Black Market

New York

Left: William Pope.L with Miss Black Factory 2005, Pasqualina Azzarello. Right: Performer Rufat Hasanov.

Time Out said there’s a black actor performing about race. And I guess that’s you, but where’s the performance?” demanded one particularly aggressive member of the viewing public at William Pope.L’s performance/installation on wheels, “The Black Factory,” which took up temporary residence on a stretch of Fourteenth Street at Union Square last Saturday. Part bazaar, part museum, part potlatch, the Factory “performed” blackness as commodity fetish. Participants in yellow T-shirts and kilts served visitors with “twice-sold” canned goods and tar-dipped stuffed animals, with the reminder that art dealers Kenny Schachter and The Project set the price at $250 per can (this day’s proceeds went directly to the Foodbank for New York City). Meanwhile, Pope.L encouraged donations of “black objects” to be catalogued and included in the “museum,” an inflatable igloo strung with Murray’s Pomade, sneakers, and lots of old vinyl.

Huddled against the morning rain under a makeshift tent, the Black Factory functioned as a footnote to the chants and calls of a rally protesting Israel’s military action against Lebanon just feet away on the park steps, but by afternoon, with clearing skies, and a collection of bongo drummers taking up the place of the protesters, a carnival atmosphere replaced the morning’s sobriety. When tour manager Lydia Grey took a knife to one of the Factory watermelons, the thirsty crowd thickened, snatching up slices off a table strewn with blowtorched reggae albums while remaining almost completely unaware of the part they played in a racially loaded public spectacle, despite the blackface-masked performers nearby.

Left: The New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics director Carin Kuoni. Right: The Black Factory tour manager Lydia Grey.

By this time, the performers were well into their own skits (written independently under Pope.L’s guidance). Performer Josh Atlas promised a special guest appearance by Janet Jackson but quickly donned a moplike red wig himself (“I want to hear the real Janet Jackson!” clamored one cheated woman), while Rufat Hasanov prostrated himself and began a Pope.L crawl. Nikki Pike attempted to engage a sullen-looking college student. Scribbling “Yo homeless: off the streets (Bloomberg’s REAL PLAN)” on a portable whiteboard, Pike turned to her solo audience: “I’ve only lived in New York twenty-one hours, so I don’t know much.”

Pope.L kept guard at the truck, chatting up friends and strangers alike from the passenger seat. That morning, the Black Factory’s parking permit had been revoked, a bureaucratic setback that reminded me of the NEA’s infamous withdrawal of support from Pope.L’s 2002 Maine College of Art retrospective. But, despite “a few casualties,” as Pope.L put it, the show did go on. Carin Kuoni, director of the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics, the event sponsor, thrilled to the Factory’s direct engagement with the public. “It’s Saturday,” Kuoni explained. “People are in a more open-minded mood.” A crowd of tourist types gazed impassively as Pike, in a Sambo mask, shouted, “The US is making niggers out of everyone!” Kanene Holder, who was recruited first thing in the morning, returned with black plastic bags of Vaseline, matches, Barbie books, and potting soil from a ninety-nine-cent store—all objects she decided “represented blackness”—and spent the day offering up and explaining her selections to passersby.

Left: Artist Kanene Holder. Right: Miss Black Factory 2006, Josh Atlas.

After convincing one pipe-smoking skeptic that he was, indeed, the “CEO” of the Black Factory, Pope.L elaborated on the project’s obligations: “Everywhere we go we try to hook up with a charitable foundation to give back to the community we visit.” As Kuoni discovered in her efforts to identify a local charity, even forging these ties can become an exercise in overcoming preconceptions about race. “When I first spoke with the Foodbank,” Kuoni explained, “they told me they were not only for black people.”

Michael Wang