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theaster gates and dev hynes

Dev Hynes and Theaster Gates reflect together on the 2010s

The two artists discuss Prince, Bowie, self-archiving, and where they were in 2010

What happens when you pull to the surface all your life’s work, even the stuff that simmers at the margins? In a blog post from December 2009, then 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes, going by Lightspeed Champion, announced that he would release 50 albums, comprising of all his throwaways and unfinished material. “I’m not sure what's changed in me recently,” he wrote. “But mainly, due to developments, personally I guess and business-wise, I just don't care anymore.”

When the new decade hit, Hynes abandoned Lightspeed Champion and took on the moniker Blood Orange, as if a gust of wind pointed him to a new self. Blood Orange became his most popular project to date, and while sharing the indie-pop sharpness of Lightspeed Champion, the songs turned out groovier, velveteen and gloriously spacious. They’re also wrapped around an ever-changing New York Bohemia that includes collaborations with Puff Daddy, Sky FerreiraEmpress Of and Debbie Harry, to name a few. Blood Orange comes with new questions and bolder conclusions. 

It also comes with a balance of channeling the new and the historic. That’s also the fundamental thinking in Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates’ work. Gates – who professed to me that he hadn’t felt like an artist up until 2010 – has a long history of combing through the labour and challenges of black American life, coded through lurid sculptures, performances and installations. 

A polymath rooted in Chicago, some of his projects, like Civil Tapestry 4, where decommissioned and flattened fire hoses cover the gallery walls, interrogate American worship of violence and in particular, the weaponising of fire hoses against civil rights marches in the 1960s to break up protestors. “I think that there's so much more I want to do in the world,” Gates tells Hynes over the phone, and Hynes agrees. 

Other works reconfigure Chicago’s civic mappings: take the Dorchester Project, his response to the high number of abandoned buildings in his home neighbourhood of South Side Chicago. Gates bought and revitalised many of them, including a bank that is now a local art space. 

Like Hynes, who unearths esoteric breakdance scores like a second language, Gates knows that no part of black American history should fall out of frame. Such is the case in his new show at Tate Liverpool, narrating the neglected story of the evicted mixed-race population of Malaga Island in Maine, 1912. Gates’ and Hynes’s work, both fable-like and dreamlike, serve as reminders that modern history is just chopped up chronology.

I’m in London on election day. Where are you right now? 

Dev Hynes: I’m in New York, I’m just at home and actually about to pick up dog shit. I’m good otherwise.

Theaster Gates: I’m in Liverpool. It’s my first time and it’s election day here. I just feel like I have a sense of the urgency of the vote. It feels a lot like the US right now.

I wanted to know who or what in this decade has been on your mind the most?

Theaster Gates: If I were to take it to the music side, I remember when Aretha died and Prince died. When Aretha passed, it felt like a passing of a really particular strand of soul, you know? An emotional intuition that was rooted in the black church. And then I’m in the middle of Prince’s biography–

Dev Hynes: Oh wow, I just got that! I just started it.

Theaster Gates: What’s interesting about Prince’s biography is just how committed he was to language, and to asking himself what he was feeling. You realize in his writing, that Prince was one of the most thorough artists I’ve ever seen. The thing he was pursuing was a sense of beauty, God, a sense of the beginning and a sense of himself. It’s evident that all of that time in Paisley Park (Prince’s home and studio) he was just trying to be his best self and ask himself super romantic questions that become super evident in the object he made and in the work that he made. He was just constantly asking himself: who am I? Why am I doing this? What does Beauty mean? Reading his biography has made me want to dig deeper into my own practice.

Dev Hynes: That’s incredible, I love that. If I were to talk about a musician, I’d say Bowie. People that inspire me, whether they make music, visual art or film, a lot of the time it really is the people and not necessarily what they make, and Bowie was one of those people. 

The only two times I’ve cried at the passing of someone I don’t know personally has been Prince and Bowie. With Bowie, it was a strange one because I felt this kinship in regards to being expats, living this New York life. I lived very close to where he lived. I always remembered people I became friends with who knew him, and they’d tell me about his walks in the parks, and I felt this passionate drive from him. 

“It’s been on my mind the idea that everything I do is just an exploration of myself and I’m just gonna keep doing it in the hopes that someone like me when I was younger would see it, and if it does anything then I’m happy” – Dev Hynes

I’m glad that Theaster brought up Prince’s biography because it was an incomplete archive. He only started it right before he passed, and everyone else had to pick up the pieces. Do you both think about preserving your own archives?

Theaster Gates: Two things that I also wanted to mention: this has been the decade where I’ve considered myself an artist. It was in 2010 that I was part of the Whitney Biennial and in some ways this year has been the completion of the first decade of my professional art career. In these ten years I feel like I’ve seen so much and met so many people and matured so much and I find myself feeling super thankful and reflective.

Prior to these ten years, I don’t know if I would have thought that I had anything to archive, you know? Whatever was in my life wouldn’t have meant enough at that time. What I love about what Prince did was that he wasn’t preoccupied with archiving. He was preoccupied with ensuring that he had control over his shit. So even though it wasn’t archived – it was stored. I think that there was never a doubt that Prince understood the value of his music and as a result his team put it in the vault. Because he put it in a vault, he knew that it would be available when the historians were ready or when he was ready to let them get to it. I think, in a similar way, I want to at least indicate that the activities I’m involved in matter dearly to me. I might put a number on it or call it something, or put a tag on it. But even though I have a preoccupation with archives and the idea of archiving, I’m not ready to look back because there’s still too much work to do.

