Ayana Contreras

Host, “Reclaimed Soul,” Vocalo
Ayana Contreras is a DJ, Chicago music historian and sound artist whose all-vinyl radio show, “Reclaimed Soul,” runs on WBEZ and Vocalo; she also serves as a producer on “Sound Opinions.” She says her work is “centered on uplifting and celebrating the cultural riches of the community around me, both what’s on the surface and what’s in the basement.” As a DJ, she’s shared the stage with artists from Roy Ayers to Makaya McCraven and spins on Monday mornings at Theaster Gates’ 95th Street Red Line DJ booth, “An Extended Song of Our People.” Contreras was a 2014-15 Arts + Public Life artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago and a 2015 Association of Independents in Radio New Voices Scholar. Her first hosting gig was WBEZ’s “Global Overnight” program in 2007. Her book on the power of post-civil rights-movement black Chicago media, called “Energy Never Dies,” is forthcoming through Northwestern University Press.

Chicago Mag Block

Six Ways to Take Your
Block Party Up a Notch

Super-charge this Chicago summer staple.

Bowie named the scrapped project after a little-known South Side subculture.

 by Salvatore Maicki on September 27th, 2016 / Vice I-D

This past Friday, Parlophone released Who Can I Be Now?, a collection of David Bowie’s studio recordings and live performances between 1974 and 1976. Included in the 12-disc box set, which can be streamed here, is The Gouster (disc four), a previously unreleased album which would later evolve into Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans LP. Though updated versions of four of the album’s seven tracks eventually found their way onto the Young Americans track listing, the soulful groundwork of The Gouster provides a clearer picture of Bowie’s influences during this era. “We weren’t ‘young, gifted and black'” writes producer Tony Visconti in the album’s liner notes, “but we sure as hell wanted to make a killer soul album.”

But what, exactly, is a Gouster? Visconti writes, “David knew it as a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the 60’s, in Chicago. In the context of the album its meaning was… an attitude of pride and hipness.” According to Chicago soul historian Ayana Contreras, there were two prominent style tribes among black male teenagers growing up in the South Side during the early 60s: the Ivy Leaguers and the Gousters. “Gousters were considered kinda like hoods,” writes Contreras, “whereas Ivy Leaguers at least looked like they kept their noses clean.”

In contrast to the Ivy Leaguers’ collegiate formality, the Gousters adopted a more relaxed style, often wearing pleated trousers, baggy long-collared shirts, and newsboy caps. The Gousters were known for their killer dance moves — such as the Gouster Bop and the Gouster Walk — which they often showed off at iconic Chicago institutions of the era like the Pershing Hotel’s Budland club. Unfortunately, there isn’t much photographic evidence of this once-prominent South Side subculture. Historians often point to the fashion in the 1975 blaxploitation film Cooley High as the closest pop cultural representation of the Gouster.

It isn’t entirely clear why Bowie scrapped The Gouster in favor of Young Americans. But perhaps, in the grand scheme of music history, it was wise to not totally co-opt Gouster style. Hopefully, the album’s unearthing will lead to a more comprehensive conversation about this oft-forgotten subculture, which lent such a heavy hand in shaping Bowie’s soulful reinvention.

On a Block in Chicago, a Participatory Project Visualizes Jail Data

by Sarah Rose Sharp on August 17, 2015 / Hyperallergic

The scene at

CHICAGO — It was a broiling Midwestern day, the kind Chicago is famous for. A huge portion of the city was down at the waterfront, taking in the spectacle of the annual Air and Water Show, but on the deep west side of town, another kind of gathering was in progress, on the stretch of Sacramento Street that borders Cook County Jail (CCJ).

This massive facility houses approximately 9,000 inmates on any given day, a population which draws about half its number from the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The 96-acre campus sits directly across the street from single-family homes with reasonably maintained front yards — and views of long stretches of chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire and hemming in the tired, monolithic correctional facility. What, one wonders, does a view like that do to the psychic airspace of a neighborhood?

Designer and activist Landon Brown wondered, too. That’s why he teamed up with local artist, activist, and 96 Acres founder Maria Gaspar to stage the event last weekend on Sacramento Street. “PARK: 96 Acres” crowdsourced dozens of black, brown, and white cars and their drivers, who were invited to park along Sacramento Street facing the jail. Brown, who often works with dynamic forms of data visualization, structured the call for cars to roughly reflect the racial demographics of the incarcerated population at CCJ, making a flattened pie chart along the line of the street — in essence, “amplifying a simple statistic with heavy connotations,” he explained. Gaspar’s organization, which she considers less a nonprofit and more a kind of administrative support system for her social art practice, has worked since 2013 to create art experiences that reflect on and interact with the presence of the jail in the West Chicago and Little Village neighborhoods, where she grew up. Gaspar can recall her first visit to the jail in sixth grade, as part of a “Scared Straight” program. “The guards kept talking to us about cleanliness,” she said. “It was confusing.”

