Interview with Artist Dread Scott about His Upcoming "Slave Rebellion Reenactment" 

By Lyndsey Walsh

February 5, 2019

Image Credit: Dread Scott

Over two hundred years ago, the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history marched across the Louisiana landscape on their way to New Orleans. The amassed 500 enslaved African Americans carried with them a radical idea of taking back their freedom and ending slavery. While this history has been left out of major historical texts about the American culture of revolutions and rebellions, American artist Dread Scott aims to resurrect the movement through his upcoming work entitled “Slave Rebellion Reenactment”.  

I chatted with Scott in early December of 2018 about his upcoming piece “Slave Rebellion Reenactment”, the political and social unrest of the United States, and how art fits in with our current social discourse. 

Dread Scott is well known for his political and protest artworks such as “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?”, which garnered the attention of not only the art world, but also President George H. W. Bush and the US Senate in 1989 who voted to outlaw the piece from being displayed.  Scott says his work “focuses on key concentrations of social contradiction that is really looking at big questions in front of humanity”. Scott explains that when doing work that is for public display, as opposed to in a museum or gallery, it provides him with the opportunity to interact with an audience that may not typically enter traditional spaces where art is exhibited. 

“Slave Rebellion Reenactment” is a project that both works within the artistic interests of Scott’s practice and presents a complex event object for Scott to engage an audience. The piece aims to amass 500 reenactors to embody the role of an army of the enslaved who will march along the original route of the Slave Rebellion of 1811 through rural Louisiana towns and streets through Novemebr 9-10 of 2019. By bringing an artistic focus back to a project like “Slave Rebellion Reenactment”, there is a strong emphasis on the role of public performance. Scott predicts a dualistic reception to the work where one side engages directly with a history of radical actions towards freedom and the other views the piece as a spectacle. 

Scott explains, “I think that the enslaved in 1811 had the most radical vision of freedom on the North American continent, and that’s, that’s important. That’s actually really huge. Sort of thinking a way out of slavery by ending slavery is a very bold vision and to come up with a plan to enact that is incredible. And so, for modern day people to sort of think about getting freed, and what that means, and what it would have meant then, but also how it applies today, is really important. So there is the question of the people who’re embodying this history of engaging with themselves and there is this sort of side that is more a spectacle. The people who are coming home from work or going shopping or something, when they see 500 armed black people in outdated clothing—people armed with machetes or muskets, sabers and sickles, axes and hoes­­­­—that will be a profound cognitive dissonance from like ‘what the hell am I seeing’, because there will be the modern day back drop setting against these people that are saying ‘onto New Orleans, freedom or death, we’re going to end slavery’. And so while there won’t be sort of a talk back or engagement in the midst of the reenactment, people who are seeing this, it will be very challenging to long held assumptions. For some, it will be very positive. For others, it will be perhaps more a confrontational challenge, but I think that in the public in that way, will be quite important. It is something that, you know, it’s in a weird sense, unavoidable. This past colliding with the present is unavoidable in the way that it’s being presented. And I think that for many people that will be really inspiring. For many people living in that region, the shadows of slavery is very long, for some people wanting to continue. The fight to get free now really matters. It is seeing that people really embody these rebels will be really provocative and exciting in a really good way.”

The image Scott is invoking through public performance presents a confronting scene in an area with a long-standing history of racial issues in the United States. It was only this November in Louisiana that a law connected to Jim Crow-era policies on having a split-jury, which has disproportionately impacted the number of African Americans to be incarcerated with life sentences, was finally removed by voters. Scott hopes that the project will shed light on how the current issues in society cannot be easily solved. 

Scott expands on his vision saying, “It will be a wonderful sight for a lot of people. So I do hope that people who don’t have particular allegiance to the way the world is currently organized, I hope they’re like ‘this is fantastic’, ‘it enables me to see the past in a new light, to look at enslaved people as potentially having the radical vision of freedom, of you know, around at the time’, but also then look at the present and say ‘well what bearing does that have for how we think of change now?’”

Image Credit: Dread Scott

However, “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” is not only a project reflecting on history, but also promotes a method of organizing people to enact drastic social change. Scott has utilized a number of strategies from the original Rebellion of 1811 as the framework for piecing together “Slave Rebellion Reenactment”. Participants in the reenactment are being gathered by word of mouth and in small group meetings, which Scott is documenting throughout the project’s process. 

Scott explained the rationale behind these measures of authenticity in performance by stating: “You have to plan clandestinely. You have to get people that have relatively freedom of movement. You have to figure out who were friends and who were enemies. You have to figure out military strategy… The way people are coming together to do the artwork, is trying to learn from that history and embody it in a way that sort of both honors it, but also reflects the necessity that people face… You couldn’t just put up a sign in the square or something like that. You actually had to talk amongst your closest friends and allies, and that’s how the project, the organization of the project, is rolling.”

