Inside the house that Theaster built Favorite 



Sep 6 2012

Inside the house that Theaster built

Rising art star and activist Theaster Gates is transforming his neighbourhood, one building at a time

By Helen Stoilas. Features, Issue 238, September 2012
Published online: 06 September 2012

When I arrive at 6901 Dorchester Avenue at nine in the
morning in August, the house is already buzzing with activity—I can hear
the sound of a buzz saw upstairs. The building is due to open later
this month as the Black Cinema House, a space for research into and the
screening of films about African-American culture and by artists of
colour. It is one of the many urban rebuilding projects by the Chicago
artist and current art-world favourite Theaster Gates.

During my visit to his South Side neighbourhood, the
house looked as though it was nearing completion: the first-floor
screening room was mostly finished, with a projector and drop-down
screen already installed next to a gleaming, open kitchen covered in
stainless steel (the ritual of communal meals is an important element of
Gates’s work). The once-abandoned house had been gutted and renovated
to create a warm, inviting space, using materials salvaged from this and
other buildings. The beautiful, darkly stained redwood around the doors
and windows, for example, was rescued from an old water tower, while
the slate green walls in an office turned out to be chalkboards from
Crispus Attucks Elementary School, named after an African-American slave
who was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War.

The Black
Cinema House is just one of the latest rebuilding projects that Gates
has undertaken in Dorchester Avenue and the surrounding neighbourhood of
Grand Crossing. His earlier renovations include a two-storey house that
has been turned into an archive and library, and a former candy store
that served as an event and performance space, and is currently being
re-gutted to take on a new use—perhaps as a further extension of the
archives next door. A few streets away, Gates has bought up a whole
complex of neglected Chicago Housing Authority apartments, which he
plans to turn into mixed-income artist housing with an on-site arts
centre. Last month, the news broke that Gates had rescued a
long-abandoned bank on Stony Island Avenue from demolition by the City,
and he is hoping to transform it into multi-use space to house a
cultural centre, a soul-food restaurant and artist studios. He is due to
present his plan for the bank to the city council this month.

decides what use a building can take on by looking at what is missing
in the neighbourhood. “Maybe I believe these buildings have higher and
higher uses. Like with a work of art, you never know when it’s really
done until it’s done. You know when it’s not done,” he says. “So I feel
like I’m just trying to connect uses, until the buildings are done. Or
until it feels like this neighbourhood or this place has what it needs
to be really, really healthy.”

Seeing the work done on the
buildings is heartening. It brings a sense of hope to a neighbourhood
hit by poverty, crime and drugs. Driving by the boarded-up windows on
Dorchester Avenue, it is suddenly clear what a sad thing an empty home
is. Tennyson was right when he compared it to a corpse.

work, however, is not just about urban regeneration: it is about
creating a community. One way in which he does this is by using ritual,
often in conjunction with music and food. Gates has a masters degree in
religious studies (along with urban planning and ceramics), and there is
a sense of spirituality running through many of his works. He has a
tendency to slip into a preacher’s booming cadence or hum snatches of
gospel while he’s driving. It’s telling that he has referred to his
renovations as a chance to “redeem” a building or materials. Shared
meals are a regular occurrence at the Dorchester Project, and Gates’s
performances often involve a group of musicians he calls the Black Monks
of Mississippi, who combine gospel and soul music with Buddhist chants.
During a talk at the Armory Show this year, he said performances like
the shared suppers “give me the opportunity to leverage ritual, to ask
hard questions that people don’t normally talk about in Chicago with
people who don’t normally get together. Ritual becomes this tool for
people to feel safe.”

It doesn’t take much to feel comfortable
around Gates, though. He has the ability to adapt his personality to
whomever he’s with. During the morning I spent with him, I saw him be,
in equal turns, meditative, decisive, deeply serious and infectiously
mischievous. While showing a friend his new studio, a former
Anheuser-Busch beer distribution warehouse that he is, of course,
tearing out and rebuilding, he energetically describes his vast
ambitions for the space. While sitting for a quick question-and-answer
session at his kitchen table, he thoughtfully picks over each word. And
when presenting his plans for a $5m renovation of the bank he saved to a
group of preservationists, he gives the facts and figures of the
project with a directness aimed at clearing away any red tape.

just two years, Gates’s stock in the art world has risen significantly.
In 2007, he might have complained that he couldn’t find an institution
to show his work, but since his inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial,
the venues have been lining up. Today his schedule is full of art fairs,
biennials, and museum and gallery shows. For Documenta 13, he was
commissioned to renovate and perform in the Huguenot House in Kassel:
this work will form the basis of a solo show at the Museum of
Contemporary Art Chicago next year. This month, for his first show with
London’s White Cube gallery, he is taking over the larger part of its
massive Bermondsey space. This onslaught of attention would be enough to
distract many artists, but although Gates acknowledges the “looming
possibility of insignificance and over-popularisation and decreased
value in the market”, he says he’s not worried about the popularity.

there was any worry, it’s that I would stop feeling purposeful, that
things would no longer matter to me. So what I have to do is keep myself
inspired and really focus on the things that give me purpose.”

sees the next few years as a time to complete the projects he’s started
and figure out “what these past couple of years of production really
mean for me”. He says he plans to write and reflect more. “There are
really significant projects that will require a lot of cultivation, and I
want to give myself space to cultivate and just let everything mature.”

