Theaster Gates on Power of The Voice
In the IHME Festival trailer Theaster Gates speculates on whether music has the power to depict the history of contemporary art in ways that an art object exhibited on a pedestal cannot do. Where does the power of the live performance, the unique, shared experience lie? In The Black Monastic concert at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, in autumn 2014 The Black Monks of Mississippi ensemble included both Chicagoans and Portuguese musicians. Led by Gates they performed an uninterrupted piece lasting more than an hour, in which various materials were heard, including some from Joseph Beuys. It is not hard to recognize the importance of an artist like Beuys in Gates’s production: both are characterized by an attempt to expand the notion of what art can be, the idea of every human being’s potential as a creative individual, and trust in the capacity of art to influence society.
“Well, music does lots of things or rather, sound. Sound can function in many ways, like color. There is form and there are varying ways of understanding abstraction or non-form-based sound. When you start to make these correlations between sound and color, really wonderful worlds open up for you. Maybe you leave the burden of explaining what you see and enter a world of expression. Perhaps, I am returning to expression as a way of understanding and making meaning,” Gates says.
Of his musical starting points, gospel and spirituality have a special place in Gates’s work. And yet this is not the goal of The Black Monks of Mississippi, but provides a basis for joint improvisation. “The music I hope to create is not limited by Gospel music, although I know that Black Gospel music is a very particular music with things that you can point to as having a structure and tradition, and way of making sense. The music we aspire to allows for the expression of ecstasy, while perhaps leaving the charge of religious encounter to the listener, viewer or witness. The sound can do lots of different kinds of work, and we are only at the beginning of understanding what sound does.”
The assimilation of cultural influences, or, more strictly defined, cultural appropriation, has been a topic of vigorous conversation in Finland with Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron and the response to it in Koko Hubara’s blog. The discussion was continued by Jenni Hiltunen’s Grind video, which uses Sámi costume in a way that offends the indigenous people. Works related to this topic can also be found in Gates’s production, in which he approaches the issue, for example, by borrowing elements from the works of the famous modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. He has also copied ancient African sculptures and signed them with his own name so as to give them at least some name. In other words, he comments on the way western artists borrow from African culture without acknowledging the sources. Does this topic have any connection with the forthcoming IHME Project The Black Charismatic?
”I am not sure if appropriation is something that I’m engaged in, or borrowing. It is reasonable to say that I’m engaged in the question of where power comes from (in this case sound-power) and how it works. The work of the Monks is an attempt to find power through the body and durational projects. It is true that people all over the world are engaged in very specific acts of meaning making, and that I am often influenced by those things, but the beauty is that the conversation is not a black/white binary or a majority/minority binary. These are actually quite banal ways of engaging the charismatic. We make black music. It birthed many musics. I am very interested in the offspring of spiritual sound power.”
More about Theaster Gates’s ideas around The Black Charismatic >