Artist Theaster Gates likes systems. And what he likes more than a system itself is knowing how to leverage it. Though formally trained in handling clay, Gates also uses the structure of neighborhoods, cultural institutions, and universities as his artistic medium.
Over the past few years, Gates has earned a reputation for his social-based practice, in which he intertwines art, urban planning, and community activism. In a recent conversation, he expressed frustration with the accepted scope of what it means to be an artist. He particularly dislikes the phrases “artist as change agent,” “artist as social worker,” or “artist as entrepreneur.” Gates explained that “the word ‘as’…shifts the possibility that an artist could be entrepreneurial, or have interest in the social, or have interest in architecture. It says you have to be ‘both this and this.’ It separates a person into these compartments. Versus: ‘I’m an artist and my skill set includes these things.’” With degrees in Ceramics, Urban Planning, and Religious Studies – and a brief stint in Pre-Pharmacy – Gates embodies the myriad identities that can be folded into being an artist.
Though Theaster Gates is nearly a household name in Chicago and is widely recognized throughout the art world – he was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial – he recently has garnered attention in St. Louis for his cultural revitalization initiatives. Last year, Gates founded the Rebuild Foundation, combining the various facets of his practice within a single non-profit organization. The Rebuild Foundation brings together artists, architects, developers, educators, and community activists to help revitalize under-resourced neighborhoods. It currently manages projects in Detroit, Omaha, Chicago, and St. Louis. In just one year alone, the Rebuild Foundation, with the energetic on-site commitment of Dayna Kriz, has become a major force in St. Louis’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Located in north St. Louis, Hyde Park is a historic neighborhood that has fallen upon hard times as a result of post-war deindustrialization and the ensuing population decline.
Notable attention has turned to what many consider the golden age of modern St. Louis—the 1950s—when the city reached its highest population and garnered international attention for its architectural contributions. However, within this renewed interest in mid-century St. Louis is also an attempt to detach the persisting nostalgia for the past from the actual social, economic, and political circumstances that were at play.
At its best, mid-century St. Louis produced celebrated icons—Minoru Yamasaki’s 1956 Lambert air terminal and Eero Saarinen’s 1965 Gateway Arch. During its less proud moments, modern architecture failed to adapt to the unique demands of our city, exposing the shortcomings of its “universal” ideals. In St. Louis and beyond, discussions on the failures of modern architecture often center on Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing development. Completed in 1956, the monumental public housing project was razed only twenty years later. Its demolition was felt around the world, and in 1977, historian Charles Jencks famously claimed that the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe marked “the day Modern architecture died.”
When constructed in the mid-1950s, Pruitt-Igoe represented the hopeful vision that the city of St. Louis would maintain its steady population growth. As government officials and other stakeholders saw it, increased populations meant increased real-estate values. As a result, low-income housing was tasked with cleaning up the sprawling slums through systematically concentrating people in modern high-rise structures. At its peak, Pruitt-Igoe housed roughly 15,000 people in thirty-three eleven-story buildings. However, the rapid onset of white-flight and suburbanization revealed the many flaws in this plan. Pruitt-Igoe failed for a number of reasons, including Yamasaki’s architectural design, inadequate maintenance of the building, and decreasing tax dollars for public housing. Released in February of this year, a new documentary titled The Pruitt-Igoe Myth paints a much more complicated picture of Pruitt-Igoe than has been told in the past, sharing first-hand accounts of former tenants that help to humanize the housing development.
Pushing the narrative beyond the trials of modernism, artist Juan William Chávez explores creative possibilities for the still unoccupied land where Pruitt-Igoe once stood. As I introduced in my first post, Chávez is a pivotal force in the St. Louis art scene, founding Boots Contemporary Art Space on Cherokee Street in 2006 and winning the Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2008. Just last year, Chávez closed Boots, moving beyond the gallery walls to focus his practice on community engagement. In 2010, Chávez curated Urban Expression: Theaster Gates for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. His cultural activism has recently earned a great deal of attention and this year Chávez was awarded the Missouri Arts Award for Individual Artist and received the prestigious Art Matters Grant.
If Şener Özmen (the subject of last month’s Turkish and Other Delights post) is the godfather of Diyarbakır’s contemporary art community, then his long-time collaborateur, artist Cengiz Tekin, is its prankster, its Puck, and possibly (though this is pure speculation) its Keith Richards. He exudes a sly, crackling energy, walks with a fast gait just this side of nervous, and is constantly grinning, cracking jokes, and generally entertaining those around him. Despite the considerable language barrier between us (his English was definitely better than my Turkish, but then again my Turkish is limited to ordering takeout and buying groceries and bus tickets), Tekin was, along with Özmen, an engaging and endlessly generous host during my stay in Diyarbakır. I will never forget the two-hour bus ride we spent entertaining ourselves by going through a children’s Turkish-English textbook/dictionary at random, laughing hysterically at its bizarre contextualizing sentences for such essential vocabulary words as “lobster,” “beach ball,” and “criminal.”
