In Depth

Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race

Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race

The contemporary art landscape is filled with artists who plumb the formal challenges of their mediums or examine the self-reflexive concerns of the art market—in other words, who make "art about art." What's arresting, and refreshing, about Hank Willis Thomas's work is that it speaks powerfully about an issue that resonates far beyond the art world: the problematic state of race in America. Carrying forward a lineage of satirically engaged art that goes back to Goya's "caprichos," Hank uses his work to expose the unsettling ways that commercial interests use advertising to propagate myths—to borrow a term from the French cultural critic Roland Barthes—about race that uphold an unequal social order and, of course, sell products. A celebrated new media artist whose work has been shown at museums around the world, Hank is also a sought-after thinker on issues of inequality: last year he was an independent scholar at Harvard's W.E.B DuBois Institute; he is currently a fellow at Columbia College's Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media. In this he follows in the footsteps of his mother, a celebrated photographer and MacArthur "genius grant" scholar who is now the chair of Tisch's photography department. Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein sat down with the artist to talk about his work. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Let's jump in by talking about one of the central ideas underpinning your art: you see race itself as a myth. This is, of course, supported by science, which long ago discredited the notion that racial divisions have any genetic foundation. Can you talk about how this informs your work?

Well, I think I'm basically obsessed with it. I think there is quote by Carl Hancock Rux in his essay called "Eminem: The New White Negro" where he says: "There is something called black in America and there is something called white in America and I know them when I see them but will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them because they are not real even though they have a very real place in my daily existence." It speaks a lot about how although race does not exists, we can't see beyond it. Especially in the United States. Having spent a lot of time outside of the country, I've recognized how malleable and shifting racial dynamics are, and how many of the people in this room who would be undeniably black here are not considered black [elsewhere in the world]. In Belgium, for instance, I had an argument with this woman about someone. She said, "He is not black." I'm sorry, in America he is. That really speaks to the complexities of race and how we are all limited by racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes—things that I am kind of always struggling with in my work. There is one project called Along the Way that I did with a collective where we wanted to show the diversity of the Bay Area with a 25-foot media wall of videos in the Oakland Airport, so we walked around and shot 2,000 video portraits of Bay Area residents to show this diversity. In one of the debates about the collaboration, Bayeté [Ross Smith, one of the artist collaborators] brought up the point that just because you look different doesn't mean you're diverse. We have this shallow understanding of diversity because in the Bay Area, for instant, is people vote 80 percent the same way, and increasingly the class divide isn't as big. So there is less and less diversity within class and politics and in ways of seeing the world in the Bay Area, although ethnically people tend to look different. So these are all things that I'm always kind of obsessed with.

But while race may be a fictional construct, racism is still as real as can be. And to an insidious extent popular culture both affirms and encourages these deep-seated cultural prejudices by retelling old fictions about race. In his seminal 1957 essay "Myth Today," Roland Barthes called these invented ideologies the "what-goes-without-saying." One famous piece from your Unbranded series shows an imposingly built black man wearing a blue bonnet. Can you talk about what's going on in that piece?

That is from an ad for Blue Bonnet margarine from 1978, and the figure in the ad is the late, great Joe Frasier, heavyweight boxing champion. What's relatively amazing about this ad is that he's right at the peak of his career, and when you look at it unbranded you immediately begin to see a caricature of a mammy figure—a slave caricature—which makes us think of Aunt Jemima, but with the text on it you're just reading about him sounding tough and talking about this product. And I still can't necessarily see the connection between him and this product, but I thought it was pretty interesting to take the heavyweight boxing champion and to in some way make him related to this mammy character—it's questionable, to say the least, and it started to make me question other ads I was looking at, which encouraged me to start this project titled Unbranded: Reflections in Black of Corporate America 1968-2008 where I took two ads a year from 1968 to 2008 that were looking at a black audience and I wanted to see, kind of, what's really for sale. When you remove the branding information you start to see things that are thinly veiled, and so in a lot of my work I'm always really thinking about advertising. I see advertising as a form of brainwashing, and I think about the ways in which it affects the way we see the world—because without race and gender advertising would be a lot harder. You get these pockets of assumptions: people who are this old care about this, people who live here care about this, people who speak this language care about this, people with this background care about this—which isn't true, but it makes it easier for us to be trained into what we believe. And I believe we buy into these values that are incredibly problematic, as we see with the very successful cigarette marketing campaigns, which has trained us into thinking that products say things about us that they don't. Like my iPhone.

