Interviewee: Hank Willis Thomas
Background: Conceptual artist shown at the Guggenheim, MoMA, Whitney
Topic: Playing infinite games
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“A lot of people that I have come to admire are infinite game players stuck in a finite game… Playing outside of the rules of the game, and making up our own rules, but somehow still abiding by the boundaries of the finite game that our society has created for us.” — Hank Willis Thomas 

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. His work is challenging, funny, and alive in deep and visceral ways. 

Hank Willis Thomas, “A Place to Call Home (Africa America)

Hank is a frequent public artist with major pieces in cities and parks globally, works in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, and Whitney, and many solo shows at major institutions around the world.

Hank Willis Thomas, “I Am a Man

In addition to his work as an individual artist, Hank operates in many other contexts, including creative activism: from putting up billboards in all fifty states to reviving an Abraham Lincoln-era political movement for the 2020 election. 

I admire Hank as someone who truly embodies the Bento. He operates in multiple dimensions at once, pairing a phenomenal personal practice with work that widens the lens, involves and invites public collaboration, and speaks to a larger “us.” In one of my favorite Ideaspace conversations so far, Hank and I discuss his work, defining Black male identity, and how to operate as an infinite player inside a finite game. Listen to our full conversation on the webApple, or SpotifyRead a complete transcript here. An edited and condensed transcript is below.

YANCEY: I saw in some interviews you’ve referenced James Carse’s Finite and Infinite GamesHow does that book connect with how you think about your work and life?

HANK: Finite and Infinite Games is a vision of life as play and possibility that was written in 1986 by James Carse, who was a theologian and, I guess at that point, a somewhat novice game theorist. He was a person who had spent most of his life in search of if not meaning, in search of excellence in life, very much about the game of life. 

In the book he talks about there being two kinds of games: finite games, which are games that come to an end when someone has won, and infinite games, which have the object of the game being continuing to stay in a state of play. I would hybridize that to say that finite games are for winners and losers, and infinite games are for the players. 

A lot of people that I have come to admire are infinite game players stuck in a finite game. I recognize that in me, and I projected this onto you. We are always playing outside of the rules of the game, making up our own rules, and in an active process of play, but somehow still abiding by the boundaries of the finite game that our society has created for us. When I recognize that I’m really playing this game to just stay in the state of play, it doesn’t matter how old I am, it doesn’t matter who I’m with, it doesn’t matter how much I have or how much I don’t have, or where I am, as long as I am in creativity and in movement with my thoughts and my energy. 

YANCEY: For you, what does it feel like to be an artist? Are you always an artist? Is it a jacket you put on sometimes?

HANK: I feel the title artist is a sham. I don’t know how to paint or draw, and that’s what I thought artists do. I studied photography, but now everyone is a photographer. So I’m just an Average Joe. Or Hank. Just your Average Hank. I always introduce myself as a person, because — and it’s inspired by a quote by James Baldwin, which I hope I get correct, where he said, “The artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a metaphor for the struggle which is universal and daily for all human beings to get to become human beings.” What I take is that the artist’s struggle to be their best self in their art form and the master of that craft is literally the same as the struggle for each and every one of us to be the best person that we can be. If my artistry is really a metaphor for my personhood, aren’t they the same thing? They are both creative-making practices and only as good as the attention and the energy put into it. A lot of the way that we’ve colonized humanity is through the marginalization of us, saying you’re an artist, you’re a consumer, you’re a tech person. This limits us from being the whole people we are. In other societies and other moments of human existence, everyone was an artist. It’s not about can you dance, it’s will you or do you. 

Hank Willis Thomas, “Tip Off

YANCEY: A lot of your work has sports in it, which is atypical for “serious art.” Is that what you’re interested in and you see art in everything, or is that something else?

