The Black Factory Archive
(American, born 1955)
William Pope.L, who has dubbed himself “The Friendliest Black Artist in America©,” has been addressing race, class, identity, and stereotypes since the 1970s. He wants to engage people in dialogue about these topics, which he aims to foster through street performances, participatory events, installations, and works ranging from drawing to sculpture. Though the issues are challenging, and the ways in which he uses his own body in his work to confront them are often humiliating and painful, everything he does is infused with a sense of humor. “In the case of humor, it is not just about confronting, but also seducing and lubricating as well as confusing (intentionally). I am after the mixed signal,” he once explained.1
His project, Black Factory, blends art, participation, and provocation, and consists of multiple, interrelated parts. A blow-up tent, called the “Igloo Archive Inflatable (IAI),” houses what the Factory literature describes as “select donated black objects. A black object is anything, anything! a person believes represents blackness to him or her.”2 And a gift shop sells such Factory-altered items as canned foods, bottled water, t-shirts, and American flags. This all packs into a white truck, which his team drives to cities and towns across America, challenging people to confront their prejudices. A small team of performers is always on hand, presenting skits, interacting with the public, and running the Factory’s operations.
In order to function, the Black Factory requires audiences to engage—often in unexpected ways. As the artist writes in an open letter to would-be participants: “Everyone wants to know: What is the Black Factory? What does it do? And how can I get in on the action? Simple! The Black Factory is an industry that runs on our prejudices. That means you don’t have to come to us, we come right to you!…We harvest all your confusions, questions and conundrums, and transform them into the greatest gift of all: possibility!”3
While the Factory is centered upon notions of blackness, Pope.L structured it to encompass broader considerations of the characteristics that distinguish and divide us. “I think it’s important to try to talk about difference, or what separates people, and what brings them together in a public way,” he has explained. “The idea is to maybe bring back some sense of a public square kind of atmosphere.…You want people to feel that they can enter the discussion. At the same time, I don’t want them to get the idea that the discussion is going to be easy.”4
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.
A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.
A form of art, developed in the late 1950s, which involves the creation of an enveloping aesthetic or sensory experience in a particular environment, often inviting active engagement or immersion by the spectator.
William Pope.L Gives Back to Blackness
William Pope.L’s work stems from his own experiences as a black man. With works such as Black Factory, he aims to honor his roots and confront the realities of racism with unflinching honesty: “I’m going to give back to blackness. Because, no matter what anyone says about blackness being a wide horizon of possibilities, as Malcolm X said, you’re still a nigger. And many people still categorize you in a very narrow way.”5
The Black Factory’s Localized Approach
Before the Black Factory hits the road, William Pope.L and his team of performers research issues specific to each place they plan to visit in order to shape their presentations to better suit that locale. In preparing for the performance, the players rehearse various scenarios with the artist. As he once described his method: “In rehearsal, I construct situations of comfort and discomfort. Comfort is necessary to create a platform of trust and commitment. Discomfort is necessary to create a stronger platform by introducing the unfamiliar.…Failure and trial and error are a necessary part of this process.”6
How Much is that Ducky in the Window?
Not all of the objects for sale in the Black Factory are in fact black. Pope.L specifies that a black object may be anything that represents blackness to the person donating that object to the Factory. Some of these donations are pulverized by the team and re-shaped into new items for sale in the gift shop. Among the other items for sale are rubber duckies stamped with the Factory logo, and even a “Yoda Bible”—a 7-11 Slurpee mug in the shape of Yoda’s head shrink-wrapped to a copy of the “White Man’s Bible” written by Ben Klassen, the founder of the white supremacist hate group Church of the Creator.7