She’s not the only one with personal recollections of CCJ. Over the airwaves of the radio station Vocalo (90.7 FM), interspersed with B.B. King’s 1970 performance Live in Cook County Jail, ”PARK” broadcast residents on the street sharing their stories about the jail in real time. “Hi, I’m Jennifer Gonzales, and my boyfriend has been there since November of 2013,” said one woman. “As a parent, I think it’s not really somewhere you should take children.”

Vocalo DJ (left, with parasol) interviews CCJ warden Nneka Jones Tapia.

The broadcast was the element that tied the whole project together; audible through the radios of the cars parked along the street, it created a quasi-stereophonic effect that permeated the space. And hearing B.B. King’s inimitable guitar riffs floating in the same airspace where he performed over 40 years ago left one to wonder: what has actually changed in the intervening decades?

“Of course, I recognize the gravity of that conversation,” Brown said, of US incarceration statistics, “and this has been a great opportunity to embed the tools that artists use in that conversation.” This ties closely to his professional practice at VisionArc, a design think tank that attempts to address systemic problems (under Brown’s direction, VisionArc has consulted for the World Economic Forum through the Global Agenda Council on Design). Ultimately, Brown sees the issue as one of scale — the people affected by policy-making on the ground have few mechanisms to comprehend the scope of those policies on a large scale, while the policy-makers have little ability to connect with the consequences on an individual level. Additionally, he thinks a kind of violence is inflicted through what he calls the “hegemony of data” and tries to use projects like “PARK” to make data a participatory and accessible activity. “Why are we representing a piece of data without showing the physical impact?” Brown asked.

Inmates represented by black cars form approximately 70% of the Cook County Jail population. (click to enlarge)

Though ultimately “PARK” drew only half the participation it hoped for, the organizational efforts of Brown and Gaspar, as well as their media affiliate, Vocalo, were Herculean — and the event would have been impossible, Brown was quick to point out, without the help of the Cook County Sheriff’s office and the jail itself, under the direction of new warden Nneka Jones Tapia, who was on the street and interviewed by Vocalo. While efforts to organize through social practice art can have mixed results and raise questions about representation — does a black car really stand in for approximately 900 prisoners better than a statistic? — the efforts of 96 Acres have a homegrown authenticity; they are clearly seeking to address a major force that affects many lives in West Chicago. “PARK” was successful both in developing a scalable, elastic framework for social commentary on an institutional issue and in simply creating a different feeling in the air on Sacramento Street that day. As Brown said, the audio component led participants in “passing through intensities.” Indeed, the physical presence of such a facility is effectively a monument to the pain of the surrounding neighborhoods. By contrast, the music and stories shared by “PARK” created a viable contrast. Of these instances of audio resistance, Brown commented, “They are ephemeral, but they are forces to be reckoned with.”

PARK: 96 Acres” took place at 2600 S Sacramento Ave, Chicago, on August 15, 1–3pm.

Eye Exam: What Good is Art?

By Elliot J. Reichert, Newcity, July 30th, 2015

Each time I venture deeper into the tangled economy of art making and its contingent endeavors, I ask myself: What good is art? I am not an artist, but I work with artists and artworks every day. By all accounts, I should believe deeply in art, and yet I routinely question its value. As such, when I go to look at art, I often search in it for signs of doubt, and I am usually comforted to know that I am not alone in my questioning. For if contemporary art can be united under one banner, it would be doubt itself: doubt about politics, about social relations, about economic and class structures, about the very importance of human life. Ironically, this might be why I gravitate toward art in the first place, despite my ambivalence toward its significance. Art turns my fears into forms; it makes real what I cannot, or do not want, to imagine.

Last week, I went looking for doubt when I visited “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” but I did not find it, at least not at first. If the artists who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had any ambivalence about the efficacy of art, all traces of this uncertainty have been smoothed away by the repeated rehearsal of its history. In this year of its fiftieth anniversary, the Museum of Contemporary Art has honored the AACM’s legacy with an expansive exhibition of the music and art of black cultural nationalism in Chicago. Founded on Chicago’s South Side by a group of jazz artists, the AACM combated the pervasive social and institutional challenges confronting black musicians in the mid-1960s with radical experimentation in music and politics. Working collaboratively amongst themselves and with other radical collectives such as the Chicago-born African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), these artists drew on the rhetoric of black nationalism in the pursuit of new forms for black art.

Accordingly, the show is full of strident politics rendered in bold forms. I was stunned by a graphic print by Barbara Jones-Hogu titled “Unite (AfriCOBRA),” which repeats a call to nationhood in bold letters over a sea of afros and raised black fists. The captivating visual rhythm of Jones-Hogu’s design appears as a graphic score for a sonic rallying cry, testifying to the intertwined purposes of radical black aesthetics with its concurrent politics. The print seemed to have arrived here from another dimension. How could an artwork be so direct in its address and so emphatic in its message? How could it assume the willingness of its viewer to agree with its pronouncement? Where was its hard shell of silence, its reluctant withdrawal?

