Complicating Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates (photo by Sarah Pooley)

Theaster Gates (photo by Sarah Pooley)

Theaster Gates is charismatic, funny, charming, irreverent and wicked smart; he seems like the kind of person you would really love to hang out with, have laughs and conversation with, until you find yourself very drunk, at some secret late night party at an undisclosed location surrounded by an eclectic group of equally awesome, smart, funny, charismatic, creative people.

Unfortunately the social design of Theaster Gates: A Way of Working, a forum, lecture, and gallery presentation at The New School, didn’t allow for that possibility, at least not from what I saw at The Vera List Center  last Wednesday.

The organizers assembled a diverse and thoughtful group of academics to sit behind a table at the front of the room and talk about Theaster’s work and its meaning while he sat in the audience, occasionally disrupting the stifling oppositional power structures that the “panel discussion” format so handily enforced.

Looking around the room at the familiar faces in the audience, many of whom are quite knowledgeable, creative and inventive in their own right, I mused on the lost opportunity. This is the grand irony, I suppose, of institutional efforts at “innovative” design, even in a school theoretically dedicated to teaching and promoting public engagement: they are mostly unable to integrate innovative social design into their public engagement programs. The assembled academics, while quite conversant on theories of socially engaged art practice and its various related sub-specialties, either don’t have the agency to create change or have not exercised that agency within the institutional power structures where they are employed.

Cynthia Lawson, the Associate Provost for Distributed & Global Education & Associate Professor of Integrated Design, School of Design Strategies, seemed quite aware of this when she read the New School’s revised mission statement, noting that it never mentioned, you know, people. One is led to speculate on the complex power dynamics between academics and administrators and where the “adaptive challenge” towards innovative social design resides. The unremarkable familiarity of the corporate-speak of the New School mission statement suggests a similar power struggle may be in operation as the one described in Rachel Aviv’s recent piece in the New Yorker about John Sexton and NYU.

(Hey Carin & Cynthia, since innovation happens in the margins, etc., if you are looking outside the institution, I’m available to consult, see my writing on criticism as a creative practice, my social art projects like Ephemeral Evidence at Exit Art, Everyone’s A Critic at On The Boards, The Brooklyn Commune Project, the public programs I organized at LMCC including River To River or my current work developing a pedagogy for producing as a creative practice).

Which, fortunately, brings us back to Theaster Gates and Dorchester Projects. Since most of my readership is operating outside the visual arts world, they are probably unfamiliar with the project, so here’s the description, taken from the artist’s website:

Dorchester Projects encompasses a cluster of formerly abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side that Theaster Gates renovated from sites of neglect into a vibrant cultural locus. After making his home in a former storefront on South Dorchester Avenue, Gates purchased the neighboring two-story vacant house and initiated a design project to restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift. The success of this project led to the acquisition of a third building across the street, which with the support of grants will be redesigned as a space for film programming and artist residencies.

Another component is the Listening Room. The display windows on the façade of this one-story building recall its previous use as a neighbourhood candy store. Theaster Gates has redesigned the front room to house 8,000 LPs comprising the final inventory from Dr Wax Records, a former record store in the nearby Hyde Park neighbourhood. The record collection has served both spirited and didactic functions, facilitating listening parties and DJ events in the space while being made available to artists and musicians in residence at Dorchester Projects. From December 2011 to July 2012, the collection travelled to the Seattle Art Museum for installation in the exhibition Theaster Gates: The Listening Room. In the future the residential half of the building will be renovated into a reading room and temporary home for the Johnson Library, a donation of the Johnson Publishing Corporation’s in-house editors’ library and a comprehensive collection of Ebony and Jet magazines founded by John H. Johnson.

Using repurposed materials from all over Chicago, the aesthetic of Gates’ Dorchester Projects is both practical and poetic, bridging the creation of new art with the adaptive reuse of resources. Within this multi-functional and growing space, community-driven initiatives and experiences foster neighborhood revitalization and serve as a model for greater cultural and socioeconomic renewal. Dorchester provides its neighbors and local youth the opportunity to perceive built and living environments as spaces worth constructing, exploring and critiquing. It empowers community members to engage in the movement of radical hospitality by physically transforming their surroundings and filling them with beautiful objects, diverse people and innovative ideas.

