Huguenot House, Kassel, Germany. 2012
I had the opportunity to do an installation in the Huguenot House, the site for Theaster Gates’ 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. The exhibition opened to rave reviews on June 9th, 2012 and ran for 100 days, and was called by Documenta staff, “the jewel of Documenta 13.” I composed 3 pieces of music for the bathroom, in the spirit of the 12 Ballads, part requiem, part anthem for a building with an uncertain future.
Theaster Gates: 12 Ballads for Huguenot House
I spent almost 3 months in Kassel, Germany directing a Chicago crew of 7, a German crew of up to 6, along with student groups from Egypt and Sweden, to work on the temporary renovation of the Huguenot House, the sprawling 30 room site for Theaster Gates’ contribution to dOCUMENTA(13), 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. In general terms, I imagine the project as a love song from one vacant building to another. 12 Ballads pairs 6901 South Dorchester in Chicago, one of the houses in the growing Rebuild Foundation portfolio, with the Huguenot House, formerly an annex to the neighboring hotel, and before that, an apartment complex built in the restrained Huguenot style. The ballads were recorded in a 24 hour session on a cold winter day in 6901 before it was gutted, and the recordings projected onto the walls of the temporarily inhabited Huguenot House. Likewise, the performances that happened in the Huguenot House during the opening week will live on as projections in some other future building, and maybe in 6901. The crew of now 11 skilled craftsmen and apprentices, spent about 10 months prior to the exhibition building furniture and objects, building frames for material “packs”, collections of material extracted from 6901 and neighboring detritus, all of which was shipped to Kassel and is now built into the Huguenot House. 7 members of the crew came to Kassel, to live and work in the building, to install the Chicago materials, and extract Kassel materials for future installations. The buildings themselves become surrogates for questions about neighborhoods, how they are inhabited, how they become vibrant and fulfilling, or abandoned and cold, and what role the buildings and materials themselves play within that story.
Visit the White Cube website for a video on Theaster’s project.
The following text, written by John Preus, was printed in the book, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House by Theaster Gates
(available for purchase at Artbook. Foreword by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Madeleine Grynsztejn. Text by Michael Darling, Theaster Gates, Matthew Jesse Jackson, John Preus. Conversation with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.)
There is something haunting or depressing about vacancy, and about seeing the vacuum left behind when something as significant and potentially valuable as a house, no longer elicits the care and attention it once did. It may have to do with the indifference of the natural world toward human endeavors, reclaiming things and materials that on the surface look resilient and permanent. So it is with Huguenot House, walking through the attic layered with pigeon and raccoon shit, the floors caving in, the roof falling, the wall paper peeling, the stone crumbling, that for me elicits the sort of sadness that I might experience if a library burned down. Nature performs its inexorable, slow motion erasure turning an act of man into a landscape.
But I am ahead of myself, as there is still a building to discuss, a distant emblem of the Huguenot’s iconoclastic, militant Protestant ethic, here revealed through seriality and repetition, and an unadorned aesthetic in step with a habitual patterned lifestyle, to paraphrase wikipedia. Doubtless, Theaster recognizes in this building’s history, some patterns related to the African American history of persecution, partial victory followed by de facto segregation, followed by patterns of structural racism, and class warfare… And in some ways, one could say that the suggestions of modernist influence in Theaster’s work, the sort of ‘warm’ minimalism’ as I think of it, finds a worthy expression in this house, abandoned and sad as it is. But the narrative that Theaster has developed and that reveals itself through these ballads from one abandoned building to another, function for me, both as a requiem and an anthem. The story of what we are doing, and what might happen to Huguenot House after we leave, is for Theaster related to the political gesture of a sit-in, or a refusal to leave, a gesture of resistance based in conviction. Theaster decided that he would decide what is and what is not valuable, and that if he did so with conviction and charisma, others would believe him, and follow him, and do their best work for him.
That is where I and the crew come in. Whether to call myself project leader, artist’s assistant, lead fabricator, my role has been to help Theaster turn his vision into form, and to help him physically transform the Huguenot House and make it habitable for the crew who will sleep there while we are in town. After our visit to Kassel in August of 2011, I worked with Theaster to develop prototypes for furniture to be installed in the Huguenot House, out of materials extracted from 6901 South Dorchester in Chicago. Since then I have worked with the crew to experiment with the forms that were invented, and have helped develop the conceptual relationship between the houses and the materials. We are here first as individuals with a particular skill set.
Tadd Cowen is our master craftsman, our ace-in-the-hole whose careful, sensitive touch makes everything beautiful; Theodore Boggs is our manager who keeps things in order, makes sure things are coming and going to the right place, and offers intelligent speculation about all decisions to be made; Titus Wonsey is our logistics trainee, hard-working and honest as a brick, with indelible curiosity; Kevin Reiswig is our powerhouse, draught horse, energizer buddy with good energy and great hands; Nick Baker has the hands of a surgeon and the eyes of an artist, young and searching and certain to do well; and finally, Norman Teague, designer-extraordinaire, slow to anger, even-tempered, street-wizened sage among us, keeping it real. We descend upon Kassel from our native industrial, smoke-belching Chicago. Our song is the things we make that support the ballads and that make the house once again into a home, however temporary. We will barbecue in the back yard, soul-food and wurst, greens and schnitzel. Come and join us.
We don’t know what we are doing here, or why. We are often asked, “what’s going to happen to the house when you leave?” The thrust of the question can go in a number of directions. It can be based in skepticism about the final possible ameliorative outcome of all of this time, money and energy in terms of actually making the house valuable to a potential renovator. It can be a sincere curiosity about how all of this energy can translate into something with more longevity, and with a more robust commitment to either the Kassel population, or the Documenta community at large. It can come from an architectural concern for the maintenance of a rich and complex chapter in German and French history. It can also be a question about intent, and what it is that Theaster is hoping to accomplish by taking on such an unlikely international historic renovation.
Because we are working on a house, and a house is a place that people live in, the pragmatic questions about the final, non-art function of the site become central to the estimation of the project’s success in the eyes of many. The project, for some, succeeds or fails according to whether or not the house is “rescued” from its 40+ year decline into disrepair. It is a demand placed upon the project that is unique to its hybrid nature, as an architectural revival of sorts, and a series of related interventions. It is important to understand that the Huguenot House was “decommissioned” by the hotel chain that owned the house, and has not been in use since the 70s, and speaking from a neutral place, anything at all that we do to it, is in my view better than nothing.
But my defense places the bar higher than that. The project for me has something to do with both the tangible results of labor and attention, and the intangible social gesture of care. It has to do with the tangible skills that young Nick and Titus will learn working on a house, and the intangible experience of their first trip to Europe, and the ripple effects of their presence in Kassel, at Documenta. It has to do with singing this beautiful old building to sleep, or stomping its floors again to wake it up, and shake off the dust, and hold out for the arrival of its benefactor. It has to do with intervening into a complex social history, that is not our native concern, and into which we carry little baggage. We intervene as earnest dilettantes, and eager tourists, into a building’s limbo state, protected but neglected, either to sing it awake, or to rock it to sleep, but that has yet to be determined.