What inspired the Truth series?
Well as a photographer, I have always been interested in framing and context, how, depending on what’s inside the frame, it kind of dictates the notions of the truth in photographs. And looking at speech bubbles, they are containers for meaning and storytelling—especially in comic books where a lot of creativity happens. But also, this idea that an empty speech bubble, which is activated by people, is something that I really love, so some of my friends who are here [at this opening] we did this project called the Truth Booth where we created a modern-day confessional. It’s a big inflatable speech bubble that also functions as a recording booth where we collect truths and wisdoms that guests have collected throughout their lives. We have taken it to six countries and about 35 states in the USA. This installation, Ernest & Ruth, was an extension of the Truth Booth when I did an exhibition with the Public Art Fund at the Brooklyn Metrotech in 2015.
This series was before the alternative facts era. Do you think the series has taken on a new meaning these days?
Well, the beauty of art at its best is that it is timeless and we really hope that the work means something even after we created it. It’s really fascinating to see how “truthiness” and all the other kinds of alternative facts and things give work a really different meaning; I don’t think I’ll really have an understanding until I have some hindsight. But I hope the work that we do contributes positively to the dialogue.
How do Ernest & Ruth inspire the truth?
This piece specifically is named after my grandmother, Ruth Willis and her father, Ernest Holman; I have Ernest in my blood and my cousin said we can never be ruthless because we are Ruth’s children and Ruth is all about the truth. So, on a personal level it’s kind of deep into the family values that I was raised with. But also, again my favorite thing about this work is just seeing people sit in it and interact in it to make it something; two people are sitting in it now and it seems to become a sort of statement of their friendship and it creates a frame around them that is a statement, which I love.
Writing on the Wall is an upcoming project with the High Line opening on November 1. Can you tell us about that?
My friend Baz Dreisinger, who is an academic, founded the Prison-to-College Pipeline program at the John Jay University where they work with students at that college but also students who were incarcerated at Otisville State Prison to create a program that allow people to matriculate out of prison into the city college program, which is really exciting and amazing. A lot of the writing that the men were doing as Baz traveled the world collecting writing from students who were behind bars is really compelling and there’s so much said about people who are in prison around the world but there’s not enough that we hear from them. But also to recognize when you see someone’s handwriting and read their words you have to personify them in a way that you don’t often with people who are in prison. This installation, [Writing on the Wall] is a collection of writing that Baz collected from around the world. We did it in collaboration with Mass Design, which is a social justice-oriented architecture firm and the High Line will be exhibiting it for two weekends at the end of the fall and have been working with us on justice reform.
When you were working on this project, was there any particular writing or story that stood out to you more so than any other?
What I love is that all the combination and confusion of it all is always more potent than any single story and I think often our society we’re so used to one story when it comes to the truth that is more powerful than all the rest. But in reality the combination is what makes life so much more interesting.
Visit Hank Willis Thomas' Ernest & Ruth at The Standard, High Line Plaza now until November 15th.