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This text is by Steve Panton in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

It's all good apart from the bits that are bad

Steve Panton


Over the last 10-15 years, many artists who grew-up outside of Detroit have moved to the city, and the experience/artistic practice of some of them has become a staple of generally positive journalistic writing.  In this article, I want to review the collective impact of this phenomena and specifically examine whether it has supported or challenged the generally accepted, and highly negative, discourse surrounding the city.

A little thought will show that the process is circular, such artists being pre-conditioned by existing representation of the city but with time becoming part of the representation of the city.  A reasonable question, then, is whether this feedback loop works to destabilize or reinforce the generally circulating negative picture of the city.  Overall, I will argue that it has the potential to destabilize, but due to a combination of effects, that potential remains largely untapped.  There is no suggestion that every artist's experience is similar, the intention is to examine the collective effect.

In his book Edge of the Sacred,1 Jungian psychologist and literary theorist David Tacey describes a phenomena in which colonial writers, when faced with the psychological weight of entering into the Australian outback, tended to gravitate to either utopian or dystopian accounts of the land and its people.  It's easy to see how Detroit might carry a similar psychological weight and that this has resulted in a similar utopian / dystopian binary in much contemporary visual and social practice-based art in the city.  In photography and film, this is evident in the much derided ruin / bucolic imagery, and also in the surrounding discussion.  When film-maker Rachel Grady was asked how the film “Detropia” came to be named,2 she replied “We picked the name "Detropia" - we invented a word, which is always fun - because we wanted to kind of pose the concept, is it a utopia? Is it a dystopia? ...,” thus simultaneously extending the possibility that Detroit may be utopic but constraining the potential options to the utopian / dystopian binary.

Extending the possibility that Detroit could be a utopia is not as generous as it appears.  In his article “Making Sense of Detroit,” Michael Sheriden uses a utopian /dystopian model (appropriated from  earlier work by Bauer on colonial era American writing) to analyze writing about the city.3 Sheriden notes that “[e]ssentially, the utopist is in search of a "frontier" space that is defined by both its temporal and spatial dimensions; moving into a frontier means moving past the edge of "civilization" into a culturally empty space waiting to be inscribed with the future. As Bauer notes, however, the problem with frontiers is that they harbor a dystopic potential as well as a utopic one. Being culturally empty, frontiers harbor a strong tendency toward disorder, subversion of traditional values, and savagery of all kinds.”

The presumption of “frontier space” and the tendency to utopian/dystopian representation can be seen in two otherwise very different recent videos on the city.4 & 5  In the first, promoting a visionary gardening project, the personalization of the city is restricted to the presence of a young child shown accompanying the team of self-described “important thinkers and doers.”  The second, a widely circulated skiing video, starts by introducing various voices from the city, but in a pivotal sequence (at approximately 4 minutes), reveals the filmmakers' preconceptions of the city by describing an off-screen character as “some dude who's super sketchy and cracked out of his mind” and, then, other off-screen characters as ski-mask wearing potential assailants.  What both videos have in common is the need to fantasize Detroit as being a culturally empty frontier in order to publicly legitimate their respective projects.6 In general, it might be argued that there is very little incentive for artists to challenge the dominant discourse since their importance is enhanced by perpetuating the illusion that the city is a cultural blank slate.  Also, it might be argued that the psychology of the dominant discourse tends to push artists towards a utopian/dystopian fantasy that, in turn, sustains the dominant discourse.

There's nothing inherently wrong in the concept of utopia as an artistic thought experiment.  In fact, it could be argued that it is a way in which art can contribute meaningfully to the discussion of acute social issues.  It just needs to be identified and problematized as such.  Corine Vermeulen is a photographer whose work, I think, manages to combine both a genuine empathy for her subjects and an intelligent sense of distance.  Many of the most memorable images from her well known “Your Town Tomorrow” series are best imagined as staged utopian tableaux talking to issues like self-sufficiency, sustainability, and cultural diversity.7  They add flesh to the inadequate terms such as “positive” and “negative” that this discussion started with, and can serve a great purpose in this role; just don't call them documentary.

Spectacular photographs of ruin and abandonment remain a staple form of representation of the city in news sources and high profile institutional art shows.  Can an artist working within this genre still manage to complicate a discourse that fantasizes the city as dehumanized, dangerous and culturally empty, and tends to place the blame for the city's decline on the personal failings of city residents and elected officials from Coleman Young onwards?  Probably not, if the focus is on the image.  In the 2012 show “Detroit Revealed” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, artist Scott Hocking's contribution included photographs of a large area to the east of Hamtramck that had been largely cleared of buildings.  As images they are undeniably striking8 but do little to complicate the dominant discourse around the city.  Far more interesting in this sense is the embryonic research that Hocking had performed on why a formerly residential area was cleared to make way for a speculative potential business site.  Specifically, it raises the question of how the structural issue of responsibility for environmental clean-up costs drives land use decisions that, in turn, impact neighborhoods and the physical fabric of the city.  The problem comes when the image is seen as primary and the research as secondary (or as far as the DIA were concerned, apparently, disposable), hence constraining Hocking's  work in the show to reinforce the dominant discourse and extinguishing its potential to challenge it.

In terms of envisioning how artistic practice might change in order to become more critical, amongst other things, it would consider representation of the city as a subject rather than as an objective and prioritize research over image.  It might also take on subjects such as education and land-use that approach social justice issues from subtler directions.  In terms of social practice it would call for more self-reflexivity on the part of artists, particularly in terms of how much of the creative freedom they enjoy comes from greater relative social and economic freedom.  Finally, it would bring more voices into the discussion.



1 Tacey. Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia. Melbourne and Sydney: Harper Collins. 1995.

2 Interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! 18 September 2012. Click here for full transcript.

3 Sheridan. "Making Sense of Detroit." Michigan Quarterly Review. Vol 38. No 3. Summer 1999. Click here for article.

4 ARCHOLAB. Afterhouse. 2013. http://www.hatchfund.org/project/afterhouse.

5 Poor Boyz Productions. “Detroit Tracing Skylines.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M34yz47b-w. 2013.

6 Which is not to suggest that from a moral perspective the two projects are equivalent or that the substance of the “Afterhouse” project is anything other than admirable.

7 For example, this image which was widely distributed as the poster for the show “Your Town Tomorrow” at the Suzanne Hilberry Galley in 2011.

8 The images were taken from a series shown here: http://scotthocking.com/zone.html.

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link - issue 03: February 2014