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Art And Public life:
A Conversation

In the fall term of 2014, Theaster Gates and I organized a seminar and symposium on the topic of “Art and Public Life” at the University of Chicago. Sponsored by the generosity of the University’s Neubauer Collegium, the seminar aimed at a very broad consideration of the relation of the arts to the public sphere, including questions of political activism, the history of the public and the commons, the role of technology in transforming art and social experience, and the relation of art and culture to contemporary capitalism.1

The seminar began, appropriately enough, with a public event, a kind of “anarchist symposium” of artists, scholars, curators, critics, and political activists. This was very much a Chicago event, which means that it was focused on local conditions, including the neighborhood of the University itself, while at the same time enlisting experts and participants who have global experience with forms of art and public life, from Europe to Africa to Asia and points between. At the center of the symposium was the hybrid program, headed by Theaster Gates, known as “Art and Public Life,” which is both a program of the University of Chicago and a movement for the enlistment of the arts in the renewal of the neighborhood surrounding the University. Knotty issues such as the tension between community redevelopment and gentrification are essential topics of controversy in these kinds of movements. This program has, therefore, become a model for similar projects across the U.S. in places like Detroit, Cleveland, and elsewhere. It includes everything from an “Arts Incubator,” which offers spaces for performance, exhibitions, and studios for training in the skills of the visual arts, to a Black Cinema House, to a cultural center in an abandoned bank building. Gates’s “Blackstone Houses” have achieved international recognition in such venues as documenta 13, and his works have been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums. [End Page 51]

This symposium was then followed by a ten-week seminar co-taught by Theaster Gates and myself. We took up “classical” formulations of the question of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas and John Dewey; analyses of the public in relation to concepts such as privacy and secrecy; spatial, sensuous, and bodily manifestations of the public in phenomena such as crowds and communities, architecture and urban space, spectacle and surveillance. Topics such as the relation of publics to democracy, the state, and the law were explored, alongside questions of social media and new forms of intimate, partial, and affective publics. At the same time, we maintained a consistent emphasis on practical forms of public art, especially in the rich repertoire of Chicago’s public sculptures and parks. We reflected on what Dewey warned about the “eclipse of the public” alongside Habermas’s mourning of the decline of “culture debating publics” in favor of “culture consuming” publics, and we explored hybrid public/private entities such as coffee-houses, secret societies, and what Theaster Gates has called “spaces for hanging out.”2 For our final class, Theaster and I engaged in a recorded conversation to sum things up. The following is a transcript of that conversation.3

—W.J.T. Mitchell
MITCHELL:

We have been talking for the last couple of sessions about the difference between the public and the commons, and I have been suggesting (in accordance with Antonio Negri’s reflections on this topic) that the public is a kind of phantom, an ephemeral phenomenon, subject to appearance and disappearance.4 Habermas sees it as a historically endangered and perhaps obsolete formation; Dewey thinks of it as fragile phenomenon that is in constant danger of being “eclipsed.” And anyone who studies “public opinion” knows what a volatile and poorly defined notion it is. For Hannah Arendt, the public requires at its foundation an informal and transitory entity that she calls the “space of appearance.” This space

comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action, and therefore pre-dates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men … but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.5 [End Page 52]

Arendt’s language of “disappearance and arrest” has seemed especially prophetic in our discussions of the Occupy Movement, since this is precisely what the state has seen fit to do with exertion of police violence to suppress and “disappear” public protests in the last couple of years.

But the situation with the commons seems quite different. In some sense, the commons strikes me as indestructible. Negri’s first association with the term is language itself, particularly the common language or vernacular that makes conversation and social interaction possible. It is as if a commons has to be in place before there could be anything like Arendt’s informal public or “space of appearance,” much less a formal public realm. We would, of course, have to complicate and qualify this picture of the commons as a language we all speak. We don’t live in a world of one language, but in a Tower of Babel. We also have many different vernaculars and technical languages. Within the misnamed “Uni-versity,” we speak many different disciplinary tongues—the languages of theory, of philosophy, of history, of the sciences—and our little world is its own Tower of Babel. Nevertheless, there is a constant aspiration (or perhaps lip service) to the idea of the commons in notions such as interdisciplinarity, on the one hand, and outreach to the world beyond the academy, on the other. Your own program in “Art and Public Life” is an attempt to realize both of these aspirations. And insofar as it engages in the everyday life of a neighborhood, a community, and an academic institution within that community, it is an effort to build upon the commons of ordinary language, and perhaps to produce a heightened, enhanced version of the commons and the community with the means, languages, and techniques of art.