Unsurprisingly, this spirit and humor spills into Tekin’s art, where seemingly typical, unremarkable people, locations, and situations are staged and tweaked by the artist to reveal the underlying violence, trauma, instability, and uncertainty that remains the reality for the Kurds of southeastern Turkey. Often they capture moments just before or after a violent act has taken place, but it is never clear what exactly happened (or is about to happen), why the act took place, or the identity of the victim or perpetrator. For example, in Tekin’s 2007 photograph, Natürmort (Still Life), a man lies splayed in a field of wheat, his face obscured by the stalks. Dressed in blue, his attire mirrors the fiery sky that looms above the field, making him seem like a piece of the heavens dropped to the earth. The gun in his limp hand implies that a shoot-out or stand-off of some kind has just transpired–or could it be a suicide? Is the angle of the gun, still cocked and pointed up, a coincidence of the way he fell? Or is he still alive and playing dead in order to ambush his foe, or escape further fighting?
Likewise, in his 2009 essay, “The Stranger,” critic Süreyyya Evren questions the unnatural angle of the neck belonging to a man sandwiched between a giant stack of blankets and pillows in the 2003 photograph Untitled (Press) (one a series of similar images Tekin created involving a human figure inserted into such stacks of bedding), wondering if he is even “really alive? Or faking death like some animals do to survive?” Evren sees Tekin’s photographs as giving voice to “the Stranger,” who, he argues, is
“crucial in the construction of Turkish national identity, and who has been in this position since the beginning of the Turkish Republic. This ‘privilege’ of being considered as ‘the Stranger’ is given to people who are categorized as ‘others within ourselves.’ These strangers, who originate from ‘us’–the Ottoman Empire–and who on various political grounds played an important role as the other for the new Turkish Republic, are the ones who in the national imagination supposedly represent the biggest threat (the ethnic side of this spectrum contains most prominently Armenians, Kurds and Jewish immigrants, and Arabs of various origins).”
This past Saturday, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed piece called Them That’s Not Shall Lose which highlighted, as James Baldwin put it, how expensive it is to be poor in this country, not to mention in a country where half our members of congress are actual millionaires. In a series of poll questions included with the article, only 9% of those surveyed making over 75K per year had trouble paying for medical care for themselves or their family. On the other hand, 51% making less than 30K per year had trouble paying medical expenses. Only 11% making over 75K had any problems paying their mortgage or rent while close to 50% making less than 30K had trouble doing so. And this poll only included those who actually have jobs.
As I visited Mass MoCA this past weekend for the second year of Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival I came across three photographs by Anthony Hernandez, part of a wonderful group exhibition called The Workers, which documented the physical traces of homelessness along the freeway between Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Instead of photographing the homeless, Hernandez makes us look closely into an undistorted life, literally on the road. The pants hanging to dry in the tree branches and scavenged materials fashioned into a work space from Landscapes for the Homeless had me thinking about Blow’s op-ed piece and illustrated (in a simultaneously beautiful and alarming way) how grueling homelessness and poverty can be.
Utilizing Mass MoCA texts on the artists featured in The Workers, much like utilizing texts and resources provided by Art21, allowed me to approach the work in a meaningful way that shared its context- immediately offering me an opportunity to compare what I was seeing to what I just read that morning in the newspaper. Pairing up news, commentary and social issues with contemporary art that illustrates it in unique ways is another opportunity for us to share new art and artists that are both exciting AND relevant. Mr. Blow and Mr. Hernandez should talk!
While Carlos Motta’s work exists through a number of different media, I think of it primarily as putting forth a series of socially and politically committed archives. These archives are focused through a series of different questions related to Latin American geopolitics and queer cultural politics. In one such archival work, a video/performance project called Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010), Motta restages speeches calling for peace delivered by six Colombian left-leaning presidential candidates that were assassinated during critical moments in the nation’s history. By employing actors to perform the speeches in public places during Colombia’s 2010 presidential campaign, the work solicits response from passersby, many of whom are unaware of the speeches’ import, or when and by whom the speeches were first given. Like Mark Tribe, Sharon Hayes, and a number of other younger contemporary artists, Motta employs the reenactment of political speeches as a way of both engaging a viewer in dialogue about political histories and allowing submerged historical narratives to live again through the bodies of actors situated within sites of public discourse and exchange.
