At the Oakland Museum, Question:Bridge facilitates a high-tech conversation among black men
on February 10, 2012
A single television screen flashing intermittent images of African-American men and boys—elementary school aged kids through senior citizens—welcomes visitors to the Question:Bridge exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. One by one they look into the camera lens, silently meeting viewers’ gazes.
Five more screens line the wall just around the corner from the first TV, flashing more images of black men. Some have silver hair and wear coats and ties. Others are bald and have glasses. Some are dreadlocked, some are pierced, and several men wear the telltale bright orange of prison uniforms. As on the first TV screen, each man looks directly into the camera. But instead of silence, these men speak. As each one appears he either asks a question or responds to one asked by another man on a different screen, simulating an actual real-time conversation between hundreds of men.
One man asks, “For all the gay black men out there, how do you really feel about yourselves? What are you doing in order to survive?”
One man responds, “When I decided to love myself more than what other people felt about me, I felt free.”
Another says, “One of my tactics is cutting people off. People that I know and love like my own dad, in order to not feel angst and oppression.”
“Here you have the unrehearsed, totally spontaneous expression of truth—a concentrated exposure to the thinking of black men,” said photographer Chris Johnson, who is also a California College of the Arts (CCA) professor, longtime Oakland resident, and one of the four brains behind Question:Bridge.
The exhibit is the result of a four-year long project by Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The exhibit is debuting in four U.S. museums simultaneously: the Oakland Museum of California, the Brooklyn Museum, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and the City Gallery at Chastain in Atlanta, Georgia. The artists recently traveled to Park City, Utah where the Question:Bridge project was an official selection in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The Question:Bridge team worked intensively over the past four years to create this project. But its roots extend even deeper than that, all the way to 1960’s Brooklyn, where Johnson spent his childhood. “I was 16 years old in 1964,” Johnson said. “That means I was old enough and conscious enough to see the impact of the civil rights legislation.” What he saw was a new class of black people. “There were lots of role models,” he said, “You didn’t have to go far for a black doctor.”
But Johnson also witnessed people who suddenly had the means to leave Bed-Stuy—his Brooklyn neighborhood—and did. He looks back on this time as the beginning of the fracturing of the black community, a theme he has explored in his work ever since.
In 1994 Johnson created The Roof is On Fire, a performance art piece, with fellow California College of the Arts professor Suzanne Lacy. They put 100 cars on a rooftop garage in Oakland and put 220 teenagers in those cars, instructing them to converse about set topics like sex and race, without getting specific. As the young people talked with their car windows rolled down and the convertible rooftops opened, onlookers walked around and listened to their unscripted, unedited conversations. The response to this deceptively simple project was overwhelmingly positive. It seemed to Johnson that people left thinking differently about young people. “It made me realize you could come up with ways of communicating information that could really effect change,” Johnson said.
In 1996 Johnson created what became the prototype for Question:Bridge, a video installation called Re:Public. It was at this point that Johnson revisited his early experience of seeing wealthier blacks leave Bed-Stuy. “The fact that the black community is so radically divided at this point is something that really speaks to me,” he said.
As a fine arts photographer with no previous video experience, Johnson thought the Re:Public final product was “crude” and tucked it away without taking it any further. He did, however, give a copy to his friend Deb Willis, the chief photography curator at the Smithsonian, who tucked it away herself. In 2002 Deb Willis’s son, Hank Willis Thomas and his friend Bayaté Ross Smith went to California College of the Arts to earn their MFAs, where they studied with Johnson. But it wasn’t until a few years after they graduated and were establishing themselves as artists that Thomas found his mother’s original Re:Public video. Thomas had just received a grant, and was exploring similar themes of race and identity in his work. In 2007, he decided to try to convince Johnson to re-do the original project with more time, energy and resources.
Johnson agreed and he, Thomas and Smith set to work; Sinclair joined in later. The premise was pretty simple: They decided to travel throughout the United States and get black men to ask and answer questions on camera wherever they went. Johnson recalls saying to the men he met, “So, as a black man, I’m sure there are questions that you would want to ask a black man that you feel different from.” He would then instruct them to “look into the lens, like you’re asking that person.” He would have each man ask questions, and then answer a question that another man had asked.
“We were just two artists doing this kind of unusual project” Johnson said, “so we had no access to famous guys, celebrities. So we just started with regular black guys.”
Their first stop was Birmingham, Alabama because Thomas had a speaking engagement that funded the trip. Johnson was sitting next to a black man on the plane on the way there, so he decided to ask him to participate in the project. The man said yes, and promised that he would bring three of his friends to the artists’ motel room. They often met the remaining hundreds of participants by similar random means. In Chicago, Johnson asked a black museum guard to participate. He noticed a man dressed in the red beret of a Guardian Angel (an international organization of unarmed, civilian crime patrollers) outside and brought him into the fold as well.
Over the course of four years, eleven cities and one jail, the artists rarely had anyone turn them down. “Every black man would immediately understand what we were doing,” Johnson said. “They were able to give such spontaneous answers because they’ve been thinking about these questions. They live under this question cloud. All we’ve done is tapped into this question cloud.”
When the televisions play in the museum exhibit gives the impression of a round-table discussion, but most of these men have never met one another. Meeting is not the objective. “The real point of the project is for them to ask questions that are so essential, and to feel safe enough with the process to do that,” Johnson said. “Their truths are meeting through the project.”
Listeners may feel like the viewers of The Roof is on Fire did—like they’re eavesdropping on usually-unheard conversations. Only in Question:Bridge it also seems like the audience is listening to conversations that don’t normally happen.
Question:Bridge has been successful as an art exhibit, but the team of artists is also passionate about a curriculum they have developed for high schools throughout the country. Though the project is focused on African-American men, the curriculum explores identity issues in general. It asks students to examine the complex relationship of race and socio-economic issues in any demographic. Students watch films and look critically at artwork, but they also interview people in their own communities and produce visual, analytical representations of them.
Oakland Unified School District is piloting the curriculum in McClymond’s High School. Districts in Hayward and Brooklyn, New York are also going to use it. Though McClymond High School is using the curriculum specifically with African-American male students in their Manhood Development Program, Hayward’s district is interested in adapting it for students of all races, genders and backgrounds. Chris Johnson is eager to see both results. The Question:Bridge team doesn’t intend for the curriculum to be race-specific. “We started with black men because we are black men and we’re artists,” says Johnson, “but we hope other demographics will use the methodology themselves.”
On Saturday, February 11, from 1-3 pm Chris Johnson and actor Jesse Williams (a partner of the project) will speak with moderator Chris Chatmon, the executive officer of Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement with a panel of local young black men. The event is free with museum admission. See www.museumca.org for more information.
Lead photo: Still images from the Question:Bridge project. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California.
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