“This has been the decade where I’ve considered myself an artist... In these ten years I feel like I’ve seen so much and met so many people and matured so much and I find myself feeling super thankful and reflective” – Theaster Gates

It’s interesting that you only felt like you became an artist in this decade, because Dev, you began Blood Orange in this decade as well. Do you feel the same way? 

Dev Hynes: I feel like I became a person in the decade. I’ve been in New York for a couple of years and I’m still finding myself now and that’s probably never gonna stop. 

Regards to the archiving, it’s a weird double-edged sword because, my whole life, I’ve been a person who just consumes personal biographies and I think being a black artist, you have to just instantly come to terms with the fact that if there is to be somewhat of a celebration of anything you do or anything on par with what you put in, then you probably won’t see it. And if it happens, chances are it may not be in your lifetime.

It’s been on my mind the idea that everything I do is just an exploration of myself and I’m just gonna keep doing it in the hopes that someone like me when I was younger would see it, and if it does anything then I’m happy. 

Do black artists have to put in a lot more labour than expected of anyone else?

Dev Hynes: I think we inherently do because for the most part, using art is a way of figuring ourselves out. It’s even harder for women and queer people of colour. It’s a known thing in regards to a white male artist, that the lens it just different. The people I get compared to? They couldn’t even fucking touch what I do. You can either beat yourself up over it, you can go crazy or you can stick to your fucking guns and keep doing you and the real ones will see. There’s that quote that’s like: ‘your boos mean nothing to me, I’ve seen what you cheer.’

Theaster Gates: I agree with you Dev. To be honest, I no longer think about my work relative to others in a racial binary.

Dev Hynes: Exactly.

Theaster Gates: I was raised to work hard. It was just the way my mum and dad were. In some ways there might be some things that are embedded in my family, which means it’s embedded in my culture, which means it’s embedded in blackness, which means I’m embedded to work hard. In some ways, if I work hard, that has its own reward which might be spiritual, emotional or familial, it’s separate from the market reward, which is about ‘return’ and ‘crowd’ and ‘moving people.’ I have to sometimes separate what gives me deep personal, intimate, private, spiritual, purposeful pleasure from how my life is connected to other people – which I know is fickle. I could be hot for a day and not. So the question is who are we when no one’s watching? Will we still make work?

The thing I love about Dev is that there are moments we’re compelled to work no matter what. If nobody was looking I’d still be committed to the things I’m committed to. 

Dev Hynes: That’s a big difference. To me that’s really inspiring when I see it in people. You can tell when someone will be doing what they’re doing regardless if someone was seeing it or not.

“In 2010 I was in an apartment in Brooklyn, sharing with a guy I just do not talk to anymore... I was living there, writing songs in my bedroom, burning them on CDJs and giving them to people. I’d play shows that were at 4am to like 20 people” – Dev Hynes

There’s a general vibe that in this decade – whether it’s internet, art, culture – things just stopped being fun. Do you agree?

Dev Hynes: I think every generation thinks things stopped being fun, I don’t know if it’s the things themselves, I think it’s the people. People get bored and things change. I’m kind of a weird one because I live in a constant state of pessimism and optimism, constantly telling you that things are awful. But because I think everything’s awful, things are somewhat easier and more reasons to be positive.

Theaster Gates: I grew up in a family where the burden of being bored was on you. If you are bored, you got a problem. 

I was thinking about this the other day, that the number of triggers for your imagination are so plentiful, there’s never a moment when you have to be in your interior space. But I do worry about people’s souls. Are we listening to ourselves enough? Do we have a sense of our own opinions? Do we have a professional or social compass that is not dictated by something outside of ourselves? Do we have the ability to make ourselves happy and have fulfillment? And, maybe in the absence of fulfillment, people need fun. 

I don’t want to single out other folks but in this moment it’s becoming really clear that fun has an end. It’s something you go through in your teens and early 20s. You try weird shit. You get risky. But at some point, the fun starts to feel empty and you start to wonder, did I have fun last night? How much cocaine did I consume? 

I’m meeting these older West Indians in Liverpool and I could just tell my taxi driver was filled with good energy. He was an everyday dude and that gave me more fulfillment than running into Steven Spielberg on the street or something. I’m super interested in the internal fulfillment and not the stuff that is on the outside. 

Looking back at yourselves in 2010, what does an average day look like?

Dev Hynes: In 2010 I was in an apartment in Brooklyn, sharing with a guy I just do not talk to anymore. I’ve only had like three falling outs in my entire life.

What happened with this guy?

Dev Hynes: He was just a toxic male in regards to a manager I had at the time. It really offended me. I thought there was no remorse or anything to learn from this person so I ended it. Anyways, I was living there, writing songs in my bedroom, burning them on CDJs and giving them to people. I’d play shows that were at 4am to like 20 people – actually, 20 is a lot. I think I wrote some songs that changed things for me. I’d use whatever money I had to buy pounds of quinoa because it was the cheapest shit I could buy. Then I’d play lots of basketball. 

Theaster Gates: 2010 was a tough year because my mum passed. It was also the year that everything broke open for me. I always say that my mum felt there were so many things she couldn’t give me when she was living, but she ensured that she gave them to me in her passing. I imagined that in 2010 when I was busy, my mum was busy in the other world making deals for me. She became my heavenly agent. I had been accepted to receive this Harvard fellowship in 2010, the Whitney Biennial happened that year, other exhibition opportunities started to grow that year. I felt my life lifted. 2010 was the year of sacrifice but it felt like my mum paved the way for other momentous things to happen. It’s the defining year of my life.