A 12th century church, bombed to smithereens in a 1940 Nazi air raid may sound like an unlikely place to hold a party but that’s exactly what is happening this month in Bristol, England, thanks to Chicago artist Theastre Gates.
Gates is a sculptor, a performance artist and an urban interventionist, (yes, it’s a thing) turning dead spaces into creative environments. He’s also the director of arts and public life at the University of Chicago.
Ever the innovator, he once had a 50-member gospel choir sing songs inspired by the works of a 19th century potter and slave. For another exhibition, he turned a gallery into a listening room, hiring a DJ to spin selections from a record store that had just closed down. And, oh yes, he paints too.
But it’s his “real estate art” that he’s best known for, specifically an ongoing development known as the Dorchester Projects. Named after an abandoned building he purchased on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago’s South Side in 2006, the structure has become a hub of cultural activity, a place to jam, read books, even cook communal meals, thanks to a collaboration with local designers and architects to gut and refurbish the building with found materials from the neighbourhood. ArtReview calls Gates “the poster boy for socially engaged art” and other American cities have taken notice.
“Most city mayors who want to talk to me have big problems and they see culture as a means to an end,”says Gates. “So they come to me and they say ‘You seem to be doing this pretty well, Theastre, what’s your trick? What’s you secret sauce.’” Gates tells them to have faith in their artists and give them a real seat at the table when their city is being shaped.
Now he’s in England, repeating the formula, taking the shell of a building, in this case Temple Church and filling it with reclaimed lumber from the neighbourhood – timbers and bricks from nearby Georgian houses and doors from a former chocolate factory – to form an inner shelter, an inner sanctum which will become a performance space for 242 musicians and storytellers. Violin duos, a samba drumming band, poets, pop quartets, sound designers; they’re all here, filling the space with their music and their stories 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for continuous 24 days.
“Sound has the capacity to make people feel things,” says Gates.
Admission is free, encouraging people to drop in on a moment’s notice, even in the middle of the night. The 576 hour sound fest was launched last month and will continue until November 21