Poetic Governance

Theaster Gates is a Chicago-based artist with concurrent qualifications in urban planning, religious studies and ceramics. He talks about spending time in Cape Town and the acute point of transgression offered by his practice of place making.

By Clare Butcher

I’m looking at my copy of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a 1950s publication that sought to apply phenomenology and lived experience to the study of architecture. It was given to me while I was living in Eindhoven, a small town in the south of the Netherlands left in the lurch by Philips Electronics when, over a decade ago, the corporation moved their headquarters and outsourced production. The unemployed working population were left to find work in the area’s agricultural sector or simply relocate. The square kilometres of city space once occupied by Philips factory floors lay dormant for years. This post-industrial setting was an appropriate backdrop for an encounter with both Bachelard, and the person who introduced me to him: Theaster Gates.

Gates, who was born and raised in Chicago’s west side, the youngest of nine children, has been described as an activist, an urban planner, an academic, a ceramist, a monk, a musician, a cook, a curator, a community organiser, a cultural entrepreneur, a performance artist and even a real estate agent. While he does hold postgraduate degrees in urban planning and ceramics, and another in religious studies from the University of Cape Town, none of the foregoing labels suffice. He is what you might call, a rounded character—part of a trajectory perhaps of historical figures who would have been labelled as “accomplished”. But it’s bigger than that. Anyone in Gates’s presence for long enough begins to get a sense of his encompassing approach to what he calls, the “poetics of production and systems of organising” in a more Bachelardian sense (though Gates would probably wince at such a pretentious phrase).

In the final chapter of Poetics, Bachelard speaks of roundness as a phenomenon or organising metaphor in architecture, whereby through the act of placing something in a particular environment, one creates a point of reference, a “guiding form” which governs the nexus of relationships around it. Viewed from this height, the sizable work of Theaster Gates may be seen as carefully administered as well as catalytic.

It has been several years since we met in that factory town where Gates and the Black Monks of the Mississippi—the motley band of musicians he writes for, directs and performs with—developed a piece together with local practitioners as part of the Van Abbemuseum’s Heartland project. Since then, Gates has bought a house, and then another, and then another, as part of his ongoing Dorchester Projects (2009-) in Chicago’s rougher Grand Crossing neighbourhood, where he has been gutting and repurposing whole buildings in which to host dinners, house music archives, run university courses in urban studies, and generally raise a ruckus. Gates’s work as an artist can only be seen within the context of his broader involvement in these “neighbourhood” or “urban” projects. But that word—neighbourhood—includes a much larger physical terrain than that of the mixed migrant community on Chicago’s south side, as well as a much more complex disciplinary field than one might assume. From early on, Gates has been mingling his role as a member of the academic community at the University of Chicago (where he has just become the first director of Arts and Public Life) with his lived experiences of people, places and practices.

During a series of email exchanges, I asked Gates how he would describe his own trajectory. “While there is a disciplinary intersection that happened early in my college days between religion, sculpture and constructs of the city, I am not sure if those things naturally equate into the practice that I have today, but they are definitely part of the mix,” he offered. “The other parts seem to do with what you don’t learn in school. Ideas about where motivation and drive come from; how to hustle to make interesting things happen … what to do when the thing you want most is not available to you. The practice seems based as much in the things that are not available as it is the projects that happen in between.”

He adds: “These days, my work is split between being an administrator and artist at the University of Chicago; an administrator and artist for Rebuild Foundation, a small design engine that reactivates abandoned spaces (such as those on Dorchester Avenue), converting them into cultural spaces; and an artist, without additions. The messiness of my practice has to do with not having either a BFA or MFA, but rather leveraging what I know and don’t know against what the art world knows and doesn’t know about itself.”

Gates acquired his Masters degree in religious studies and fine art at the University of Cape Town in 1996. He came to South Africa on a one-year Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship from a Rotary Chapter in Iowa, where he had studied. I asked Gates what brought him to South Africa and the out-of-school learning he did while in Cape Town during this tumultuous moment in the country’s early democratic history.

