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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Creative Interventions and Public Projects

Artists who attempt to effect social transformation through public projects can be important agents of political agitation, cultural critique, and resistance, although the pressures of the art world, if they wish to succeed in it, and the struggle for mere survival often work against them.48 The architectural project Ice House Detroit, defying initial reactions of local incomprehension and unexpected expense, asserts a critique of the national housing crisis and its destructive effects in Detroit. Photographer Gregory Holm and architect Matthew Radune encased an entire abandoned house in ice during the winter of 200910 by pouring gallons and gallons of water over it and letting it freeze while filming and photographing the process (figure 23). They worked in twenty- four hour shifts for several weeks during the coldest part of winter, using a fire hose to build up the ice in layers. Neighborhood residents came to have their photos taken in front of the house and served as community liaisons.49 The work conveys the simultaneous sense of collapsed or suspended time and continuous dissolution in the gradually dissolving form of an ice house. The light emanating from a home in the background makes the hermetically sealed ice house appear all the more chilling, evoking frozen assets, hell frozen over, and a long winter of discontent. Although Ice House Detroit creates a sense of being frozen in time, it exists within an animate landscape, suggesting both

Gregory Holm and Mathew Radune, Ice House Detroit, 2009-2010. Courtesy Gregory Holm

FIG. 23 Gregory Holm and Mathew Radune, Ice House Detroit, 2009-2010. Courtesy Gregory Holm.

immobility and inexorable devolution. The sense of a future that is already past suggests the shrinking possibilities in the lives of those whose hopes and dreams have been lost to the endless rounds of privatization and austerity that are the foundation of capitalist neoliberalism since the 1970s. And yet the stark beauty of the image is darkly compelling even as it reflects a loss of faith in the ideals of reason, order, and progress that are foundational to modernity. By drawing on the aesthetic of the deindustrial sublime to create an object of uncanny beauty, Ice House Detroit allegorizes the contradictions of capitalism and its effects on people. This construction of ruination confronts us with a haunting vision of a foreclosed future that contains within it a cold and terrible violence.

The ice house project was meant to draw attention to the mortgage foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately hit areas where most residents are black, Latino, or Asian, as well as the elderly who live on fixed incomes. According to RealtyTrac, by 2007 Detroit had the highest rate of home foreclosures in the United States (followed by Stockton, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada).50 In 2011 it was estimated that approximately 3.5 million people in the country were homeless (many of them veterans) while, at the same time, 18.5 million homes were vacant in the country, enough for each homeless person to have several; in addition, the 2010 census figures revealed that “1 in 2 Americans” had fallen into poverty or were struggling to live on low incomes.51

Holm and Radune acquired the use of the abandoned house from the Michigan State Land Bank Fast Track Authority (the public authority devoted to economic development of blighted and tax-reverted properties). Their fee went toward the purchase and rehabilitation of another property owned by the land bank, which helped a single mother and her children move into it, and helped fund the deconstruction and recycling of materials from the ice house property for which the land bank retained ownership. Holm and Radune engaged in homeless relief activism while working on the project and used the press to promote local groups dedicated to social good and urban farming in the city.52 Nonetheless, the project had strong detractors who “saw two Brooklyn artists coming to the city of Detroit to do a public art project one day and leave the next.”53 In reality, Holm, a Detroit native, was living in both cities, owns property in Detroit, and has a longstanding relationship to the arts in the city. The need to insist upon these facts, however, speaks to the insider’s resentment of the outsider’s gaze of privileged fascination. The power of the work, however, offers a compelling critique of modern ruination apart from the extracurricular advocacy work or residential preferences of its producers. Of course it is always important to suspend one’s preconceptions and complicate one’s understanding of and relationship to a city by patiently listening and allowing oneself to be transformed by the people and stories of the city, especially before considering political or ethical action.54 Yet it is also useful to be open to the perceptions of those who see through fresh eyes from a more dispassionate perspective.

