The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street, 2001–2009
This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Pope.L’s body of work consists of painting, performances, installations, objects, and texts that interpolate into long-standing constructions and anxieties around bodies, sociality, and language. From the late 70s to late 90s, he produced a set of works which specifically dealt with black bodies, other bodies, and homeless bodies. In an iteration of his work Eating the Wall Street Journal (1991–2000), for instance, Pope.L consumed the titular newspaper while wearing a jockstrap and covered in flour, seated atop an elevated sculptural toilet. In this instance, after digesting the Wall Street Journal, the artist spit and vomited out the paper of financial record; his unsettling purging leaving remnants of the masticating process throughout the gallery or street space where the piece was variously performed. Embracing confrontational metaphors, Pope.L’s work often uses similarly visceral gestures to point to systematically disenfranchised bodies as subjugated by institutional and public structures and historical legacies.
Pope.L’s street-based performances often involve grueling crawls in which he moves through public sites in New York City, such as Tompkins Square and Times Square, on his hands and knees to provoke acknowledgement and reconsiderations of social inequity, homelessness, and abjection. In speaking to these street crawl works, Pope.L notes that, “In New York, in most cities, if you can remain vertical and moving you deal with the world; this is urban power. But people who are forced to give up their verticality are prey to all kinds of dangers.” For these crawl performances, which he has been enacting since the late 1970s, Pope.L consciously strips himself of an upright position of agency within the city in order to call attention to the hierarchies of power, especially as they relate to homelessness, which are overlooked in daily life and are accepted without question.
One of Pope.L’s most grueling and provocative performances, The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–2009), consisted of the artist using only his elbows and knees to crawl the entirety of the 22 miles of Broadway, the longest street in Manhattan. For this performance, Pope.L crawled from Ellis Island onto a ferry that took him to Lower Manhattan, where he continued to crawl north to Broadway’s terminal point in Harlem. Pope.L undertook the performance periodically over the course of nine years, repeating the gestures as he moved progressively north for each phase of the work. During the performances, Pope.L wore a superman outfit and a skateboard attached to his back while he laboriously pulled himself along the city street, signifying humiliating street hustling and abject struggle in the process. In Lower Manhattan, Pope.L’s Broadway path passed charged symbols of the divisions of wealth and poverty as well as systems of power and oppression such as the Charging Bull sculpture in Bowling Green Plaza and the African Burial Ground National Monument at 290 Broadway. The pun of the work’s title, The Great White Way, refers to the historical Broadway theater district, and also doubles as an indictment of the privileges of the intersection of class and whiteness and its proprietary.
In describing the motivation behind his crawl performances, Pope.L has said, “My take on homelessness in New York was that we’d gotten too used to seeing these people on the streets. I hadn’t gotten used to it, but it seemed as if people were devising strategies in order not to see the homeless. We’d gotten used to people begging, and I was wondering, how can I renew this conflict? I don’t want to get used to seeing this. I wanted people to have this reminder… I don’t want to speak for street people or in the name of street people. I want to poetically recreate street images and experiences that reconfigure the troublesome feelings we all go through when we encounter these ‘sides’ in the street.”* Through these bodily renegotiations of the city, Pope.L’s work exposes the tensions of everyday street interaction to break passersbys out of the naturalized and neutralized relationship they might have to people living on the street. In the context of Lower Manhattan, the discomforting gesture of Pope.L’s supine body struggling to move north amidst soaring skyscrapers makes it one of the more troubling and incisive performances to take place across the sites of Lower Manhattan’s everyday environment.
Documentation of the work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
– Alex Fialho
Photo Credits (both images):
The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001
Photo credit: Lydia Grey
Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.