How did you find the original ad?

Basically, with this work it's all about discourse. I think we really take ephemera for granted, like historical documents in archives and like magazines and posters—they're either kitsch or things that we throw away, and I think that they can really tell us a lot, and I want to spark a discourse about things. So now I have too many magazines, and [searching] eBay was a challenging process to find all these kind of ads that I thought were interesting.

You mentioned cigarette ads. When one thinks of cigarette ads in an art context, one thinks of Richard Prince's Marlboro Man series, and when one thinks of Richard Prince, one thinks of an artist who gets into a lot of legal difficulties over his images. I wonder, do you ever get angry letters from the corporations whose advertising you appropriate?

No. For one thing, I think corporations like to get over on people without ever having to acknowledge the problematics of what they're doing. So for them to sue me would give exposure to something they're just not that interesting in exposing. But I have been trained as a photographer, and photographers really despise this notion of appropriation and see it as stealing. So I've had probably about eight photographers whose work I've used who've reached out to me, and about half of them like it and half of them didn't. I was actually in a show about civil rights work at the High Museum in Atlanta and a civil rights photographer was there and saw my work, and he was like, "That's my picture!" And I said, "Oh, so what do you think about me using it?" And he said, "I don't know." So it's complex, because I think truth is better than fiction, and if I was trying to make [original] images that are like these ads not only do I think I'd still be potentially infringing on somebody's copyright but also it would kind of be more about me. And I say that ads are a reflection of a society's hopes and dreams at a particular moment in time.

A lot of your work draws on advertising as expressions of embedded ideologies about race, but there's also an economic angle to many of the pieces that comes through, especially in the credit card works like the American Express card that you revamped as an "Afro-American Express" card, with slave imagery in the background. Can you talk about that a bit?

I have a confession to make. Even though my mom was the chair of the photography department at NYU, she was somewhere else while I was there—she was hired three years after I graduated. So my sophomore year in college we didn't have any money. And you know how they send you all those credit card things in the mail? Unbeknownst to me, my mom signed up for all these credit cards, so my whole sophomore year of college was paid for on credit cards. And she was nice enough to pay the minimum until I graduated college, and then upon graduating college I got all this debt. Fortunately my father helped me pay some of it down, but even after paying it down I realized I was still getting billed for things. Increasingly in our society you need a credit card even if you don't use it, and you get billed for it, so I started thinking about credit as a form of indentured servitude, because of the way we're conditioned to buy into this and to carry around all this debt. And so one of my friends, Ryan Alexiev, who is a graphic designer, and I started thinking about credit cards, and we made the Afro-American Express thinking it would be an interesting way to speak about this form of indentured servitude, using imagery from the abolition movement.

It also seems to allude to the fact that much of the United States' economic power was built on the backs of slaves.

It's like the slaves packing the ship, and the slave ship is the American Express. It's the foundation of wealth that gave us a lot of power and opportunity, so for us we were also thinking of the notion of the MasterCard-like, "Who's the master?" And there's irony in it, because I had the Chase MasterCard and its funny when you think about in the context that Chase made some investments that were in support of the slave industry, and the Bank of America Visa card too. There's just like these weird connotations you can take away by actually looking at the cards and seeing secret meaning.

A lot of your work employs the Situationist tactic of detournment, where you take a freighted image or piece or archival material and revise it to tell an antithetical story. How does this come about?

I had always been fascinated with this image of how slaves were packed into the slave ship Brookes. It was made around 1787 in England to show the horrors of slavery, to imagine what it was like to be chained to another human being for weeks who was only 18 inches away from you and to have so little space above you. And it's amazing to me that someone, or some ones, in my ancestry survived the Middle Passage. "Wow, I'm tougher than I think!" is really what goes through my mind when I look at that image, because I really don't believe that I could have survived that. But at the same time I was really thinking about this notion of race and how I always like to say that the crazy thing about blackness is that black people didn't create it—that Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing us created black people. So 500 years ago in Sub-Saharan Africa there were no black people, there were just people. It really came out of this commercial industry of slavery, where in order to have people as chattel you had to create a subhuman brand of people and ship them off halfway around the world, and 500 years later their descendants are still trying to figure out who they are. That I call absolute power. But then there are also different kinds of interpretations. And the terms "blackness" and "whiteness" when the majority of the world is neither black nor white are problematic. I mean, I'm brown—I can tell. So even those terms alone don't make any sense, but they're so real to us.

