Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog - Walid Raad and Theaster Gates in Conversation, with Mohsen Mostafavi, "On Art and Cities"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Oct 26, '13 6:10 AM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    I'm co-live-blogging tonight with Allison Green, a first-year student in the GSD's Master of Urban Planning program who is also starting to blog at Archinect.

    From the GSD website:

    Theaster Gates, an artist trained as an urban planner and sculptor, has developed a practice that includes space development, object making, performance, and critical engagement with many publics. Among recent projects, he was a participating artist in Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, for "12 Ballads for Huguenot House." Gates, a 2011 Loeb Fellow, is a Creative Time Global Resident for 2012–13 and was honored by the Wall Street Journal as an Arts Innovator of the Year in 2012.

    Walid Raad is a New York-based artist and associate professor of art at The Cooper Union. His works include The Atlas Group, a fifteen-year project about the history of Lebanon between 1989 and 2004; the ongoing projects Scratching on Things I Could Disavow and Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut); and several books.

    6:40 pm: Dean Mohsen takes the podium. We’ve been interested in the interactions between art and the city. … “Walid will speak...and then Theaster will speak and then...if there’s time--if they stay on time--” [Theaster points at Dean Mohsen and says--”if you stay on time.” Laughter.]

    6:42 pm : Theaster takes the podium.

    TG:  If I could have the lights. Please play the video. Please Turn the lights off me [laughter]. Please play the video. Please watch the video.

    VIDEO of quick clips from a discussion panel: “The question is: you’re a black artist...where do you want to go? Instead of: you’re an artist.”

    “What makes black art? Does living in a black neighborhood give one ownership of black art.” 

    “Some people started to destroy the work and said, “this is not black art.” It was a deeply traumatizing time.”

    “I don’t mind being called a black artist.”

    “In this place you have the freedom and the safety to actually deal with the topic that some of us rarely get to talk about”

    6:47 pm: Walid Raad takes the podium. “I usually produce certain forms and gestures in stories.”

    “Scratching on things I disavow”

    Walid quotes author Jalal Toufic:

    “What genuine thinker has not been apprehensive that at least some of his ideas…”

    WR: The gallery that opens is an 800 square meter space. Incredibly clean white walls, smooth concrete floor all around, and smooth northern lighting. It is the white cube of white cubes and we have not had a space like this in Beirut.

    I have never shown this work in Lebanon; I always thought the work would be affected in some way if I did. Not that it would be censored, but just affected in some way. [Curator] asked

    AG: WR retells seeing a display of all his work at a scale of 1:100. Any artist can pick up on the irony of seeing her work displayed in miniature.WR: Especially given my psychiatric history, I think I’m in the middle of a psychological breakdown. I call Hasan, and he begins marveling at the miniaturization of my work. Now, I know that in history no two people have had the same psychiatric [hallucination] so I now know what I am seeing is real. I think perhaps it is my assistants, who have made these miniatures as a gift.

    LC: I think WR was saying that the gallerists in Beirut thought that WR miniaturized the work?

    WR: Telepathic signals always come with telepathic noise. So you need some kind of external confirmation that the signals you’re hearing telepathically are correct. But my confirmation came from the least sympathetic source: a critic.

    The critic says, “this is typical of your generation of artists. Not only do you overlook the significance of those who came before you, you can’t even spell their names...hasn’t this man suffered enough?” He takes a can, a can of red paint and on these white walls he corrects this name. I am shattered. Not because I care about the work or the critic, but because [I feel bad that I don’t know the history of Lebanese art.]

    WR: I become convinced that artists from the future deliberately misspelled the name, because these artists from the future want a color. Artists from the future want or need this color of red because it is not available to them. It has been destroyed...affected immaterially.

    Now, I don’t normally think that people have shrunk--I don’t think you’re about to shrink--and I don’t normally receive telepathic signals. But I wanted to express to you an aesthetic fact, which to me is on par with a [political or economic fact].

    Today, Abu Dhabi has between 3 and 5% of the world’s oil, and [a significant percentage] of the world’s gas. In other words, Abu Dhabi is not just rich, they are very, very rich. But they’ve also invested in health care, education, and culture and the arts. The most visible investment in the arts is this “Island of Happiness,” Saadiyat Island.

    On this island Abu Dhabi is building the largest Guggenheim to date built by Frank Gehry. On the same Island they are building The Louvre. On the same Island they are building another project by Zaha Hadid. I even met someone whose entire job it is to design the Abu Dhabi arts scene. The budget will be a minimum of $62M/year. “The budget will be flexible,” a news report on the project quotes one Mr. Al Muhairi.