So let’s say, with Negri, that language is the first commons, perhaps indestructible, even though it is certainly not incorruptible, as the Newspeak of American politics constantly reminds us. And perhaps art (despite its traditional elitist connotations) is another, quite different form of the commons. I wanted today to turn our attention to a rather surprising turn in Negri’s essay, “In Praise of the Commons,” when he turns to another very durable medium, namely, money, or more abstractly, capital. Casarino summarizes Michael Hardt and Negri’s book, Multitude, as follows:

In this work, they attempt to rethink the common in the wake of the event of our time—namely, the capture of the common by capital. […] [End Page 53] the capitalist mode of production in its current phase—driven as it is by intellectual, linguistic, and affective communication—is to be understood as having its proper “foundation in the common.”[…] the common no longer has any outside. This is another way of saying that nowadays the common is virtually indistinguishable from that which continually captures it, namely, capital understood as a fully … global network of social relations. In short, the commons has no outside and is virtually indistinguishable from capital.6

Figures 1 and 2. Theaster Gates, 2014. Arts Incubator.<br/><br/>Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.
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Figures 1 and 2.

Theaster Gates, 2014. Arts Incubator.

Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.

Of course, the whole aim of Negri’s project is to free the commons from its capture by capital. But it occurs to me that we might begin our conversation by deflating the terms a bit, and restoring them to the realm of the vernacular. So rather than talk about capital, I would like to draw you on out on the question of money, and even more humbly, the question of currency, as in the perfectly ordinary notion of a “common currency.” Among your many projects on the South Side of Chicago is a restored building [End Page 54] called The Arts Incubator, a place for performance, exhibition, and education in artistic practices. But right next door is a café called “The Currency Exchange.” So my first question for you, Theaster, is who came up with the name of The Currency Exchange?

GATES:

I did.

MITCHELL:

You did.

GATES:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

I sort of guessed that.

(laughter from the audience)

GATES:

It was a former currency exchange, and you know, currency exchanges are places that exploit. They exploit normal people who need to cash their checks, and it may cost them seven to ten percent of the check to cash it there. Currency exchanges live in predatory environments where there aren’t banks, or where there are banks but people don’t have checking accounts because they don’t believe that they have the right to have a banking account at a bank. And so I thought of all of the money that was exchanged, and that it was also one of the first currency exchanges in the state of Illinois to be owned by a black woman. She bought it through her white husband, but it was hers. And then she eventually had full right. Her last name was Lovely.

And so I just thought—what a great name for a place where lots of different kinds of currencies were exchanged. And because I knew the thing wouldn’t make money, I was mainly thinking about cultural currency, and that “The Currency Exchange” would be a place that complemented the “Incubator,” because there was no hang space in the Incubator. You go, you look at an exhibition, but there’s nowhere to hang out. There’s a lot of administrative space. [End Page 55]

And more than anything we wanted to capture some of these people who were hanging out.

So I think in that way language is also very interesting, because you mention the languages of the Academy but there’s also the language of the street, the language of labor, languages of class, a language of survival. And these things in a way are as formal as other languages, and in some cases they carry different stakes or higher stakes. A language of survival, of your capacity to get out of tough situations—that’s a very tangible way of navigating. And so I think you’re right that there’s a way in which language does start to represent not only a stronghold of the common but also a way of imagining our relationship with other human beings. And I feel like the University of Chicago is training people to master language, to master the world—that there’s a way in which when I think about the Academy I always think about it in terms of power: that at the end of the day, these people will be able to say things that get things done.

Figures 3 and 4. Theaster Gates, 2014.<br/><br/>Black Artists Retreat [B.A.R], Currency Exchange Cafe Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.
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Figures 3 and 4.

Theaster Gates, 2014.

Black Artists Retreat [B.A.R], Currency Exchange Cafe Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.

And so I think that in some ways, naming things has been a big part of my practice. It’s all the houses—Black Cinema House, and The Archive House—as [End Page 56] well as The Incubator and The Currency Exchange: all of those things are pretty intentional about trying to be as literal as possible about the end game. And The Currency Exchange is the first time that I’m taking on directly—outside of my artistic practice—the fact that if these things are going to survive, they have to sustain themselves, there have to be lots of different currencies bearing witness. Bearing witness, or it is another kind of utopic. And unlike Seminary Co-op, The Currency Exchange isn’t underwritten by the University. It was a private start-up that has responsibilities for taxes and lighting and utilities, and so it has another kind of urgency of survival.

MITCHELL:

Which leads me to my next question.

(Gates and audience laugh).

MITCHELL:

Which is the survivability in the environment that we live in—we have … who’s our student here from the business school?

AUDIENCE MEMBER:

She’s not here.

