Beware of artists.
They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.
Since I work as a visual artist, Queen Victoria’s quote really resonates with me.
Over the years, my creative life has taken me between worlds of wealth and poverty, opportunity and oppression. I think it was the movements between these experiences that created the seed to an idea, which became a study, and finally a photograph when all the pieces and parts finally came together.
It was never my intention to make a film. I initially saw this project as a single piece of public art.
But in the process of creating the image, everything sort of snowballed.
The Bound Bison Project became a mobile art installation inspired by the great duo Jean-Claude and Christo and French graffiti artist JR. It serves as a talking piece about the nature of citizenship, patriotism, freedom, conservation and racial identity.
With collaborators from the Blackfeet Nation of Northern Montana, we created the first work in a spiritually iconic landscape on the east side of Glacier National Park.
We had some extra time after we completed the image, so we moved the art to Browning — one of the most economically challenged communities in Montana and the hub of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation — the reaction was unexpected and astounding.
As soon as we unloaded the art into public view there began a flurry of activity – people started swarming us asking; What is it? Is it real? Why did you bring it here? What does it mean?
The crowd grew and so did the lively dialogue about the meaning of the art and the challenges it seemed to represent to the gathering of viewers.
To have such passionate engagement in art is rare. A simple work became a window into the culture but also a mouthpiece for people who too often have no voice.
As more people have seen photos of the installation, we’ve noted spirited, oftentimes completely contradictory interpretations.
What I find so amazing is that the meaning of the bison is truly unique to the viewer. It seems to be based on their age, geographic location, ethnic identity, relationship to the military, the flag, their political persuasion, the bison itself, and the location of the installation.
It presents a unique opportunity to look at our cultural identities but also the struggle between patriotism and ethnocentrism.
We barely scratched the surface of the stories in Browning.
College educated veterans who had become homeless after the war. School children hopeful for the future. Men and women who were trying to make sense of a culture that has been in transition for over 100 years – still reeling from the devastating loss of one and unsure of a path into the future.
If we had more time on that first trip, I would have stepped into the lives of both the collaborators and the crowd because I know so little about their experiences, and I know I’m not the only one.
I started thinking of this as a longer journey rather than a single image – a photo series in complicated and provocative locations, and a film that looks into the American experience as it is today. Not the tidy, sound bite version but the authentic exploration of the perceptions, realities, contradictions and complexities of our nation today.
We aim to take the Bound Bison on a sweeping road trip of America starting in the Blackfeet Nation, because I feel the pull back to tell those stories with more depth.
The plan is to travel to like destinations, places that have a legacy that have either vanished or are in dramatic transition.
Places like the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, the abandoned mega malls in Kansas, and the modern ruins of Detroit.
We would road trip with with a lively and mixed curated group of collaborators – perhaps bringing someone forward from each place we explore to the next, so there is always a person with us who is experiencing the art for the first time.
Our objectives are twofold.
The first is to stimulate revealing conversations about the American Experience.
The second is to unite people through art and conversation in an argumentative and polarizing climate.
Perhaps through mixing this kind of art series and all classes of society, we can achieve a dangerous level of understanding and empathy.