    Then I came across this weird list of the artists they’re going to buy. And I started going down the list and thought, I know some of these people. And because I knew some of them I thought wouldn’t it be good to get together and do something.

    So we got together and formed a group called Gulf Labor. We thought, because this Guggenheim needs an art collection and doesn’t have one yet, what if we required them to meet certain human rights standards before we sell them our work?  We started negotiations with the Guggenheim which is going absolutely nowhere.

    How long have we Arabs been waiting for someone to invest in art.

    One point of view is that this is a cynical ploy, to shift the economy from oil to tourism and culture under the civilizing cloak of the arts--but that they don’t give a damn about culture. What’s one billion dollars for for Abu Dhabi? That’s what the French government is getting to license the name of the Louvre for 30 years. One billion dollars--they should have asked for more.

    The other point of view is: We should give them a break because after all they are only trying to do in 20 years what the US has done in hundreds of years?

    I have met some of them, and think that like all people they are all complex and make decisions for complex reasons--so I think they are cynical, sincere, and enlightened all at the same time. I have reached my twenty minutes so I’ll give the mic to Theaster. [Applause]

    7: 12 pm: Theaster takes the podium, a boarded up two story victorian house is projected behind him :

    “What up?” [Laughter]

    “Theaster, if you’re gonna live on that block, you need to get yourself a pit bull.”

    “What I think you should do, Theaster, is go to the bank--you’ve got a good relationship with the mayor and you should get all those buildings, not just that one on the corner. You know, they say that artists move in, and development follows--you want to monetize this opportunity. You’re a world famous artist and you hang out with the likes of Walid Raad. Use that Harvard education you got--think about the deals you could make.”

    “Theater this is simple. We could enter into an understanding where your not-for-profit works with my developer with 32 units for artists of all kinds, and you will receive a percentage of the development fee….It’ll be a coup for the arts, a coup for developers, and you’ll be a hero among your colleagues.”

    “Theaster, we can’t give you this art prize. You talk more about closing the deal than the art.”

    “Theaster on behalf of beep while your work is deserving of this artistic prize, one of the criteria we have is a criteria of need and therefore we too apologize for not giving you the art prize.”

    “T, if you’re gonna get on least you can say, thank you for coming? I mean these are good white people who are coming. You get up on stage and talk about crackers--not everybody knows that when say that stuff, you’re joking.”

    “On behalf of  the city of chicago we thank you for changing and transforming the urban landscape. For being a witness and a catalyst..."

    LC: There’s no way our text can capture this! Theaster is voicing each quote with a totally different accent, attitude, tone. He is a serious actor.

    AG: he’s great. in the space of a minute he’s mimicked and maligned art institutions, politicians and even his friends, as if he’s recorded their comments and can replay them in real time.

    TG: “When I go home sometimes, the houses don’t look like they’ve gotten smaller. They’ve grown three times. ...I used to think I was championing this kind of transformation--one building at a time. I thought this could have huge, transformative consequences. I talked like my mayor. I thought I could use this tactic to...connect this little place and these little events to art events--in Paris. I used to think that if I could amplify Dorchester, I would [feel better]. To say that...the place where you’re from is important, but to say it to everyone except the people in that place where you’re from. So it makes a lot of sense when Walid says he couldn’t show his work in Lebanon.

    ...And then I think, maybe I’ve duped them all. Maybe they are miniatures, infinitely small gestures. I come to the GSD and realize it’s not a city that I’ve rebuilt, but I’ve been able to shift psychically a place. That 150 artists would want to come to this place in Chicago. That I could have the juiciest salmon of any gala and it would not have to be a gala. That shoe shine stands paid for that 28 000 square feet. That people want to believe, that they can buy their way out of a certain urban guilt, and they’d send a check and that they’d never have to come and see the [symbol].

    And [whispered] I take advantage of it. I lick my pieces before they leave and thank them in advance for the work they’re going to do. I hope they are going to help me meet more princesses, princesses for places that no longer need them. That I can meet princesses that wish they were about 10 pounds lighter, a tad darker--but only when they want to be.”

    7:25 pm: WR and TG sit down with MM.

    WR: People have seen that there’s always the production of objects that emerges in these situations. When I was coming up here I was thinking of a kind of cultural infrastructure, and where the objects fit in that. How do you think of the relationship between the artists and everything else that is happening? They participate in an economy, they can sell… You use the word leverage quite a bit and I’d like to hear you think about that. What is the place of the objects and what does it mean to leverage something?

