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Theaster Gates’ Social Formations

Theaster Gates,
12 Ballads for Huguenot House, dOCUMENTA (13), Friedrichsstraße 25, Kassel, Germany, 2012
Photograph: Latitudes (Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna)

Systems just arent made of bricks theyre mostly made of people. —Crass (1980)

In 2012, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates participated in dOCUMENTA with 12 Ballads For Huguenot House, in which construction materials salvaged from an abandoned Chicago home were used to alter the space of a building in Kassel, Germany. The Kassel building had housed displaced French Protestants in the seventeenth century, while the Chicago building that supplied the materials, 6901 South Dorchester Avenue, formed a portion of Gates’ Dorchester Projects, a multi-building zone of arts and community activity located in Chicago’s largely low-income African American community of Woodlawn/Grand Crossing.1 Visually, the rough edges and visible seams of 12 Ballads combined the artistic precedent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions, DIY riffs on mid-century modern design, and David Hammons’ allusive assemblage aesthetic. During the dOCUMENTA exhibition, the space hosted a series of events that included performances by Gates’ own zen gospel musical group, the Black Monks of Mississippi, as well as activities such as yoga classes and literary readings, tropes of ephemeral sociability familiar to anyone versed in recent relational and social art practices.2 In discussing the 12 Ballads work, many commentators focused on the aesthetic reworking of materials salvaged from a crumbling Chicago building, or on the parallel histories of forced migration that offered a point of overlap between French Huguenots and Chicago’s African American community.3 Thus Gates was understood, as he himself has described it, to work in the medium of “sculpture and mythmaking.”4

ArtPlace webpage showing Theaster Gates’ Black Cinema House under construction, 6901 S Dorchester Ave, Chicago, IL, 2011

In the field, beyond the spaces of exhibition, Gates rehabs buildings in low-income African American urban areas of the Midwest and turns them into centers for arts and cultural programming. Gates’ activities generate artifacts for exhibition, but their primary focus is urban regeneration. Gates thus operates at the vanguard of recent socially engaged artistic situations, processes, and events that are intended to effect a change in the material circumstances of some of the participants or viewers: the social capital of artists is transferred to politically and economically marginalized populations. These contemporary practices ostensibly sidestep the art market, instead marshaling the resources of large, financially solvent institutions and foundations bound up in networks of global capital in order to materially benefit selected individuals or groups, in Gates’ case, African Americans living in low-income, urban communities in Chicago and other Rust Belt cities. While Gates and other artists rely partially upon art institutions, what marks these practices is that they draw upon a broader range of sources—e.g., elite universities’ investment in local communities, charitable foundations’ efforts to ameliorate social problems, community development corporations’ focus on alleviating urban poverty, federal tax credits intended to spur economic growth in low income neighborhoods—to effect a redistribution of wealth or access to power.

Art institutions certainly remain a necessary component of these “social practice” works, but only insomuch as they recast alleviation of social and economic inequality as cultural production.5 Though such practices have parallels to performance art, institutional critique, and relational aesthetics, these works are thus characterized by a parasitic relation to cultural, civic, and financial institutions. Commentators such as Gregory Sholette have seen a sort of parodic emulation in this mode of contemporary art practice, in which artist collectives offer “miniature replica[s] of institutional cohesion and legitimacy,” or “mockstitutions” which “seemingly fixed institutional participant[s]—the state, city, corporation, prison, museum, school, even the European Union”—feel compelled to support.6 However, Theaster Gates’ project is quite different, resembling instead what Michel Serres has described as the parasite: a figure who interrupts an existing circuit, producing disorder but also generating a different order.7 It is not simply that Gates creates fictitious institutions, or parodies extant institutions. Instead he institutionalizes informal arrangements. Gates himself has explained that, as he moved between “super formal” institutions, such as “museums, the gallery scene, [Chicago Department of] Cultural Affairs” and “super informal” institutions, such as “storefronts, or Walgreens, or Harold’s Chicken,”

I wanted to . . . call attention to . . . the life that is lived between them. And often, the really formal ones are outside of my neighborhood, and the informal ones are often in my neighborhood. So I also wanted to . . . have those two things collide in the way they collide in my life. . . . One of the byproducts of [my] projects is that there would be this kind of spatial collision, or this social collision, that really conflates how my life looks every day.8

Gates makes the ephemeral sociability of the black metropolis visible and concrete, institutionalizing it in the authority of archives and the durability of a newly aestheticized built environment, spaces that may themselves spur new diagonal exchanges across unseen social divides.9 More recently, Gates described his practice as “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.”10 Thus, rather than locating the art of Gates’ practice in objects or performances, his work can more accurately be understood in terms of the new social arrays he generates, social arrays in which the cultural capital of the artist is transformed into concrete monetary investment. Even as Gates’ works materially benefit the neighborhoods in which they are located, Gates’ social position as artist makes his work intelligible as a cultural good available to be consumed by a broad public of art viewers.

Theaster Gates with Okwui Enwezor at BUILD | REBUILD: Rebuild Foundation Benefit, Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL, September 19, 2015 Rebuild Foundation Instagram. Photograph Kelly Taub/BFA
Theaster Gates with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 7200 S Kimbark Ave, Chicago, IL, 2014
Splash magazine, owned at that time by the Chicago Sun-Times. Photographs © Jimmy Fishbein

In contemporary art, parasitic tactics work in several registers. The artist is often dependent upon, or parasitic upon, the financial and logistical support of various institutions in order to carry out large-scale socially engaged projects. He or she interrupts the flow of money aimed at the production or exhibition of art, diverting money and visibility toward people and communities typically absent from the art world.11 At the same time, art institutions themselves depend upon the artist to validate what might otherwise be half-baked forays into community politics or social services, or real estate ventures thinly disguised as such; this differentiates artistic parasitism from the “irreversible” and unidirectional flow described by Michel Serres. In the case of Gates, his entire practice hinges upon diverting wealth and access to power from extant channels to individuals and groups – typically poor, typically racially marked – otherwise cut off from such agency.12 But even as these “subjects” might be viewed as parasitic upon institutions, art institutions are in turn parasitic upon these subjects’ marginal social positions. To maintain their positions at the forefront of contemporary art—specifically the “social practice” strain—institutions depend upon a steady supply of people (again, typically poor and/or racially marked) with whom (or through whom) social practice can occur. As cultural institutions whose mandates typically involve some sort of community outreach, art institutions receive help validating their missions from social practice’s visible support for marginalized communities.

But this assertion raises the question: if this type of art is validated, or even constituted, by the extra-artistic, where does “the social” lie? Are these activities exemplary of an avant-garde aspiration to unite art and life, predicated upon a fundamental separation between the two realms? Is the social a ground against which art figures?13 Certainly, the very possibility of “socially engaged art” seems predicated on bridging a divide between distinct spheres of art and the social.14 There already exist substantial critiques of this model, both in terms of artistic autonomy and for social scientists who contend that, “Problems arise . . . when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden,’ ‘steely,’ ‘biological,’ ‘economical,’ ‘mental,’ ‘organizational,’ or ‘linguistic.’”15 But in addition to the general problem of isolating “the social” as “a kind of material or domain,” to which art can be opposed, there is an even starker divide at play with so-called social practice. For social practice, “the social” signifies “real people,” whom we might identify as the poor, the dispossessed, and/or the sexually or racially marked.16 Just as earlier avant-gardes sought to “expand what is considered artistic and to annex mundane, nonartistic matter,” recent socially-engaged practices take as their protagonists groups of people otherwise absent from the typical workings of the art world, thus absorbing nonartistic humans as artistic matter.17

Gates’ art is not, then, locatable in obvious artistic objects, or in his performances, but in networks of people, political agency, flows of investment; rather than sensual embodiments of marginalized lifeways, the objects that Gates creates or gathers are props, assisting him in staging the ephemeral sociability of the contemporary city. The following pages explore such networks in detail, showing how Gates has drawn upon the financial and political might of institutions such as large research universities, charitable foundations, and governments to act as real estate developer in low-income African American communities of the urban United States. But Gates should not be understood as an artist who performs the role of urbanist. Rather, his ability to generate funding and political will to accomplish projects depends upon his success at inhabiting the role of black contemporary artist. The intelligibility of Gates’ practice as art depends upon his carefully constructed self-presentation as a black contemporary artist, with his social practice works rendered artistic precisely by virtue of their creator’s social position.18 That is, as Michel Serres elaborates, the parasite “builds a new logic,” transmuting superstructure (art, social interactions) into infrastructure (money, property).19

  1. Social Collisions

From Gates’ earliest artworks, one can see the performance of blackness as a key problematic, beginning with “Japanese soul food” meals at the incipient Dorchester Projects around 2007. Gates was trained as a ceramicist, and many of his early projects addressed the shared significance of pottery in Japanese and African American cultures.20 In the mid-2000s, Gates invented the character of a Japanese potter, Shoji Yamaguchi, who settled in a Mississippi clay region in the 1960s and married an African American civil-rights activist. Supposedly, after the Yamaguchis’ death in the early 1990s, their son established an institute to continue their work melding Japanese and Southern African American aesthetics and cuisine. Building on this story, Gates threw ceramic plates for carefully-staged “Japanese soul food” meals, where diverse gatherings of people were invited to discuss “issues of race, political difference and inequalities of all sorts.”21

Similar practices include Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 Untitled (Free), in which Tiravanija set up a kitchen at 303 Gallery in New York and served gallery goers free rice and Thai curry, and Liam Gillick’s documenta x installation Discussion Island (1997), which mythologized his Irish heritage by foregrounding a fabled Celtic mode of conflict resolution (carried out on the neutral ground of an island collaboratively maintained by various clans).22 Gates’ works not only mimic Tiravanija’s sensuous instantiation of the gift economy and Gillick’s use of quasi-architectural forms to shape behavior, but they draw upon a story rooted in ethnic identity, though in the case of Gates this was initially displaced onto the fictional character of the half-Black and half-Asian John Yamaguchi.23 Soon, Gates found his own position as an African American artist living in a poor neighborhood area on Chicago’s South Side would prove an even more potent narrative. By 2009, Gates was overtly addressing his own performance of blackness in works such as the lecture/performance, “To Be Pocket: Militaristic Effeminacy, The ‘Hood’ and Adorno’s Last Sermon, or, It’s Over When The Black Marching Band Goes Home.24 Moreover, Gates’ emphasis on semi-industrial, semi-artisanal production is linked, in his own accounts, to identity and biography. In addition to the importance of pottery in African American history, Gates has described his entry into art through work with his father in the construction industry, particularly tarring roofs.25 In performing the black contemporary artist, Gates thus draws upon a particular history of African American culture in relation to desires for authenticity in today’s art world.26 Yet despite similarly mobilizing identity to position his work within the contemporary art world, Gates’ practice contrasts to the “relational aesthetics” of Tiravanija and Gillick.

