Theaster Gates and the odd renaissance on Dorchester
The twenty-six people who came to the Dorchester Projects Friday night all arrived a little confused. They rode through pouring rain from all across the city to an unmarked one-story house in the ghetto of Grand Crossing to hear jazz saxophonist David Boykin on the first night of his artist residency. Elly Fishman and Dara Epison, women in their twenties who run the series, greet the guests and tell them that yes, they are in the right place.
Among the people who walk through that door are a preacher, an artist, several MFA students from the University of Chicago, Boykin’s father, a DJ, a poet and limo driver, and a journalist from the local press. They were drawn by personal invitations, word of mouth, or anonymous advertisements, and while some of them are familiar with the Projects, some are not (“Is this a jazz club?”).
Besides the slick track lighting overhead, every object that fills the space is some kind of eclectic antique. The shelves are full of pots, the walls are covered in books, and the warm air smells like candles and old wood. Down a small hallway is the other main room of the space, where, surrounded by vintage records, Boykin’s drummer, a sixteen-year-old student warms up. The small crowd slowly settles on a couple of benches in front of him. Some people know no one, nobody knows everyone, and as Fishman and Epison step to the front, it’s clear not even the coordinators are quite sure how to act. “These spaces are…” Fishman hesitates, “…transformative spaces…”
While the Dorchester Projects developed out of the the home of installation and performance artist Theaster Gates, it is now also an archive of books, records, and fine art slides, which he hopes will become a community resource for his friends and neighbors. Gates is teaching at Harvard this spring, so, at present, he is not one of the twenty-six faces in the house. He is absent from the space he imagined to be a living model for a new kind of interaction between neighbors. For him this is a way to foster a new kind of neighborhood and even a new kind of city. It’s local, but it’s also ambitious, and it’s not clear what kind of potential the Dorchester spaces will facilitate. Friday night’s artist residency series kickoff was one of the first gatherings at the Projects. “It’s going to be a learning experience,” Fishman explained to the small crowd. “We’re an audience too.”
When she finished, Boykin counted off, “1, -, 2, -, 1, 2, 3, 4,” and stepped into straight ahead jazz. His audience gradually relaxed, still unsure where they were or what was going on around them, equal parts uncomfortable and intrigued. In the back of the room, the journalist takes a note: is this how a renaissance starts?
The concept for the Dorchester Projects, along with every strange surface inside of it, is in part a reflection of its owner. Theaster Gates is now a rising figure in contemporary art, especially after a starring role in the Whitney museum during New York’s Biennial 2010 and a visiting lectureship at Harvard. The art that took him international is based on his examinations of the places that influenced him.
Born in Mississippi, Gates grew up on the West Side in the mostly black neighborhood of Garfield Park, the son of a builder and youngest of seven siblings, all girls. A musical kid, Gates was made choir director of his family’s black church at age fourteen at the same time that he was finishing middle school at a largely white north side magnet school and starting high school at Lane Tech. From the beginning, Gates belonged to multiple communities with conflicting expectations: the black church and a magnet school; a big family on a West Side block and the galleries of the international art scene. Gates left Chicago for Iowa State University where he studied ceramics and urban planning. Here was a second tension that would recur constantly in his work, between crafting physical objects out of raw material, and creating culture through careful planning.
For a few years after graduation Gates tried making a living through ceramics. He grew bored, and on the advice of his mentor he took a residency studying ceramics in Tokoname, Japan. There, he says, the sight of a fish shack changed his art permanently. On the phone from Cambridge he recalled, “I saw them dotting the landscape, and they looked like toolsheds or shotgun shacks. They made me remember Mississippi… but maybe I was so close to Mississippi that I never really saw it.” Soon after, Gates’s instructor told him to use his own history as inspiration for his pots. He started to blend Japanese influences with African American traditions of the south. Gates based his first major solo exhibition around his reflections on Japan. For “Plate Convergences,” opened in 2006 at the Hyde Park Art Center, Gates wrote a fictional inversion of his own biography in which a Japanese man builds a life in the southern United States. Gates and his alter ego converged around a dinner party in the gallery that blended Japanese dishes with the cuisine of the American south; the diners’ plates later hung on the walls as art pieces. The soiree set a precedent: the deliberate exploration of identity in intentionally constructed spaces runs through most of Gates’ exhibitions.
