An Artist’s Rare, Intimate Conversation About Black Masculinity

A new video installation paints an intimate and engaging portrait of black masculinity by doing something a little revolutionary: asking questions. Artist Chris Johnson talks about the project's past and present, and what it hopes to build for the future.

By Jamilah King Feb 23, 2012

People don’t often sit at museums, but on a Saturday night last January a crowd of at least a hundred people gathered in front of a video installation at Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday. To be sure, the event was the venue’s monthly anomaly–a popular "First Saturday" event at which admission is free, drinks are served and live bands and DJs entertain guests. The people in question were gathered on the second floor, crowded around a small black sofa. On the four screens in front of them, black men–young, aged, of the academy and of the street–asked each other questions that ranged from "Do you really feel free?" to "Why wouldn’t you be happy with your son being gay?"

As music blared from the floors above and below, the crowd lingered around the installation, called Question Bridge: Black Males, for at least half an hour. Some laughed when appropriate, but most were pensive and reflective onlookers to an intimate conversation about race and masculinity that’s seldom seen in public.

Part art project, part community-based educational curriculum, Question Bridge is a series in which black men of nearly every demographic have intimate conversations with one another about their lives. While the installation is currently featured at museums in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Oakland, Calif., and Utah, it’s also toured the country everywhere from the Sundance Film Festival to jails in northern California. Made from 160 interviews conducted over four years, the project came to life due to the work of a creative team of nearly a dozen artists, actors, film producers and academics.

In many ways, Question Bridge began over 15 years ago when artist Chris Johnson, a professor at California College for the Arts, did a shorter version of the project. Back then, the project was meant to generate discussion between people in the black community. Years later, one of his students, Hank Willis Thomas, discovered it and helped reimagine a narrative–along with the Open Society Foundation–centered uniquely in the experiences of black men. As Thomas put it to, "I saw the magic of using video as a way to mediate this conversation where people actually are really listening to the questions instead of just having a knee-jerk response."

Johnson and Thomas created the series in collaboration with Bayete´ Ross Smith, while Delroy Lindo, Deborah Willis and Jesse Williams service as executive producers.

I spoke with Johnson about Question Bridge’s past and present, and how it hopes to inform the future.

Describe the purpose of Question Bridge.

The purpose of Question Bridge is to change the way people see and feel about black men. It has goals on many different levels. On the first level you would say that’s it’s really specifically designed to provide the men who ask those very sincere questions with the answers to those questions. Because they’re asking those questions for very deliberate reasons, very personal, existential reasons. One purpose of Question Bridge is just to provide those answers to them.

But of course, every single one of those men represent lots of black men who feel very similarly. Who feel the same struggles and problems. And so making it public is an attempt to try to provide black men in general with a forum or an exchange of questions and answers about that vast range of issues that Question Bridge embraces. A lot of them are personal, a lot of them are sociological, some of them are humorous, some of them have a lot of poignancy.

To provide a setting for black men to freely exchange this wealth of content that populates their lives in a way that is authentic. I would also say for people who happen not to be African American or male, the hope is to provide those people with insights into just how diverse and rich and complex and articulate black men really are. It’s like giving giving outsiders a window into the nature of black consciousness, and I hope that’s how it’s felt. Because we describe the setting that we create as providing an opportunity for people who happen not be black men to become  — we use this rubric developed years ago called you become a "privileged witness" to an internal dialogue that black men have with themselves rarely. On those three different levels, that sums up what our goals are for this project.

How did you select the questions?

We didn’t select any of the questions for those men. We never selected questions for those men. We have a very strict rule. I mean, the whole methodology of Question Bridge works like this — I’ll give you a real clear anecdote. We’ll be driving along the street and I’ll see a tall, young black man dressed like a Guardian Angel, and I’ll say, "pull over!" And so I tap that guy on the shoulder and say, "Listen, I’m doing this project called ‘Question Bridge’ and the whole purpose is for you to provide us with, what’s for you, is a really deeply held question that you have for some other black man who you feel different from. Do you have such a question?" And every black man over the four years that we encountered said, "Oh yeah, I’ve got a question I would ask a black man if I could." So we build a studio around that person and they ask their own question, we never present questions for them.

You began this process almost 15 years ago. Can you describe how it’s changed over time?

Well, it’s changed a lot. For one thing, I’m working with a really powerful team. Before, the concept was really based on a clear sense that I had of a division within the black community between those whose lives were focused on the neighborhood and those whose lives were focused on the greater white world. I saw that division emerge in my own life. I experienced that when I was a kid in Bed Stuy.When I had the opportunity, I created this project around an attempt to try to heal that division. I used questioning to bridge that gap.

But then Hank discovered the project many years later in his mother’s video collection, and he had been a student of mine. And he at that point was applying for a grant from the Tribeca Institute. He thought that this would make a good subject for that grant. So he called me after being out of school for a number of years and asked me if I was interested in doing it, but focusing instead on black men instead of the black community generally. So it’s very different in that sense because it’s only about black men as a demographic.

The other difference is that, because I was trying to talk to participants of the first project in 1996 to think about African Americans who lived on the other side of this divide, the questions that they asked were directed at that division. In this case, all we did was say "What do you see as being a significant difference between yourself and another black man? Whatever that difference is, use that and frame a question around it. So it was much more open this time, and the results are much more rich and diverse.

Why was it important for you to have this be both an installation and a curriculum?

I really feel like, as an artist, part of what we hope this piece does is teach artists that it’s possible to use the creative process to be effective on social issues. If you think about it, almost all the turning points in history have been promoted by things you might consider to be a performance art piece. If you think about Ghandi and the Salt March, that was a performance art piece, you could say that. So the idea that artists can think strategically about how to use the creative process to effect social change is not new. This just happens to be what we are doing. And so, as an artist, it’s really important for us to know that it’s possible to do things that are not just valuable, but useful. That’s really the core idea behind all of what you might consider to be "engaged art." There’s a long tradition of "engaged artists" – Hans Haacke, Suzanne Lacy, Judy Baca. There are lots of people who, their whole point is that they’re trying to use creativity as a way to move people, to touch people. You could say that that’s true of documentary photography and theater and novels, with Upton Sinclair. It doesn’t sound so strange when you put it in that context. We as video artists are trying to do something that’s transformative for people that experience it.

What have been some of the responses that you’ve gotten?

I have to say that it’s been overwhelming and humbling, frankly. We’re artists, you know. You do this because it responds to your own interests and your own passions, because it means something to you. And you hope that it finds a response. That’s all artists can ever do, is hope. But the responses have really been overwhelmingly positive. People are spending much more time in the installations than we ever thought. Believe it or not, we didn’t initially plan on having seats and cushions in the installation because we thought people might spend 10 or 15 minutes. But now we understand that seats and cushions become a necessity because people are spending 20, 30 minutes, some people are watching the whole thing. It’s very gratifying. We’ve had no push back. There are some people who found themselves very resistant to their understanding of what the idea was until we showed them examples, and then they became participants themselves.

We’re only talking now about the installation. As you know, that’s only one dimension of what Question Bridge has become. It’s also a curriculum. The community that we had, the blueprint round table that we had last Saturday here in Oakland was filled to overflow. The men themselves responded with incredible candor and honesty and vulnerability. The responses I got were that we’re changing people’s lives. It feels kind of grandiose to say, but that’s what people are saying.