“Cape Town was extremely formative,” he responded. “It was an amazingly rich time to be in South Africa and a moment when ‘African-ness’, democracy, as well as economic and cultural mobility were all in flux with curiosity, ambiguity and intensity. Spike Lee was all the rage, Bill Clinton brought a Black delegation to think about doing business there, and Zimbabwe’s future was still a question. I loved a woman from Lesotho who was raised in the Free State; I performed with saxophonist Rene McLean, who was teaching jazz horn at the music school; my hair was locked! It was an amazing moment to be young.

“While there was tremendous anxiety on the part of my white South African Rotarians (so much so that I had to leave the Wynberg Rotary Club—a moment I will never forgive) about safety and security, wealth, sexual transgression and growing violence in cities, I felt very much at home in the townships and in Johannesburg. The economic and political transformation made South Africa look a lot like Mobile Alabama or Chicago, 1970. It felt comfortably present.

“The part that was an interesting challenge was that, because of the Rotary scholarship, I had access to resources that I would not normally have had in the US at the time. The dollar’s value in relationship to the rand was so disproportionate. I was a temporary prince and struggled to figure out how to share with friends and how to come off my princely high when it came time to leave.

“All these things were huge. Constant code switching, a need for humility but also a need to defend your dignity, which for the black South African, was always being challenged. I developed friendships with Tutu Puone, Mamello Ndebele, Thandiwe January, Jimmy Dludlu and Shadow Twala, who are all still very dear. I remember meeting Njabulo Ndebele at Thandiwe’s home. Ndebele was bigger than life and I thought I would spend the rest of my life writing about the atrocities of man. It’s all rushing back! My two professors, Dr. Chirevo Kwenda, a Harvard-trained Diviner, and a Californian guy named David Chidester, who taught sacred space, both made a searing impact on the future of my artistic practice.”

It was only some time after his return from South Africa that Gates put into operation his practice of art and administration – and art as administration – in a more tectonic and public way. With few galleries convinced by his approach as commercially viable art, Gates decided to host an event himself, Plate Convergence (2007), a dinner and talk with a made-up Japanese ceramic guru by the name of Yamaguchi. The event, hosted at the Hyde Park Art Centre, Chicago’s oldest alternative exhibition space, played on particular national stereotypes and notions of cultural authenticity and was consciously devised to bring people into confrontation with those issues, as well as with each other.

This was just the start of Gates’s ballsy but considered critique through collaboration. His interest in food falls into the nexus of materials and rituals—or, to refer back to Bachelard, “guiding forms” —he uses to nourish the networks and situations he creates. The dinners that began in 2007 have become a feature of Dorchester Projects, based around what Gates refers to as good old-fashioned soul food. According to Ivet Reyes Maturano, an anthropologist and one of Dorchester Projects’ first researchers-in-residence, Gates’s conception of nourishment extends beyond a culinary extravaganza for select friends, or a kindly hand-out to a stranger, into a more spiritual and political gesture.

The Dorchester gatherings served initially as an invitation: establishing a sense of neighbourhood that included the Mexican workers demolishing the next-door building. Reyes Maturano and her fellow project residents were asked to “take care” of both the labourers and the materials they could salvage from the wreckage, which would be used by Gates in the next reconstruction. Whether it was finding ingredients for cooking or bringing together what might otherwise be considered rubble, according to Reyes-Maturano, “all details have an intentionality behind them”.

Gates’s nuanced convictions about the public output of the more intimate forms of restoration, citizenship and place-making were influenced by his involvement with the Experimental Station, an alternative food production and art project set up by the environmentally-inclined artist Dan Peterman, as well as his role in building the Black Pearl, a youth centre situated about 15 minutes’ bike-ride away from Dorchester Avenue. I asked Gates to expand on how these and other projects relate to his idea of a “poetics of production and systems of organising”.

“Right now, all of these words feel like qualifiers outside of me,” he countered. “I don’t really think that I’m an organiser or organised. The ‘poetics of production’ stuff is important to me in part because what production and being productive means to me is very fluid. I love the act of producing with ones hands, but I also like the idea of production that happens with teams of people or the productivity of natural forces, beavers and termites. I am interested in productivity. But the language is all an attempt to help people understand my thoughts on making or reconcile forms of production.

