WEI Is Dorchester a frame for your art practice?
GATES Absolutely—and a resource and a value. At the Armory Show last year, in a conversation with Naomi Beckwith [curator at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art] and Franklin Sirmans [curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art], I described it as a kind of circular ecological system. Here is an abandoned and fire-damaged building. We gut it and try to capture as much of it as we can and put those materials to their highest possible use, to make them more special than they were. They go into a gallery, a museum, and because somebody sees them in that context, they become even more special, and because of that, I get a check, the gallery gets a check and that check helps me finance something on the block. To me that process feels like one work of art over two years, over 10 years. Then I'm invited to a collector's home and I love seeing a piece I made that comes out of a building that I rehabbed five years ago.
WEI Would you ever leave Dorchester?
GATES I don't know. I didn't grow up on South Dorchester. I grew up on the West Side, so my presence on Dorchester is somewhat arbitrary, but it was the place I could afford. I wouldn't feel guilty if I left Dorchester one day. One of the things I'm learning is that I still feel placeless, that the act of place-making feels like a kind of sacrifice, because I'm the catalyst for action in places in St. Louis, Omaha and Chicago that I'm developing with my Rebuild Foundation, which means I'm always going somewhere else.
WEI Would you say you have an active sense of history?
GATES Yes, but how do we live with history? What do we remember? What falls away? We vaguely remember that there were race riots, that important speeches were made in the teens, '20s and '30s, '50s and '60s, but the nuances go away. What we're left with is a shell of a once-potent moment. That was what my show "An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures," this year at Kavi Gupta, was trying to get at. It disturbs me that we don't fully remember the challenges to civil rights suffered in this country. We should still be engaged in the protest, in the question of rights. Certain materials make you grapple with those histories and you can use those materials to make modest gestures that are really monumental. I'm learning civil rights.
WEI Tell me about the fire hoses that made such an impact in "An Epitaph for Civil Rights." They came from decommissioned firehouses, and refer to the hosing of demonstrators in Birmingham in 1963. They are estheticized but nonetheless remain loaded.
GATES I started making them less than a year ago, but they've become part of my canon already. I'd been thinking what I could do to jar people's memory about this history without making it kitsch or a cheap shot. And I remembered all those interesting moments when you start to think you're doing all right, when somebody will remind you that you're still a nigger. I'm not immune to the problems that black people faced in the '20s, '30s, '50s. In a place like Chicago and other big cities, some people have benefited from the civil rights movement, but many others haven't, and I feel that I'm on both sides of that. I'm interested in reconstructing histories and intervening in futures.
WEI And the materials you use?
GATES There is a formality in the presentation of materials that aligns you with the canon, with the regime of the history of art. Some things are excluded, others included. I'm really curious about how materials, things and places become valuable—and to whom. Monetary value is the goal for some. But I'm curious about all these multiple registers of value, because value is negotiated. Dealers, collectors, galleries and museums all work hard to determine systems of value and then to protect the valued objects and the market mechanism they've established.
WEI Since you are so busy, do you have a large staff?
GATES No, three people usually help me. We make things together.
GATES Well, I make them. There are things that other folks can't do for you. But it's a conversation between me and the people I work with. This "genius artist, don't touch my shit"—I'm not from that. There's value in being engaged with people and in the improvisational. When you build a roof, you need a couple of guys on the roof mopping and somebody receiving the bucket and somebody pouring tar out and a spotter and somebody running for materials. That's my tradition. You could also say that I may be a little more sensitive to exclusivity and would sometimes want to interrupt that.
WEI How do you see the difference between projects like Dorchester and the making of art objects?
GATES I'm one person, one whole person who thinks about friendship and neighborliness and God as much as I think about object-making. I bring that whole person and all my resources to all of my projects. They just look different and have different ways of being generative.
WEI You said you built the houses for the neighborhood . . .
GATES Let's say I built them for myself and the neighborhood benefits.
WEI And if you leave, what's left?
GATES This part of my practice is about the politics of staying. I believe in the place, and I'm invested in it. But it's fine for my neighborhood to change around me. It would even be fine if in five years, maybe because of me, the whole thing is lily-white.
WEI I'm surprised that you condone a gentrification that pushes the neighborhood people out-the few that remain—which is what always happens.
GATES Gentrification won't need my approval or disapproval. But 6901 and 6916 South Dorchester were available because of policies that moved people out and moved other people in. So I could find myself three years from now with a whole bunch of new neighbors. What would being on Dorchester mean then? There will be nothing left for me to do here if everyone is lily-white and everyone's garden is as pretty as mine. Or better.
WEI Would you sell it then?
GATES That's what people do. Or you develop another plan. If it is the politics of staying, then you invite black people back. You force what's new to deal with what's old. There are lots of devices. It's all tricksterism.
WEI Shall we talk about some of your current projects? "The Listening Room," for instance, your show at the Seattle Art Museum that's opening this December.
GATES "The Listening Room" is about a couple of things, such as the role of music in cultural dissemination and political protest, and how the cataloguing, archiving and sharing of soul music contribute to cultural memory, to the creation of new voices. There will be a handcrafted deejay booth and a deejay in the museum, spinning selections from Dr. Wax's Record Archive, along with seating for listeners. There will also be signs, like Dr. Wax's original sandwich board sidewalk sign. Many of the records in the collection are incredibly valuable in terms of American history, and jazz, blues and R&B culture. There are records that you cannot find on shelves. It's also about the reinvention of the museum as a space for multiple forms of contemplation. I want to continue to suggest that culture is never irrelevant, but not everyone can access it. I want to create opportunities where more of the things that are important to me, like making music, dancing, talking shit and remembering are things that more of the world has access to.
WEI You are very aware of houses and neighborhoods. Were you always so conscious of them?
GATES I lived between two worlds as a child. I was bused, and I saw that people did other things in the summer than go to Mississippi to see family, as I was doing. Like, they were going to Paris—I really wanted to go to Paris—and the more I saw that there were other things to do in the summer, the more I wanted to do them.
WEI So this consciousness led to other opportunities?
GATES The things that I didn't think were possible still weren't at that time, but I began to want them. And later, I traveled. I studied in South Africa, in Japan—and I've been to Paris. But that period of conditioning between what you hope for and what you have, that feels like where muscle comes from for me. 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.
Currently On View "An Epitaph for Civil Rights" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through Jan. 16, 2012; "Theaster Gates: The Listening Room" at the Seattle Art Museum, Dec. 9, 2011–July 1, 2012. The Arts Club of London features work by Gates, on view by appointment Wednesday and Saturday mornings, through Jan. 8, 2012.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based writer and independent curator.