MCA Stage Upclose

Memory and Modularity: The Colored Museum


Posted April 3, 2012

Theaster Gates

Theaster on the porch. Photo: Bethanie Hines

red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) is the performative culmination of a large collaboration. The work brings together people from various fields, creating a symbiotic whole to address environmental justice in relation to issues of race and class. Having worked on some past projects that were of a similarly unwieldy and collaborative nature, I appreciate that towards the outset of the project, Marc Bamuthi Joseph said, “I don’t know what this is yet.” I see this as the honest articulation of a process that allows itself to develop unburdened by the desire to be something that it isn’t. Collaboration is not merely the idea of “working together,” but also involves challenging one another to question and grapple with difficult issues and previously undissected assumptions. This is something that I think rbGb does well, both in form and content.

For the sake of this post, I will focus not so much on the entirety of the project, but more specifically on its architectural set design called The Colored Museum, which was created by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. Just as Bamuthi metabolizes the words of constituents from the four major cities (Chicago, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles) represented in rbGb, Gates’s creative reuse of detritus from disenfranchised communities in Chicago breathes new life into the materiality and imagination of the set design, creating something out of nothing. Or, as Gates has said, “building and making good use of the things forgotten.”

The repurposing and use of materials for multiple meanings has a social and political charge, and this is something that Gates has been developing through a number of different projects. A prime example of this is his informal cultural space here in Chicago called Dorchester Projects. Also, his Town Hall project is currently being developed in conjunction with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. As I stated earlier, for rbGB Gates has collected forgotten materials in Chicago, reinvigorating them with new purpose while cultivating their unique value. I have always been intrigued by the idea of the multiple lives of an object, and here this idea is particularly poetic. Gates performs his own kind of alchemy—transforming old, weathered scraps of building materials into the spaces and walls of a “museum” on the MCA Stage. That’s heavy.

Gates’s practice challenges notions of high and low culture, art and craft, and displays how the creative process can provide meaning and value personally and within a larger community. Through the modularity of the architectural space of The Colored Museum, Gates plays with notions of inside and outside, private and public, and invites the audience to come on stage and negotiate these spaces for themselves. He seeks to develop structures that encourage people to “engage the tools of architecture as a way of making meaning of their spaces.” The field of socially-engaged architecture has a healthy history of its own, and while I am hesitant to throw this title into the mix of Gates’s long list of characterizations, I believe his work intersects with this genre, especially in his Rural Studio at Auburn University, Alabama.

rbGb‘s The Colored Museum breaks boundaries between predetermined categories and activates a metaphor for innovation and empowerment in everyday life. By putting aside established models of production, the artists of rbGb break new ground and contribute to new discourses. They create new histories that will (hopefully) be mined and applied by future generations.

Houses in a Row

Set build of The Four Colored Houses in a Row. Photo: Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi

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