Installation view,

Surrounding this work, a sea of vitrines hold concert posters, photographs of performances, membership cards, roll calls, and other AACM ephemera. Gathered together, the traces of music and art bear witness to the collective ethos of the movement, in which categorical separations between ways of making dissolved into a unified—but not homogenous—revolutionary aesthetic. Solidarity among these musicians and artists was not merely the matter of a spoken promise and a shared ideal. It manifested constantly in a multitude of tangible and immaterial collaborations that stoked a collective self-imagining and galvanized the polity of black life.

Swept up in this pageant of conviction and collectivity, I was surprised again to find the gradual return of ambivalence. Things that looked like the cleaner, more polished versions of these older artifacts began to emerge: a shelf of album covers produced by the fictive “Pride” record label, an array of shiny symbols clustered on the floor, a leather-wrapped drum surrounded by attentive microphones despite its silence. Performance, improvisation and, chiefly, musicality were the threads that stitched together these works and hinged them to the legacies of the AACM, AfriCOBRA and the other works from this earlier moment. At times, politics resurfaced obliquely in these contemporary works, as they did in the words of Malcolm X drawn between the staffs of a musical score: “America is a society controlled primarily by racists and segregationists.” Indeed, but why arrange these words to music? This, I realized, was not a question I would have asked of this artwork had I not seen it in the context of this show. After witnessing the revolutionary parade of historical opposition, the artworks of a roster of great contemporaries did not seem merely ambivalent; they felt nostalgic, or even cynical. On the way out of the show, I passed by a stage and stools made by John Preus, who crafted them from the discarded desks and chairs of some of the fifty public schools closed last year by Mayor Emanuel. Unlike much of the more polished work inside the galleries, the work of this Chicago artist reminded me that despair can be generative, and failures can be salvaged to make platforms for new action.

James T. Green 2_2

From the MCA, I took the southbound Red Line to the Logan Center to visit a group exhibition called “Three The Hard Way.” Named after a 1974 blaxploitation film in which a trio of black heroes save the day from a neo-Nazi organization bent on black genocide, the show gathered new works made by three artists-in-residence at this South Side arts center. The title itself is a reminder that the revolutionary rhetoric of black cultural nationalism did not simply disappear only to be reprised in today’s contemporary art. As its tenets held true to an even greater mass, Black Power penetrated popular culture, rendering it both populist and commodified.

Ayana Contreras traces the contradictions of this broader incorporation of Black Power in archival arrangements that include issues of Ebony and Jet magazines, found photographs and books by Frantz Fanon, among other things. An open copy of Ebony from 1969 discusses the recent shift from a Civil Rights-era “integration-oriented movement to a cultural and political revolution of black consciousness, self-development and self determination.” Nearby, an issue of Life from the same year declares that “Black Is Busting Out All Over,” claiming that recent movements for black equality were “brought about by advertisers and fashion arbiters who are finding out that black is not only beautiful but good business.” No complex curatorial statements are needed here, as the works speak for themselves.In David Leggett’s “Chiraq,” a mixed-media collage, the head of a teary-faced black girl floats above a cartoonish burst of flames on a dark field. The image might have been cut from the front page of a Chicago Tribune feature covering the city’s violent reputation. Disembodied, her visage is set loose from the specificity of her tragedy and made to represent a longer history of violence to black bodies, an abstraction that is both profound and dangerous. In an adjacent room, a floor-to-ceiling projection by James T. Green shows a computer desktop crowded with some of the most widely circulated YouTube videos of recent police violence against black bodies. The windows are dim, but the titles are visible and the central frame spins perpetually with the grey orbit of a stalled buffer. Doubt abounds in these works, but its ends are pensive and potent, not merely cynical.

The threat of genocidal neo-Nazis might seem like the work of science fiction, and yet, the recent protests in South Carolina have seen swastika-adorned flags carried by white supremacists. History tells us that atrocity does not announce its evil like a bad guy in a movie. When it happens, it is organized, official and uniformed. In the face of this, doubt is crucial, as it compels us to question the way things appear to be. Perhaps then, art does some good, especially when it does it the hard way.

A City of DJs

“Windy City Breakdown” at the Arts Incubator

Courtesy of the Arts Incubator

The sole physical structure of “Windy City Breakdown” stood in the center of the room—a large wooden frame with glass in the center, displaying rows of album covers like a picture frame holding an old family portrait. The personal record collection of Ayana Contreras, artist-in-residence at the Arts Incubator, is exactly that: a family portrait of Chicago’s musical influencers that stands as a lasting representation of the city’s narrative.

