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_Interview with Kamal Sinclair

Mandy Rose of i-Docs interviewed Kamal Sinclair about Question Bridge

Kamal Sinclair is one of four artists who created Question Bridge: Black Males, along with Chris Johnson, Bayete Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas. She is Co-Director of Sundance New Frontier Lab

Mandy Rose is Co-Director of i-Docs

The interview was recorded in May 2014

MANDY ROSE: So, could you sketch your background, and explain how you got involved in Question Bridge?

KAMAL SINCLAIR: My creative background actually starts in the performing arts as a dancer, actress. I was in the Experimental Theatre wing at New York University when I met Hank [Willis Thomas] who was a Fellow. He was in the Photography Department. So we were old friends from Freshman Year back in 1994.

My trajectory went from there to quickly getting cast out of my Freshman Year as a performer with the show ‘STOMP.’ I toured with them for six years, off and on, and performed in New York, and also ran my own theatre company that was doing experimental work in New York City, San Francisco, and we toured internationally. So Hank was a great supporter and a friend through that aspect of my creative practice.

I made 1,000 ‘STOMP’ shows, and that was very popular. We toured internationally and all that. I always felt a little bit like, wishing I had the same impact that some of my peers in film and other media had. Yet, I didn’t want to lose the visceral experience of what it meant to feel live, to have that community experience.

So that is why – when the idea of these mixed reality, trans-media technologies [came along], allowing us to be much more connected and mobile, and in different ways that was not possible in the early part of my career – I got very excited about that as a creative pathway.

So it is a little bit of an eclectic background, but basically, when I had very small children, I decided to shut down my theatre company. I ended up getting a Master’s in Business, and ran a consulting company afterwards, for arts organizations that were interested in strategies for raising the visibility of creative voices, the diversity of voices and so forth.

So that is where the idea of these transmedia, new media, tools became part of my research, where I was really looking at, how do these things expand [creative possibilities]? How [do they expand] the ways we are educating, how we are connecting to audience, how we are building audience, how we are connecting live performance?

I was working with the Woodruff Arts Centre in Atlanta; with the symphony and the theatre, and their young audiences programme, which serves 600,000 kids across Georgia. A lot of research went into, how do we get beyond these walls to connect to audience? So I was doing a lot of research around that.

At the time, Hank approached me. This is September 2009, when I invited Hank, and Bayeté [Ross Smith], and Chris [Johnson] to come to an event I was doing at the Woodruff, that was focused on African American, like Generation X, and looking at the arts, the very vibrant arts community there, and especially with the music industry, at the time, making a lot of money, and looking at how to engage those communities with activism and with civic engagement, looking at social change and so forth.

So because we had 2,500 African American artists, and communities that appreciate the arts, at the Woodruff, we invited them to do some interviews for the Question Bridge project.

MR: Is this how you connected up with the project?

KS: Yes. That was 2009, and they had started shooting in 2008. By the time I came on board, they had about 1,000 question/answer exchanges. I remember one of the nights that they were in Atlanta, they just started showing me clip after clip. They had this raw footage and they didn’t know what the form was going to be.

They were like; “We could do a video installation. We could do a documentary. But if we did a documentary, it would be talking heads…What do we want to do? What do you think would be a good form for this?”

I think we stayed up all night long – they showed clip after clip. A lot of my work, as a theatre maker and a writer, was around race, gender, identity issues. So I was looking at the footage and I was like; “You know what Hank? You really cannot edit out any of these voices, if you are trying to achieve what you are trying to achieve, because then you are going to fall into the same pitfalls as ethnographic work – censorship, and framing. Then the issue becomes; how do you do that when there are just so many voices? You have a very long conversation…and I was sharing with him some of the early transmedia, interactive stuff that I was seeing. So I was like; “if you distributed this across a website, then people can follow their curiosity”.

I was doing a lot of distance learning. I was researching, what is the best way to do e-distance learning? I was reading papers from different professors about the non-linear narrative. So that is when the idea of this becoming a transmedia project started.

I have a personal passion around this idea of identity, because I am mixed race and I have always been asked to select one [identity]. I just think the whole census, HR [Human Resources diversity monitoring] model is so flawed. I was even doing a diversity project for an arts institution, just trying to do these qualitative interviews with different stakeholders. I interviewed the only executive that was of Asian American descent. As soon as I walked into the office, he goes; “Well, if you are here to get the Asian American perspective you are in the wrong place, because I do not have any connection to that culture.” He said, “But if you want a gay man’s perspective, that is what I feel like I identify with more, and can contribute to the conversation”.

