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My Hand or My Voice
Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Theaster Gates on Art, Community, and Activism

By Susy Bielak

Theaster Gates doesn’t use the word activism. “I grew up thinking that my politics would be more in my hand and in my body and in labor,” he said. This month the Walker presents an exhilarating work by Marc Bamuthi Joseph that features Gates’ sets and addresses environmental justice. Coming late to the notion that a political voice could create change, Gates says he now asks, “Is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?”

Already acclaimed in the worlds of performance and visual art, Joseph and Gates are capturing the attention of people working in an array of fields as they forge new forms of collaboration and new directions in socially engaged art. Bay Area–based Joseph’s electrifying hybrids merge dance and theater with hip-hop, poetry, and storytelling; he’s also a leader in spoken-word and theater education for young people and was recently appointed the new Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The practice of Chicago-based Gates encompasses the traditional fine arts as well as performance and installation, urban planning and design. Gates is also the inaugural Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago.

Both artists invite audiences to look at challenging issues in creative ways; in fact, they literally bring them onstage for the opening segment of Joseph’s newest, Walker-commissioned piece, red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb), where they mingle with performers amid Gates’ stage set/art installation of repurposed building materials and clay objects. By way of answering “What sustains life?,” the piece brings together big ideas and moving personal stories in a hybrid performance of theater, poetry, movement, music, and visuals that is “as smart and provocative as it is breathtakingly beautiful” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Here, the artists talk with Susy Bielak, Walker associate director of education, about their work together and individually, what it means to be an activist who’s also an artist, and the far-flung networks of people who figure in rbGb.

Susy Bielak

I understand that you two began collaborating on red, black & GREEN: a blues three years ago, but you’ve known each other for more than a decade. Can you talk about how you came to know one another, and what you initially were struck by and inspired by in the other person’s practice?

Theaster Gates

Bamuthi was part of my entrée to the West Coast and the Bay area, and he’s been a really wonderful model for creative leadership. What I felt from him in the poetry scene was something I hadn’t seen before. He was spittin’, but he was also organizing the set—he spits with young people, he spits in the ‘hood, and he’s also managing and leading this thing. The ways that I had experienced cultural leadership were very different and rarely did it come from a peer. At the same time, he became a model for growing a creative practice that felt akin to me. He was like a big brother in that way.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

I find myself on the mirror side of that, recognizing Theaster’s leadership in intentional community design, as he’s been able to successfully integrate a material practice with a social activist practice. This notion of balancing the two has become a really global model. It complicates issues of value, putting both dominant hierarchies and also flat, more equitable understandings of value in play.

Also, in the beginning, I knew Theaster as a craftsman who also had mad swag. That’s important. Of nine elements that I could name in hip-hop, style is paramount. He was someone who was classically trained and was revisiting all of these traditions in both performance and in materials—sometimes clay, sometimes paper, various textiles. I saw him as a person who was changing the trajectory and also inspiring other performers with how they get down. And I think what keeps us together are not only these shared interests, but Theaster’s particular leadership in pushing the whole art world more toward a holistic center that embodies all these different values, while also lifting up this style portion at the same time. It’s pretty extraordinary.

Bielak

Maintaining a hand in the material world, keeping a pulse on poetics and other practices, and then really getting things done in the larger world—that’s impressive. So in that respect, can you talk about how this blurring between different kinds of art and social practices is created, between more traditional notions of art, entrepreneurship, and activism? I’m curious about how you navigate different scales in creating your projects.

Gates

Scale has always been a question. It was never like “big is always good and small is always bad,” but rather there are things you see working at a particular scale that maybe at another scale you wouldn’t see; or you can only work at the scale you have capacity for. Over the past couple of years, many of my projects were small and also kind of principled. That is, how do I think about the needs that the high school students in my classroom have, and then how do I think of the needs of high school students more broadly? I was always kind of moving between the practice and the ideology that governs the practice.

That kind of work has given me, over time, a different way of perceiving the world. Instead of saying, “Oh, I can only work on the block,” or “Oh, I can only work with galleries,” it’s been more like, “What would be the most useful intervention relative to my skill sets in this environment?” Or, “How do I want to spend my time relative to the challenges or the problem or the opportunities placed in front of me?”

The art world has given me a set of opportunities and challenges to both be as productive as I can, but also try to have some integrity and maybe even challenge traditional assumptions about what the art market is. I take on that task thinking not only about how I fill up the space, but also can there be reflection on why fill up the space and why this space over other kinds of spaces?

Bielak

In reading an earlier interview with you, Theaster, I noted how you talked about feeling like you’ve gained more traction being an artist deploying urban planning, versus urban planners who put up a sculpture in a neighborhood and hope that people gather around it. That idea opened up a question for both of you: What is it to actually come to action and to activism from the vantage point of an artist?

