Bayeté Ross Smith, Exploring Bias Through Art

Monday, Nov. 14th 2016 12:01 AM

How might art help each of us bridge our bias-gap?  Stay tuned as we find out … on this edition of Frank Relationships.

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FRANK RELATIONSHIPS: BAYETÉ ROSS SMITH, EXPLORING BIAS THROUGH ART
Guests: Bayeté Ross Smith
Date: November 14, 2016

Frank:  How might art help each of us bridge our bias-gap?  Stay tuned as we find out … on this edition of Frank Relationships.

Yes, those are my babies. As always, thanks for getting daddy’s daughter today.

Multimedia artist Bayeté Ross Smith is with us and Bayeté, I’m curious…why does art matter in the midst of a serious conversation?

Bayeté: Oh thank you. Good morning and thank you for having me on the show. I think art matters in the midst of a serious conversations because art speaks to our subconscious as a society and individuals. So it often reflects our hopes, our dreams, perspectives on things that often can’t be said concisely in words. So I think it’s very important in terms of directing our perceptions and our notions about one another and a lot of [unclear] feelings we have about our society.

Ff: What does it mean to be thoughtful about the media that we consume?

Bayeté: That’s a great question. I think the media we consume is kind of like food… there are certain things like ice cream and cake that are tasty as a dessert. We really enjoy them in certain moments but they don’t fuel us as we go about our day, our weeks, our years and I think it’s important to be aware of the quality of the media that you consume and how it impacts your perception of the world around you and how it exercises your mind.

Frank: When you look at… and I assume you look at or atleast familiar with, let’s say Fox. Fox News is the conservative side.

Nancy: Right.

Frank: I don’t know what the Liberal side is… But I—

Bayeté: I think it’s [unclear] MSNBC.

Frank: Is it [unclear] MSNBC? Okay.

Bayeté: Kind of the equivalent.

Frank: Okay. So when you look at the dichotomy between the two, what…. And you… add that to the conversation that we’re having right now. What comes up for you?

Bayeté: Well when I… I think it’s really, really important for us as Americans—no, as world citizens and thinking people to be really aware of scrutinizing the things we hear in the news that we agree with. It’s easy to hear things that you agree with and you like and just run down that one train of thought and we always have to scrutinize the things we agree with and the things that appeal to us to make sure that we’re getting multiple sides, multiple perspectives on a story and informing ourselves. I think that’s critically important.

Because again, everyone like to hear things they agree with but I think it’s really important, you can really tell someone’s character in a debate or a discussion depending on how they acknowledge the validity of opposing perspectives.

Frank: Well said. Does that mean, we should watch Fox and NBC? Or MSNBC? Or does that mean we should maybe watch just a third option that does better straight down the middle? And I don’t know what that option is…Is CNN the better… I don’t know. But go on…

Bayeté: Well, you know I tend to… I have a certain perspective [unclear]. I tend to prefer to not get my news from television unless it’s local. I tend to advice people to get their news from what where traditionally print sources because I think philosophically they come from a background where they went into more depths with the reporting and information.

The beauty of nowadays is that due to the internet, you can get a variety of different news sources so you can look at the New York Times, you can look at BBC, you can look at Agency French Press, you can look at a variety different news sources globally. I don’t really have a good South American news source that I can recommend to people… But my point is that when you look at news sources from different perspectives, different regions that help you get a fuller picture on certain stories.

Frank: Wow. Usually, we cut straight to me welcoming but this guy is interesting already. Jeff, you have a…

Nancy: He’s happy…

Frank: You have quite a background in radio and media but not just in DC, not just even national. You got an international perspective. How do you weigh in on what Bayeté’s just said?

Jeff: Well the big difference is people in America don’t realize. Most people don’t realize how…

Frank: Biased?

Jeff: Well, not just biased. How media has slanted our view of the world and of ourself. Okay? I worked for an international news network. The headline story isn’t always America it isn’t me, me me.

Nancy: Right.

Jeff: Okay, what we’re hearing about isn’t what you see on CNN or ABC. A lot of stuff going on out there. That’s why this most recent election, that’s why a lot of the things that the Bush administration did internationally tarnished the way Americans are viewed and it’s not just the media. That’s real factual boots-on-the-ground stuff that I’ve seen. It has changed my view of the way I view America.

Nancy: Interesting…

Jeff: Because you can’t be that arrogant and selfish. Well, we can. We are.

Nancy: We are. Right, right.

Jeff: But what journalism should be and what journalism is are two different things. You mentioned Fox, you mentioned MSNBC. Half of the viewers, atleast on the side of Fox (that’s all I can attest to), are viewing it for entertainment. I’m not watching Bill O’Reilly as a real reporter. I’m watching him to laugh at how ridiculous he can be or his slant on what… the way on which he views the world. Same goes for a lot of conservative right wing commentators. Listen to Rush Limbaugh. There are a lot of people who are buying into that. They’re the lemmings that follow him off the cliff. But to e real honest, to me it’s laughable and then cryable.

Nancy: Right.

Jeff: Because people do take it seriously.

Nancy: Absolutely.

Jeff: So I don’t overstate that. I don’t want to understate the importance of journalism in our lives. A lot of it is entertainment. And that goes right to TMZ and ET and Access and any of what they’re called reality shows which are entertainment.