So right there, alone – the assumption of who he was, was completely debunked by what he thought authentically was more true to who he was. These are just all the conversations that emerged around why we should look at [identity], why we are gathering these questions and answers.

The answers and questions alone debunk stereotypes, because they just show this diversity of thought. And then [we are] simultaneously trying to do a, sort of, data-visualisation –   mapping, or rather allowing people to define themselves in their own terms, and using these 21st century tools that are not limited to a chart. The old 20th century tools we had were so limiting.

And because these approaches are dynamic, they can grow and they can change. Someone can feel one way and then change a month later – change their identity tags – and we can look at that over time. So that is how the idea of adding the identity mapping part of the project emerged.

MR: That is fascinating Kamal. It makes so much sense. I think I was somewhat puzzled by Question Bridge – how it had been born in the art world and then taken on so many characteristics that have to do with documentary, and take advantage of the online space. So I understand now how that that emerged out of that dialogue – that moment in the process.

Hank showed us, at i-Docs [2014 Symposium], a video of a young, single, black mother, very angry about her representation, that I believe Chris Johnson had shown him at CalArts, at some point. It was a piece-to-camera, very direct, challenging, uncut and very raw. Thinking of that takes me back to the very early days of Question Bridge. Can you say anything about that early history – give me a sense of how the project first came about.

KS: I think, really, the earliest origins of the methodology that Chris Johnson designed – this question and answer exchange – came from when he was a youth in Brooklyn, during the first Housing Rights Act, when all of a sudden, these red lines that had divided communities were lifted. A lot of the professionals in the black community in Brooklyn left and moved into more affluent white communities, and that left this blight of economic diversity in his community. He felt like, virtually overnight, he saw shops, and doctors’ offices, and all these things that create a healthy community, shut down…

MR: What is a red line? What do you mean by that?

KS: Oh, right. So in America, during the Jim Crow…

MR: – the Post-Reconstruction era, yes?

KS: Right. So that lasted all the way until the mid ‘60s when the Civil Rights Housing Act basically, said that you could no longer discriminate within housing based on race. Before that was lifted, black communities were, what the real estate / Realtors called ‘redlined.’ Basically, there were literally streets on the map with red lines around where the ghettos were in America, for different races and communities. So that became illegal when Chris was a youth. Because that became illegal, there was a…

MR: Middle class flight?

KS: Yes. The mid class African Americans left the African American communities virtually overnight, and it left just the lower economic group, people who did not have that mobility. That is where the modern ghetto began, it was like the kernel of what came later – I think it probably peaked in the ‘90s – with all kinds of gang violence and the mass incarceration of African American men and the crack cocaine epidemic.

So Chris [Johnson] saw the beginnings of that, and saw this huge divide between those who had and those who had not in the African American community. It had a deep impact on him and he really wanted to explore that when he first started Question Bridge.

So, when he got a commission to do a project in San Diego in 1996, he decided to create a dialogue that was video mediated between the upper and lower class African Americans in San Diego. That was the original Question Bridge.

He thought video mediation was important, that it would remove some of the awkwardness that happens when people are in the same room, where they do not necessarily speak their mind as frankly as they might.

So that project was exhibited once. And Chris shared it in class as an example of video art work. Hank was in his class and was inspired by it, so…

MR: So that clip I mentioned; will it be from that project?

KS: Yes, from 1996. So this is many years later, I think it was 2006, that Hank became aware of the project. He had recently gotten a Tribeca New Media Fellow grant based on his other work. So he was trying to figure out what he was going to do with that grant. It was $35,000. He was like, “What can I do?” And he thought, “Why don’t I revisit the Question Bridge project that Chris Johnson started? Instead of it being across class lines, let’s have a question and answer exchange within the black male demographic”.

That impetus came from his own journey. A lot of his previous work is just really trying to deconstruct that identity that he felt was so limiting, to him personally, and explore questions about how that identity came to be. Hank talks a lot about the word ‘black’, of how the identity – ‘black’ – did not exist prior to the slave trade, because identity in that context was based on tribal affiliations.

Then, coming here, African Americans were pushed through a painful process of falling into this one identity group called ‘black.’ So Hank questioned that monolith. Really, I think [Question Bridge] was part of his personal and artistic expression of those themes.

I guess one of the things that I think we all knew intuitively was the fact that when you create these strong monolithic identity frameworks, that you limit the individuality of human beings within those groups. We all knew that intrinsically. But what became really fascinating was when we started sharing the footage in its raw state, or sometimes just cutting together a few question and answer exchanges. I mean, our own assumptions became so clear. When Hank and Chris and Bayeté were doing some shooting with youth at Hunter’s Point and one kid came in. He’s 15 years old. He had gold teeth and he’s wearing all these hip-hop signifiers. They had assumptions about what he was going to talk about, and who he was, and what he cared about, and what came out of his mouth floored them, and they just realized, “Oh my God, we all carry these assumptions about who is in front of us”.

