All the characters are real including you

William Pope.L,  The Long White Cloud , 2013 (video still) Commissioned by Te Tuhi

William Pope.L, The Long White Cloud, 2013 (video still)
Commissioned by Te Tuhi

 

Published in:
William Pope.L: The Long White Cloud
Te Tuhi, Auckland
2017
ISBN: 978-0-908995-65-3
 

 

Sonny: I think there’s something wrong with me.[1]

The Opening. It is jet black and silent, 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 10 ... house lights on ... actors centre stage ... applause ... actors bow and exit. I observe a stunned audience staggering down steps and exiting the gallery that had been transformed into a small theatre.

About 60 minutes earlier, this gallery was packed to the brim with an eager audience, wide-eyed and unsuspecting of what was to unfold. Talking to people afterwards, I nd they were either deeply troubled, perplexed and searching for polite words, or enthusiastically blown away. Both reactions are understandable. For this audience was subjected to a menacing, mind-fucking and history-muddling storyline of David Lynch-like disquiet with Samuel Beckett-like wordplay and existential crisis. The artwork in question is The Long White Cloud (2013), a live play and installation by prominent Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, commissioned and produced by Te Tuhi.

In this work, an unusual narrative is performed by a cast of three actors, two of whom play multiple characters, grappling with overt and latent themes of love, language, race and beauty and troubled by bleakly absurd forms of sexual, mental and physical abuse. The abuse is not violence for shock and awe but is used as a metaphor for poverty, institutional racism, colonialism, nationalism and income inequality — a masticated composite of issues which, when mangled together, act as insidious strategies; used to control populations directly as straightforward oppression and indirectly by increasing the likelihood of domestic abuse that so sadly circulates through families and communities.

__________________

 

Pope.L: Social conditioning is a form of molestation.2

The Motivation. Pope.L is an intriguing artist to me because of
his determination and skill in merging the murky cultural and political signi cance of art production together with the materiality of its making — a pursuit that has led him to blend a soiled conceptualism and a social conscience within complex reveries.

I rst made contact with Pope.L in 2011 to explore exhibiting his ongoing series of text-based drawings in a group show called What do you mean, we? (2012).3 These works explore both nonsensical and racially charged phrases such as: “WHITE PEOPLE ARE THE SKY THE ROPE AND THE BONFIRE”, “BLACK PEOPLE ARE THE RAIN AGAINST THE WINDSHIELD”, “PURPLE PEOPLE ARE THE END OF ORANGE PEOPLE”. However, in conversation with Te Tuhi’s then Director James McCarthy I came to the realisation that Pope.L was a gure that would be worth exploring a more in-depth relationship with.

His work had never been exhibited in New Zealand before and was largely unknown in this part of the world — that is unless you happen to be interested in performance art or experimental theatre: if so you would probably be a fanatic Pope.L fan. An additional motivation of exhibiting Pope.L was to increase support for local artists who might be interested in producing artworks
that address the global complications of race, gender or class inequality. Artworks that explored these topics were not fashionable at the time within the mainstream of the country’s art scene, as critic Anthony Byrt exclaimed in a review of the 2012 City Gallery exhibition Prospect: New Zealand Art Now:

... underpinning the exhibition was an alarming if unintentional thesis that perhaps we don’t want to deal with sticky questions at all; that when confronted with the grubby realities of globalization, we’d rather park up on our safe islands, make pretty things, and pat each other on the back instead.[4]

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Pozzo: The tears of the world are a constant quantity.5 

The Process. Email communication swelled and waned over 12 months or so until nally Pope.L and I decided to produce a solo exhibition — one that was ambitious enough for him to experiment and saw Te Tuhi taking on a new level of contribution to the local art scene. Initially, Pope.L proposed an extension of his crawl performances where he would emerge from a pool containing 25 tonnes of sugar then crawl 15 kilometres to downtown Auckland and lie on the road outside the central police headquarters. A few Skype meetings later, the project evolved into a narrative-based theatrical production that would nod towards New Zealand’s colonial context.

