Monday, June 08, 2009

Interview: Carl Pope

A Celebration of Blackness, 2006. Letterpress poster.

Carl Pope, an American artist working out of Cleveland, understands the power of art as a tool for social change- his whole body of work deals with social issues, including but not limited to race and class. Because posters allow immediate access to the public sphere and enable conversation with a broader audience, he often chooses this medium for his work. Pope uses letterpress posters as both single images and large, visually striking installations. His interest in addressing the community has also led him to use billboards in public space: A Celebration Of Blackness, commissioned by the Mobile Art Museum in Mobile, Alabama, is one such project. Pope began by asking local individuals, “What do you think when you think about blackness?” Ten of the more than 300 answers ended up as single posters; five were selected for a city-wide billboard campaign.

Billboard for the Mobile Art Museum, 2006.

Poster for the Black Is Black Ain't exhibition, 2008. Letterpress poster, 24 x 18 inches.

Pope has also done more intimate work, like performances where he marks his own body. Last year, Pope produced the poster for the “Black is Black Ain’t” exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago which, in the tradition of his previous work, deals with charged subject matter by downplaying it with a bit of sarcastic humor. Nicholas Mirzoeff has stated that Carl Pope is “doing the hard work of imagining a future for the United States at one of the bleakest times in its history. His work is at once a form of geography, reimagining and imaging the forgotten histories, people, and places in America and a new psychology, creating a state of mind capable of sustaining the shocks of the present. It's soul food for the mind, in sharp contrast to the quick hit of consumer pleasure that dominates the art market, and it's all the more important for that.”

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, 2005 (ongoing). Letterpress poster installation, dimensions variable.

Jose Roca: In works like Palimpsest and The Bad Air Smelled of Roses you use diverse forms of imprinting to address very personal issues. Can you describe those works for me?

Carl Pope: What do you mean by imprinting?

JR: I use imprinting instead of print to refer to a mark (potentially repeatable) that is made by a matrix on a support. In the case of Palimpsest, the imprinted surface was the body, whereas in The Bad Air a commercial form of printmaking (letterpress posters) is used to address personal questions. I just wanted to know more about the impetus behind two works, which, although apparently very different, I find profoundly related.

CP: Oh ok…

My attraction to text began as a child artist in photography. As a child growing up in the 1960’s, television, advertising and news media had an unparalleled effect on me in those formative years. As a result, text has been the only formal aspect present in the entire body of my work. Working as a commercial photographer for many years added to my understanding as to how to incorporate text with imagery or to form imagery with text. I realized after doing a number of projects that I am basically a storyteller, and that realization led me to consider many of my artworks as writing projects. Other things occurred in my practice in the late 1990’s; I split my practice into public art projects and private projects as I began to become more interested in text and narrative structure.

Palimpsest (1999) was my first private writing project where I used my body as a surface of writing and a contested space in terms of black history and identity. I wrote on the surface of my body using branding, surgical cutting and tattooing. I was and continue to be interested in why people in the West chose to construct and/or reconstruct their identities through body modification/writing. I felt it strange that black artists exploring identity in the 1990’s did very little work that used the body and I wanted to open the conversation up by returning to the body. Well, that piece came at a conservative, post-black moment where “identity” was dead and [for] black artists, using the body was “out-of date” and forbidden.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses (2005 until now) is my second private writing project where the text provides the image. I was introduced to letterpress printing by Amos Kennedy and spent a year in York, Alabama making posters for this installation. Each poster is an answer to the question, “What do I think of when I think of Blackness?” The answers I printed referenced a variety of sources from Freud, Lacan, Ellison, Reed, etc. I wanted to make a “forest of signs” that articulated the concepts of Blackness much like stars articulate the blackness of outer space. The Bad Air has a narrative structure created from answers to a question [accompanied by] footnotes.

A Celebration Of Blackness, 2006. Series of 10 letterpress posters, 24 x 18 inches each.

JR: You are planning to do a project for Philagrafika that could be described as a branding strategy for cottage industries. Can you expand on this?