So the idea was; how do we overcome those limiting assumptions? How do we ask a question rather than make an assumption first? Then as we continued to do the research into supporting why we think this was important – it’s something we knew intrinsically was important – having to back that up for grant writing and for garnering support we came across research that had been done by a group of researchers at Harvard, called the Implicit Association project.

They really had done some phenomenal research into how we function and how people are limited by stereotypes. When you look at this research about implicit bias you basically see that, yes, our assumptions about another person absolutely impact our behavior around them, the access that we allow them to have to us, and it even impacts the behavior that we perform around an identity group.

For instance one of the tests was – Malcolm Gladwell also references this in his book, ‘Blink’ – this group of African-American undergraduate students were given tests to enter into grad school; I think it was the GRE. Half of them were told to put their name at the top of the test. The other half was told to put their name and their race. There was something like a 30% differential score based on race.

So these stereotypes prime us so fundamentally that we actually perform, we perform those stereotypes. They did the same thing with Asian women and they were doing math and science tests. They told half of them to put their name and their gender, and the other the name and their race. The ones who put their name and their gender did poorly; the ones who put their name and their race did well because of the stereotype around women not being good at math and science, and Asians being good at math and science.

So you know, that speaks to how critical it is for us to challenge these assumptions and especially for young people to understand the power that those priming stereotypes have over their own sense of identity and their own mobility, so that hopefully they can combat those thoughts and those primers and don’t get stuck in those limitations.

MR: Well that in a way takes me to a question about audience and impact and how you think about the impact of Question Bridge.

How has the Question Bridge team thought about audience, the audience who is online, the audience who is face-to-face, whom you meet through the various outreach programmes?

KS: Well, you know, one of the other things that came out of that research – and we had to go into it deeper as grantees of the Open Society Institute’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement. There’s actually a test of your implicit bias, not just on race but also on religious issues, and body image issues. There are all these different stereotypes that they measure. They found that in the case of African-Americans, less than 20% of Americans were able to associate black faces with positive words. That means that even African-Americans have their own bias. But they found that what could actually change people’s performance on those tests was, firstly, being immersed in more complex and whole narratives. So that was one area where we hoped to have impact. It’s hard to measure that, unless we have everybody taking that test after they’ve been immersed in our project. But we know from that research that the stories you’re exposed to really can shift that.

The other thing [that could shift attitudes] was having genuine friendships and actually breaking those barriers of unfamiliarity – actually knowing people and changes those prejudices. I shouldn’t say prejudice in fact, because I don’t want people to think it’s conscious. It’s priming, it’s an implicit bias. It’s not something that we choose, and even the most outright advocates for social justice are still primed with these stereotypes.

So anyway, that became a really important part for us, that we knew from the process of making this work that the dialogue alone was very healing for the men who were involved. We would actually have men – in Chicago we invited thirty men to come and participate – and they all came in very guarded. At the end they just were just energized, and stayed and talked to each other in the lobby and came back the next day and brought food. It was something really healing, the dialogue alone.

So that was our first audience – African-American men – and we have tried to get one percent of African-American men engaged in the project in some shape or form. It’s ambitious, but that was our goal – to expose or engage 200,000 black men in Question Bridge in some shape or form – whether through our roundtables, through the exhibition, through the education curriculum, or through the internet, which is our primary means. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that we have definitely impacted a lot of young men, and not just young men but men of all generations.

The second tier of our focus was; we know that if we’re really trying to change anything around African-American male achievement in this country that it’s not something that can happen in a vacuum. We didn’t frame it as, “Oh, we need to help black men” but we looked at it more like, “Our society needs these men and we’re losing benefit and value from them being isolated or not being able to achieve or being incarcerated, or not getting whatever they need to develop their potential”.

We’re losing out on that person who may be able to develop cancer treatment, might be able to develop, whatever, education systems. You don’t know who you’re missing out on when we don’t fulfill the potential. We know statistically that this group is in a particularly abysmal achievement pattern at this time in history, in America. So we knew that. We even did a lot of research looking at the discipline gap and the achievement gap in education. Even the most well intentioned educators who were going into schools that were predominantly black were still more harshly disciplining, all kinds of things that were related to discipline of black men that they weren’t doing with other demographics. A lot of that is because of that priming – that black men are positioned as ‘that to be feared’ by a lot of agendas that go back hundreds of years. So it’s hard to rid ourselves of that priming.