As in many of Motta’s works, Six Acts constructs a kind of archive, an archive of what has gone unnoticed and that is at risk of being forgotten by a culture’s memory of itself. One can witness a similar archival tendency in all the works of Democracy Cycle, of which Six Acts is just one part. In The Immigrant Files: Democracy Is Not Dead; It Just Smells Funny (2009), the artist collects interviews with Latin American immigrants/exiles to Sweden. Through the series of interviews, one becomes able to see the contradictions and antagonisms within Sweden’s idealized democratic system. Similarly, by collecting over four hundred video interviews with pedestrians on the streets of twelve Latin American cities in The Good Life (2005-2008), Motta provides his viewer with a variegated composite of how Latin Americans view the US’s role in Latin American geopolitics throughout the past century. While many citizens are enraged by what they perceive as a gross injustice committed against that region by the US, others are ambivalent, if not seemingly ignorant, of the US’s actions. In his most recent project, We Who Feel Differently, the artist and multiple collaborators explore a variety of problems surrounding contemporary queer and LGBT activist communities in the US and abroad. Conducting video interviews and collating and commissioning articles for a journal, We Who Feel Differently offers an extensive web archive on issues regarding sexual and gender politics and histories.
Another project by Motta that attempts to intervene through the construction of archives as well as through the distribution and collation of information is the artist’s SOA Cycle (2005). Whereas the Democracy Cycle offers numerous perspectives on democracy within and without Latin America, SOA Cycle focuses specifically on the repercussions of US intervention in Latin America via the School of the Americas, a US government sponsored educational institution for training foreign military officials and personnel. Notorious for its role in training the leaders of death squads and military coups that terrorized Latin America throughout the 70s and 80s, School of the Americas changed its name to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in the early 2000s, yet its involvement in contemporary Latin American politics remains active and unchallenged. Through his project, which involves video, printed matter, sound installation, and photography, Motta disseminates vital information about the US’s troubling role in Latin American geopolitics.
As Motta’s photographs and installations of political graffiti from Latin America show [Ideological Graffiti (2005-2011) and Graffiti Cuts (2010)], it is often through fleeting cultural matter such as graffiti that one may bear witness to larger cultural sentiments and underlying popular dissent. In his installation Graffiti Cuts, Motta monumentalizes these sentiments by carving them into a backlit metal surface. Similarly, by contrasting photographs of physically present buildings with photographs of their absence, a project like Leningrad Trilogy (2006) bears witness to the threat of disappearance and the inevitability of cultural change. I am interested in these two projects, as they seem to extend Motta’s work as an artist-archivist invested in the liminal registers of social reality and political antagonism.
While preparing to travel to Diyarbakır, the largest city in southeastern Turkey, I discovered that telling Turkish people who live outside of that region that you’re going to visit Diyarbakır is akin to telling an average suburban American you’re going to hang out in an inner city housing project or along the wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Their eyes grow big, there’s a lot of gasping and “ooooh”ing, and they ask you, incredulously, “why would you want to go to Diyarbakır? It’s very dangerous there, you know.” Some treated it a bit like I was going on safari–a worthwhile, possibly exotic and educational, endeavor, as long as I had the proper guidance–and protection. Because Diyarbakır is not only the largest city in southeastern Turkey but also the capital of Kurdish culture in Turkey and the epicenter of a significant amount of violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s, inevitably the news of my travels sparked conversation about “the Kurdish question”–that is, the question of what freedoms and rights ethnic Kurds living in Turkey should be granted. For example, since the founding of the Republic, teaching Kurdish in schools and printing or broadcasting media in Kurdish has been outlawed, and celebration of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, was forbidden. In the past five years some of these restrictions have been eased, but the subject remains controversial, with many über-nationalistic Turks remaining opposed to the reforms.