This shift required Te Tuhi to transform its main gallery space into a small theatre with a modular stage set capable of being recon gured at the artist’s request. Pope.L made a sketch of
the stage; Te Tuhi produced a model based on his plans; Pope.L produced a script; Te Tuhi held auditions; Pope.L reviewed the auditions via video links; Te Tuhi employed a set designer, a director of photography, a sound engineer, a lighting desk operator, a couple of director’s assistants and a wardrobe consultant; Pope.L conversed with the actors via Skype. He nally arrived, after 20 hours of travelling, on a Tuesday afternoon and we moved directly into rehearsals and lming the following day. By the start of the next week we were in the editing suite, cutting the raw footage that would then be con gured into a video projected within the installation component of the exhibition.

Despite all this organisation, it was crucial that Te Tuhi used a method of working that would accommodate Pope.L’s Dada-esque and improvisational sensibilities. In my research I learnt that this is a key condition in his practice that enables him to probe for slippages of intent and meaning within language, materiality, form, history, politics and social behaviour.

Having absorbed the script, concluded auditions and started constructing the set, Pope.L and I also had to work around the organisational needs of promoting a project that still needed the option to grow. We had to nd a way of including the public in this idea of art not being something xed and knowable but something continually susceptible to change — a hard sell in our current age of entertainment and event culture that favours clear communication and easy-to-understand ideas. For in truth, Pope.L’s project was in continual ux and unpredictability — its form is a precarious entity that re ected the volatility of the individual within society. If the exhibition were a person it would be much like the characters in Pope.L’s script — someone who is hostile to the pressures of social conformity because hidden within conformity is a type of violence enacted by the many upon the few or by the powerful upon the powerless. Seeking out the knife-edge of uncertainty and contradiction has been an important driver throughout Pope.L’s practice and life. He explains:

I’m suspicious of things that make easy sense ... whereas contradiction does make sense to me. When I was able to accept that something could be true, and not true, I felt at home ... For example, one of the hardest paradigms is that your family can hurt you, and love you at the same time. How can that be possible? ... but being able to accept that contradiction at this level has been a guiding principle for me; it’s not an answer, it’s a positioning that’s always unstable.[6]

For his exhibition at Te Tuhi, Pope.L sought to create what he termed a ‘format-performance’ accommodating a type of play existing in competing versions: live, recorded and edited. Through these different formats uncertainty was explored via an unfolding drama that acted out dif cult family relationships as a microcosm of larger societal dysfunctions. Overall, the work was informed by a series of interrelated enquiries, including an attempt to find solidarity between the national and the individual; a search for clarity in a ‘post-race’ culture as it supposedly exists in the United States and New Zealand today; and the questioning of what such a culture is and what it feels like. It also explored the impossibility of truly connecting to another’s situation or history. 

Given this content and approach to the work, it was important at the moment of promoting the exhibition that I was accurate and careful with language. This was critical in order to resist possible concluding statements that would pro le the project as one particular thing. For it was indeed a project in the throes of becoming and was undoing itself through the meta-complexities of melding two connected but vastly different geo-political conditions. Pope.L explained it as a fraught process of searching for a type of factual reality only to have that reality become a guise. In an email to me he wrote:

So this history we want to make, this play, this song of in- betweenness will be about not knowing who we are and using the mask of, let’s say for example the history of the United States or Aotearoa or my father or your mother or some ctional hybrid character made of bits of your mom, Ma ̄ ori culture and southern American black culture — this mask could be true and based on supportable evidence but if I use this mask to hide my face then there’s that — isn’t it?[7]

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Walker: Yeah. Well, like the inside of a labyrinth the color of a Rorschach, right?[8]

The Critique. In the Rorschach test there is nothing on the page but ambiguous symmetrical ink clouds and yet we perceive things that are thought to trigger thoughts, desires, fears and biases, all fed to us through our subconscious. The complicated ambiguity in The Long White Cloud worked in a similar way. For example, some Pa ̄ keha ̄ practitioners found the work confronting, expressing concern that Pope.L had not spent enough time in the country to become aware of the speci c endemic issues which his work partially references. He was scrutinised and compared to other high-pro le ‘international artists’ who, in a growing trend, make a habit of ying into foreign countries or communities to tackle topical issues but fall short due to naive assumptions or misaligned agendas. This perspective was teased out in a review of the live performance written by artist and academic Mark Harvey. He writes:

In The Long White Cloud he’s taken on the challenge of getting a crash course in Aotearoa’s race relations, history and colonisation, spending no more than a week in person ... what would he know about the complexities of Aotearoa, we might ask? ... Is this just another American internationalist and colonising reading of us here in Aotearoa?[9]

Pope.L and his artwork triggered a threat within the Pākehā psyche — one that, if I am truly honest, is motivated by a considerable amount of inherited colonial guilt and one that secretly wishes to ‘protect’ this country’s colonial discourse. This ‘protection’ is driven by a latent desire that seeks to own the struggle of Ma ̄ ori and to limit the discourse to that of a strictly bicultural conversation.[10] By wanting to maintain a legitimate position within the discourse, Pa ̄ keha ̄ take on the delusion that they are gracious liberators willing to relinquish their privilege, while in reality they secretly wish to maintain power by shutting down the possibility of outside in uence. As Harvey explains, “we may position ourselves as morally superior to the institutionalized racism of America ... [but] many of us (Pa ̄ keha ̄ especially) are just as complicit to racism and colonization as Americans”.[11]

This is a dynamic tension that the work has been able to engender. However, to limit The Long White Cloud to implicating the id of white privilege would do a grave disservice to its many other more interesting aspects, such as the multi-layered dialogue, the blurring of familial personas and the manipulative power of historic narratives.

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Dr. Bledsoe: ... for God’s sake, learn to look beneath the surface ... Come out of the fog, young man ... Play the game, but don’t believe in it.[12]

The Characters. Pope.L lands and stirs the pot — a mixture of histories and thorny cultural assertions — and then exits. While the concerns of unethical practice by ‘jet-setting’ artists are worthy of consideration, they are redundant in this instance. Pope.L’s experimental perceptiveness operates in a way that avoids any absolute claims, damning critique or essentialist commentary. He never intended, nor was expected, to make an artwork about New Zealand but rather planned on seeking commonality with his own experience in order to establish some sort of dialogue.

As his drawn text works illustrate, there is an absurdity in the language we use to classify people and how we in turn are willing or coerced to be classi ed. Likewise, in The Long White Cloud Pope.L was seeking a common ground through the telling of stories, the manifestation of national identity and the formation of the family as a nucleus for society. This is most apparent in Pope.L’s creation of the characters, whom he explains in the opening credits of the subsequent 2014 edit of the video component:

Samuel Christopher as:
1. Sonny;
2. The truth-ivist;
3. Symbolic of New Zealand.

Aruna Po-Ching as:
1. Mother;
2. Possibly her younger self;
3. Female high school friend, Cooper, based on a Māori activist;
4. The Intentionalist;
5. Symbolic of Great Britain;
6. Symbolic of the Author.

Stephen Bain as:
1. Father;
2. Possibly his younger self;
3. Male high school friend, Seddon, based on a former prime minister; 4. Factory worker, Ranginui Walker, based on the Ma ̄ ori activist;
5. The Constructivist;
6. Symbolic of America.

Directors Notes:
1. Sugar is not an export of New Zealand;
2. New Zealand is a former colony of Great Britain, currently friendly with the United States;
3. All the characters are real including you.[13]

Here, Pope.L lists not just the multiple characters that each actor plays but the plural attitudes and motifs that each holds within the frame of the play and in the reality beyond the frame of the theatre, gallery or camera. These meta-levels of persona absorption make The Long White Cloud a confounding case of social psychology. This said, however, Pope.L does leave compelling ciphers within the script and stage presence that pull the audience through the tangle of implied signifiers.