That’s why the second audience for this was the general public of America. We had hoped to at least get three million Americans to somehow see, hear, and engage with the project at some point. That’s what our numerical goal was – and I was surprised, I mean we hadn’t even launched the web site yet – and we’d had 600,000 people see the exhibition. We’ve had 30 museum exhibitions to date, and they’ve had pretty robust traffic. We’ve had two million hits on our web site. So you know, that’s even before we launched the interactive [proposition].

So who knows how deeply we’re impacting. I think that when people do come to the exhibition our goal is to get people to stay fifteen minutes in a museum environment to watch a video installation, which is really good. That’s really good; when people are walking through a gallery they can leave at any time. It’s not like a theatre where they’re seated. And museums have told us that the average is 45 minutes.

MR: Oh my goodness – that’s really fantastic and really moving as well, actually.

KS: So we’re really thankful and we’ve gotten a lot of great publicity. We’ve gotten some television stuff, like MSNBC did a profile on us so we know we’ve been able to at least do that very surface awareness around this stuff. But we hope that with this web site our first goal is to do a proof of concept and then be able to share what those results are in terms of the data visualization of the dialogue and of the identities map, and see if there’s anything there that will spark or add to the conversation more broadly.

MR: I was going to ask a question around that. What are the objectives now you have re-launched? So is it to engage more people and to see what that data starts to look like?

KS: Yes. We want to see if we can get a significant, a critical mass of men on the site to contribute and if, you know, words – certain words [participants are invited to tag their contributions with words which are self-descriptors] – are getting more traction than others, in certain geographic areas. Even like if LA or New York are using words that are different from Atlanta or Detroit…

We know, we’ve talked to academics and people who are in the vanguard of this social change work. They all say that would be incredibly valuable for us in understanding what’s on the minds and the hearts of our community. For example, what if the word ‘queer’ becomes a very significant word, and that raises stereotypical thoughts around African-Americans and homophobia, or maybe not.

Or maybe that stereotype gets affirmed, and if it gets affirmed then how are we not supporting our young men who are gay? There are just all kinds of ‘who knows?’…

MR: Who knows whether you might get – I don’t know – I mean let’s just be simplistic here – the word ‘racism’ turning up much more in a certain part of the country. See if there’s any correlation between that and the political context there at a particular moment. I mean you just don’t know, do you? That’s what is so interesting. Have you got any academic researchers as collaborators in this part of the project?

KS: Well, we applied for an NEH grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, early on, and as part of that you needed scholars as part of your team. So Deb Willis, who was the Dean of Photography at NYU and Hank’s mother, and one of our producers, put together a phenomenal scholarship steering committee. We had deep conversations with all of them as we were framing this because we wanted to make sure that we organized it from the beginning in a way that would be of value.

We knew that this wasn’t going to be empirical data necessarily, but we wanted to make sure that we framed it in a way that could be useful to the discourse. So our web site, under the ‘Supporters’ you’ll see at the bottom the names of the scholarship students. We also shared the curriculum, when we wrote it, with them, and got their feedback and recommendations. So that was really helpful.

MR: You are a dispersed and multi-disciplinary team, aren’t you, an interdisciplinary team in a way. How on earth do you work?

KS: Oh gosh, well it’s definitely been challenging at different points. So my background is I have a Masters in Business. I was of a teaching artist background, and curriculum development. One of the grants that I worked on at Atlanta through Woodruff was a $12 million education grant. So I was at the time pretty up on best practices around curriculum development for the arts and school systems, and then obviously, Bayeté is a teaching artist and Chris is a professor.

So I was also the one who was hired. Part of the budget that we had earned brought me on to focus more full time than the other team members. When I came on I was able to come on as the producer who was doing all the strategic planning from a business point of view, writing the grants, as well as having the time to write the curriculum and develop the partnership framework for our community engagement thing.

So I was handling the daily [running of the project]. Hank’s company is the formal producer of the project. All the money comes through his company and he is also the one who has got the liability to sustain everything. Chris obviously came in as the founder of the methodology and also was the one who was really at almost every single filming of the 160 men we captured ourselves.

Then Bayeté, not only did he gather – he was a huge part of gathering those 160 men, doing the outreach and organizing that. He also was a big part of how things were shot and filmed as well as how things were edited. Then Will Sylvester came on – when we had the Brooklyn Museum opportunity and the Sundance opportunity pending. He came on as our editor, as our installation designer – delivering the technology behind how we were going to do this five-channel thing. He was the one who did the research and picked that up.

