Two recent arts-related news items got me to thinking about something interesting in terms of Detroit as a field of cultural production. The first is the continuing controversy over the Packard Plant Banksy mural and the second is the "Consumed" column by Rob Walker in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on Design 99's work currently on view at MOCAD.
The Banksy issue concerns ownership of the mural, which was taken from the Packard Plant by the good folks at Gallery 555 and put on view there. The owners of the long-idled and seriously dilapidated factory are claiming that the artwork is part of the property and thus owned by the group headed up by land speculator Romel Casab. Potentially valued at $100,000, the mural is one of several artworks by the noted graffiti artist reportedly located in the city. It's more than a little ironic that the most recent twist is a claim by the City of Detroit upon the owners to step up to demolishing the eyesore/death trap, which has caused some back-pedaling on the claim as the cost of taking down the building far exceeds the value the speculators would gain by owning and likely flipping the art. (Listen to Craig Fahle's piece on it.)
Rob Walker's piece opines on Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart's Razzle Dazzle Security Systems, which uses brightly painted scrap lumber installed in abandoned building doorways and windows to discourage vandalism. Several times during the article, Walker uses the phrase "abandoned property" and then notes the sculptures' potential for ameliorating such condition.
It's this idea of property and its contested nature in art that brings these two items together. Last November, the Museum of New Art in Pontiac held a panel discussion on sculpture in Detroit. I gave a presentation on what I called "the art of the commons," which I believe a number of artists working in Detroit embody. This art, exemplified by the Heidelberg Project, and also by such things as Object Orange and perhaps most stunningly by Scott Hocking's Herculean performance/installation Ziggurat. What this work does I argue is expose the limits of property relations and open up the possibility of the commons as described, for one example, by Tony Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Commonwealth. (In my review of it for PopMatters I do express serious reservations about the book as a whole, but the idea of the commons as it relates to culture, that is, the legacy which we all share as human beings and then also in terms of the resources upon which we all depend, is important.)
Our culture has essentially made art a private thing, something to be owned by individuals, first the creator (in what are known as moral rights) and then collectors (either in physical form or as intellectual property). At best, we lock it up in institutions (i.e., museums) that frame it in very particular ways in part to make it safe for consumption by "the masses." We use the term public art to describe another kind of activity, also typically circumscribed by an institutional frame and its gatekeepers. The art of the commons on the other hand is just out there. Take it as you will or leave it. It's up really to you.
One of the great things about Detroit is that as long as you have the will and the capacity, you can virtually do what you want. That's because there's no one to stop you. There's some real liberation in that as the artists mentioned above demonstrate.