The Fringe: Theaster Gates and the Politics of Staying

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Black Cinema House resides at 6916 Dorchester Avenue in Chicago. Image courtesy Rebuild Foundation. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers.

Welcome to The Fringe, a twice-monthly column curated by Kristin Juárez connecting Atlanta to the international art world. See the curator’s note below to learn more.
In the basement of Theaster Gates’s Black Cinema House, a chalkboard donated by Crispus Attucks Elementary School contains a faded children’s drawing of a man depicted from the rear. His pants and underwear slouch around his ankles. Perhaps Gates and his staff are reticent to erase it—his practice is one that clings to the old. The drawing reminded me of a quotation I wrote on a Post-it and stuck to my bedroom wall in early June:
“This is the politics of staying.” –Theaster Gates
I originally copied the quotation because it mystified me. (My transcription is actually imprecise: “This part of my practice is about the politics of staying,” explains Gates in an Art in America interview.) Once I put it up, however, it made a little bit more sense. The politic of staying is related to a pre-existing cultural obsession with words that start with “re.” “Welcome to the Rebuild Era” proclaims a recent article in Atlantic Cities, and Americans are busy reinventing, recycling, and recovering from a recession.
Gates, an urban planner, performer, and multimedia artist, is part of the “re” ethos. He is currently reactivating a third home on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago’s South Side, the Black Cinema House, to add to the now burgeoning artistic community surrounding his nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation. Gates’s aim is to garner the already existing resources in the neighborhood by screening underrepresented black films, hosting community programs, and providing a studio space for artists in the next few months. With Black Cinema House, as with all of Gates’s work, staying is a means of renewal.
Gates’s loving embrace of the old distinguishes him from the iconoclastic, library-burning tendency particular to many twentieth-century avant-gardists. Although the stylistic similarity between Gates’s discrete objects and minimalist sculpture is frequently underscored, his works have little in common with the blank slates associated with canonical minimalists such as Tony Smith or Robert Morris. Indeed, Gates’s objects are surfaces on which he works out social issues.
For his exhibition An Epitaph for Civil Rights, the artist constructed a series of objects out of material irrevocably associated with the civil rights movement. Civil Tapestries (2011) is composed of a series of fire hoses de-accessioned by the City of Chicago, mirroring the minimalists’ serial compositions and industrial materials, but also layering the material of actual historical events. Indeed, Gates is part of a new generation of artists that identify the neglected with political hopefulness. He explains, “I offer the materials of the Black South Side or ‘the forgotten city’ as an Epitaph for Civil Rights, in hopes of a historical and political redemption; redemption, even for me.”
Though my Post-it might suggest otherwise, my own understanding of both newness and “the politics of staying” was thoroughly juvenile circa June 1st. While I could explain that the rethos was part of a larger economic and aesthetic sensibility, my relation to it on a personal, micro level was stunted. I inaugurated the summer by drawing up a reading list of books about forgetting things on purpose—a practice I usually excel at. Gates, however, wreaked a lot of havoc on my summer plans. Sitting in my Chicago apartment, I kept returning to my southern past.
Around the time I started reading about Gates reconfiguring forlorn materials and tapping into untold histories, it dawned on me that Father’s Day—June 17th—would coincide with the anniversary of my father’s death. The anniversary of my very funny, old, Southern and racist father’s death. Although I faithfully milled through the items on my amnesia bibliography—I read Nietzsche’s powerful defense of forgetting in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” and pondered the relation of forgetfulness to love—I found myself unable to shake the specter of history. Swallowing tears and Pad Thai one Saturday afternoon in early June at the Noodles & Co. on Michigan Avenue, I explained to my boyfriend that he too was definitely going to leave me. Not long after that I transcribed the following quotation from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments into my journal: “Who will write the history of tears?” The more I thought about Gates, however, the clearer it became that I’d be the one doing the rewriting.
For the artist and his contemporaries, such as Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, it’s not so much forgetfulness but long-term commitment that’s in style. The practice of working within communities with complicated histories over time has taken precedence over the shorter, more whimsical projects that characterized socially engaged art in the 1990s. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1990 pad thai performance in Soho, in which he shared a meal then split, is a paradigmatic example. “As publics become increasingly aware of the hit-and-run style of not only artists, but other industries of spectacle—such as advertising, film, and television—they develop a suspicion of those ‘helping them,’” writes curator Nato Thompson in Living as Form. Part of Thompson’s point is that some people, apparently, don’t want to desert you. They want to hang out, even if—especially if—you’re messed up.
In late June, I found myself stranded in Chicago’s Loop on my way to visit the Black Cinema House. I couldn’t make it down to the South Side because I lost my bus pass and didn’t have enough money to buy another, so I cried for a while, then got a cab and charged the ride on a credit card. “At first I thought you were going to buy drugs, but now I see you’re going to the university,” the cabbie told me, responding to the white skin reflected in his rear view mirror. He was, of course, not just responding to my whiteness but also reproducing the long history of racial tension that marks the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago. Though I had yet to encounter the faded drawing on the chalkboard, my southward trip to Black Cinema House was already feeling like a turn back toward my childhood, the one my father inscribed with the historical trauma of Southern racism.
Gates himself has a travel narrative inscribed by race, money, and going south. Growing up, he left the West Side of Chicago to visit family in Mississippi every summer. He was keenly aware that his travels were limited—other families went to places like Paris. His own restrictions, however, made him aware of the enormous potential of imagining a life otherwise, eventually becoming a resource for his ingenuity and creative practice. For Art in America, Gates explains the “Period of conditioning between what you hope for and what you have, that feels like where muscle comes from for me.” Elaborating on this idea he added, “From the chasm between what I wanted and needed and what I had came a right to be, a right to pursue, a right to imagine. And that was the path to possibility.”
As Gates’s talk of rights makes clear, his emancipatory brand of remembering hardly matches that of the typical mourner’s melancholic torpor. His position is an active one, about reworking and changing the story. Gates’s brand of redemption snuck into my life at some point in mid-July, when my own backwards orientation was melancholic enough to land me in a therapist’s office. In session one, my therapist told me that his goal is to get patients to tell their own story differently, as a sort of redemptive narrative. In session two he said that every time you have a memory, you remake it. Gates does this and sometimes more, inventing histories when what’s there is impoverished and insufficient.
In his 2007 exhibition Plate Convergence at the Hyde Park Art Center, for example, he invented a fake Japanese mentor, Yamaguchi. Forced out of Hiroshima then married to a black civil rights activist, Yamaguchi would fashion ceramic dinnerware and host meals for people to gather and discuss issues of “race, political difference and inequity,” explains Gates. The influence of this faux mentor was written all over the minimal design on one of the already complete homes on Dorchester Avenue, which is reminiscent of a Zen teahouse.
Mismatched reused wood prompts consideration of the architectural intentions of a traditional Zen teahouse. Image courtesy Rebuild Foundation and the photographer. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers

The façade of this Dorchester home is alive and changing. Composed of salvaged and mismatched wooden beams, each piece contains a different history and enters into a dialogue in dynamic tension with the others. This is, according to the art theorist Kakuzo Okakura, exactly what the Zen teahouse should do. In The Book of Tea, Okakura explains that the teahouse lives, breathes, and expires much like the body. The “cheap” materials impart the Dorchester home with not only a lifespan, but also the openness to change and movement.
One of my favorite works by Gates embodies this dynamism. Modeled after a church placard, the aged white letters ask a gentle question in black vernacular: “SUP BBY GURL?” It reminds me of growing up in the south, and it’s a gentle invitation to open up. Gates’s Dorchester home is, importantly, also a place for an ongoing engagement with old questions about race, gender, and pain that are surely not particular to me, but rather, a broader means for renewal.


About this column:
The Fringe seeks to make greater connection between Atlanta and the art world at large. Now with writers contributing from around the country, the column continues to follow contemporary art that addresses the unique qualities of the natural, built, and social environments. The Fringe will unfold as several collections of articles bound together by a theme.
Becky Bivens’s article is the third in the collection I have named “Life as Form” after Creative Time’s second annual summit. The correlating exhibition entitled Living As Form combined artists, theorists, curators, and activists to consider how creative projects can restructure relationships between people and the places they live. Similarly, BURNAWAY will reflect on artistic form and public engagement in projects based in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Charleston, Berlin, and Atlanta.
—Kristin Juárez