Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates first moved to South Dorchester Avenue, a derelict city suburb and began buying empty, abandoned buildings. By 2008, the sub-prime crisis had triggered the crash of the American economy, and real estate prices had plunged. Gates, in the meantime, had transformed two crumbling buildings into spaces of art and culture; a library, an archive of photographic slides, and a space called the Listening Room, which housed records from music stores that had closed down. Called the Dorchester Projects, the spaces and objects are layered with themes of African-American consciousnesses and civil rights movements. But this wasn’t a one-time nostalgia practice. Gates sold pieces in art fairs around the world and reinvested the money in the projects.
In 2009, he founded the Rebuild Foundation that has revived several vacant buildings in Chicago’s south side. The Stony Island Arts Bank that once housed a bank, for instance, was about to be demolished. The mayor sold it to Gates for a dollar, so that he could revive it with “art money”. Gates took the marble tiles lining the 1920s-built structure, inscribed each with “In art we trust” and sold them for $5,000 (around Rs3.18 lakh) each. The renovation followed, and today, the building is a gallery, media and communication centre. According to the website of the Rebuild Foundation, nearly 60,000 people visited it in 2015, the year it opened.
ArtReview, a contemporary art magazine, described him as the “poster boy for socially engaged art”; New York-based curator and historian Okwui Enwezor—previously curator of the Venice Biennale—wrote about the Dorchester Projects: “Entering that installation is like entering a haunted space.”
Over the years, Gates has navigated the art circuit—National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, early this year, Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada in 2016, Fondazione Prada, Milan, in 2016, Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2013, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany in 2012—each time reinvesting the capital into more projects in Chicago. And, in the process, demonstrating how to bring new meaning to something that has been written off.
Last month, the University of Chicago, where he is a professor at the department of visual arts, invited him to deliver a presentation, “The Making Of A Con(Temporary) Black Public”, at the UChicago Center in Delhi (on 21 November). In a phone interview following the presentation, Gates tells us about the larger, metaphoric meaning of repurposing for him. Edited excerpts:
What brings you to India?
I have a strong interest in collectives; how people self-convene, how artists particularly choose to, in oppressive situations, create collectives in order to survive and thrive. I came to know about a model being developed, called “The Gathering”, which happened in Kenya (founded by Michael Armitage, 50 artists and cultural practitioners from 16 countries convened just outside Nairobi, Kenya, in February). I wanted to look at collective practices in India as well. I spent some time in Brazil, but this initiative is really focused around Chicago, Nairobi in Kenya, and this trip to Delhi. I’m looking at black and brown places around the world.
You met artists and organizers in India. What was the experience like?
We met Jaya Jaitly, who runs a market for regional craftsmen (Dilli Haat), and she was amazing. I met Anita Dube, who is a curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I spent time at Khoj, and at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art in Delhi. There are so many amazing artists and thinkers who are doing great work around social practice. It has been very cool to see these residency structures as launching points and to see how private and government resources are used to make things happen. Even how individuals, without any funding at all, convene and make things happen.
When it comes to using art to revive neglected spaces, do the rules that apply to Chicago, or the Western world in general, also apply to India, South-East Asia or Africa?
I found that there is some optimism around investment in contemporary Indian art and indigenous practices. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that in the US and the Western world, there are so many more opportunities for artists. But despite the lack of those opportunities here, what has been most exciting to me is the amount of rigour and discourse around artistic practices here.
Having said that, the scarcity of space and resource is a universal truth. There are very few places in the world that privilege art. Even in Chicago, where I am, it’s far away from the centre and not an area that people were very interested in. That’s why there is value in creating a collective and working together to lobby the government for space, to be able to pool resources and voices. I’ve watched people fight over time to create space for residency, and that fight is absolutely necessary.
India has so many historical sites that could be revived with art. Perhaps that is one of the things that makes the Kochi-Muziris Biennale special.
The most interesting biennials that I’ve encountered are those where curators, foundations and the government have worked together. When it’s just an organization fighting to make it happen without financial or the government’s support, it becomes a kind of an interesting project but stops at that. What’s cool about Kochi is that they have a deep understanding of the local politics of the place but they also have a foot in the rest of the world. Doing what I do, I’ve learnt over time that apart from the art itself, one has to work to strengthen ties so that governments honour the value of culture.
So apart from being an artist, you also need to be a lobbyist.
The thing at the centre of my practice is a love for art and a respect for artists. But we don’t live in a bubble. We exist in a world that’s complicated, that has problems and shortcomings. We as artists can be useful in functioning as witnesses and collaborators, as people who understand the local landscape and work with governments and foundations to make things happen, things that wouldn’t happen on their own.
The idea of creating art out of existing material is not only a resource consideration. It has a deeper meaning.
I think this part of my practice about regeneration and repurposing is kind of a metaphor for how simple it is, through an act of care or time or one’s labour, to make things happen, to demonstrate what’s possible. In some ways, I have a lot in common with other artists I met in Delhi who are repurposing materials. It’s an artist’s ability to imagine the best of a thing and not the worst of it, and, at any time, imagining the best is so important to life being better