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Theaster Gates

Diana Nawi

Theaster Gates, detail of Soul Manufacturing Corporation, 2012. Photo courtesy of Ginger Photography and Locust Projects.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates opened his first solo exhibition in Miami at Locust Projects this November. Soul Manufacturing Corporation transforms the gallery space into a site for the actual production of goods, making the labor of the artists who will work in the space available for public consumption. This project is the outgrowth of a practice that encompasses sculpture, painting, performance, singing, ceramics, and installation, alongside urban planning, construction, and community engagement. In anticipation, Gates and Diana Nawi, Associate Curator at the Miami Art Museum, exchanged emails and phone calls in late October of this year.

DIANA NAWI (RAIL): Perhaps one of the most striking things about your biography is the breadth of your education and all of your degrees [Gates has a BS and MS from Iowa State University and an MA from the University of Cape Town]. I wonder if you can talk both about the range of fields you’ve engaged and your decision to pursue formal training in these fields?

THEASTER GATES : If we were to look at education as an extension of formal and informal ways of knowing and being in the world and less like a particular milestone, I think it makes room for us to recognize how useful a collision of interests might be toward the creation of an expanded artistic practice. I cannot say honestly that I knew the varying things that I gave my attention to would at some point read as a singular practice. To get to this point required a tremendous amount of intentionality on the back end—a desire to manifest these ways of knowing and living in the world so that they talk to each other. I didn’t want to feel fractured or compartmental, but I believe in syncretism more than orthodoxy anyway.

The fields of planning, artistic practice and religious studies have all made such tremendous leaps forward from the time I studied them. In fact, I think much of the heavy learning actually happened outside of the formal structures of education. The function of school was really to buy time with amazing people. It has always been the cultivation of relationships that seemed much more important than area discipline, although I’ll admit that the fields of planning and notions of the sacred have had a tremendous impact on how I understand the world.

RAIL: I wonder also if your current position at the University of Chicago, a choice to stay in education in some way, is part of this?

GATES : My relationship with the University of Chicago is an interesting one. The University has been a champion of my creativity, even as an administrator of arts programming. While my fit was not always clearly defined, the University of Chicago is a place where you can be messy in your interests as long as you can articulate the value of the messiness. My time at the University of Chicago has also played a major role in ripening an artistic practice. My colleagues, among them Bill Brown, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Rebecca Zorach, Darby English, Hamza Walker and Larry Norman, have all touched my practice in very interesting ways. The freedom to try routes of engagement and the varying forms of my artistic practice has been priceless.

RAIL: Your practice comes from a place very much rooted in politics or ethics. Is it possible to speak about what motivates this, or where this comes from?

GATES : I am not sure if what I’m engaged in registers for me as either political or ethical, at least in direct terms. We should always do the best work we can do. Having stakes and declaring them seems to be way more interesting than constantly dodging what’s at stake. I try not to wear my beliefs on my sleeve, but because of this work, which is sometimes called art, it’s important to have a position and make that position manifest through the work.

RAIL: You and I had an interesting, albeit brief, exchange when we met in Miami about economics and money (and probably really about power). Can you speak to your deployment or re-deployment of money, economic and business systems, and real estate within the art world and outside of it? How would you explain this redeployment of “the system” and the way your project will grow and move forward in these ways?

Theaster Gates, detail of Soul Manufacturing Corporation, 2012. Photo courtesy of Ginger Photography and Locust Projects.

GATES: Your read or paraphrase is a little heavy handed, but to your point, sustaining an artistic project in itself is a work of art. My interest in economies, cities, and space happen to be important topics, but in reality, the not-for-profit structure is only one way to articulate mission-based engagement with a place. There is no long-term business plan, no need for one. There is a long-term mission to ensure that the communities that I work in have places where culture continues to live. When culture doesn’t have a home, the transference of knowledge, history, experience is less likely to happen. I am keen on ensuring that more folk have access to the amazing cultural experiences that I have access to. That seems less like an innovative art practice and more like a person with concern for cultural access. I do leverage my involvement in the art world (sometimes) to have fun with folks who might not have interest or knowledge of the museum/gallery/collector/art world culture I spend so much of my time in these days.

I don’t feel like a good businessman. I’m an artist that takes in all information as reasonable territory for making meaning. That said, I won’t shy away from what some people call “business.” It’s actually that word which might be code for something else. If that code has associated with it greater capacity to effect people and place, we should learn the code.

