Urban Musical Improvisations

A recent performance in Helsinki by artist Theaster Gates resulted in a new and unexpected perspective on the city.

Theaster Gates, The Black Charismatic (still), 2017.

Theaster Gates was not the only producer of this year’s Ihme Contemporary Arts Festival (IHME) in Helsinki. Dwayne Patrick, Mikel Patrick Avery, Ben LaMar Gay, Yaw Agyeman and Michael Drayton participate as well.

Most people who follow contemporary art know about Theaster Gates. A trained ceramics artist, his practice combines city planning, religion studies and visual art into what is called installation and social practice. Based in Chicago, Gates is engaged in urban development and collective symbolic culture production, while his art has been exhibited at a number of significant venues for contemporary art.

The names of the other participants are less familiar, but not their appearance. Over the past ten years Gates has occasionally assembled his band, The Black Mississippi Monks, to do improvised musical performances. Their most noted appearance as of yet took place at Documenta 13 as part of the work 12 Ballads of the Huegeunot House, a reactivation of an abandoned building through a series of concerts, which were documented and installed differently throughout the house during the 100 days of the exhibition.                                                                                                                                                 

The Black Monks of Missisippi played a quite different part In the Helsinki project. Gates worked with them as the point of departure, and as both a means and an end.

The public core of the IHME production was an appearance by the band in one of the city’s foremost tourist attractions, Temppeliaukio Church in Töölö. For one and a half hours the audience cramming the church followed the ensemble and musical journey of the Black Monks.

Theaster Gates, The Black Charismatic (still), 2017.

The night before, the audience could also have seen the inaugural screening of the two part documentary, The Black Charismatic, where the members of the band in the first part section about their part in the collaboration and improvisation. The second part is a collage of different improvisations performed in different areas of both Helsinki and Chicago, and documents the methods of the band.

The second part of the film can be seen through April as an installation in the Salvation Army’s temple on Nylandsgatan 40 in Helsinki.

The concept of black charisma includes both irony and critique as well as heartfelt interpretation of Black American culture and the expectations of it by hegemonic culture. The musical improvisations are filled with hymn, gospel and the spiritual variations of sermon, rhetorical maneuvers and rhythmic worlds of sound.  The interaction between play and gravity, trust and desire mixed with musical virtuosity, certainty and rhythm is uniquely natural.

Seeing the band play live as well as hearing the musician’s own reflections deepened and broadened the experience of Theaster Gates work, which intensified the sensation of existential meaning so rarely associated with art today. Theaster Gates is one of few contemporary artists that appears unassailably accessible, while having an impact on virtually every level of the international art world.

Gates works with a flow of overlapping material and is always accompanied by a documenting video photographer. The project in Helsinki began already during a few weeks in the fall of 2016, when the band played in different spaces around the city. Gates has talked about his sense of the city’s silent history, which he has deliberately explored in Andreakyrkan (the Free Evangelical Church of Finland) built in the 19th century, the Myllysali hall in Sveaborg fortress from the 18th centure, Otnäs Chapel from the 1950’s, and the auditorium decorated by Akseli Gallén-Kallela in the National Museum from the early 19th century.

Theaster Gates, The Black Charismatic (still), 2017.

This material appears at times in The Black Charismatic, and will be issued as three records by The Black Monks of Mississippi. It will certainly also forms parts of many future video works by Gates.

While it was expected that IHME would want to commission a work by Theaster Gates, it was far from certain that it would be possible to work with one of the most frequently engaged contemporary artists. According to Gates, IHME presented him with the opportunity to focus on The Black Monks of Mississippi by allowing him to work unconditionally.

Gates’ work in Helsinki provides an interesting perspective on how the city appears to someone whose urban and cultural context differs widely from that of Finland. At the same time, places were emphasized that haven’t really been payed any attention for a long time. The different churches were charged with new dimensions and alternative implications through being visited by The Black Monks.

IHME proved yet again to be a power source for singular experiences of art. Additionally, a program of films and discussions relating to themes in Theaster Gates’ art was organized with enough breadth for interpretations, without forcing the understanding of art into an all too restrictive framework. The invited speakers included, among others, Chris Dercon, Deborah Willis, Dan Cameron and Charles Esche. The filmprogram was curated by Olaf Möller. All discussions are available on Youtube/IHME Festival.

Theaster Gates, The Black Charismatic (still), 2017.