By addressing the issue of home foreclosure, Ice House Detroit also evokes the continuing problem of homelessness in Detroit, where police have invented a novel, if illegal, way of keeping the homeless from marring the pleasure of suburban tourists who visit downtown night spots such as Greektown, with its casino, restaurants, and other entertainments. In April 2013 it was reported that police were taking the homeless off the streets and dumping them outside city limits. In a city as large as Detroit, this often meant driving them for half an hour to get them outside the city, so that it would take many hours for the homeless to find their way back. There are almost twenty thousand chronically homeless people in Detroit, with poverty levels continuing to rise. The number of homeless children across the state has surged by an astounding 66 percent over four years, with more than 37,500 homeless students reported during the 2011-2012 school year. The number of homeless students nationwide is more than one million, and many are members of homeless families^ Despite the alleged recovery since the economic crisis of 2008, income gains from economic growth have accrued almost exclusively to the top 1 percent of earners while unemployment and poverty remain widespread; instead of job creation and programs to subsidize education and cut student debt, there is continuing pressure from the financial elite to reduce programs that aid the homeless, the unemployed, and students. Ice House Detroit thus gives visual form to deep disillusionment, a central characteristic of the network of ruin imagery to which it contributes. It evokes the disruptive brokenness and disaster that precedes ruined lives and suggests that the right to decent housing is a political demand that is not merely an individual but a collective right.

Mitch Cope’s seven black-and-white photographs from the series Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse also evoke disrupted lives by documenting the piles of rubbish that litter the neighborhood in which Cope lives. Using heaps of debris often found in abandoned garages, back alleys, and even along the sidewalks, Cope’s work transforms the lowly status of garbage by the addition of totems. In Eddy’s Pile, for example, a totem dominates the chaotic heap of broken furniture and goods of an emptied home, including a shopping cart with vacuum parts, various jeep car parts, three black sofas, a cushy chair, a stool, a dresser, two baby mattresses, a playpen, assorted garbage, boys’ and girls’ clothing, various plastic bins, paperwork, miscellaneous VHS tapes, several yogurt cups, a television, and a child’s plastic push car with its steering wheel on the ground (figure 24). The fantastical apparition hovers above the wreckage like a protective spirit and guardian of memory. Many of these refuse heaps were put out for bulk pickup day but

Mitch Cope, Eddy’s Pile, from Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

FIG. 24 Mitch Cope, Eddy’s Pile, from Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

were left uncollected by the city due to a blizzard; the piles then became larger as they sat waiting for the next bulk pickup day three months later, the last free pickup before the city garbage services in Hamtramck were privatized.56

Brooklyn-based Detroit native Sandra Osip also conjures with memories soiled by depressing realities. Her six-foot sculpture Beautiful Homes and Gardens from the series Broken Dreams conveys the destruction of an entire neighborhood through a literal pile-up of broken and derelict houses (figure 25). On a return visit to Detroit, Osip was shocked to find her childhood home, those of friends, and local shops razed and surrounded by empty lots strewn with garbage; she was further appalled to learn that at least a dozen bodies had been found in the previous twelve months in this neglected part of the city on the east side of Detroit. The destruction of the neighborhood and sense of place where she and her friends had come of age became the driving force of Osip’s work. Osip based Beautiful Homes and Gardens on photos of destroyed and burned out houses surrounding her former high school as well as photos of houses near Warren and Mack Avenues, where she lived when she attended Cranbrook Academy of Art.57 The jumble of abandoned and decaying homes, some decorated with graffiti, convey a sense of the ruined past and its memories piled up like a heap of trash. Yet, like Mitch Cope’s photograph, it remains resonant with the echoes of lived experience.