Frank: Yeah.

Jeff: So a lot of people, that’s their world, okay?

Nancy: Yes.

Jeff: And that’s why… not to change or veer the subject into what’s happened recently. Donald Trump was a reality show host.

Frank: Yeah.

Jeff: Okay?

Nancy: Indeed.

Jeff: Who had a board game named after… I mean, we can go on and on and on… but…. So yes, he’s on people’s minds. He’s in their hearts and in their homes. You know, every week for a period of years. Of course they’re familiar with him. Anyhow.

Frank: And when you think about Trump, I think about Lethal Weapon 2 and I’m really on a tangent here… okay.

Nancy: Oh my goodness.

Frank: Lethal Weapon 2, Danny Glover when they discover the… they find all these money, these South Africans have been stock pile. And Danny Glover’s like god… and this is like Donald Trump [unclear]. He’s name… this… and Lethal Weapon 2 came out in the 90s. His name was synonymous with wealth.

Nancy: Wealth, yeah. Obscene wealth.

Frank: And Americans aspire to wealth. And so there’s something to be… he had something going on in many levels.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Oh he played it right.

Frank: Yeah.

Jeff: And that’s half of it. The other half which is embarrassing to me as an American is how racist we really are. Because regardless of how—and I don’t want to get political, it’s your show—but regardless of how negative… regardless of your negative feeling about Hilary, regardless of the fact that you cannot vote for her because of this, typical politician, she lies, bah, blah, blah. We would’ve had 4 years of indictments, how can you bring yourself to vote for Trump when he did everything wrong? But apparently, he did everything right.

Frank: Yeah. He did something right. Somebody voted for him. Okay, do I… Can I bring it in now?

Nancy: Please. Please. Is Bayeté still on the line?

Bayeté: Yeah, I’m here.

Frank: Welcome to Frank Relationships, a show for you my brethren who like me, are too young to be considered old and too old to be considered young. It’s also for those of you that love and support us. We’re here to provide weekly wisdom, conversation and the information that’ll help create better parents and partners.

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Greetings to my super duper co-host, Nancy.

Nancy: Good morning, Frank.

Frank: Nancy Goldring, the consummate generalist.

Nancy: Indeed.

Frank: Yes, yes.

Nancy: I’m very happy about that title now.

Frank: Today’s guest is a conceptual artist known for exploring issues and preconceived notions of identity and beauty, cultural traditions and anthropology. His projects constantly  question and challenege our concepts and biases related to race and other demographics. I might say he does a very good job with it, demonstrating insight and skill.

So if you like me, want to know what redefining black male identity in America means and what in the world Question Bridges, then stay tuned as your Frank Relationships Team talks with photographer, multimedia artist, film maker and educator, Mr. Bayeté Ross Smith. Welcome to the show.

Bayeté: Thank you for having me. That was a great intro. I need to utilize that in the future. You made me sound very impressive.

Frank: hey.

Nancy: Awesome.

Frank: I would say you are very impressive.

Bayeté: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Frank: You can steal it from the transcript. We transcribe the show. So…

Nancy: Yes.

Frank: But before we get too deep in today’s subject matter, I want to check in to see what’s going on in the news. I mean, I’m saying that as if we haven’t already done that but…

Nancy: Right, on some level.

Frank: Yeah, we actually have a segment for that. So, Bayeté, please don’t be bashful. We certainly want your thoughts too. Okay! People like us more when we share information about ourselves even if that information seems unflattering. Yes? No?

Nancy: I think it kind of makes you more—or atleast seem more accessible as a person more human.

Bayeté: So that means that TMI, “too much information” is actually a good thing?

Frank: Well—

Nancy: I think not but…

Frank: I mean—

Nancy: That’s what this is implying.

Frank: It is kind of implying that unless it’s too much information. I mean maybe there’s a gradient to it all. When we share information that seems unflattering… Maybe…

Nancy: Well sometimes I think moreso than the whole TMI thing, is… Let’s say I ask you something and then you declined to answer, then that’s a little bit more—it’s kind of like you’re guarded, you’re not willing to let me in.

Frank: That’s actually… That was actually said in this article that I was reading—

Nancy: Okay.

Frank: —where it was like someone not answering the question can seem off-putting.

Nancy: Yeah.

Frank: Answering it with more information. I guess except during an interview, a job interview. You want to…

Nancy: Technically we’re always interviewing. You can [unclear] down to it. It’s just a matter of how cool the person doing the talking is.

Frank: Okay.

Nancy: Or doing the asking as I guess…

Frank: Or we’re always getting to know one another.

Nancy: Yeah, on some level.

Frank: Alright. Bayeté, what you got?

Bayeté: Well I always… My challenges to be concise when I convey information, particularly about myself. I don’t want to be one of those people who just talks about themselves, on and on and on but I also really want to communicate effectively. And so a lot of times, I go into detail to make sure I’m articulating myself correctly.

So that’s encouraging in terms of that regard. It just makes me wonder how that will be interpreted if we’re going to run into like a period of “oversharing”—

Frank” Yeah.

Bayeté: …once that information gets out.

Frank: That’s real. Sometimes, people talk too much.

Nancy: All the nation has won over sharing over little….