White Cube show, “My Labour Is My Protest” (7 September-11 November),
will be a chance for Gates to “deepen” some of his ideas about the Civil
Rights Movement and black culture. Some of the earliest work to have
gained widespread critical attention is his series of tapestries and
framed wall boxes made from decommissioned fire hoses, a nod to the
equipment police used to disperse protesters in Alabama. As well as
exploring the question of protest through performance and other work,
including videos and two reclaimed fire engines, the exhibition will
convert the commercial gallery in part into a library to house an
archive of Ebony magazine, recently given to Gates by the Johnson
Publishing Company. “It is a moment to reckon with this body of
knowledge and to think in part about the black American experience and
how that’s had an effect and impact on the world,” Gates says. He also
plans to tackle the assumption that London does not have a race problem,
but rather a class problem.

The show’s title reflects the
personal nature of the works. “The generational dynamics of the impact
of the Civil Rights Movement will be seen through a very nuanced set of
objects that reflect me and my dad,” Gates says. “How did this one
moment make us both feel politically? What are our political realities
and feelings about the value of the Civil Rights Movement?” Gates has
described his father, who worked as a roofer, as a sort of
“anti-activist” who focused more on providing for his family than
protesting. “What became clear is that my dad and I, we labour
differently. Even if we use the same tools… and how he sees the world as
a result of the labour he had to do all his life is very different. But
because of his labour, I don’t have to labour like him; I leverage. And
so labouring and leveraging are big themes in the exhibition. I think
that the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement had
everything to do with how we think differently generationally.”

with a major gallery like White Cube gave him “the freedom and
flexibility to make the show that I wanted to, and I also had the
resources”. Gates adds that “both Jay [Jopling] and Kavi [Gupta] have
been really good about respecting my big ambition”. He has been able to
“deliver a body of work that I wanted… that could seem different from
the culture of the gallery”, but he actually sees some similarities with
other White Cube artists, “like Doris Salcedo and, in a different way,
Antony Gormley—folks who are passionate about making and passionate
about the human experience”.

In addition to the White Cube show,
Gates is planning projects during Frieze Art Fair in London, Expo
Chicago and Art Basel Miami Beach, when he will return to his roots in
ceramic­-making with a show at Locust Projects. For this, Gates plans to
collaborate with Japanese potters to turn the space into a production
facility. “Maybe [the objects] won’t actually be things you can use so
much, but it’ll just be the energy and acts of production,” he says.

some artists, who might avoid the commercial aspects of the art world,
Gates embraces the whole machine—and, in a way, it helps to drive much
of the work he does. The proceeds from the sale of his art objects
through galleries and at art fairs are siphoned back into his community
building projects. “If we could just stop thinking about the museum as
the legitimising space, and the fair as the delegitimising space,” Gates
says. “They’re really just moments of encounters. And then we can make
decisions about what kind of role we want in those spaces, what kind of
encounters we want to create. Artists should be mindful of what’s at
stake, and why we do this or that.”

Before Gates arrived for our
interview, I spoke to some of the people working on the Black Cinema
House, many of whom are artists and craftsmen themselves. On the ground
floor, John Preus was working on a stairway leading to the educational
rooms in the basement, using wood donated by the ReBuilding Exchange. He
co-founded the nearby Southside Hub of Production in Hyde Park, a
community space that organises classes, cultural events, performances
and exhibitions.

Upstairs, Tadd Cowen, Dave Correa and a young
man called Charles were finishing the apartment that would serve as a
living space for Gates, and later perhaps other artists. Charles, who
comes from the area, is working as an apprentice.

“What this
level of productivity does is create opportunities for other people to
be highly productive and self-employed, and to use the best parts of
their creative selves to partner with me to do bigger things. They don’t
have to wear the brand of ‘Theaster’ or the moniker of ‘participatory,
social, relational’. I think production—industrial production, hand
production, anonymous production, those acts of creation that happen in
that form—are just as important to me,” Gates says.

Preus and
Cowen travelled to Kassel to help work on Gates’s project for Documenta,
12 Ballads for the Huguenot House. When I said that Gates’s current
popularity must keep them all busy, Preus agreed: “We just try to keep

For more Chicago features, see The Art Newspaper 2, the pull-out section in our new-look September issue (on sale now), or subscribe to our digital edition

Posted by ayano on