    TG: Yeah...right..So why don’t I start with leverage. Broadly, leveraging to me feels like: you leverage a thing when you don’t have the strength to manage it pound for pound. I have limited capacity but a university has greater capacity. I have limited resources but the art world has unlimited resources.

    I was trained as a potter. In that training the making was about my capacity to make over and over again and then trim and build and the edit might happen as the thing was drying. There was this way in which the production of the thing wasn’t such a big deal it was one’s capacity to think about how you want the rest of those things to fit into the world. I didn’t have control over how much carbon a slab of clay might receive. But I was a beneficiary...

    There are sometimes when I’m making an object and I feel really endeared to it. There’s an abandoned bank that I got from the city. The bank would take $3.5M to rehab. I cut the marble of the bank up in pieces and I create a bank bond and I sell it at art basel, for $5000 (?) each. I raise half a million dollars in a day. I’m like, fuck, this is great. I make a bigger bank bond and I sell them for $50 000 (?) each.

    WR: When did you think “Oh, I have something to leverage.”

    TG: My dad was a roofer. He had given me all his roofing equipment so I sold it as art and I paid off his debt. I hired two roofers for $2000 for the day, and we made 20 tar paintings in two days. We sold the paintings and paid for the roof. That’s how I got things done in South Chicago where no bank would lend money to pay for things.

    WR: But there must have been something that you leveraged in those tar paintings.

    TG: Yeah I leveraged white men from the 1960s.

    WR: What did that look like?

    TG: Not much, monochrome. [Laughter]

    TG: I want to ask about sincerity but I also want to ask about mentorship because you’ve always mentioned a mentor and you’ve always spoken like a true teacher.

    WR: Are you talking about Jalal?

    TG: Yes.

    WR: Jalal is strange. He’s strange in the way that if he was writing about vampires that you would expect him to be a vampire. He’s someone that if you were to meet, he would give you all his books and expect you to read them all in two weeks because that’s what he would do.

    It was Beirut 1991 and the guys writing about vampires and I think to myself “What’s the link?” And it took me ten years to finish [his]  work.

    What is the context in which my works have shrunk? Am I just a bad artist--other artists have shrunk their work. Is it a metaphor because things in the Gulf are so big that my works look small, in some stupid way?

    I was jarred by an encounter with him, in which, I was sure I had told him the stories he had written down. Except that he had written my ideas down ten years before I thought them. It’s not necessarily a question of mentorship, but...I feel grateful that he’s alive...I wish he were less strange, but I’m grateful he’s alive.

    MM: ...the status of narrative, and by extension the role of criticism, which is very much enfolded in both of your practices. It’s quite rare to find artists who have the capacity to be so articulate about the nature of the practice--to be so immersed in it but also to see themselves in relation to the work.

    TG: So, I think it’s actually the academy that messes you up so much, that you have to be both immersed in a thing and distant from a thing. If you want to call it, it’s the gift of the asylum--that you start to build roads between the most intimate thing you love, and then try to get as far away from it as you can. That a literature PhD can’t write poems because then they can’t be a serious scholar on poems. That you’d have to gain a technical capacity.

    That I’d have to move my hands a lot when I’m here, and open my eyes a bit wider. That I don’t have to perform blacker, but that I become blacker in the presence of all you white people.

    When I started, I need a fiction because otherwise, nobody would believe that I just made pottery in the Japanese tradition.

    Then I needed Dave the potter. I embodied him. Then I started Soul Manufacturing company and then I could make pots as Theaster Gates. But had it not become part of the fiction I would have never gotten to that point.

    So at home, I need to reflect on my potterness. I needed a companion that was smarter than me, that had a deeper tradition in making. So it was a process--I’m still in the middle of it--of finding what could help me be reflective and also immersive.

    WR: What is a researched based architect? Every architect I’ve met has done their homework. So now there’s a research-based artist. But I’m also one of those artists who did get a PhD. I needed a visa, and a PhD is….7 years… [laughter]

    TG: You leveraged the academy!

    WR: I had to read. Freud to Lacan, Marx to Foucault, Saussure to Derrida. There’s the same formula. The table, the water--fizzy or still--you come up and are introduced, poorly or well, and then you speak, poorly or well. And then the talk ends and there is this 5 minutes of silence before someone asks a question which will either be good or bad and you answer the question well or badly. And then inevitably there is a technical difficulty, I don’t know why one has not happened tonight.

    And then the talk ends and people hang around and ask you questions. And then most people leave, and the person who invited you stays around and takes you out to dinner and you continue the conversation. This is the artist’s talk. And it seems not peripheral to what the artist does but central.