Where relational aesthetics may constitute ephemeral sociability as a temporary heterotopia within an art context, e.g., a museum, gallery, or international exhibition, Gates parasitically diverts resources from the contemporary art world to create new gathering spaces, new institutional configurations, that seek to alleviate a community’s lack. Gates’ work is thus more intelligible as “social practice art” or “service media art.”27 Early examples of this type of work came to wider attention with Mary Jane Jacobs’ 1993 Sculpture Chicago biennial, entitled “Culture in Action: New Public Art in Chicago.”28 For example, Chicago artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s participation in the biennial consisted of a collaboration among artists, a local community television network, and a teacher and students at a high school located in a predominantly Puerto Rican, low-income area of Chicago.29 The teenagers produced videos based in their own lives, which came together to form the multi-screen work Tele-Vecindario [Tele-Neighborhood] (1993), presented in vacant lots at a neighborhood block party during the biennial.30 The pertinent aspect of this project is, however, not so much its final presentation as the process by which it was produced, its blurring of lines between art practice and community organization. Another notable work in the 1993 Sculpture Chicago biennial was the work Flood, a storefront demonstration hydroponic garden organized by artist collective Haha and volunteers located in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. In addition to producing and distributing garden vegetables and herbs to AIDS hospices and HIV-positive residents of Chicago, the group held bi-weekly meals and educational activities at the storefront.31 As with Mangano-Ovalle’s Tele-Neighborhood, what is notable about Haha’s practice is the difficulty of teasing out its artistic qualities as something distinct from its social or service character. Their presentations did deploy art-historical references. The television monitors of Manglano-Ovalle’s Tele-vecindario, for example, were placed on ersatz plinths formed of plastic milk crates, while the Haha storefront drew upon the precedent of Claes Oldenburg’s Store (1961) and updated it with a 1980s Soho gallery aesthetic with white shelves of catalogs and ephemera surrounding the central demonstration garden. However, ultimately, the artistic intelligibility of Tele-vecindario and Flood lay in the way that Manglano-Ovalle and Haha diverted the resources of the Sculpture Chicago Biennial and displaced the Biennial’s viewers to lower-income, largely non-white neighborhoods (Humboldt Park and Rogers Park)—and social collisions—they might otherwise not have encountered.

In a similar way, Theaster Gates’ practice can be understood to produce social collisions. His artworks assemble networks of people, including the visibly marginalized individuals who are both the subjects (the thematic focus) and objects (beneficiaries) of Gates’ projects, as well as the normative “art viewer” (wealthier, whiter) typically absent around Gates’ spaces on the South Side of Chicago. But his artworks are not simply assemblages of people. Instead, Gates constructs byzantine financial webs to support his spaces of ephemeral sociability (the street, the storefront, the community art center). These spaces act as artworks, while the sense of social purpose masks the extent of Gates’ engagement with contemporary capitalism. Parasitic practices thus act as a subset of social practice. They rely upon the mobile and deterritorialized processes of global capital, while offering justification through the corresponding “artificial, residual, archaic” reterritorializations, a form of self-essentializing as artistic branding which in turn generates financial and logistical support.32 A flow of money, from municipal tax credits to real estate investors, or wealthy philanthropists’ donations to the arts, or from tuition dollars and donations to the University of Chicago, is parasitically interrupted by Gates’ art practice, which finds relevance in today’s art world for its ability to mobilize tropes of minority culture intelligible within contemporary art discourse.

2.  Sculptor + Mythmaker

Over the past decade, as Gates has transitioned from emerging to established artist, the nature of his practice has undergone a dramatic shift: from ceramics to architectonic structures, from small-scale events to large institutions. In one view, this move from studio to post-studio practice accompanies the increased availability of financial and logistical resources as Gates’ renown grew. The past decade of Gates’ practice can thus be seen to be oriented around a consistent set of aesthetic concerns, rooted in a rethinking of contemporary African American culture and a fresh take on the potential of art as an engine of urban development. However, this interpretation does not take into account the overall structure of Gates’ work, in that his practice consists of increasingly impressive networks of funding and logistical support, with artistic objects and cultural spaces acting as catalysts.

Logos of selected institutions and foundations that have provided financial support for Theaster Gates’ work
Image by author

The Huguenot House of dOCUMENTA 13 existed, that is, as an aesthetic product within the larger ecosystem of Gates’ artistic practice: an extensive strategy to rehab buildings in low-income African American urban areas of the Midwest (Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis), and establish centers for arts and cultural programming. Most famously, for over a decade Gates has lived amidst the Dorchester Projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and it is from one of its component buildings that materials were removed for the Huguenot House work at dOCUMENTA.33 Gates was also instrumental in creating the Washington Park Arts Incubator, an arts and community center inaugurated in 2013 by the University of Chicago, where Gates is employed. In 2014, Gates’ practice expanded to encompass projects that directly address community needs, namely the large-scale residential project, Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, in which a Chicago Housing Authority complex was transformed into mixed-income housing with an arts focus. Most recently, in 2015, Gates opened the Stony Island Arts Bank, in which an abandoned bank building was rehabbed to create a site for arts programming, as well as an archive centered on the history of black culture in the United States. Its collections include books from the shuttered Prairie Avenue Architecture Bookstore, records from the shuttered Dr. Wax music store, and the archives of famed African American magazines Ebony and Jet, as well as more somber items, such as the Cleveland gazebo where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police gunshots in 2014.

Theaster Gates; Brinshore Development, LLC; City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development; Chicago Housing Authority; and IFF Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI)
Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E 70th St, Chicago, IL, 2015
Photograph by author, 2017

Art objects do form an aspect of Gates’ larger practice, in that their sales have played a major role in generating funding for these urbanist or social practice projects. To help fund the Stony Island Arts Bank, Gates famously issued a limited edition of $5,000 “Bank Bonds” made – with a nod to Duchamp – from marble slabs that had formed partitions between urinals in the former bank’s restrooms. In a poetic flow of parasitism, wealth was made material in a 1920s bank building, while the 2000s saw these hunks of precious stone transmogrified back again into currency, which in turn supported the creative restoration of the building.34 However, these Bank Bonds raised only about $500,000 of the roughly $12 million budget for the Arts Bank; the rest came from investors benefitting from federal and state tax credits. Most of the funding, that is, came from the normal avenues for any low-income urban housing project. It is unlikely that Gates could have drawn together enough investment—whether from art sales or urban development tax credits—to accomplish large-scale urbanist projects like the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative or the Stony Island Arts Bank without having established his bona fides as an artist. However, with regard to an art historical understanding of Gates’ art practice, his museum and gallery shows are largely beside the point.

The architectural detritus and assemblages that Gates exhibits, as well as the art criticism that has built up around his objects and performances, are simply ways of establishing Gates as artist. While the art historian Huey Copeland has described Gates’ objects as “set adrift from the economies that produced [them] in order that black life might thrive elsewhere,” they can also be understood as material manifestations of Gates’ cultural capital.35 In these aesthetic objects, Gates riffs on modernist painting (fire hoses as Frank Stella or Agnes Martin), post-Minimalist sculpture (chunks of rehabbed buildings evoke everything from Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts to Rachael Whiteread’s white casts), and African American cultural history (in the manner of David Hammons), a combination of references that support Gates’ strategic inhabitation of a social role as black contemporary artist. Gates’ object-based practice is, however, secondary to his primary aim: diverting the financial and social capital of large networked institutions to achieve ends that seem to evade conventional criteria of aesthetic judgment.

  3. Properties and Profits

Gates’ work in real estate and urban development is propelled by his identification as an artist, which allows him to generate financial and logistical support for investment in the guise of cultural production. Undertaking his work as an artist rather than a developer also gives Gates access to a particular array of funding sources. The bulk of Gates’ projects have been carried out under the auspices of the Rebuild Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit established in 2010.36 Rebuild’s activities center on rehabbing buildings in African American communities of the Midwest for the purpose of housing community arts programming. Donations to the Rebuild Foundation are tax deductible, and it has received support from a laundry list of charitable foundations, such as the Pritzker Family Foundation and ArtPlace America, the latter of which is a collaboration among leading philanthropic foundations (including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies) as well as several major financial institutions (Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Citibank, Chase, MetLife, and Morgan Stanley).37 In addition to providing support for “general operating expenses,” these organizations have donated funds to specific projects undertaken by the Rebuild Foundation. Examples include the Hyde Park Art House in St. Louis, MO, which has housed urban design and music camps for middle schoolers, and the Carver Bank building in Omaha, NE, where exhibition and performance spaces, artist studios and a small cafe are managed and programmed by the Bemis Art Center.

