Theaster Gates Speaks on Books, Art, and Real Estate at Cindy Pritzker Lecture

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Taylor Castle/Chicago Tribune

“Love, Administration, Iteration.” This is the Holy Trinity of ingredients for the stew of our future, according to Theaster Gates. Chicago artist, urban planner, and craftsman, Gates is founder of the Rebuild Foundation and responsible for revitalization projects that engage communities and promote the celebration of art and culture grounded in investment and advocacy. On the stage of the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, Gates and Dr. Adam Green, associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, discussed the importance of developing safe spaces to create and to experience. Green observed in Gates’s work common themes of generosity, practicality, and speculation; the mirepoix at the base of a meal meant as food pro multis.

The Chicago Public Library is planning to donate 1 million books to Gates to not only preserve and display, but also make available for patrons who want access to knowledge. This is not the first major donation he has received for archival. The Johnson Publishing Corporation donated more than 15,000 nonfiction and fiction books, and magazines, including a historical Ebony Magazine collection. Pulping books is a cringeworthy act in Gates’s eyes and he would rather see the books live a second life in the massive library and reading room of the Arts Bank. Acquiring a wealth of literature to simply make it available to everyone for free…

Generosity.

A potter by trade, Gates often sat at his wheel “with mounds of clay trying stuff.” His art ultimately evolved and became intertwined with property and shaping communities. He became the man sitting with architects and developers “trying stuff,” turning eyesore buildings on his block into beautiful bodies that both house and behave as art–what he calls the Dorchester Projects. Green asked when the concept of reuse became an integral part of the artistic process. Gates suggested it began at home: “It’s probably about survival.” His mother kept a plastic bag full of plastic bags to reuse (a comment often made in jest as a practice of black families). He also cites the use of take-out food containers that were washed and then reused to take lunch to work the next day…in a plastic bag. It begins with making use of a thing and then recognizing that thing as having potential or value in another capacity.

Practicality.

 

As the evening wound down, the conversation took an important yet morbid turn into the realm of police brutality and inner city violence. Gates minces no words when it comes to his responsibility to the black community. So much so that he has coordinated another unorthodox project. The gazebo where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Cleveland was dismantled earlier this year to be transported to Chicago. When Green inquired why this artifact is important to preserve, Gates was clear in his response. The gazebo is unequivocally a “black object” and is a site of black trauma. Once erected in what Gates lovingly refers to as “Kenwood Gardens,” an artist compound in-the-making, full of living and workspaces, the gazebo will act as a tangible place to mourn; to freely weep. It becomes a piece of art, a piece of history, and a gathering place to release pain and reflect and consider the future as a community.

Speculation.

Theaster Gates is Chicago’s neighborhood chef. One of his first endeavors after gaining an amount of success was to have a dinner, not unlike his mother’s Sunday gatherings. Only his dinners would be with gatekeepers and people with access to resources on a grand scale. He would then arrange another meal with community members with the drive “to get things done,” the goal being to share information across the table: knowledge served family style. He does not want singular success or to be elevated to the point of becoming a gatekeeper himself, but rather to provide the keys.

Gates name-checked Mayor Rahm Emmanuel once he arrived, acknowledging the dinner following the artist talk, but Gates also knew he would have to eat again. He realized some time ago, in order for people to get things done, they’d have to have two dinners.

bon appétit

 

Be good.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates is currently a professor in the Department of Visual Art and director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago.

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Crunch Theory

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Herbert: This world is going to Hell.

Captain: No kidding. So much tragedy in the world, and if we ain’t careful, Donald Trump will be the one regulating all of it.

Herbert: Yeah. Can’t say the writing wasn’t on the walls, though. Our elders warned us. Shoot, it’s right there in the Bible. I mean, not about Trump, but the rest of it.

Captain: Wait. What?

Herbert: The Bible? The most famous Book in the entire world? Didn’t you have a grandma?

Captain: I know what the Bible is and I know what it says. But how do you know what the Bible says?

Herbert: Why can’t I know what’s in the Bible?

Captain: You can absolutely know. I just think it’s funny you bring it up, because I can’t help but think about the revolving door of women going in and out of your bedroom.

Herbert: God knows my heart.

Captain: That’s not how it works, Herb. You can’t just–

Herbert: Anywho, you don’t even have to look in The Good Book to see what I’m talking about. The evidence is all around us. Just go to your local grocery store.

Captain: I don’t follow.

Herbert: Oreos got different flavors, dude. Oreo used to be the flavor. When I go get ice cream, I get Oreo flavor. But now they got mixed berry, peanut butter, birthday cake, punkin’ spice–

Captain: What about mint?