RAIL: I guess that was one thing that really struck me in Miami, we’re very conscious of our role as tools in a larger system. There was an overtness in the way you talked about it and in your project that reflects a certain acknowledgement, interest, and redeployment [of this role]. Moments where I say, “How do I make the system—systems that often feel unethical, or at the very least disconnected—work for me or for a larger good?”

GATES : This can only come out of the experience that you talked about-when there are moments where I’ve felt, “How do I play the game to get what I want or whatever.” I think I just kind of shifted it. There is no one game. What exists is a series of negotiations. And you either negotiate and you feel good about it or you don’t. There is this moment when my negotiation is a little bit more complex-what I’m asking for, what I’m demanding because it stands to give so much to the institution or to me, the stakes increase. The stakes should always be very high.

RAIL: It’s power. Are you the 53rd or 33rd most powerful man in the art world now [Gates was recently named number 56 on ArtReview’s “2012 Power 100” list]?

GATES : My first job was roofing with my dad, my first love was clay, and my second love was systems. I’ve been trying to talk about it in a much more nuanced way than just saying, “I was trained to be a bureaucrat, or an urban planner.” It’s actually more complicated than that. The byproduct of formal education, of that time spent, was that I got to observe and participate in lots of different complex systems. And I think both the university system as an administrator and the city of Chicago’s governmental system—if you live in those territories long enough, you just get really awkwardly good at either defending the status quo or learning how to really challenge it because of your knowledge of systems. I don’t have the burden of reflecting on power. I have
the right to be clear and purposeful. Power is the belief muscle you need when nobody’s watching or wanting you to participate or blocking your participation. When you access, you need humility and rootedness. Power ain’t my thing.

Theaster Gates, detail of Soul Manufacturing Corporation, 2012. Photo courtesy of Ginger Photography and Locust Projects.

RAIL: Well, right, you become a negotiator. You’re empowered to move within that system.

GATES : That’s right and I don’t exactly know…I feel like I’ve worked really hard for a long time as an artist and these other forms of knowledge were also accumulating, which I couldn’t have read as knowledge. I couldn’t have known that writing a memo and knowing who to cc or bcc…that that would actually account for anything.

RAIL: Right, it’s surprising. Power comes in a lot of ways.

GATES : Yeah, and the exciting part now is that I feel like what I’m trying to do is learn to communicate, learning to make meaning, learning to create rituals—all these things that feel base. I’m trying to commit to those things first. And I’m not doing that with any sense of altruism. It’s like if I want to talk about money or God—these are just the things that I want to do. This is what’s on my mind this year and these are the opportunities. How do those things start to make sense with each other? And that’s really how “12 Ballads” [“12 Ballads for Huguenot House” was Gates’s project for dOCUMENTA 13] happened. Well, I have this abandoned building I want to work on, I really want to think about creative restoration and creative conservation and preservation. Oh, there’s a building in Germany that hasn’t been used, that was bombed—but I don’t want to talk about Brits, Jews, and Germans—I want to talk about buildings and their future and their content and how they’re loaded. The art part felt like making the right nuanced equation, that that might be interesting to other people.

Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, 2012, Deconstructed timbers and other construction materials from 6901 South Dorchester, Chicago, video, sound, 9.14 x 18.29 x 36.56 m. Courtesy Theaster Gates; Kavi Gupta, Chicago; White Cube, London. Photo: Nils Klinger.

RAIL: On a related note, can we talk about the role of labor in your practice, both your own and the labor of people you employ or work with on project? What is the relationship to economic models? And, where does the value of labor within your practice emerge?

GATES : I don’t know what I can say about labor. People deserve the value of their labor. Since value is constantly being negotiated, it’s one of the issues that I openly explore, both with my shop and others who I work with. Words like fairness and equity come to mind, but when running an operation like the one I do, I think creative structuring allows for more folk to have more fun more of the time. My team and I work on all kinds of things because together, we are highly skilled. Thanks John, Kevin, Tadd, Tony, Mercedes, Titus, Nick, Norman, Kate, Dayna, Regina, Charlie, Sheryl, Michelle, Will, Marlease, Theo, Pete, Kavi, Jay, Kimberly, Lisa, Lakeisha, Pei, Matthew, Leroy, Yaw, Khari, Yoko, Kouichi, Sherisse, Dad. Equity also has something to do with acknowledgement!

RAIL: Returning to “12 Ballads for Huguenot House” do you feel like you’re in a position or far enough away from it to assess the project? How do you feel things moved and translated in a different cultural context?