The prototype for Gates’ broader production remains his multi-building Dorchester Projects complex in Chicago, which has included the Archive House—containing glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago Department of Art History, architectural books from the defunct Prairie Avenue Architecture Bookshop, and vinyl records saved from the demolished Dr. Wax music store, all collections moved to the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015–and Black Cinema House, a film screening space dedicated to films of the African diaspora. The process of creating these spaces centered on acts of salvage. The cultural artifacts gathered within the Dorchester Projects, the repurposed construction materials that Gates used, and the structures of the buildings themselves have been salvaged from the wreckage of disinvestment in America’s black metropolises, exacerbated by the recent foreclosure crisis.38 Gates’ combination of art, artisanship, and a locally-rooted social mission has proved irresistible to philanthropists whose donations fund the Rebuild Foundation’s work.

However, as the Rebuild Foundation admits, “Most of this work is actually carried out as a for-profit known as Dorchester Projects LLC. The buildings ARE NOT owned by Rebuild Foundation, but most of the wonderful things that happen in them are developed, organized, and managed by Rebuild Foundation.”39 In fact, in June 2011, the Rebuild Foundation received a $15,000 grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation specifically “To support the business plan and legal structure to separate for-profit from not-for-profit activities.”40 Subsequently, in 2012, Dorchester Projects LLC was renamed Theaster Gates Studios, LLC, while separate LLCs were created for each individual building of the Dorchester Projects, e.g., 6901 South Dorchester, LLC, 6916 South Dorchester, LLC, and 6918 South Dorchester. In late 2015, the Rebuild Foundation rebranded itself with a new website that diminished Gates’ visibility, and several buildings that had formerly comprised Gates’ Dorchester Projects were now reinterpreted as “Program Sites” of the Rebuild Foundation. Meanwhile, in the period between 2011 and the present, Gates established a number of other LLCs corresponding to additional buildings in the area. According to corporate filing documents, as of 2016 Theaster Gates was the Manager of LLCs associated with at least eight properties on the 6900 block of South Dorchester Avenue.41 That is, Gates manages these LLCs, and the LLCs are corporate owners of these properties.42

Quit-claim deeds for selected S Dorchester Ave properties
Image by author

While Gates has not made public his intentions regarding these corporations, or his understanding of their function within his artistic practice, there are several notable aspects. For one, the conversion of these properties into LLCs parallels the displaced ownership and liquid assets that characterize the investment vehicles known as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).43 REIT companies assemble portfolios of income-producing properties, often office buildings or residential complexes. Individuals can buy shares in the REIT, and the income produced by the portfolio of properties—through sales or rents—is paid as dividends to shareholders, none of whom actually own any of the property in question. For Gates, the most immediate advantage of re-categorizing these properties as LLCs rather than as personally-owned properties is that—by relinquishing individual ownership—Gates enjoys limited liability for any lawsuits in connection with the properties.44 However, the structural parallel between Gates’ LLCs and REITs also has broader implications for the status of these properties as artworks. Unlike real estate parcels bundled into REITs, Gates’ LLCs (currently) fail to generate income. Yet each of Gates’ “artworks,” each property, can now be sold as a business. Or, as with REITs, individual shares or membership interests in these properties can be bought and sold, thus distributing gains and losses across a number of investors. Shares in Gates’ artworks can be bought and sold on the market. With the Stony Island Arts Bank Bank Bonds (2013), Gates has already thematized this financial structure in his work. However, as real estate rather than artworks, Gates’ properties may avoid the higher capital gains tax rate on art and collectibles (up to 28%), and be subject to the lower capital gains tax rate (15-20%) on investment income.45 With future sales of these artworks/properties, a museum or wealthy collector could “own,” or own a share of, the Archive House of Dorchester Projects, including its land, building, and possibly its archives.46 The sale might be accompanied by a detailed contract in the mode of sales of Conceptual Art, e.g., a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. Programming—and perhaps the archival collections—could remain the purview and property of Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, while the land, whether as real estate or as artwork, will continue to accrue value.

Gates’ practice is, then, a highly financialized endeavor which is even self-parasitic, in that money flows along a route through Gates’ various subsidiaries. The Rebuild Foundation, for example, depends upon donations from individuals as well as grants from private foundations, but an ostensibly virtuous cycle of philanthropic largesse and nonprofit social justice efforts is interrupted by the for-profit LLCs. Of course, Gates’ entire real estate endeavor is predicated upon an originary parasitism, as deindustrialization and suburbanization were paired with capital flight out of the urban U.S. from the 1960s onward.47 Moreover, in asserting control over swaths of these so-called blighted areas (a formal categorization which enables certain types of publicly funded investment), Gates performs a parodistic restatement of the post-Great Recession real estate market.48 Since 2008, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) have snapped up not only commercial properties, but also many single family homes, which they then rent to families and individuals dispossessed of their residences and lacking the income, credit, or downpayment to buy a home. Even as improving economic circumstances allowed many Americans to accumulate down payments in the years following the 2008 crash, many homes were bought and sold in all-cash sales by investors, often REITs. Gates’ practice adopts some of the same techniques as REIT investors, and Gates’ project has been similarly contingent upon depressed real estate values and the abandonment of structures in low income communities of America’s Rust Belt cities, especially African American neighborhoods.

By investing in real estate while performing the role of artist, Gates is able to combine for-profit and non-profit funding channels, enabled by an ethos of cultural production in support of community betterment. It is in this mix of public and private, profit-seeking and not-for-profit, that the parasitic nature of Gates’ work emerges. Gates’ practice should not, then, be understood simply as an altruistic form of arts activism or social practice art. Instead, Gates performs the social role of the artist—in a particularly Beuysian mode of artist as visionary, as shaman, as community activist, and which Gates himself has explicitly linked to his experiences in the black church—in order to carry out the radical reformation of, and reinvestment in, urban neighborhoods.49

  4. Parasitism and the American University

Gates’ projects have often been carried out in conjunction with the University of Chicago, where he has worked since 2009, first as Director of Arts Programming Development and then, since 2011, as Director of Arts and Public Life. For example, the University of Chicago has poured over $1.3 million into the Washington Park Arts Incubator, a 1920s building that Gates rehabbed into a gallery, artist studios, and community space.50 This building sits just west of Washington Park, which had previously served as a buffer between the University and impoverished areas farther to the west. Located on Garfield Boulevard adjacent to the elevated train station closest to the University of Chicago, the Arts Incubator thus serves as the new face of the western entry to campus, and the university has been explicit about this area’s strategic importance. As the University of Chicago’s Vice President of the University’s Commercial Real Estate Operations (CREO) has explained, “Reviving the stretch of Garfield [Boulevard] between King Drive and Prairie Avenue is important to the university because the boulevard is the first thing many out-of-state and international students see when visiting campus.”51 But it is not only for cosmetic reasons that the University of Chicago has invested substantial sums to support Gates’ work in the urban areas surrounding the institution.

Even as the University of Chicago has faced criticism for aspects of its relationship to the surrounding neighborhoods, the institution’s support of Gates’ practice has led to considerable financial benefit as well as positive publicity. The ArtPlace Foundation—a joint project funded by a number of charitable foundations and corporate banks, and advised by various government entities—supported the Washington Park Arts Incubator with $400,000, given to and administered by the University of Chicago. And, in spring 2014 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded the University of Chicago a $3.5 million grant for “The Place Project,” to “build on pioneering work by Theaster Gates” to “expand and test a community development model that supports arts and culture to help transform communities and promote local growth and vibrancy.”52 Led by Gates and the university’s Art and Public Life initiative, the project’s brief was to “jump-start community-led development by bringing together artists, designers, urban planners and policy experts in cities such as Akron, Ohio; Detroit, and Gary, Ind.”53 The University of Chicago—itself a non-profit able to receive tax deductible donations—serves as an umbrella organization to receive and facilitate donations to Gates’ practice, and this relationship benefits the university as well. The artist is parasitic upon the institution in order to carry out projects, but the institution itself is parasitic upon the artist, since it reaps benefits from its association with the artist’s activities. Precisely such a parasitic relationship characterizes the subset of social practice art in which Gates is engaged, where investment to ameliorate social problems is channeled through artistic circuits.

Himself African American, and a resident of the predominantly African American, predominantly low-income neighborhood to the south of the University of Chicago, Gates can be seen as both a link between the university and the surrounding neighborhoods, and as a critical commentator on such involvement. One should question, however, whether Gates’ identity simply allows the University of Chicago to displace some of the anxiety facing its expansion into nearby low-income African American communities by positioning Gates as the public face of the university’s development. In supporting Gates’ “cultural development” projects, is the University of Chicago an arts patron, a community anchor, or is there another game at play?

Since the early 2000s, the University of Chicago has extended its reach southward, building new dormitories and a towering visual and performing arts center just beyond its symbolic southern boundary, the grassy Midway Plaisance between 60th and 61st Streets.54 More recently, the university turned its attention westward. Beginning around 2008, when this area became the focus of the City of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, the University of Chicago purchased roughly ten acres next to Washington Park, which sits adjacent to the university and serves as a buffer between the school and impoverished areas to the west.55 Although the failure of Chicago’s Olympic bid briefly slowed real estate speculation in the area, the university soon set its sights on another goal.