Some Detroit-based artists offer a more redemptive view of decline. Scott Hocking, who has posted photographs of some three dozen bodies of work in the city on his website, has produced sculptural interventions in Detroit’s abandoned auto plants that allude to ancient geometric forms among the ruins and suggest a timeless cycle of creation and destruction. These include works such as The Egg and the MCTS # 4718 at the Michigan Central Train Station, Ziggurat at Fisher Body Plant 21, and Garden of the Gods at the Packard Plant. His site-specific installations are constructed using materials found on site and create mysterious and mythic forms, such as eggs and pyramids, within the ruined environment. The Egg and the MCTS was created using thousands of sheet marble fragments that had once lined the walls of the building’s corridors and invokes the egg as a symbol of rebirth as well as the stacked stones of the cairn symbolic of tomb markers (figure 26). Reinforcing the idea of an inevitable historical cycle, Hocking asserts that his project will end with the work’s destruction: “Beginning with a photo project in 2007, the egg was built over the course of 18 months, and the series will culminate with photos of the site once the sculpture is destroyed by forces of nature or man.”58 Outside the plants he has created works such as Tire Pyramid, a sculptural installation

Sandra Osip, Beautiful Homes and Gardens, 2014, mixed media sculpture, 2014, from Broken Dreams. Courtesy of the artist

FIG. 25 Sandra Osip, Beautiful Homes and Gardens, 2014, mixed media sculpture, 2014, from Broken Dreams. Courtesy of the artist.

Scott Hocking, The Egg andMCTS #4718, 2012, from The Egg and the Michigan Central Train Station, 2007-2013. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery

FIG. 26 Scott Hocking, The Egg andMCTS #4718, 2012, from The Egg and the Michigan Central Train Station, 2007-2013. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

made from 2,109 tires illegally dumped throughout Detroit neighborhoods and abandoned sites that were gathered over the course of a week and installed on the front lawn ofJulia Taubman’s home in Bloomfield Hills for two weeks, then removed for recycling at a cost of two dollars per tire, drawing attention to the most commonly dumped object in the city.

Hocking’s 2013 installation, The End of the World at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale, just outside the city limits, included over two hundred books on destruction mythologies as well as a wall of taxidermy birds that looked upon the decrepit remains of a 1955 Mercury Monterey parked atop a pile of rock salt as a stand-in for the ancient Greek god Mercury. Mercury was “a messenger between planes, and the transporter of souls to the afterlife” just as the birds are winged messengers, suggesting transformation rather than death.59 The exhibition included the photography series Detroit Nights (2007-12), portraying a variety of haunting and abandoned nocturnally lit architectural structures and landscapes. By deliberately positioning Detroit’s decline as part of a natural cosmic process, Hocking removes the city from its historical specificity and maps its ruination onto ancient mythologies of transformation through destruction and creation. This dehistoricizing approach attempts to sublimate the terror of ruination by producing a sense of timeless inevitability and mythic distance from the ruins.

Inspired by the crisis of decline more than a quarter century ago, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (begun in 1986) is the most renowned public art project in Detroit and the city’s third-most-popular tourist destination after the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.60 Reclaiming abandoned houses along Heidelberg Street where Guyton grew up, just north of the Black Bottom area of Detroit, the Heidelberg Project is a large neighborhood installation employing Guyton’s signature painted polka dots as well as dolls, clocks, stuffed animals, and thousands of other discarded objects in sculptures and displays on the vacant houses, empty lots, and trees, creating what I have termed in another context “a contained but alternatively imagined city” produced in collaboration with area kids.61 The project became a commentary on Detroit abandonment that drew international attention, from appearances on Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News, the Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America to the Venice Architecture Biennale, where Guyton represented the United States in 2008.

Twice in the 1990s mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer sent in bulldozers to tear down large parts of the project, claiming it produced its own form of urban blight, but undoubtedly motivated more by embarrassment at the attention the project drew to the declining neighborhoods of the city. City officials also reacted against the 1980s activist art project by the group Urban Center for Photography when they turned a grant they had received into a public project called Demolished by Neglect, which posted enlarged photos of derelict homes and other structures on outdoor sites. Undiscouraged by the city’s demolition of his work, Guyton continued to develop the Heidelberg Project, which became a landmark that attracted about thirty-five thousand nonlocal visitors annually from 140 countries and 49 states.62 Recent attacks on the Heidelberg Project, however, have had a devastating effect. Arsonists set nine fires in the space of eleven months and burned down five of the remaining seven houses. The last attack was on the beloved Party Animal House, which was covered with stuffed animals nailed to the sides and roof (figure 27). The assault transformed the iconic work into yet another burned out Detroit ruin, blackening a neighboring house and frustrating supporters of the project and arson investigators (figure 28).63 While Guyton considers the next phase of the project’s development, over $54,000 was raised on Indiegogo as well as $18,000 from the Erb Family Foundation and Kresge Foundation to help fund installation of a solar lighting and security plan in the two-block area that is normally in complete darkness.

