page, of selling some of the best shackles. They used to call them "N*gger Collars." This company sold them and sold leg irons and all sorts of restraints for keeping slaves. And after slavery they sold them to be used on convict labor and all. And this company upholds that history. They sell to prisons and police departments around the world.

MS: Did you get some help erecting the piece in the park?

DS: Yeah, this particular park--Socrates Sculpture Park--is really wonderful. It's in one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country. People can come and hang out in this park in their neighborhood and have all this art right there near them. There's a huge housing project nearby, and a lot of proletarians come to the park.

The grounds crew that maintains the grass and helps artists build their pieces are proletarians. When they first met me they thought I was just any old artist coming to put some not too meaningful stuff in their park. But as we talked they got to really like it and appreciate what I was doing. This one older guy has been there for a long time and he has seen a lot of pieces come and go. He really looked out for this piece and fought to see that it got put up and done right. He talked with me about his experiences with the park and with various racist experiences he faced in his life.

Once he and the others knew what the piece was about they wanted to make sure that the piece got done. You know, this is a big heavy piece--we had to swing pick axes and all to get it done so it was almost like being on a chain gang. But these guys worked really hard with me to make sure this piece happened. Also, the staff at the park and a welder friend all spent hella time makin' sure this piece got done.

MS: What was the reaction of the folks who came from the neighborhood to see the piece?

DS: There were a couple of families--with kids ranging in age from 4 to 10--who came to the opening of the piece. A couple of the parents asked me if I was the artist who did the piece and then asked me what it was about. I asked them what they thought it was about because I wanted to see what people got from it. The man said he thought it might be about violence or racism or something like that. The woman said she thought it was about the guy in Texas who was dragged. Then they rounded up all their kids and wanted me to talk with their kids about it.

The kids didn't remember the incident so I told them about it. They wanted to know why the racists killed him and I said they killed him because he was Black. They wanted to know what was wrong with being Black. I told them that there is nothing wrong with being Black, but there are some white people in this world who absolutely hate Black people and kill us because we're Black and they want to keep us down and terrorize those of us that they don't kill.

We had a pretty long conversation--having a long drawn out discussion about the ugliest edge of America was something new to these kids. It was really heavy, and the parents thought this was an important history lesson and they wanted it connected to present reality.

MS: There is a big argument in this society that art should not be "political." How do you deal with this?

DS: I've got three answers for this. The first is that all art is political. Mao said that there is no art that is divorced from classes, that all art has a political stand for one grouping in society or another. Some art deals more directly with political issues. But all art has a philosophical viewpoint. I choose to make my art serve the proletariat, serve the people.

That's my second answer--it's a choice. I live in this world. I live in New York City where the police are coming up and accusing people of selling drugs and then blowing them away and saying it was justified or that it was the victim's fault because he reached for a gun or he had a record. That's the world I live in. I can't live in this world and not talk about it.

But then, in the larger sense, because I'm a revolutionary I'm also very consciously trying to do everything I can--as I think all revolutionaries are--to try to help the people change the world. I just happen to be able to use art to do that.

Some people argue that work with a strong political viewpoint is didactic. And sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't very moving and I don't think it is very helpful. I think it degrades art and it degrades politics.

I think people need politics. They need a movement that can change the direction of society and they need political leaders who can explain the past and the present and help people change the world based on this understanding. This is really necessary, and art is a sub-part of that bigger process.

But art is not the same as politics. And when the art deeply resonates and connects with people's hopes and dreams and aspirations--and it does this in complicated ways that bring in new understanding of things--then that is really good and helpful. I think much of the great art--even stuff that the powers-that-be have anointed as great--had a lot of social commentary in it. It's art that talks about the times that people lived in. That's what's interesting--what times do we live in and what do people have to say about it.

MS: Mao says in Yenan Forum that the most important thing is for writers and artists to know the people. How does it apply in your work?

DS: This is one of the most important questions I grapple with. It's hard. This society is so brutally divided that even though I might live literally a block from a housing project I don't talk with the people there as much as I would like. At the same time, given that I've really set my sights on serving the people and trying to know the people, I do actually know a lot of people and I also know them through other ways like reading the RW or listening to our culture like hip-hop.

I can say I would not be the artist I am without the Party--without Chairman Avakian's writings and without the newspaper. The RW is something that really enables me to understand the people. I mean, I don't live in L.A. but I know a lot about what's going on in the streets of L.A. from what's written in the paper that really gives you a sense of the burning questions on the minds of the masses. So the RW helps me to stay connected to the people in a way that is actually impossible without it. You might know some particular people on your block or in your neighborhood. But that doesn't have the full sweep of even the country, let alone the world.