Where do you get the archival images?

Well, one of the benefits of growing up in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where my mother worked for several years, and the Center for African American Studies was that this stuff was just around. As a child you don't really understand, so as I came into consciousness I started to think of it in a different way. And I often try to use advertising language to talk about things that advertising can't responsibly talk about—if you call something art it can be provocative and but, in the end, less offensive. With corporations behind it, though, it becomes incredibly problematic. I'm interested in using this really powerful advertising language—the most ubiquitous language in the world—since most of the time it's only used in one direction, rather than speaking between individuals transglobally.

Much of your work very explicitly ties in to athletic and professional sports, portraying things like Nike endorsements as literal branding. Can you talk about that parallel?

I was just really thinking about literal branding. In historically African American colleges the branding in the fraternities is a relatively common thing, and even Michael Jordan has the brand of Omega Psi Phi on his chest. I wanted to think about how scarification and branding is a symbol of power in a certain communities, and how poorer communities and America African communities latched onto the brand of Nike through the adorning of it on our bodies, and how for famous athletes on billboards it became a sign of ownership like when slaves were branded by their masters to see who they belong to. Interestingly enough Bayeté and I were in Cuba and we met a guy with a Nike logo tattooed on his forehead. I was like, "We're in Cuba. It's a communist country and you have one channel. How the heck did this symbol become so potent in your understanding of the world?" And we were in Costa Rica and this woman had a Nike tattoo. Some of my research has suggested that it's second only to the cross [as a tattoo], and I wonder how something could become so ubiquitous in no more than 30 years. I like to think about logos as our generation's hieroglyphs, and what meanings they carrying in the narrative of their relationship to athletes and their stories as well as to the black body.

Your photo of the black athlete with the Nike logos branded on his chest also recalls a number of other photographs, like the famous photo Richard Avedon took of Andy Warhol's chest after he was shot. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but it's a convenient segue into asking you: Who are your influences in using advertising and this kind of pop culture imagery in addressing the culture at large?

I mean, Richard Avedon is one of my favorite photographers, but I don't think I'm a tenth as good. So I don't think that was a clear relationship, but I will say that next time. [laughs] As for Warhol, I really have a funny relationship with both Warhol and Richard Prince. Because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here—I don't know what I'd be doing. But at the same time it's like they really got one over on the public. There's a real lack of taking responsibility for a lot of the ways in which their work affected the world that I have problems with. So it's like, "I love you! But why?" I'm always finding these challenges, where I recognize the art market and I think about the Factory and other artists who work in productivity-based ways, and I think my art lends itself to that. So I think, "Should I just make it and let the art historians and critics figure it out? Or should it always mean something on a personal level?" Ironically, my gallery is always trying to make it mean something on a deeper level. Thanks! So I think as an artist who is critiquing commodity culture and capitalism and is working in an über-capitalist situation, there's always this question of how authentic I am being. Am I a part of the system that I'm trying to critique? And I personally justify it by saying that I'd prefer to be part of the system that I'm critiquing than trying to critique it from the outside, because I think it's more authentic. But, I don't know, I can't walk in their [Warhol and Prince's] shoes. I do think there's a certain degree of white male privilege that they take in the work that they make. The idea that you take a picture of an ad and then sell it for a million dollars? That's crazy! Am I the only one who thinks that's a little weird? But I'm not going to say that it's not worth it, and that's crazy too. But so I'm always struggling with my own American privilege or middle-class, upper-class American privilege as I get older, and really questioning that.

Your Unbranded series does put you in direct lineage with Warhol and Prince, though, since both of whom are famous for their work with ads.

I mean I do like the work. But my problem is how they position it. I think it's a little bit easy to put it on someone else to make it important. And it's also about audacity, which I think a lot about when it comes to hip-hop, like with Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne. I think about how hype creates history, and how many people there are who did so much to affect how we think, how we create, how we evolved, but whose stories we'll never know because they weren't cool. And I'm always surprised when I learn about someone to realize how much I'm caught up in the hype and not really thinking about the depth.

One piece you have on Artspace, Shooting Stars, links Michael Jordan and his iconic "Jumpman" Nike logo to black-on-black gun violence. The text underneath it is alarming. Can you talk about that work a bit?

