Theaster Gates

A focus on engaging people with the built environment, as part of a wider change in approach to architecture, was highlighted at Designed in Hackney Day earlier this month. In the work of American multimedia artist and cultural planner Theaster Gates, the potential of civic interventions is being extended even further. Based in Chicago with a degree in urban planning, ceramics and religious studies, Gates’ work revolves around the significance of places, collective memory and social history, through the ‘poetic’ renovation of neglected buildings and the appropriation of relics from sites of cultural or political pertinence.

In a recent project, Gates extracted the contents of an entire bookshop after it closed down in 2009. The Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago specialised in art and architecture books, the remaining 14,000 of which have been saved as a permanent collection by Gates in the form of a new ‘public library’, placed in a renovated residence on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago’s run-down South Side as part of the artist’s public archive project: Dorchester Projects.

As one of the USA’s last architecture bookshops, with only two or three remaining in the country, its closure was tragically unsurprising. Yet the books are now freely accessible to anyone in or passing through the neighbourhood, opening up a different potential audience and creating a new life for the collection. As well as the Prairie Avenue Bookshop Archive, Dorchester Projects hosts 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago’s art history department and 10,000 LPs from a nearby closed-down record store. Here, books, slides and records – almost vestiges of a different age, obsolete in an era of digitisation – are imbued with a new kind of dignity and value.

Dorchester Projects. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers.

This act of generosity and civic intervention, coined ‘radical hospitality’ underlies much of Gates’ work, which is often based in or sourced from his local Chicago area but also Detroit, Omaha and St Louis. As part of Dorchester Projects, Gates has purchased two other buildings on Dorchester Avenue, currently serving as a food pavilion and artists’ space, in a gesture indicative of his ideological interest in transforming forgotten neighbourhoods. He is also working on the renovation of an abandoned property in the same area in collaboration with Brinshore Development and Landon Bone Baker Architects, which will become a mixed-income apartment block and cultural centre.

From his unusual standpoint as artist and urban planner, Gates is opening up exciting possibilities of crossover in the realms of art, architecture and community. As well as his interventions, Gates works in sculpture and small-scale installation and has exhibited widely in museums across the USA and in Europe. For this year’s collaborative art exhibition dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, Gates has been working on a project named 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. The artist and his team have transferred materials from within one of the Dorchester Avenue houses that is undergoing restoration to another disused house in Kassel, drawing parallels between the two abandoned residences as they undergo their respective transformations. Gates curated and filmed 12 musical performances in the Dorchester house as a kind of requiem before its renovation began in 2011, and these films are now being shown within Huguenot House as part of its reincarnation.

Using the raw materials from the Dorchester house as components in the reconstruction of the dilapidated Huguenot House, Gates questions what it means to restore a building, leaving traces of the hands that have worked on its recovery. Beneath his community-focused repurposing lies a respect for materials and the weight of history and narrative that they contain; a duality of intention which the artist describes as ‘both practical and poetic’.

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