The exhibit closed just a few days ago, but its most obviously displayed works were the case of records and large provocative posters. The rest of the artifacts were strategically placed in white cases lining the walls, displaying photographs, 45 rpm records, and documents from Chicago’s musical past. At her talk on May 19, Contreras explained, “When people ask what I do, I say I collect old stuff to hopefully create new stuff.” Contreras has spent her entire life surrounded and fascinated by what we now call “old stuff.” From rebelliously sifting through her grandmother’s record collection to building her own collection from the inventory of Imports, the record store her mother worked in, Contreras matched the beat of her drum to the sounds of contemporary and past jazz, blues, and choruses.

As she grew older, she began forming her own record collection, often finding her grandmother’s favorites in local shops. She became invested in collecting collections when she began uncovering the collections of strangers; her first bout of secondhand archiving came through discovering numerous records in different shops marked with the initials “S.B.” In the process, she realized that most of the music she was drawn to hailed from Chicago and was from a certain time period—the sixties and seventies, when Black Power in Chicago was alive and well.

Courtesy of the Arts the Incubator

“When you find these things, what I’m thinking about is the city of Chicago and our cultural heritage,” Contreras said. “It’s easy to live in my community and think that we don’t have a lot of culture.” While music was at the heart of the exhibition, the display of the culture that the music preserves was its real aim. The large posters hanging from the walls were actually enlarged versions of advertisements displayed during the first Black Expo in 1971, a public fair of black culture aimed at benefiting black businesses and raising awareness about black issues. Each display acted as a chapter in the narrative of the South Side and the city as a whole, holding letters or issues of Jet and Hue from the seventies. It’s an immersion in the South Side as it stood in earlier times, and it draws out the way the climate of the city manifested itself as an inherent characteristic of Chicago music.

The immersive effect of the exhibition stems from Contreras’s deep involvement in current South Side and Chicago music as a DJ on Vocalo, a sister station of WBEZ. As part of her program, Contreras conducts interviews with musicians of the past, and brings them to the ears of listeners in the present. Segments of her interviews are included in her exhibition—a pair of wireless headphones rested on a post to the right of the frame of records. From the music of Syl Johnson to memories of an earlier, more prosperous South Side, the excerpts add another layer to the exhibition: an exposition of the effect that the everyday lives and situations of not only the artists, but also the neighborhoods, had on the culture back then.

Though appreciative of the past, “Windy City Breakdown” is not meant to be nostalgic. Through these archives and interviews, Contreras attempts to use the past to push forward. “There was some serious progress going on, and I feel that this progress has been circumvented,” she said. Even the color of the walls reflects this sentiment—Contreras selected vibrant, but slightly subdued hues because she wanted the walls to “make it feel like there’s an energy.” She hopes that these works can use that energy to mobilize today’s youth. “Working with kids and playing them these records…” Contreras stopped and cleared her throat.“A lot of them don’t have a lot of hope.”

Later in the talk, she stopped, as she had done many times, to play the audience a song: “Motherless Child” as performed by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir and Ben Branch. She stopped the track, stating that she and many others in the community at times related to “feeling like a motherless child, where you don’t belong where you are, and you try to create this narrative where black is beautiful and anything is possible…I feel like Chicago is still that place for a lot of people.”

Contreras’s remark explained why the exhibition was at heart a celebration of black advancement through the arts. Though at times it can be hard to register the stories and events represented by the materials in “Windy City Breakdown” without deep familiarity with the particular subject, the overarching aim of the exhibition is palpable—presenting the cultural influence of the time, understanding it as a mobile force, and restoring that to the present to better the futures of black lives.

“I mean, look at Black Twitter, right?” Contreras added. “I think we’re all still trying to find this place where we feel like we all belong.”

Newcity’s Best of Chicago 2015

Best execution of media activism
October 30th, 2014

“Feminist Wednesdays” are the best. No, it’s the domestic violence in immigrant communities conversation with Sangeetha Ravichandran and Neha Gill of Apna Ghar that’s the best. No, it’s Ayana Contreras’ “Reclaimed Soul” that’s better than anything else on radio in the city.No, it’s Friday morning’s too-honest “Practically Speaking.” No, it’s the fact that nowhere else on Chicago radio are you going to hear a Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar song followed by a Vic Mensa and Thundercat song. Whatever the program director over at 91.1FM is doing over at Vocalo, every PD in the city needs to take heed… and bow down.

‘The Listening Room’ At Seattle Art Museum”

Marcie Sillman, KUOW Radio Seattle

Art museums are dignified repositories for cultural artifacts, right? A new show at the Seattle Art Museum questions that assumption, and slips in a little R&B at the same time. KUOW’s Marcie Sillman reports.


It’s a chilly Sunday morning. The Seattle Art Museum, SAM, has been open for an hour or so, but people are just starting to trickle in. Things are pretty quiet until you take the escalator up to the second floor.