The text is from the 2000 and the 2005 census—the statistics really didn't change—which said blacks were six times more likely to be murdered than whites, and 94 percent of them were killed by other blacks. And that statistic just rocks my world, when you think of African Americans are roughly 11 or 12 percent percent of the population. For such a small portion of the population to be six times more likely to be murdered than the majority, and for most of them to be killing each other just says that there's something wrong with the group. That people within this group have such problems with each other that they're killing each other—and, ironically, other people are more afraid of them than they are of each other. My problem is with the fact that this identity was created by other people to dehumanize us, and I think that we drank the Kool-Aid. And in the work I'm thinking of people reaching for their dreams, and someone shooting them down—t's crabs in a barrel, and that kind of story is everywhere. But I really wanted to make a work specifically about that, using the logo as a hieroglyph, and we made it actually as a print to support my Question Bridge project.

One thing that's important to know about your work is that it's not theoretical—it's actually grounded in personal tragedy. Your cousin, Songha, was senselessly murdered in 2000 at the age of 27 by another black man who robbed him and then, without any reason, killed him. In your piece Absolut Reality you re-stage that murder, putting yourself in Songha's place. How has his murder affected the choices you make in your art?

Well, one thing I always like to point out is that my cousin wasn't robbed. The people he was next to were robbed for a chain. They just killed him because… for reasons I don't know. They made him lay down in the snow and shot him in the back of the head. And one of the things that I kind of kept with me for a long time was the shirt that he was wearing that night. When I was growing up we were best friends, and I grew up under him, and most of my awkwardness is because I was never bred for being in public. He was the cool one and I could just sit back. So in his passing I kind of was pushed to the front in our family in the way we relate to each other and how I relate to the world, and I had to speak about a lot of things I never, ever thought I'd be speaking about. And when I made this piece I was again hanging out with Bayeté, and I had some lights and I had the shirt and this idea of death being absolute and how we live in this society where we're so fascinated with guns and violence and how all of the movies are that we see are like this and somebody's getting shot and killed and, like, why is it we're so fascinated with that? And, again, I wanted to make a commentary about that, so I'm actually wearing the shirt that my cousin was wearing. So as I was making it I was thinking, "I hope this isn't at all prophetic as an art piece." I'm actually really uncomfortable with this piece.

It's also important to point out that there is a wide range of tonality in your work, and sometimes your work has a lighter sensibility. For instance, for your installation piece Black Is Beautiful you plastered a gallery walls with black pinups from the civil rights era to today. Can you talk about this work?

It's funny, but my friends aren't really nice to me. And so my friend and I were looking at a lot of my other work from around 2006, 2007, and he said, "I really like your work but it really bums me out." And it just stuck with me. I thought, "Wow, can I make anything that's actually good that isn't a bummer?" And that is part of the reason that I started the Unbranded project, and it's part of the reason that in more recent years I've really been trying to find ways to talk about things in a critical way that are more open that kind of don't have so much of my own agenda in them. And one of the things that I've kind of danced around a lot is how to talk about the female body because I think misogyny is deep in my veins—it's part of who I am as a heterosexually-identified man in America. So, how do I talk about it without being so obviously messed up? And my mother was writing a book called Posing Beauty, and in the introduction she talks about and how in the early 1920s magazines like The Crisis and The Silhouette and later positivist magazines like Ebony and Jet started making images representing this notion of black beauty, because in the 19th century the notion of black and beautiful was just an oxymoron. You couldn't be black and beautiful.

And so a lot of magazines had this agenda of putting forth representations of our own beauty, and basically I went on Google and downloaded every "Jet Beauty of the Week" from 1953 to 2008 in order to look at this ephemera as a kind of timeline tracking notions of beauty and class and identity and social structure over the course of nearly 60 years. And when they started making the pinups no one thought there was anything wrong with just putting up these pictures of women in bathing suits and saying, you know, so-and-so likes to snowboard and wants to be a doctor and her dimensions are 34-27-36. But then you see fascinating things, like how in the 1950s most of the women were really light-skinned with long straight hair and then later the 1960s you begin to see more darker-skinned bodies and different body types and you see the afro come to the fore. And then you see this amazing jump from black-and-white to color. As a child I thought that everything that happened before I was born happened in black and white. And so you also have a realization where you start think that I was born one of these weeks, and that most people looking at the work were born one of these weeks, and MLK died one of these weeks, and Malcolm X died one of these weeks, and 9/11 happened one of these weeks, and our president was born—all of these things happened during these weeks, and the fact that this enduring marker of black beauty continued is interesting to ponder, I think. Also, when it was set up in a huge gallery space and you walked around it you started to notice things, like, "Hey, isn't that woman wearing the same bathing suit as that other one?" We figured out it was a mother and daughter, and the daughter was wearing the same bathing suit that her mother had worn 20 years earlier. Being a Jet Beauty is and was a major thing in the African American community, and at least four of them came to the show who had posed in 1959, 1960. And they were still looking good!

