Guillaume Désanges talks about his experience developing the Méthode Room residency project at Archive House, within Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Project in South Side in Chicago.
The Méthode Room
I made my first visit to Dorchester Projects in the company of Theaster Gates in September 2014 during a curatorial exchange program to Chicago (1). My first impression, and I am not alone in this, was a mixture of fascination and disbelief, enthusiasm and doubt, when I saw the sheer scale of this ambitious project and its actual achievements as a whole. The brilliant Theaster Gates, artist, entrepreneur, singer, potter, town planner, teacher, social worker, has been developing his Dorchester Projects since 2009. This vast project involves restoring real spaces in the very largely African-American district of the South Side of Chicago, by rehabilitating abandoned buildings and turning them into cultural environments. A ’Listening Room’, an ‘Archive House’, a cinema, an ‘Arts Incubator’, a space for artist residencies, a cafe and restaurant – all this gives some idea of the exponential growth of Gates’ ambitions in this suburban area. Dorchester Projects has a unique formal and spiritual potency and provides food for thought about the place of art within a project which the artist, when I visited, presented as an entrepreneurial one, concentrating on its ‘hardware’ (property, development) without paying too much attention to its ‘software’ (its contents in terms of aesthetics, human relations and intellect). However, one soon discovers that the contents of this project are every bit as ambitious as their container. I chose this artistic hotspot as the perfect location in which to frame the project that I had been invited to design for Chicago. This was the ‘Méthode Room’ project (2), a critical residency for French artists, thinkers and creators who would be immersed into this particular context, and who could benefit from the magnificent work of Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation in the district.
Affiliation and development
Theaster Gates has done a great deal over recent years to put the Chicago scene on the map, by attracting the art world, and more, to the South Side. He is also, most importantly, rooted in a long history of social practice in Chicago (3). Theaster Gates’ success story has been built on a variety of different contexts – political (an extremely segregated city at the heart of the struggle for social and racial emancipation from the beginning of the 20th century), intellectual (Chicago University and its famous, ground-breaking Department of Sociology) and artistic (from AACM, Association the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s which had a strong social impact, to Dan Peterman’s Experimental Station in the 2000s). The project is embedded, in particular, in a long history of social suffering, of historical missed opportunities, of hopes and betrayal in the struggle for civil rights, which has given each new generation the energy to effect change. A mighty history etched deeply into the South Side and its abandoned houses. Theaster Gates has taken inspiration from this and focused on a tightly delimited geographical area, creating what is essentially a micro-society, an ideal oasis with its own rules and own agenda, one that seeks sustenance materially, intellectually and emotionally from what is immediately to hand. The issue of race, which is a central concern but not the only one, is handled in practical terms, in the urban and social fabric of this district, as a condition, and need, or, to put it in more positive terms, an opportunity. No longer is it a theoretical subject but rather the poetic, practical and moral guiding principle to the work.
For Theaster Gates, when recycling buildings, materials, and objects, it is important to create potential genealogies and certainly not to break any that already exist. These are the genealogy of the black community on the South Side, and also, as a more universal level, the genealogies of knowledge and cultural practices, as can be seen in a collection of 60,000 glass plates on the history of art, chalkboards and tables recovered from schools, floors from old basketball courts, limestone from a church or 14,000 books on art and architecture. His efforts do not only concern tangible objects but also memory as a way of fighting against the obsolescence of knowledge. For example, the amazing collection of books published by Johnson Publishing Company (the historical publishers of the African-American magazines, Ebony and Jet) seeks to preserve both ideas and energy by making them visible once more, albeit at local level. With almost messianic fervour, Theaster Gates offers kinds of cultural ‘corrections’ to the world, by rehabilitating objects from the past, electing rather than selecting them. For Theaster, everything is important and worthy of attention, from glass plates to pieces of wood, from books to bricks. The principle of mass production guides the aesthetics of his work, not as a demonstration of capitalism’s strength but rather as a consequence of a non-hierarchical approach and respect for minority objects. In this process, his architectural and sculptural works retain traces of their restoration, much like kintsugi, the traditional Japanese method for repairing pottery, where the repairs are not hidden but carefully outlined (often in gold) giving the repaired object more value than the new. Theaster Gates is not reconciled to the idea that objects or ideas disappear and is reluctant to accept the consequences of ‘creative destruction(4)’ – he consequently invokes the spirit of his materials, as if praising them with an air of melancholy, as can be seen in the video presented at the Venice Biennale where gospel singing accompanied the handling of material parts of a destroyed church in the South Side (5).