Marcie Sillman: “You can hear the music at SAM before you actually get to the gallery.”

Jazz wafts down the hall as enticing as the aroma of freshly–baked cookies. Follow your ears and you’ll find the audio chef: a young woman in a yellow sweater with a set of headphones on top of her red hat.

That’s DJ Ayana Contreras. She’s spinning discs on two turntables built into a wooden cabinet set up in the middle of the gallery.

Contreras: “Sometimes I use the metaphor or these two turntables as pots, and I’m cooking. Come on in, come to the pot and sniff it, and ask me, and I’ll tell you about the bay leaf I just put on.”

Contreras chooses the ingredients for her tuneful stew from a collection of 5,000 long–playing albums (LPs). For those of you too young to remember, music was recorded and pressed into 12–inch vinyl discs in the pre–digital days. The records are filed in a specially–made nook in the art gallery’s back wall.

Theaster Gates: “It’s a kind of canon of black music, you know; that it covers gospel, jazz, blues, disco, early R&B, later hip–hop.”

That’s Theaster Gates, the artistic mind behind this installation. He calls it “The Listening Room.” Gates bought the records from a store in Chicago, when it went out of business about a year ago. For him, the albums are as much about ideas as they are about tunes.

Gates: “I’m really interested in how do we take stock of moments of cultural loss, like when a record store goes out of business.”

Gates hopes the music will jumpstart conversation about those moments. But this show is about more than a record collection.

Visitors lured into the gallery by the music may notice what look like tapestries made of coarse fabric on the walls across from the albums. The fabric is actually strips of firehoses.

Theaster Gates calls these “Civil Rights Tapestries.” They refer to an infamous 1963 event in Birmingham, Alabama. The chief of police ordered his officers to blast water from similar hoses at peaceful civil rights demonstrators.

Sandra Jackson–Dumont: “I think that’s one of the most exciting aspects of this show.”

Sandra Jackson–Dumont is Seattle Art Museum’s deputy director for education and public programs, and the adjunct curator for this exhibition.

Jackson–Dumont: “People will see something in there, will recognize so much of it, and be introduced to political, social and historical moments through music, through these objects.”

Jackson–Dumont loves Gates’ ideas about the role art plays in fostering community conversation. They dovetail perfectly with her goal of making Seattle Art Museum a crossroads for people from all types of backgrounds. She wants to create singular memorable experiences for museumgoers.

Jackson–Dumont: “Museums have to be places where people feel so inspired to come back over and over again because they’re trying to create that moment they had the last time over and over. So I’m personally, and as an institution, we are completely invested in creating these, like, critical moments that I have to say they are not always comfortable.”

Both Sandra Jackson–Dumont and Theaster Gates want to extend “The Listening Room” beyond the museum walls. To that end, SAM has set up a temporary satellite installation in Pioneer Square, and Gates wants people to encounter musical moments all over the city.

Gates: “Our hope is to identify sites that would be interesting for some of the music to show up at, to engage folk in political listening, the idea that people could come together and reflect on important moments together using the album as a minister, if you will.”

Back at the Seattle Art Museum, Sandra Jackson–Dumont and DJ Ayana Contreras are grooving to The Four Tops. Jackson–Dumont spots a young boy eyeing the records along the wall. She pulls out a copy of “Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits” and hands it to him.

Jackson–Dumont: “So you’ve never held a record before, huh?”

The boy eyes the vinyl dubiously. His dark eyes are wide.

Jackson–Dumont: “So, hold it like that; pull it out. Hold it like a pizza. Hold it, though.”

The boy’s mother snaps a photo on her phone.

Mother: “That was monumental event for him to hold his first LP.”

It’s a pop culture artifact that has almost faded into memory. Sandra Jackson–Dumont watches with a wide grin.

And, as if it was planned, DJ Ayana Contreras cranks up a song to match the moment.

I’m Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

a link to marcie sillman’s audio can be found here.


Can artists save Grand Crossing?

Theaster Gates is fighting blight with artists-in-residence

by Deanna Issacs        Chicago Reader June 2, 2011

In 2006 then-emerging artist Theaster Gates, looking to buy himself a home, came across a squat masonry building on the 6900 block of South Dorchester. The neighborhood had a dicey reputation, and the place wasn’t in great shape, but it was close to the University of Chicago, where Gates was hoping to land a job—and, in an overheated market, the price was within his budget. The building, which once had a candy store in the front and living quarters in the rear, looked like a good candidate for conversion to an artist’s live/work space. He snagged it for $130,000 and moved in.

“It was the first house I’d ever bought, and it had this beautiful tree in the backyard,” Gates, now 37, recalls. “Maybe I could have a studio in the front room, and life would be good. I’d work hard and pay it off one day, and have some babies, stuff like that.”

