Defiantly if elegantly eluding classification, Theaster Gates is an installation artist, sculptor, potter, musical performer, and urban activist. Born in Chicago, where he still works, the 39-year-old maintains an abiding interest in local social and urban issues—especially the renewal of underprivileged neighborhoods in his native city. He recently spoke with Newsweek at Art Basel in Switzerland, where he is exhibiting work, about the porous nature between art and activism, living in constant negotiation with his surroundings, and the value of exclusivity.
You are carving out a name for yourself as not just an artist but an activist. What’s the relationship here?
Art and political thought are categories that have long stood beside one another. Unfortunately, art was sometimes used as an instrument for political strategy or a purely activist agenda. I want to be a whole person who thinks and breathes everything in life—no matter what the category—which means embracing creativity without silos. Notions of art, political action, and other things are all part of living.
How does that play out, personally and in the studio?
For me it is all about working through ideas that I feel deeply about. I often think is it better to simply do the work, and if there is a message or later a kind of tag or description or a category that attaches to it, that can happen after and be done by others. I have often said that it’s impossible to work without sensitivity to the contexts of your surroundings, so I’ve worked hard to ensure the contexts for living, for me, remain complicated, non-homogeneous, and in total need of constant negotiation.
So you never begin with a personal or social agenda?
No, not really. These are the outcomes and byproducts of people being creative and using the terrain of the everyday as a passport to inspiration and compelled creation. If I live in a real and f–ked-up world, I can’t help but make art to help me make sense of the world. But I also can’t help but to make businesses to make sense of the world. These acts/platforms/modes of engagement are born from the same desire to transform and create.
The complexities of urban living are a recurring theme for you. What are some of your latest projects in this area?
I was given a bank building in Chicago to work with, and I decided to start a bank and an investment fund for the neighborhood that I live and work in. Greater Grand Crossing is a predominantly African-American community, and I want to use this abandoned architectural gem to think about the relationship between failed markets and new markets, “black space,” and cultural equity. The redeveloped space will become the Stony Island Arts Bank. It will house a library from Johnson Publishing Company [publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines], a culinary-training program, exhibition and performance space, and space to just hang out. I have also been thinking a lot about bricks—how they are manufactured and their history in relationship to architecture, labor, design, and aesthetics. As a result of my ongoing project Soul Manufacturing Corporation [an exhibition where “skilled makers” produce “things” in a factory space], we are amassing a number of handmade bricks. I want to think more about how these systems are created, and I want to put both the systems and the resulting objects to good use. I also think that my experimental performance ensemble [the Black Monks of Mississippi] should make more music in the city. Maybe a storefront church or a small speakeasy that lives in the ’hood.
Your work has been featured in many different places recently: Hong Kong, Chicago, Venice, and of course here in Basel. What’s it like to work on a global scale?
It is hard work! It really is not the pressure to make things because making is a pleasure. It’s the pressure of ideas that you believe in that might also resonate in the world. We all know that appetites can be a bit fickle, so I guard my heart. But I have never been more invested in ideas and the opportunity to share those ideas than now. My own appetite to share ideas is growing.
You are also well known for your work in communities outside the art market.
Besides the work that happens in museums and fairs, there is the work that happens on my block and in St. Louis and Omaha, especially through my nonprofit Rebuild Foundation, with the creation of places like Black Cinema House [which screens works of the African and other diasporas in underserved Chicago neighborhoods] and the Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative [a living and working space for mixed-income artists]. This is work that requires many other people and other strategies of engagement with the world. Programming ideas is as hard to do as producing works of art, but it’s all part of the great challenge that gets me up in the morning. I feel grateful and alive more than I feel pressure.
Tell us about how you got involved in making music.
I am still figuring that out. It started out as a cultural discipline and has become a cultural output. The Monks are an iteration of my desire to say things that objects can’t.
Does being a musician impact your point of view on making contemporary art?
I don’t separate being a musician from the rest of myself. There are times when music makes sense and other times when making a pot is the most sensible thing to do or restoring a building is the right response. Music sometimes informs, but it is often informed by what I make. It’s the capacity to do the work and make up the song that helps get me through the day.
You have real crossover potential into the broader popular culture for your music. Would you want that?
I’m sticking to my core. The art world is based on exclusivities. It helps with the value of things. I want to make sure that I have the right venues to talk about the things I want to talk about. If they don’t exist, I will create them. I have always felt that way. There are always risks in doing too much, in not doing enough, in switching materials or subject. Who can be preoccupied with this kind of thinking? I will always try to do the best work possible.
Genocchio is editor-in-chief of Art & Auction magazine and artinfo.com. From our June 28, 2013, issue.