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This text is by Cedric Tai in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the author's employer and/or other author affiliations.  

So you're new to Detroit?

Cedric Tai

I've always been uncomfortable by urban spelunkers in Detroit, most people know of them by their photographic work that is synonymous as ruin porn. It is that feeling that someone is having a sense of adventure by either being alone or with friends exploring a cavernous, unreal architecture. There is a fleeting sense of danger. What makes this sensation work is knowing that you can leave it, that it's a temporary rush for you, and that you want to remember it somehow, so it's kind of a form of urban tourism.

What bothers me about what people try to do when they come into the city to be creative practitioners is that they describe their benign intentions as simply wanting to "learn from the city,"1 but I think they're mining the city. They want to be well connected, they want someone to prove to them that culture exists here, to be spoon fed history and to be corrected respectfully if they're wrong, which is a lot more than people get here who actually live here. There is a tinge of entitlement in describing even remotely that there ought to be positive feedback for moving into a city voluntarily, even though the privileges and social capital that they bring with them, remains with them. It reminds me of long-time subscribers to a service finding out that new members who join today will be rewarded greatly.

This is not to say that new people from outside are a problem, it's the opposite. When I was in a meeting of GalGael (I would call them a diverse community of activists that re-skill the chronically unemployed and extend their deep rooted Scottish culture), they said that part of their mission was to be an organization that could still function with its values even in the absence of their core members, the most important person in this organization was the person who just walked in the door for the first time.

How do I know then that anything, anybody new is here to help? Is there an incentive to help? Do we know what needs to be helped? I'd say that the two biggest indicators of progress for me are the two elephants in the room, racial/social inequality2 and reliable public transportation that spans from the urban center to the suburbs. So I was admittedly confused when people told me that a lot of good things have happened in the last two years in Detroit although the US as a whole hasn't necessarily changed for the better. I ask you to consider how much lately have you been asked to work harder as opposed to taking a well deserved break? Those who answer a certain way are the camps of the haves and the have-nots. Personally, I'm enjoying my break, I just finished two years of graduate school and was so productive that it has given me more than enough to need to stop and think about everything, it's a luxury that I have, a privilege that is afforded to me by my socioeconomic class.

To be blunt, what I've seen is that my busy friends are still really really busy3 and that white people have been having a decent time chasing their dreams.

Woah, (record scratch noise goes here), you lost me at white people. Don't I care about offending anyone I know that's white, or worse coming off as an unreliable source of information because I'm some kind of supporter of reverse racism? Don't I worry that I'm going to alienate people from my greater vision to unite people or to explain how a way of approaching something could be a tool for good?

 

WHITE PEOPLE!
WHITE PEOPLE!
WHITE PEOPLE!
POSITIVE THOUGHTS!
OPPORTUNITY!
WHITE PEOPLE!
POP-UPS!
HIPSTERS!
MIDWESTERN POLITENESS!
NON-PROFITS!
KICKSTARTER!
INVEST!
ARTIST IN RESIDENCIES!
WHITE PEOPLE!
INDIVIDUALISM!
CAPITAL LETTERS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!
WHITE PEOPLE!

 

Basically, what is so damn scary about writing about anything in Detroit, is that it's a small town, and there is a large discrepancy between those who will read this, and those who don't have access to read this. I thought I'd be that guy who brings up things in a very unconventional way so that perhaps other writing that is going on won't look nearly as heavy handed when eventually we talk about how neoliberalism has hit Detroit. (Let's face it, we're a little rusty on the art criticism front, so there is going to be some growing pains).

I'm writing like a bull in a china shop and although that's no way to get what I want (it draws too much attention) I think that we really need to ask ourselves what's the worst thing that could happen if you bring up something as uncomfortable as systematic inequality while trying to have a conversation about change? I know in my heart that we would see Occupy activists working with Tea Partiers working with the Socialists working with Libertarians fighting crony capitalism together, but what divides us is not just the greater powers above us, but a lack of humility, self-reflection, honesty and a will to combat fear.4

We all have fears, and sometimes it's the fear that all of our power will be stripped of us, what little we have. But we generate our own sense of power when we trust ourselves and examine why we feel the way that we do. Eventually we all realize that there isn't an unreasonable person who is willing to be as honest as possible with themselves.

I would like to encourage everyone to have uncomfortable conversations with people you don't agree with, and don't avoid talking about politics for the sake of leading a supposedly happier drama-free life.5 Let someone (or yourself) vent, give them the benefit of the doubt, listen to them, and then really get into it. If this happens the way it should, then I look forward to the return of art criticism, in the city that has gone far too long without it.

- Cedric Tai

1 http://badatsports.com/2013/episode-420-edition-art-x-detroit/.  See the 29 minute mark, Also see Colin Darke's shout out to his own thedetroiter.com exhibition and discussion in: http://blog.art21.org/2012/07/27/detroits-artistic-opportunities/#.UpT5vMRDua9

2 Two comprehensive resources worth checking out include both Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and also Jamon Jordon’s Black Scroll Study Group and his tours: https://www.facebook.com/BlackLectureTours

3 See student loan debt story "8 Reasons Young Americans Don't Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance" by Bruce E. Levine in AlterNet. 31 July 2011

4 Are our personality differences too disparate to find a common ground?: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/liberals-arent-like-the-rest-or-so-they-think.html  

5 One of Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues includes silence, however he gave up on that effort eventually: http://www.pbs.org/benfranklin/pop_virtues_list.html

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