Theaster Gates could have been performing a one-man show. Dressed in a smart getup of brown leather shoes (one unzipped), blue jeans and a salmon button-down with a blazer, the artist adopted a number of different personas as he leaped about the stage during a lecture last week at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
He was a stereotypical bourgeois black man (think Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air); an obnoxiously sophisticated art patron hoping to buy his work; an overexcited Jay-Z fan making inscrutable gang signs at the Barclays Arena opening night; a crafty Chicago teenager noticing how white beach volleyball players along Lake Michigan’s carefully manicured public spaces are forced by dint of their bikinis to leave their wallets unattended.
Gates’ refusal to conform carried through the lecture. He willfully abandoned his PowerPoint (he had some choice words for the software) and his disjointed presentation was peppered with provocative nuggets that purposefully didn’t cohere into an argument. But he turned from cagey to cogent when he addressed the crowd of budding designers, architects and planners.
“My frustration is that such talent will go to Abu Dhabi before it will go to North Philly,” he said.
Formally trained in the eclectic combination of urban planning, ceramics and religious studies, Gates skyrocketed to art-world acclaim last year, receiving the Wall Street Journal’s Artist Innovator of the Year Award and the New School’s inaugural List Center Prize for Art and Politics. Before that, his planning chops were recognized when the Harvard Graduate School of Design made him a Loeb Fellow in 2011.
With a gregarious personality and a keen understanding of the grant-making world, Gates has turned his restless interrogation of the intersection between art, education and community activism into a bona fide — or soon to be — commercial enterprise.
Soul Manufacturing Corporation is his itinerant exhibition currently on display at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, having launched at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012. Four artists and two apprentices will spend the next few months engaged in a public process of making things — bowls, cups, bricks, boxes — for an as-yet undetermined purpose. The point, ultimately, is not about making objects to order, but rather to benefit from the learning process that can result from sharing skills like carpentry, woodworking, carving and pottery.
By setting this in motion, Gates aims to achieve the exhibit’s subtitle: “To Make the Thing that Makes the Things” (TMTTTMTT for short). In other words, to create spaces, especially physical ones, that allow for cultural production to occur where it wouldn’t otherwise. (A contemporary example would be Steve Powers’ Icy Sign Co, which aims to help struggling commercial corridors in Philadelphia by providing free quality signage to businesses.)
“It’s important that people understand the work that goes into making these objects,” explained Hope Rovelto, a Philly-based ceramics artist and one of the four “makers” at Soul Manufacturing.
The destination will come with time. As part of the exhibit, the makers have hosted an open brainstorming session for possible ideas. One that Gates himself is particularly excited about will send a good portion of the bowls and cups to a future café in his South Side Chicago neighborhood of Grand Crossing, an effort in line with his breakthrough work, Dorchester Projects. That endeavor, which seeks to rehab abandoned South Side buildings, has transformed an empty two-story house into a library, slide archive and soul food kitchen; a former candy store into an event space and reading room; a brick townhouse into a cinema for black films; and a historic bank slated for demolition that will become the permanent home to the archive of the Johnson Publishing Company, the first African-American publishing house in the U.S. Next up: Turning the Chicago Housing Authority’s abandoned Dante Harper Townhomes into artist residences and mixed-income rental housing.
Gates spoke at length about “the burden of staying” in his neighborhood during his lecture at PennDesign, co-sponsored by the Penn Institute for Urban Research. Even as his University of Chicago day job has increased his income bracket, Gates said he resists the natural tendency of self-segregation, “to be the $75,000 person that wants to live on the block with all the other $75,000 people.” He quoted from Henri Lefebevre’s The Production of Space to emphasize the goal of serving the underserved. “We are not only here to take on the utopic problems, but also the actual,” Gates explained. “Whenever I try to take a cab from the Loop to the South Side, they always tell me ‘the meter’s broken.’
“I don’t want to start a cab company,” he said. “But I will.”
That DIY mentality underpins the ethic of TMTTTMTT. The Johnson Publishing Company started, Gates explained, after founder John H. Johnson didn’t see his community reflected in the pages of Life. Starting the first black publishing house in the world, therefore, made the thing that makes the things.
Now it is Gates’ turn to do this with Soul Manufacturing Corporation, as he explained in a post-lecture interview:
It would act as a kind of gesture in lots of different kinds of communities, especially in communities where a creative, entrepreneurial action would be kind of smart. I want to build real creative corporations that are harnessing local talents and creating new business structures. We are surveying the cities and figuring out if we were to build a brick manufacturing company here, who would be interested? Who would learn? Who are the technologists and the skilled laborers, who are the backers and what are the banks? We are doing real work via the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
The brick example, about as concrete and utilitarian of a manufactured object as one can imagine, harkens to Philly’s ad nauseum wistfulness for its days as “workshop of the world.” But while nascent green technology efforts are touted as a harbinger of a manufacturing renaissance that appears to sputter more than spring, it is the crossover between making art and making infrastructure where Gates sees potential.
“What if Penn were to line its sidewalks with Soul Manufacturing Corporation bricks,” he mused aloud, “but not only with funds from the public art budget, also from the facilities and maintenance budget?”
That kernel of an idea illustrates the alacrity with which Gates bridges art and community development, drawing funding for his bank-cum-archive, for example, via historic preservation grants. I asked him about that distinction, to which he asserted, “Community development is not art. But a creative person doing community development could make community development something else.”
“Everything I am doing feels like it’s coming out of an artistic position versus a development agenda,” he continued, “and that artistic position happens to use the tools of development from time to time. But I feel like there are other creative acts from the same brain that allow me to think about a gesture that happens in a museum, whereas the community development strategy enacts significant change in the world, and both are important.”
The Dorchester Projects is art — now world-famous, critically acclaimed art — but also a very real, tangible resource for Grand Crossing residents who are unlikely to sip wine at Art Basel Miami Beach or take in the latest Whitney Biennial.
Will Soul Manufacturing Corporation become something similar? Certainly for Rovelto, who found the call for artists on the Cultural Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Job Bank, it has been an opportunity unlike any ceramics project she has ever done before. Juan Bustamante, a local artist and DJ, has spent the last several weeks learning carpentry under “maker” Andre Ponticello, an MFA candidate at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, and making boxes out of cedar and poplar. “I think I definitely will apply these skills,” Bustamente said, “but I don’t have a plan yet.”
That open-endedness is Soul Manufacturing Corporation’s blessing and curse. It can be anything, but it could also turn out to be nothing. With a limited duration at the Fabric Workshop and Museum — it runs until spring — and the recent departure of Chicago-based artists Matthew Dercole and Pei-Hsuan Wang, it’s up to the Philadelphia contingent to make the project their own and give it life beyond Gates’ infectious presence. His visits, after all, are brief and fleeting as he seeks to inculcate “placemaking in discreet places, not massively branded arts districts.”
For urbanists who don’t fancy themselves artists so much, there is certainly something to ponder in the basic act of making. “The box that holds the bowl,” as Gates suggested, referring to one of the Corporation’s outputs, “connects to the house that holds the person, the city that holds the people.” Value, he proposed, is a tricky, head-shaking concept: How is it that a piece of artwork can be deemed worth the same as a house, how can one relates the value of art to home values? These are questions purposefully left unanswered, very much the tack of the artist more so than the planner.
“Changing building codes is like working with clay,” Gates said early in his lecture. While that metaphor may strike some dyed-in-the-wool zoning commissioners as preposterous, it is a reminder that planning is both an art and a science, and Gates wishes mightily to tip the balance in favor of urbanism’s artistry.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.