After Japan, Gates became increasingly fascinated with the complex roots of the black church, going on to study African religions in Cape Town. In 2009, he brought Temple Exercises, a performance and installation series exploring the character of early 20th century black shoeshiners, to the Museum of Contemporary Art. There were three performances, one at the MCA, another at the Little Black Pearl art center in Hyde Park, and a third at Shine King, a storefront shoe shine business on the West Side that Gates has frequented since childhood. For each space, Gates built a temple out of discarded wood from the former Wrigley Gum factory that had once been used to dry spearmint gum. He used each one as a performance space for the Black Monks of Mississippi, a music ensemble he started with Wilco member Leroy Bach that blends black blues and gospel with the restrained patterns of eastern religious chants.
The uneasy crowd that listened to Boykin on Friday was surrounded by artifacts of Gates’ work. A long wooden panel covered in Japanese script runs along the side of the room. The wall behind the audience held books like Souls Grown Deep, The Humor of the Old South, and All Things Must Fight To Live. Tall chairs inspired by the Shine King performance stood near the back wall. The preacher’s wife sits on one, and when she reaches for an altoid during Boykin’s performance, the giant structure sways over the crowd.
Boykin and the players took a break, and the DJ played a set, taking records from the shelves behind him. A few bars from Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire played over a drum loop, while the DJ spun spoken word samples from a recording called Adventures in Negro History. The music broke the tension. People start to move between the two rooms, and a few people approached Fishman and Epison, curious about the project they’d just become a part of.
In 2006, Gates took a job as the arts coordinator of the University of Chicago. It was then, as he worked as an administrator for an elite private university, that he bought the Dorchester House and turned his living space into an unconventional cultural asset. On the phone, Gates thought out loud about the first questions of the Dorchester Projects. “How, since I’m able to choose, can I leverage my home to add to the constellation of beautiful cultural moments in the city?”
Gates speaks seriously of building an informal cultural space on the South Side, where few formal ones exist, and his project of turning his house into a semi-public space for cultural production is an ambitious one. “The work that happens on a block like Dorchester feeds the need for larger cultural infrastructure. A space keeps producing. It doesn’t stop, and it starts to feel like a new model of development. Neighbors as developers.” As in most of Gates’ work, the momentum came from a mix of universal ideals and pragmatic self-knowledge. “To culturally ascend, one doesn’t have to move, one just has to make culture,” he said from Harvard. Then a moment later: “I can’t even get a bottle of sake in the grocery store. What about all the other weird mufuckers like me who just want a good drink? Man, I’m not going to Logan Square to do shit. I’m going to build a fucking watering hole.”
A watering hole of culture might be more appropriate than renaissance in describing the materials that have been gathered around the space. In 2009, the University of Chicago’s art department digitized the images on its glass lanternslide collection, which covered most every genre and period ever studied at the university. The now-obsolete glass plates were to be thrown out. Gates asked for them, and the department donated all 60,000. Months later, when the owners of Prairie Avenue books, an art and architecture bookstore downtown, decided to retire, Gates asked about buying their 14,000 volume collection to establish a small public library in 6916. They sold it for a fraction of its value. In Spring 2010, when Hyde Park’s Dr. Wax record store went out of business, Gates bought all 8,000 leftover records. In April, Gates bought the house next door at 6916 Dorchester, a crumbling mess that he gradually restored, and started to fill it with the archives. “There are so many things…” Gates pauses to contemplate, “that I can’t ponder them all. So why not allow those materials to act as inspiration for other things to happen?”