Herbert: Mint’s cool.

Captain: Okay, ’cause mint’s my jam.

Herbert: No doubt. But it’s just a matter of time before they got a two-dollar mixed berry, pumpkin spice, Oreo shake at Sonic.

Captain: That’s gross.

Herbert: Before you know it, there’ll only be the marshmallows in Lucky Charms.

Captain: Now you’re just being ridiculous.

Herbert: You sure about that? You see what happened to Cap’n Crunch.

Captain: Hey, now. That’s literally my cereal. Don’t talk about my cereal.

Herbert: Your cereal also has a version that’s just berries, no crunch. What you say about that, Cap’n?

Captain: Watch your mouth.

Herbert: I’m simply saying that these things going on in the world were revealing themselves in some of the other areas of our lives. All you have to do is pay attention.

Captain: I refuse to argue with you about the flavor of my cereal being comparable to ISIS attacks in Paris; violent unrest in various parts of Africa; Greek economy; continued turmoil in the Middle East; violence on college campuses; planes falling out the sky inexplicably then possibly explicably; police killing black folks left and right; children targeted in gang violence; social media done somehow turned into racial media… .

Herbert: You’re not understanding me. That’s not what I’m saying but it’s okay. The world is going to Hell in a hand basket. In this case, I’m merely drawing attention to the basket.

Captain: I couldn’t agree more. You are a basket case.

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Defibrillator

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“You ever touched somebody’s heart?” Herb stopped chewing his unhealthy bite of burrito and eyed me as if I’d just asked him to sell me his Jordan collection. If his mother were on her deathbed and his sneaks were worth the exact amount of money needed for the operation to save her, he’d set up a Kickstarter campaign just to see if he could whip up funds. Herb would let her get as close to dying as possible before he felt like he absolutely had to sell those shoes. Probably would make her pay him back, too. Instead of answering, he just took another bite of his burrito, his mouth still full from the previous.

“A friend of mine posted on the social mediums that she had to pump her patient’s heart using her hand because some machine was malfunctioning during the surgery. I can imagine it was already a freaky thing to do, but she remembers being more freaked out about how it felt when the man’s heart started beating on its own, again. She held her hand there for a second longer to feel that sensation; the engine of life. That got me to thinking: I wanna do that.” My friend had another look on his face, but this time he didn’t stop chewing. He waited until he’d consumed his bites before responding snarkily.

“So you finna go to surgery school, now? I hear that takes a while. You might have chosen this path a bit late, homie.” Another bite began almost before the last vowel was out.

“Naw, man. Not literally. Non-literally. I want to be able to reach out to people in a way that can jumpstart their passion for life. Just like my friend squeezed the life back into someone, I want to do that, too. There’s a lot of people out here with broken hearts, man.”

“Oh. So you want to be a gigolo? No, wait. An escort, is the politically correct term, I believe.” I put my head down on the table. “You ever seen that movie, Loverboy, with McDreamy? Trying to make all these women feel good is a tough job. But, hey, I support you. If you need a wing man–”

I raised my head and slapped my palm down on the table. “No, Herbert. I do not want to be a gigolo. It’s not even about making only women happy, which becomes evident by the end of the movie, by the way. I just want to be a person that anyone and everyone in the world can bump into and they see a spark in me, a therapeutic charge that revitalizes them. The same way that if I’ve had a bad day, whenever I see a baby or a puppy doing something cute, it lifts my spirits.” I could tell I wasn’t going to like what Herbert was about to say.

“If you want to be a baby, there are folks into that kind of fetish. They like changing diapers of grown men. Women who lactate will–”

“Why do I even talk to you? Here I am, pouring my heart out to you; expressing my life goals. All you do is make fun of me. You know what? Just forget it. Eat your burrito.”

Herbert put his burrito down and wiped the juices from his hand with one of his used napkins. “Look, I’m listening. But all I’m hearing is a lot of nonsense. You wanna be a baby or a puppy? Who is that really for, man? Puppies make you happy. That’s fine. But these people you wanna help–the ones with the broken hearts–they don’t need you. They need money, or jobs, or faithful spouses, or family peace, or drug-free children, or safer neighborhoods with schools that focus on the children learning and having valuable resources. I understand where your heart is, but you can’t be everything to everybody. There’s a cut-off point. Otherwise, you’ll give yourself away until there’s nothing left.”

I must say, I wasn’t expecting that. Reason. Logic. Sense. Especially from Herbert’s mouth, which had a piece of cilantro wedged between the front two teeth. I was about to ask him how I can appease this feeling of helpfulness mixed with helplessness when he cut me off. “Unless you trying to gigolo. ‘Cause that’s different. Let me know how those first few sessions go ’cause I’m looking for a side gig.”