HANK: I’ve never been good at sports, so that’s probably part of it. Being a Black American male when I grew up and not being good at sports, and being named Hank — even though it was Hank Aaron! — was just not a cool thing. I had to spend a lot of excess energy trying to prove my worth outside of machismo. There were others — my cousin Songha, who passed away — who were really good at everything that they did and found it unfulfilling. Songha had a promising basketball career and he quit. I asked him why and he said, “In order for me to be good at my job, I would have to look someone in the eye and make them doubt themselves and do something to make them feel bad about themselves. I just could never do that.” That had a real impact on me about what the finite games competition — “I’m a winner you’re a loser” — does to human beings. 

There’s also the reality that for many African-Americans the first glimpse of opportunity in the United States was through sports and entertainment, because it was a playing field, so to speak, that you can prove yourself on. The beauty of these infinite games is that you had these, again, infinite game players in the finite game, but they were playing the infinite game. They changed the style of play, they changed the rules of the game, because they brought a level of passion and creativity to it that was about staying in the state of play. That’s where I subconsciously got really attracted to sports, because there is so much that has been done through people like Muhammad Ali and Wilma Rudolph and the Williams sisters, who were first the spectacle, but then became a movement, so to speak. For them to be the descendants of slaves, whose spirits were expected to be crushed centuries ago, who still deep within them have this perseverance, is something that I’m forever inspired and driven by.

Hank Willis Thomas, “Rise Up

YANCEY: You have so many great pieces with outstretched arms, often in a sports context, but also in a police context and a social justice context. What are the arms in your work reaching for?

HANK: It sounds cheesy, but they’re reaching for you. Reaching for your attention, but often they’re actually reaching for you. That’s what life is about. It’s about reaching. Making a connection to things we want and things we care about and then being able to hold them. The metaphor of the ball: that is your potential in sports. Your whole potential is dependent on what you do with this ball and your mastery with it. That can be a metaphor for your marriage, your child, your health, your mental health, your career. That ball, in that moment, what do you do with it? 

YANCEY: I love Question Bridge, a video piece of Black men asking and answering each other questions. What was the goal of that project and what did you walk away from that with?

HANK: My collaborator, friend, and former professor Chris Johnson had done this project in the ‘90s where he wanted to facilitate a conversation across the class divide in the African-American community in San Diego. He felt that if you had people who saw themselves as different from each other sitting at the same table asking what might be seen as threatening questions, it would quickly devolve into back-and-forth. He thought it might be more effective if he acted as a ferry, where someone could ask a question of someone they felt they were different from or they had an issue with, and he could go to find someone that fit that description, show them that question, and get that authentic answer back. This idea of a video-mediated discourse. He did it in 1996. Around 2006 I found a VHS of it, and was like, “This is pretty interesting to think about.” I never had seen people be as raw in their questions and their answers, but also there being, for lack of better word, a level of civility. 

I said to Chris, “I would love to do Question Bridge around Black men.” I wanted to do that because I’ve been a Black man my whole life and I can’t define Black male identity. Chris is also a Black male, and has also struggled with the blackmail of race and gender as society has imposed it on us. We wound up on this journey where we would go to self-identified African-American men and say, “Do you have a question for a Black man that you feel different or estranged from?” They would pose a question to the video camera, then we would take that camera to get it answered. 

We were shocked by the fact that you could take any question and there would be five, ten different answers. Our idea was to take the best questions and the best answers. In reality they were just different. That was a metaphor for what we were thinking about in general, which is there’s as much diversity within any demographic as there is outside of it. When you have five Black men answering the same question in five different ways, you start to say this container doesn’t hold around this race identity, because they’re just different people who have a different perspective on life that cannot be predicated based off of class, or gender, or skin color prejudice.