The Dorchester space has had many creators. Fishman and Epison do the day-to-day work of growing the space. John Preus of the Rebuild foundation did much of the building, including the floors, which at first appear to be bamboo but are in fact made out of old bowling lanes. Matt Metzger, a painter with an MFA from the University of Chicago, built shelves and benches, as well as the giant chairs inspired by Shine King. Ken Dunn from the ReSource center brought in building materials. LeRoy Bach, of the Black Monks, is officially a co-administrator of the space. Interns circulate, gradually cataloging the huge collections.
Art and ownership are a complicated mix. Gates’ work blurs the distinction between vision and egoism, but not always gracefully; in managing the space he’s known to be headstrong among his employees and collaborators. (The distinction between the two is blurry, and that’s part of the tension.) The Dorchester Projects is by nature a collective project. “A lot of people have keys to my house, you know,” he laughs. “It’s like in the South, when you can’t buy liquor on Sundays, so everybody gets together and drinks in the backyard. It’s like a juke joint. It’s like all I can do is create an environment where some good shit can take off. It’s like… get some good musicians, let’s invite some friends, and I’m bringing the beer.”
There was beer on Friday, along with wine served in glass cups, and Tupperware containers full of fried rice, plantains, and baked fish that a friend of Boykin’s brought for the occasion. After Boykin’s trio took their first break, the crowd loosened up into conversation (the food helped). People slowly start to look to each other for clues about the situation, where they were, and what it meant to be there. The two DJs and the poet limo driver talk about urban planning and public schools. Matt Metzger sits with friends on the same benches he built. Things are choppy on the first night, but the artist residencies are creating live moments around the strange space of the Projects.
A lot of live moments are being planned. For the artist residency, the coordinators collectively chose five artists and approached each candidate with three requirements: hold a general meeting with the organizers of the project, include some form of community engagement, and participate in a public program or exhibit at the end of the residency. Every artist accepted.
Boykin was a natural for the first residency. Playing in various styles of hard bop, free jazz, and hip-hop, Boykin is a standby of the Chicago jazz scene, and as an artist and educator he’s shown a serious commitment to nurturing jazz on the South Side. “This residency has the potential to add to the diversity of the jazz scene, especially with so many clubs closing. It’s important for young people as well, to have a place to play.” Boykin’s drummer for the show was a sixteen-year old former student. Boykin will play every Friday through April, culminating with two sessions recorded live on April 22nd and 29th.
For May and June, DJ Ayana is planning a Sunday soul afternoon where she spins records from the Dr. Wax collection and discusses their histories. She’ll also play the official June 25th opening of the Dorchester Projects, along with David Boykin. For the rest of the summer the Chicago Film Archive, the only group resident, will be screening films in the backyard, and encouraging residents to bring their own home movies. In September October, the space will be turned over to Artist Torkwase Dyson, who collaborated with Gates on the Whitney biennial, and has suggested building a light sculpture inspired by the archives in the adjacent lot. November and December the space will host Avery Young, a Chicago performance artist who blends spoken word, song, jazz, gospel and chant into a style he calls “Sunday mornin’ jook-joint.”
Dorchester Projects is growing. Gates now owns the house across the street, which will eventually be his home, and the vacant lot next door, where a simple wooden pagoda will soon be built to host dinners as part of the 2012 Smart Museum exhibit “Feast.” Gates is building on the Dorchester Projects for independent projects in other cities: a BBQ restaurant in St. Louis, a pottery cottage in Detroit, and an artist residency in Omaha. Friday night, one wall behind chatting guests was covered in red marker; plans for an upcoming show in Seattle.
For now, the Theaster Gates home is much closer to the watering hole and the juke joint than a full-scale rebirth of the South Side’s cultural infrastructure. But among the attendees of Friday’s show, the journalist included, that felt like a good place to start. At the end of the night, the goodbyes were sincere, cards switched wallets, and most said they’d be back. People even carpooled through the rain. From Cambridge, Gates spoke to the space. “It’s for me, and it’s for us. It’s for my neighbors. And then it’s for all those who will come.”