Dread Scott speaks on artistry and activism in the Nott Memorial

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Arts Editor “Do you think the government values your life? Do you have hope for the future?” These were the questions that social and political activist and artist, Dread Scott asked the audience upon opening his discussion in the Nott Memorial at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Indulging in the social and political philosophies comprised in such a large question, Scott introduced the political and social beliefs that drive his artwork and activism. Although the event started half an hour later than scheduled due to Scott’s train being delayed, his presentation was met with an enthusiastic reception. Much of Scott’s work, usually in the forms of photography, video, screen print, installation art, and performance art, expresses his repulsion for idolatry, passion for equality, and love of basic human rights. Scott also labels himself a communist and often reflects these political beliefs as well as his opposition against “a democracy built upon slavery.” Beginning as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Scott rose to national fame in the late 1990s with his interactive installation “ What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” The piece featured a photo montage comprised of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags and holding anti-American protest signs as well as photos of American flags draped over the coffins of fallen troops. Printed on the photo montage is the titular question. Underneath the photo montage was a blank book in which attendees could write down their answers or thoughts. Pushing the piece to infamy was an American flag laid on the ground directly in front of the book so that the easiest path to the book would entail participants to walk on the flag. The piece sparked national controversy and made headlines. The “Chicago Sun-Times” reported the Bush administration denounced the piece “disgraceful,” while the senate deemed the installation and any other actions purposefully denigrating the American flag illegal. In response, Scott informed the audience that he and his colleagues opted to burn an American flag on the steps of the US Capital Building. Scott’s actions were met with so much controversy, the issue made it to the Supreme Court in a case called “US vs. Eichman.” The Supreme Court ruled that banning such actions was unconstitutional. Scott then moved on to discuss the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision. Although the ruling deemed these actions legal, perpetrators of such behavior were still being arrested and locked up. These cases further inspired Scott and would become a large basis of his later work. The aftermath of the US vs. Eichman ruling provoked Scott into his next project, a photography piece entitled “Burning the US Constitution.” Influenced by Chinese social activist and artist, Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” the piece consisted of three photos, each depicting Scott setting a replica of the document on fire. Other exhibitions inspired by Scott’s hatred of idolatry include his “Money to Burn” performance piece in which Scott walked around New York City’s Wall Street singing “Money to burn!” whilst setting US currency. Other causes that influence his artwork include race, incarceration, war, government repression and revolution. A firm believer in using art as a form of protest and engine for change, Scott also discussed the crucial role artists play in fighting for societal and political reform. As examples, Scott showed the audience several other provocative projects he’d done, including a performance piece called “Decision,” in which the audience watched as four naked black man stood in studio in the Brooklyn Academy of Music surrounded by barking german shepherds and listening to Scott read the full transcript of the 1856 Dred Scott vs. Sanford case. The performance piece concluded with an official questionnaire asking each audience member if they would vote in the 2012 election along with a couple other difficult questions. The questionnaire was delivered in the form of a voting booth, and every participant had to walk through the naked men in order to get to the booth. Another famous piece made the front page in the “New York Times.” Scott hung a large flag that bore the words “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” outside New York City’s Jack Shainman Gallery. The piece was in response to the 2015 death by police force of Walter Scott, a black South Carolinian. Closing the presentation and discussion was Scott’s announcement of an upcoming project of his due to release in the near future. The project is a Slave Rebellion Reenactment in which volunteers will restage Louisiana’s German Coast Uprising of 1811, the largest slave uprising in American history. Still in development, Scott hopes the reenactment will further provoke the public and political leaders alike to reflect on the past and spark changes for the future. Scott also answered questions from the audience before inviting further personal inquiry at a breakfast hosted by the Visual Arts department in the Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts at 9 a.m. the following day. Scott’s work is listed on his official website, dreadscott.net. His work continues to be showcased across the country, including in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum as well as commissioned sculptures installed in Philadelphia’s Logan Square.

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