GATES : In fact, I don’t feel the burden to read it as good or bad. I knew that because I worked in such a really specific part of Chicago doing what seems such a specific kind of cultural work that it would be easy to assume that that work is place-based because it happens in the hood, because it happens under these conditions. But I always felt the need for culture and that there might be something principle-based around making the space for cultural things to happen. Part of that principle includes the fact that when you’re in a place the cultural thing needs to be of that place. The things that are not of that place, the culture that’s coming in, this imported culture needs to be super excited to share itself with that place. So it was fun having the Black Monks of Mississippi [Gates’s music ensemble] activate Kassel, because Germans love black music, and that music was a kind of sincere part of what that exhibition was. It was my friends in Chicago activating an abandoned building with me, singing to it, and then singing to this other abandoned building across the waters. All of that migration was really important in the same way that Huguenot religious, spiritual labor was moving from France to Germany, making things more beautiful. It was my intent to have that same kind of spiritual labor moving from Chicago to Germany to kind of redeem what the Huguenots had started. It was exciting to see my practice shift context all together and have it resonate as really important in this thing that seems utterly different. In fact culture is neutral in that sense, it just needs ethics, and to be directed.

RAIL: I think maybe it’s a testing ground. It’s about translation and what translates and what doesn’t, and that shift in context demonstrated it’s a model, a working model that can be migrated.

GATES: Material and knowledge translation—these acts of seeing and listening and outputting are important for meaning makers. It’s completely reasonable that many of the things I’m interested in would read as not directly related to the canon of artistic practice, but who gives a hoot about the canon? What’s more important is the construction of my canon—its universalities and specifications. If you are interested in this canon, you have to take the whole thing. That is the part that’s wonderfully problematic.

RAIL: So, what is the afterlife of the space in Kassel?

GATES : The owner is open to the space continuing to be used. I really wanted the project that was “12 Ballads” to subside and we’re talking with some local, cultural-based organizations in Kassel that became very excited about the potential use of the building once Documenta was over. We’re going to try to negotiate with the current owner to see if we can do something for those local Kassel-based organizations.

RAIL: Switching gears can we talk about the Locust project? Can you describe the exhibition and the thinking behind it a bit?

GATES : Soul Manufacturing Corporation is an experiment with both the mechanisms of production and how structures are organized to support creative production. For one month, three artists will work together at Locust Projects, making “things.” The things will have packaging and labels and a destination, but those parts of the project will not be readily seen. I want to have production performed, which will inform the creation of a new corporation called Soul Manufacturing. I am using this platform at Locust to
create a business model that I will then replicate in other cities. The performance of labor will become real employment. The project grows out of a desire to understand the conditions under which cultural production and hand production thrive. It is also to ask if there is a way to allow the processes of production that inform the art market to inform viable collaborations outside of that market. Throughout the exhibition or the production performance, three makers will have regular “visitations” by a DJ, a yoga instructor, and a reader (thank you Ellen Rothenberg). These visitations will also become public performances but are really intended to create a special space for the makers—a space where the pleasure of making and the awkwardness of being watched as you do very intimate things conflate. In some ways, this work continues a kind of work that begun in Kassel during Documenta. Because of where Locust Projects is, I am also curious as to whether the makers can share their knowledge of production with others. There might be moments of knowledge exchange and skill sharing, but that part has to unfold. I cannot plan it. I’m really excited to be able to realize it in an exhibition space. Then I think we’ll put Soul Manufacturing Corporation on the road. That is, we’ll try to think about these places, like South Carolina that has a huge history of making clay things…

RAIL: There’s a big tradition of potter’s towns or craft-based towns where everybody is part of this tradition and exports it. It’s an interesting model to invoke.

GATES : Sure, because again I think part of my ongoing internal conversation. Are there ways to re-imagine urban economy, urban space, and urban failure? Are there ways to tackle some of that poetically? Since the city is my problem and inside of that is industry and economy and opportunity as I gain and lose opportunity and influence and access, as I gain and lose it, ‘cuz I’m gaining and losing it all the time—how does my access create opportunity? Or, how do the limitations of access create opportunities?

RAIL: That’s an exciting project. Can I ask, lastly, what’s coming up next?

GATES : I will work on two restoration projects that are really dear to me. One will become my permanent studio, the other restoration is of an old bank building in Chicago. They both will become amazing spaces for activity. We are also opening a space at the University called the Washington Park Arts Incubator; a space for artists of color to expand their practices and a community gathering space on the mid south side. Finally, there are a couple exhibitions in the hopper, one at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago titled The 13th Ballad, and a couple of place-based projects that are still brewing.