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Video installation explores diversity within black male identity

Connecting the spectrum 

Video installation explores diversity within black male identity

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"Question Bridge: Black Males"

October 3 through November 16
Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Avenue
Opening reception: October 3, 6 to 10 p.m.

Wednesday through Sunday: 1-5 p.m., Friday: 1-10 p.m. | $2, free to members | 461-2222; rochestercontemporary.org




click to enlarge Stills from "Question Bridge: Black Males" - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Stills from "Question Bridge: Black Males"

When giving public talks about the video project, "Question Bridge: Black Males," artist and educator Chris Johnson offers a thought experiment to illustrate what the work is designed to do.

"Imagine that you are approaching a group of young black men on the street and they are gathered together, talking in an animated way about things you can't hear clearly," he says. Now, imagine that you are invisible, undetectable to these men, and can hear their candid discussion about their families, problems, or baseball games. If it were possible to hear these men speak openly, Johnsons says, "your attitudes about black men would be transformed."

Johnson is the creator and co-producer of "Question Bridge: Black Males," an empathy-inducing, three-hour video in which black men pose questions to one another and in turn provide a complex range of answers, from fragile to fierce. The work will be presented as the single feature in Rochester Contemporary's fall show, and will be accompanied by a locally-focused presentation by Rochester Community Television, as well as weekly community discussions sparked by topics and themes covered in the video.

These themes arrive in the form of probing questions and complicated answers. One gentleman asks: "At what point did young people stop respecting their elders?" A younger fellow wants to know: "Why didn't y'all leave us the blueprint?" When one man asks: "Why is it so difficult for black men to go to the doctor on a regular basis?" a range of answers include sentiments of mistrust grounded in historic events, and an emotional story of the loss of a brother who wouldn't have his health checked.

Diverse questions flow into discussions of the parameters of black identity, loyalty, and the identity of the individual: "What's with this 'code of the streets?'" "Why don't black men surf?" "What is your purpose on Earth?"

One small boy asks, "How do you know when you become a man?" A man asks, "How do you know she's the one?"

click to enlarge Chris Johnson, creator and co-producer of "Question Bridge: Black Males" - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Chris Johnson, creator and co-producer of "Question Bridge: Black Males"

A young, gay black man tackles homophobia by asking "Do you think both black straight men and black gay men should all come together, hold hands, and sing 'Kumbayah?'" The first response of many is a firmly stated: "Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act." Another man asks, "What do you really think of white women?"

None of these questions evoke tidy, easy responses. The work gently encourages viewers to open their minds to the common elements of our human lives, and to the maddening whirlwind of strife experienced by a particular demographic.

Time and again, the producers "encountered men who were far more willing to express confusion, frustration, challenges, and remedies then we could ever have expected," Johnson says.

A young man in New York asked: "Am I the only one who avoids eating watermelon, bananas, and fried chicken in front of white people?" "The answers were a resounding 'No, you are not the only one!'" Johnson says. "Far too many of us continue to struggle with the projected shame-tones of slavery."

Though this piece is non-fiction, it is not a straight documentary, says multi-media artist and co-producer Bayeté Ross Smith. Recordings of black males from all walks — youths and elders, professors, convicts, preachers, artists, lawyers, and beyond — appear and dissolve in a row of five channels on one screen, each posing a question, answering, or listening. Though the subjects were filmed separately, the work is edited to make it seem as though a conversation is taking place.

Without directly stating it, "QB:BM" spotlights — and seeks to navigate — humanity's problematic lack of patience and trust for one another.

click to enlarge Bayeté Ross Smith, multi-media artist and co-producer - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Bayeté Ross Smith, multi-media artist and co-producer

"When people are in each other's physical presence they often don't listen; they talk over each other and argue," Ross Smith says. "They are also not nearly as candid. With 'QB:BM' the men were very candid, direct and honest, but there was no arguing or yelling." Though the work contains plenty of emotional responses to difficult questions, the participants tackle the complexities in measured and respectful ways.