So that's one thing. The other thing is you do talk with people. You try your shit out. I take work out before it's finished and ask them what they think of it, what does it say to them. And I change it based on this. I really try to listen and learn from what people take from the art.

I show a lot of my work in galleries and museums. But I learn most from what's coming up in hip-hop and some rock and from some literature. I think there's more kind of path breaking work happening there, at least politically, that's most connected with the people, that the people most cherish and see as their own. I use this as a way of learning and building my work.

In Yenan Forum Mao was actually talking at a time when the revolutionaries had some base areas and had won some victories in part of society and ran their own government. There were two governments going on at the same time and the Chinese revolutionaries actually held power and led millions of people who believed in them and were fighting for revolution all over China. And there were all these artists who came from all over the country trying to get with that revolution.

Most of these artists came from the middle class, the upper middle class. They really wanted to unite with the people. And one observation Mao made in Yenan Forum was that, when they tried to get with the people, the artists spontaneously put the clothes of the peasants on the people, but the faces were the faces of the artists, faces of the middle class. Mao pointed out that this was because the artists didn't know the people well and that this would be a process that would take time, and they would have to transform themselves.

I think this is a real killing question because by and large the culture of the oppressed is not put out in this society. And when it breaks out it is often in a distorted form. To really have work that is in the masses' highest interests and concentrates a real revolutionary outlook but is really rooted in their daily experience so it's like taking it home to them--this is certainly a lot of work for myself as someone who came from the middle class. And I think for other artists, even those who might have a proletarian background, it's still hard to really stay deeply connected to the people. When you can do that, it's magic. It's really something that makes the oppressors quake in their boots and brings joy to the people when they see the art.

You always have to keep coming back to who are you doing this for and why. Hopefully you'll succeed most of the time.

MS: Are there particular examples of your work that you feel stand out as examples of when you've been able to do that?

DS: I did a piece called Harmed and Dangerous that has pictures of four people, Black and Latino men and women. They are portraits, 20-by-20-inch portraits of people with guns. In front of that is a booth that you might find if you visited somebody in prison--you know, you have to talk with them through glass, using a phone to talk and listen to them. That particular piece you can come up and sit down at the booth and you can view somebody else doing the same thing. Then if you pick up the phone you hear somebody talking about violence and talking about it from a lot of different angles. It talks about youth killing each other; about the police beating people down and killing us; it talks about men brutalizing women. But the underlying theme is that all this violence is coming down on us and there is not enough revolutionary violence going up against the system.

I was lucky enough to show that piece at a really unique gallery in Hartford, Connecticut, that has half the audience being a normal art audience and half being from a poor working class Black neighborhood. And this gallery really goes out of its way to make the basic people feel comfortable.

It was a very good vibe and all these basic people came to the show along with some artists too. And there were some incredulous newspaper reporters who came who saw all these people vibing off the show--a lot of 10- and 12-year-old kids really digging the show. And this one reporter was really cynical, saying these kids don't understand this. So he went up and asked a kid what he thought of the piece. He expected the kid to not have any clue. Instead the kid said he really liked it--he really liked the guns because they looked real and he said he really liked what was said on the tape. There were a lot of other people looking at those images and seeing themselves and seeing themselves portrayed--sometimes as what they are and sometimes as what they could be.

I have a couple of other pieces that I've done recently which I think really connect with people.

One is called the Blue Wall of Violence and it shows all these people killed by the police. It shows the objects that people were holding in their hand at the time the police shot them--wallet, squeegee, 3 Musketeers bar, house keys. It has a coffin in front of that which three mechanized police batons beat on really loudly, a really loud thud. And then on the wall are FBI silhouette targets that they use for shooting practice.

One other piece, Historic Corrections, tries to make a real link between lynch mob terror, terror at the turn of the century and jail and the electric chair and the use of the death penalty.

It's a piece that has an enlarged photo of a 1919 lynching with a crowd of white onlookers smiling as a Black man is set on fire, burned alive. Then it has an electric chair out in front of that. Surrounding that are these police batons that every ten seconds hit a cast fiberglass head with a loud thud. Then there's a police radio that picks up live police reports--whatever is coming across pig radio at the time.

Then there are three photographs of Black and Latino men. These are life size photographs from the shoulders up--and they are transparencies, you can see through them. One side of these photos is framed by prison bars and the other side puts you on the same side of the prison bars as the masses in the pictures. You can see it all through their eyes.

MS: In terms of your creative process--clearly you use current events, things that particularly enrage you and are particularly enraging in society. But in terms of the struggle of the masses, how do you use that as a source of inspiration for your work?

DS: It's complicated and something I'm still learning. I've been doing this for 17 or 18 years now and I'm still young. The masses are tremendously inspiring and are the ultimate source of all art and certainly the conscious source of my art.