Joseph

Obviously, Theaster can speak for himself, but something that I recognize in his work and that I hope is true for me as well is that it was never a “come to activism” moment. Some of it is the skin that I was born in, some of it is the time that I was born in, but there was never an “aha” moment where now I have to serve, or now I’m accountable. What informs my arts practice is the same thing that informs my whole being, which is that in the United States, in particular, the symbolic architecture of my body is laden with a certain kind of history that doesn’t allow me to not be active. To some degree, whatever we do—whether it’s culinary, or it’s drug-dealing—is informed by the racial history of the United States and all these paradigms that we were born into.

We can kind of over-intellectualize it, but that undermines all the history that precedes both our respective practices and us, because there wasn’t really much of a choice to have activism be a part of what we do. Any verse that I write is immediately descended from hip-hop—from the driving force of Public Enemy’s percussion and all those sirens going off in their work—and it’s historically descended from Equiano in the 1700s on down.

Gates

I don’t use the word activism. My dad was kind of an anti-activist. He had nine children, so when people were protesting, he went to work. For him and the survival of his family, labor felt like the most active duty that he could participate in. I grew up thinking that my politics would be more in my hand and in my body and in labor. It was late that I came to the idea that a political voice could create change. These days, I’m trying to leverage both my hand and political voice, and gain an understanding of how systems and structures work and what’s needed. Is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?

The political, in this sense, is just a way of seeing clearly the systems of oppression that exist and the systems of privilege. Like Bamuthi said, I’m burdened by my history. It becomes very difficult not to think about other people as I become more resourceful, more successful. Other people are born with the luxury of not having to consider others. Sometimes I wish I had that, but I don’t. It doesn’t feel like I have a choice in this work, which is what makes it feel really purposeful. It’s what I’m made to do. There’s a way in which my history keeps carrying forward and keeps me with this burden, that’s what my mom would call it. This aching in my heart to make sure that as I can do more, I do it.

Bielak

In rbGb, there’s a striking moment where there is this incantation, a calling of names. Since we’re talking about responsiveness to people, can both of you talk about the relationships and the kind of collaborations and partnerships, both visible and not so visible, that are formed in putting together a project such as this—the communities inside and outside of the art world that are involved?

Joseph

There are many, many invisible networks that form the thread that pulls everything together. The first place I go to is ancestral ghosts—the idea that 10,000 years before any Europeans arrived, there were people on this land and it took less than 200 years to wipe them out. The second place I go to is the modern-day mode of that same practice, which is gentrification, and the way developers see through people who are already present to consider amenities or corporate strongholds that could be in a place. So between the invisibles of antiquity and the contemporary living ghosts that we see through, whose histories we ignore, these things have disappeared from contemporary narrative and specifically, from a larger conversation around sustainable land use. I think those are all more spiritual or soulful responses to that question.

Then there are all the people we met over the course of doing the Living Classroom and Life Is Living projects that fed into rbGb. There are literally 1,000 partners across four cities now, from the Bush Cares project in Houston, Kuumba Links in Chicago, Riverside Church Theater in New York, and more than 300 partners in Oakland. Those people, too, form an invisible network that we don’t quite see and yet are very present. Then there are Michael Garcés as the director; Charlie Vinz, the architect; David Szlasa, the media designer: people that you don’t physically see, who also formed an artistic network that made this work possible.

So it’s the ghosts of antiquity, the living ghosts, the recently murdered, and the community and social workers that made Life Is Living possible, and then the artistic team, too.

Gates

Another person I’d mention is John Preus, an artist and builder who was key to the construction of the sets. But to add to what Bamuthi is saying—in order to have these networks, you have to do a couple of things. You have to give organizations and people something to believe in and something to lay hold of, and you need an incredible administrative facility and belief mechanism in order to galvanize the number of people that Bamuthi has, and that the Life Is Living project has. In a way, Life Is Living allowed us the nervous system whereby we could grow all these tentacles that spanned out not only in the four cities that we ended up in, but also to a national network of funders and folks who wanted to believe in them. This set of structures allowed us to get to know the narratives of other people who had experienced loss or who had experienced great victories as a result of their circumstance, wherever they are—and we got a chance to grow our chops by telling those stories, elevating those people.

There’s a way in which this invisible network is a kind of platform that needs people—our projects just need so many people in order for them to work. On one level, there’s that idea of “we ain’t helping nobody out, this is cultural production, ain’t no handouts”; but in order for us all to be successful, we need each other. And it’s been great to see what you’re calling “invisible networks” turn into a consequence of new friendships, new long-lasting relationships, and new opportunities for all of us in the different cities that we work in.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph (center) and Theaster Gates (right) with Tommy Shepherd

Photo: Bethanie Hines

Marc Bamuthi Joseph participating in his Life Is Living project

Photo: Bethanie Hines

An acclaimed visual artist, Theaster Gates (seated) designed the sets for red, black & GREEN: a blues

Photo: Bethanie Hines