So he really was a big part of the exhibition side – and editing – with Bayeté. Hank is part of every single process, but I would say Bayeté and Will were really important to how the choreography of those five-channels ended up looking. And then Bayeté obviously he was teaching artists as part of his professional career. So he was able to do a lot of the implementation of educating educators and educating directly with youth on the curriculum launch.

Then Natasha Logan came on when I got hired, to do full time transmedia producing. Then when I moved into Sundance I moved into more of a strategic producer – an executive producer role [on Question Bridge] – looking at overall strategy in terms of timelines, funding, partnerships, and programme design. Then Natasha came on as really the one who has held this project together for the last year and a half in an incredibly significant way. She is really the unsung hero of the group in that regard.

MR: Does the new interactive version work with the same interviews – offering a different set of possibilities for the user around those interviews? Or is this new content?

KS: The interactive version has two faces. One is a conversation, which is navigating the questions and answers. The other is these identity profiles or fingerprint profiles. We’re usurping the fingerprint that in this country has been a big symbol [a disproportionate number of black males are engaged with the criminal justice system] – and that identity limiting black males into a particular pathway, which is something that by exploring the stereotype that black men are any one set of things, and showing the diversity in that demographic we want to basically usurp the fingerprint that frames the community within those limitations.

So there are those two sides. But we also have an opportunity for men to add to the dialogue. It’s hard of course to get a critical mass of black men to contribute their own questions and answers and fingerprint profiles. You can look at it like a word cloud, either the dialogue things or the identity tags. You can look at it as a map, or you can look at it as what we call the ‘exhibition view’, of just looking at the videos and the interviews.

MR: So what would you say your hopes and fears for this re-launch are?

KS: It’s been such a long process. It felt like such an accomplishment yesterday to launch after so many setbacks. But anyway, we’re really happy to have fulfilled the promises made to all those who have supported us. We’re really, really happy that’s happened.

The next goal is to get our core community of African-American men to contribute. Then once we have a certain threshold of men, we’re going to do a much more visible PR and marketing push to get it populated even further.

The goal has always been to try to get 200,000 men on the site. Who knows if we’ll ever hit that. I think even if we get a couple of thousand I think it’ll be huge. I would be really, really pleased to have that response. Then if this were to work as a design for this kind of dialogue and identity mapping we would love to open it up so that anyone is able to create a fingerprint profile based on the words they use to identify themselves.

They can start a dialogue within that group – so it could be race and gender-specific, it could be interest-specific, it could be regional. We’d love it to be a universal platform to address those conversations for different groups.

MR: We’ve talked a lot about social impact and the historic reasons why Question Bridge is an important project.

But we haven’t spoken so much about the quality of the videos themselves. I just wondered about the quality of that speech – that straight-to-camera address – if you have any thoughts about that? Or have had feedback that was particularly interesting?

KS: Yes, you know this is one of the things that Chris was definitely trying to advocate as we were developing the work, that even the pillars and the placement of the height of the TVs in the gallery is supposed to try to, as best as possible, make you feel like you’re on this equal footing and having an intimate conversation. We had talked to different curators of different museums, and [they’d say] like, “People might be interested in this if you blow up all the faces to be the size of the whole building”….

You know what I mean, there were just all these different conversations about what these talking heads might be like – to make it innovative and interesting. And Chris and Hank, but held strongly to the view that, ‘this needs to be as much as possible like you’re standing eye-to-eye with somebody and hearing this conversation’.

The way that the video unfolded – it’s something really powerful. One of the young men in the process, you know, they played this video of a man asking him a question and he stopped and he was like, “Is he asking me?” It became this moment of like, “I have value, my answer has value to this person that I don’t know”. There was definitely something about that looking right into the camera and asking this person who was somehow out there and going to see this, and respond directly, that was a powerful way of bringing a vulnerability and bringing out a frankness and honesty and a fearlessness that was very unique.

MR: I just met by Skype with a PhD [Mary Mitchell] student who’d written in her latest draft something that came from Hannah Arendt – the idea that the presence of others brings a distinctive self into reality. She was writing about the context of people not being represented in the media and therefore being deprived of a certain sense of their own reality. That seems to me to resonate at so many levels with Question Bridge – and within the project right there, that business of how the speaker is brought into the centre of his or her own self-reality by imagining they’re being heard by somebody else in the project.

KS: I think that’s what’s beautiful about this participatory storytelling, the capabilities of it – you can get saturated with a lot of content, but even in the act of saying something and putting it out into the world, there’s something that is very powerful about that act, you know, and feeling validated in some way, and honored.

There’s a value placed on the participant’s voice, there’s a unique perspective that only they can bring. And one of the other things we found was how rarely people asked the same question, or answered a question, the same way. It really did show that each brings a unique perspective that can’t be replicated by someone else.



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