Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Speaking for Detroit

It has been quiet on the Unreal Estate front lately. After a tumultuous first year we have been focusing the last months on gathering funds for an artist –in – residency and making a publication, ‘The Atlas of Love and Hate’. This will be published as part of Volume magazine on 23 December. The relative calmness of the editorial work gave us time to reflect on all the discussions we had, on what the effects of our endeavor has been until now and on the criticism and positive feedback that we got.

1. Back in Mitch & Gina's homey kitchen, December 2009

One year of Unreal Estate

After the launch of the agency, studios were taught on Detroit’s Unreal Estate at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI) and the Architectural Department of the University of Michigan. Artists Mitch Cope and Marjectica Portc as well as architects Mireille Roddier and Michael Stanton came to the DAI to give lectures on American cities and on Detroit especially.

A two-week collaborative art project in Hamtramck took place in April. 12 artists, writers, architects and photographers lived for two weeks in the neighborhood. A final presentation at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Detroit (MOCAD) showed the work and discussions after two weeks. Artist Diederick Kraaijeveld started his beneficiary ‘Icons of Hope’ project and the curators of the Unreal Estate project initiated the research, which lead to the artist – in – residency and coop plan.

Before the studios started, Andrew Herscher and Mireille Roddier published on unreal estate in Volume # 18 ‘ After Zero’. On the side, I was engaged with ‘From Crisis to Project’ the Archis RSVP event in Warren, which had the ‘Warren Special Report’ published with Volume #20 as a first result. And the Netherlands Architecture Institute organized a roundtable discussion on the same topic with a contribution by Warren’s County Commissioner Toni Moceri. The City of Warren is initiating a discussion about its Master plan in January 2010.

2. The meadow in the winter, December 2009

Media spectacle

During the start up period of the Unreal Estate project Toby Barlow’s op-ed piece ‘For Sale: $100 Houses’ was published in The New York Times – more or less in the period of the crisis of GM and Chrysler. As a result there was significant media attention given to Detroit, its alternative real estate practices and the autonomous forms of living being developed there. Detroit was declared the ‘new’ Berlin. For example, Design 99 – Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope – and their Power House project received an amazing amount of public attention, artists from all over the US showed interest in moving to Detroit, and lots of people emailed us for information. In response to the near bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, several Dutch broadcasting channels and newspapers as well as photographers visited the city to portray ‘new’ forms of urban pioneering in the context of the decline of the automotive industry.

3. A to be started house project by the University of Michigan, December 2009

While Detroit was becoming a media spectacle, the artists and architects we worked with in Hamtramck tried to figure out in the short time frame of two weeks how to relate to and engage with this place. The media attention greatly complicated this very personal exploration. The artists felt pressure. Tensions rose during these two weeks between us, as curators, and the artists. Artist Jimini Hignett articulated her frustrations and dilemmas in an interesting way in her diary, which will be published in the ‘Love and Hate Atlas’. Here is a fragment:

'Do I want to be part of a setup where art-bytes seem to be more important than actual art? Where clearly the temporary façade is more important than any actual improvement – to be seen to be doing something more important than actually doing anything. This is a world I am usually at pains to avoid. No longer able to feel comfortable with a work ironic or cynical, or a sharp one-liner, I remain guiltily silent about my humorous word game – Destroit.' (Jimini Hignett, Volume 22 (Archis; Amsterdam 2009))

Additionally, artists Raymond Huizinga and Sasha Miljevic addressed their uneasiness working as artists in the city, and commented critically in public on the Detroit Unreal Estate project and its ambitions.

Questions were raised about a whole range of issues: our ideological agenda, our responsibilities as curators of the project, our organizational capacities and our group management skills. In hindsight, I can say we did underestimate the impact of bringing a group of individuals to a city as vast and strange as Detroit in the context of a project which was still in a research phase. Due to the fact that we’re social scientists by training and not artists our ways of engaging with the city differed as well. Moreover, living for a two week period in a neighborhood in despair was more overwhelming for most participants then we expected.

Later, I heard also comments from people outside of our group questioning our knowledge of the everyday life of the city as foreigners, or concerning our colleagues as in Ann Arbor – based academics.

4. The garden of the Power House, December 2009


At the end of the two-week period we, At the end of the two-week period, we were all exhausted, but there were some very interesting outcomes. Yet, there were also very interesting outcomes. Photographer Corine Vermeulen and curator Femke Lutgerink set up and executed a Walk-in Portrait Studio in Klinger Street inspired by the famous Walker Evens photograph of the License Photo Studio in New York; artist Lado Darakhevelidze did his ‘Future Postman’ performance and collected stories about Detroit’s future. Jimini created her work Speramus Meliora, for which she turned foraged plywood into a billboard with fret-worked words, which she then used to board up two charred houses. Finally, artist Monika Berenyi and graphic designer Cecilia Costa organized a poetry slam event with representatives of the famous generation of Detroit poets from the 60s and 70s. One of the highlights was definitely Melba Joyce Boyd's reading of her poem 'We want our city back', which inspired Joost Janmaat, me and architect Berenika Boberska to hang a self made chandelier above a recently cleaned out meadow on Moran Street. Mitch wrote a nice post on his blog on the ‘Euro invasion’.

5. The garden of the Power House, December 2009

Learning from Detroit
I remember a few conversations in Detroit with artists who participated in project. A photographer mentioned that while he knew that Detroit’s ruins had been photographed a zillion times, he could not resist shooting all the iconic pictures again. He felt after two weeks that he had barely enough time to understand photographically the effect of the spectacle of the ruined urban landscape let alone producing something ‘new’.

Another artist questioned her role as an outsider in Detroit, but also the effect of the Powerhouse project or Heidelberg project. She wondered how our engagement with the city was the result of the way you experienced the suffering of the place and its people. I also remember a discussion about Diederick Kraaijeveld’s art piece depicting an Afro-American woman and a discussion of his ‘see, buy, fly’ - making art method.

The agency of an individual artist or architect or more precisely the right to speak for the city, to reproduce, to use, to create the city is closely scrutinized when working in Detroit. Trying to understand this, as an outoftowner it seems that the knowledge of the city, the time you spend there, and where you lived, your working relation with the city, the way you engage socially, the racial group your part of, the things you do to make the city a better place, and the amount of money you make off that, are some of the guidelines for determining whether you have or have not the capacity to speak. Then obviously the question which guideline is most important depends from conversation partner to conversation partner.

6. Kerstin Niemann's house on Moran St, December 2009

The New Detroit?

Questions of ethics, and debates about appropriate ways of working in Detroit are old. Yet, everyone has to deal with their ongoing relevance. Cultivating awareness, is, at least, a good beginning.

The media spectacle and references to Berlin could to make the discussion more complex. The frivolous enthusiasm by newcomers for the potential of Detroit could add to the viability of the city, but at what costs?

Perhaps it can really be like curator Charles Esche suggested - that a group of ‘gardists’ might into existence. Individuals or groups that can set a strong course of action in their very local setting – investigating different ways of living and inspiring others to do the same. We can hope that new way of living is focused on improving Detroit for the sake of everyone who’s building a life here.

7. Tree of Heaven project garden, December 2009


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