Artist Malcolm Peacock deals with death, swimming, and segregation

I met with artist Malcolm Peacock at Druid Hill Park—the site of his piece "Let the Sun Set on You," happening this Monday, Oct. 3, at 6 p.m. sharp—to discuss his work, and we could not stop talking about death.

Earlier this year, in his final undergrad semester at VCU, Malcolm sent a brief, cryptic email to about 200 peers and faculty at his school, inviting them to join him "as I prepare for dying," he wrote. He provided little information aside from where to meet and when, and also offered: "Maybe you will find that you would like to prepare for this as well. Please feel free to bring anyone that you would like to have with you during this preparation." He received messages from worried friends, and the cops came to his job, pressing him for more details, trying to confirm whether or not he was trying to hurt himself. He wasn't, though, and he tells me the piece was more about "preparation for dying as living…in order to die in the best way that I can when I die." I wasn't there to experience the piece myself, but Malcolm sent me the text that was read at that time, which describes the relationship between his father and mother, and the weight of loss he and his family felt when his father passed away.

Though his work, which is participatory and experiential for the audience (but don't call it performance art, he insists), covers a lot of ground and brings up issues of race, gender, sexuality, and history, the core of his practice, Malcolm says, is impacted by death. "And looking at things as being really serious, even though we have jokes and things are funny," he says, "being a person is really serious—you're either alive or you're dead."

He experienced an inordinate amount of death over the course of a year and a half: He lost his father in 2013, while several of his close friends lost parents within a few months of each other, and then his father's cousin passed away.

 

I very recently and unexpectedly lost my dad, so that comes up here and there in our talk. Malcolm has some perspective to offer, reflecting on those deaths he dealt with in a short period of time. "That is the immediate feeling, at least for me, 'oh, my life's over'—because a part of you does die," he says. "It does feel like part of your life is ending. It's so hard to feel like how is my life going to go on? How am I going to live? But we heal and we grow and we take it all and we think OK, one day, one day…" He detours momentarily, bringing up a car accident in late 2013 with a few of his friends who had also lost their parents. He and his friends survived. "It's all this big test," he says. "I don't know if all this would be possible without [these deaths] happening because they've made me look at art so seriously."

Malcolm's piece at Druid Hill Park, the third project by Rose Arcade, a curatorial project by Ginevra Shay, has a lot to do with death, too—and belonging, and the black body, and swimming. Since the beginning of August, Malcolm has gone to the park almost every day, talking to regulars and elders, while also searching through the Afro-American newspaper's archives to piece together facts about this park's history and about the summer of 1953. That summer, at least four black boys from Baltimore drowned in open waters because the only municipal pools in the city were for whites—with the exception of Pool No. 2, in Druid Hill Park, which was for black people only. After Thomas Cummings, a 13-year-old boy, drowned in waters near the Hanover Street bridge, the NAACP put its foot down and filed an injunction asking the city to open the municipal pools to everyone. Fourteen-year-old Norman Murray of Cherry Hill was the fourth boy who drowned that summer, just days after that injunction was filed, according to the Afro.

Malcolm is reticent to share too many details about what his piece will entail, exactly—what it'll look like, or what sorts of words, actions, or movements we will witness. It begins at the corner of Swann Drive and Beechwood Drive, near the statue of George Washington, where there will be a reading of the words of a relative of Thomas Cummings. The audience will then proceed to "Memorial Pool," which is a public art installation by Joyce J. Scott, installed in 1999 at the former site of the segregated, blacks-only pool. Today, the pool is covered with grass, with a winding paved walkway nearby, and the armatures of diving boards, lifeguard chairs, and pool ladders emerging from the edges—a subtle, reflective ghost of that time. The third and final part of Malcolm's piece will involve illuminating the tennis courts, on the side of the park that was historically the "Black side," which Malcolm says hasn't been lit up at night for park-goers. "When it's sundown it's time for black people to leave the area," Malcolm says. "It's really hard to watch here."

He spoke with Scott (CP's Best Artist this year and also, ahem, a MacArthur "genius" grant winner, among many other accolades) about her installation and she told him about how the segregated pools used to be filtered: The white pool (Pool No. 1) was not filtered but the black pool (Pool No. 2) was, in order to keep the city's water "safer." The term Scott used was "de-negroized," and the implication is that black bodies weren't as clean as white ones—but this ironically resulted in a cleaner swimming experience for black folks. "It's a word that really resonated with me because I was like, it's the same thing as a sundown town in a way—get rid of the negro in whatever, get rid of the person, and their substance, and the dirt on their body, everything," he says.

He talks about the weight of water, from water goddesses in African cultures, to the theft of African people in the slave trade across bodies of water, to, then, the politics of city pools. He says he's not a great swimmer, in part because he just didn't have much access to pools growing up in and around Baltimore. "The pool has to be sought out; for a lot of us it needs to be affordable," he says. "I just was never around an affordable pool so I learned how to do basic motion things and swim from an end to an end, but it was much harder for me to stay afloat than to swim."

When he talks about his work, Malcolm stresses that he tries to fight commodification in many ways—his practice is not object-based, and it's not performance nor a film, so it can't be bought or sold. Though it's unclear yet in what form—and it may be latent background knowledge—"Let the Sun Set on You" incorporates stories from people who were alive during the park's segregated era, who swam in its pool, who played tennis on its courts, and who protested against segregation.

One of the park's regulars, a tennis player named Maurice, who Malcolm has been talking with regularly, has been telling people that Malcolm is writing a book about the park. "I don't know if he understands that I'm not writing a book, but that's what it is to him, and that's what it is to a lot of people," he says. "It's sort of really telling. That's how something important to them is, in a book form, and that's what they've predicted it as."

Somewhat tangled up with death, empathy is another motivation for Malcolm. He thinks that art doesn't promote empathy enough, but that it could perhaps help dismantle oppressive systems. "I think art can be a way to break down that barrier so we can be more comfortable in our own skin but also realizing and recognizing other people's skin and what's inside of that," he says. "I'm interested in how the emotions affect different black bodies and the way that they have to, wish to, or choose to navigate their lives afterwards."

He talks about having a "visceral reaction" to many of the stories he's heard from people for this project, which are entwined in issues black people still face today. "I'm extremely touched by the elderly's stories," he says. "I believe they drive how I'm thinking and how I feel about the trajectory of black people's standing in the Unites States."

Malcolm says it was difficult tracking down information on Cummings. Thinking about his research process in context with the way names are attached to movements (particularly within the Black Lives Matter movement), he says: "It was interesting how history affects death, and how death affects history, depending on who dies, depending on what dies, what will determine how it's spoken about."

When he speaks about death, Malcolm goes between big picture musings and his own personal experiences. "I recognize that I'm bouncing between is and was, and you always sort of are," he says, going back to his writing about his father, though it seems to apply in this work, too. "It's always really important when talking about the dead to bounce in between is and was because their body was but they are. In a huge way they still very much so are."

"Let the Sun Set on You" has been postponed to Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. at Druid Hill Park.

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