Frank: That’s true. Facebook…

Nancy: Oh my goodness…

Frank: Yeah… People taking pictures of their food …

Nancy: Or telling you they’re in the bathroom. Like why do I need to know that?

Frank: Right, right…

Bayeté: Actually, a friend and colleague of mine has a project where he does that. He’s… gosh, now I’m going to seem racist. I forget what Hassma’s ethnicity is. I want to say it’s something South Asian but he’s American. And he started this project where he would document all the mundane things in his life and send it to the FBI based on [unclear]…

Nancy: Oh my good…

Bayeté: [unclear]… Customs after September 11.

Nancy: Oh my goodness…

Bayeté: Interesting project. His name’s Hassam Alahi.

Nancy: Alahi?

Frank: Let me get this right.

Nancy: A-L-H-I-E? Or H-I?

Frank: He’s doc—

Bayeté: E-L… I believe it’s phonetic. E-L-A-H-I.

Jeff: Now that’s a reality show I’ve watched. That’s awesome.

Frank: All of the mundane things.

Jeff: See what happens.

Bayeté: Yeah.

Frank: And send it to the FBI.

Jeff: Shoot it as a documentary.

Bayeté: [unclear] that you know… With information, [unclear] still has to be monitored. So if you’re getting that much information on everybody, then you have to create a whole other system to maintain that information.

Nancy: Right.

Bayeté: If you would like send them like multiple pictures, like in the bathroom, what you have for lunch, like all that mundane stuff…

Nancy: What?

Frank: You bring up an interesting belief that I have…  I don’t even think it’s just simply a belief. I believe it t be fact that every time we create a “solution”—

Nancy: We create a new problem?

Frank: —we create a new problem. Yeah.

Nancy: Unintended consequences, I like to call it.

Frank: So… while monitoring his increased significantly, people who are being watched well who’s going to digest all the information and what you’re going to do with it…

Nancy: Please don’t start sending your information to the FBI. I want to keep coming here on Thursdays…

Jeff: I’m a bit older than you guys but when I was in high school, required reading was a novel called “1984”.

Nancy: Oh my gosh…

Frank: 1984. George Orwell?

Jeff: Yup.

Frank: Yeah.

Jeff: Now we’re a few years past that, even though I read it a few years prior to that. But that’s how we live. This camera’s on every corner.

Nancy: Oh my gosh.

Frank: Yeah.

Jeff: So you know…

Nancy: Go back and read it now.

Jeff: Yeah. But yeah, they predicted the fu… You know, one of the rules I gave my kids when they went to college was the shoulder rule. Before you do something questionable or after midnight—

Nancy: [unclear] shoulder?

Jeff: No. make believe someone s watching you from your shoulder that you might have to answer to—whether that’s me, your grandmother, whoever.

Nancy: Okay.

Jeff: But it’s your conscious, basically.

Nancy: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff: And be true to that. That’s the camera to me. That’s called discipline and all of that. But more to your point, Frank… Is it people sharing information about themselves or others delving into it and wanting to share? Politics is easy. Even entertainment and athletics is even more easy because they’re in the public eye. But now it’s everybody. It’s everybody. And if you’re talking about yourself, is that sharing information? Or is it bragging?

Frank: Oh boy… Yeah, that really …

Nancy: Or something…

Jeff: It’s called the I disease where every—

Frank: Everybody [unclear]…

Jeff: —sentence starts with the word “me”, “my” or “I”.

Nancy: Right, right…

Frank: But isn’t everything that we talk about us anyway? Even if it’s about… Even if I’m talking about you—

Jeff: Sure, my opinion.

Frank: I’m talking about y thoughts about you.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Nancy: Well Bayeté actually… See, you said something about this, Bayeté. You said something about how we get to know people in sort of one facet of them like let’s say all I know of you is what happens when we come here to do the show.

Frank: You’re talking to me?

Nancy: Yes, I’m talking to you, Frank. So then I get this impression that how I perceive you when you come here to do the show, is how you are. Not ever stopping to consider that you wear many other hats and faces, and that I may not know you as well as I think I do.

Frank: I think it’s safe to say that I’m as gorgeous and smart and genius all the time as you think I am in the studio.

Nancy: You see how urgent it was to get you on?

Jeff: See? That’s not bragging. That’s just sharing.

Frank: Right…. This is just act. The people want to know.

Nancy: I had a really profound thought that is so far gone now. I can’t even recover it to share it… Oh my gosh…

Bayeté: Oh my goodness… But it is one of those things where… It’s one of those things that we know intellectually but it’s important for us to actually feel it. So that we can put a little more effort into just creating that as a constant part of our awareness.

You know, there’s like the proverbial story of like when you’re a kid and the first time you see like your teacher at school like at the store and you’re like “h my god.”

Frank: Yeah.

Bayeté: He or she actually buys groceries and you know… It’s like well of course they do. On some level you know that but it’s still like “oh worlds are colliding” type of thing. But I think as adults, it’s important for us to understand that yes, everyone is the star of their own narratives but for me it’s the Bayeté show and everyone else is a supporting character. But also, to be aware that that is my persepectvie on the world and to attempt to shake myself out of that way of feeling in the world as often as possible just so I do have that awareness that that’s the perspective I’m coming from.

Frank: Bayeté, I got a clip related to the spirit behind your work… here we go…

Clip: “When we interact with human beings, we get focused on a specific aspect of who they are and don’t think of each other as complete people.”

