Lydia Y. Nichols speaks to Dread Scott about his upcoming project in New Orleans, a full-scale reenactment of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.
In conceptualizing “False Flags,” curator Noah Simblist looked to the many ways artists have worked with flags as both images and objects, including Dread Scott’s seminal What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag, 1988. When Scott was recently in New Orleans as part of Antenna’s Spillways residency, Lydia Y. Nichols had the opportunity to discuss the continued resonance of that early work and his upcoming project in the city.
Lydia Y. Nichols: You created your landmark installation What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag 28 years ago. Looking back now, how do you feel about that project?
Dread Scott: It was a project that I did when I was much younger, but I think it’s still right on time. The ideas behind the piece were deep questions: What is the U.S.? What is U.S. patriotism? What does the U.S. flag represent? Allowing for people who’ve been victimized by what this country has done, here and around the world, to take part in that debate and to know that their perspectives are valid, that was important. And while I think that I’ve grown and matured as an artist since then, the piece was a good one. And frankly, looking at the world, I wish more places would show the work now, even though it’s nearly 30 years old.
LN: Much of your more recent work is rooted in performance. What are the strengths and weaknesses of performance-based work specifically when dealing with revolutionary subject matter?
DS: I work in a lot of different mediums. Some of it is installation, photography, painting, sculpture; some of it is conceptual. I’ve been doing a lot more performance-based works for the past six years or so. As an artist, I started out in photography. But performance was where I first began to align my political ideas with the art I was making in an overt way. Those were just student experiments, but I’ve returned to performance with more consistency. In part, it’s because the audience has a different relation with the work generally, and the performer in particular, in terms of accessing the ideas. When something happens live—especially if it’s a non-permitted, public performance, where people aren’t expecting to see work—it collapses the filters they would otherwise have going to a gallery or a museum.
I don’t think one medium is inherently better than others. If all I knew how to do was paint, and I was really good at that, I would engage with the same ideas through painting. I typically try to think about important contradictions in the world that I want to address and then figure out a way that would be interesting to engage an audience with those ideas. And so, I don’t start with, Oh, I think I’m going to do performance, or sculpture, or make a photograph. It’s just like, Okay, here are the ideas and then…. But recently they’ve been coming out as performances as a way to have a more visceral experience. There’s perhaps more vulnerability and more risk for the audience, but certainly for me as a performer and for my collaborators.
LN: In 1811, a small group of slaves from Louisiana’s German Coast revolted and marched to New Orleans, picking up hundreds of additional fighters along the way. Though the revolt was soon extinguished by a local militia, it remains a significant, though little-known, example of the oppressed rising against the oppressor. You’re in the process of trying to stage a reenactment that follows the 26-mile path of those rebels. How did you come upon this idea? And why not one of the more well-known rebellions?
DS: One way I think about art is wondering what doesn’t exist yet. I was writing down notes for another project and thought, Oh, a slave revolt reenactment. That’d be hype. I’d love to do that. And I just left it at that, as an idea that I didn’t have any plans for. Then I got invited to the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Well, I’d love to do a slave revolt reenactment.” I didn’t think they’d go for it because it wasn’t going to happen during the time period of the residency. And, in the South, it was an especially politically charged proposition. The interim director of the residency program pointed me to Daniel Rasmussen’s book American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, which talks about the 1811 revolt in New Orleans. And I didn’t know anything about it, so I decided to check out the book and the story was amazing. The book borrows very heavily from the original scholarship of Leon Waters and Albert Thrasher’s On to New Orleans!, but I discovered their book later.
The fact that it wasn’t particularly known was a real strength because I was thinking about doing something about Nat Turner. That this history was unknown or buried was all the more interesting to me. Also, all the other slave revolts that I knew of in the U.S., their best case scenario was kill some white folk and then escape to a maroon colony, or kill before being killed. The 1811 revolt actually had a plan for seizing all of Orleans Territory and ending slavery, which was a radical idea from an enslaved position. They wanted not only to free themselves as individuals, or free themselves and their families, but also to end slavery. What was the problem they confronted? They were enslaved. What was the solution? End slavery. That’s bold and something I think modern-day people can learn a lot from.
The other thing that attracted me to the 1811 revolt: It was big. It was the largest slave revolt in North American history. It’s probable that 500 or more people actively participated in the rebellion. So for doing something, in public, collaboratively with lots of artists, where you’re trying to change the conversation about how people think about freedom and emancipation and risk, it’s perfect. Imagine seeing armed black people, even if only armed with 18th- and 19th-century weapons. If you have four of them, it can be written off as dangerous or criminal shit, but if you have 500 of them, it’s like, “What the fuck am I looking at?” And if you’re like me and hate what’s going on in the world, you’re like, “Can I hook up with that? Can I join?” And if you agree with what’s going on in the world, you’re like, “Oh shit, the negroes are getting restless. Something ain’t right.” Now imagine if they had been successful. American and world history would’ve been different. Isn’t that a story that people need to know? Wouldn’t it be great to have the opportunity to embody that?
LN: So what’s your process for organizing this? How are you going to get 500 people involved?
DS: Well, I’m just going to call up the actors’ union. (laughs) But seriously, it will take years to develop with people. The project is twofold. One part is the actual reenactment over two days, spanning 26 miles. That will be epic and amazing. But much of the project is learning from this history and having people engage with it. The process will mirror the history itself. Slave revolts had to be planned clandestinely, obviously. So, a man or a woman would only talk with a handful of people whom he or she felt that they could trust with their life. And if they gambled right on that, those people would talk and organize more. So similarly, I’m going to be working with only a handful of people initially—it might get up to 60, 70, 100 people. But then those people will talk, recruit, and organize others into the army of the enslaved—that is assuming that they have some reason why they would want to walk 26 miles, rain or shine, warm or cold, sometimes not even seen by an audience, but actually just experiencing this collectively with 500 other people. Those that see some connection between that past and this present, and why they want to reenact and embody this history, will be brought into it. And they will in turn bring others into the army of the enslaved. Throughout the process people will be both learning from and embodying this history.