In addition to making the areas surrounding the University of Chicago more desirable to students and the parents who typically pay their undergraduate tuition, the university was strategically marketing itself as a leading contender for the Obama Presidential Center.56 Parcels near Washington Park formed the core of one of the University of Chicago’s proposals for the Obama Presidential Center (though it is unlikely that this was a goal from the very start of the university’s flurry of purchases). And it is no accident that Gates, as the head of the University of Chicago’s Art and Public Life initiative, and as an African American property and business owner in the surrounding neighborhoods, served as the public face for the university’s incursions into Washington Park, Grand Crossing, and other low-income African American communities near the university. The University of Chicago’s support for Gates’ Arts Incubator was one prong in the institution’s efforts to demonstrate their commitment both to developing cultural institutions in the area, and to the African American community. As a promotional video created by the University of Chicago to support its proposal for the Obama Presidential Center demonstrates, the university bolstered its bid by emphasizing its location on Chicago’s South Side, and its link to the “rich cultural history” (i.e., African American history) of the area.57 Immediately after this statement, a statement about the South Side’s “great community leadership” offers a voiceover to a photograph of Theaster Gates alongside Chicago 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell and University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer at the ribbon cutting for the Washington Park Arts Incubator. In May 2015, on the basis of its two proposals, one in Washington Park near Gates’ Arts Incubator, and the other in Jackson Park near Gates’ Dorchester Projects and Stony Island Arts Bank, the University of Chicago was awarded the Obama Presidential Center.

In July 2016, the location of the Obama Presidential Center was announced to be a parcel of land in Jackson Park, a Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted-designed lakefront park that was home to the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.58 The University of Chicago has long been invested in the nearby area, with several campus buildings on 60th and 61st Streets, albeit on the other side of the Metra commuter rail tracks from the Obama Presidential Center site. The Obama Presidential Center site is also mere blocks away from Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects and Stony Island Arts Bank, the latter of which is located just southeast of the southern edge of Jackson Park.59

While the University of Chicago was less explicit about the utility of the Jackson Park location prior to the site selection, it forms the core for a new $10.25 million funding initiative, a collaboration among Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, the University of Chicago’s Place Lab and the City of Chicago.60 With $5 million from foundations including the The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation, plus $5.25 million from local funders, the Reimagining the Civic Commons national initiative will invest in the neighborhood around the Stony Island Arts Bank. Neighborhood “assets,” such as a shuttered elementary school and vacant lots owned by the city, “will be transformed into vibrant civic spaces for public use.”61 Mere blocks away from the future home of the Obama Presidential Center, then, the University of Chicago will be involved in this large-scale remaking of an entire urban neighborhood, and Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank is considered the “flagship” or “first active asset” of this project.62

Theaster Gates and Rebuild Foundation
Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL, 2015
Photograph by author, 2017

  5. Social Alchemy: Transforming Capital

Not only does the Stony Island Arts Bank, a highly visible, large-scale project in which Gates foregrounded African American cultural production, form a crucial backdrop for the Obama Presidential Center, it also plays a key role in Gates’ overall project. With the Stony Island Arts Bank, there are formal shifts in Gates’ practice, on the level of aesthetics as well as institutionality. The Stony Island Arts Bank is not a private home turned community space, like much of Dorchester Projects, but a former conduit of financial flows remade into a cultural institution. Where Dorchester Projects buildings were initially open for events or ad hoc, Stony Island Arts Bank has regular hours and staffing. Materially, the crumbling wood and brick residential buildings of the Dorchester Projects have given way to high-ceilinged spaces of former commercial buildings made from durable materials like stone and marble. At the same time, the aesthetic of Gates’ work has changed, with professional architectural and design partners replacing the DIY aesthetic of his earlier works. In the early years, the Dorchester Projects were described as “rehabbed . . . with spare elegance, using recycled stone and salvaged wood. When you walk in you feel transported, like you’ve landed in a Zen temple.”63 In contrast, even though the Arts Bank rehab left bits of crumbling wall and cracked ceiling, reflecting the lack of official efforts to preserve institutions in minority communities, the Classical revival temple-style exterior is more closely related to traditional conceptions of what a fine arts museum should look like.64 Like the Washington Park Arts Incubator, the Stony Island Arts Bank thus adapted a building that already signaled institutional longevity and cultural import through scale, architectural style, and durable materials.65

As a durable institution, the Stony Island Arts Bank enfolds and valorizes as art the ephemeral sociability of the black metropolis, which Gates has previously organized more around commerce. The original building of Dorchester Projects, for example, was a former candy store, while Gates thematized the shoeshine stand in his 2010 Whitney Biennial installation. Gates also cited Walgreens and Harold’s Chicken as “super informal” institutions that he contrasted to the “super formal” institutions of the Chicago art world, i.e., museums, the gallery scene, and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.66 These commercial spaces, while they may be formal for the corporations that run them, are places of informal institutionality for the South Side of Chicago, where non-profits (e.g., museums) and government departments seem largely absent. With the Stony Island Arts Bank, Gates creates a formal institution in which African America’s faltering or failed businesses (Ebony, Jet, Dr. Wax) and the pre-archival ephemera of contemporary African American life are presented as cultural patrimony, both aesthetically (in the marble walls and soaring interior spaces) and logistically (as a quasi museum with opening hours and a standing staff).67 In contrast to Gregory Sholette’s notion of “mockstitutions,” Gates is establishing new institutions with longevity, and he is doing so parasitically: the Arts Bank was not established along the same official channels as, say, the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gates is thus generating a new and different order of cultural institutions centered on the long-neglected South Side of Chicago.

In his works, Gates equivocates on an old debate around African American advancement, based on economic versus cultural capital—or business acumen and wealth accumulation versus the fine and liberal arts.68 In foregrounding his own role as artist, Gates provides media friendly cover for his broader project of imagining new black-focused cultural institutions, historical preservation, and investment in housing and businesses. While he operates small-scale job training programs for lower-income African Americans as a form of artistic philanthropy, Gates has simultaneously promoted cultural creation—and consumption—by a largely ignored black middle class.69 In fact, Gates’ urbanist practice might be understood as a way of imagining an alternate history of the late-twentieth-century United States, in which disinvestment in inner cities never occurred, and black cultural institutions flourished. Gates has spoken of developing Black Cinema House, for example, out of his own desire to be able to go see independent films without traveling to art house cinemas on Chicago’s whiter, wealthier North Side. Gates’ ability to generate funding for new cultural institutions is, however, dependent upon his maintenance of a complicated fiction, centered on the identity of social practice artist rather than rapacious developer or community activist.

In his real estate deals, Gates is certainly materially changing low-income black neighborhoods that need improved infrastructure, commerce, services, and validation of lifeways. But his methods for doing so draw upon an idealized image of an artist as simultaneously cultural entrepreneur and spiritual savior, a Joseph Beuys updated for the age of venture capital, privatization of public services, and corporate welfare. While Gates takes the financial mechanisms that underlie both artistic patronage and urban development as the primary thematic of his works, he expands institutional critique’s prior focus on collectors and galleries to include private and public funding support for the arts. Moreover, he does so not solely as a critical move, but as a way to propel his work.70 A key aspect of parasitic practices, then, is a welcoming of institutional support, as opposed to the ambivalent stance of prior generations of institutional critique.

Moreover, parasitic practices differ from institutional critique in that parasitism’s critique is sublimated, and from relational aesthetics’ mobilization of the gift economy because parasitism is embedded in contemporary capitalism. There is a sort of magic to Gates’ work, an alchemy in which his own social capital as artist is transformed into the real financial capital that funds building rehabs and large-scale urban development. That is, institutional critique mounted a frontal attack on the built structures and discursive realms of the art world, while relational aesthetics sought to carve out heterotopic enclaves resistant to instrumentalization or commerce. In contrast, Gates is deeply enmeshed in city government and public-private partnerships that characterize the neoliberal city. If parasitism offers critique, it does so by strategically diverting investment to areas otherwise underserved by government funding and private investment. It is critique in which the artist’s own relative lack of power is mobilized; his visible public identity as a black artist claiming to represent a marginalized community forces the hand of institutions (a city, a wealthy university) seeking more harmonious relations with those communities. Gates is a congenial working partner for public relations coups. The artist’s visible success in an international art context provides a rationale for funding further urbanist projects, while Gates’ urbanism simultaneously acts as an artistic brand that validates the “wokeness” of museums and galleries exhibiting and selling his art objects, a self-reinforcing cycle. Gates’ projects take advantage of slippages in circuits of capital, offering critique as a hand-in-glove relation that seeks efficacy over ethical certainty.

  6. Social Practice, A Way Forward?

Critical and curatorial approaches to social practice seem to evade the genre’s more nefarious implications by foregrounding its progressive character, as in the case of Theaster Gates’ utopian interventions on the South Side of Chicago.71 Curators tend to exhibit social practices that resonate with the priorities of recent social-justice movements, which call for greater visibility and political agency for marginalized groups, as well as more robust redistribution of resources in the face of neoliberal weakening of social safety nets. There is also a seemingly radical capaciousness to curators’ definitions of social practice, in that the genre supposedly exceeds the bounds of art qua art. Social practice has, for example, been understood as a continuation of performance art outside the traditional framing devices of the gallery or stage, and curators and critics have also adopted the framework of a Badiouian event.72 Nato Thompson’s Living as Form book, for example, included as social practice such ruptures as “Tahrir Square” and “Wikileaks,” in addition to the reification of social groups or “specific social constituencies” such as the “Mardi Gras Indian Community” of New Orleans.73 Where social practice represents a new mode of art making, it is as a practice centered on challenging the coherence of the social body—who can or should constitute art’s subjects, its audiences, and its makers—rather than a consensus about the ontology of the artwork itself. Parasitic procedures, as a subset of social practice, moreover demand attention to the how, going beyond institutional critique as well to develop new mechanisms for funding and instantiating large-scale and ongoing social investments as art.