Let me ask you, in your capacity as a fellow at Columbia College's Institute of the Study of Women and Gender, does the level of objectification, or the mode in which women are portrayed physically, change over time?

One of the things that we've been playing around with in my studio are these poses, the ways that you put yourself on display that are supposed to be sexy—how in one of the pinups she's like, "Let me squeeze my afro-pumps!" You know, I really feel like there's a language, or a catalogue, of posing here that really should be researched and decoded. And only someone in the art world would ever think it was worth their time. So, I'm still learning.

Now in 2009, right after Obama's swearing in and in the depths of the economic crisis, I vividly remember walking into the Armory Show and seeing the portrait of Obama that you made in collaboration with Ryan Alexiev, in which you portrayed the first black president of the United States in multicolored cereal. What was going on in that piece?

Well, around that time everyone was making a piece about Obama, and I like to be late—I don't like to be on time with my art, so I usually try to wait like until something is already over and everybody's done talking about it so I can start talking about it. But in this case one of my collaborators, Ryan, had been making cereal portraits—everyone who knew him was spending a lot of time gluing pieces of cereal on things—and one of the premises behind his fascination with cereal is that it's basically just four basic grains that create four hundred different products. So we have this illusion of choice in America, and his family comes from communist Bulgaria where they thought of America as this land of the free with all this opportunity, but then you get here and you realize it's not really opportunity—it's really just the same old thing, you know, with a different cereal box cover on it. And as much as I love our president I think there is something problematic, because how do you critique something that you inherently support? I mean, I would say that Obama's first campaign is probably the most successful advertising campaign in the history of the world, which took someone who was relatively unknown for years and turning him two years later into the most powerful person in the world—and no one actually knows exactly really what he stands for. And cereal is second only to cars in the amount of money that's spent on advertising in this country, but think about how much money was spent on his campaign to create this brand. I think he used the best of the Nike and Apple advertising strategies to build that first campaign. And so we made the portrait so that if you like him you can say, "He's so good, I just want to lick him!" And if you don't it's cereal. It's thinly veiled. And also it comments on the fact that politically we get these two choices that are supposed to be radically different, and anybody on either fringe says that they're basically the same.

I would think that Obama is someone who embodies a very interesting and branded approach to race, because he is a multiracial man who is identified as black, and there are very significant political considerations for doing so. Also, his presidency has yielded some incredible images, going back to the "Hope" poster. What do you make of the imagery that has emerged from his presidency?

One of the things that really bothered me was there was this image that was really popular around the time he was elected of him smoking a cigarette, and if you ever really looked at it you could tell it was totally Photoshopped. So it's one of these images that was used to show his darker side, and there's all these incredibly racist images made of him that make me feel really uncomfortable. But I don't think he ever, or very frequently, calls himself black. I remember when he called himself a mutt, and everybody got pissed. And while everyone talks about him as the first black president, I always say he's the first multiethnic president because I think, first of all, the way they campaigned would be very different if he was African-American and the way that society responded to him would be very different, even if he was biracial but one parent was African-American. Whereas his father, whom he barely knew, was from Kenya, and he grew up in Hawaii, which is 2 percent black, and went to Occidental and Columbia and Harvard, and he also lived in Indonesia, so his his relationship to race and even nationalism is so much more complex than we give him credit for. So calling him the first black president just doesn't make any sense in my mind because he is so much more complex, and the way he navigates the world so complex.

One of the images making the rounds online recently was this viral image of him in the Oval Office bending down and letting the young black kid feel his hair to see if it feels the same as his. And you can tell, just from the amount of media addressing the picture, that it's enormously resonant.