Not a product, but a process

"Question Bridge: Black Males" addresses some profound and complex human issues, says Bleu Cease, Rochester Contemporary executive director. "It considers identity, breaks down stereotypes, and asks us all to reconsider a narrow understanding of any demographic." It also brings elements of other disciplines and practices — documentary, sociology, pedagogy, media literacy/studies — into the art gallery setting, he says.

Ross Smith says "QB:BM" is special in that "it gives people a window into conversations between a diverse group of black men, that they wouldn't normally be able to witness, in a way that allows them to feel comfortable and safe."

Viewers begin to identify with the black teenager from the low-income urban environment. He has hopes, dreams, and wants to do something productive with his life, Ross Smith says. "Many of the questions in 'QB:BM' are not actually 'black people' questions, they are human questions."

click to enlarge Carvin Eison, filmmaker and general manager at Rochester Community Television - PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK
  • PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK
  • Carvin Eison, filmmaker and general manager at Rochester Community Television

Carvin Eison, a filmmaker and general manager at Rochester Community Television, echoes this sentiment: Question Bridge "is a conversation between many different men, who happen to be black, about the things that all people think about: love and marriage, and death."

Eison says the project is important because it does something that is difficult for our society to do: resist stereotypes.

"Generally speaking, the culture wants to deal with black men as either extraordinarily hyper-successful, at the pinnacle of performance — particularly on the athletic field — or at the other extreme, the representation of the worst that people can do, the worst of humanity, the most deprived, the most in need," he says.

Question Bridge serves to neutralize that, Eison says, by presenting men of color as regular, normal people.

"I think that is really one of the cutting edge issues that we face as a culture — just to look at somebody who happens to be black not as a superhuman being, or not as a terrible person, in need or performing badly, but just as a regular person who wants everything that everybody else wants: to be successful in life."

"Question Bridge" originated in 1996 when Chris Johnson was commissioned to create a video-based installation project for the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Malcolm X library in San Diego. "My goal was to find a creative way to enable a meaningful dialog between two groups of African-Americans whose lives had radically diverged: African-Americans who live their lives in working-class inner-city neighborhoods and blacks who spend all of their professional and social lives in white-dominated parts of our culture."

"Because of commentary by Bill Cosby and others, this was a highly visible issue in those days," Johnson says. "But, more immediately, that schism was something I witnessed as a young boy growing up in the, then, all-black, Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn."

When the Fair Housing Laws passed in the mid-1960's, "African-Americans who had the will and means to leave did so, and that made a lasting impression on me," Johnson says.

By conducting video interviews, Johnson provided a safe setting for both black men and women on one side of this divide to ask deeply-held questions of those on the other side. He edited the questions and answers into a simulated conversation.

"Blacks within the broadly defined African-American community would learn important things upon hearing these significant questions answered; and those outside of the black community would finally be privileged witnesses to this poignant conversation taking place among African-Americans," he says.

click to enlarge Hank Willis Thomas - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Hank Willis Thomas

In 2007, photo conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas came upon a copy of the original QB project, and called Johnson to propose a new, slightly altered version of the project.

"He knew that I was committed to only creating 'Question Bridge' projects within, rather than between, demographic groups," Johnson says. "It seems to me that inter-demographic conversations are fairly predictable at this point."

But Thomas believed the new manifestation of 'QB' should focus exclusively upon black males. "His point was that black men differ from each other in such significant ways that this project would give us a chance to show the spectrum of black male consciousness," Johnson says. "This proved to be a brilliant truth."

Thomas also suggested that the producers should not predetermine what the subjects would consider to be dividing issues, but should instead ask the men to offer a question they have always wanted to ask another black man who they feel is different from themselves. "And once again he was exactly right! What this innovation allowed the men to do is personalize their questions and answers and it gave the project a range and depth that it never would have otherwise had," Johnson says.

Thomas recruited one of his longtime friends, multi-media artist and photographer Bayeté Ross Smith, and after a period of fundraising, the three began to travel and interview 150 African-American men for "Question Bridge: Black Males." Years later and along the way, writer and performance artist Kamal Sinclair joined the team, bringing a wealth of talent and business acumen to what evolved into a collaborative process, says Johnson.

click to enlarge Kamal Sinclair - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Kamal Sinclair

The goal of the initial "Question Bridge" project was to encourage otherwise-missing, healing dialogs, and the focus on black males specifically added an emphasis on black male identity that was missing in the first version of the project, Johnson says.

