SAN FRANCISCO — As fleets of shuttle buses take employees to their respective Silicon Valley campuses, resentment and tension grows in the Bay Area. Last week, protesters blocked one such Google bus in an effort to draw attention to the widening gap between the technology industry and the communities it affects; a union organizer impersonated a tech worker to incite dialogue through performative gesture. Within days, further demonization of tech figures, like the entrepreneur Greg Gopman — guilty of making crassly disparaging remarks about the Tenderloin area of San Francisco — continued to fuel divisions across the city.
The opening of Question Bridge: Black Males (2011), a new-media work by Chris Johnson and Hank Willis, is a timely response to events like Trayvon Martin’s death and the Oscar Grant case. By mimicking a roundtable discussion, Question Bridge excavates and delves into issues around the notion of the African American male, forcing participants and viewers across the spectrum of human experience to witness a thought-provoking exchange.
Originally, Johnson began the Question Bridge project in 1996 in order to address concerns regarding divisions within the San Diego African American community.1 Close to a decade later, Willis approached Johnson about collaborating, which resulted in interviews gathered from black men in different cities across the United States.2 The work consists of one hundred fifty videotaped black males from a diverse range of demographics (age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, to name a few), answering questions about violence, health, intelligence, masculinity, education, fears, lifestyles, and sexuality. The installation speaks directly to the collective consciousness, for although there’s never an easy time or place to discuss race relations, posing questions around the topics of race, gender, and cultural amnesia feels especially urgent.
Johnson and Willis asked participants to provide questions as well as answer questions from other participants. In response to a vehement question about the code of the streets, the answers vacillate between the prevalent street mentality that silence is the ultimate code to anger and frustration that young black men perpetuate the cycle of violence. For some of the younger participants, respecting the unspoken commandment of the streets—in the belief that “the streets will take care of that” with “that” being the violence inflicted or received from an assailant—is common and strictly observed.3
Yet, as others noted, the code of the streets is a mere “set of playground rules” that some may or may not grow out of to deal with the complexities of violence and power struggles found within a disenfranchised community. All of the men speak of solidarity but are unaware of how to bridge the differences that exist between them.
The editing of the video footage makes it appear as though men on separate screens are looking at one another as they pose and answer questions. Each of the speakers seems to express genuine and sincere interest in listening to and addressing the questions of his interlocutors. The illusion that these men are in discussion together, in the same physical space, makes the artwork less of a physical object and more of a glimpse into the experiences of African American males and the issues and concerns often obscured by the media, silenced by culture, or cloaked by hyper-masculinity.
The nearly pitch-black installation space and editing of the videos also implicate us as witnesses as we listen to these conversations between men. As we wait for a question and answer, our heads might slowly turn from screen to screen, as if watching the trajectory of a ball in mid-flight. These gestures echo the connecting of complex ideas and thoughts between and among the participants.
Despite the power and effectiveness of the work, it would nonetheless be advantageous to expand the scope of the Question Bridge project. Participants identifying themselves as gay or queer were certainly incorporated into the discussion and, understandably, the work focuses on African American male experiences. However, the absence of African American transgendered men suggests another aspect of the male experience that remains concealed from the public. This lack of representation certainly does not make the work deficient, but it raises the question of how American culture defines the male experience.
Indeed, what happens in the space between the participants serves to remind the viewer that the archetypal black male is nonexistent. One participant’s question, “What is common to all of us?” provokes a flurry of answers. Though the participants’ commonalities overlap time, space, sex, gender, color, beliefs, and much more, a more significant commonality emerges from their responses. These men are willing and ready for engagement. All that they needed was for someone to ask the question.
It has been too long since my last Shotgun Review for Art Practical! I wrote about In the Current show, which showcases some phenomenal Iranian artists! Below, you will find my write-up. Please enjoy and I highly recommend stopping by the exhibit. Enjoy!
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In the Currents, an exhibition of Iranian-American artists curated by Taraneh Hemami and Lucy Kalyani Lin, complicates and makes personal the ways in which Iran and Iranian culture are portrayed in much of Western media.
In Azin Seraj’s video installation, kaseye sabr labriz mishavad (bowl of patience, 2012), four Iranians speak about how their lives have been affected by the United Nations sanctions against Iran. Seraj layers the footage of the speakers with that of droplets of water filling a bowl, creating contorted and muddled images of the speakers, though their voices are clearly heard. Curiously, the visual rippling effect forces a viewer to concentrate on the intonation of words—even though only Farsi-speaking viewers are likely to understand them.
Farhad Bahram’s piece, Reciprocal Subject (2012), also complicates the view of its subjects. Like Seraj, Bahram empowers the subjects and makes them anonymous, but they share in the creation of the work. Bahram and each subject simultaneously took pictures of each other in open public spaces, and Bahram arranged the resulting color photos on a board in an apparent order or system that mimics a scrapbook, with names appearing beside each photo. Each of the faces is partially obscured by a camera, frustrating any viewer’s desire to identify the subjects. The public spaces that serve as backdrops add an additional level of neutrality and anonymity. Still, there is a complicity that only exists between Bahram and each subject, leaving viewers curious about their relationship.
Another notable piece, Flag (2012), from Sanaz Mazinani’s series “Conference of the Birds,” uses photographic images to create a patterned flag reflective not of a particular region but of a specific idea. Her flag is rooted in solidarity as opposed to being grounded in a specific physical location. The repeated images coalesce to form a tightly knit pattern that creates a visual mesh of people, places, and cultures. Mazinani’s work, along with that of Seraj and Barham, blurs the expected lines of perception and demands that viewers participate in the act of seeing not only their works but also their culture.