But if social practice and parasitism can be understood as art, it is not because they subvert a neoliberal hollowing out of institutionalized civic engagement, but because social practice, including its parasitic versions, offers an expanded understanding of what constitutes art. Social practice should not, then, be understood as a rosy reformulation of human rights, nor in terms of productive criticality, but as critical complicity. Parasitic practices formulate new social configurations centered on proposing ways to distribute, or redistribute, resources in a newly global order. One way that social practice could push forward out of its current impasse, then, is by drawing on the underlying thematic bridging the issues foregrounded by activist groups like Black Lives Matter and the crisis of refugees pouring into Europe: the issue of unrestricted movement in space.74 And it is this nexus that makes the parasitic practices of Theaster Gates, as well as those of artists like Ai Weiwei and Tania Bruguera, slightly out of sync with most social practice. These artists’ endeavors foreground the quotidian lives of Chinese and Cuban citizens, immigrants sans papiers, and African American urbanites, constituencies whose participation in liberalism’s normative rights of citizenship is fraught—restricted by an authoritarian nationstate, displacement and nativist antipathy, or exclusion from economic and legal institutions through structural racism.75 But more than a limited-time social practice, efforts like Gates’ struggle to concretely alter financial circumstances or political agency, to divert the flows of economic and social capital to areas and constituencies that lack such resources. Rather than representing social formations, Gates uses his role as artist to create new networks and institutions, which may then form the grounds of an alternative to the status quo. Yet at the same time, Gates’ practice is wholly in concert with certain philanthropic alternatives to government, with the potential to be just as anti-democratic in its lack of accountability.76 A pessimistic view might understand Gates’ work as simply binding together resource-rich and capital-poor in new formal configurations. But the potential of his work lies in the possibilities of creating new performativities, new social roles with newly imagined access to capital, an artist/shaman/urbanist/entrepreneur as simultaneously utopian and dystopian. What sets apart Gates’ work from a broader field of social practice is just this shift from art as grassroots organization to art as sculpting capital flows.