CP: I have titled it “The Philadelphia Cottage Industry Association Ad Campaign Project” (PCIA). President Obama’s administration has plenty of plans: The Economic Stimulus Plan, The Energy Plan, The Medicare Plan, The Environmental Plan, and the list goes on. There is an expanding network of interconnecting plans centered on a basic plan for economic recovery. While Americans are waiting for these plans to succeed, what can be done to inspire grass-roots economic vitality right now? What can be done to create and promote products and services in order to keep money circulating within neighborhoods and small communities? A revival of cottage industries may provide some solutions to the mounting challenges many are facing in this economic crisis.

A cottage industry is a small business where the creation of
products and services is home-based, rather than factory-based. Many people operate cottage industries in addition to full time jobs or depend on it as their main source of income because of the current recession. Home-based businesses can create stability in their neighborhoods since their income is usually derived from the communities in which they reside. Communal bonds are strengthened and trust is established through successful and affirming business transitions between members within a community. As a result, the circulation of money and resources will revitalize and support those living in the neighborhood.

The Philadelphia Cottage Industry Association Ad Campaign Project will consist of a series of billboards of various cottage industries in two areas of Philadelphia. An outdoor installation of them will be displayed in each side of town to promote home-based businesses in that area. An indoor [installation] will be exhibited at the Tyler School of Art.

The goal of the PCIA Ad Campaign is to heighten the public visibility of the city’s cottage industries, to generate new customers, and to create a trend to support home-based businesses as a way to strengthen the economic and communal vitality of a neighborhood, town, or a city.

JR: This dovetails beautifully with the ideas put forward by the founder of Temple University, Dr. Russell Conwell, who in his famous speech “Acres of Diamonds” said that you need not have to look for opportunities or resources far or abroad, but rather realize that they can be found in your own community. His famous motto was "dig in your own back-yard!" Were you aware that the original intent of Temple University was to educate primarily the working class, and was located in the North Philly district as a philanthropic strategy to revitalize that part of the city?

CP: I understand that Temple University is a socially engaged institution and Philly has a long history of commitment to humanitarian causes, but I didn't know about Dr. Russell Conwell specifically.

The dedication of individuals like Dr. Conwell can influence a community for generations. In one of his last lectures, the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida announced that 9/11 marked the beginning of the Age of the Individual. Our ability to affect the world has increased, as evidenced by the horror of the destruction of the World Trade Center. If we are living in the "Age of the Individual" where small groups or an individual can wage war with an empire, then a small group or an individual can usher in tremendous healing and transformation, right? One of the goals in my recent work is to inspire and challenge those individuals whose destiny is to be an effective catalyst at this time in history like Dr. Conwell was in his...

To "dig in one's own backyard" has become a necessity for Americans since the economic collapse has signaled the decline of the American Empire. The corporate consumer mindset made Americans believe that we want the same things in the same way, no matter where we live. Digging in our backyard will cause us to discover our uniqueness. It leads us to experiences of authenticity and to our true selves instead of being unidentified cogs in an imperial/corporate machine. The current economic collapse is influencing people to create new relationships and alliances in their local community that are rebuilding [the community's] institutions. America has experienced the freedom and independence that money can bring, but our humanity suffered because it caused us to conduct our relationships with people and the cosmos with a market-driven, consumer/manufacturer consciousness. This creates misfortune because human relationships and communities are built through an active gift economy and not through viewing people as consumer items. It's no wonder why divorce is so high in Western countries. Therefore, this new trend of "digging in one's backyard” fills me up with gladness and despair. On one hand, I've seen communities improve and people recognizing the need to work together while breaking through historical boundaries of separation. On the other hand, the predatory elements in big business and government have turned their eye from world domination to a surreal post-post-post-colonial/disaster capitalist vision of bankrupting the national treasury. If Dr. Conwell was here to today, I am sure he would be surprised at the web well of meaning and complexity his famous slogan has accrued by those who are for and against his vision of social justice and balance.

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