James Scruggs’ "3/Fifths" Showcases "White Privilege on Steroids"

If you could change your race for a day, how would it change how you interact with the world? Artist James Scruggs excels at creating experiences that allow people to rethink how they perceive race in America. His Creative Capital project, 3/Fifths, promises to do just that, and it premieres at 3-Legged Dog from May 1-28, 2017. The piece takes its name from the “three-fifths compromise” of 1787 which counted slaves as only three-fifths a person. Scruggs, having established a career of looking at difficult race issues with a twist of humor, creates an interactive satire that lets you choose your race when you get in the door. The piece will allow the audience to trace the brutality of slavery to the latest killing of an unarmed black man by police.

We spoke to Scruggs ahead of the premiere to get a sense of just what to expect.

Projection mapping of video from James Scruggs’ project, 3/Fifths

Alex Teplitzky: In your retreat presentation, you explained that SupremacyLand will be a sort of dystopic theme park about race. Can you tell me a little more about what the audience can expect?

James Scruggs: First and foremost the audience will experience white privilege on steroids. The entire work is from the viewpoint of SupremacyLand which is virtually an Ethno-park, unabashedly heralding and celebrating  all things white, without regard to political correctness.

The audience can expect a radically interactive, truly immersive experience from the door. The audience will be tasked with declaring a race—white or black—OR being assigned one.

The first part of the experience starts outside of the theater. There will be a life sized jail cell with a durational artist “performing incarceration.” The back wall of his cell is a rear projection surface and will be activated to expose what goes through his mind while he mundanely is displayed as a “black man in his natural  habitat.” The audience is then led into The Atrocity Carnival where historical racist carnage is raised and twisted into side show booths.

At one point in the show the black and white identified audience members will experience very different scenes.

Alex: In the video which you projected onto buildings earlier this March, you were thinking about how the black male body has been perceived as weaponized. It’s something that has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, especially after the wave of visible police brutality last year. Was there a specific moment that you started focusing your work on the weaponization of black bodies?

James: I wondered what would happen to me if I was stopped by a policeman and jumped out of my vehicle, 20 feet away from him, completely nude. Would I still be threatening? Is it my skin? That is the visible difference between white and black people, the skin. So I think there is truth to the statement that black skin itself is sometimes viewed as a weapon that must be met with fatal force.

Alex: In I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin refers to the civil rights activity in Birmingham, Alabama: “White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t… [White people] are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars.” The concept of white people experiencing something completely different than black people isn’t new, but your project frames this reality more starkly. What do you hope different people will take away from 3/Fifths?

James: I hope that black audience members will confront the smorgasbord of  atrocities perpetrated against us so that they will viscerally “know,” in an effort to then “always remember and never forget” so as not to have history repeat. The issue with Black history in America is that it is being white-washed as evidenced by Ben Carson’s take on slavery. There are history books portraying slaves as “sort of” migrant workers.

I hope that white audience members will view the piece with an imaginary sliding scale with Rachel Maddow on one end and The KKK Grand Dragon on the other end and constantly adjust where they are on the issues placed before them.

Alex: New and experimental media is a big part of this project, from projection mapping to facial recognition. Do you see new media as being a part of exposing Americans’ assumptions or thoughts about race?

James: We are working very hard to not be seduced by the technology available to us in any way that does not support the story we are telling. My hope is that people will walk away from this experience that is using amazing and cutting edge technology (including 46 channels of video, several 20K video projectors, possible VR) and be moved by the impact of the events they experience and the story that unfolds.

3/Fifths premieres at 3-Legged Dog May 1-28. Scruggs’ website for the project 3fifths.org has further reading on issues that African-American men face today.