Talking with Theaster Gates: Placemaking's positive connotations for negative space - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking with Theaster Gates: Placemaking's positive connotations for negative space

Ryan Griffin-Stegink

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates challenges us to bring positive people and activity into neglected space.

Negative space, in the arts community, means the space around things. Artists think about negative space almost as much as they think about positive space, but do the rest of us? The space around an object is just as important as the form that the object takes, though the term “negative space” doesn’t yield a positive connotation. At MPC’s Urban Think & Drink on May 22, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates helped us shift our thinking from focusing on what is actually in a space, particularly in areas that have been vacant and neglected, to imagine what could be.

Does Placemaking have to live within the realm of planners and architects? Gates emphasized that the ‘weirdest’ ideas – those that make the least conventional sense – might be the ones that really connect with people. He urged anyone with a passion for making positive change in their community, no matter the focus of that passion, to count themselves in as neighborhood change agents. Gates’ work in Chicago and beyond challenges us to think about what it means to invest in a place when it may not make a lot of conventional sense. The artist brings Placemaking to the neighborhood scale by focusing on neighbors doing neighborly things, just as MPC highlighted in last year’s Placemaking contest. The contest featured negative space – the Space In Between, as the contest was named – and asked the public to share ways that they were taking empty, vacant space in their communities and temporarily turning it into something positive.

Consider some of the winners of the Space In Between contest. Tired of foreclosures, crime and a transient population, the residents of Metcalfe Park claimed a vacant lot in the neighborhood to create a place where neighbors felt safe enough to come outside and get to know each other. This opportunity helped them realize that they share many of the same concerns and dreams for their community; they have since transformed the lot into a playground for children. Or consider the young women of Roseland, who worked with Demoiselle 2 Femme to reimagine and recreate a vacant lot into a much needed play area that mimics the Swiss Alps. They didn’t dream up the concept on their own, however; instead, they worked with their neighbors to figure out how the lot could truly fulfill a community need. The project has since become a gem that residents take great pride in. Neither of these winning groups waited for a public agency to sweep in and direct them. Like Gates, they took an assertive stance, imagined what could be and acted on it.

We don’t need permission to be positive agents of change, to be good neighbors or good stewards of our communities. Gates reminded us of this last week. Through great ambition, clarity of vision and the necessary tools, artists, planners, architects and neighbors alike can serve as Placemakers – reimagining the negative space by bringing positive people and activities to redefine the negative into something positive.

Stay tuned for video highlights from Mr. Gates' talk.


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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