MITCHELL:

She’s not here today? Dang! Well this is too bad, because I think the reason I asked about The Currency Exchange and the question of money, finance—

GATES:

Yeah.

MITCHELL:

—and capital (the corporate form, foundations, banks, governments) is that all of these forces surround the sphere in which art is produced, and art relies on them, depends on them.

GATES:

That’s right. [End Page 57]

MITCHELL:

It’s not like art just exists in some kind of autonomous realm. And looking at your practice it strikes me that you have found a new kind of model. A model that is not totally original. It builds on precedents—I think of Andy Warhol, for instance, saying, you know, my studio, my studio’s going to be a factory—who really changed the whole idea of what an artist’s studio would be, a place of collective activity, a place of manufacture like a cottage industry. Maybe going back also to that older tradition of the guilds, the radical artisans working together, having trade secrets, but building a public around that. So I guess the question I want to ask is this: given the fact that so much of the art world discourse is informed by what I call an automatic reflex …

GATES:

Mm-hmm.

MITCHELL:

… which is, “Capitalism, we’re against that. We know that’s the root of all evil.” And it’s a very easy position to take. It’s almost the default position of art world discourse. So—how do you think of your relation to that? Because the art world … I mean, I think if I’ve been listening to you correctly, you’ve recently discovered that you’re an artist. I mean, early on, you were quoted at one point: you said it was only a few weeks ago.

GATES:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

That before that, you thought, “Maybe I’m a performer of some kind.” Various kinds of roles. So map out for us your relation to capital.

GATES:

If we were talking percentages, most of my life has been like this: where what constituted art, maybe it wouldn’t even have been called that. Like in some kind of Breton-like, some kind of primitivist way, you know that I wouldn’t have called this art and I wouldn’t have called it performance. It was religious duty, it was familial entertainment, it was fucking around. And that, those were the reindeer games, you know? That in a way, you were just practicing. And then, [End Page 58] that way, it didn’t even feel monastic—it was too banal. It’s what we did in the barber shop. We would play these games where somebody would hit a note, and then you would do everything you could before you ran out of breath and get back to that note. So it was a way that we practiced riffs, and then we started betting on them, we put money in, like a quarter or a dollar. And then some days I wouldn’t enter the competition because I knew I couldn’t riff. Vocally I couldn’t do some of the acrobatic things that some of these other guys could do. The Ford brothers: these brothers could sing their way out of Hell. It was amazing.

And these were just games; it was just play that informed that. So “art” is still a very new term for me. But most of what I’ve been interested in is that. And the studio—in terms of production, I would say ten percent of our time is spent making art. Maybe eighty percent of my time is spent thinking about art, but I ain’t making it and they ain’t making it. I think that this other time is in service of others, in service for the buildings, and then in some ways, in teaching and training.

But this ten percent in terms of constituting an income represents ninety percent of income made. And then inside of this is my salary, and teaching, and lectures outside of here—for lectures last year, we had to create a new corporation. Now I don’t know if I told you guys this but I just met with some lawyers who are helping with some estate planning. And I’m just talking now about—you’re asking me for real about money, and about how these things work—I found out—this even sounds funny—I found out that I have twenty-four corporations. I didn’t know that. Inside of those twenty-four corporations, I think eighteen of them, they just manage single properties. Does anybody have family members who own property? Part of the reason you would do that is that if something happens, if somebody slips and hurts herself here, they sue you. If these were all in one corporation, if something happens here, they sue you for all of these. And this is basically the corporate angle—it’s a series of selves. That’s what corporations are. They’re legal entities that help you be more than yourself so that people can only sue you one self at a time.

And so, capitalism—is that like racism? Am I, you know? But to the extent that we were talking about capital, I think there’s this interesting relationship, this other kind of knowing. Maybe that’s why people do things like create charitable [End Page 59] organizations. Maybe another form of that is the foundation. And then when is it to be a corporation and when is it to just be yourself?

And so, I think that depending on the kind of artistic practice that one is engaged in, just being yourself is enough. Right? But then, you think about the de Menil family, you think about Smithson, you think about Judd. You know they said Judd got a lot of money from the Menils, to help make Marfa happen, or maybe they had made a commitment of twenty-seven million but they never came through, and so at some point, it was Judd. Then there was the big legal break, and then, that’s when the Chinati Foundation was created, because Judd had this big vision. Like, me and my homeys got the Chamberlains, I got the Flavin, and the only way me and my homeys going to have a permanent place for our joint is if we build this thing out in the world. So he buys this land. That’s real interesting. That it’s not a museum. You know, it’s like … a town. A neighborhood. Then I have Rick Mo, right? He ain’t got no money. You got somebody like Turrell and his Crater. Right? So Turrell uses all of his money to build a big-ass crater. Okay, you know?

