ArtMusicPunk in the Place

theaster gates: where art and community meet

October 18, 2019
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How do you succinctly describe the creative practice of Theaster Gates? Is it even possible? There are not enough hyphens to connect all of the Chicago-based artist-educator’s different projects; and even such art-world nomenclature as “muti-disciplinary” does not adequately address the fact that — above and beyond his ceramics, music, installations or archivism; his re-conceptualizing of urban redevelopment, or his bringing together of great Black creative minds (as he did last weekend at the Black Artist Retreat in New York) — Gates’ artistic format of choice can be best summarized as “Community.” Moreso, is his take on the inherent and multi-faceted meaning and value of the Black community, in all of its glorious manifestations and interactions with the world at large, that Theaster Gates presents as his work. 

(L-R) Yaw Agyeman, Mikael Patrick Avery, Theaster Gates, unknown and Jeff Parker, perform as The Black Monks of Mississippi at Prada Mode Miami at Art Miami on December 6, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Prada)

So while Gates’ objects or “pieces” are less likely to bear the aesthetic recognition of many of his art contemporaries, there is a good chance that you may run across his creative societal ideas — or of things that began as his creative-practice ideas — in your day-to-day life. Especially if you live on the South Side. This could be a transit station or affordable housing; or it may be a collaboration between artists who you are surprised happen to know one another; or it may be in the collection of old books and magazines that remind you of a shared past. The punk principles and tendencies integrated into Theaster Gates’ practice are not the contrary natures of zero-sum rebellion or  sticking it to the man; but in how the everyday magic of Black culture improves the world. Whether people choose to recognize this or not.

Gates’ degrees in urban planning and religious studies go a long way to help unpack the values at the core of his work. As does Chicago’s mighty tradition of Black creativity — musical, visual, social, et al. They all churn together, and feed into one another in Theaster’s many projects, which take  a variety of shapes and sizes. 

You can see it in the Rebuild Foundation, the Chicago redevelopment organization through which Gates’ created Stony Island Arts Bank, a community art-space that not only puts on art exhibits but is also home to two significant Black Chicago archives: the collection of Johnson Publishing (one-time publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines), and the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music. (You can catch a sneak-peek into the Arts Bank room that houses both in Jamila Woods’ video for “Zora.”) Rebuild works with the city of Chicago, having restored a previously dilapidated housing project into the Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative, mixed-income residences for artists and community members (there’s also an arts center). The Foundation was also instrumental in reimagining Chicago Transit Authority’s 95th Street Terminal, where a new building features a DJ booth and a micro-broadcasting radio station to give the South Side commuters a soundtrack to send them on their way

Theaster Gates and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, in the DJ booth at the opening of the 95th Street Terminal.

You can see and hear it in Gates’ roving, loosely organized musical collective, The Black Monks of Mississippi. Not necessarily a formal group so much as a community big band, the Black Monks have for over a decade brought their unabashed love and deep understanding of Black American music’s utilities — spirituality, improvisation, next-level musicianship, story-telling — into community settings and art spaces around the world. (Don’t bother looking for tour itineraries. They just pop up.) Gates is their musical director, conductor, vocalist, and occasional noisemaker. The Black Monks’ performances combine the joyous and the mournful. Gates calls the band, “bootleg preachers,” who play “gospel soul chant reverberation.” In case you forget that musical communication ties together many of the community’s threads. 

Apple Inc – The Black Monks of Mississippi from Chris Strong on Vimeo.

You can also feel it in the Black Artists Retreat, an annual gathering that Gates has been hosting since 2013 in Chicago. But which in 2019 travelled to New York, taking place in the Park Avenue Armory in mid-October, and seemed to become exponentially grander in that increasingly hallowed art space. (In 2017, the Armory’s then-artist-in-residence, Carrie Mae Weems staged The Shape of Things, a one-day symposium of like-minded artists, writers, poets, musicians, thinkers and social theorists, critiquing the moment, that Gates participated in. Likewise, Weems was present at the Retreat.) The Black Artists Retreat is an invite-only mixer, where artists gather and share and participate — both formally and off-the-cuff. The two days in New York, on the topic of “Sonic Imagination,” were filled with not just conversations, but music, dance, film, readings, and spontaneity. (Improvisation, by any other name.) Which is how the Retreat too seemed a Theaster Gates work: he was orchestrating this happening, sometimes on the fly. “Hey Mikael,” he said at one point to the person minding the music at the soundboard, having just spoke eloquently about new work by the artist David Hammons, “Put on some Ornette Coleman. We all should listen to Ornette right now.” And we did. The whole thing ended on a Saturday night with an incredible roller-skating jam. 

In the words of Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, who spoke at the Retreat on the day I was there, the purpose of gatherings like the Retreat, and all spaces where Black artists come together, is to “make [more] spaces, giving us power to go on to do the work.” Such gatherings are, she said “essential for inspiration, to learn from each other’s visions and to galvanize deep possibilities.” It seemed another way of invoking the artist’s job in sewing the fabric of a community — through words, through deeds, and, most importantly, through works. It doesn’t matter if the traditional art-world has a word for that kind of practice.