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What’s Possible in America

September 3, 2015

The thing I remember most about the start of the performance was the deafening sound of silence.

That was the first unexpected moment during artist and activist Dread Scott’s performance piece with More Art. The crowd pressed forward in anticipation as Scott turned a corner and prepared to advance. The firefighters, prepared to unleash a stream of water against Scott equivalent to a crowd control hose, were at the ready. And the world held its breath.

On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, Scott’s performance art project with More Art, almost never happened at all. Site after site turned down the project, marking it as a health hazard, or citing potential structural damage. When the moment came once again to find a new location, and the Archway under the Manhattan Bridge popped up on our screens, the moment had arrived. Talks with the DUMBO BID showed that they understood the significance of the piece, and months of planning and several site visits and run-throughs later, there we were: standing at the brink of uncertainty and one man’s sheer force of will.

We were realizing a dream.

Dread Scott sought to bring attention to the ongoing oppression against the black community by flagrant and systemic abuses of power: recent injustices across the country, from Florida to Missouri, had proven that this oppression was far from over. More Art understood and reinforced that vision. On the Impossibility of Freedom was a project containing a powerful statement, enacted by a single man daring to brave a carefully controlled, high pressure fire hose. Through this grand gesture, the artist was able to re-appropriate the symbolic persecution protesters once suffered in order to advocate for rights as equal citizens. Now, instead of being the victim of police brutality, Scott was creating a new legacy of strength, power, and a demonstrated will to push forward into a new era.

As he stepped toward the fire hose, shooting up to full blast, the only thing more surprising than the roaring silence was the rapt attention Scott received from the crowd, not the least from an entire performing arts high school visiting from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominately African-American neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn. The very morning we were preparing to reap the benefits of all our blood, sweat and tears, out of nowhere an email arrived.

At 8:30 AM.

That the entire performing arts high school planned to come and witness the performance.

This, in an area with limited sidewalks and an active loading dock.

It was a logistical nightmare.

We had been preparing for a crowd, not an onslaught.

And it was tough. Some kids were jostling for the best view, some were just bored. Many were texting. The moment that Scott rounded the corner and began striding forth toward the jet of water, not one student turned away to look at their phone. The student body, along with every other witness, was completely stunned by the powerful moment.

The scene was, truly, breathtaking. Watching the truth of our shared history as a nation unfold in real time is something that photographs can never truly re-enact for us. This power and sheer magnitude of force endured by protesters when those water hoses turned on, unfolding there before us, made for an unforgettable-and harrowing- experience.

Did the performance go through without a hitch? Absolutely. Were there rough patches leading up to its realization? Naturally. But most importantly: was this powerful moment of wonder in DUMBO an undeniable reminder that our future as a nation depends on ending systemic oppression?

It’s not impossible.

Originally posted on American’s for The Arts ARTSBLOG
Article written by Audra Lambert, published August 26, 2015