(audience laughs)

GATES:

Right? But you have these models. You have Judd, you have Rauschenberg, you have Mitchell, you have Warhol’s cash, and I’m always saying, “Who’s the comptroller?” Who’s the finance director when it’s reasonable that Rauschenberg or the Rauschenberg Foundation can sell a work that Sotheby’s would sell, for millions, and those millions, they don’t get taxed. It goes back to the foundation so that it can give charitable gifts.

And so I think that my relationship to capital is actually a growing relationship with the knowledge of how currencies work. I don’t feel no way about it. In the same way that I would receive a Ford grant or a Mellon grant or a Rockefeller grant and all of those dudes were like capitalist monarchs, monopolistic territorial killers that cleaned their money and a generation later they … you know?

MITCHELL:

I want to pause on one moment where you hesitated for a second. You said, “Is capital, to capitalism, sort of like race, to racism?” [End Page 60]

GATES:

Yeah.

MITCHELL:

Explain.

Figure 5. Theaster Gates, 2015. BING.<br/><br/>Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.
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Figure 5.

Theaster Gates, 2015. BING.

Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy the artist.

Figure 6. Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, second floor, Johnson Publishing Collection, Library.<br/><br/>Photo: Steve Hall. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.
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Figure 6.

Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, second floor, Johnson Publishing Collection, Library.

Photo: Steve Hall. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.

GATES:

Well, race by itself is neutral. Race—you white, I’m black—or something. Maybe we’re both something else, whatever, but I think that this thing feels—and I don’t know what “ism” and I don’t know how that stuff works—but it feels like it has something to do with a condition. Like “a condition of.” A condition of leveraging towards an end that’s not so good. Right? And so I think is there a way to think about currencies. Let’s say I could have made The Currency [End Page 61] Exchange Cafe a part of the not-for-profit of Rebuild. But then it meant that the not-for-profit that’s already broke would then have a broke corporation that wasn’t building any money. But that’s what people do, if the thing is bound to not make money. But I thought: What if what I needed was a hang space? If the goal isn’t a restaurant (I don’t want to be a restaurant owner), the goal is a hang space. Then how do you get to a hang space? I keep talking about Herbert Read: do you create an arts club that’s private? Do you create Soho House? How do you get to it? Do you get to the cafe / salon, you know, something Frenchie?

MITCHELL:

Or do you create a shack on the Midway?7

GATES:

(Agreeing) You create a shack.

MITCHELL:

With a library, a drop-in library.

GATES:

Yeah. I mean, do you say it already exists and go to the mall? And just re-route people? And I decided that I should try at least to suggest to the blacks outside that there is a cultural future for people who live on the South Side who want to open businesses, and this is what that looks like. I’m a South Sider, I got a job, [End Page 62] I tried to build the thing in a budget that wasn’t an imaginary budget, but like a real budget. So that people would be like, “Oh yeah, if I took / saved up some money, got a loan from the bank, I could open this thing.”

But I built it with a particular virtue—like Miss Biscuits around the corner, it is the black spot. Fifty-, sixty-, seventy-year old people go there for lunch and breakfast. I get a different kind of crew. I get the University of Chicago folk that are coming off the Green line; I get whoever’s coming off the Green line, plus this intentional community. Some people might say that The Currency Exchange—that it doesn’t include them, that I’m actually interested in particular publics, and maybe even interested in the formation (like I’m the architect of particular publics). Well no: I’m the architect of space. And then that space may need a program or a programmer. So you get to the point where you’re kind of inventing daily publics and creating the conditions where a public might hang, and then it becomes real interesting when it’s territorial space like on the cusp of gentrification or on the cusp of the white University or on the cusp of an all-black neighborhood. And so I’m putting myself in some fairly precarious positions, leveraging, leveraging my own resources. And I’m saying, listen. It’s just capital. It’s one of the tools among a lot of cool tools, necessary to create a healthy environment where a public might grow.

MITCHELL:

Okay, so let me quickly transition to another….

GATES:

Sorry.

MITCHELL:

No, don’t be sorry. That’s fantastic. And I’m sure everybody here had about a hundred questions they’d like to throw in but I have a completely different [End Page 63] angle so I wanted you to talk about it a little bit. This is partly to help me, because, as Theaster said, I’m going to be speaking at the Dia Foundation in New York at the end of the week. The subject is monuments, monumentality, and monumentalization, and I started thinking about the other side of your work. When Theaster and I first started talking about this course a year ago, I said what is really the goal of your work? And he said it’s to create spaces. Which I think of as the creation of commons, of a lot of different kinds: hang spaces, performance spaces, archival spaces. Spaces of potential—something could happen to them, a public could use them—might not happen sometimes. …

GATES:

(agreeing) Mmm-hmm.