So why would I want to travel to Diyarbakır? The art scene in Turkey is famously concentrated in Istanbul–what interest could a formally war-torn and politically unstable region of the country hold for a yabancı (foreigner)? In fact, Diyarbakır has produced some of the most active, intelligent, and influential figures in contemporary Turkish art. These would include artist and curator Halil Altındere, Berat Isik, Ahmet Öğüt (who, along with Banu Cennetoğlu, represented Turkey at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009) as well as Suat Öğüt and Mehmet Öğüt, Erkan Özgen, and Cengiz Tekin. (Fikret Atay, another well-known Kurdish artist, actually hails from Batman, a smaller city located about two hours from Diyarbakır.) All of these artists have exhibited extensively both throughout Turkey and internationally. But the godfather of the Diyarbakır art community is undoubtedly Şener Özmen. For the past twenty years, Özmen has worked not only as an artist but also as a poet, art critic, translator, and teacher. He collaborates constantly with his fellow Diyarbakır-based artists, has nurtured a new generation of artists, produces texts for exhibition catalogues, designs covers for Lîs Publishing (a prominent Kurdish language publishing house based in Diyarbakır), writes fiction and poetry, and supports the work of the Diyarbakır Arts Centre. In an essay included in the recently published monograph A Sener Ozmen Book, critic Süreyyya Evren describes him as “an artist who cannot relax.” When I visited Diyarbakır, I was honored that Özmen took the time from his busy professional and personal life (he is also a father and husband) to serve, along with Cengiz Tekin, as an attentive and wildly entertaining host. At one point, while we were riding a dolmuş (mini-bus) from Diyarbakır to have breakfast at Hasankeyf, a historical site located on the Tigris River (which, sadly, is likely to be destroyed in the near future by a hydroelectric dam project), Özmen casually remarked that this was the first day off from work that he had ever taken. It sounds like hyperbole, but given his extraordinary output, I am inclined to believe this was true.
Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer, and founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988), and REPOhistory (1989-2000). A graduate of The Cooper Union (BFA 1979), The University of California, San Diego (MFA 1995), and the Whitney Independent Studies Program in Critical Theory, his recent publications include Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2011); Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945 (with Blake Stimson for University of Minnesota, 2007); and The Interventionists: A Users Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (with Nato Thompson for MassMoCA/MIT Press, 2004, 2006, 2008), as well as a special issue of the journal Third Text, co-edited with theorist Gene Ray on the theme “Whither Tactical Media.”
Sholette recently completed the installation Mole Light: God Is Truth, Light His Shadow for Plato’s Cave, Brooklyn, New York, and the collaborative project, Imaginary Archive, at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand.
Sholette is Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), a visiting faculty member at Harvard University, and teaches an annual seminar in theory and social practice for the CCC post-graduate research program at Geneva University of Art and Design.
Gregory Sholette speaks about “God Is Truth and Light His Shadow” at Plato’s Cave, NY, 2010
Being familiar with the angle of Sholette’s work, I picked up Dark Matter and read the Preface and Acknowledgments. Yet before I was done with page 1, I got up to sharpen a pencil. You want to give this book the appropriate attention; it will alert your conscious while enlightening you on the structure of our creative universe. Dark Matter is a metaphor for “amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices – all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to be invisible,” in Sholette’s words. The mechanics, tactics, and power of art activism and politicized practices are unveiled with direct references, drawing out the behind-the-scenes of the art world within today’s economic landscape.
It’s an honor to present Gregory Sholette to you today. Sharpen a pencil and pick up Dark Matter.
Three things this week…
Maika Pollack recently wrote a wonderful review in The New York Observer about the current Glenn Ligon show at the Whitney Museum. As I visited the galleries about a week ago I kept coming back to questions around ways to teach about race and even perhaps making sociopolitical statements through the use of beauty. I mean, really, this is a beautiful show and it should be seen by teachers and students, as hard as that may be in late spring with the proverbial “testing period” hanging over everyone like an anvil. Yinka Shonibare MBE came to mind immediately. Not since Shonibare’s participation in the group exhibit, Ahistoric Occasion, just a few years ago at Mass MoCA, had I been confronted with work that was so simultaneously tough and gorgeous. The mammoth work, “Hands”, greets viewers stepping from the elevator- an obvious protest image (in this case, from the Million Man March) that needs no wall text to explain its connection to dissent. The text pieces in the adjoining room quietly pelt visitors with quotes about being black in America. Legible passages at the top of each work become muted and ambiguous as they return to the floor- much like fireworks as they explode and disappear. Even the installation, “To Disembark”, inspired by the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a former slave in a Virginia tobacco factory who literally arranged to be mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia in order to escape slavery, pulls you toward each piece in order to hear artists such as Billie Holiday and KRS-One. By the time you come full circle and are confronted with Ligon’s recent neon works, including “Rückenfigur”, America is literally turning away and facing the other direction. Being black in America- past and present- is shared through music, text, painting, installation and sculpture. It isn’t pretty, but the initial beauty of this show is what gets us to consider the works thoughtfully in the first place.
This brings me to my second item for the week, since we’re discussing turning away and facing the other direction.