LN: What have been some of the reactions as you’ve begun to talk with people locally about this idea?
DS: In some of my initial investigations and inquiries, one thing that’s been very heavy and moving for me, speaking especially with college-age and younger black people, is that a lot of them have said, “Look, at first we didn’t want to talk about slavery. We felt sort of ashamed. We couldn’t figure out how our ancestors could allow this to happen to them. But when we learned that there was resistance, including actual strategic plans to end slavery, we wanted to know more about this. And we want to tell people about this.” It’s something that lifted a whole weight of shame from them. This aspect of the project, these conversations with people, changing their understanding of their past and their present, is huge.
LN: Given the migratory patterns of black people in Louisiana, a good portion of the descendants of the people who lived on the plantations from which the organizers of the 1811 revolt came probably live in the region still. How do you engage these black and potentially poor communities that are generally alienated from the art world? How do you get them to engage with this project to the point where they are internalizing that we are a people who have resisted?
DS: It’s a fair question. I’m hoping to work with a range of people, not just in the arts but within activist communities. There’s a housing project a little upriver from Kenner that I both want the reenactment to pass by and want to recruit some people from. I don’t know if I’ll be successful. They might be like, “What the fuck are you talking about? Walking two days in the cold? Fuck no, I ain’t gonna do that.” But I have a lot of confidence in people and confidence that this art will resonate with them. It’s a word-of-mouth project; the more out of my hands, the better. If people are taking up this project as their own and nobody even knows Dread Scott exists, that’s great for me. As long as people are deeply engaging with this history and ideas of emancipation and we get the numbers for the costumes and people show up on the right day.
LN: Is there any process in place for documenting the impact that planning has on the performers in the year leading up to the reenactment?
DS: The process for planning it, yes. The aftermath, no. In the process, many of the conversations will be recorded. I can bring a high-quality film and audio crew when I’m involved, that’s easy. But I intend to give equipment to other people that are recruiting with simple instructions so that they can document their conversations. That hasn’t begun yet, but I’ve given some thinking about how that’ll work.
LN: With the petrochemical plants as the backdrop along that Cancer Alley corridor, what does that juxtaposition with the performance do for you? Southern Civil War reenactments typically take place in open green spaces miles away from the actual battle sites in attempts to recreate a past unaffected by the present. So you’re melding those two settings. What does this project say about progress?
DS: My work draws on the past to talk about how the past sets the stage for the present and how it exists in the present in a new form. A lot of traditional reenactment wants to excise and get rid of the present because they’re trying to let people live in the past and imagine what that would be like. While I do want people to imagine freed slaves—not slaves that were granted their emancipation but who took it—I want them to imagine that, but I more want them to look at that clash with the present. What would it mean if you have people with this sort of vision walking around in the present? And I think that poses an interesting challenge.
Two hundred years ago, just upriver would’ve probably been sugar fields and plantations. What were plantations have been replaced by oil refineries. I can show you a map of Destrehan Plantation. There is a sign. Where is it? (flips through Fragments of the Peculiar Institution, an artist book of his research into slavery) “This historic site donated by Amoco Oil Company.” So they quite literally bought the land that had plantations and put up oil factories, taking one mode of production and then updating that. So there is something that’s interesting to me about seeing 500 hundred people with antique weapons, including torches and sabers, muskets and blunderbusses, and horses marching past the modern-day incarnation of what is actually enslaving people all over the world.
LN: As a black man and a revolutionary communist artist, given the black labor exploitation in our society, including within the art world, what does success for this project look like? And how do you use this project, which is about a people’s response to black labor exploitation, to reconceptualize power as a working artist?
DS: If I can actually do the whole reenactment and have people who are embodying this history, who are deeply engaged, who feel themselves becoming ambassadors for freedom, then that would be success. I want it to be filmed and the film will be screened either at a museum or be broadcast as a more traditional documentary. That’s important to me because I want more people to see it than can see it live. But still I think the optimal viewing experience is the guy driving to work, driving to a gypsum production plant or whatever, who sees this ghost slave army and thinks, “What the fuck am I looking at?” I want people talking about the project. I want curricula to be created so people can actually study this at the college and high-school levels.
There’s a real need for people to think about freedom differently. I mean, today, so many people talk about social change based on what they think is possible; this was a situation where people dreamed the impossible. They didn’t start with what was easy. They started with what was necessary and then worked backwards towards action. It was a long shot, but it was courageous. They ultimately failed. But, you know, life expectancy on a sugar plantation was nine years, so it was really a freedom or death situation. That’s the situation billions of people are in right now all over the world. Half of the world is trying to survive on less than $2 a day. People are picking through garbage across a sewage canal across from opulent, gleaming skyscrapers. People are being robbed and having their lives robbed from them, even in this country. So even if you have just 500 people grasping the significance of this rebellion where people were boldly imagining freedom and taking action to do that. I’m tired of “maybe we can get some lobbying” or “if things go really well, maybe we can get Hillary” or “maybe we can get Bernie.” And it’s like, alright, Bernie’s not Trump. Great. But Bernie ain’t fucking freedom. He’s running to be head of this empire. So people’s sights are way too fucking low and having 500 people really engaging with this and connecting with each other and an image of this spectacle for people to contemplate and to think about, that will be successful for me.