Patriarchy and fathers are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive; confronting either is difficult. Pope.L (who has recently dropped “William” from his moniker) addressed both in Cage Unrequited, staged recently at New York’s Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. The performance was part of both Performa 13 and the two-venue exhibition “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” (at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, through Dec. 7, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, through Mar. 9).
From 10:58 AM on Nov. 16 to the following morning at 11:57, more than 70 invited artists, curators and scholars–many of them Pope.L’s friends and former students–participated in a 25-hour marathon reading of the John Cage’s anthology Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961). Each reader was assigned a different number of pages and given 20 minutes to hold court. In homage to Cage’s most famous composition, the “silent” 4’33” (1952), many sat quietly at a desk while waiting out their allotted time. The sounds of hushed conversations, coughs and shuffling feet filled the room.
As readers took turns with the text, switching places when a bell sounded, Pope.L sat at a second desk with another copy of Silence and patiently transcribed the work by hand. The painstaking act of reproduction and the equally laborious enunciation of the text, both taking place in dim light, suggested a kind of monastic devotion. Once he had filled a yellow legal pad with Cage’s words, the artist tore off sheets of paper and tossed them over his shoulder, the labor itself more important than any perfect transcription.
Cage’s innovation was to cleave the act of musical composition from its traditional forms. Opening the field of music up to all sounds, even the unintentional, Cage was an inclusive composer. Often based on chance operations and indeterminacy, Cagean composition wrests control of the work away from its maker. For this reason, Cage is undeniably the “father” of American experimental music.
Pope.L’s investigation, then, was something of a paternity test. Since the 1970s, his durational performances have probed the relationship between art-making and identity politics. These bonds were made explicit in this performance, which Pope.L framed as a query on the significance of Cage’s legacy for contemporary black artists. As Studio Museum curator Thomas J. Lax (who co-curated Pope.L’s performance with Adrienne Edwards of Performa) averred, all of art’s histories and exhibition practices are their own kind of genealogical enterprises.
Around 11 at night, Pope.L unceremoniously took to the then-empty “reader” desk. Donning a citrine knitted cap, he pushed Cage’s words aside and procured a few of his own–folded–from his pocket. Pope.L proceeded to give a lecture on the black, gay, and mostly forgotten musician and composer Julius Eastman, in particular his 1975 performance of Cage’s Song Books (1970). During the performance, Eastman slowly undressed his boyfriend onstage, then turned to his sister and attempted to undress her as well, though she refused. The next day, the older composer allegedly pounded his fist and cried, “I’m tired of people who think that they can do whatever they want with my music!”
Despite the tenor of reverence for Cage that suffused much of the performance, Pope.L’s conjuring of Eastman introduced discord into an otherwise harmonious space. Eastman’s performance of Song Books threatened heteronormative standards of reproduction and questioned the prohibitions against queerness and incest.
Both a collective paean and a renunciation, Pope.L’s spoken interlude disrupted any straightforward notion of filial piety. In the ambiguous and uneasy space it created, I kept returning to the performance’s title like a refrain, an incantation. Unrequited: a yearning for what can never be, a one-sided model of devotion. The work was also, perhaps, a love song as a form of protest, an obstinate reckoning and an exercise in humility, surrendering to all one cannot control. Around midnight, an all-black metal band showed up: unbeknownst to the curators or artists, they had been booked for the venue’s lobby. They played all night.