Of Earthworms and Birds: Theaster Gates and Bill T. Jones in Conversation

During Theaster Gates’s (LF ’11) recent public conversation with dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, Gates warned artists everywhere to beware the “commodifiable moment” of gentrification. In “The Artist and Cultural Spaces” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on December 11th, Gates and Jones addressed concerns at the intersection of art production, gentrification, and the built environment.

Jones–who has choreographed and performed worldwide, and whose collaborators include the likes of jazz musician Max Roach, novelist Toni Morrison and graffiti and pop artist Keith Haring–expressed a reverence for groundbreaking artists working with a range of mediums. “The artists are the earthworms,” said Jones. “They can take a parking lot and break it up and with enough care they can turn it around.”

Gates has worked as a social practice installation artist and has a background in urban planning, which uniquely suits him to address the role of art in neighborhood revitalization. He described himself as a “visual artist—or as a person that imagines that the city is part of a canvas filled with things.” For him, the gesture of space is crucial.

Gates is wary of the economic trajectories of communities in which artists are the vanguard. “What I’ve found is that earthworms do their work and then they get eaten by birds that come flying out of the air,” Gates said. “Artists need to befriend elephants.”

The gentrification mindset, Gates warns, is one that privileges external interests in planning and developing the built environment, as opposed to addressing needs of people already living within a space. Gates is particularly distressed by the propensity for decision-makers and developers to enter into gentrifying areas and exclude artists—many of whom have done much of the groundwork for subsequent development—in the development process. “All that energy you’ve invested as an earthworm and you get stepped on,” said Gates. “I won’t be a naive artist in that way, and I won’t be a naive citizen in that way.”

In recent years, cities like New York, home to Jones, and Chicago, birthplace and workplace of Gates, have experienced high growth and development. New York, especially, is reaching dangerously exclusive livability levels with property values increasingly pricing out more and more culture makers, who are replaced by culture consumers. “The challenge is that New York is in a place where culture can’t afford to live there—it’s a shame that those things aren’t protected,” said Gates. “My concern is when you start to lose the presence of the artist in the normal landscape.”

Despite what seems to be a harder and harder game to play, both Gates and Jones are relentless makers who will not be discouraged. They advise forming partnerships with larger players in the city economy, the “elephants,” as a way to mitigate the risk of being excluded following the groundwork they do as artists working in the urban environment. “Right now the game is how to stay relevant and how to stay competitive where we are,” Jones said.

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