Scene 6. In the factory, Walker catches Sonny daydreaming on the job, which we learn is because he is sleep-deprived due to using his bed, the bed of his parents’ consummation, to imprison his Mother: “so — I tied her up to it. Now she eats in that bed. Sleeps and cries and shits in that bed. Just like I did.” After Sonny’s outburst, Walker launches into a story. Walker, I should add, is modelled on the late Ranginui Walker, noted by Pope.L as a “Māori activist” but also a leading academic and historian known for his seminal text Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End, a book which fuses Ma ̄ ori creation myths and political realitiesto create a rigorous and persuasive narrative of the worldview mismatch between Māori and Europeans — an incongruity that has been used as a colonising strategy by the Crown and a tactic of subversion on the part of Māori.

Picking up on the power of story construction within the Māori oral tradition, Pope.L gives the character Walker the role of storyteller, the soothsayer, the elucidator, but also the manipulator of Sonny’s mind and understanding of history. He tells a story of the extinction of the piopio bird, but in this telling the species is anthropomorphised: “These island piopio were special. Their loss of ight was compensated by their ability to read and write.” This morphs into an account of the Treaty of Waitangi as not just an agreement between people but also that of family:

they [the piopio] wrote a treaty between nation and family: how nation begets family and how family begets children ... all this begetting. Nation begetting family, family begetting children. What’s it all about?[14]

In this scene, many neural pathways of association are bridged between related but ill-conjoined subjects, crafted together as one. The montage of related but misplaced content is mixed, providing an uncanny resemblance to issues and histories that are present simultaneously on the levels of individual, family and nation. It is through this awareness that Pope.L’s characters begin to re ect the construction of the ‘self’ — how we as complex beings form and reform our sense of identity through nature and nurture, through actor and character, and also, I would argue, through artist and artwork. We create certain and stable personas built upon unstable personal neurosis and upon all too persuasive stories of social collectivity.

This reading is reinforced in the second to last scene where a near naked Stephen Bain, having adorned himself in body paint, proceeds to improvise a type of haka. Sonny then arrives at his Father’s place to meet Bain who, now playing Father and wearing a bowler hat and a red-painted ‘NZ’ emblazoned on his bare chest, sits on a stool sipping a can of Lion Red beer. The character posing as Sonny’s Father is simultaneously, insidiously, an amalgam of Walker, former New Zealand prime minister Richard John Seddon, a symbol of the condescending paternal America and what Bain personally nds within himself to bring to the role.

Other references can be inferred here, ones perhaps not deliberately made by Pope.L, in particular the signi cance of the Father’s bowler hat. Māori were fast to absorb the power signi ers of European fashion and the bowler hat was one such item. An example of this is found in the bowler-hat-wearing tekoteko that takes prominent position upon the apex of Te Tākinga pā taka
— a late nineteenth-century pa ̄ taka on permanent display in the Mana Whenua exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The tekoteko represents the prominent Waikato chief and Ma ̄ ori king Tāwhiao who, so it is told, placed his hat on a North Island map to designate the land he claimed under his rule, thus naming it Te Rohe Po ̄ tae (the district of the hat).

A bowler hat can also be seen in Charles Goldie’s 1905 painting ‘All ’e Same t’e Pākehā’ (Te Aho-o-te-Rangi Wharepu, Ngā ti Mahuta). However, in this painting the symbolism of the hat is 46 con icted due to the painter’s motivation to document the dwindling legacy of what he considered a ‘dying race’. The bowler hat in this instance acts as an emblem of the submissive assimilation of
Māori within a European-dominated civilisation, rather than being evidence of savvy resilience and subversive appropriation of the mana of another culture.

A New Zealand viewer of The Long White Cloud might also trace a connection between the stocky, beer-guzzling, ‘NZ’-marked aspect of the Caucasian Father character and his resemblance
to the delinquent gures in the paintings of Tony de Lautour. In paintings such as Blackhead (1995) or Shore Party (1999), de Lautour illustrates redneck ‘kiwi yobbos’ sporting ‘NZ’ tattoos and trashing postcard-perfect vistas with beer bottles. In light of these resemblances, the Father could be considered a ritualistic Pa ̄ keha ̄ male gure emblazoned with signi ers of nationhood and kiwi-esque characteristics — he is a monster caught between self, family and nation.

