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.

Ryan Coogler Delivers Prestigious George E. Kent Lecture

Students: We don’t have an African American Studies program here.

Coogler: What?

Students: There is no African American Studies program here.

Coogler: … (nods slowly; rubs forehead in disbelief)

Students: (laughter)

Coogler: Ya’ll doing something about that, right?

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Director and screenwriter, Ryan Coogler, visited the University of Chicago students last week to deliver the annual George E. Kent Lecture. Twenty-nine and currently a force in the film industry, he walked to the podium—the creator of two award-winning films, and holding the keys to a Marvel movie—and told us he was nervous. Wait, what? That sounds like one of those obligatory somethings a “regular” guy would say; an artifice of humility that folks use when they’ve been asked to do something important, like speak to young black students at a major university that lacks an African American Studies program.

As the night progressed, we all in attendance learned that Coogler’s feet are, in fact, planted firmly on the ground. The audience was continually impressed by how “regular” he is. After giving a few words of encouragement toward the plight of black students at a predominantly white institution and giving thanks for being invited as the speaker for such a prestigious event, he casually asked his fiancé if she had lotion with her. She tossed a small tube up to him on stage and, after applying a bit to his palm, he tossed it back to her before taking his seat for the Q&A with Chase Woods, political chair of the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago. It was a “blackest moment ever,” if ever there was one.

Another was his long-noted expletive when asked what new media he was consuming. He drew a blank. 2015 was a blur since he’d both shot and released Creed the same year. After racking his brain (and with a bit of help from the audience) he remembered Kendrick Lamar and Drake released music, and even mentioned some comics he’s into. Coogler’s list of all-time favorite movies exemplified his randomness as a human, and complexity as a director. The crowd responded with gleeful laughter when he mentioned The Mighty Ducks and respectful applause when he mentioned La Haine: a film often referred to as a French Do the Right Thing. His range had everyone by the ears.

What may have been the most affecting aspects of Coogler’s appearance were 1) his thoughtful attention to each question, and 2) his unabashed black identity. Coogler’s tendency to answer intelligently and completely was refreshing, given the current campaign season. The conversation veered toward some of the socio-political happenings of the day and he encouraged us as the thinkers and seekers of answers to “pop the hood” on some of the bigger questions; to get to the root of the something , such as The Academy Awards, and find out its components. Ask how it’s possible that there are no people of color nominated for any major categories. When the director was asked what he thought of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, there was a pregnant pause. A nervous laughter bubbled in the crowd, tinged with anxiety that he may try to execute a socio bob and political weave. Nope. He asked if there were history majors in the audience. Then followed up by explaining history as a series of evolving “movements.” He drew connections between slavery and the exploited free labor of the prison system. Left hook. He made clear the link between the minority student frustration on campus (see leaked racist emails) and the importance of an African American Studies Program at UChicago. Right cross. He stressed that the hashtag is simply a symbol of the need to “go get it,” whatever “it” may be for this generation. Uppercut.

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Coogler admits growing more inquisitive with age. The relentless desire for answers dictates the content of his films. He uses filmmaking as the vehicle to seek those answers (i.e. how Oscar Grant can be shot and killed while handcuffed and lying on his stomach was seed for Fruitvale Station). But when it comes to his film’s audiences, he doesn’t compromise the question for the sake of appeasement. Becoming a change agent is a difficult choice, but Coogler refers to films as “acts of journalism” that get people discussing subject matter that needs action or resolution.

Following the lecture and Q&A, was a reception that consisted of a more intimate group of students and program board members invited to chat with Coogler and his fiancé at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Perhaps among 25 people, he spoke more candidly about some of his experiences growing up and how he battles the identity crisis within “a system that divides successful African Americans from their people” (thanks for the quote, George). It’s easy to get a bit of notoriety and separate from who and what one knows, but he’s found his balance. His brother now inhabits his old bedroom from their childhood home, and has since fashioned it into a makeshift music studio to produce songs for the soundtracks of both of Coogler’s films. His relationship with his father spawned the idea for Creed. And he also let us know that his perspective is his greatest asset. Blackness and youth present a unique view to the Academy’s older, white demographic; the writer/director possesses a cultural currency that they need. Minority status does have advantages. Being able to seek, connect, and collaborate with other minorities is a benefit and he encouraged students to do the same on campus, because the dynamic doesn’t change after graduation.

As the night wound down, after revealing that Sylvester Stallone had actually thanked his director in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, informing us how he was able to reflect authenticity in his characters, discussing the gender politics that exist in the film industry, and referencing the pressure of placing the crown and burden of race or gender on any one person (see Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ava DuVernay), I was able to ask Coogler a question: given the way he speaks (his Bay Area accent is quite prominent), his youth (he was 24 when he began shooting Fruitvale), and his undeniable blackness (remember the lotion?)—how was he able to walk into a room full of old white people and convince them to let him spend their money to make a film? To put it plainly, he was comfortable. He knows he’s good at his job and the other people in the room aren’t doing him a favor; they’re going into business with him. It’s a collaborative effort that is a boon for all parties involved. Once he gained the cachet of respectability politics, he was and is able to walk into any room, whether in a suit and wingtips or jeans and sneaks, and belong there. Coogler deserves his place in the industry just as much as anyone else. And for that, I am proud.

Be good.