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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.  

The Matter of Stories

Steve Panton

Some seven or eight years ago, a research student from an East Coast college asked if she could interview me at my former gallery. Her main interest lay in finding out what I thought of the “new narrative of Detroit.” It was the first time I had heard the term, which she patiently explained was about artists and how they were saving the city. My immediate response was that it seemed a bit of a stretch to imagine that the relocation of a few hundred artists could change the city in a material sense, and that if their arrival was having a major impact it was most likely through how it was being represented. Also, I felt that it was important to understand who was benefiting from this new narrative. Although in retrospect the researcher's line of questioning seems very naive, I still think that these three points, and especially the final question, are pertinent.

To illustrate how the material effect of an action may differ from the impact of the representation of that action, consider the scenario of an artist buying an empty house and beginning to raise chickens. In a material sense the action results in fresh eggs, and perhaps a more stabilized block – both positive, but very localized, effects. But if an artist buys a house, raises chickens, and then appears on the front page of The New York Times, then the impact is both broader and harder to assess. Significantly, it also adds to the socially constructed knowledge of people who will never directly experience the situation.

Last year, while researching the artist Jessica Frelinghuysen, I came across a short review of her work in Artforum1, the first paragraph of which is reproduced below:

Covering 138 square miles, Detroit is a spread-out, low-lying municipality. Motor City residents today thus face increasing isolation, as a shrinking population occupies an incommensurately massive, partially abandoned urban infrastructure in which the car is the primary mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, participatory art—often performance- or object-based work designed to produce active and cocreative audiences—has become the antidote of choice for young, local practitioners concerned about this city’s devolving social sphere. There is an artistic emphasis on community building in Detroit, an effort to plant and recycle, to educate others, to employ easily sourced manufactured materials, and to attempt to reimagine relations between the individual and the social body.

This introduction is perplexing on many levels. Firstly, Frelinghuysen's art is about the increasingly impersonal nature of contemporary modes of communication in general, and not, as this paragraph implies, about finding solutions to specific problems in Detroit. Secondly, as anyone who gets out and about in Detroit can attest, interpersonal communication in the city remains in robust good health. If there is an issue it is that the city's long-term residents are disturbed by what they see as the inability of many new arrivals (including artists) to recognize the cultural significance of this tradition - a phenomena described with brilliant clarity by Marsha Music in her poem Just Say Hi!2.

So in setting the context for Frelinghuysen's work, the writer has pathologized the general population of Detroit, and identified artists as having the “antidote,” in both cases unwittingly conveying a complete inversion of the facts on the ground. The most telling phrase in the quoted text is “Not surprisingly,” implying something that both the reader and writer already know - despite neither party likely having much direct experience of the situation.

In the years since the visit described in the first paragraph, the new narrative of Detroit has evolved from the simplistic “artists coming to save Detroit,” into a more expansive one of a heroic creative/entrepreneurial/philanthropic/new-settler class3 coming to save an infantilized general population. It is a remarkably seductive, and elastic story that can accommodate strange combinations of actors ranging from emergency managers and hyper-capitalists at one extreme, to street artists and idealistic new urban farmers at the other.

A group that has been active in constructing and propagating this narrative is the large philanthropic foundations. In the art field, their most conspicuous actions have been in converting economic capital into cultural capital through mechanisms such as the Knight Arts Challenge. Typically, the “heroic new-settler class” has been integral to the narrativizing of such schemes. As former Knight Foundation vice president for the arts Dennis Scholl commented in a press release4 announcing funding for a 2015 project by artist Nick Cave, “Detroit’s future is being driven by the cultural creatives who have big ideas for their city. It’s an honor to help bring visual artist Nick Cave back to the Michigan, to engage many more people in thinking creatively about their lives, their neighborhoods, their Detroit.” In this quote, the announcement of the actual project is bracketed by messaging regarding who should be considered as the leadership class of the city, and an implied shortcoming in a general population needing to be encouraged to “think creatively.” For the record, it is worth noting that many things have declined over the years in Detroit, but creativity is not one of them.