“If you ask someone “what does that mean to be black? What does that mean to be blonde? And a woman? They’ll be millions of different perspectives. Those demographic checkboxes don’t really tell you anything aside from what someone looks like.”

What you really want in terms of diversity, is diversity of thought.”

Frank: Diversity of thought—what does it mean? Why is it important?

Bayeté: Well I think that that stems from my time in the San Francisco Bay area when I was in grad school and I remember going to different events, particularly events from the arts and there’s a lot of talk about celebrating diversity and I kind of chuckled to myself. I’d look around and I see a bunch of people that look different and I was like, well everyone thinks the same. They have the same philosophy. And in the very bay area, in Northern California way, I would just think to myself, I’d chuckle, I’d be like “I bet you if someone came to this room and said they were republican and everyone would lose it.”

But do you really want diversity or do we just want to feel like we want different people around and have them all act the same? And I think when we really get into diversity, it is the way that people think. Now obviously, you have to have people that look different. That’s a starting point because if people look different, they’re going to engage wit the world differently which is going to lead to different ways of thinking but that’s still only a start. So we want to think with some depths about the idea of diversity, in my opinion.

Frank: If we bring in the concept of relationships… I mean, because that’s ultimately what we talk about here. How does diversity in a relationship, particularly a romantic relationship, how does it have relevance and why is it important, (if it’s important)?

Bayeté: That’s an excellent question. I am not a relationship expert by any means but I would, I guess when I think about that, I think about the fact that a lot of us often talk about and think about the type of person we want to be with or want to have in our lives when it comes to romantic relationsips but many of us don’t think about who WE need to be in order to actually be able to engage with that person and maintain the relationship with that person and be a productive partner for that person. And so, the way that connects to diversity of thought is, from my perspective, understanding different ways of doing things and living one’s life and understanding that because someone does one particular set of things in their personal life, that does not have to impact you and we have to let people be who they are it’s not really having a substantial impact in someone else’s life. So understanding what ideas and concepts are important for an individual and where the mind in terms of that spilling over and being relevant to people outside of that individual.

Frank: I’m going to add to that and say that the diversity… Well, not just diversity but allowing a person, even a partner, to just simply be who they are is a way of embracing diversity because… I mean, it’s a way of accepting acceptance. It’s a way of putting your arms around a person and saying “I accept you as you are,” not as I insist that you be, not even as I pre-determine that my partner needed to be, but as we discover and there’s a discovery… There’s discovery in relationships throughout the entirety of that relationship. You’re always getting to know one another.

Jeff, what you got?i see you’re..

Jeff: I want to get back to the racial…

Frank: Okay.

Jeff: …aspect of the world.

Frank: Okay.

Jeff: I actually asked an African-American pundit leader once if he ever consciously consciously made a decision not as a black man, does your race and what that race has dealt you in society affected the way you make decisions. The answer is yes, but I don’t know that I make a decision as a white man.

Frank: You said the obvious answer to your question—

Jeff: Was yes. I mean, it would have—

Nancy: It does or he does not?

Jeff: It does. It would have to be.

Nancy: Oh you’re saying so how he makes a decision is always—

Jeff: Yes.

Nancy: —colored by the [unclear]?

Jeff: Not always but the tools with which he makes those decisions have been fuelled by his color, his culture…

Nancy: Got it.

Jeff: Everybody’s an individual which is I do agree with you about being diverse. Someone with the exact same genetic makeup is mean, is different than me… you know, diversity. But I’m interested… do you consciously make decisions based on being someone black in America, right down to where you’re going shopping to what car you bought to how you react to a police officer?

Frank: Bayeté?

Bayeté: Are you asking me that? Okay.

Jeff: Yes, directly.

Bayeté: That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked that because I think it’s so simple and yet so complicated at the same time. I really depends on circumstances and environment. So race though it’s not actually real, racism is and so that’s impacted culture and ethnicity in the US and in the Western Hemisphere.

So the context with the situation is very different, depending on the circumstances. When I’m in the United States of America, I make a lot of decisions just based on my cultural background and understanding that I’m probably going to be perceived a certain way based on race. That being said, I went to HBCU. [unclear].

Frank: Which one?

Nancy: [unclear].

Bayeté: I conduct myself in a very different way when I’m in situations where I’m around black people. I conduct myself in a slightly different way when I’m around latino people, right? Because theoretically, Latino people could be—you could be anything and be Latino.

Nancy: Right.

Bayeté: I could be around black, brownish Latinos… I could be around more white individual Latinos and that’s going to dictate how I will conduct myself. I don’t speak Spanish very well, so that’s going to impact that. I conduct myself differently being on this radio show. This is an interesting dynamic because you don’t really know what someone looks like so you’re operating based on cultural signifiers based on their voice and things that they say. So all those things kind of shift.

I think it’s unfortunate that race plays such a huge role in how we interact with one another in the USA. It’s definitely interesting to compare that to how things are internationally. I felt the least black in two different places that I’ve travelled to in the world.

One was when I was in West Africa because everyone was black and I was in Ghana, and I just felt so normal and so much like just a regular citizen throughout the [unclear] in this black environment.