From the political to the spiritual
Animism and spirituality, the metempsychosis of objects – Theaster’s practices in the Dorchester Projects raise the issue of the fetish. His subjects represent more than their materiality – they are also symbols and paths to transition. Further to that, they are social lubricants, preludes to creating connections. They embody the definition of a relic – objects venerated for the absences that they represent. In this way, the artist sheds light on interesting links between relics and ready-made objects, including the fireman’s hoses under glass series of works which brought his visual art and symbols to prominence. Similarly, the gigantic Johnson Editorial Library is a relic and its books are not necessarily provided for reading, but rather for respect. From floor to ceiling, they command the authority of a representation of knowledge and also the oppositional force deriving from the overthrow of hierarchies, as they are solely devoted to the culture of an underrepresented community. More specifically, Theaster Gates produces monuments, works of architecture and sculptures dedicated to memory. In this way, he manipulates the objects around him to reactivate them much in the way that Jalal Toufic talks about the ‘resurrection of the document’ which must follow a ‘surpassing disaster’(6). Here, the surpassing disaster might simply be the course of history, which continues on its way without changing the emotional conditions of suffering and is merely content to renew physical materials, as if to ward off bad luck. These are disposable materials that Gates re-energises by re-injecting or dissolving them into the real world.
The Méthode Room
The complex nature and aesthetic and relational power of the Dorchester Projects was therefore the inspiration behind ‘The Méthode Room’, a carefully curated residency project, in which guests would be chosen on the basis not only of what they could take but what they could bring to the Chicago context. The idea also came out of critical thinking about the notion of an artistic residency in an age of globalisation, and also a consideration of the ontological differences between the new and old worlds–particularly France–, built on the tensions between criticism and celebration on the one hand and a globalising and community vision on the other. While the Dorchester Projects forms a system, The Méthode Room is an ephemeral cell in this system, which is grafted onto it with its own ‘intentional sphere’ seeking to confront different ways of thinking within an intense context. By ‘critical alterity’, I mean an approach that subjects the construction of forms and discourse to the problematic, speculative analysis of current situations while remaining constantly aware that it is part of the very problems that it seeks to denounce. A certain continental, or indeed French, ‘mind-set’, that contributes, in my view, to forging the project’s identity.
Georges Bataille, Architecture, Chicago and the World Order…
Coinciding with the first Chicago Architecture Biennial, the invitation extended to architect and theoretician Xavier Wrona to become the first resident of The Méthode Room was guided by a desire to produce critical discourse around architecture. It was entitled ‘Georges Bataille, Architecture, Chicago and the World Order – An Essay on General Economy’, and Wrona’s first move was to mount an exhibition of documents, iconographies and objects found on the site which covered in nine chapters a critique of the neoliberal capitalist system (which has historical links with Chicago University), in relation to architecture as a discipline which, metaphorically speaking, ‘puts order into the real world’. This exhibition occupied two floors of Dorchester’s Archive House, which hosts The Méthode Room, and created a discursive space wherein each corner displayed part of the exhibition. It became a pretext to offering guided tours which proposed a way of ‘performing the document’ (7). Starting from this initial statement, Wrona’s project included creating a web-based television channel entitled ‘After the Revolution’ to produce broadcasts in which the architect, the figure painted in red, would talk to residents of the South Side and Chicago City Officials about issues related to the notions of communities, minorities, architecture and social revolution. This cross-cultural exchange offered fertile ideological tensions not dissimilar to certain aspects of Gates’ approach in the sense of recycling thought deemed to be obsolete and breathing new life into it by confronting it with the real world.