On Wednesday, in response to a young artist’s question about Gates’ participation in the art market, Theaster made several very funny, and pointed statements, the first being that he got to a point in his practice when he felt that if he saw something wrong with urban development or building codes, he “wasn’t going to make a painting about it.”

I wanted to applaud, not only because the line was delivered with great comic timing, but because I wanted to shout it at everyone in the performance world who wants to make plays and dances “about” things, self-limiting their artistic practice by accepting conventional notions of form and aesthetics.

The second was about money. Gates said, essentially, that it costs money to make art and that he personally doesn’t give a fuck where the money comes from. Foundations, government, individual giving, corporate sponsorship, fuck it, if its money, he’ll take it. I think this is refreshingly candid and practical, but also fraught.

No doubt one of the central functions of art is to create a frame around the real, to direct attention towards the hitherto invisible or overlooked, thereby creating value. The value is predicated on the stature and legitimacy of the artist who is creating the aforementioned frame, either conceptually or literally.

As with Creative Time with Paul Chan and Waiting For Godot In New Orleans, Gates is using his star power and charisma to leverage his art market value to direct capital to a neglected and vulnerable community. Unlike Godot, Gates is working where he lives, and so escapes being tarred with the brush of disaster tourism and opportunism.

Gates’ approach to money can be viewed through multiple lenses. From a racial perspective, Gates is brashly taking on a significant and, unfortunately, persistent condition. From Chuck Berry’s notorious insistence on being paid with a briefcase full of cash before performing, to the true (but apocryphal-seeming) story of James Brown’s disbelief that Don Cornelius built the Soul Train empire entirely free from white money, to Jason Zinoman’s recent article in the Times about black comedians choosing not to work at Upright Citizen’s Brigade because they don’t pay, the history of black artists and money is rife with tales of deception, fraud and exploitation. Black artists have to be practical about money, because they don’t, generally, have the luxury of indifference that white privilege provides.

At the same time, Gates inhabits a precarious position, as does any artist working in real estate and finance. His website says:

Theaster Gates has developed an expanded artistic practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Gates transforms spaces, institutions, traditions, and perceptions.

Gates’s training as an urban planner and sculptor, and subsequent time spent studying clay, has given him keen awareness of the poetics of production and systems of organizing. Playing with these poetic and systematic interests, Gates has assembled gospel choirs, formed temporary unions, and used systems of mass production as a way of underscoring the need that industry has for the body.

So the question arises, does an expanded frame of artistic practice demand expanded frames of critical engagement?

As Gates brings his urban planning training to bear on his artistic practice, should we consider Dorchester Projects alongside other ambitious social design projects like James Rouse’s Columbia, MD., Donald Trump’s Riverside South, Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Project, Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the various works in Robert Moses’ oeuvre or even the City of Chicago’s ambitious but eventually failed socially-engaged masterwork, Cabrini-Green? Are those projects any less artful, ambitious, innovative and dynamic than Gates’ work? Is there a clear distinction? Or is that juxtaposition part of Gates’ intent?

Insofar as Gates is working with “money as material” (in a phrase borrowed from Shannon Jackson, Super Genius), should his art be compared to others with similar practices, like fellow Chicagoan Edmund “Eddie” O’Connor (b. 1925 –d. 2011) who invented derivatives or Michael Milken, who was one of the first artists working with money as material to promote the idea that, “capital structure deeply matters”. Milken pioneered the practice of “financing entrepreneurs who had good ideas for building companies that became significant engines of job growth,” a practice that is implied in Gates’ work with Dorchester, but is not explicit.

Which leads to the question of impact. When evaluating an artwork created through an expanded practice that includes real estate, finance and social innovation, are we to limit our critique to the existing aesthetic frameworks of visual art or apply the standards of the expanded practices?