1.   The materials were being removed from the home, located at 6901 South Dorchester Avenue on the South Side of Chicago, as part of the process of transforming the building into “Black Cinema House,” with screenings and educational programming focused on films of the African diaspora. When it was rehabbed in 2012, Black Cinema House formed a part of Gates’ Dorchester Projects, a set of buildings on Dorchester Avenue comprising sites of African American themed cultural programming and archives. In 2014, Black Cinema House moved to 7200 South Kimbark Avenue, and, in 2015, 6901 South Dorchester was reframed as a “Program Site” for the Rebuild Foundation, the non-profit arm of Gates’ practice.
2.   With ephemeral sociability, publics and counterpublics are assembled in temporary configurations. What distinguishes the ephemeral sociability of relational aesthetics from that of social practice is the festive and heterotopic atmosphere of the former versus the more goal-oriented and discursive character of the latter, a sort of Badiou-ian Being (relational aesthetics) versus Event (social practice). The activities of social practice are often functionally closer to social activism or political organizing. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2002). Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002). Daniel Tucker, “Writing on Walls and Talking in Circles: Recent Art and Archiving,” Artist Talk, Department of Art History, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, May 24, 2013.
3.   See, for example, Aaron Betsky, “Theaster Gates and Tino Sehgal at Home in Documenta,” Architect Magazine, June 12, 2012, accessed May 28, 2015, See also Lee Bey, “Exhibition Review: Theaster Gates’ 13th Ballad,” Architectural Record, May 20, 2013, accessed May 28, 2015, Cf Timothy Beyes, “Summoning Art to Save the City: A Note,” ephemera 15, no. 1 (February 2015): 207-220.
4.   “Chicago Artists Month Artists Salon,” Chicago Arts District, October 4, 2007, accessed January 14, 2015, As late as 2011, when Dorchester Projects would be fully subsumed under the category of “social practice,” Gates was described as “a potter and musician who develops arts programs at the University of Chicago.” Ashley Gross, “Venture: Low home prices fuel artist’s vision: How the housing crash is enabling Theaster Gates to create an arts community,” WBEZ, March 21, 2011, accessed January 23, 2015,
5.   In lieu of the term “social practice,” the curator Nato Thompson uses “socially engaged art projects,” which he describes as “poetic, yet functional and political as well. They engage people and confront a specific issue.” Nato Thompson, Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (New York: Creative Time, 2012), 18. For Los Angeles social practice funding organization SPArt, “social practice art” can be “participatory, interactive, collaborative & relational” or “Art that requires community involvement, otherwise described as non-artist participation, to complete socially-engage [sic] art projects.” SPArt, accessed May 5, 2016, On the origins of the term “social practice,” see below.
6.   Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 169
7.   Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 3. On parasitism see also Adrian Anagnost, “Parasitism and Contemporary Art,” in Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction, ed. Pamela Fraser and Roger Rothman (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 79-96.
8.   Kathryn Born, interview with Theaster Gates, Bad at Sports (Podcast) no. 205, August 2, 2009, accessed January 23, 2015, On informal institutions in African American communities, see K. Sue Jewell, Survival of the African American Family: The Institutional Impact of U.S. Social Policy (1988) (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), especially chapter three, “Informal Social/Support Systems,” 39-52; and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
9.   On the “diagonal” exchange of the parasite, see Serres, The Parasite, 34, 35 and footnote 19 below.
10. Theaster Gates and W. J. T. Mitchell, “Art And Public Life: A Conversation,” ASAP/Journal 1, no. 1 (January 2016): 63.
11. Or, in the words of art critic Will Gompertz, “Theaster Gates’s art is political, powerful, unflinchingly critical and unashamedly based on leveraging his status as an artist.” The term leverage resonates with Gompertz’ positioning of Gates as an “enterprising” artist, or “cultural entrepreneur.” Will Gompertz, Think Like an Artist: . . . and Lead a More Creative, Productive Life (London: Penguin, 2015), 37.
12. Through the lens of parasitism, this article advances a slightly different take on these practices than that of Shannon Jackson, who has written more broadly about Gates and other “high-profile artists (Paul Chan, Vik Muniz) who have created short- and long-term systems of redistribution between art-world markets and under-resourced regions of the planet.” Shannon Jackson, “Utopian Operating Systems: Theaster’s Way of Working,” in Entry Points: The Vera List Center Manual on Art and Social Justice, ed. Carin Kuoni and Chelsea Haines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 217.
13. For the art historian Pamela M. Lee, the “historical notion of the art world” initially theorized by Arthur Danto in the 1960s as “a kind of figure to a social ground upon which it was historically fixed and dialectically established” is a conception in the process of being eclipsed. In place of an art world characterized by its “singularity,” “focus,” and even “exclusivity,” Lee identifies globalization as “a kind of informe: a new allover” that challenges the “relative autonomy” of works of art. Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 2-3.
14. For the art critic Claire Bishop, “advocates of socially collaborative art . . . argue that art is an independent zone, free from the pressures of accountability, institutional bureaucracy and the rigours of specialisation. The upshot is that art is perceived both as too removed from the real world and yet as the only space from which it is possible to experiment: art must paradoxically remain autonomous in order to initiate or achieve a model for social change” (Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship [London: Verso, 2012], 26-27). She had earlier countered that, “As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has observed, this denigration of the aesthetic ignores the fact that the system of art as we understand it in the West—the ‘aesthetic regime of art’ inaugurated by Friedrich Schiller and the Romantics and still operative to this day—is predicated precisely on a confusion between art’s autonomy (its position at one remove from instrumental rationality) and heteronomy (its blurring of art and life)” (Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum 44 [February 2006]: 183). Cf., Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011), 48-55.
15. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1. Within the field of art history, T. J. Clark locates the social in “the connecting links between artistic form, the available systems of visual representation, the current theories of art, other ideologies, social classes, and more general historical structures and processes.” T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973) (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 12. On the autonomy of avant-garde art, see Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 35-54. Cf., Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” in Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).
16. Claire Bishop describes such works as “art that collaborates with ‘real’ people (i.e., those who are not the artist’s friends or other artists,” and elsewhere she coyly refers to these “real people” as “specific social constituencies.” (Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 178, 181). This last in contrast to the presumably neutral, sexually and racially unmarked figure of the white cis-male body. On the visibility of race, see David Theo Goldberg, “In/Visibility and Super/Vision: Fanon and Racial Formation,” Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America (1997) (New York: Routledge, 2016). Even before Bishop, art critic Brian O’Doherty had commented on the shift in conceptions of audience for artists in the 1970s: “seventies man is a workable monad-figure and place, a transposition of figure and ground into a quasi-social situation. . . . Often there is an attempt to communicate with an audience that hasn’t been interfered with by art” (Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space [San Francisco, CA: Lapis Press, 1986], 78-79; emphasis added).
17. Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 153. Cf., Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture,” 3: “The artistic avant-garde has discovered, renewed, or re-invented itself by identifying with marginal, ‘non-artistic’ forms of expressivity and display—forms improvised by other social groups out of the degraded materials of capitalist manufacture.”
18. These artistic practices are enabled by the social position of these artists in a Bourdieuian sense, whereby social capital is understood as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition—or in other words, to membership in a group—which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word” (Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” trans. Richard Nice, n.p., accessed May 11, 2016,, originally published as Pierre Bourdieu, “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital,” in Soziale Welt 2, special issue “Soziale Ungleichheiten,” ed. Reinhard Kreckel [Göttingen: Schwartz, 1983]: 183-198). Cf., James S. Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” in “Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure,” supplement to American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120. Alternately, in the words of Allan Kaprow, “The decision [to be an artist] immediately establishes the context within which all the artist’s acts may be judged by others as art and also conditions the artist’s perception of all experience as probably (not possibly) artistic.” Allan Kaprow, “Manifesto” (1966), Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 81.
19. “The parasite is invited to the table d’hôte; in return, he must regale the other diners with his stories and his mirth. To be exact, he exchanges good talk for good food; he buys his dinner, paying for it with his words. . . . The parasite invents something new. Since he does not eat like everyone else, he builds a new logic. He crosses the exchange, makes it a diagonal. . . . He wants to give his voice for matter, (hot) air for solid, superstructure for infrastructure.” Serres, The Parasite, 34, 35.
20. A description of his 2007 work Plate Convergences explained that, “The spiritual and artistic dialogue between Black and Japanese arts is at the core of Theaster Gates’ art practice and expression.” “Plate Convergences,” Theaster Gates, accessed January 24, 2015, While this webpage is no longer live, it represents an early formulation of Gates’ self-mythologizing, which should continue to be recognized even if the artist himself now disavows or downplays it. See also Theaster Gates, “The Yamaguchi Institute: Plate Convergences,”, December 25, 2008, accessed June 19, 2017,
21. “Tea Shack Songs, Yamaguchi and the Black Monks of Mississippi,” Chicago Arts District, April 27, 2008, accessed April 19, 2013, For Gates’ own account of the Yamaguchi Institute work, see Lilly Wei, “Theaster Gates: In the Studio with Lilly Wei,” Art in America (December 2011): 120-127. In most accounts of Gates’ “Japanese soul food,” the prime example is “sushi made from black-eyed peas.” John Colapinto, “Letter from Chicago: The Real-Estate Artist High-concept renewal on the South Side,” The New Yorker 89, no. 43, January 20, 2014, 24-31. Gates has offered a more vivid description: “I’m gonna build a soul food kitchen that is fast, and good, and takes advantage of sticky rice and the sushi form. I want honey dipped, crunchy fried mac-and-cheese unagi rolls. I want saki Kool-aid and, you know, I want dressing and chicken yakatori. And it’s only because those are the things that I love to eat” (Born interview).
22. See Jan Avgikos, “Liam Gillick,” Artforum 35, no. 10 (Summer 1997): 136.
23. On Gates’ deployment of “a romanticized notion of localized identity reinvigorated under the pressures of global migration,” see Anagnost, “Parasitism and Contemporary Art,” 82. For another take on the relationship between economic “dematerialization” and the “relentless hypermaterialization” of individuals, see Arjun Appadurai, “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai,” Public Culture 12, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 630.
24. Theaster Gates, “To Be Pocket: Militaristic Effeminacy, The ‘Hood’ and Adorno’s Last Sermon, or, It’s Over When The Black Marching Band Goes Home,” Our Literal Speed, Chicago, IL, May 2, 2009.
25. Cassie Walker Burke and Elly Fishman, “Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star,” Chicago Magazine, May 7, 2013, accessed January 23, 2015,
26. Contemporary understanding of “authenticity” is perhaps best summed up in Walter Benjamin’s 1936 “Work of Art” essay, in which he asserts that, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art always has its basis in ritual.” Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” second version, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2008), 24. Of course, the desire for authenticity—and the notions of its rootedness in ritual—can also be inscribed within primitivist notions of racial difference. See, for example, Larry Shiner, “‘Primitive Fakes,’ ‘Tourist Art,’ and the Ideology of Authenticity,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 225-234; and, with particular attention to criticism of African American artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Mary Ann Calo, “African American Art and Critical Discourse between World Wars,” American Quarterly 51, no. 3 (September 1999): 580-621. On the contemporary resurgence of craft, see Anna M. Fariello and Paula Owen, eds., Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004); Maria Elena Buszek, Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Gates himself has commented, “I’ve . . . been thinking about people like Josephine Baker and how black folk complicate modernism and the modernist moment. . . . This has to do with the racism of modernism, in a way, the kind of intentional denial of saying, ‘Well, we’re always getting things from wherever,’ instead of acknowledging sources. At the same time, it’s denying the deep intellectual regime that traditional carvers, craftsmen, diviners, and spiritualists had. I want to reload that, in a way.” Tom McDonough, interview with Theaster Gates, BOMB 130 (Winter 2014-2015): 41-49.
