An Artist and a Citizen

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist certainly does not capture who he is and what he does, though. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Lately, he has been giving public lectures and presentations. Many times, his work is presented in exhibitions.

Gates’s work often takes place in the public arena with public gatherings or lectures. When asked what draws him to this method of engagement, Gates’s response is that, “there is a type of power in the public”—either in the ability to voice one’s opinion and know that it is being heard, or through the social aspect. As he explains, “I accept that the byproduct of me getting people together is that people might call it art or call it an activist moment, and that’s just fine. The part I’m trying to concentrate on is this: if I have a set of relationships that are broad and wide, how can I bring those relationships into conversation with each other when necessary or when I’m curious?”

To that end, Gates’s latest project confronts a variety of issues through gathering people around a meal. Gates and I spoke on October 28, 2009 by phone to discuss this developing project. His upcoming projects include Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 15-August 1, 2010) and an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Kelly Huang: Food has been a reoccurring subject in your work. Back in the spring, we spoke about a soul food project that you will be hosting on the South Side of Chicago in the near future. You describe how food is an important part of every culture—how it shapes people’s memories of place, speaks to history, and has the power to bring people together. Could you tell me more about the project you are working on and how you first conceptualized it?

Theaster Gates: I was approached by Stephanie Smith (Curator of Contemporary Art, Smart Museum), who was thinking about a project called Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art. Feast was to be an attempt at surveying the history of food practices in contemporary art. She asked me pretty simply, “What would you want to do?” And I said, I am feeling pretty good about doing things outside of museums and I would like to try and relocate a food space outside of your museum, and concentrate on soul food, because it has such a rich history on the South Side. I decided to acquire a building on my block and over the next one and a half years, slowly build out that space into a sort of soul food temple, where—in the spirit of critical discourse on art practices and social practices—one could eat really good food.

But, it’s not just about food to the extent that food is a signifier of certain cultural behaviors, rituals. Food acts as a material I can play with to tease out certain rituals inherent in black people, Koreans, Chinese, white people, middle Americans. I think that the project has always been my labor and I will benefit from the fact that there are museums and other types of museums that are interested in what you call the “gastro-arts.”

KH: The role of food in this project is then, more about the gathering of people. Is that fair to say?

TG: Yes, I think it is partly about the gathering of people and partly about my ability to put a very specific finger on a certain kind of cultural activity so that just when one thinks they have soul food figured out, it actually reveals itself in all these other ways that have nothing to do with eating—

KH: It’s about the culture that surrounds it.

TG: It’s about the culture and it’s about a history of obesity; a history of slave labor and production; a history of the plantation. The space will allow me to slowly unpack the relationship that black people have had to rice in relation to Asian people’s relationship to rice. We can eat rice, but how can I unpack rice so that people start to see, then, that rice is an extremely loaded food? Rice is extremely broad and deep and political, and I want to see what’s there. If I choose to think about rice a lot, what new friendships might I gain in the cultural sphere? Who else wants to talk about rice?

KH: Locating the project on the South Side is deliberate. Why the South Side in this particular location, and who do you imagine as the visitors or consumers?

TG: My first response to “Why the South Side?” is “Why not the South Side?” That in fact, where we imagine things should happen, most of the time makes absolutely no sense. Part of what I’m trying to do is to say that there should be other centers. Cultural centers deserve to be wherever people are, as arbitrary as it is that I live on the South Side. I feel like that’s my protest to the cultural community. I’m not going to have everything I do happening in what people imagine to be the center of the universe, wherever that is. My center of my universe is at the corner or 69th and Dorchester and everything emanates from that place.

KH: In past interviews, you’ve talked about your background as an urban planner and how that has affected the way you think about and imagine your block, and what effect these projects can have. How does all that factor into choosing to do these projects there?

TG: I think over time, it just became more and more evident that the reason why poor neighborhoods fail is because people who could contribute to the cultural fabric, and the economic fabric, and physical fabric of a place leave as soon as they can afford to leave. It isn’t even a deep urban planning theory. If you keep your money where you’ve grown up, then those neighborhoods that you grew up in would have more money as you made more. I decided that I would commit to this. All of that feels like the framework. What I’m finding is that other people want to live on that block because of my commitment to it. My neighbors who have always lived on the block love the fact that there are other young people who are willing to live there. Maybe their kids who make $60,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 salaries, can do something significant in their grandmother’s place. And I think that’s all I’m doing. I’m trying to cry to people who have a little bit of change.

KH: Seeing the value of your own neighborhood and investing in that.

TG: Yeah! And it feels really simple to me. And it doesn’t feel like art. I cannot honestly have this conversation with you and say my art practice is at the nexus of this and that. It ain’t. Most of the time I’m just glad to have an affordable place to live. But, I’m clear though that I do projects that echo between my block in Berlin, that echo between my block in NY. And if there is something about these objects I make or the performances I do that lend more resources to Dorchester, then I’m going to take advantage of it. So, I kind of get a kick out of inviting people to my block because a lot of times they’re scared or they’ve never been invited. And not to be cliché, but just to say that I have maintained a certain type of dignity in the face of this type of economic difference. My house is a home, too. And I think that invitation to eat allows for people to cross racial lines and geographic lines that they normally don’t cross. And I’m excited about that. There is room and reason to traverse.