For me, it was groundbreaking. Because I as a Black man would often be like, “Okay, I know this person, I know what’s behind this.” There was a young man at Hunters Point, dressed all hip-hop style, maybe had a grill, and his question when he sat down was, “What does it feel like to watch someone lose their life?” We were like, “Wow, that’s a pretty profound question from a sixteen-year-old.” Typically we just take the questions and we go find someone to answer them, but Chris said, “I’d love to know what’s behind that question.” He said, “My mother has epilepsy, and every once in a while she has a seizure, and I’m always wondering, is she gonna pass away? What will I be? What would it feel like? Then a few weeks ago I was at the pool with my grandmother, and she fell in. I had to dive in from the other side of the pool and had to swim all the way across and pull her out and make sure she was breathing. Oh my God, I was so scared.” We were like, “Really? Whoa.” We’re thinking, “You’re a young Black male, you think about police violence or community violence, but you’re thinking about your mother and your grandmother. And you can swim.” [laughs] Right? Those kinds of experiences we have very regularly. We’re like, “I’m a total idiot. If I don’t know anything about what goes behind the surface of the veneer of a Black male’s experience, who does?” The truth is only that person, if they’re even willing to look at that, and even given the opportunity. 

YANCEY: I love your film A Person is More Important Than Anything Else, which feels like an Adam Curtis movie about the Black experience as narrated by James Baldwin. It’s amazing. There’s a short clip where James Baldwin says something like, he knows what it is what it means to be a Black man in New York. He knows what it means to be a Black man in London. He knows what it means to be a Black man in Paris — seemingly suggesting very different things. 

After watching Question Bridge I’d wanted to ask you what it feels like to be a Black man. After watching the James Baldwin clip, I wonder if that’s a better way to ask it. So: what does it feel like to be a Black man in New York? What does it feel like to be a Black man in Nairobi? What does it feel like to be a Black man in America?

HANK: Well, what does it feel like to be a Black man who doesn’t believe in race, with brown skin? It feels pretty surreal, right? Because race is someone else’s fantasy. It’s someone else’s fiction. This idea that people are born with these dominant, innate characteristics that dictate by the millions is absurd. It’s comical. It’s ridiculous, yet and still, it’s been so ingrained in me to code these people — even coding you by the wisp in your hair, the thickness of your eyebrows, the tone of your skin in summer. The fact that we are forced to, or have agreed to, navigate a world and play this game that keeps us in opposition with our true natures. When I’m looking out into the world, I do not see a Black man. It’s only when people look at me or speak to me and interact with me in ways that show that they have been conditioned to see me, think of me, speak to me, hear me in a certain way, that I’m reminded of this. 

The beauty of being able to go to France and go to different parts of the US and go to even Burning Man and go to Nairobi and go to Hong Kong and go to Lima, Peru is that you start to get these different vibrations. It’s not the same. It’s walking through different topography. All of a sudden, my skin color, my texture, my gait means something different. Every country, I can say as a Black American man, feels like a different dimension. In different cities we were like, “Wait, these rules don’t apply.” What I found, living in France for a little bit, was — and that’s why so many African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants excel in the United States in ways that a lot of African-Americans don’t — is that when you walk out of the forcefield of your societal bubble, you’re freer. I wind up places and I’m like, “Oh wait, I’m not supposed to be here.” It’s like, “Oh, wait, are they racist or are they just jerks? I don’t know! But I’m already here.” Whereas those who’ve been systematically oppressed through the system would never even think to go there.

My practice of liberation, self-liberation, self-emancipation is not just about Black people. But it is, especially for me, about European-descended people who I believe have been trapped for the past century in this blob of whiteness, where a hundred years ago, a lot of people we consider white today would not have been white. They would have been ethnic Germans, or Armenians, or Italians. Whiteness in the United States was a way for people to assimilate to be safe. You change your name, you change the way you speak, and you move out of a neighborhood and you move into this kind of amorphous blob that no longer has a culture or an identity, and its sterility is now safe. I’m hoping that we can start to embrace, reinvest, and re-engage in all of our complexities. 

I’m very much inspired by this quote by George Orwell, who says, “Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.” If we can build this present, which really is about all of us living in all of our complexities, and bring all the people that are in us, and with us, to every table, maybe then we can start to re-evaluate and take control of this past narrative, so that the future is ours.

Read the complete transcript of the conversation here. Listen on the web, Apple, or Spotify.