Judith Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) and Lee Rosenbaum (Culture Grrl), among many others, have taken a stand regarding the Milwaukee Art Museum’s upcoming Summer of China show. Both authors, as well as this one, feel that museums have to begin making some kind of statement about the two-month detention (kidnapping) of Ai Weiwei. Museums that put together shows at this point with art on loan from China, without making any kind of attempt to address the issue surrounding Ai Weiwei, run the risk of appearing indifferent to the whole situation. Mary Louise Schumacher really sums it up in her May 20th Journal Sentinel piece which got Judith and Lee going in the first place.
Finally, a public service announcement… of sorts.
A few posts back I took on the idea of teaching graffiti in the classroom. Just thought everyone might enjoy this follow-up from The Art Cops. Priceless. Also kind of wondering what these two would dig up on a trip to China. I mean, why stop in L.A.?
I encountered the art group Not An Alternative for the first time about a month ago in Corona, Queens, where Tania Bruguera (featured last month in 5 Questions) had assembled a panel on “useful art.” What immediately impressed me was the group’s ability to articulate its ongoing project, which aims both to create new spaces for cultural production and to question the ways that various participatory structures (social media, election processes, relational aesthetics) exclude certain subjects and amplify social and economic inequalities by means of participation.
Through their highly engaged work, work that functions somewhere between political activism, social service, and institutional critique, Not An Alternative confront the limits of what political theorist Jodi Dean has called, after a variety of critical theoretical debates, “communicative capitalism.” In a time of communicative capitalism, our political and social participation is increasingly exploited by the use of new media. Not An Alternative foregrounds this fact, presenting ways of navigating a relatively new digital landscape in which values once cherished by the militant left and avant-garde alike–participation, reflexivity, interactivity–have become corporate watchwords for how neoliberalism manages consent in a networked age.
Networked for some, but obviously not for all. Not An Alternative’s work is also crucial in the ways that it foregrounds exclusion, offering ways to visualize the limits of participation in a society in which obviously one’s ability to participate is largely determined by social and economic privilege. As Not An Alternative said during their presentation in Corona, referring to their collaboration with a homeless advocacy group in the Bronx (discussed below), they recognize the important of “desubjectifying” themselves, where to draw attention to their efforts may work against the causes of the community groups with whom they choose to work.
I’ve known Daniel Tucker for about five years now and I’ve always thought of him as a true Chicago artist, somewhere in between artist, organizer, writer, and administrator and always interested in collaboration and bringing in multiple perspectives to any given situation. For anyone that’s worked with him, they know that Daniel’s candor can be both disarming and challenging. When one gets involved in Daniel’s projects, like I have in the past, he’s straightforward and conscientious in his process. Is that a Chicago thing? I’ve come to think of it that way, probably because of him.
He’s done a lot of amazing work, like founding AREA Chicago six years ago and then, when he wanted to move on, gracefully stepping back from the project to be taken on by new energetic group of organizers. What I love about AREA (which stands for Art Research Education Activism and is a publication about culture and politics in Chicago) is that it gives voice to what people are actually doing to transform their city, not a theoretical discourse about what might be possible. And there’s big changes happening on the ground here, with Rahm Emanuel handily winning the mayoral election after Daley decided he was done. I’m new to Chicago but I know that this is a really, really big deal.
And so Daniel is using this opportunity to create a platforming project called “Visions for Chicago” for Chicagoans to articulate what they want to happen next. Starting in November 2010 and lasting through the beginning of the mayoral term in May 2011, Daniel is giving out hundreds of handmade election-style yard signs to politically-engaged Chicagoans throughout the city to tell their own vision for the future. Photographs of the signs and their makers will be published in a book by Green Lantern Press to be released May 16, 2011 at 6pm at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. We talked about how the project started for him and where it’s going.
Abigail Satinsky: Let’s start out with a bit of a background question. You have a lot of experience making work in public space and an interest in graffiti. How does this all fit together for you?
Daniel Tucker: Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in the political conflicts surrounding people’s access to and definition of public space. That drew me to be a graffiti writer, which was really my introduction to art making and all of the considerations of concept, audience, context, and formal design that come along with art making. And that stuff is really particular and important when you think about graffiti, street art, or more antagonistic forms of public art. Pretty soon after my initial interest in graffiti and its sub-cultural (think hip-hop and punk rock youth culture) as well as aesthetic traditions (bubble letters, characters, and “wild styles” as well as the more recent “artschool” graffiti that involves putting lots of objects and forms not traditionally associated with hip-hop graffiti into public space), I began to get bored with the general questions associated with making work in public and wanted to deal more with content.