MITCHELL:

And that’s part of the risk that’s involved. But the other thing you do as an artist—it’s this little ten percent corner right here, which goes out into the world and shows up in galleries, like the White Cube gallery in London—these are objects.

GATES:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

Or what art historians like Alois Riegl and Erwin Panofsky called monuments. They are the things, the objects, studied in art history. And I had wanted to ask you: if you got a public commission for the South Side, and they said, “we want a monumental work of public art, we want like Loredo Taft down at the end of the Midway here” (I hope you all have looked at Time, this wonderful sculpture a short walk from here)—if you were going to produce a multi-million dollar commission of a monument, what would the monument be to? Where would you want to put it? What would it look like?

As we all know, this city is lousy with great public sculpture. Everywhere you go. Serra, Picasso, Oldenburg, and the two famous new ones now in Grant Park: Anish Kapoor on the north end, the Cloud Gate, and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Agora on the south end—both of them works of art that deal quite directly with [End Page 64] the question of the public as crowd, gathering, or popular assemblage. Both are monumental in scale, and they really address the idea of the public. And try to mirror and magnetize it in the case of Kapoor, and I think repel or admonish it in the case of Magdalena Abakanowicz. Her monumental Agora, the Greek word for the market or meeting or common place, is a very gloomy, melancholy sculpture about the death of the public, the dispersal of the assembled crowd, which is portrayed as headless, heedless, and aimless.8

GATES:

Sure.

MITCHELL:

So, if you were to have the opportunity to make a monument, what would it be? And I’m thinking also, of course, about the things that seem monumental that are already there in your repertoire. Three things come to mind immediately. One thing would be the “brazen goliath.” I have some slides in here. I don’t know if you guys all know these, but Theaster lifted a fire engine off the floor. Was this in the White Cube Gallery in London?

GATES:

Yeah.

MITCHELL:

Or a fire engine that’s been tarred and feathered. And then there are monumental objects, large frames, in which fire hoses are wound around in various shapes to remind us (but also alter) the way they would appear if you saw them in a hallway, but with the text “Break Glass in Case of Fire,” replaced by “Break Glass in Case of Race Riot,” alluding to the use of fire hoses on non-violent demonstrators during the Civil Rights era. And the third “monument” would be the Shoe Shine Stands, which Bill Brown calls “thrones.”9 But they’re thrones that are kind of outsized, they’re almost too big for anyone to use. So three of those seem monumental to me, partly from scale but also from historical significance: the fire hoses referring to the civil rights era and the fire truck as well, and then the thrones, the shoe shine stands referring perhaps to the era of Jim Crow and the enthronement of white supremacy. So I think of those as your actually existing monuments, the ones you’ve made. But I wanted ask you to open this up to other, future possibilities. [End Page 65]

GATES:

I didn’t know it was going this way, you guys! So, I got a commission from the city for a million dollars last year to do something at 95th street. It’s a Red Line station. They say it’s the largest award that they’ve given. I think that I got the commission for a lot of different reasons: some of it had to do with my capacity to realize a large work of art, but I had never realized a work of public art in the way that they were talking about it. I had only built buildings. So I had a sense of project management, of large things, but I’m actually not into—I don’t make public art. So we went through this process of talking to communities, saying hey, wuzzup? What would be cool? And the same thing came back: we want uplift, we want to know histories, we to know futures, we want to see ourselves reflected, we want it to be current, we want it to remain current. And I just don’t think an object can do that.

So I milled it around, milled it around, and I finally came up with a radio station. So I asked the transit authority if I could build a radio station that would be a pirate station. It would plug into their existing speaker systems, and then to the extent that they could syndicate it across all their stations, could my radio station also syndicate? So that I could go to Vocalo or WBEZ, grab stories, get these story makers, get StoryCorp to grab stories from the community. I would trick out the radio station with my own brick. We would fabricate the tile, the entire interior, the tables, whatever, lighting. We would do the whole thing. But then we would work with the radio station to do this, and then I would hire for five years a full-time DJ, a disc jockey, who would, in real time, talk about whatever was happening at 95th street.