That’s when I got up and left him and his cilantro at the table.

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Through the Shade

I have a confession to make: I’m light skinned. It’s not so much my color that I must confess, but my childhood beliefs about light skinneditude. I was ten years old at most. My brother–nine years my senior–was driving me, maybe to Mickey D’s or maybe to the comic book store. As we sat at a red light not far from home, a young girl crossed the street in front of us. In that teasing tone of older-brotherness, he elbowed me older-brotherishly and said something like, “There you go,” as in, “You’re old enough to start liking girls, now, and she’s perfect for you.” I looked up and my response was, “Naw. She’s too dark.” Yup. Seriously. Without hesitation, my brother–who shares my complexion–corrected me with something like, “There’s no such thing as too dark. Black people come in all shades, man.”

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I was embarrassed. I remember almost crying. I thought my brother–a person I looked up to, who was already doing me a favor letting me ride in the front seat of his car, carting me around during his prime teenage years–was disappointed in me and my feelings about color. His older-brotherly chiding became a lesson in race that, unbeknownst to me, hibernated within me until I was a teenager myself and reawakened when someone called me high-yellow or white as an insult, or later when I heard jokes about light-skinned niggas being in style thanks to Boris and Shamar. (enter, stage left, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, and Tyson Beckford)

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It was such a small moment, at that stop light, and yet such a defining one.

I wouldn’t say my response to my brother necessarily stemmed from self hatred or internalized racism, either. I, in my childishness, remember thinking alike people ended up together. For instance, tall people married tall people, short people married short people, big boned people married big boned people, and so on. Naturally, that meant dark-skinned folks must want to be with their “own kind” and therefore so should I. I don’t think I hated people of darker shades, I just thought there were societal rules that adults followed and adolescent me was on a need-to-know basis.

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I wasn’t exposed to many of the external factors that could influence how I treated people of different shades at that age. However, I do remember the kids-will-be-kids-name-calling being harsher for the darker kids in my class than for us lighter folks. “Dozens” jokes about glowing in the dark didn’t bite as much as being called “charcoal-blistered” (pronounced “choco-blisted”) or “African booty scratcher.” Those just sounded more hurty to me. Were I different kid, those distinctions could have manifested in different ways, as in the types of people I dated or who I befriended in college. (insert diatribe about black sorority and fraternity traits and prerequesite practices here.)

I’m grateful that I was raised in the kind of environment that didn’t encourage that additional layer of self-division. Feeling separate from society as a minority is one thing I was aware of growing up. Feeling separate within my own community, thankfully, was a stage of adolescence I got to skip.

Because when you think about it, I am of African heritage. On occasion, my booty does itch. So guess what that makes me?

Be good.

(images borrowed from @honeyvybz tumblr)

Rachel…No Longer One of Our Friends

Type “r” in Google search and “Rachel Dolezal” is the first option, right now. Go ahead. Do it. Open a new window and try it. Okay, maybe not when you read this, but trust me while I was writing this, that was the absolutely case. See?

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With all of the Twitterbees going crazy with the #AskRachel posts–when I’m not spitting into my hand with laughter–I do have a vague sense of dismay. I mean, this whole thing is like if Diff’rent Strokes meets Outer Limits in a Stephen King setting with “story by” credit attributed to Walter Mosely and edited by the folks on Love and Hip Hop. But I digress.  Aside from the outright lying, the cultural appropriation, the hiring of a dark-skinned man to play her father, and the creepiness of claiming two of her adopted brothers as sons, I do wonder which policies she was advocating for will come to a grinding halt because of her, shall we say bending, the truth like Beckam. All she had to do was be white and stay that way. But now it’s like in Law & Order when we find out that a snitch has been lie-snitchin’ and then all of the previous cases he done lie-snitched on are called into question. She just called for whatever relationships she was building, assets she was acquiring, or locks she was dreading to come unraveled and fall into a perm-free pile of straight blond strands on the salon floor.

“Clarissa! Girl, get off yo’ damn phone and come sweep up this hair!”

Look, I condone nothing. But it burns me up that this woman’s foolishness may lay waste to some legit good she was doing in the black community. I guess you live and you learn. But she’s been living for a while and ain’t nobody learnt that she ain’t even the Zoe Saldana in this Nina Simone of a situation. She’s straight up Betty White. (see what I did there?) Cuz I for dang sure thought the dress was blue and black. But what do I know.

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Be good.