The reality was that for at least the first year, while he slept on a table, “it was a construction zone.” Working on the house at night and on weekends, using recycled materials, especially well-worn wood, he began transforming the compact interior—now a studio, kitchen, den, and two bedrooms with deck and garden in the back—into a blend of art, rehab architecture, and hand-built craft.

By the time he was fully settled in three years later, both Gates’s career and the neighborhood had changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated: while one soared, the other tanked.

For a Renaissance man on a mission, Gates is a disarmingly low-key presence. Equipped with an eclectic academic background (one of his two master’s degrees combines urban planning, ceramics, and religion) and some solid arts administration experience, he arrived at the University of Chicago at the perfect moment—just as the venerable, theory-bound institution began a push to establish itself as a vigorous practicing arts school. The most visible evidence of this effort is the towering $114 million Reva Riva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, under construction on the Midway and slated to open in 2012.

Hired in 2007 as coordinator of arts programming for the Humanities Division, by 2009 Gates was artist in residence in the Department of Visual Art and had been bumped up to the provost’s office as director of arts program development for the entire campus. (Gates’s responsibilities at the U. of C. are growing still; come September he’ll be director of arts and public life.) At the same time, his artwork—which is grounded in the aesthetic reuse of humble materials—had expanded from ceramics to more explicitly social and political installations and performances that were turning him into an art-world rising star. He had solo shows in the works at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a prized invitation to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, put together that year by former MCA curator Francesco Bonami.

Chicago art dealer Kavi Gupta, with a gallery in Berlin and an international clientele, began representing Gates’s rapidly appreciating work. A selection of Gates’s pieces—including massive, expressionistic sculptures of shoe-shine thrones and a series of works incorporating fire hoses, sometimes rolled and framed (In the Event of Race Riots 2011)—is on display at Gupta’s Chicago gallery, where a solo show is running through July 2.

These days, a Kohler sink modified by Gates goes for $18,000; a painted urn embellished with a brief poem is priced at $15,000. Gupta sold just about all of Gates’s work displayed at the recent Next show (held in conjunction with Art Chicago) and much of the work at the gallery show, mostly at prices ranging from $20,000 to more than $50,000.

It’s been a meteoric rise. The youngest and only son in a religious family of nine children, Gates grew up in East Garfield Park, helping in his father’s roofing business and singing in the choir (which he began leading at age 14) at the Baptist church the family attended. After graduating from Lane Tech, he went to Iowa State University as an urban planning major and took a course in ceramics from Ingrid Lilligren that got him hooked on clay—and made him think he could be an artist. He studied religion in South Africa, sojourned in Japan, and earned the first of his two masters degrees. In 2000 he was hired as an arts planner for the CTA, then led by Valerie Jarrett. From there, he went to Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center as director of education and outreach, returning to Iowa State for the second master’s before joining the U. of C.

Meanwhile, Gates went from throwing pots to mounting emotionally charged installations and performances, including multiple events based on a faux biographical story that gained some traction. The gist of it was that a master Japanese potter, Yamaguchi, had fled Hiroshima and landed in Mississippi, where he married a black woman, combined Japanese and black southern cultures, mentored Gates, and then died, leaving Gates to continue his mission of “fostering social transformation” by “convening dinners in cities with extreme racial and social tension just beneath well articulated geographical boundaries.” With former Wilco member LeRoy Bach, Gates formed an experimental music ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, making performance art out of a blend of Eastern chants, gospel, and the blues. And at the Milwaukee Art Museum and elsewhere, he channeled Dave Drake, an enslaved 19th-century South Carolina potter whose work—often embellished with his own poems—is now treasured by museums and collectors.

By 2010 Gates was a hot ticket on the museum circuit, with a schedule that included on-site projects or residencies at Artadia Arcadia (New York), the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland), Wisconsin’s Kohler facility, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, and New York’s Armory Show as well as the Whitney. (A project with the Smart Museum, Feast: An Exhibition of Radical Hospitality, is scheduled for February 2012.)

But in the summer of 2009, while his career was thriving, his neighborhood had emptied out. Renters using Section 8 housing vouchers were leaving the city for the suburbs in droves; landlords with empty buildings that were under water after the housing market collapsed stopped paying their mortgages; lenders foreclosed and prices continued to tank. The house next door to Gates—bigger than his and bustling with three tenant families when he moved in—was abandoned and bank-owned, and had been on the market for a year. When Gates bumped into the listing agent there, he inquired about the price. It was less than the cost of an ordinary new car, and way less than a year’s tuition at the University of Chicago. If you were a home owner on that block, it was gut-sinkingly low.