The other time, I was in Poland and I was like one of two black people I saw the entire time I was there. No, I saw three. I saw one of the guys in the airport. And in that situation, because I was so different from everyone else, it just kind of went without saying that I wasn’t Polish and then that was that. Like there wasn’t really much else happening yet. But I didn’t really think about it after initially being there…

Frank: Would you share your Poland-Hiphop story?

Bayeté: My Poland-Hiphop story? Did I tell you guys the story about going to the club named “Harlem” in Poland?

Frank: You didn’t tell us but I did my research.

Bayeté: [unclear] public in the [unclear].

Frank: Right.

Bayeté: Oh yeah, that was crazy. So I was out there with my friend, Rob, doing a performance at the International Gallery in Warsaw… big ups and shoutouts to the International Gallery for bringing us out there and having us have a great experience [unclear] Rob. I think he’s in Hawaii right now with his family.

So we go out there to do this performance at the National Museum because they’re doing a show on African-American artists called “Black Out [unclear]”. So we go out there, we do the performance and then we’re hanging out with the Polish people afterwards and so we’re going to these Polish clubs and drinking vodka and everything. And then this one girl, is like “Oh I want to take you to one of our hiphop clubs out here.” So we’re like, “Yeah, okay. Cool.” Yeah, go to a hiphop club in Poland. That would be fun.

Goes club and the club was called “Harlem”. We walk into the club and there are these posters all over—like huge posters—all over the walls of all these different black American iconic people… from ball players, to rappers, like JayZ, [unclear], tribe called Quest, it’s like Allen Iverson is up there, and like there was only one white dude that’s Eminem. But everyone in there is Polish. We were like the only black people to walk in there.  Walk in and it was just like I’m in the club getting stopped but almost felt like that point in a movie where it was just like, and everyone looked and was like—

Frank: Black fever.

Bayeté: It just felt like, oh my goodness. It’s actually there.

Nancy: They ive.

Bayeté: But it was one of those things where it was like… It was like one of those moments that you think that you want like you want that celebrity moment and like “Yeah! The girls are going to love me.” But when there’s that sort of… trying to think of the right word… that sort of idolization within the context of lack of experience and exposure, it can become really weird really quickly. That’s not to say anything negative about our friends over in Poland—

Frank: Right, right…

Bayeté: —who were in that club, Harlem. They just, you know… really liked certain aspects of Black American culture and didn’t have access to Black Americans in many cases until we were probably some of the first few Black Americans they have met, particularly in that circumstance. But this is kind of bizarre and it became like… yea, it’s just weird to be like, okay so how do I handle myself in this situation? Because this is actually like a big deal.

Nancy: Yeah.

Bayeté: And you know, you’re in a club so it’s not the place where people are engaging in the most responsible behaviours to start out with. So yeah. That was a really fascinating experience for me.

Frank: Did you walk up to one of the pretty girls and say “I’ll take you”?

Bayeté: I did not. It was one of those things that you think you would do but then when you’re in that situation, you’re like “Whoa.” So we make sure I understand all the dunamics of it.

Frank: Yeah.

Bayeté: And… I mean, people spoke English fairly well, obviously. Their English was better than my Polish, but again, it’s the club. It’s loud. I was just like, let me be careful…

Nancy: Right, right…

Frank: Smart.

Bayeté: [unclear] going on in there. But it was fun. I mean, you know, once we figured everything out we had a lot of fun, everyone was really nice. I mean, people in Poland, they were cool. They were like really, really, really kind and really generous. And again, I didn’t really—besides, in that moment I obviously felt very black in Poland.

Nancy: But not in a negative way.

Bayeté: But for the most part, I didn’t think about it for a lot of the time I was there.

Jeff: By the way, you don’t need to go to Poland for a similar experience. There’s plenty of places in America where you can [unclear] and be the only person of a certain race…

Nancy: Oh my goodness… Yes…

Jeff: Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours.

Frank: Right. Well you just want to walk out.

Nancy: Wow. Wow.

Frank: You want to be—

Bayeté: Well that was interesting because that was a situation where it was like the difference was legitimate. Like here, we’re all Americans and there’s different subcultures. But you know, I mean, it shouldn’t be necessarily such a stark difference between all of us. I mean, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about travelling. You travel, I was talking with someone who I was interviewing for a project about this the other day like I feel my American-ness more when I travel outside the country because I’ll meet someone who’ll be from a place in this country that I may not want to visit, who I would typically think I wouldn’t have anything in common but you meet them in Europe or South America or somewhere. You start realizing pop culture references, things we watched on TV, different shows, you realize that there are a lot of commonalities.

Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’re talking with photographer, multimedia artist, film maker and educator, Mr. Bayeté Ross Smith. Bayeté, please tell us what you’re up to and how we can find you.

Bayeté: Yes. Well, currently I have a couple of different projects going. I’m doing a series of sculptures that I create that are made out of boom boxes and these are site-specific sculptures. What I do is I create these sculptures in specific areas. Generally, I try to do them in historically significant neighbourhoods around the country and I then speak to local residents and collect a list of their favourite songs and then I also speak to them about their memories from that particular environment and have them tell me about their memories in the form of a story. So the boom box sculpture then plays the soundtrack comprised of local people’s favourite songs as well as their memory. So it almost comes like an audio portrait of a community coming from this tower made of boom boxes. Well it’s not always tower. I’ve been creating some recently that look like robots, that have a humanoid form.
But the point is, that these boom box is an object that’s iconic for community music is now this vessel for exploring the perspective of one’s neighbours and also telling the story of this particular community. I just completed one with the [unclear] Center of [unclear] Connecticut that’s installed at the main branch of the [unclear] YMCA.