When bright orange houses began to appear along the city’s major freeways, the decrepitude of the Detroit housing stock became even more noticeable. The artists behind the public art project Object Orange are largely anonymous (to avoid prosecution) and reveal their first names only, including (at different times) Greg, Jacques, Mike, Andy, and Christian (graduates of Cranbrook Academy of Art). In a series of guerilla actions, the artists painted abandoned

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Party Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit. Photo © 2012 Julie Dermansky

FIG. 27 Party Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit. Photo © 2012 Julie Dermansky.

and structurally unsafe houses the Disney color Tiggerific Orange to accentuate the visibility of the houses. Drawing attention to the dangerously derelict structures and to the problem of abandoned houses blighting the city, the artists painted about sixteen homes starting in 2006. Their primary concern was to make most of them visible to commuters who were rushing home from the city to the northern white suburbs and who might otherwise easily ignore the abandoned houses (figure 29). The group painted only the side of the house most visible to the highway, sparing the neighbors who were already well aware of the decaying houses in their midst. The bright orange houses remind us that the story of abandonment is told not only through shuttered factories and grand architectural landmarks but also through the thousands of ordinary vacant homes, mostly modest wooden structures, and the concomitant desolation of residential neighborhoods. Of the first eleven houses painted,

Party Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit, after the fire on March 7, 2014. Photo

FIG. 28 Party Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit, after the fire on March 7, 2014. Photo: James Fassinger.

Andrew Moore, Houses Painted by Object Orange Artists’ Group, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore

FIG. 29 Andrew Moore, Houses Painted by Object Orange Artists’ Group, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore.

the city almost immediately demolished four, and more have been demolished since. However, the city viewed the project as criminal vandalism and claimed the demolitions were coincidental. Although the demolitions were not initially anticipated by the group, which saw the works as artistic artifacts, they embraced them as a desirable outcome.64

Demolishing derelict homes, whose numbers have exponentially grown since Object Orange first began, is an expensive undertaking. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, authorized under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2008, provides grant money to state and local governments to “acquire and redevelop foreclosed properties that might otherwise become sources of abandonment or blight within their communities.” In 2010 former Detroit mayor Dave Bing launched a program to demolish ten thousand homes in three years. About half were torn down at a cost of $72 million. But this is a fraction of the minimum estimate of forty thousand blighted homes in the city that are dangerously derelict.65 In many cases the cost of home demolition exceeds the property’s value. Neighborhoods often respond to blighted homes and the public safety problems they cause with arson; Detroit has more fires than any city in the country, although fire engines are falling apart, gear is outdated or lacking, and firefighters have suffered pay and hiring cuts.66

The “Banglatown” projects on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck, a largely Polish-Bangladeshi-Yemeni municipality surrounded by Detroit, have been developed by activists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert. They originally founded Design 99 in Hamtramck in 2007, a design consulting studio and gallery space that developed into other projects. Working out of their distinctively painted striped house, purchased for $1,900, Cope and Reichert bought or facilitated the sale of ten neighborhood houses to other artists and curators in an effort to help forge an artistic community. In 2008 they developed the Power House as a design lab and experiment in energy self-sufficiency, and in 2009 founded Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization focused on neighborhood stabilization through creative interventions, which has developed a skate park and other neighborhood architectural and clean-up projects as well as artists’ residencies^7 The residencies included the street artists Retna (Marquis Lewis) in collaboration with Richard Colman, Swoon (Cal- lie Curry), Ben Wolf, Saelee Oh, and Monica Canilao, who spent a month in 2009 imaginatively transforming five abandoned houses in Hamtramck under the auspices of Juxtapoz Magazine and Power House Productions. Colman and Retna’s house, whose interior walls are covered by monochromatic paintings of elegant typographic symbols by Retna and landscape and geometric forms by Colman, is now a recording studio run by artist Jon Brumit.

