When I walked into the “Question Bridge: Black Males” exhibit at Brooklyn Museum a couple of years ago, two things immediately caught my attention. First, there was the intimacy; on video screens throughout the exhibit, black men asked one another intimidate questions about mental health, sexuality and masculinity. But what also grabbed my attention was the scale. There were throngs of people surrounding each screen watching these private moments unfold before them. It was a jarring but effective way to bring black men’s internal lives to center stage.
The latest phase of the project is called “Question Bridge Interactive” and forces viewers to engage in a much more intimate manner. This week, the project launched a website and mobile app that seeks to pick up the conversation about black men and the people who love them and bring it outside of the museum. The exhibit, which has been widely popular since it launched in 2012, has since traveled to more than two dozen museums across the country. I spoke with Hank Willis Thomas, a visual artist who’s helped produce each phase of the project.
Can you talk about the response you’ve gotten to the traveling exhibit and how that may have influenced the current phase of the project?
The response to the exhibition has been incredibly overwhelming. We never expected this when we first started the project because it originally started out as a documentary. It grew; there was more information than a documentary could allow. But there was so much more we wanted to show that couldn’t make it into a three-hour video installation. So we decided to expand the project online using all the content we had already collected and give people the opportunity to interact with the project more intimately. I think we had over 300,000 people see it in the past two years and it’s been featured in more than 29 galleries and museums across the country. And then festivals in London and L.A., it’s hard to quantify the scope and scale of the audience’s response.
Is there any response that stands out to you that really embodies the goal of the project?
One of the things that I’ve come to say about the project is that even though it’s called “Question Bridge: Black Males,” it’s not really about black men. It’s about people—how they relate to the notion of the group itself, and how black men relate to each other and groups around them. That experience came from so many people who weren’t African-American men who actually really engaged and felt touched and felt that they identified with the men in the project. That’s really important to me, especially as an African-American man, because our lives are so often in danger because people don’t identify with us.
How can folks engage with the new project?
“Question Bridge Interactive” is the extension of “Question Bridge: Black Males.” We’ve always talked about the project having a transmedia platform, and by that I mean that it’ll exist on more than one platform. So there’s the art installation, there’s the curriculum that more than 1,500 educators have downloaded and used, roundtables, which are these live narrations of the “Question Bridge” methodology but that happen on stage as part of an intergenerational conversation. And now there’s “Question Bridge Interactive,” which is a website and a mobile app that allows people to engage with more than 1,200-1,500 video clips that we already have captioned. It’s a place where people who self-identify as African-American men can contribute to the conversation.
It’s the first identity-based and user-based discourse website that’s all video. If anyone wants to leave a comment or engage, they have to show their face. It’s a way to make people stand by whatever they believe in. It also brings out vulnerability and connection in this face-to-face way. There are up to 100 identity tags that allow users to uniquely define themselves such as “brother,” “father,” “lawyer,” “gay.” Users can search the content via the tags that people place themselves under or they can search through the themes of the conversations.
What’s your biggest hope for the website?
My biggest hope is that this website will create a platform to create new Question Bridges that are instantaneous and not race- and gender-specific. The project with black males has created this model of thinking. We want people to create human dialogues in a variety of ways. So many people have asked us if we’re going to do one with black women, or Asian-Americans, and we’re equally interested in all of these things. But we wanted to do this one right.