Gates revisited the decision he’d made to buy into the Grand Crossing neighborhood. He could have moved to a loft downtown, like everyone else. But, he says, “I was always making art that was asking questions about the city, and why the city functioned the way it did. How does cultural and economic disparity happen? How can we fight it? I was trying to present these questions in the form of little abandoned ceramic houses and drawings or performances that spoke to the issue. And I just got tired of pointing a finger at it and wanted to actually do something about it, challenge it in a real way.”

His block, less than a mile south of Hyde Park and “on the cusp” of South Shore, has seen both better and worse days, Gates says. “If the worst came because everybody who had been successful in the neighborhood left, what would happen if, as I did better, I decided to stay?”

Apartment galleries were popping up in places like Wicker Park and Pilsen, and Gates had already been casting his house as a place to “convene people.” In a flush of opportunity and vision—bolstered by what he says is a better exercised “belief muscle” than most people possess—he began to think he could transform the whole block “as a kind of artistic practice and cultural statement.” He bought the forlorn frame house next door for $16,000, planning to turn it into something the neighborhood could use, like a good soul food kitchen and dinner club.

The residential zoning squelched that idea and instead—after a major rehab—Gates’s extra house became a library and archive. That was convenient, since around the same time he purchased it, Gates also acquired 60,000 glass lantern slides from the U. of C.’s art history department, 14,000 books from Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which was closing, and the 8,000 LPs that the Dr. Wax record store still owned when it also shut down.

Last fall he bought another vacated foreclosure, an abused but handsome old multiunit brick building on the corner across the street, and an empty lot next door to his house, and the grand plan for what is now Dorchester Projects LLC began to take shape. The three buildings, with the addition of a food pavilion on the lot, would make up an arts compound including a potters’ studio and living quarters for a few artists in residence, and could, perhaps, transform the neighborhood.

This spring, with the support of a Propeller Fund grant and help from two staffers—Dara Epison, who works with Gates at the University of Chicago, and recent U. of C. grad Elly Fishman—Dorchester Projects launched a series of artists’ residencies, featuring public performances in Gates’s house promoted by word of mouth. (Jazz musician and composer David Boykin was the inaugural artist; DJ and record archivist Ayana Contreras is in residence now.)

Epison and Fishman have also been in residence, manning the ship while Gates sandwiched in a yearlong Loeb fellowship at Harvard, focusing on things like real estate law, finance, and nonprofit management. He also recently formed his own nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, and has begun to acquire property in blighted neighborhoods in other cities: several buildings in Saint Louis and one each in Detroit and Omaha, all to be converted into grassroots cultural use.

In late April, during his brief return to Chicago to appear on a panel with National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman, word came out that Gates and the Rebuild Foundation would also be part of a group acquiring a much bigger project: the Dante Harper Townhomes, a shuttered 36-unit CHA property a couple of blocks from Gates’s home. The plan: redevelopment into mixed-income housing for people with an interest in the arts.

That announcement turned out to be premature. Late last month, on the phone from San Francisco, where he was designing sets and rehearsing for an upcoming tour of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s multimedia eco show red, black and GREEN, Gates said his group is “having a conversation with the CHA”—and that the agency has indicated interest in their proposal.

If they get the project, it will likely work like this: the city will hand over the units, along with financial support (perhaps in the form of tax credits) to help pay for a gut rehab. Gates’s partners, Northbrook-based Brinshore Development, will also be paid by CHA to manage the completed project, which the partnership will eventually own.

It’s all of a piece, Gates says. “A big part of my art practice has been creatively investigating what happens in neighborhoods. That also includes playing in the real market, not just gesturing at it. We’re at a moment where the interventions that artists make are not just in museums and galleries.”

But it’s a work in progress, he says: “I’m at the beginning of asking questions about what else the black south side can be.”


I was involved with from its inception until Summer of 2009. After a hiatus, I returned to the project in Spring of 2012.  Please read about this exciting radio and web fusion…

Chicago Public Radio turning its image on its head


by Liz Balde, September 2007 (published in Beep Magazine and the Daily Herald)

Someone just took a punch to the face by a middle-aged Las Vegas woman in some club off the strip, and it isn’t even noon yet.

Here’s how it goes down from my end of the Web stream: A listener named Liz, a recent Vegas transplant from Chicago, isn’t down yet. She recovers from the hit and grimaces slightly before looking back at her instigator and smiles. A raucous melee of headband pulling and scarf choking is about to erupt but Liz doesn’t seem to mind. “I don’t care,” she says. “I’ve been punched before.”

She tries to explain her situation, a lost or possibly stolen wallet that might’ve fallen near the DJ’s karaoke booth, when the Vegas woman, a karaoke diehard who now assumes Liz is targeting the DJ as her thief, swings at her again. “That was it,” Liz tells her interviewer. “I hit her back.”

Welcome to the changing face of public radio, or rather, the antithesis of public radio’s rather stodgy modern image. It’s a progressive endeavor, one where listeners tend to hog a bit more airtime than hosts, where pledge drives – no matter how dire the financial circumstances – never exist, and where bar fights make for fine on-air fodder.