“With regard to the term, ‘place making’, a term that is not even five years old, I believe that this way of talking about space is the acute point of transgression for me as a city dweller and puts me in conflict with things that I hold true. I understand that place making is similar to notions of space that are shifting from places of habitation and commune to market-driven, capitalist structures. That ultimately, this work, that some would call ‘making place’ puts me in the position to shift the current value to land and the existing stigma of a place to one that would make others want to live here. So the complexity, like labour is what kind of steward/facilitator/champion/instigator do I want to be in this loaded struggle for meaning making, both in the way of objects and in the way of space. All these terms are balancing terms that take my innate sensibility to produce and steadies that with an internal ethic, the likes of which is still being worked out.”

And indeed it is this steady deciphering of a work-ethic which, over the years, that has established Gates as a sought-after artist—a fact confirmed by his recent participation in the prestigious international contemporary art event, dOCUMENTA 13, and his recent solo show, My Labour is my Protest, at London’s White Cube gallery. While elements of the projects shown in these contexts are rooted in specific locales—such as libraries of American Civil Rights Movement literature, whole fire-trucks, woven hosepipes—Gates, as the common denominator, is able to dislodge embedded meaning and reconfigure the connections between things. Though never formulaic, if one were to decode the elements grounding Gates’s fast-becoming itinerant global art career, it would look something like: combination of time + labour + invitation.

“A person should be present,” says Gates, “and in the body and on the ground and in the air. The trick is to know where the balance is. While I am not balanced at the moment, I really do feel that I can’t live in just one of the spaces. That kind of reification or saviourhood, while it has its own intoxicating trappings, I would much rather be in between.”

This sense of limbo was made manifest in Gates’s 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, a work specially commissioned for dOCUMENTA 13. Before the Dorchester Projects’ Black Cinema House was restored last year, the artist worked together with what he called a local and international “workforce” to transport not only parts of the Chicago building but also 12 of the musical pieces filmed there, to Kassel’s Huguenot House. A slim structure on the edge of Kassel city of centre, the Huguenot House stands as a derelict monument to the 1700 Huguenots who sought shelter in the area in the late 1600s. Perhaps a tangential connection with Gates’s interest in South Africa’s own history, the house became a refuge of a different sort, designated by the artist as a “communal and culturally uplifted space for consideration, exploration, talks and performances”. During the 100 days of the exhibition’s run, the house received Gates’s imported building parts as well as various groups of yoga practitioners, photographers who set up a temporary studio, dancers and musicians, as well as an embroidery therapy group for those affected by HIV.

Rendered in Gates’s hallmark style—purposely rustic—the naked walls of Huguenot House exposed its own infrastructure. Minimal furnishings dotted the interconnecting rooms, creating a labyrinth through what seemed to be a kind of living museum. The subject on view was the Crew Huguenot: the house’s temporary commune. Their bedrooms, cordoned off with red rope, were still visible but private nonetheless. Visitors to the house were not exempt from scrutiny however, and one felt, with the turn of every sharp corner, a growing sense of both strangeness and complicity. Real hospitality—for that’s what the place exuded with its living room concerts, busy kitchen and ping-pong table—could not be naively mistaken for politeness or friendliness. The door was left unlocked, sure, but there was a wide spectrum of friendship that ranged from political alliance all the way to accidental acquaintance.

This pragmatic and moral tussle in Gates’s work made me think of a text by the material anthropologist Bruno Latour entitled ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: or how to make things public’. In his essay Latour speaks about the relationship between the word “thing” and the German “Thingstatten”, a site of communal significance usually heralded by an obelisk or stone structure that acted as a meeting place for the earliest forms of body politic. “The Ding,” says Latour, “designates both those who assemble because they are concerned as well as what causes their concerns and divisions.” One of the writer’s key questions is what an object-oriented democracy would look like. Though Gates’s gathering of not-quite monumental sculptures, video installations and lively bodies never purports to offer the answer to this, the roundness of relations he instantiates—be they unexpected and intentional—are indeed forming a poetic governance.

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