Well, I think it's resonant that a five-year-old can actually think that, you know? I mean, why did that kid have to be like, "I have to have proof!" He's five and he already knows that there's something wrong with the world. And he's like, "All right, I'm in this White House thing, now you have to bend over and let me touch your hair. So I can know for myself and I tell my friends, 'Ok, he's real.'" But one of the things that's really fascinating and that I like to talk about is that there is this change in the status quo, and recently a friend of mine was talking about telling their children who are 7 or 8 years old about slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation and how all these things were happening to black people at the time, and the kid said, "But wait a minute! Wasn't there a black president at that time?" Because, you know, this kid's whole consciousness has come to the point where he doesn't recognize how things have changed, so future generations aren't necessarily going to carry the same baggage we carry because it doesn't even make sense that there would be a time when there wasn't a non-white male president.

To branch off from the idea of Obama's identification of himself as multiracial while America identifies him as black, as an artist you have been grouped with the generation of artists that has been termed "post-black," a coinage popularized by Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden. How do you feel about that term?

Well, from a commercial standpoint, this goes back to branding. One of the major things that happened in my career is that I was put in that show Frequency, which was the second iteration of the "F" shows where Thelma does a survey of relatively young artists of African American descent making work under the guise of post-black. And I think they just they just slipped me in under the radar because I think I'm definitely still very much a project of my mom's generation, thinking about multiculturalism but thinking very much about the politics of race. I'm only post-racial when I collaborate with people. I'm trying to move out of that, but I think the notion of race is something that has dictated most of my work.

Speaking of your mother's generation, they had a subversive strategy that they called "culture-jamming," which I think that also applies to your work. Where do you find this license to use readymade images the way that you do?

Watching TV. And there's a song now called "Stupid Ho" by Nicki Minaj: "You a stupid ho, you, you a stupid ho." That's a million dollar song, and I'm thinking, "Ok, if she can make a song called 'Stupid Ho' and everyone's loving it up, I can do whatever I want!" [laughs] Why not?

What an inspirational story!

I mean, that's the reality. I feel like there are so many people making crap in the world that like, and out of all of that crap I had two revelations that made me an artist. One of them was actually somewhere around 2003 when I recognized that Lil' Wayne was like 17 years old and selling millions of albums and he created the term "bling-bling," which went viral. So I thought: "Ok, this kid is 17 years old, and because he can say something that sounds really cool for like four minutes there's a million-dollar production to make that one song, and he's got millions of people paying for him. At least ten thousand people might be willing to pay attention to whatever I do." The other moment was at Art Basel Miami Beach where my friend brought me in 2004 and we were in Jay Jopling's booth and there were these Sam Taylor-Wood photographs on the wall of her jumping around in her studio. They were really good pictures, about 30x40, and my friend put on his best collector's face and asked, "So, how much are these photographs?" And the dealer said, "They're $50,000." And my friend said, "Did you say these are $15,000?" And the dealer said, "No, they're $50,000 and they're an edition of seven and here's the book of the portfolio of 20 different images that look basically the same." And we're just sitting there doing the math of seven times fifty times twenty. For $50,000 you could feed a whole town somewhere, and somebody's actually putting that on their wall. And I'm not one to say what somebody should do with their money, because most people who have a lot of money don't just hoard it, they spend it on a lot of things that are socially good and blah, blah, blah. But why would you only spend your money on that? You might as well spend it on things to make you feel good, and art is one of those. But I was thinking if someone is paying $50,000 for her photograph, my work has got to be worth at least 1 percent of that, and I thought if I sold three or four a month at $500 each, then that's a start. Up until then I didn't want to be an artist—I was just making art because I didn't want to pay my student loans, and it let me stay in school. [laughs] But at that point it occurred to me that if someone is paying that much for Sam Taylor-Wood, something that I make must be worth something to someone in the world. And that's kind of given me that audacity to make art for a living.

Speaking of audacity, your new project Question Bridge must be one of your most audacious yet. Could you talk about it a little?

