Last Thursday, I attended the opening of Theaster Gates' new project at the Seattle Art Museum, The Listening Room, not quite knowing what to expect. As the recipient of the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship for 2011-2012, Gates was given a room in the museum, a cash prize, and a mandate to pursue his practice however he saw fit. Gates is interdisciplinary enough that anything might be possible. In the past his work has used urban planning, community organizing, architecture, music, performance, found objects, and furniture crafting. As a man with a deep respect for the personal and the political, Gates sees no reason why they cannot harmonize and reciprocally soften their sharp edges. Still, I found it slightly unsettling that an event that began with the artist being handed a check by the institutional representative included little to no mention of the problem of economics.
The opening kicked off with a brief introduction from Gates; or rather, a multimedia explanation. Gates spoke to one theater and was simulcast into an adjacent room for further attendees that wouldn't fit in the first. I queried someone who had been in the simulcast space—what was it like—they said that the sound quality was fine; but the bizarre part was being a silent audience, unable to have the artist hear your laugh or the clap of your hands when they came naturally tumbling out. Gates is charming and even seductive, a handsome but balding man with a salt and pepper beard and a beautiful a capella voice which he used to great effect during his presentation as both a tactic of disarmament and as a tool of tender warfare.
The Listening Room consists of objects Gates created, but also an LP player and a sizable number of records ranging from soul to Blues to Jazz and R&B. These records were reclaimed from Dr. Wax, a venerable institution on the Southside of Chicago run by a Jewish man Gates referred to as “Brother Greenberg.” Gates spoke about how touched he was that this man, who was not of his culture, had resolved to preserve so much black history in his record store, and he elaborated that he thought the cultural histories of Jews and Blacks was intertwined in America, and that as one group had moved up in the world, it opened up opportunities for the other. This seemed like an important and relevant insight, but the lack of any direct attention to the problem of money—the real reason Dr. Wax had to close, and the reason Gates was able to acquire those records in the first place, went entirely unaddressed. When you talk about trying to investigate and understand why developers don't value the small businesses they tear down, or why the city you live in doesn't support the cultural heritage of the dispossessed, not directly confronting the financial reasons for this seems short-sighted. It sounds much better both in person and on a recording to say that we're all not implicated, that it's the fault of someone else somewhere else.
The installation is about the pain of the past, and the value of holding onto that pain—of rescuing history and community from the trash heap. In addition to the records, flattened and recycled firehoses become the spines of books or records on a shelf, lovingly catalogued despite their humble origins. My immediate associations were rescue, preventing fire or disaster, and the loving cataloguing of treasured artifacts on the shelf. These larger wall pieces reveal what the artist's true concern is, organizing a past that concerns both trauma and love, and in the memory of trauma an upraising song of love. The intention is to have patrons sit for a minute, put on a record, and get lost in a memory, if only momentarily. Several times during the opening Gates seemed to step back and lose himself in reflection, a light smile on his face as he watched the record play and the audience react to the recorded sorrows of generations past.
Theaster Gates, Dr. Wax Archive at Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2009. Photo by Young Sun Han, Courtesy of artist and Kavi Gupta Chicago/Berlin.