A Government of Time
‘Dis-order’ of knowledge and opposition to the destructive inevitability of history, Theaster Gates’ work is grounded in the manipulation of a linear and progressive vision of time. It is neither nostalgic or speculative but spiritually goes beyond this duality. In line with the expansionist, accelerationist and conservative (in the good meaning of the term) nature of the Dorchester Projects, the le peuple qui manque collective (Kantuta Quirós and Aliocha Imhoff), were put forward for the second residency at The Méthode Room with ‘A Government of Times’. This project contrasts different regimes of historicity, particularly through Afrofuturist thinking. The house was designed like an open book (alluding to the writings of Walter Benjamin, Camille de Toledo, Paul B. Preciado, and Jacques Derrida), and a displayed a selection of films and works by Daniel Eisenberg, Roee Rosen, Milo Rau, Collectif Essai & Armin Linke and Lia Perjovschi, among others. In addition to this specific visibility, this residency provided the opportunity to start producing an investigative news series, Les Impatients. A first twilight episode associated the context of the South Side – a ghostly melancholy and the ruins after the sub-prime and Black Lives Matter crises- with a projection towards potential futures and the very own European melancholy of the two film directors. Here again, the aim was to see to what extent a specific context could inform a critical approach and give rise to confrontation between ideologically heterogeneous mind-sets.
Contesting regimes of visibilities and invisibilities
The community level at which Theaster Gates works is not extensively practised in Europe, and especially not in France, where the issue of communities, when not actually denied, tends to be viewed as a problem and never as a solution. It raises fascinating questions about the representation and visibility of artists and their individual and collective responsibility. In this respect, Gates’ work constantly plays on different regimes of visibility, between public and private, what is shown and what is concealed, what is communicated and what remains private. The creation by Theaster Gates and Eliza Myrie of the Black Artists Retreat (8), which, as its name suggests, is a kind of retreat offering black artists the opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate ‘outside of the institutional environment’ is the perfect example of an exclusive but not excluding space for thought, for a community which is still a minority in spheres of influence, including in the art world. Furthermore, while keeping all activities focused on the district itself, the Dorchester system draws on the outside world for its funding and outreach (exhibitions, galleries, international biennales and also for interest from cultural and financial circles), an outside world where Theaster carries a certain weight. This regime of visibility is paradoxical by its very nature. On my various stays in Chicago, whenever I discussed with other people tensions between art and society, sculptures in galleries /Dorchester Projects in Theaster’s practice I would always end up unconsciously sketching the same diagram on a piece of paper, a kind of grid, to show that the art objects produced by Theaster should not be considered merely as objects alone but rather as transitional items in a system, just like the real estate investment, the production of ceramics, the collecting of books and the social practices. An organic system that produces works and effectively operates in the real world. Of course, art does not necessarily need to be functional, but this does not prevent it, on occasion, from being so. What Theaster Gates borrows from art, is the opportunity to take a particular risk, to espouse an idealism that is larger than reality itself. And by doing so he takes a double risk, because what he does affects both art and the real world.
Special thanks to: Theaster Gates, Ken Stewart, Fabrice Rozié, Tony Karman, Dan Bersche.
(1) French-American Curatorial Exchange Program, organised by the French Institute and Expo Chicago, 2014
(2) The METHOD ROOM benefited from support by the Rebuild Foundation, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the French Institute, Chicago University, and Expo Chicago.
(3) In this context, see the ‘Chicago Social Practice History Series’ book series, edited by Mary Janes Jacob and Kate Zeller de la School of School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
(4) The notion of ‘creative destruction’ advanced by Joseph Schumpeter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942, refers to the idea that innovation drives the capitalist economic system and that its development depends on exponential, uninterrupted growth. The introduction of competition for the innovation and production of new goods leads to the systematic structural destruction that lies at the origins of capitalist development.
(5) Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr. 2014
(6) Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (2011)
(7) Reference to ‘Performer le document: nouvelles théâtralités politiques’ (Performing the Document: New Political Theatricalities), article published in ESSE, Spring 2014, page 40-47
(8) The Black Artists Retreat [B.A.R.] was initiated by Theaster Gates and Eliza Myrie in 2013 with the goal of creating time and space for an intergenerational community of black visual artists to engage outside of the institutional environment. (Source: http://blackartistsretreat.com/)