I’m also doing some work currently with the New York Times right now in the next few months. I’m working with their race related team creating interactive multimedia projects that explore race and how it impacts daily life. And I have a show of artwork up in Belgium in Antwerp right now for the next  several months… I think that comes down in January.

Frank: Wow. Okay, why art? Especially as a profession?

Bayeté: You know? It kind of was just like the natural flow of my life. I started off working as a photographer because I was into photography as a teenager and this was back when we had to learn how to shoot film. There was no digital. So we kind of re-weeded ertain people out that way…

Frank: Yeah.

Bayeté: …in terms of who was really [unclear]. It was kind of like when they started doing [unclear] and you’re playing baseball and I was like, eliminate the whole bunch of people from that sport. It was all those different benchmarks as you get older.
Nancy: Right.

Bayeté: And so, I was really into photography and I went to school, I went to [unclear] Florida [unclear] for undergrad and I was studying Business Administration because I thought I’d be better off if I was in a position to manage people as opposed to be managed.

But studying business wasn’t really for me like… you think business, you’re just going to be learning how to manage people but you have to take all these classes and some like corporate finance and all that stuff, and I couldn’t stand it. And then I realized that photography was something that I enjoyed and it occurred to me that I should be investing in something that was fulfilling. That was the reason why you spend time and money in college as opposed to falling into that traditional trap that I think a lot of us fell into for a long time of thinking that you go to college to train yourself to get a job? Which is actually not quite correct.

And so talking with my parents and my elders—fortunately, I have some really good elders within my family and some good mentors. I’ve decided my major to Photography. At [unclear] Photography was still a school of Journalism.

So my first [unclear] into Photography professionally was photo journalism worked. I worked for Night Reader. The Night Reader newspaper corporation back in the 90s. Then, with all the changes and shifts in media, I was advised by a lot of people to really explore broadening my skill set so I could be marketable in a wide variety of ways.

So I’ve decided to go to graduate school and in graduate school I studied Fine Arts because I wanted to add more skills to my ability to engage in visual language. And so, I still take a storytelling, a fundamental, like underlying I should say, storytelling approach to the work that I make. But the great thing about art is that it allows you a variety of different ways, a variety of different mediums to tell those stories and engage in those subject matters.

So it can really e applied to almost all any situation or circumstance one finds themselves in. so some of the artwork I do… what I do is I think about the story I want to tell and the message and subject matter I want to engage in and then I think about what’s the best medium for that.

So it could be a sculpture, it could be a performance, it could be traditional photograph, it could be a t-shirt, it ould be a drawing, it could be a video, it could be a combination of those things. So that really allows me to work in a variety of different areas effectively.

Frank: In some ways, your art actually starts with the medium?

Bayeté: Yes.

Frank: How you’re going to present the idea or the issue and that sort of thing and then it gos further into what you put on to that medium or how you created or do art to…

Nancy: Bring in to bare.

Frank: Does that about right?

Bayeté: The most important thing is the idea and then very often, you have to learn additional skills nor to execute the project. So with these boom box sculptures I was telling you about, the first time I created one that was going to be outdoors, I was working at Frank [unclear] Sculpture Park up in Shakespeare Minnesota, it’s like 45 minutes outside the Twin Cities. It’s a great place, if ever you’re in the Twin City area, make sure you visit Frank [unclear] as well as the Walker.

But I had to learn to weld in order to finish that project and I didn’t know how to weld before. So I had to have people teach me how to weld and then I had to practice it and get decent enough [unclear] to be able to weld and put the sculpture in public.

Frank: So you’re ultimately learning as you go?

Bayeté: Yeah.

Frank: Whatever direction you decide to take it in, you got to acquire new skills and… it’s a whole… that’s…

Nancy: Exciting all by itself.

Frank: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do you have—

Bayeté: [unclear] also literally I’ve never stopped learning commercial in my life.

Frank: You have a website where we can check you out?

Bayeté: Yes. You can find my work at… I have two URL but I will tell you the one that’s easiest to remember, it’s bayete.net. That takes you to the URL which is basically my first and last name dot com (bayetesmith.com) but you’re going to find my work there and you can also find me on social media.

Frank: Tell me the concept around the Question Bridge.

Bayeté: So Question Bridge was an amazing project to be a part of. It’s a collaborative project that I worked on with several of my friends and colleagues by the name of Hank Willis Thomas; another artist named Chris Johnson and another artist named Kamalson Claire. We also have some great executive producers on that project after Deborah Willis, the actor Delroy Lindo and actor Jessie Williams.

And the Question Bridge is based on an idea that my colleague Chris Johnson had which was to create a means of people communicating across different geographic and cultural barriers using video. And so, what happened was Chris experimented with this concept in the 90s and then Hank and I ended up going to graduate school at the college where Chris taught.

Hank rediscovered that project going through some old video tapes that have been sent to his mother. She’s a very prominent curator and photo historian. He became aware of the project and he thought you know, this idea of question bridging will be interesting to apply to the Black male community. And so he approached Chris about kind of rebooting, remixing the idea f Question Bridge and once they started working… I’ve know Hank for a while, he reached out to me because he thought that I would be a good member of the team to include in the creative process.