For anyone with Internet access, this means welcome to Vocalo and, Chicago Public Radio’s new 24-hour interactive radio station and Web stream. It’s decidedly young, understatedly urban and wholly community-driven, assets that public radio admittedly can’t always provide. Sort of a radio YouTube meets Al Gore’s Current TV, Vocalo wants to subsist via content that listeners upload online. It’s a sort of two-way conversation. Your telephone/cable modem is your microphone.

Inside Vocalo’s newly built studio at Chicago Public Radio’s plush Navy Pier digs, a fresh sort of chaotic energy fills the room like the first day of art school. A noticeably young, artsy group of hosts rounds the corner into the digital sound booth that looks more apt for Q101 than public radio. They seem genuinely excited to be here.

Vocalo hasn’t quite reached FM airwaves in Chicago, but if you’ve heard the station online or via 89.5 in Chesterton, Ind., it’s clear these faces could be the leaders of local radio’s evolution and perhaps a facelift for the next generation of public radio listeners.

But you’ll never hear those letters during a Vocalo broadcast — neither the WBEZ acronym nor the words, “Chicago Public Radio.” Those labels don’t fit the new station’s mission, Vocalo general manager Wendy Turner says, and the big wigs upstairs don’t want people getting confused. For now, Vocalo’s job is to create a public community framed by original music, stories and spoken word uploaded by listeners. If it happens to wipe the slate clean of public-radio stereotypes, then so be it.

Two years ago, when Chicago Public Radio obtained permission from the FCC to boost its signal to 50,000 watts (enough power to either double the coverage of its current broadcasts or create a whole new station), its president, Torey Malatia, realized a large section of the Chicago area wasn’t tuning in at all. Who were they missing? Basically, listeners who are young and non-white.

“We’re serving mostly white, lakefront liberals,” King says. “It’s in the 90 percentile. That’s who we are serving. All radio stations are supposed to serve the public, but because we’re a public radio station, we’re doubly obligated to serve, and we can’t just be serving the Chicago power elite, so to speak.”

Bibiana Adames and Usama Alshaibi aren’t “radio people.” They’ve never turned knobs on a station’s sound board or hosted a radio show. Respectively, they’re a clinical psychologist and an award-winning filmmaker. Adames runs her own private practice, and Alshaibi traveled back to his Iraqi hometown in 2004 to film the documentary, “Nice Bombs.” They’re accomplished entrepreneurs, no doubt. But radio hosts?

“When they called me, they said, ‘Can you send us a demo?’ And I’m like, a demo? What’s a demo?” Adames says. “And I thought: ‘The only thing I know how to do is talk to people.’”

This newfound pair of friends and Vocalo hosts was hired this spring as part of an unlikely cast of characters that now includes a comedian, record producer, musician, writer and performance artist. According to their bios, only four of the station’s hosts have definitive radio experience.

Their format is simple: introduce as many interviews, sound clips, submitted beats and readings as fills the time and use them as a springboard to provoke conversation.

At any given time, the hosts could be discussing graffiti, personal failures, love and money, Mos Def or Lily Allen. Interview snippets bridge the gap as a bulk of the programming, and amusing chats with the likes of “America’s Next Top Model” and the protesters outside of Al Gore’s Borders book signing pop up often. It’s unscripted and very freeform. There are no scheduled programs, ala “Morning Edition.”

As of now, Vocalo is still in community-building mode. Last month, more than 200 pieces of listener-uploaded content was used on air.

“Sometimes it’s audio that users have submitted,” Turner says, “sometimes it’s music, sometimes its text that inspires.”

Listeners without Net access can use a telephone to submit material. And material submitted can be designated Web-only or content fit for broadcast. Everything a listener submits can remain theirs or uploaders may hand over full broadcasting rights to Vocalo, which means the station’s producers can spruce it up or chunk it up to better fit the programming.

It’s still unclear when Vocalo’s signal will have enough power to reach Chicago. Chicago Public Radio hopes to build a new radio tower in Chesterton either by the end of this year or early 2008.

“It’s a really exciting but also a daunting project “because not only do we have to create a 24-7 operation that’s entirely local, that’s serving this mission, that’s interesting to listen to, that has a sound that doesn’t sound anything like NPR or what public radio’s used to, we also have to create an economic structure for it,” Turner says.

“We have to create something that’s going to be here for 100 years and isn’t going to rely on startup funding forever.”

Back on the bar fight scene, some guy with a yellow inflatable guitar singing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” pushes Liz out of range for another punch. The tape dies down, and Bibiana and Usama sound pleased. After all, who doesn’t like a good bar fight in the morning?

2 Comments on “Press”

    • Thanks for your comment! What neighborhood were you in? I’ve heard that before but some people definitely called Ivy League.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: