William Pope.L
The Great White Way: 22 miles, 5 years, 1 street, 2002
by Michael Workman




Picture a black man lying belly-down in the street, squirming along the pavement, slowly and arduously pulling himself forward through cigarette butts, discarded fast food wrappers, grime, and detritus. Cars and trucks dart by, belching clouds of exhaust fume as passersby stare, wondering not only why this man is crawling but also why he's dressed in Superman tights and boots--not to mention the skateboard strapped bandolier-style to his back, which he occasionally rolls over onto and uses to sail slowly forward along the curb.

William Pope.L, a visual and performance/theater artist and educator, has staged over 40 crawls since 1978 as an extension of his larger eRacism project. His performances vary in duration. Some are extemporaneous, while others push the limits of his physical endurance. In 2002, scheduled to coincide with the opening of the Whitney Biennial, Pope.L set off on his most ambitious crawl to date, The Great White Way: 22 miles in length and five years in duration, it was performed in stages that took him from the Statue of Liberty and through Manhattan via Broadway, ending in the Bronx, where his mother resides.

Performance art as a medium is infamous for its ability to spark controversy, and Pope.L's projects are no exception. His work often addresses social issues, such as his Eating the Wall Street Journal performance, in which he sat on a stack of the newspapers in a Boston financial district, downing pages and drinking milk in what has been called a "performative burlesque of contemporary consumptive modes [in which] consumption is unnatural and food is anti-nutrition." The controversies surrounding Pope.L's projects have led to withdrawals of financial support. Recently, for example, the NEA declined to underwrite a retrospective of eRacism at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art. Stuart Horodner, writing in zingmagazine, situates Pope.L's practice stubbornly in hyperbole: "Race and sex, power and the lack of it, stay mangled together, like a horrible car wreck at the corner of Love and Hate." Let's hope no crashes occur along Pope.L's route!

Horodner's characterization is a loaded one, impinged upon by broad-stroked terminology of race, sex, and power. The death induced at the nexus of these social forces seems a reckless and perfunctory solution to the defense of "ordinary life"--the cultural fascination situated at the heart of his car-crash metaphor. Rather, Pope.L's crawls and eRacism project can be seen as attempts to isolate these social forces within a tightly delineated, consciously mythologized sphere of causes--not ends--that can be analyzed in-the-doing, and for which solutions can then be suggested.

That The Great White Way references the near-omnipotent comic hero Superman at first seems a fickle move, effusing the more serious personality defects of mass culture's "good" citizenry--those astonished, baffled, or apathetic spectators looking on as Pope.L "performs social struggle," squirming past them on the street. But look closely and a demandingly poignant euphemism emerges for the hackneyed, egoizing self-interest of average Americans, groveling their way through another day in the workforce of an atomized culture gripped by the narcissistic illusion of self-sufficiency. As such, The Great White Way illustrates the difficulty of racial and economic equality in a society that fails to recognize its own real lack of personal freedom. Despite this indictment, it still manages somehow to induce a powerful empathy for the expropriation of such a worthy ideal. If anything, Pope.L's performance demands action for recovery of that ideal, not only as a way of discovering our own lost liberties, but also as a way of erasing the mark of ostracism from those less privileged or less mentally healthy stepping the streets and sidewalks of "ordinary life."