Scott sees these grassroot mechanisms of organizing revolutions as still highly relevant and crucial to our world today despite our reliance on social media for large scale calls of action. He states, “you aren’t going to bring about any substantive change just by tweeting about it. You actually have to have a broad involvement which will include people being in the streets and people taking risks. I mean, you know, Fredrick Douglas said ‘power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will’. He didn’t add the caveat until twitter… There is a real need for any sort of social movement for people to be in the streets, but also for people to be disruptive, to people having presence. Articles and op-eds, to people secretly helping other people in ways that is against what is ever the status quo, and I think that a lot of that requires talking to people, one on one.”

While Scott’s project draws from a tradition of performance in reenactment that is often linked to visions of Civil War reenactment, Scott differentiates this performance from these restagings of history. He explains, “we can all look at the past, but what past will we remember and why? And you know with a lot of reenactment, civil war reenactment in particular, people are trying to get the costumes right, the clothing, the receptacles, the true movement right, but they get fundamental question of the Civil war wrong. And the social question wrong. Slave Rebellion Reenactment, while we are spending a lot of time trying to get the costuming right, which will be different than I think what a lot of people think of enslaved people having worn, we’re more concerned about the social questions. While this is using costumes of the past to talk about the present, we’re very conscious about that.”

Reflecting on the past and bringing it back to the present, I asked Scott what he thought were the most important dialogues that we can be having now. 

He responded by stating, “in a certain sense the biggest question is and it was true, it was true in 1811, the question was what was the economy going to be based on? And in 1811, in New Orleans, in Louisiana, the economy was a slave economy. It was capitalist, but it was largely based on slavery, and you couldn’t get anything for the vast majority of people, or in the interest of the majority of people, without ending slavery. And likewise, today, as long as we have capitalism, you can’t get to a fundamentally good society. Yea, there, you know, like maybe in Norway or something, you have better healthcare than what we do in America. But fundamentally all around, the world is scarred by capitalism and imperialism. It means wars. It means, you know, people literally owning other people and women and girls getting sold into sex trafficking in the southeast, in southeast Asia, but also here. It means that people get thrown out of their houses in the dead of winter, because property values are better to keep people out of their—kick people out of their homes than actually provide homes for them. And so, the big question is what’s the economy and how do we actually get rid of capitalism, and as part of that, I think people need to look at a scientific communism.”

Scott went on to discuss important questions surrounding current discourses about borders and human rights. Explaining, “well three questions that people are really broadly bumping up against right now in America: one is the position of black people in society, two is the position of women, and three is migration and borders. I mean those are huge questions, and they are actually in much of the world. But I do think we need to have some sort of dialogues about are we gonna have borders that are forced by sort of capitalist and imperialist powers that make life, in say Honduras or Nubia, hell? That forces people to leave and tries to trap them there? Or are we going to say ‘no, these are all our sisters and brothers and we welcome them’? Are we going to have a situation where white supremacy and the actual rationalization of white people thinking they’re genetically or in other ways superior to people of color? Is that going to continue to dominate the world or is that actually going to get chucked out? And the ownership of women is huge. I mean, you got a man in the white house that boasts he’s a pussy grabber. I mean, who says that? And then you get caught on tape, and [he] defends it as locker room talk. You got a guy that you put on the supreme court that not only was credibly exposed as an attempted rapist when he was a kid but also more recently forced, tried to force, a woman to have a child against her will, who was an immigrant and he was trying to deny her access to abortion… The whole supreme court and the logic of it, and American policy is now set up where it is very difficult for women to get control of their bodies and lives and reproduction. And that’s got a binding law based on Christian fundamentalist beliefs. And so, these questions: the position of women, the position of black people, and the question of immigrants and borders are huge, and I think we need to have much deeper conversations.”

Lastly, during our discussion, I asked Scott what he thought about the shifting modes of representation and aesthetics in art and how his work with “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” fits in with artistic discourse. 

Scott responded by stating how although the majority of art work is considered to be done in traditional styles of painting and abstract painting, there are artists like himself that are using their practice to make work that talks about the important questions going on in the world. Dread explains “Its aesthetics matter if it’s in the context of what are the questions that the aesthetics are serving.”

In a time where political and social tumult is so apparent and defined, artistic works are no longer the decorative pieces to frame social conversation. Rather art holds its own political power to generate discourse using aesthetics as the means.

Dread concludes, “I think that art and aesthetics take a range of forms but if we are not talking about what the social content is, then the aesthetics doesn’t really matter all that much.”

Lyndsey Walsh (MSc, Biological Arts) is an American artist and researcher. Her work investigates different knowledge systems and explores their accompanying ideologies and influential narratives. Walsh primarily works aritsitcally with biological materials including stem cells and cancer.