It's a project in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Chris Johnson and another artist named Kamal Sinclair that is basically a mediated video conversation among African American men. The premise is there's as much diversity within any demographic as there is outside of it, and you can show that by actually empowering the people who are part of this group who actually self-define as African-American men. We went to Birmingham first, and Bayeté and Chris met some guys on an airplane and they were like, "Hey, we're doing a project on black guys. Do you have any questions?" And miraculously they came to our hotel room two days later, about eight of them, and they had these questions that sent us on this journey. We went to New Orleans, we went to San Francisco, we went to New York, we went to Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, all these different places and we basically were facilitating this conversation, showing these questions and people were answering them. We wound up having about 160 participants and about 1,600 question-answer exchanges, and we turned it into a five-channel, three-hour video installation that launched in January at the Sundance Film Festival and traveled to the Oakland Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, Utah MOCA, and a city gallery in Atlanta, and it went to the L.A. Film Festival and the Sheffield Doc/Fest. It's been really fascinating to see kind of how people have responded to this, where you get to be a fly on the wall. You always kind of wonder: "What do people talk about when I'm not in the room?" So you see these African American men speak about things that can be really intense or really personal in a context where you can imagine that, if you were in the room witnessing it, the responses might be different.

What was the genesis for this project?

The genesis for this project is Chris Johnson, one of our collaborators, who was a professor of mine at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and he did this project in 1996 where he asked five members of the upper-middle-class African American community who aren't engaged in the hood to ask and answer questions mostly from the younger generation, but also from the poorer side of the black community, and wanted to use questions as a way to bridge the gap, and he thought that rather than have people sit in the same room where there are social mores that don't allow you to be as candid, if you facilitate it through video you can get more authentic and get candid answers where also people will actually spend more time listening to the actual question, because you can't just interject with what you want to say. And so it really was about the power of questions. Questions that we think about are often more generous than the answers, because you're actually giving the opportunity for someone else to be the expert to share something with you. And it's also revealing about vulnerability. And so I was nominated by the Tribeca Film Institute's new-media fund to come up with a project, and for some reason I thought that that project would be the ideal project. And so I asked Chris to collaborate with me on it, and then Bayeté came on, and then our friend Kamal came on, and it became this sort of transmedia project that has five different components: it's an art exhibit, we have a curriculum, we have an iPad app, we're building this user-generated website, and there's also a documentary to come. So it's been incredibly rewarding. At the Brooklyn Museum's First Saturday event there were about 13,000 people there, and 4,000 people in our exhibit, which is nuts. Especially in the art world, where if you say "black male" people only think of Thelma Golden. And I personally think this is a post-black project, but the title kind of betrays that.

To conclude, what do you think is the artist's role in society?

Whatever he or she wants

It seems that you take on more of a role than that.

But that's my problem. My friends will tell you—they're always saying, "You're taking on problems that aren't yours." But I don't think my practice is the best way to go about it. If everyone went around my way we'd be bummed out and arguing all the time. I really feel that there are so many artists who make work that is dramatically different that mine and that is equally important and potent and invigorating and exciting for me, and I think that's the benefit of Warhol and Duchamp. You don't have to be one kind of thing to be an artist, you have to be a person who believes that whatever they have to say is worth something, and the rest is in the world's hands.

I like to think of artists as people who digest ideas in their work that don't quite get digested by the general population, or at least in polite company.

Yeah. The artist Charles Long kind of broke it down for me in a way that made me feel real comfortable with it. I was doing this residency at Skowhegan, and he was giving me a critique, and he said to me, "We work in our society's subconscious." In a day and age when everything is so ordered—where we have wristwatches, iPhones, iPads, TiVo, all these things that arrange and order our lives—something is just not normal. That's not how we were created as organic animals. And part of the role of the artist in the 20th and 21st century is to actually do the things that don't make sense. So it's okay for somebody to say, "I just mess around with chairs," or "I just look at the color blue because it's really interesting to me." It opens doors to our minds that are less tapped, less used, because we're not robots. And societies where art is repressed wind up in fascist societies, and they don't last as we saw with communism. If you suppress those voices, people freak out and it collapses. Because it's in our nature to do what we're not doing right now. It's cute for a moment, but we need other things.

You said that you were interested in making work that doesn't explicitly tackle race as a way of moving into new terrain. Now you have a show coming up at Jack Shainman Gallery this fall. Is moving away from race something that you're interested in as a deliberate direction to take your art, or is it something of an expansion of your existing interests and concerns?

The basic ideas I'm talking about in my work you can make about race. But it's really very much about class and about social structure, and I think that resonates in a variety of cultures. So I'm hoping in ten years that my work isn't so grounded in this notion of blackness, which I don't even believe in. But my personal art is my friendships. It's creative to maintain friendships over a long period of time. The big problem with any collaboration is the collaboration. Especially with artists, everyone has their own direction, but what I also like about it is that they say you can't make art by committee, and I think that our project is proof that you can.


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