They were concerned about my capacity, who would do this. So we built within Rebuild and StoryCorps the capacity to do a program that was about that. So I said yeah, I think we can do this, talked to WBEZ; we’re kind of working out licensing possibilities. But it seemed that there was no object that I could make that would do this accumulative work. How do you respect the history of 95th street and the great brown and black traditions that have happened there, and the Jewish traditions that had built 95th street and made a fair number of Jewish men extremely wealthy in the creation of the new Chicago State University, and the housing, the affordable housing that developed between 95th and 130th? I wanted to talk about these complicated things. [End Page 66]

Anyway so they said yes, you can build a radio station, but we also need a fire hose.

(audience and Mitchell laugh)

GATES:

So when you think …

(Mitchell is still laughing. Gates turns to the audience.)

GATES:

You guys, maybe just five minutes, and then we should go. Do you have any questions?

STUDENT:

You’re talking a lot about futurity, and so what I’m really interested in, from our experience together as a class now, is what you’re thinking about in the future directions of pairing these very deep-seated historical genealogies of balance and pain, promise and memory. What is the gestalt of this future—how is it shaped?10

GATES:

Yes. I mean, we’re in a room of lots of different kinds of people, and every day white people are asking me if what I’m doing is a kind of black exclusive. Right? And I actually think that in terms of understanding strategy, I’ve learned as much from Palestinians and Israelis as I have from the Civil Rights movement. Is it possible that the futures that I’m interested in are much more about systems of reconciliation and equity and systems of creating equity more than they are a race-system or a class system? It’s the fact that any system in its homogeneous state has the capacity to become assholic. And if it has that ability, to want to immediately self-aggregate, immediately hegemonize, then is there a counter-system, a counter public, that is always trying to figure out: how do we open up that thing again?

And so I think that, in that way, I’ve been just creating systems that try to open things up. That in fact that it’s not even really about just space, or just a cultural [End Page 67] house, or the Incubator. It’s actually what things have the potential to do, and it happens that a lot of it gets demonstrated through the creation of space, because space is so tangible; space is so commodifiable. And in fact in the absence of a certain kind of ownership, people can take it from you, which I’ve experienced—as part of my own and my dad’s history, of just a kind of taking, taking under eminent domain to create Walgreens, taking for whatever reasons.

And so I think that the acquisition of space was my kind of beginning of privately owned spaces–it completely accepts that the system that we live in today is governed by a set of rules, and kind of accepts those rules today. Which isn’t everybody’s way. Some people have a much more radical engagement with that—like “I refuse to own land.” And I respect that as a move. But I think that somebody has to own land, and somebody has to refuse to own land. And those people have to do things together. So that they can say, “I never left my Gandhian ethic. I don’t own shit.” While the other person is like, “Well good, because I own the train that you ride on everyday, Gandhi, and when they say ‘You can’t get on that train,’ you can get on my train. And I own the land around the train, I own the custom shops and I own the duty-free and I can pay off the guards so that Gandhi can get from one place to another—in peace.”

So I think that there’s the way in which I just feel like I’m a little bit complicit with the devil. Many devils. People ask all the time, whether I feel leveraged by political leaders. I feel leveraged all the time. I feel leveraged by my friends all the time. I feel leveraged by my family. And that becomes part of the nature of a certain kind of publicness and a certain kind of generosity. But I always feel like I’m leveraging, too.

STUDENT:

I had a question --

GATES:

You’re last.

STUDENT:

-- to both of you. It’s a little diagonal. So the question is inspired by your comment about assholiness. [End Page 68]

GATES:

That’s nice!

STUDENT:

Yeah --

GATES:

Assholiness! [Clap]

MITCHELL:

Assholiness!

GATES:

I got a new word!

STUDENT:

Because you said that something being assholy and this reminded me of the Critical Inquiry event last year in which you hosted Talal Asad’s lecture on “humanitarian violence.” (Sorry for referencing something we didn’t read in class together.) I mean I think it’s truly important to keep in mind his reflections and body of work on, again, genealogies of past but also futurity and thinking about human natures somewhat, like what happens when this kind of conception of humanity or humanitarianism is no longer associated with a positive connotation and moral virtue, but becomes an alibi for bombing brown people in the name of humanity. Tom, I really remember from your comments and they were extremely provocative, and I wanted to ask—keeping this in mind—what is the dynamic between you two in the many things that you take up and are invested in, your relationship to art as well as commons or publicness through forms of questioning or inquiry in that sense, the very idea of critical inquiry. But also as it informs your work, Tom, in terms of image making and image reading. You know you’ve talked about your relation to art history, as well as to other milieus like writing, but more broadly in relation to art as a form of making, in all scales of monument or crafting, from the lowest to the highest, in the sense we talked about last week. So that’s the diagonal question. Virtue / assholiness but also forms of inquiry and how they converge or conflict. [End Page 69]

MITCHELL:

That’s a wonderful question. I don’t think I can do this for you though. For one thing I don’t own shit. My house, couple of cars, a dog, and a pretty good guitar. And so I’m—relative to Theaster, the guy without property (though I’m certainly no Gandhi!). I’m relying on Theaster to make these spaces where things can happen that strike me as utopian, filled with potential, filled with a kind of critical and historical awareness of the past, the relevant present, and possible futures. Your proposal, Theaster, to the city of Chicago: the minute you said it, I had a flashback to 1990, to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where we find two monumental installations in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. One is Sal’s Pizzeria and his Wall of Fame. There are “Italian-Americans Only” on the Wall of Fame in Sal’s Pizzeria, even though all his customers are African American. Down the street, about fifty feet, is Señor Love Daddy, who has a pirate radio station with a musical wall of fame, and who is playing tunes for this little station that is the throbbing heart of the neighborhood.

Figure 7. Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, exterior<br/><br/>Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.
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Figure 7.

Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, exterior

Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.

[End Page 70]

(I hope your 95th Street monument will have a lot of music and poetry from the South Side. I was actually wondering, were you thinking about this?11

GATES:

No, but I like that a lot.

MITCHELL:

Not so much Radio Raheem, who drowns out everyone with pre-recorded music (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) on his monster boom box, but Señor Love Daddy, who plays the classics of great Black music to suit the time of day, while keeping a living watch over the street. A Señor Love Daddy would be the ideal kind of DJ for your station at 95th street.

GATES:

I mean that definitely feels like it’s in the DNA, that there’s a way in which sometimes a monument can’t quite be what we expect in advance. Sometimes we should expand how we imagine the monument. I think that, say, the bank on Stony Island is actually… if I had to think about a project that felt like a monument, I would say it was that bank.

MITCHELL:

Yeah. It certainly looks like one, with its massive pillared front.

GATES:

You know? In that it has the capacity to carry a whole history. It was Guaranteed Bank, which was owned by The Nation of Islam before it was the Southmoor Bank, before it was the Stony Island State Savings Bank, in its first charter. You can have an object that bears witness to all of those legacies and remains standing, and now to become this Stony Island Arts Bank, which will be a repository but of a very different sort, I feel like that’s the kind of monument-making that I’m interested in.

I should also say that within these projects—and Tom is being generous—that at any point, all of the things that I’ve started, all of that shit could fall out from under me. I actually don’t have the money to sustain it into the future; it is not endowed. “Rebuild” is in a very fickle situation as a not-for-profit, and the philanthropic community is really worried because I fired my board last [End Page 71] year and I just fired my executive director, and while we’re creating this new healthy entity inside of it, on the outside it just looks like peril. And so there’s this anxiety through the philanthropic community, because now where their name was associated with this rising flame, they’re afraid of my future and so they don’t want to bet on it. They don’t want to bet on it, and so Ford and Terra and Kresge and Knight, they’re all kind of like, “we’d rather bet on you through the University of Chicago because we know you got tenure there than on your small black not-for-profit.” And it’s the fact that the philanthropic community is also engaged in a kind of gambling, in that they’re hedging more than others. They have a conservative hedge. They’re playing with the possibility of culture living or not, all the time. And so what do you do? I’m saying that all of this is really just to suggest models and futures and demonstrate possibilities, even if they don’t live forever. That I don’t have a preoccupation with forever. But I’m from the West Side of Chicago, so I didn’t think I’d live this long. That kind of “forever,” that’s the hearts and minds of another kind of man. A footnote is reasonable.

Figure 8. Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, third floor.<br/><br/>Photo: Steve Hall.
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Figure 8.

Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, third floor.

Photo: Steve Hall.

Figure 9. Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, basement.<br/><br/>Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.
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Figure 9.

Theaster Gates, 2015. Stony Island Arts Bank, basement.

Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation.

But I think your question is also asking something else, like how we perform theory in practice. That I think that there’s a way in which Tom is generous to ask, but also I have questions for Tom, but it never goes that way because it’s his job to ask, right? And my job to perform, in that way. And so I think that there’s [End Page 72] always that tension that I carry, also with the Academy, even in how I respond to you guys. I’m not Platonic or socratic. I have stakes in your lives and in your practices, and I’m usually directive more than I am questioning. So that might be kind of an interesting thing. But I feel like Tom and I need each other for these different things. I need him writing about my work. I need Bill writing about my work, to be real candid. Tom needs work to write about, and needs to have intimate encounter with, real practices in order to keep the writing fresh.