I hope in the future to be able to do more work that deals with the revolutionary energy of the masses. Mao talked about needing to do both work that exposes and extols--expose the horror and brutality of the system but extol the courageousness of the masses and uphold that.

There has been a long history of art recently that is good at exposure. I've done some of that work and there's been a lot of other work that's been good at that. There's a lot less work that really extols the masses and is drawn from the daily experience of the people. This shouldn't shine on our shortcomings; we have to learn from our shortcomings. That kind of work is really difficult to do in a rich way in the visual arts. But it is necessary and I need to find the ways to do more of that. I've got to learn through doing.

MS: Let's talk about El Grito. It seems to be a different kind of work for you in that it isn't really dealing with the every-day reality of capitalism but is actually viewing capitalism from a different place, from the future after the launching of an insurrection. What inspired this?

DS: First I want to say that this is actually a collaborative work and that is unique for me. The piece is an installation. I worked with this really great graffiti artist, Joe Wippler. We did the conceptualizing together and he did the graffiti while I did some of the other aspects like the sound track, the always burning Molotov cocktails made out of 40 oz. beer bottles, the shot and bloodied cop uniforms and so on. That collaborative part of the work was important and different for me because I don't do a lot of collaborative work. I'd like to, but it just hasn't happened much.

This installation was in a show that was on the concept of civil war and trophy. The arch the installation was in was a monument to the Civil War that was built after the Civil War--it's like the Arc de Triomphe--and the top of it is meant to house trophies that the North captured from the South. That never happened for whatever reason. But the sculpture on top of the Arch is one of the few monuments of the Civil War that has a Black person in it.

So here's this show that is on the concept of civil war and there are 12 other artists participating in it. A lot of people did a variety of things. But I wanted to do something that talked about a civil war in America in the future. In the flames of the graffiti it says that "It took a civil war for Black people to be changed from chattel slaves to wage slaves. We must fight another civil war to end this system which enslaves the planet."

And so it was really rooted in the concept of civil war and that kind of set the stage. I knew part of what I wanted to do--I just had this image that came to me of what it would look like when the enemy was being defeated in a revolutionary war. I thought I've never seen that, what would that look like. How would people like that? I thought that some people I know would really like that image. So let's talk about what that would be and it's not just a literal depiction of that.

The speech you hear over the bullhorn is done by a woman. It's a speech you might hear from a revolutionary comrade on the first or second day after a nationwide uprising. It encourages people to side with the revolution and talks about needing to seize the bridges and banks and drive the police out. And it talks about why they should join the revolution.

I used 40 oz. beer bottles in the piece to symbolize the way people can change in a revolutionary situation and how wherever there is oppression there has been and will be resistance--today the 40's keep the people down, but in the future they might become Molotov cocktails. I actually stole that idea from a song by the Coup. I was trying to figure out all the ways I could come at this question.

The piece was ultimately attacked by the powers. The arch is part of the Parks Department and they said how dare I have work that talks about a Civil War in America that shows cops bloodied and do it with public money on public property. They wanted to know what the administrators were thinking when they allowed this piece in the show.

Actually, what happened was that someone called Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels to complain about another work by another artist that was called Jews Join Palestinians that called for progressive Jews to join Palestinians. So Sliwa came down expecting to hate that piece and denounce that and then he saw my work and flew off the handle. The show got some money from the New York State Council on the Arts that was used to pay minor honoraria to the artists and Sliwa got that taken away based on a technicality.

Sliwa came by every week to try to paint over it and he talked about it on his radio show. And every time they came and wanted to paint over the show, other artists had to rally around and defend it. And we did--and it turned out to be a positive thing. A lot more people knew about this show and came from as far away as Connecticut and New Jersey to see a show which was in Brooklyn in the summer and was something people wouldn't have normally known about.

It actually did get so much notice that the police commissioner, the head of the Parks Department and Mayor Giuliani met to talk about it and decided it would be a first amendment problem if they shut it down. So they just let Curtis Sliwa try to trash it and they had the Borough President of Staten Island bring in a busload of Korean War vets to denounce it.

MS: Sometimes progressive artists think that if they try to apply things like revolutionary principles to their art that it will corral their creativity and make their work stiff and lifeless.

DS: For me, it really genuinely stimulates the creative process--trying to find the ways to make some of what I believe and understand accessible to the masses of people and trying to create work that is really broadly in their interests. I think there is a lot of creativity involved in doing that.

There ain't nearly enough work out there talking about revolution--so there is a whole wide-open field of unexplored territory. So, instead of corralling your creativity this could actually open up a whole new territory that you didn't even think about.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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