One philanthropic foundation is invested in creating a noteworthy expansion of this narrative. The conference “Drawing on Detroit – Bold Leadership and the Future of American Cities5,” was funded by the Kresge Foundation and took place in May 2016 at The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The conference philosophy starts from the position that conditions in Detroit have improved to the point that lessons can now be “drawn” for replication in other cities, and furthermore that Detroit's improvement was largely through the “bold leadership” of non-democratically-elected agents such as the private sector, the emergency manager, and especially the philanthropic sector. The placing of the symposium in an academic setting allows the Kresge Foundation to appear in a somewhat objective position, but clearly if the conference's philosophy was more widely adopted it would increase the power of the philanthropic foundations, and their allies, at the expense of public accountability.

Investigations into what happens when the “heroic new-settler class” actually tries to enact change in a specific situation are rare, which is why “Built and Rebuilt: The Detroit School of the Arts6,” a film by Kate Levy and Yolanda Peoples, is so valuable. The history of the Detroit School of the Arts (DSA) begins in 1992, when it opened in a run-down building on the edge of the city center. In 2005, the school moved to a purpose-built, state-of-the art facility adjacent to Detroit Symphony Hall, and in 2012 the state-appointed school district emergency manager defined the DSA as a “self-governing” school. The term “self governing” is somewhat misleading since it actually means government by an external board appointed by the emergency manager. In this case, the governing board was co-chaired by a local real-estate developer, and a Professor of Education from the University of Michigan. When creating the governing board the emergency manager declined assistance from the recently-retired founding principal of the school, and in September 2012, the University of Michigan was awarded a $2.25 Million grant from the Knight Foundation to take a leadership role in arts programming at the school7.

The film itself is very multi-layered, but some of the themes it considers are (i) the comparison between the first-person oral histories of people who were directly involved in the development of the school, and the ahistorical narrative that justified the role of the governing board, (ii) the comparison between the tight-knit and high-performing school in its early days and the shambolic state after it became “self-governing,” and (iii) the intelligent and thoughtful comments of the school's staff, parents and students in comparison to those of the governing board. Overall the film presents a cautionary tale about dismissing the extensive knowledge residing in the community, and instead believing in the “bold leadership” of external agents. One problem that the film points to is that the governing body invested with decision-making power had very little relationship with those who were affected by the consequences of their actions.

The “heroic new settler class” is here to stay. Their actions have consequences, and they are often legitimated by a narrative of benefiting the general population. Sometimes this might well be the case, and often the actors are operating with the utmost sincerity, but it is also a class that is unquestionably working in its own interests. The narrative has become so deeply embedded in socially-constructed knowledge that it propagates itself autonomously. No longer do urban farmers in Detroit appear prominently in national newspapers, but rather the narrative disseminates via numerous, subtler routes. The ultimate question is whether the reconfigured social structures being created in the city will result in a more just society, or simply reproduce past injustices by a more superficially attractive mechanism. The answer to this question is a story that really matters.

Notes and references

1 Biro, Matthew. "Review of Jessica Frelinghuysen at the Cave Gallery". Artforum. February 2014.

2 Music, Marsha. Just Say Hi! (The Gentrification Blues). Infinite Mile. Issue 13: January 2015.

3 Note that from this point on, the term “ heroic creative/entrepreneurial/philanthropic/new-settler class” will be shortened to “heroic new-settler class.” The full list of actors is implied.

4 http://cranbrookart.edu/2015/04/cranbrook-art-museum-and-nick-cave-fiber-89-announce-nick-cave-here-hear/

5 Videos of the conference are available at http://cppp.usc.edu/forums-roundtables/drawing-on-detroit/

6 Available at https://vimeo.com/151600578

7 http://www.soe.umich.edu/research/grants/2012_09_moje/

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link - issue 33: November 2016