What we did with Question Bridge was we travelled around the country for several years having Black men—Black males, I should say, pose questions to one another and answer questions of each other via video. So we didn’t tell anyone what to ask or how to answer. Just simply set up a scenario to film them. And we told them we know you have another question for another Black men you feel different or strange from. Look into the camera and ask your question as if you’re talking to them. We didn’t show those videos to people we thought could answer those questions and they answered looking into the camera as if they’re talking to the original man who was asking the question.

And so that was then woven together to create a sense of experiencing if you were a viewer of Question Bridge to give you a sense of experiencing a conversation that you normally wouldn’t be able to witness, and also probably normally wouldn’t be able to take place without the use of technology. Underlying idea being that there’s often as much diversity with any demographic as outside of it, and so by opening this window into Black male consciousness by allowing people to experience this conversation about a variety of different topics and see these faces of a variety different people  who all identify as Black and male. That kind of explodes the myth that the demographic is one thing and allows Black male to represent and redefine themselves on their own terms.

On Question Bridge, there’s also something that we call a “transmedia” or “nude media project”, meaning it uses multiple platforms to engage its viewers. So outside of art speak, what that actually means is it takes multiple forms. So Question Bridge is an art installation. It’s an 80-minute film, there’s a version of it, that’s an 80-minute film. We’ve created a book edited by Dr. Deborah Willis and Natasha Logan which illustrates a lot of the content or the conversations and text form. We also created a curriculum that can be utilized with high school students. We have an interactive website and we have a mobile app where people can continue to add to the dialogue and conversation because it’s only so many people we can reach travelling around the country as artists. And we’re very pleased that Question Bridge is being exhibited at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture at the Smithsonian.

Nancy: Nice.

Bayeté: And through mid-January, everyone still has an opportunity to go to the website or utilize the mobile app to create a profile and record themselves asking or answering questions to other Black men. If you identify as a Black man, you can do that and add to the archive before we stop taking contributions and the archive is just maintained by the Smithsonian.

Frank: And to take this one step further, we’ve got a Question Bridge clip.

[Question Bridge clip]
Man 1: Hi, my question is… I try to live good but I’m surrounded by bad and… I want to wish at the [unclear] to do better and live peaceful, surrounded by all evil, how can I do that?

Man 2: I think you have to stand up to evil. If you’re not willing to stand up and be yourself in the face of death, you’re never going to find out who you really are. A way to stay out of trouble and there’s so much around you is, I mean find more activities to get into. Possibly a job, your family, be your own man, don’t hang in groups, I mean just follow yourself, man. Listen to your own self; be a leader, not a follower.

Man 3: In my experience, whenever I tried to live good surrounded by evil, I had a key put in god inside of me. I had to keep dealing with everything that I knew was good. I had to stay positive, I had to stay pray up and had this day with my faith because if you have some strong to hold on to, any type of faith, I guarantee that evil will pass you by.

Man 4: First of all, you can stop generalizing and saying all evil because I’m quite sure that everything evil out there, you just have to learnt to stay with some… what crowds you want to hang around and which ones you don’t and the ones that you see that’s got the same interests that you do then try to blend or flop to that typical crowd or something… But to say all evil, I mean there’s no such thing as “all evil” I’m quite sure.

Man 5: Brother, I know it’s hard out there. When I was younger, I was surrounded by a lot of negativity too and I decided just take the road, let’s travel. I separated myself with a lot of negativity. I dropped a lot of my negative ways. I took myself out of the community. You know, I got away from the concrete, went out to the ocean. You know, went to the library, went to museums. So there’s a way, brother. I know it’s hard out there. The difficulties are everywhere. What I had to do, I had to change it. We always thought proper education always correct error so when I saw brothers that are negative on the street corner, I try to encourage them. So I took a negative and made it into positive. So a lot of those things I didn’t like around me, I use my love for my people to kind of like change things and I did. I was very fortunate.

Frank: There you have it. You know, my favourite feedback from what I just played was when one brother said “you’re generalizing.”

Nancy: Yeah. There is no “all.”

Frank: Right, there’s no “all” evil.

Nancy: Yeah.

Frank: SO thank you, thank you. So what’s the feedback been like from projects of this nature?

Bayeté: Oh we’ve gotten some very, very positive feedback on Question Bridge. During the process is a bit challenging because we were doing something that was new that hasn’t really been done before. And so as we were seeking, funding and support a lot of people just simply didn’t understand how to support something that was a non-fiction project that wasn’t a traditional doc. You know, that didn’t fall into the traditional documentary format.

Either… like with most incredible things, once it was completed, we got a lot of really great feedback particularly from people who are not Black, really showing appreciation for the opportunity that they had to sit there and be comfortable and look at all these Black men’s faces and listen to all these Black men speak thoughtfully about their perspective.

And [unclear] I was pretty amazed about Question Bridge was that everyone was thoughtful and spoke with some insights from the 8-year old kid to the teenagers and young people from low-income suburban environments, the proverbial hood if you will, right? To the PhD candidate and to the prominent people we included and I think it just went to show that when you empower people to feel like they’re an expert in a subject matter or that they have something valuable to offer that they will speak and behave from a place that is according to that. So when you empower people, they will contribute in a thoughtful and productive way.

