We had the chance to hear our friend Theaster speak last night at University of Detroit Mercy as part of The Detroit Delegation. Nick and I hash out a lot of the same dilemmas and scenarios regularly and it was heartening to hear the struggle to serve in an authentic way is never ending, even for someone that breathes, walks, lives the effort to redevelop environment and enrich people's live in a meaningful way with _______ (fill in the blank here). It's a continuous learning cycle. We've seen him do it with food, conversation, song, writing, pottery, installation, building materials, speakers made of ceramics, and much more. He also brought up a number of colleagues, students and thinkers in this space which were inspiring and dealing with the same kinds of issues.
During the years we've known Theaster we understood the social capital of what he was doing for his neighborhood when his livelihood came second. But now that we've committed ourselves to a city we love (yes, Ypsilanti), we see that it's not just a project here and a project there. It's lives. Our experience, the ones we share with you, the ones not being had, the moments in between. The bad, the good, the invisible connectors waiting to be electrified, turned on, turned up.
Here are a few of the ideas that Nick and I constantly wrestle with that came up last night.
Agency: When and where and who can have the space to dole out "assistance", "help", "programming"? And when is it wanted? We have never been ones to say "I'm here to help you because...." even though we've seen it done and believe me, it is so awkward. When an underserved population presents a problem, can people outside of the situation come in and tell them what it is that should be done? I don't think so. I can't be one to prescribe it but I can create something compelling through art, social awareness, activism that sparks the curiosity of a child or adult and let them participate as they wish. That's our responsibility as an artist, I think. To enable others to step in when they choose.
Stretching it out: This one has been huge with me lately. I've been less "busy" and more about thinking and drawing and writing. Theaster's point was that rather than building it as quickly as possible, making the deal as quickly as possible, what if, we just drew it out. We let it linger and see what came out of it. For him, redeveloping the space wasn't just giving people a place to live. Or in the case of Dorchester Projects, a place to exchange ideas, share food and jam out to records. It was the process and what was created on the way to the product, which is the unimportant thing.
Process: This one is really important. If you look at his work, Theaster is all about process. He was a potter originally, which is steeped in steps, waiting, reassessing, reworking. Like any artistic endeavor, the path is meandering to create finality but the learning along the way is what creates the space for exploration and deviation the next time around.
When Nick documented the moving of glass slides from University of Chicago and the donation of thousands of books from Prairie Books (which was this precious art and architecture book store in Printers Row) to Dorchester Projects, I saw it as an amalgamation of things. But when you step into that house in southside Chicago, you realize it's not the things but how they're used, how they make you feel, how the access of having them revives questioning in this unfamiliar and ironic environment that is at once so academic (book and resource filled) and yet elegantly brutish, assemblages of wood and ceramics and metal reimagined and living together in a space that assembles people in the same way, organically and organized in a way that only Theaster can. That's all part of the process.
Gentrification: This one is bigger than I can get into right now but I did take away one piece of what he said last night about neighborhood shifts. There's a social place for everyone during the process of change in your community. If you like to see the new businesses, storefronts, then support them. If you want to hold on to the things that matter to you, protect them, groom them to be more of that thing. Of course, sometimes it's not as easy as just that, but it's better than the alternative, atrophy and ultimately, loss.
Yes, we did bring our son with us and he sat and listened to the 3 hour program. We're very lucky to have a patient kid. I think it's terribly important for him to be exposed to this thinking and quandary that life is not just what comes to you at the table, that you have to seek out what other people are being served and who is not being served at all.