Theaster Gates might be an artist, but he is absolutely an urban planner. At a talk for the opening of Soul Manufacturing Corporation, his current exhibition at Locust Projects, he explained, “I don’t think that I’m engaged in artistic production at all. I am involved in meaning-making. Systems-making.”
While he’s exhibited at museums and galleries, the bedrock of Gates’ craft is the rebuilding, revitalization, and revolutionizing of under-resourced and poor neighborhoods and buildings, engaging with them in critical ways. Artistic practice provides a basic lens. As his website describes it: “Theaster Gates has developed an expanded artistic practice that includes space development, object-making, performance, and critical engagement with many publics.”
An urban planner at heart, the questions he poses are about concrete relevant ideas. The former potter is interested in construction — that is, metaphorical and ideological constructions of social concepts, along with literal constructions of physical space, usually in ways that are helpful. Consider the Dorchester Projects, a set of abandoned buildings in the South Side of Chicago that Gates renovated into a comprehensive library, slide archives, and a Listening Room, the last of which houses over 8,000 LPs from the now-defunct Dr. Wax Records, formerly located in Hyde Park. The Dorchester Projects were reconstructed using local materials, and paid homage to the neighborhood’s history and future simultaneously. (Worth noting here is their proximity to his home, a renovated building itself.)
Soul Manufacturing Corporation addresses issues of labor, race, and production, the ways in which they intersect, and, perhaps more importantly, what Gates refers to as “the energy necessary to make things.” Described as “a multi-city initiative,” Soul Manufacturing works in tandem with the Rebuild Foundation to rework buildings in poor communities, turning them into useful, creative spaces. Gates has set up a factory in Locust Projects’ main gallery, in which skilled workers — Matthew Dercole, Yoko Fukata, and Pei Hsuan Wang — craft “things” of clay, clay he’s named Black Soul Clay. Eventually, a reader, a D.J., and a yoga instructor will make their rounds, creating a pleasant, hospitable workspace for the crafters. Visitors, too, can participate — the exhibit offers free yoga classes and a place to volunteer (you can be a reader, too).
It all seems relatively simple. But, as Gates explained during the aforementioned talk, it’s more complex: “I decided I would create an opportunity to reflect on production — production as an act of importance unto itself, not production for the output of a particular thing. I’m very interested in thingness, and how things have or don’t have value, how the owners of companies that create things establish value, how the art market thinks about things.”
His experience as a potter got him thinking about what it means to make things. “I was a potter, exclusively,” he stated during his discussion. “The contemporary art world had no value. Those people had no hand ability … Many contemporary artists were trained as potters, but they never talked about clay as their first love. They wanted to be born in a conceptual regime.”
The contemporary art world’s relationship to the act of production — for the sake of production, and then, perhaps, for the sake of practicality — is something Gates questions openly, then engages. While he remains adamant that doing something with the things is unnecessary — the act of making them is already enough of a thing, so to speak, and perhaps they’re already assigned value given their placement in a gallery setting — he understands that their meaning as art pieces alone can render their significance highly portable. “I want to open two cafes, a restaurant, and a bar [in the South Side],” he explains. “If I could put my things in a place where people wouldn’t already come, and they knew the only place where you could touch the things was there, then people would come to the place, because now that place has things that are important.”
Ironically, Gates explained that the Soul Manufacturing Corporation was born out of a highly charged moment: as MICA and John Hopkins University encroached upon poor, black neighborhoods in North Baltimore, the city sought help from Gates. He went on: “[The] response to this tension is: ‘If we buy this building, let’s buy this land’ … and they’ll call that moat they just created ‘future development.’ ”
Gates’ solution: potentially purchasing two blocks of abandoned buildings and a warehouse, then constructing a brick-manufacturing company. He’d train youths from the neighborhood to mine local clay and make bricks for the schools’ expansion. It was a completely useful, practical, and yet revolutionary idea, the kind that acknowledged other developers’ interests in the surrounding neighborhood as not entirely well-intentioned. It was a solution real and reasonable enough to challenge whether a real and reasonable solution was desired.
“How do we make things, how do we think about things long enough to arrive at a set of other things that might actually revolutionize how a place looks, how it feels, who has access to jobs?” Gates asked.
Then he turned the question on the press, on Miami, and perhaps on himself, thus encapsulating the ways in which these problems are movable and applicable anywhere: “You have to ask — do you really want to help black people? Do we really think about Little Havana or Little Haiti? Or are we just making fucking works of art?”
As you watch Gates’ craftsmen and craftswomen make things, ask yourself these questions — then allow yourself to just watch. It’s powerful stuff.
Theaster Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation is on view November 10 – December 21 at Locust Projects (3852 North Miami Ave., Miami). The opening will be held December 6 from 7 to 10 p.m., with a reception for Theaster Gates and other featured artists, Jacin Giordano and Nicole Eisenman. Extended hours during Art Basel Miami Beach: December 6 – 9, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit locustprojects.org.
Matthew Dercole, Yoko Fukata, and Pei Hsuan Wang work in-house on Tuesdays – Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and during extended Basel hours from December 3 – 9. You can find the yoga instructor, D.J., and reader at Locust Projects during the times listed below. At any of Locust Projects’ open hours, you can attend and read to the workers, as well.
YOGA INSTRUCTOR: MIA GLICK
Saturday, November 17, 12-2pm
Saturday, December 1, 12-2pm
Thursday, December 6, 1:30-3:30pm
Friday, December 7, 1:30-3:30pm
Saturday, December 8, 9:30-11:30am
BILINGUAL READER: YADDYRA PERALTA
Thursday, November 15, 3-5pm
Wednesday, November 22, 3-5pm
Thursday, November 29, 3-5pm
Thursday, December 6, 3-5pm
Saturday, December 8, 10:30am-12:30pm
Saturday, November 10, 7-10pm / DJ Seamstar
Friday, November 16, 3-5pm / DJ Spam
Friday, November 23, 3-5pm / DJ Spam
Thursday, December 6, 7-10pm / DJ Seamstar
Friday, December 7, 3-5pm / DJ Spam