Frank: The Boom Box Project, where did you get boom boxes from these days?

Nancy: Right. I’m thinking he would run out.

Frank: Yeah right.

Nancy: [unclear] still around?

Frank: [unclear] around.

Nancy: And I just want you to know, Bayeté, when I saw the first one I said “Oh my gosh and [unclear] to radio Rahim.”

Frank: Radio Rahim…

Bayeté: [unclear] Radio Rahim this year.

Frank: Yeah, yeah.

Nancy: Yeah.

Frank: Bill…

Nancy: Nun?

Frank: Bill Nun. Yes. And he was also the [unclear/Dodo] man.

Nancy: Oh I don’t know that.

Frank: You know nothing about that Dodo man.

Bayeté: [unclear] Rahim…

Frank: Do you the significance of the Dodo man?

Bayeté: Yeah, it’s from [unclear].

Frank: Thank you.

Nancy: Please… I saw [unclear]…

Jeff: See I knew that too but I’d have to hand him that card.

Nancy: He’s with the Geico commercial. What?

Bayeté: [unclear] they say and the… they use to say in the Geico ones.everyone knows that.

Nancy: Everyone knows that, yeah… Oh my gosh.

Frank: Okay, so… boom boxes.

Bayeté: Yeah, Radio Rahim is a very iconic and loved character. And I think what’s fascinating about Radio Rahim is that that character signifies how art and culture were shared rpior to the digital age and also he reflects the history of public music and public art within the Black and Latino communities. In very like African [unclear] way. So with me, I was interested in the boom box so I thought it was such an iconic object, you know. If you look at the signage today, the signs that say like “No Playing Music in Public”, it’s still a picture of a boom box, not like an iPad.

Frank: Right.

Bayeté: So I wanted to use this object that everyone recognizes and has a relationship with. Even if you’re a kid, and you didn’t grew up with boom boxes, you remember the one that your father, your mother or your uncle has. Or you remember them from lore.

So I want to take this iconic object and then use it as a vehicle for getting people to engage in music and stories. And I feel like you can tell a lot about a community by the music they listen to and the stories they tell.

Nancy: Right.

Bayeté: That was the concept there. And it is becoming more and more challenging to find boom boxes. When I first started this project… when did I first started? 6 years ago, you could find them a little bit more easily but now a lot of it I either ordering them in advanced like online, through like Amazon or spending time on Ebay and other resources trying to find cheap ones that are vintage. A lot of time I’ve had to actually go around to like thrift stores and Goodwills and things of that nature in the area where I’m constructing them to find older boom boxes as well. So that has been challenging but that’s also part of the appeal of the project.

Frank: I’ll wrap up the Radio Rahim/Boom Box conversation by saying, “Hey yo Sal, put some more Mozzarella cheese on that one”….

Nancy: Here we go…

Bayeté: [unclear] that’s a classic, classic movie. It’s something that I think… you know, how many years later? 26?

Frank: It’s still powerful.

Nancy: Yeah… yeah…

Bayeté: And relevant and everyone should see it.

Frank: Absolutely. Or re-see it.

Nancy: Re-see it, yeah.

Frank: I watched it 3, 4 years ago and I was… it was great!

Nancy: Just as engaging.

Frank: It was just as engaging.

Jeff: I still get mad seeing guys in Larry Bird jerseys.

Frank: In the middles of… Brooklyn.

Bayeté: [unclear] you can tell Brooklyn’s really giving overly gingerfied we start seeing people wearing new range and sports paraphernalia.

Frank: Yeah…

Nancy: Scared, scared…

Frank: But you know, if you check out Martin?

Nancy: Yeah…

Frank: Martin was in “Do The Right Thing”.

Nancy: Yes he was.

Frank: He had a good part.

Nancy: Yeah, yes….

Frank: Now somebody with a ridiculous DC accent in the middle of Brooklyn, well whatever. Because I’m a DC dude myself but he did good, thank you.

You’re listening to Frank Relationshisp and swe’re talking with photographer, multimedia artist, film maker and educator Bayeté Ross Smith.
One more time Bayeté, please tell us how we can find you.

Bayeté: Yes. You can find me be in my website. That’s www.bayete.net. You can also find me on social media, my handles on Twitter and Instagram are: @bayetekenan.

Frank: Along today’s journey, we’ve discussed being a thinking person, Question Bridges and….

Nancy: Media consumption.

Frank: Ahh, thank you Nancy. Oh look at her taking the mic. You do realize this is my… this is what I do.

Nancy: Every now and then I get a little out of hand… I’m congested today. Give me some license.

Frank: Thank you to my co-host… or to THE HOST, Nancy; thanks to Jeff Newman, my engineer; and thank you to my guest, Mr. Bayeté Ross Smith. You’ve been great. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I’ve had hanging out with today’s ensemble.

As always, it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that I hope you create a relation that’s as loving and accepting as possible.

Let us know what you think of today’s show at facebook.com/relationshipflove, on Twitter at @mrfranklove or at franklove.com. If you’re listening via Blog Talk Radio, make sure you like us there and if via iTunes, make sure you subscribe so that you can receive each week’s show.

This is Frank Love.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

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