    MM: Are there other people who want to ask questions?

    Question from the audience: When I was watching your presentations, I thought, what relation is there between what Walid and Theaster are saying? Then I saw really striking ways your ideas were connecting. Walid is talking about a really wealthy community using wealth to generate art, and Theaster is talking about a poor community using art to generate wealth.

    Theaster: I didn’t exactly know what I’d do tonight. I had forty slides I didn’t show, but I couldn’t get past the first one because I was so enraptured by my own voice. But I am interested in how you can take a form and--just slightly--not aggressively, just slightly shift it and it seems like an entirely different form. That the podium shifted what I was tonight. There was something that opened up in Walid’s talk. What I like most about being creative is that there is still a possibility of being tender, that something can shift.

    I wanted to just share those nine perspectives, nine ways of seeing what I do with art in a city, and I might hear all nine in a day. “You go!” “Slow down!” “There’s no support for that.” “We can support that.”

    Audience member: And the other thing that really impressed me about your presentation theaster was where in the world could you find a market to sell those bank bonds to finance the neighborhood you wanted to restore?

    TG: And I thought the same thing about development--all these things that seem like mysteries--the lawyers, the non-profits, the tax credits--are all blazed trails and you just have to know them. I’m too dumb to be a developer or to be a great director of a non-profit. So I had to hustle. But if you hustle hard enough you can find money anywhere.

    Q: And its all legal--

    TG: That it’s all about compromise. [muttering] Legal Shmegal...

    AG: Did she actually just ask a black guy if his art hustle was legal? I could cut through the silence that followed that statement with knife.

    LC: Ha!

    WR: ...No, my artwork did not shrink because of the economic downturn.

    MM: In the other project there is a very precise description of the work--it’s transportation, what happens to it. When you describe Abu Dhabi, do you think that this group of artists ever believed that their work would ever have any consequence in terms of the acquisition agreement?

    WR: Why did we think so? Because we knew we were already on the market. People were already buying our works knowing that this money was going to be coming in from Abu Dhabi--so there was a secondary market regardless of what we’d do. But why did I get involved? Because it seemed so clear. We know these people, they don’t have a collection. It seemed so clear, even though it’s proved to be so knotty.

    Audience question: What do you get from coming here, from adding another layer to your work? Why don’t we all run away from the academy?

    TG: Why would I come here as an artist and talk to you, or why would I go to school at all? Why don’t I tell you why I came to Harvard: It seemed like architects would come here, find the cream, scoop them and grow their enterprises, that Harvard seemed like a place where young talent could be found. So that if I talked good today, some white cream would want to come to Chicago with me.

    TG: ...I’m not worried about white women jogging with pit bulls in my neighborhood. We’re at least five years from that. But it may happen because of my big mouth.

    But why am I here? Because this is a safe place where we can be as wacky as we want to be [and we can explore ideas]. Tonight I didn’t have to give a talk. I didn’t give a talk. [pauses, looks at Dean Mohsen beside him.] I don’t know what I’m doing here. [Laughter.]

    AG: These guys are raining knowledge down on us from the ether.

    WR: What I love about teaching at Cooper Union is that its free. At Cooper Union a student gets in because of their own merit, and coming out without that debt, I think that allows certain things.

    TG: And leaving school with debt also allows certain things. I’ve watched young people quiver as they get ready to leave places like this. They think, I have less time to make sense of certain things.

    There is a gift always in certain kinds of debt. that is the weight--wherever it comes from. that if we harness the weight, then we find ourselves with one more thing that has to be figured out in the equation.

    And I have to figure out what to do with this $90 000 nut. Some people think, I’m not going to eradicate the nut by working at Teach for America, or others think, I’m going to work in a hedge fund because that’s what Dad does.

    For me, it’s: you’re a small black theater, and you want to do big things. Where are you going to get the money? There is a $250 000 nut you have to crack every year. Our unwillingness to grapple with this other stuff means that we will never be effective enough at the thing that we love.

    MM: I want to thank Walid and Theaster and all of you; I think this has been a really moving and important couple of hours. One of the things that I love about your work is the level of commitment you show to your work and I hope that this is something that our students think here. That if we’re going to be successful that we need to make the conditions for those things to happen. Thank you all very much for being here tonight. [applause]

    Thanks for reading!

    Alison and Lian


    • Excellent, thanks Lian. 

      Oct 29, 13 12:02 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks, Quilian! I still remember the day when you encouraged me to start blogging--when I was prospective for the MArch--so I owe it all to you! :P

      Nov 1, 13 3:17 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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