27. The term “social practice art” may have its roots in the German phrase “Kunst als soziale Praxis,” which emerged in writings about such practices in the 1990s. See, for example, a 1995 article on Austrian artists’ collective WochenKlausur. Christian Kravagna, “Willkommen in Wien, Servus in Österreich. über einige Beziehungen zwischen Kunst und Politik,” du (January 1995): 70-73. See also Christian Kravagna, “Arbeit an der Gemeinschaft. Modelle partizipatorischer Praxis” in Marius Babias and Achim Könneke, eds., Die Kunst des Öffentlichen (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1998), 28-46; and Christine Resch and Heinz Steinert, Die Widerständigkeit der Kunst: Entwurf einer Interaktionsästhetik (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2003). There may in fact be a direct lineage between WochenKlausur and Theaster Gates, since WochenKlausur had an influential residency at the University of Chicago in 2005, during which they established a social practice arts network: “[N]ine cultural institutions in Chicago supply materials they no longer need at regular intervals, and the usable items are converted by students at design institutes into furnishings and everyday objects that can be used by social institutions.” WochenKlausur, “Furnishing Social Institutions,” WochenKlausur, accessed December 18, 2014, Alternately, in 2012, Nato Thompson described “social practice” as a “West Coast” term. Thompson, Living as Form, 19. The term “service media” art seems to have been coined more recently in Chicago. In 2008, Chicago artist Stuart Keeler defined it thus: “In service media, a service is offered by the artist to the community as a whole, and community members then choose how to participate in the completion of the service/art process. Community members change from art-viewers into public participants through their own active engagement and collaboration with both the artist and the art process.” Stuart Keeler, “Community as Collaborator,” Public Art Review 19, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2008): 32-33. Similarly, for Chicago arts administrator Allison Peters Quinn, “Service media art exists wherever an artist identifies a community’s need and fulfills that need through a combination of creative problem-solving, commitment, and working with people to achieve a desired outcome.” Allison Peters Quinn, “Exchange Rate,” in Stuart Keeler, ed., Service Media: Is It “Public Art” or Is It Art in Public Space?: A Collection of Essays (Chicago: Green Lantern Press, 2012). Artist Michelle Grabner points out that so-called “social practice art” in the U.S. has been particularly promoted by European curators and institutions such as documenta. Michelle Grabner, interview with author, Chicago, IL, January 17, 2013. See Okwui Enwezor, “The Black Box” and “’What Is an Avant-garde Today? The Postcolonial Aftermath of Globalization and the Terrible Nearness of Distant Places,” in Documenta 11, Platform 5 (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 42-43, 44-48. See also Denise Frimer, “Pedagogical Paradigms: Documenta’s Reinvention,” Art & Education, February 24, 2011, accessed January 19, 2014,
28. These works have been extensively discussed in terms of an expanded notion of site-specificity by art historians including James Meyer and Miwon Kwon. See James Meyer, “The Functional Site; or The Transformation of Site Specificity,” in Bettina Marbach and Bernhard Bürgi, eds., Platzwechsel: Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Christian Philipp Müller (Zürich: Kunsthalle, 1995), reprinted in Documents 7 (Fall 1996): 20-29; and Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). Cf., Rosalyn Deutsche, “Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City,” October 47 (Winter 1988): 3-52; and Suzanne Lacy, “Cultural Pilgrimage and Metaphoric Journeys,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995), 19-30.
29. The project took place in a predominantly Puerto Rican community in Chicago’s West Town, where most of the teenagers attended the Wells High School-Within-a-School dropout prevention program at 936 North Ashland Ave. Anthony DeBartolo, “Video Project Gives Teenagers New View Of City—And Themselves,” Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1993, Today, more than twenty years later, the after-school youth video workshop portion of Manglano-Ovalle’s project still exists under the name Street-Level Youth Media, which “educates Chicago’s urban youth in media arts and emerging technologies for use in self-expression, communication, and social change.” “History,” Street-Level Youth Media, accessed January 14, 2015, On Manglano-Ovalle’s artwork, and on the life of the project after the artist was no longer involved, see also Kwon, One Place after Another, 130-134, 200n69, 153.
30. The block party was centered on the vacant lot at 1744 W. Erie St., west of Ashland Ave. See DeBartolo, “Video Project Gives Teenagers,” and Edward J. Sozanski, “A New Spin on What Art Can Be When It Goes Public: Sculpture Chicago Stressed Involvement by the Populace in Eight Projects,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 22, 1993. For a first-hand account, albeit one that should be read with some skepticism, see Johannes H. Birringer, Media & Performance: Along the Border (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 176-185.
31. See Kwon, One Place after Another, 130-134; and Heather Davis, “Growing Collectives: Haha + Flood,” public [Toronto] 41 (2010): 37-47.
32. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1972] (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 257. Cf Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). On essentialism as a political strategy, see Gayatri Spivak’s discussion of a “strategic use of positivist essentialism”: “It is within the framework of a strategic interest in the self-alienating displacing move of and by a consciousness of collectivity . . . that self-determination and an unalienated self-consciousness can be broached.” Gayatri Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing History,” in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 13-14. Here, I am arguing that this unalienated self-consciousness is being performed by artists such as Theaster Gates (strategically self-essentializing as an “authentically” black South Side Chicagoan), precisely in order to achieve the goals of a collectivity. Recently, Gates’ own employees have come public with complaints that he is in turn essentializing their identities to propel his projects. For example, “[S]everal Black staff members at [the] Rebuild [Foundation] were reportedly troubled by the nature of the Tamir Rice memorial, and the ways in which their concerns were received by higher-level staff. ‘They were asking Black workers to provide voices and perspective for the gazebo, because Theaster didn’t know what the fuck he wanted to say about it,’ said Darren Wallace, who was, at the time, Rebuild’s cinema education coordinator.” Mari Cohen and Christian Belanger, “Cracks in the Foundation: Former Employees of Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation Allege Mistreatment,” South Side Weekly, May 23, 2017, accessed May 26, 2017,
33. Of course, “projects” references not not only artistic projects, but also “the projects” of U.S. cities’ subsidized public apartment buildings. Gates’ practice centers on the city of Chicago, but he has also worked in other Midwestern Rust Belt cities with significant African American populations and tangible urban social inequality, e.g., Omaha, St. Louis, Gary, Akron, and Detroit. On the building that supplied the materials for Huguenot House, see footnote 1 above.
34. Michel Serres defines parasitism as an irreversible flow. Serres, The Parasite, 5.
35. Huey Copeland, “Dark Mirrors: Theaster Gates and Ebony,” Artforum 52, no. 2 (October 2013): 229. Performance historian Shannon Jackson has complicated the fine arts status of Gates’ objects by insisting on their decentered authorship: “Gates already deviates from the conventions of other high-end visual artists by including the names of the fabricators and builders such as John Preus who assist in making his objects and site-works.” Shannon Jackson, “Life Politics/Life Aesthetics: Environmental Performance in red, black, & GREEN: a blues,” in Erika Fischer-Lichte and Benjamin Wihstutz, eds., Performance and the Politics of Space: Theatre and Topology (New York: Routledge, 2013), 290. This may have been true at certain points in Gates’ exhibition practice, but he is not consistent in sharing attribution or authorship, nor do viewers typically understand Gates’ works as collectively authored, a situation to which Jackson herself alludes: “The interesting thing is that Theaster Gates seeks to maintain this philosophy in a world where his own authorial signature is gaining such traction” (291).
36. Gates originally established this non-profit as the Yamaguchi Institute for the Arts in 2009, then changed its name to the Rebuild Foundation in November 2010. On the problematic role of the 501(c)3 as a way of limiting the radicality of social justice movements, see INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007).
37. “ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that works to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities.” “Introduction,” ArtPlace America, accessed July 14, 2015, A previous formulation of the organization’s self-description read, “ArtPlace seeks advice and counsel from its close working relationships with the following federal agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts, the US Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, and Transportation, along with leadership from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council.” ArtPlace America, accessed August 15, 2012,
38. Gates’ practice is particularly opaque when it comes to labor. Who is the Rebuild Foundation? Who, exactly, is carrying out the rehabilitation of these buildings? See footnote 69 below.
39. Rebuild Foundation & Dorchester Projects,, 2011, accessed February 9, 2015,
40. Richard H. Driehaus Foundation IRS Form 990 (2011). Founded by Chicago investment fund manager Richard H. Driehaus, “The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation seeks to improve the built environment, to enhance the city through the arts, to use investigative reporting to strengthen our democracy, and to ameliorate the effects of low wages.” The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, accessed July 15, 2015,
41. These properties include 6901, 6904, 6907-09, 6916, 6918, 6921-21, 6952, and 6956 South Dorchester Avenue. In 2006, Gates purchased 6918 South Dorchester Avenue with a mortgage of $130,000. In 2013, he transferred the property (via a quit claim deed) to the 6918 S Dorchester LLC. In 2009, Gates acquired 6916 from HSBC Bank (which had foreclosed on the property) for $16,000, and also received a release from back water bills from the City of Chicago’s Water Department; in 2012 Gates transferred the property (via a quit claim deed) to 6916 S Dorchester LLC. Also in 2009, Gates acquired 6901 South Dorchester Avenue from Deutsche Bank National Trust Company Bank for $16,000, and received a release from back water bills from the City of Chicago’s Water Department. 6904 S Dorchester LLC was incorporated on April 26, 2012 and the LLC purchased its property from Ernst Development Company (EDC Fund 2 LLC) for $87,500 on April 27, 2012; Ernst had acquired the property from HUD only a few months prior. 6907-09 S Dorchester Ave LLC acquired its property (via a quit claim deed) on October 2014 from Harding Avenue Properties LLC, for which Gates is the manager; Harding Avenue Properties LLC had purchased the property in 2013 for $170,000 from a notorious Chicago slumlord. See Greg Hinz, “City names 59 ‘problem landlords,’” Crain’s Chicago Business, January 27, 2015, accessed July 22, 2015, Note that these incorporations have changed somewhat since the writing of this article, but the principle of transforming properties/artworks into LLCs remains.
42. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the names of members (owners) of an LLC are not necessarily a matter of public record in Illinois.
43. On the emergence of REITs as an investment vehicle authorized by U.S. Congress in 1960, see A. Overton Durrett, “The Real Estate Investment Trust: A New Medium for Investors,” William & Mary Law Review 3, no. 1 (1961): 140-163. While REIT dividends are, as of early 2017, subject to a higher top tax rate than other corporate dividends (39.6% versus 20%), REITs are not subject to corporate tax so long as they pay out 90% or more of income as dividends. This contrasts with the typical 35% nominal tax rate for typical, non-REIT corporations. A. D. Pruitt, “Congress Looks at REIT Tax Exemption,” The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2013, accessed November 16, 2016,
44. Gates himself has admitted as such, explaining that, “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.” Gates and Mitchell, 59.
45. It is not entirely clear how the IRS would classify these works in the case of a sale, or a sale of shares.
46. Of course partial ownership of an artwork is not unprecedented. In 2007, for example, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art became 50-50 owners of Chris Burden’s sculpture Hell Gate (1998). See Diane Haithman, “L.A. Museums Are Learning to Share,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2007, accessed February 19, 2016,
47. See Clark Taylor, “Parasitic Suburbs,” Society 9, no. 10, “Special Issue: The Nation of Newark” (September/October 1972): 35-41; and Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
48. For the legal definition of a “blighted or slum area,” which can be “designated by municipal ordinance . . . as an integrated project for rehabilitation, development or redevelopment,” see pages 406-407 of Illinois General Assembly, Equity in Eminent Domain Act, 94th General Assembly, 2006, S.B. 3086, PA 94-1055.
49. See Gates’ interviews with McDonough and Born, among others, for his discussion of the black church and the spirituality of urban ritual. Cf., Carl Rojas, “Two Takes on Theaster Gates,” Burnaway, March 3, 2016, accessed January 10, 2017, Additionally, Gates earned an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town in 1998.
