When the backpack-freighted Theaster Gates took to the podium at Harvard Art Museums several weeks ago, his songbook opened, “Oh say, can you see, by the dawn….” On screen, a sign appeared, “For colored No whites allowed”–unhinging a series of images bespeaking truths about America’s racialized past present.
No con\text was given. And the cascade of images that followed, stood adjacent to the “poetic sermon” Mr. Gates articulated–sometimes in song, the words swallowed whole, or in part; sometimes moaned through clinched teeth, on the inhale, behind a huge, broad smile; at other times, in exhaled grunts of compressed rage. At what? We were left to surmise.
All of this unsettled his audience; me, especially. (More on that later, if there’s time.) Each of us had come to this event with a set of expectations. Theaster’s biography, his musings, as well as his studio/social/civic praxes feathered our presumptions in this regard.
The event’s précis only served to confirm what we thought we knew: “Theaster Gates will share a monologue on the creation of temporary and semi-permanent structures as a necessary part of his practice. … [He] will unpack the messy work associated with doing large city projects and administratively complicated works of ‘art.'” And so, we all crowded into Menschel Hall to hear him.
As Gates “sermonized” alongside images discarded, but not entirely abandoned, the audience was forced to reckon with dissonances between the aural and orbital parallels there. A restlessness took hold: squirming, fidgeting, snickering, leaving were some of the more obvious audience responses.
Undeterred, Theaster Gates continued to exhume this alchemy of song adjacent to images he had prepared for us; and did so even as his voice cracked and his breath faded. What seemed like ten or fifteen minutes into his ‘sermon,’ Pastor Gates crossed stage right to re-position two white boards (an homage, perhaps, to ‘the creation of temporary and semi-permanent structures as a necessary part of his practice”). Singing non-stop.
Later, when his breath might have given way, Theater bounded up the center aisle and back; all the while performing this alchemy of song adjacent to images he curated for us. Tracking him required a kind of “binocularity” as I struggled against missing any of the things being presented next to each other. Instead, this torrent of images–neither assigned nor assigning–washed over us. So I did what I always do when I’m inundated and overwhelmed: I began taking notes.
And while I learned nothing about “the messy work associated with doing large city projects and administratively complicated works of ‘art,'” here and now, are fragments I gleaned from Theaster Gates’ poetic sermon: “Where I’m from is from somewhere”–full of a kind of “cultural knowing,” which always already requires a kind of “binocularity,” recognizing “adjacencies”–i.e., things [drawing value from] being parallel, alongside, next to each other. Things “abandoned, and discarded” are never value/less. Assign value by caring.