Du Bois Machine

Pope.L’s distributingmartin is presented this week as part of Rhizome’s ongoing series Net Art Anthology.

This text was reprinted with permission from the artist. It originally appeared in Showing Up to Withhold, the catalogue for Pope.L’s 2013 exhibition “Forlesen” at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. That exhibition included Du Bois Machine, a ten-foot high wooden sculpture of a man's legs, upsde down, from which emanated the voice of a young girl, telling this story.

Sometimes a person says this:

If you listen he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel. And then he’ll say: we’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had. It is not that a particular artwork fails or succeeds, it’s that we get to play in the hinge.

Almost 15 years ago today, a friend, a colleague called me up and said he’d been given access to Martin Luther King’s papers and he had something for me. 

When we met, he put an envelope in my hand, laughed and said, “I found this and thought of you.” In the envelope were bits of hair, dirt and skin. That evening, I called my friend back and asked him: “What’s in the envelope?” He said, “I’m not sure but I think it’s his.” “MLK’s?” I said, and he replied: “Yep.” I didn’t quite know what to do with this treasure so I set it down in a reasonable place and forgot about it.

Some early outcomes of receiving this material were these:

A postering project

A website which mutated into a blog called distributingmartin

A chance meeting with a black man on a bus

The postering project grew out of a failed billboard project. In which I wanted to buy billboard space at several locations and print this text: This is a painting of Martin Luther King’s penis from inside my father’s vagina. I decided another way to obtain the scale I desired was to miniaturize. So I had the statement printed on 8x10 peel-off stickers and in late September 2001, several days after September 11th, we postered the length of 8th Avenue in Manhattan from 125th Street in Harlem down to Canal Street. The National Guard prevented us from going any further.

Documentation of distributingmartin postering

Documentation of distributingmartin postering

One day I met a man on the bus. He was seeing a woman in the next town over, a much larger town than the one I lived in. The man told me he had a genetics company. More of a website than a company really. When I told him I wanted to inject fruit with the DNA of Martin Luther King, he told me it wouldn’t work but he’d help me anyway. At the end of our impromptu meeting, we agreed that I’d check out his website and then give him a call. Over the next several months, we worked out a prototype and injected and placed fruit in several supermarkets. We had no way to track the results so our weekly updates resulted in us talking about our personal problems. The woman the guy was seeing wanted to have a baby and the guy wasn’t into it. So—

We later developed an aerosol system but our ability to deliver the material was pretty crude. In addition, my relationship with the bus guy was becoming strained because I wanted to talk about the project and all he wanted to talk about was this woman in Portland and the epiphanies or anxieties arising from their relationship—

The blog was called distributingmartin. It came about because I was becoming frustrated with finding a way to distribute the man himself. I’m not sure what that means except to say I began the blog as yet another means of dispersing the body or the shadow of the body of Martin Luther King. The blog still exists at distributingmartin.com.

Several years later this young guy calls me up, or maybe it was an email–he was from the big city. He wanted to work with me on–something. Anything, he said. And I said, “Anything?” The young guy was very enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic. I told the young guy, PhD guy, about the distributingmartin project—kind of. Not really, maybe. And we danced around that, and each other for a while until a small performance piece came out of that, a piece about ghosts and holes and street intervention. So with the ghost piece successfully behind us, the young guy introduced me to his special mentor. The mentor was a reverend. He taught at the big university in the big city. He’d marched with King—somewhere. We went to the mentor’s house. We met his wife. We had tea. The deal was maybe the mentor would give his blessings to the project, maybe say a prayer at the live event and I could release the material from the canister into the room and then there’d be that—but like I said, the PhD guy, the young guy, was into revering. He was very sincere so I knew sooner or later I’d fail him. The project was stalling. It needed new juice, new ideas. And it just so happened that I’d been reading about the use of the AIDS virus to motor or drive the dispersal of genetic material in the body.

This upset the young man. We were talking on the phone. He said: “Yes, sure, we can do what you’re asking and I can get you access to the labs but if we do this, if we do this would you really open the canister in a room full of people?” And I said: “Sure, if it will make them as good as MLK, sure.” And then he replied: “Well you’re an idiot. A traitor and a fucking idiot.” So that put the kibosh on the project for a while.

A pretty harsh ending. I’d still bring up the project in artist talks but the audiences never latched on. I continued working on the website. It had become this labyrinth of several websites. The topmost layer was a diary with fantastic dates that did not, in some cases, match the entries. I tried to make the site visually attractive but it ended up looking more like my grandmother’s apartment with trap doors and hallways that went nowhere. Recently I’ve introduced the white pages …

My most recent opportunity to get the project off the ground crashed and burned just several months ago. I’d moved to a very large city in the Midwest next to a very large lake.

I received an email invitation to participate in an art exhibition to commemorate the 100th university of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned black scholar and activist who, legend has it, shepherded in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

My host was a large university who had just bought the former homestead of the Du Bois family and they were very happy. In the fall of last year, I attended a symposium at the university. Upon arrival, I discovered that my hosts revered Du Bois. Like MLK, Du Bois seemed to be able to contain, as it were, an incredibly large and complex family of desires, actions, objects and images seemingly merely within the stride of his legs. The second day of the symposium I learned that like MLK, Du Bois had a large appetite outside his marriage. That he was driven, almost hypergraphic. That he loved clothes and getting his picture taken. That he’d pencil in the crease of his trousers so they’d show better on camera.

Later, after a hard day in the symposia rooms, I walked to dinner with one of the university’s professors who told me a story involving Du Bois forcing his daughter into marriage with a famous gay poet. When I asked the professor why Du Bois did this, he said: Well—I think he was an asshole.

After the symposia, I returned home to the city near the lake and for the most part, forgot about the project. A month or so later my sister became mysteriously ill and I could not reach her by phone. When I did finally contact her she was in the hospital and very, very ill. It was her heart and she was dying. Thanksgiving was approaching. I’d been planning to visit her, bringing along her favorite thing in the world, her nephew, my 4-year old son.

On the way to the airport to visit my sister, my son became ill. A slight fever. I hoped. In addition, over the past several days, I’d been receiving emails from the university concerning doing an interview with me about my project. In fact, they were flying in the interviewers to do just this. The primary interviewer and I got off on the wrong foot. For her everything was easy: to arrange the date, to choose a place for the interview, etc. etc. For me everything seemed too much. Eventually I told my hosts I might have to bow out of the project. When I returned from visiting my sister, they had emailed telling me they had accepted my decision.

Pope.L, Du Bois Machine (text version), 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, Mithell-Innes & Nash, New York and Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles. © Pope.L.