Chris Johnson, artist of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” felt inspired to explore the Black community’s social divisions at a young age.
Johnson grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn before fair housing laws passed. He explained how Black people of all classes lived in the “Black ghetto” until the Fair Housing Act passed. When he saw the division of the Black community firsthand, he wanted to explore its intricacies.
Johnson thought of the idea for a “question bridge” style documentary. A decade later, Johnson and his former photography student, Hank Willis Thomas, set out across nine U.S. cities, interviewed over 160 men and collected over 1,600 question and answer videos.
“We’re curious about each other,” Johnson said. “So I think the biggest draw is getting to hear and see how Black men have a huge range in the way they react and answer the questions.”
In the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz, the main room is filled with five separate screens situated in a half-circle. The dark room immerses the viewer as different footage appears on each screen, creating a conversation between them.
The project spotlights the experience of living in the U.S. as a Black man. Johnson explains he wanted to explore the Black male perspective because its intricacies are lost in American media. He created the film to stimulate connections and understanding among Black men, as well as to show their diversity of thought, character and identity.
Johnson produced the interview process to mirror having a conversation. One person asks a question to the camera, then another person records their response to another camera. Johnson said this approach reduces the stress of normal face-to-face conversations and makes people feel more comfortable expressing themselves on sensitive topics.
“When I edited these questions and answers together, it created this really powerful dynamic,” Johnson said. “I had so much footage of honest and revealing questions and answers.”
The first time Johnson used his interview technique was when the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Malcolm X Library in San Diego approached him in 1996. The museum asked him to create a video for their exhibit that coincided with the Republican National Convention. Titled “Re:Public,” his work combated how politics are scripted in corporate media.
Johnson interviewed people who varied in age and class to explore the Black community and the differences embedded in it.
Johnson compared his ability to get honest questions and answers to waving a wand and making himself invisible to the community.
“You’d always come away with insights that you wouldn’t have if you were in their presence,” said Johnson, referring to the added intimacy the videos bring. “One of the goals of this project is to make Black men less unfamiliar and less frightening.”
Shelby Graham, the director and curator at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, first saw the installation at the Oakland Museum of California. She explained she didn’t expect to stay for long, but the piece drew her in, and she ended up there for hours. She had been looking for a new exhibit for the Sesnon Gallery and called Johnson, who agreed to have an installation put in at UCSC.
Despite the film’s three-hour runtime, Graham said it’s easy to stop in for 10-15 minutes and watch segments. People are often afraid to have these tough conversations around emotional topics, Graham said, but an installation like this can spark those conversations. Hoping to destigmatize Black male identity, creating a dialogue surrounding racial divisions was also a goal of Johnson’s.
“I want to try to get every UCSC student over to the Sesnon Gallery to see a slice of this,” said Graham. “It’s such a compelling video that will launch into this fabulous dialogue that this country really needs.”
Rachel Nelson, curator and program manager of the UCSC Institute of the Arts and Sciences, thinks the exhibit is a good fit for the campus.
“Some of the questions are things we’d think to ask each other about our experiences in the world,” said Nelson. “But [there are] other things about health or the ways in which people deal with different situations, you know, interact with their children. So the radically personal conversations are so interesting.”
The exhibit opens with an event on Feb. 6 from 5-7 p.m. At the opening night event, Chris Johnson will speak about his experience creating the piece.
“Our hope is that it actually changes the way that Black people on campus are perceived by people who see the piece,” Johnson said. “I think in an academic environment it’s bound to stimulate lots of conversation […] we would all like to be more compassionate, we would like to have more tolerance for difference in our life.”
If you are unable to attend the gallery but are interested in learning more about “Question Bridge: Black Males” you can access its website at questionbridge.com or download the app.
The Sesnon Gallery is open 12-5 p.m. on weekdays and will stay open until 8 p.m. every Wednesday. Gallery interns plan to host Wednesday night discussions, complete with free refreshments, surrounding the installation.
With an opening reception the night of Feb. 6, the gallery will showcase the installation until April 6.