This focus "resonates with tragic current events in ways that the original project could not have," Johnson says. "'QB:BM' offers all of us an opportunity to better understand how black men think and feel in deeper ways than would otherwise be possible."

Though the issues of racism addressed in "Question Bridge" are more relevant than ever, Ross Smith doesn't see a big difference in the overall perception of black males by the general public, between 1996 and now. "There is still huge criminalization and dehumanization of black bodies," he says. "Even with a black president in office, what seems to have happened is that the idea of 'black exceptionalism' — that the Obamas, Will Smith, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, etc., are not 'like those other black people' — has persisted and grown. It allows for the admiration of specific black people while our overall society remains a very hostile environment toward non-white people."

This cultural climate has had an enduring impact on the willingness for black men to be candid and on the privileged class's overall inability to hear the other side of things.

"The key question for me is this: Is it possible for someone with one-sided and negative attitudes regarding black men, to witness this project and leave with those feelings and ideas intact? I think not, and that is the power and relevance of this project, especially today," Johnson says.

Would "QB:BM" have reformed the values and fears of a George Zimmerman? Probably not, Johnson says. "But could a different context be created around him if many people had the chance to witness what these men have to say? I think so, and that's why we are doing this work."

The Rochester Question

"Question Bridge" producers will be present in Rochester during the opening reception of the exhibit to gather more interviews for the archive. Those will be added to the project's interactive website and mobile app.

Johnson is also working to bring the "QB:BM" content into classrooms across the country, "both in the form of the free 'QB' Curriculum Modules that are available on the website, and as part of a new curriculum model that, together with a sophisticated teacher development program is being offered to major school systems, he says.

Rochester Contemporary will host a significant series of public discussions and private educational events during the run of the exhibition. For information on the series of weekly, public discussion sessions, refer to the sidebar.

In addition, Rochester Contemporary has teamed up with RCTV to present "Dialogues: Young Men of Color," which will be presented as a "gallery-within-a-gallery" in Rochester Contemporary's LAB Space throughout the run of "Question Bridge: Black Males."

One wall of the LAB Space will feature a grid of 16 frames, forming a mosaic of changing portraits of young men of color from the Rochester community. On another wall, a large monitor will play back some of the Wednesday and Friday conversations which will take place in the gallery. A third wall will feature three tablet devices with headsets, on which visitors can view various videos regarding education, health, and employment that RCTV produced over the years.

Eison and his staff wanted to extend the conversation by examining the range of challenges that youth of color face right here in Rochester, especially within neighborhoods suffering under concentrated poverty. "There's a strata of African-American young men who are really outside of every institution that generally exists in the community to support them," Eison says. "It's as if they're just wild and alone."

It's crucial for the community to come together and have these conversations, "particularly after this extraordinary summer," when national media exploded with racially-charged discussions and debates after five unarmed black men were killed by police, Eison says. "It's important to probe some of these issues and discuss them, because it's only through discussion that we can ever hope to begin to solve some of these problems."


QUESTION BRIDGE EVENTS

The Question Bridge opening reception will be held on Friday, October 3, 6 to 10 p.m.

Schedule of Discussions (all begin at 7 p.m. and will be held at Rochester Contemporary Art Center)

Wed. October 8: The Representation of Black Men in The Media organized by the Democrat & Chronicle

Wed. October 15: Shawn Dunwoody & Thomas Warfield

Wed. October 22: Mayor Lovely Warren

Fri. October 24: RCTV Panel Discussion "Dialogues... toward Solutions"

Wed. October 29: RIT MOCHA (Men of Color, Honor and Ambition)

Wed. November 5: Lloyd Holmes, VP for Students Services at Monroe Community College

Fri. November 7: Prominent Visual Artists including Garth Fagan, Luvon Sheppard, and Carvin Eison

Wed. November 12: Youth Organizers from Teen Empowerment

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