50. See City of Chicago building permit number 100419939, issued March 7, 2012, for a Renovation/Alteration with estimated cost of $1,300,000.00, as well as several additional permits and revisions issued later in 2012 for a total of around $40,000. The University of Chicago also bought the adjoining Currency Exchange and turned it into a cafe which their own advertorial calls “a contemporary take on Mexican and soul food.” Chicago Arts, Winter 2015 Events & Exhibitions Guide, 4. News coverage coyly characterizes the owner of the café—which already enjoys a 4.5/5 rating on—as a small business owner. “[T]his Currency Exchange is actually a cafe, part of a block-long revitalization effort in Washington Park. The new owner wanted to convert this former Currency Exchange into something for the community.” Steve Kolinsky, “Currency Exchange owner turns store into neighborhood cafe,” abc7, October 4, 2014, accessed December 18, 2014, A more careful journalistic account explains that, “Gates is running [Currency Exchange Cafe] as a for-profit business on a lease from the school,” while building permits clarify that the building is owned by the University of Chicago Commercial Real Estate Operations (CREO), and it is unclear whether Gates or CREO footed the bill for the $75,000+ renovation cost plus interior equipment and furnishings. See City of Chicago building permit numbers 100487058 and 100479593. See also Harrison Smith, “The Art of Development: In Washington Park, a New Café Opens under Theaster Gates,” South Side Weekly, April 17, 2014, accessed December 18, 2014,
51. David Lee Matthews, “Meet the U of C exec who wants to revitalize Hyde Park,” Chicago Real Estate Daily, October 2, 2014, accessed December 18, 2014,
52. Knight Foundation, “Knight Foundation Invests .5 Million to Help University of Chicago Expand a Model for Community Revitalization Led by Artist and Urban Planner Theaster Gates,” Knight Foundation, May 8, 2014, accessed December 18, 2014,
53. Ibid.
54. The University of Chicago has long had a foothold south of the Midway, with buildings including the University’s Law School and School of Public Policy. However, it is only in the past decade that there has been a substantial undergraduate presence south of the Midway, and a concomitant increase in off-campus housing and residential speculation in this area.
55. The University of Chicago’s purchase of land west of Washington Park (west of the university campus) provoked skepticism among some local residents, as voiced by Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell. Speaking in 2008, Dowell asserted: “My concern is that this grabbing of land at this point without any clear idea of what they [the University of Chicago] want the land for or need it for is not appropriate. . . . I would like them [the University of Chicago] to participate in a very public community planning process, where they are one stakeholder of many stakeholders to try to determine what that corridor [Garfield Park] will look like, plan it out.” Eight Forty-Eight, “Neighbors Question University’s Plans,” WBEZ, September 19, 2008, accessed August 21, 2015,
56. See Don Babwin, “Chicago Mayor Pushes for South Side Parkland Where Obama Presidential Library Could Be Built” US News & World Report, January 21, 2015, accessed January 25, 2015, Paris Schutz, “University of Chicago Touts Park Restoration in Obama Library Bid; U of C, UIC Deliver Final Pitches Tomorrow,” Chicago Tonight, December 10, 2014, accessed January 25, 2015, Don Babwin, “Effort to get Obama library draws Chicago-style suspicions,” Daily Herald [Arlington Heights, IL], January 23, 2015. Sam Cholke, “Developer Says He Would Sell If U. of C. Needs More Space for Obama Library,” DNAinfo, January 19, 2015, accessed January 25, 2015,
57. The phrase about the South Side’s “rich cultural history” is spoken by Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s former chief-of-staff and leader of the University of Chicago’s proposal for the Obama Presidential Library. See The University of Chicago, “Bringing the Barack Obama Presidential Library to Chicago’s South Side,” video, 2:17, Of course, as Michelle Obama herself has stated, “I grew up not far from here and the university [of Chicago] never once reached out to me.” Jodi Kantor, “Which Michelle Obama Will We Get When She Leaves the White House?” The New York Times, January 6, 2017, accessed January 10, 2017,
58. One major reason why this location may have been chosen is, simply, location. While the Washington Park location would have been accessible to tourists and other visitors via the Chicago CTA’s Green Line, the Green Line is a relatively inefficient and slow way to traverse the city, and it passes through some of Chicago’s most visibly derelict neighborhoods on the South Side. Meanwhile, the Jackson Park location is easily accessible via a quick trip from the Loop on the Metra commuter rail, a short drive on Lakeshore Drive, or a bike ride on a protected lakeside bike path. See the article and accompanying comments: John Greenfield, “Obama Library’s Jackson Park Location Will Be Easy to Visit Without Driving,” StreetsBlog Chicago, July 29, 2016, accessed November 9, 2016,
59. The Obama Presidential Center will be located on South Stony Island Avenue between 60th Street and 63rd Street, while Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank is located at 6760 South Stony Island Avenue. From the Obama Presidential Center site to the Stony Island Arts Bank, it is 0.6 miles, about a twelve-minute walk, while the Dorchester Projects are 1.0 miles away from the Obama Presidential Center site.
60. Ronia Holmes, “National Community Development Initiative Selects Chicago for Million Grant,” UChicagoNews, September 28, 2016, accessed November 9, 2016,
61. Ibid.
62. Ibid. Ironically, the Stony Island Arts Bank is visually impermeable to its surrounding neighborhood. As an image in this article shows, the entry to the Arts Bank is an unmarked door with its window blacked out. There are no windows on the sides of the building that reveal the activities inside. There is no signage at street level to indicate what the Arts Bank is or to invite people to enter.
63. Gross, “Venture.”
64. On museum architecture, see, among others, Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), Michaela Giebelhausen, “Museum Architecture: A Brief History,” in Sharon Macdonald, ed., A Companion to Museum Studies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 223-244, and Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (New York: Verso, 2011).
65. “The million project is an answer to a question Gates asks himself a lot: ‘Who has the right to amazing culture?’ The Arts Bank gives Chicagoans—and specifically African-American cultural producers—a platform to practice their art, in their community, on a stage made for them.” Zach Mortice, “After Decades of Withdrawals, Stony Island Arts Bank Makes a Deposit,” AIA Architect, November 13, 2015, accessed November 9, 2016,
66.See Born interview.
67. On the financial precarity of Johnson Publishing Company, which produced Ebony and Jet, see Copeland, “Dark Mirrors.”
68. On Gates’ practice in relation to the black prosperity gospel and the classic, if often oversimplified, Booker T. Washington / W. E. B. Du Bois divide on economic versus cultural capital as the basis for African American advancement, see Adrian Anagnost, “Booker T. and W. E. B.: Theaster Gates and African American Philosophy” (paper presented at eikones—Center for the Theory and History of the Image, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland, June 18, 2018).
69. The best account of how Gates’ projects succeed, and fail, in using vocational training to help advance the careers of lower-income African Americans comes in the Amtrak magazine. D.W. Gibson, “Next Stop: Chicago. Where Theaster Gates and His Rebuild Foundation Are Remaking the South Side, One Artful Restoration at a Time,” The National (April/May 2017), accessed July 7, 2018, Accounts of Gates’ work have consistently, and often with little basis, insisted that vocational training is a core component of Gates’ practice. In 2012: Gates’ “larger social and cultural collaborative projects . . . run training schemes, utilizing the free labor of graduates in need of vocational experience to train unskilled, unemployed local residents.” Gil Leung, “Theaster Gates’s [sic] ‘My Labor Is My Protest,’” Art Agenda, October 26, 2012, accessed July 15, 2015, Another 2012 article discussed the “Rebuild Foundation, with a staff of 20 and a rotating program of day camps and on-the-job training specifically targeted to others on [Gates’] block.” Kelly Crow, “The Artist Next Door,” The Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2012, accessed July 15, 2015, In 2013: “In 2009, together with a team of young unemployed men from his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, he renovated a condemned building next door to his studio on Dorchester Avenue and transformed it into a cross between an installation and a cultural center.” “Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues,” Deutsche Bank ArtMag 76, April 18, 2013, accessed July 15, 2015, Also from 2013 through 2015, the Rebuild Foundation’s mission statement reflected this aspect of Gates’ work: “Our programs enlist teams of artists, architects, developers, educators, community activists, and residents who work together to integrate the arts, apprenticeship trade training and creative entrepreneurship into a community-driven process of neighborhood transformation.” “Our Story,” Rebuild Foundation, May 17, 2013, accessed July 15, 2015, Gates’ project for a public transit train station on the South Side of Chicago was also supposed to include “a unique, catalyst program that will foster community engagement, provide jobs and offer training to school students. . . . This historic project will create 10 new jobs for the production of the artwork and artist apprenticeships, which will promote skills development and training for local students.” “95th/Dan Ryan Station & Terminal Improvements,” Chicago Transit Authority, March 14, 2013, accessed July 15, 2015, Additionally, job training was mentioned in a 2015 grant Gates received from the Bloomberg Philanthropies to “‘transform a vacant downtown building into a cultural hub that showcases visual and culinary arts.’ Included in this will be three commissioned visual artworks, culinary training, and cultural programming centered around food as a conduit for community interaction” (emphasis added). John Chiaverina, “Bloomberg Philanthropies Announce Winners of Public Art Challenge Grant; Theaster Gates Among the Artists,” ArtNews, June 23, 2015, accessed July 15, 2015, Gates’ practice has also incorporated unpaid labor in the context of pedagogy, as during his time as the 2014-2015 William and Stephanie Sick Distinguished Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. See Lynn Tomaszewski and Jeremy Ohmes, eds., Architecture Acts with Theaster Gates (Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2016). And in 2016, the Rebuild Foundation announced Dorchester Industries, “a new initiative to provide training for un- and under-employed people on the South Side of Chicago. Dorchester Industries will pair participants with Rebuild Foundation’s artists-in-residence and local tradespeople to learn new skills and create and sell art and design objects. . . . The proceeds from the participant-produced work will go to the participants, while other money raised will go to the rebuild Foundation’s exhibitions and community programs.” Matthew Messner, “Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation Launches Training Initiative and Crafts Auction,” The Architect’s Newspaper, November 2, 2016, accessed July 7, 2018,
70. As Gates himself has explained, “One person might call Dorchester Projects the best thing in the world because of their social anthropological take, and another person regards it as a pseudocapitalist story.” Theaster Gates in conversation with Carin Kuoni, “‘Some Kind of Work Simply Needs to Happen,’” in Entry Points, 200.
71. See, for example, Hesse McGraw, “Theaster Gates: Radical Reform with Everyday Tools,” Afterall 30 (Summer 2012): 86-99. A more nuanced view is found in Chris Dingwall, “The Chicago School of Theaster Gates,” C Magazine 131, “Experimental Pedagogies” (Autumn 2016), accessed October 17, 2016,
72. In discussing Thomas Hirschhorn’s Musée Précaire Albinet (2004), Aleksandra Mir’s Cinema for the Unemployed (1998), and Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), which she calls “the best examples of socially collaborative art,” Bishop characterizes them thus: “Rather than positioning themselves within an activist lineage, in which art is marshaled to effect social change, these artists have a closer relationship to avant-garde theater, performance, or architectural theory” (Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 181). “A truth is solely constituted by rupturing with the order which supports it, never as an effect of that order. I have named this type of rupture which opens up truths ‘the event’.” Alain Badiou, author’s preface to Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2005), xii.
73. Thompson, Living as Form, 18, 186-187, 230, 246.
74. One fundamental misapprehension of the Black Lives Matter “movement” collapses its aims with those of the Occupy movement as “attempts to create spaces protected from colonization by capital calculation—alternative spaces for progressive political voices.” Natalie Fenton, “Politics in Common in the Digital Age,” in Ash Amin and Philip Howell, eds., Releasing the Commons: Rethinking the Futures of the Commons (New York: Routledge, 2016), 35. Yet the various actions attributed to Black Lives Matter do not seek to create a protected or alternative space, but to assert the legitimate presence of black bodies in public space.
75. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). Jennifer Jee-Lyn García and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 8 (August 2015): e27–e30, accessed May 11, 2016,
76. See Gara LaMarche, “Is Philanthropy Bad for Democracy?” The Atlantic, October 30, 2014, accessed June 19, 2017,; David Callahan, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017); and Rob Reich, Lucy Bernholz, and Chiara Cordelli, eds., Philanthropy in Democratic Societies: History, Institutions, Values (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Or, as Jasmine Rault puts it, “Of course, the worrying flipside of the utopian scope and reach of Gates’s architectural projects is that it brings Gates into the territory of providing the comfortable complimentary supplement to contemporary capitalism—where the artist-cum-entrepreneur/community developer is rewarded for a ‘social practice’ which works to (temporarily and partially) fill in the gaps created by the privatization of social and cultural services.” Jasmine Rault, “Housing Foreclosure: Theaster Gates’s Queer Architectural Practice,” in Entry Points, 269n7. For a critical account of Gates’ work in this regard, see also Marina Vishmidt, “‘Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated’: Social Practice as a Business Model,” e-flux 43 (March 2013), accessed June 19, 2017, For Vishmidt, Gates’ “uphold[ing of] a donor-friendly message of inspirational community action and social capital-building through culture . . . exemplifies the current dogma that frames crisis as an ‘opportunity’ for positive community action, as the state withdraws from social reproduction only to better perform its duties of service to an increasingly narrow fraction of capital accumulation.”