MITCHELL:

Yeah. And I should just say, as far as my practice in relation to artists and actual artwork goes, I get dozens of request to write about particular artists. Usually from the artists. Because they know that criticism adds value, that it is a way, a kind of certificate added, produced as a surplus around the work. You should all read Bill Brown’s essay for the White Cube catalogue. It’s about redemptive reification. About our resident artist here who is redeeming things in a number of different senses. And Bill is so agile with language: he finds the adequate words to lay out what it is Theaster is doing. In fact, I was kind of depressed when I read the essay because I thought, “There’s no room for me now.”

GATES:

Fuck! I’m sorry, Tom.

(laughter)

MITCHELL:

But, you know how it is when you read something that’s really great criticism, great research, and you say, you know, I don’t know if I can do that well. So for me, I usually turn down these requests. I don’t want to be a reviewer, I don’t want to try to cover the art world as if I understood it all.

I pick out singular artists, or they pick me out. The first one I ever did was Robert Morris, the great minimalist sculptor, whose work I see echoed in Theaster’s fire hoses, actually. Look at his felt pieces, which involve folding this amazing fabric, framing it, making you see something absolutely ordinary, transfiguring the commonplace. But in Theaster’s case, it’s not just the commonplace material, not just felt. It is these specific objects, the fire hoses, that suddenly get monumentalized, re-framed, and make you see them a different [End Page 73] way. I’m glad the radio station’s going to have a fire hose. I think that was a smart stipulation on the part of the city.

GATES:

Me too.

MITCHELL:

Maybe more than one? And what if there’s a fire? You might need an operational fire hose.

[laughter]

GATES:

Nah, I think I want a patent fire hose. Any lawyers?

Thank you guys, for class. It’s been great.

MITCHELL:

You have been a great class. I wish this weren’t the last one.

GATES:

Cheers.

(Applause.)

Theaster Gates

THEASTER GATES is a Chicago-based artist whose practice includes sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that aim to bridge the gap between art and life. He is founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation and Professor in the Department of Visual Art and Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago. Recent winner of Artes Mundi 6, Gates has also received awards and grants from the Joyce Foundation, the Graham Foundation, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and other sources. A participant at the 2012 dOCUMENTA (13) art show in Kassel, Germany, the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York, and the 2010 Art Chicago fair and other venues, he is represented by White Cube Gallery.

W.J.T. Mitchell

W.J.T. MITCHELL is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and has been the editor of Critical Inquiry since 1978. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society, as well as research conference grants, he is the author of, among other works, Blake’s Composite Art (1977), Iconology (1986), Picture Theory (1994, awarded the Charles Rufus Morey Prize and the Gordon E. Laing Prize), The Last Dinosaur Book (1998), What Do Pictures Want? (2005) Cloning Terror: The War of Images, September 11 to Abu Ghraib (2011), Critical Terms in Media Studies (2010; with Mark Hansen), Seeing Through Race (2012); and Image Science: Iconology, Media Aesthetics, and Visual Culture (2015).

Notes

1. See Art and the Public Sphere, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

2. Political philosopher Jodi Dean visited the seminar to provide a critique of the “fantasy of the public sphere” in late capitalism, along with a stirring public lecture on the history of crowds, and Patrick Jagoda offered a practical demonstration of the way new media gaming produces new forms of common experience and public life. Sparked by about twenty participants from every department of the University, including art, music, political science, anthropology, literature, cinema and media studies, and (yes) the business school, the seminar provided a feast of intellect that ended all too quickly.

A complete syllabus of the Gates-Mitchell seminar on “Art and Public Life” is available at W.J.T. Mitchell’s website, under “Courses”: https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/wjtmitchell/courses/. [End Page 75]

3. ASAP/Journal Editor’s Note: This dialogue was transcribed by ASAP/Journal and has been slightly edited for clarity in consultation with the dialogue participants. All photos have been obtained by ASAP/Journal for printing here, with permission of Theaster Gates. All notes to this dialogue are by W.J.T. Mitchell unless otherwise designated, as in this endnote.

4. Cesare Casarino and Antonio Negri, In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

5. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198-99.

6. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in an Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 14-15.

7. This refers to one of the proposed projects by a member of the seminar.

8. See W.J.T. Mitchell, “Headless, Heedless: Experiencing Magdalena Abankanowicz,” in Mary Jane Jacob and Jacqueline Bass, eds., Learning Mind: Experience Into Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

9. See Bill Brown, “Redemptive Reification (Theaster Gates, Gathering),” in Theaster Gates: My Labor is My Protest (London: White Cube, 2012).

10. ASAP/Journal Editor’s Note: The rest of this comment is inaudible on the interview recording.

11. See W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing,” in Art and the Public Sphere, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). [End Page 76]