8 min readJan 22, 2024


William Pope.L Interview by Gerry Fialka Nov, 2007

The Santa Monica Museum of Art exhibited Pope.L’s show: “Art After White People: Time, Trees & Celluloid…” from September 8 to December 23, 2007. He has crawled on Wall Street dressed in a Superman outfit. He chained himself to a bank and handed out 5 dollar bills as reversed panhandling. I was most impressed with his attentiveness to my questions and the fact that he actually did not mind thinking about them. That meant sitting in silence sometimes.

G- What is your earliest memory?
W- …Sitting in my crib and looking at a piece of frosted plastic flapping in the draft over a window.
G- Is memory a blessing or a curse?
W- Memory is fiction.
G- What is your favorite form of information?
W- Hmmmm. Myth, stories…lies.
G- Why do humans collect information?
W- To organize the welter of uncertainty we are prey to.
G- Why do we have to organize it?
W — Because we are prey to it.
G- We don’t have a choice?
W- No, no humans must pattern in order to survive…The drive to pattern moves beyond bodily survival and encompasses less material concerns such as psychology or spirituality.
G- McLuhan said, “You can’t prove you are sane, unless you have discharge papers from a mental hospital.” You’ve had a little therapy. Was it a positive experience?
W- Yes, but like any product, any service you purchase — let the buyer beware! Therapy is not a dvd; that is, you don’t just turn it on and it goes by itself. But then maybe therapy should be like a dvd…with a playlist and extended versions of neuroses…
G- Is this tendency to collect info in our DNA or is it learned?
W- Has to be both. But “collect” sounds too clinical, too detached. It doesn’t sound necessary and connected to the fray. So if you mean collect as in to collect firewood — yes! If you mean collect as in to collect stamps — yea, sure why not? But if you mean collect as in to gather — no! People make choices, judgements, interpretations — ants gather, people process.
G- The Bic pen is your main writing tool. What human sensorium do you extend with the pen?
W- My mind, the rhythm of my blood, my absence. The pen permits the world to get into me — -through this itty bitty hole…
G- Has any film, song, experimental theater piece or performance art piece ever changed a law like Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’ or Lewis Hines photographs did? Being the actual tipping point?
W-Social change is overrated. It’s a logo. But it’s necessary, partly ’cause it cannot be otherwise and partly ’cause I believe no one thing has ever produced significant social change on its lonesome, why expect it of art? I mean, has astrophysics ever changed a law?
G- When you first read Joseph Beuys’s term “social sculpture,” did you say to yourself: That’s what I’m doing or that’s what I’ll do?
W- His large, clumsy and various body of work was not completely known to me at the time. I was 19. It was also very difficult to know where the term ‘social sculpture’ was harking to or from. And how was it articulated by what he actually made or did? and anyhoo, when did Beuys know he was doing social sculpture? Did he suddenly say one day, maybe he was in the shower or at the weiner bar, and he turns to Johann, the weiner-tender, and he says: “Hey, Johann! Hey! Hey! Hey, Johann! Guess what? I’m making social sculpture!” I like it that he might have said something like this but the guy was a kidder and a circus guy. He liked to mix it up with people and animals. That’s pretty social. He also liked to make things with his hands — that’s sculpture. There you go.
G- What does social sculpture enhance or intensify?
W- Its own ideology
G — What does it render obsolete?
W- Itself
G- What does it bring back that was previously obsolesced?
W- Itself.
G- When pressed to an extreme what does social sculpture flip into?
W- Popular culture.
G-What is more important, conviction or compromise?
W- Conviction.
G- Did you get this from your parents?
W- Yes, because they were convicted.
G- Literally?
W- Well, literalness is the new figurative.
G- Is ambition based more on fear or joy?
W- When you are younger — joy. When you are older, it’s fear.
G- Duchamp said there is no art without an audience. What role does the audience play in your creative process?
W- Puts the fear in me.
G- One of your books lists Frank Zappa’s ‘Burnt Weenie Sandwich’ on a timeline. He talked about creating for himself, and if others like it — great. Was that just romantic?