Indeed, the art scene in Detroit is booming, and the work of Detroit-area artists is supported by a plethora of galleries as well as the Kresge Foundation, founded in Detroit in 1924, which each year offers from twelve to twenty-four unrestricted fellowships of $25,000 each to visual, performing, film, and literary artists. Other community projects include Detroit Soup, which supplies microgrants for creative projects through monthly events in which five dollars buys dinner and the right to vote for your favorite projects (cofounded by Kate Daughdrill and now run by Amy Kaherl), and Dlectricity, an annual fall international public arts program since 2012 (founded by Marc Schwartz and the group Art Detroit Now), which invites proposals for projects using light and illuminates the outdoor nighttime landscape of Midtown Detroit’s Woodward corridor for two nights in October. Successful nonprofit projects include the Empowerment Plan workshop in Corktown, begun by a College for Creative Studies design graduate, Veronika Scott, when she was twenty-one. Scott employs formerly homeless women to make heat-trapping and waterproof coats that reconfigure into sleeping bags for homeless men and women. Scott’s Empowerment Plan, which secured backing from General Motors and Carhartt, has manufactured and distributed more than a thousand coats in Detroit, Ohio, Chicago, and Buffalo since 2010, while Scott herself received an International Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America in 2011/8

The city also attracts projects by well-known artists such as Matthew Barney, who performed and filmed KHU in Detroit in 2010 as part of his epic opera, River of Fundament, employing more than two hundred local musicians, actors, designers, and craftspeople, and produced in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler.69 Inspired by Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings and concerned with ancient Egyptian ideas about death and rebirth amid a more contemporary tale of Mailer’s quest for immortality, Barney uses Detroit locales for their ability to signify mythic concepts, and highlights the American automobile as a principle character and surrogate for the male ego.70 In this tale of resurrection, fittingly set in Detroit, Barney “reincarnates” a 19 67 Chrysler Imperial as a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and then, chillingly, as a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor/1

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead consists of a sculptural recreation of his childhood home that is now permanently parked at MoCAD (except for a summer 2014 sojourn to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles). The life-size replica of the small ranch house where Kelly grew up in the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Westland was initially attached to a tractor- trailer and driven through the streets of Detroit as a “symbolic reversal of the ‘white flight’ that helped depopulate the cityT2 Kelley’s father was a public school janitorial chief in Detroit.

And the ubiquitous guerrilla graffiti artist Banksy created two works at the Packard Plant around the time his film Exit through the Gift Shop opened in Detroit in 2010. The Detroit nonprofit 555 Gallery and Studio’s removal of one of the works when it faced possible destruction caused intense debate. Gallery artists excavated the fifteen-hundred-pound piece, a seven-by-eight-foot stencil, from the crumbling Packard Plant as bulldozers working nearby got closer, moving the work to the 555 Gallery for public display. Controversy flared again a few years later when the gallery proposed selling the work to support the gallery and artists’ studios.73

Cheap land and buildings can be bought for a song by artists hoping to pioneer a new way of life based on creative communities, ecological green space, or nonprofit public missions. The move by many artists into Detroit also represents, at least in part, a desire to reject the symbolic order and return to a kind of wild state that is off the grid, a place where big risks can be taken and the cost of failure is low, and where value is determined by standards other than the capitalist market. Success brings the kind of satisfaction that comes with promoting even a small measure of social justice or helping to promote a sense of community solidarity or creative freedom. Although we recognize that such public projects are hardly capable of solving the city’s larger problems, seen as exemplary actions, they infuse vitality into their neighborhoods and supportive cohorts. Such public projects also become part of the life of the city and change its narrative, though we must be cautious about romanticizing, as John Patrick Leary observes, “isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”74

 
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