If one element of Gates’ project is social impact, are there numbers that substantiate that impact? Do the residents of Dorchester Projects have an equity stake in the outcome of Gates’ work? Has he created jobs, lowered crime, reinforced social fabric and increased the quality of life or standard of living? Did his project include any of the collaborative social design practices that we see used by organizations like The Hester Street Collaborative? Or is he using Dorchester Projects as clay, real estate and capital as potter’s wheel and kiln, to craft an intricate, living object after his vision? Is the success or failure of the project entirely predicated on the value of the artist in a volatile and fickle art market or is it meant to become a living thing, self-perpetuating a virtuous cycle of urban life enriched by creative expression?

This seems to be the central problem of high end socially engaged art. Even as its practitioners attempt to measure their distance from the visual art market, its success is measured from within those market frameworks. High end socially engaged art is not so unlike Brad Pitt’s New Orleans housing projects or other pet charities of famous people in that the work is largely dependent on the celebrity and charisma of the artist for its realization. Because capital, as noted by panel participant Kevin McQueen, is notoriously risk averse. Capital – even so-called venture capital – doesn’t want to go where no one has gone before. It wants guarantees, it wants assurances, it favors insider knowledge and reduced risk, guaranteed maximum ROI. So when Gates succeeds, he does so on the basis of his fame and within existing frameworks of value and capital.

What if, for instance, the work were to be judged by impact, how would it be measured? The Puma Impact Award for independent feature-length documentary films measures impact using the following criteria:

  • Awareness – How a film demonstrably changed public awareness of a given issue
  • Corporate Change- Influenced corporate policy on sustainability or workplace issues
  • Political Change – Impacted lawmakers & politicians triggering reviews or enquiries
  • Behavioral Change- Affected consumer purchasing or voting decisions
  • Capacity Building- How the film helped build capacity or raised funds for campaign organisations and other partners

For most performing arts institutions, impact reports are a fact of life. They are required to demonstrate effectiveness, identify target audiences, quantify number of people served, identify their demographics, justify their programs in relation to their mission and so forth. Since they create nothing of tangible value – no objects for sale – it is nearly impossible to make purely aesthetic justifications for funding, or to bring the weight of curators, gallerists, institutions or academia to bear on demonstrating value beyond difficult-to-quantify impact. And because funding for artists’ work in the performing arts is mostly funneled through institutions, questions of aesthetics and impact are deeply intertwined, as opposed to the visual arts where artists are funded directly based on aesthetic criteria. It seems that affirmative aesthetic appreciation of an artist’s work and its subsequent market value is a significant indicator of their ability to attract funding for socially engaged work. I am loath to say whether this is good or bad, I have my prejudices, but it requires more resources and investigation than I am able to bring to the task.

As mentioned previously, when a young artist at the symposium questioned Gates about his participation in the art market, he included a half-joking aside that, as a recent graduate, he also needed a job. Gates’ answer was revealing in that his ecumenical approach to attracting capital was driven, at least in part, by his determination not to have any other job but “artist”.

Gates said something along the lines of, “what are we going to do, from some kind of guild, some kind of trade association?” – I didn’t record it so I can’t go back, but he seemed to imply that having a job, another job other than “artist” somehow invalidated the authenticity of an individual’s claim to being an artist. I may have misinterpreted it, but that is what I thought I heard. And this is where it becomes really complicated, as we’re exploring in Brooklyn Commune.

First, most self-identified artists will never make a living solely as artists, so income derived from art practice is not necessarily a valid measure for assessing artistic credibility. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with having a job. Most artists are, at the very least, teachers, if not something else entirely.

In fact, as art practice, artisanship, trade, craft, production, aesthetics and critical theory increasingly converge in vastly expanded art practices across all disciplines, the reality is that anything can be framed as an artistic endeavor. The distinction between the artist who outsources production and the artist who labors bears interrogation, and the frameworks for critical evaluation and aesthetic appreciation of work created through “expanded practices” demands concomitant expansion, if not complete reinvention.

An artist may wish to distance him or herself from the visual art market and its trade in objects, but unless s/he intentionally and transparently turns his/her attention to asserting alternative value structures and evaluative criteria, s/he is doing little more than gaming the system in the short term.