W- Just romantic? No. It was also good business to keep the audience in its place. It was also defensive. Zappa, like Miles Davis, was a transitional hybridist kind of over-compensating, super-prolific egotistical kind of figure. Both, over the course of their careers, worked with incredible supporting casts, with whom they had to negotiate in order to ensure their practice — the notion of claiming to only do some thing for oneself in a setting such as theirs is either ignorant or cynical or smart in some spoiled childlike way — Legend has it that Zappa was miserable during his production of Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica.’ So — did he make himself miserable only for the sake of himself?…I don’t know…
G- Some say Frank worked and Don (Captain Beefheart) played. One of your books also listed the Beckett quote: “Nothing is more funny than unhappiness.” Steve Allen said, “Behind every joke is a grievance.”
W- I think behind every joke is a calculus. How does this entity “the funny thing” work? Formally, the joke, ‘The Aristocrats’ is just a joke, but it has this infinitely extendable middle that unhinges it as a joke. The joke itself is a shell — the thing that’s interesting is the joke’s disregard for well-behaved form. If the well-made joke depends on conciseness and timing, ‘The Artistocrats’ depends on infinite duration and the unthinkable. I’d like to stage a performance of the telling of ‘The Aristocrats’; one telling lasting 24 hours or one week, using multiple tellers all extending, elaborating on one single telling. Grrrrrr!
G- McLuhan explained ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce. We all use our creative powers while sleeping and dreaming. The artist dreams awake. Agree?
W- The modernist in me says yes. The postmodernist in me wants to say what the modernist says but can’t
bring himself…hmmmm…I would simply say dreams are commercials. Power packets of condensed wafers of vivid moving images that are palpable yet impenetrable yet that do work. There can be no innovation without the gangplank of dreaming…
G- Humans often imitate the hidden effects of what we invent. Can you tell me any hidden effects of storytelling?
W- Hidden? I’m not sure, about hidden. But folks usually don’t tend to think about the teleological aspects of stories, so in that way perhaps it is hidden. Teleology is, loosely, a projecting into the future. Stories, in essence, are just extension; always moving toward the next word, and the word after that — if there is always an ‘after’ then there can be no death…film, as a child of the story, performs perhaps even more palpably as extension. Bad films do this better than good films. Usually ’cause bad films tend to feel long; duration becomes palpable in bad film. Experimental film, as a genre, is good film that imitates the duration of bad film.
G- Can satire be destructive?
W- Sure.
G- I noticed you included in one of your books, the Lenny Bruce quote, “Satire is tragedy plus time.” Is anger a productive emotion?
W- Sure.
G- Moshe Feldenchrist spoke of how one can actually incorporate a weakness with a strength, rather than try and overcome a weakness. Can you name a weakness that you’ve incorporated to form a strength?
W- My eyesight. I’ve developed a theory of the near-sighted. I like to think of works by Robert Ryman and another can depend on what happens at 2 inches and what happens at 10 feet. The space in between these two distances is a trip, a journey, a zoom, a tracking shot — its an analytical and illusory at 10 feet and its intimate and infantile at 2 inches.
G- How do you find peace of mind?
W- I ride my bike.
G- Me, too. Tell me something good you never had, and never want.
W- The Parthenon.
G- Wyndham Lewis wrote: “Artists are engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because they are the only people who live in the present.” Well put, but it sounds elitist. What did he mean?
W- He’s a modernist trying to write a job description.
G- Your performances are in the present. Kinda Zen, Be Here Now.
W- If there is a particular time for artists, it would be the past not the present. We are too afraid of the future and the present bores us. But the past is over, it’s already a commodity.

Addendum 2024:

I sSlute to William Pope.L, who was called The Friendliest Black Artist in America, transitioned in Dec 2023. Ponder his words: “I am a fisherman of social absurdity, if you will… My focus is to politicize disenfranchisement, to make it neut, to reinvent what’s beneath us, to remind us where we all come from.” and “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”

“A put-on is not necessarily a put-down. I liken what I do sometimes to a life game, as an adventure in absurdity, an adult fairytale in which I engage people emotionally and intellectually. The audience gets involved and has to decide for itself what’s going on and what’s to be learned from the experience. Everybody is a participant.” — Alan Abel

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