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Theaster Gates, Finalist, 2013 Absolut Art Award
Theaster Gates at the 2013 Absolut Art Award

Theaster Gates

The Chicago artist on regenerating communities through shared knowledge

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Theaster Gates is an artist who thinks big. His socially engaged practice veers from archive and living performance spaces to paintings made from tar, old fire hoses and magazine covers. In the past year, he has emerged from the academic enclaves of Chicago to become one of the most politically cognisant rising art stars of his generation. Some of his archival projects are incredible, such as a library of records created from the final inventory of closed record store Dr Wax and an African-American-focused magazine and book collection donated by Johnson Publishing Company (publisher of Ebony). These projects have permanent homes at Dorchester Projects, a series of abandoned buildings on his city’s South Side that he is transforming into a local resource of culture and knowledge. Gates has been shortlisted for this year’s Absolut Art Award, which is announced this month, and here talks about Chicago and inventing his own artistic language. 

Dazed Digital: What does Chicago mean to you?

Theaster Gates: Chicago is home. It’s where I’m from. But Chicago is also where a lot of people land on the diasporic Mississippi. There’s that north-south thing. It became really clear that Chicago was the city where things could gestate. It had its own light. People always had aspirations to be somewhere else, but I’ve always been a pretty practical thinker about these things and I was like, ‘No, Chicago actually has all of the stuff that I need to be hugely successful’: my family, space, good food, great churches and a history of architecture that
is second to none. 

The first of those works were me trying to make meaning and toss my hat in the ring around the symbols that help us digest the horrific and beautiful moments of civil rights

DD: It’s a city with a massive cultural heritage, but is not that prominent on the art-world scene.

Theaster Gates: People have been attempting to make the case for some time about the midwest as a place where radical politics can live, where there is still enough of the everyday that you can root yourself in a social situation that is not utopic and not super blingy. It’s just everyday, and in that I find inspiration to make other kinds of work that definitely have a midwestern patina.

DD: It’s interesting that you say ‘utopic’, because works like Dorchester Projects seem so much more practical and real. 

Theaster Gates: I don’t actually have any utopic ambition, except that poverty shouldn’t exist in a world with so much wealth. That is actually a cultural racism and oppression and capitalism that is constantly trying to create a type of efficiency that removes humanness, removes the human man. I could make 20,000 bricks an hour with a machine or I could make 20,000 bricks with 500 people. It’s that constant erasure of people that has landed us with a tremendous number of billionaires but a fucked-up economy. So at times Dorchester is really just reactivating the hand as a possible solution, which also means a distributed economy versus a monarchy
or an individual. 

DD: On an aesthetic level, the materials and salvaging and the role of wood in Dorchester Projects seem important...

Theaster Gates: The case I’ve been trying to make with these materials and these collections is that it’s about our capacity to see value in what other people don’t. Whether it’s the wood materials that come out of a building that’s on its way to a landfill or a team of unemployed administrators being kicked out of municipal government and don’t have jobs any more, you can see, ‘Oh shit, this travesty is actually an opportunity.’ 

The art world could be a playbox for experimentation. Artists can respond to more complicated problems than museum space or the collector’s home

DD: Did those ideas feed into your dOCUMENTA house installation 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, for which you renovated an abandoned house in Germany using materials from one of the
Dorchester buildings?

Theaster Gates: dOCUMENTA became the opportunity to say, ‘Oh! This abandoned building and its narrative makes absolute sense, poetically and pragmatically.’ In dOCUMENTA, unskilled Germans were doing these projects, and we amplified what they’re doing and the dilapidation of these buildings, and not in a way that glorifies the buildings or poverty or whatever. Actually these are very pragmatic solutions to things that people don’t have, or where the solutions are very difficult to come by. Maybe they’re not so difficult; maybe they just require a willingness to look longer at a certain type of problem. 

DD: Have you made a break with art that’s object-based, rather than communal?

Theaster Gates: In many cases what I’m after in the art world is not very different from anyone else. There is this other layer of engagement that speaks to where the objects came from, and who helps to make those objects. I’m no longer afraid to talk about those things as part of the narrative. Artists all over the world employ lots of people, but is there an intentionality around that hiring? Are we thinking about that as a kind of ecology of opportunity? So I’m just a little bit more intentional about that.

DD: Tell me about your interest and approach to archives?

Theaster Gates: In many ways that part is selfish. I lived in a neighbourhood that was bankrupt of cultural amenities. There are no record stores in my neighbourhood. You’d be hard pressed to find a good meal. If I’m to make a go of living where I live and I want other people to live by me who believe in the things I believe in, what are the tools that a traditional urban planner would employ to create heat, sustenance and a place? Nobody’s willing to do that in the area around Dorchester because they think, ‘Well, those niggers don’t need a dry cleaner’s. Those niggers don’t want to eat. They’re not going to take care of things, I’m not going to make a return on a business in this neighbourhood,’ and those things just aren’t true. So instead of petitioning a Pizza Hut to move to my neighbourhood why don’t I just build my own pizzeria? That actually feels rooted in some 60s black nationalist ethic or the Jewish co-operatives of the northeastern seaboard – you just don’t want to wait for other people to make shit happen, so you try to make it happen yourself. 

It’s that constant erasure of people that has landed us with a tremendous number of billionaires but a fucked-up economy.

DD: How did you start the projects in Dorchester?

Theaster Gates: I moved into the block seven years ago and it took the last four to make it what it is. I did really intentionally ask, ‘Is there a way that I can as a neighbour play a more important role in creating a healthier place to live for myself and the people I care about?’ It’s coupled with the last four years of thinking harder and harder about the place that I want to occupy in relation to the arts. 

DD: Tell me about the personal aspects of your work – such as the fire hose motif and your relationship with your father?

Theaster Gates: I don’t need to hide the fact that my dad has had a huge influence on me, and in many ways the tire works are a nod to his labour. The first of those works were me trying to make meaning and toss my hat in the ring around the symbols that help us digest the horrific and beautiful moments of civil rights. After a while the hose became paint, another formal tool that was now just part of the arsenal, the vocabulary I had to make meaning with. Any meaning, whether it’s about colour form or colour theory or the history of minimalism or the black experience of America, I feel I can go for it. With the tar works, my dad and I made the first body of works. I was honoured that at 78 my dad could come back to this material that paid for me to go to high school and college. I was able to celebrate my dad’s hard work by making this thing that would have almost imaginary value. 

DD: Are you looking for a new visual language to have that discussion around black experience? 

Theaster Gates: The art world could be a playbox for experimentation. If we don’t know what to do with some of these important historical archives then why wouldn’t it be the art world that receives them? Why does it always have to be the historical world or the universities or architecture? Why is it that these other professions and vocations get to take the intellectual vigour that is embedded in the materials? I actually think artists might be as well equipped if not better to breathe new life into history, architecture and design without ever having to compromise their position in the contemporary art world. I believe that art and artists have the capacity to respond to more complicated problems than just museum space or the collector’s home. 

Until October 6, Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.