If we are to widen the frame of critical evaluation of expanded art practices then they must include the criteria and histories of the newly adopted practices. So if artists move into real estate, finance, urban planning and social design, those concerns must be moved into the evaluative equations. Similarly, if artists move into performance, there is a concomitant necessity to learn the histories of music, dance and theater, the preceding aesthetic frameworks and the means of cultural production in those disciplines.

On that note, the word “transdisciplinary” was used so frequently throughout the day at Theaster Gates: A Way of Working that I had to bite my tongue.

First, because the conversations were hardly trans-anything as the panel structure created a fundamentally irremediable condition of binary discourse. Even the most promising conversations, like a nascent debate between Katayoun Chamany (on the panel) and Shannon Jackson (from the audience) about biology, art, science, nature, nurture and environment, died on the vine. Oh, to revisit that lost opportunity!

Second, because no other artistic practices were represented in the discourse. On April 2, 2013 I was in the same room at the Vera List Center, only for the launch of Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited. The Sekou program, still running at various venues for a few more weeks, “celebrates Sekou Sundiata’s broad vision for bold, rigorous, multidisciplinary artistic expression that emerges from a love for one’s community, a passion for real democracy and social justice, and a vision for a better world.”

The only crossover between the Gates and Sekou events was the ever-inspiring, warm and wonderful Richard Harper, Professor of Music/Voice at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, who, from the dais, engaged Gates (in the audience) in a beautiful, impromptu moment of call-and-response singing. During the Q&A I asked if anyone had been at the Sekou event or even knew who Sekou was. You could have heard a pin drop. And that is, as they say, a cryin’ shame.

Sekou, while a professor at the New School, created a national program called The America Project, that “stimulates critical citizenship, imagination, and civic dialogue through creative process and public engagement, placing artists in leadership roles to enlist diverse community members in exchanges that promote common purpose and visionary thinking for social change.” There is even a handbook of related pedagogy that can be downloaded for free.

But of course, since Sekou’s practice was music and spoken word, he hardly gets adequate recognition in the performing arts world, much less the rarified world of so-called fine art. And not to beat a dead horse (I’m about to beat a dead horse) all performing arts are socially engaged. Whether explicitly, like the work of theater company 10,000 Things in Minneapolis or composer Susie Ibarra’s recent Circadian Rhythms at RPI, or implicitly through collaborative processes, creating live performance is inherently social. There is no such thing as “studio practice” where you make an object in your room and put it on a wall in a gallery for people to look at. To make dance, theater, live music or performance of any kind, you must put yourself in a social setting, you have to negotiate complex interpersonal interactions, you have to be together physically, with bodies and minds as your raw material, each rehearsal room a sociological experiment, a living microcosmic prototype of possible worlds, a practical workshop in individually embodied, collectively enacted, social change.

The fact that Theaster Gates is working in an “expanded art practice” that is not in dialogue with pre-existing art practices engaged with the same ideas is disappointing. The fact that the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School was “engaged” with both of these projects, that Sekou developed his project at the New School, but nobody figured out how to put these things together, is, frankly, criminal. But it is emblematic of the profound dysfunction and deep divisions of our artistic, educational and cultural systems in America. With as much talk as we hear about creating “commons” and “community” and “public engagement” the fundamental life practices those values are based on – cooperation, collaboration, resource and knowledge-sharing, mutual respect and openness – are rarely embodied practices in the life of an institution. But that is another topic for another day…

As flawed as it was, I’m glad the Vera List Center honored Theaster Gates and I’m grateful to have been exposed to his work, I’m excited by the conversations he inspires and hope they will carry over into other fields.

In that vein, I also hope that the institutional structures around this kind of work will evolve to a point where it can resonate outside the halls of academia and the pages of Art Forum; where the frameworks of expanded art practice actually expand beyond the narrow lens of visual art to meaningfully include other disciplines, their histories, aesthetics, contexts and values; and where the sphere of engagement widens significantly beyond the art world itself.

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