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Cooper: I heard you got lost.

The Installation. Pope.L noted on 20 July 2013:

This project ... consists of two versions (that are cousins) operating together but at different points in the life of the project ... The installation version of the play is an edited video ... viewed from behind the set wall. The audience and set areas remain in the same condition unchanged as they were after the performance. Any programs or trash in the audience seating or props or debris on stage remain as part of the installation.

If the installation is indeed a ‘cousin’ of the live performance, then it is a distant relative — one knows all the dark family secrets but is a step removed. As instructed by Pope.L, after the performance all detritus was left undisturbed apart from a few minor details. The hired theatre spotlights were removed and replaced with dimmed gallery lighting, which provided the type

of intimacy that a desk lamp at night gives. Another change was that the projection screen used during the performance was now blacked out from the front, so that the video component could only be viewed from backstage.

It was an unusual exhibition experience. ‘Haunting’ is the adjective most often used to describe it. After passing the gallery signage, exhibition visitors were confronted with a row of racked seating to the left, a dimly lit stage in front, a brighter spotlight illuminating the backstage area and the eerie sounds of screaming or stern dialogue reverberating throughout the space.

Many visitors were captivated by the work’s sonic qualities, listening to the vaporous dialogue from the derelict seating. Others who were bold or inquisitive enough ventured backstage and were rewarded with the projected lm. A few lingered upon the threshold of the stage, tiptoeing around beer cans and cigarette butts to inspect other strewn props and costumes or being tempted to run ngers through the mound of sugar. There was no one correct experience: viewing the work from in front of, behind or on the stage were equally valid forms of engagement; each offered its own rewards or disappointments.

Viewing the work in installation form was less threatening to some visitors I spoke to — an indication of the visceral effect a live performance can have on a seated audience. In contrast, the installation allowed people to wander about at their own pace and because of this it demysti ed the play, stripping away the fourth wall. For those who did not witness the live performance, the installation sometimes supported the contradictory feeling that a sinister violent encounter had been concealed.

Operating in this more open-ended and con icting capacity, the installation was an abject remnant that allowed access but also hid information. It meddled with fragments of the live and
recorded material. As with all good storytelling, Pope.L edited the original performance and regurgitated it back out into the world in a different but uncanny form where it might continue to beguile, confound or subversively encourage resistance.

 

 
  1. William Pope.L, The Long White Cloud, performance and installation, Te Tuhi, Auckland, 2013.

  2. William Pope.L, “The Long White Cloud: Draft Script,” 20 July 2013.

  3. What do you mean, we? was a 2012 Te Tuhi group exhibition that explored the psychology

    of prejudice. See: www.tetuhi.org.nz/whats-on/exhibitiondetails.php?id=112

  4. Anthony Byrt, “Prospect: New Zealand Art Now,” Artforum, 2012,

    https://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201205&section=wellington.

  5. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (London: Faber & Faber,

    1952).

  6. Martha Wilson, “Interview: William Pope.L,” Bomb Magazine, 1996,

    http://bombsite.com/issues/55/articles/1957.

  7. Bruce E. Phillips and William Pope.L, “William Pope.L: The Long White Cloud,” TT, 2013,

    http://www.tetuhi.org.nz/exhibitions/exhibitiondetails.php?id=129.

  8. Pope.L, The Long White Cloud.

  9. Mark Harvey, “Sweet and Bitter Pope.L,” EyeContact, 11 March 2013,

    http://eyecontactsite.com/2013/09/sweet-and-bitter.

  10. Ani Mikaere, Colonising Myths — Ma ̄ ori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro

    (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2013), 100–102.

  11. Harvey, “Sweet and Bitter Pope.L.”

  12. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (London: Penguin Classics, 1952, new edition 2001), 153.

  13. Pope.L, The Long White Cloud.

  14. Pope.L, The Long White Cloud.

  15. Pope.L, The Long White Cloud.

  16. Pope.L, “The Long White Cloud: Draft Script.”