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It was 2 a.m. when a woman and three of her lady friends sauntered into her flat. Her normally thick reddish-brown dome of an afro had been pressed silky straight, with curls lingering on the ends and bouncing at the simplest gesture. Tucked into her high-waisted, wide-legged slacks was a striped blouse fitted to trace her body’s frame, allowing just enough visible access to make a person look twice.

As the four friends stood in the kitchen whispering, laughing and recapping the evening’s activities like commentators for a major sporting event, the host bent over to take off her black patent leather knee-high boots and noticed her six-year-old daughter sitting beneath the table, listening to every word.

“What are you doing under there?” she asked. “This is grown folks conversation.” The child was curious about what they’d been up to while they were out and all dressed up. Her mother’s response: “Baby, you had to be there.”

That little girl was me.

I’m seduced by the idea of living in a perpetual series of “you had to be there” episodes. I am so intoxicated by the incredible tales people share that I find myself adopting and retelling them. In many cases, these remarkable slivers of time are not flamboyant or outrageous. They often have a small physical presence—yet they carve out a great deal of real estate in our minds, hearts and history. Their value resides in the nuanced, ephemeral details.

Noted author Toni Morrison once said, “The act of imagination is bound up in memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

So how do we create memories that change us indelibly? Can one curate them by bringing people, places, objects and ideas together to make meaning?

The Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition Theaster Gates: The Listening Room (on view through July 1) creates those moments. It combines elements of churches and lounges, using remnants of sanctuary architecture to form a sculpture that also poses as a DJ booth. It has chairs made out of police station floor boards and large scale paintings made of decommissioned fire hoses—a reference to the day in 1963 when Birmingham, Alabama’s commissioner for public safety ordered the police and fire departments to haze civil rights demonstrators. Along one wall, hundreds of vinyl LPs reflect social currents of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In addition to music, the record collection includes a complete Adventures in Negro History series, MLK’s A Knock At Midnight, albums by black female comedian Moms Mabley and recordings by a black ventriloquist named Richard.

This installation evokes a wide range of responses from people. They show off their dance moves, share their interpretations of historical moments and talk about the aesthetic implications of the exhibition.

Gates asked me to invite DJs to participate in the exhibition on first Thursdays and first Fridays. I recently asked Seattle DJs Jason Justice and Riz Rollins each to step up to the sculpture/pulpit/DJ booth for a day, to play records for the entire duration of the museum’s open hours. These two knowledgeable people had different ways of participating in the exhibition. Jason approached the task like a professor conducting research, poring through the LPs the way one looks through a card catalog, touching each and every album. He mixed and matched hours of material—including the voices of Archie Bunker, Marvin Gaye and Phoebe Snow—and his endurance was an act to witness.

By contrast, Riz stood in front of the 22-foot horizontal line of albums as if he were looking in a mirror. Before touching a single record, he spent time reading the spines. Before long, he started leafing through the records, pulling out ones that held meaning for him. One album was of particular interest to Riz: Country Preacher by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, recorded live at Operation Breadbasket in his home town of Chicago. The quintet performed as the house band for a Jesse Jackson revival meeting in fall 1969. Riz held up the album for me and a few museum visitors, pointed to the picture on the cover and said, “I was there in the choir and sitting behind the bass player, man. Shoot, I was 17 and our uniforms were denim jackets and jeans.”

These records are the people’s collection. They hold memories in the same ways that other objects in SAM’s collection do. They contain our history.

Inspired by this exhibition, I decided to extend beyond the physical walls of SAM and create a traveling record store in partnership with Olson Kundig Architects. Record Store started at South Jackson and Occidental Streets, appeared at SAM Remix in February and is headed to more locations around Seattle in the months to come. Record Store functions as a cultural commons, a broker of relationships and knowledge as well as a portal to SAM. It houses a large collection of LPs loaned by community figures and listening parties hosted by people from various disciplines, communities and backgrounds.

Nothing is for sale in the record store or SAM’s Theaster Gates exhibition. The recollection of memories, the telling of stories and the exchange of ideas—these are the currency. Such participatory moments provide unique opportunities to experience a body of social knowledge and encourage very human discussions about the world we live in. They make you feel like you had to be there.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont is an adjunct curator in Modern and Contemporary Art and the Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum. She is the curator of Theaster Gates: The Listening Room.

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