Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Monthly Arts Event "Soup" Goes National

Detroit art scene. Essentially it reinforces the point I've been making about the art of the commons. (See my posts here and here.)

The story talks about the artists, several of whom have been discussed in this blog on the subject, who are using Detroit's open spaces, physical and social, as a basis for what might be called a new imagined community (to use another of Benedict Anderson's terms) based on collaborative aesthetics.

A major part of the Times story discusses this past Sunday's meeting of Soup, which I attended.

Soup describes itself alternately as "a collaborative situation," "a public dinner," "a theatrical performance," and "a relational gathering connecting various communities," among other things. The premise is that each month people gather to share a meal and decide on a project to support. (Above left: diners enjoying a bit of repast at Soup on Aug. 1. All photos: Louis Aguilar via iPhone.) Volunteers make the soup and other parts of the meal are donated. (This month's salad was prepared by filmmaker Katie Barkel and Avalon Bakery provided bread.) Each person attending pays $5, the total proceeds of which are given to the project chosen in a democratic process from proposals submitted prior to the event.

Soup was founded by Kate Daughdrill (Above right, center left) and Jessica Hernandez (Above right, center right). Daughrill is a second-year grad student in print media at Cranbrook and Hernandez's family owns the building in Mexicantown where the meetings are held. Sunday's gathering was the seventh and attended by more than 100 people. There are similar projects, based on different themes, in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Denver, and Baltimore.

The monthly meetings are hosted by the person(s) making the main course. This month, two artists who are in Detroit as part of a residency made possible by a fellowship funded in the Netherlands played host. Besides introducing the proposals, they spoke on their impressions of Detroit and what made it different from their European experience. The artists Joao Evangelista, orginally from Portugal (lower photo above, standing right), and Nikos Doulos, originally from Greece (lower photo above, standing left), noted the biggest difference being what they repeatedly termed "agency," which means the ability of people to just up and do things without asking any authority for permission. Although the artists didn't acknowledge it, the biggest reason this is possible here in the town-soon-to-be-formerly-known as the Motor City is simply that there's usually no one around to stop you. Taking advantage of the breakdown of the division between public and private, which characterizes Detroit arguably above any other (former) major city in America, is what the art of the commons is all about.

This month's funds went to support the rehabilitation of a pocket park in the Woodbridge neighborhood. The group will use the money to buy wood and other materials to repair playground equipment and otherwise fix up the site. This "microfinancing" aspect of Soup raises another important issue, namely that of what's now being called "solidarity economics." Solidarity economics presumes that we're all in this mess together and aren't just seeking to maximize individual advantage. Figuring out how to govern common resources for the benefit of us all is an essential part of moving us toward a truly sustainable environment. Indeed, one of the two 2009 Nobel Prizes for Economics was given to Elinor Ostrom, specifically for her work on governing the commons.

Granted a 100 or so people having dinner and deciding to help fix up a small park is a pretty modest example of how that might work. But as they say, even a journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.


  1. Hello Vince,

    First of all, I would like to sincerely thank you for the praiseworthy effort you are making in re-introducing the sort of thoughtful analysis of Detroit-based art concerns that has been M.I.A. for so many years.

    Secondly, I'd like to pose a question to you: what rationale would you attribute to the national coverage that this "scene" or "movement" has been receiving as of late? And when I say "national," all roads seem to lead back to New York city and the New York Times.

    The way in which this is being discussed bears a little resemblance to the L.A. artists who were reclaiming an abandoned Venice Beach in the late 50's and early 60's, under the Ferrus gallery and Walter Hopps-- the phoenix rising from the detritus as it were, with artists "wringing art from the ruins." Of course there were many artists who didn't fit within the "style" that was being promoted as sufficiently "L.A." and were therefore not a part of the promotion, which in the end was ironically overrun by NY pop.



  2. Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think one of the reasons Detroit is sexy right now is that people fear it's the future of America in general. As our empire rots, we consume destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order. Don't know if you recognize the reference, but that's the ending to Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Originally published in the mid-1930s in Germany, Benjamin was talking about the rise of fascism. Do with that what you will. V

  3. There's so much going on here all the time. Back when we were starting A.C.,T. and there were some other artist-run projects happening, I used to think that if some of that energy could just hang on long enough, eventually this town would reach some sort of critical mass and some lasting things might happen. It seems like that's actually more possible now than ever in my experience. Who knows where it all leads, it's just fun to be along for part of the ride.

  4. A reply from Vince that I'm moving here from elsewhere:

    I had that same thought about ACT, the Cement Space, Focus, Michigan Gallery, etc. It started with the Red Door actually and there always seems to be someone doing something. This conversation should be carried over to the blog. Perhaps some others will pick it up.

  5. The piece in the NY Times inspired a lot of comment elsewhere. I'd really like to see that conversation happen in more depth. One thing that came up from a couple of people who have been around for years is that there's nothing new about artists in Detroit using junk and rubble and the detritus of this city to make their work. This practice goes back at least as far as the Cass Corridor days. There seems to be a wish on the part of some of what I'll call the "long timers" to see that recognized in stories like the one in the Times. There's a longing for context and a sense of history. Hmmm... context and a sense of history... that's something I find myself harping on all the time. As far as this Times piece goes, though, I'll say it again here - it's just one article, trying to tell a particular story of what the reporter saw as current on a recent visit. I'm not sure a single newspaper article can do much more than that in the way of context.

  6. Another comment that's come up more than once in other threads is that the only Detroit art story that gets told is the one about using the rubble and the junk. It becomes THE art of Detroit, as though nobody is doing anything else. I get a little tired of hearing that same story myself.

    And now I'll shut up, in the hope that somebody else will chime in here.

  7. Yes--

    The point I was attempting to make in a ham-fisted way using the Ferrus analogy, was this idea, which can extracted from the very first sentence of the recent article in the NYT, of conjuring a "brand" while speaking of a "movement." At what point does a movement become a convenient brand that is easy for the press or critics to package. The NYT article is lazy for many reasons-- I think the comments section provides a plethora of more interesting points to debate, but most of all it puts forth a continued level of ignorance with regard to the history of Detroit art. Can you imagine a showing of contemporary work opening in Chelsea, in which the press considers it to be part of a remarkable new movement-- the likes of which have never been seen or thought of before, without looking to its own rich past and finding connections therein? Some of this recent press seems to operate on the assumption that a certain kind of new Detroit art is a miracle that has not evolved from those that have worked hard to establish the previous rungs on the ladder, or even those that have sought to connect art with social rehabilitation in the past.

    Dare I say, and this was mentioned by others in response to the NYT article, that there has been the feeling of a "carpetbagging" sensibility at work. Artists from outside moving in to "revitalize" the city, and their very outsider status bringing with it the sort of media attention that would not otherwise occur with localized artists. Far be it from me to support a provincial attitude-- I think Detroit needs to reach out beyond it's borders much more than it does (taking a page from Chicago and NYC), nor do I wish to bash the efforts of those who have the energy and vision to do rather than just talk a game, but there are serious issues to address before embracing this concept of a "Detroit-brand movement." The issue of race with regard to art in Detroit and these revitalization efforts via art has been brushed aside. The issue of why the focus always seems to be on ruins or "artifacts," as if the character of a city, of an environment that breeds art, does not manifest itself in other, less obvious ways. The "ruins" angle seems to be the one that consistently sells.

    As the narrator used to intone: "There are a million stories in the naked city. This is one of them."


  8. These are all excellent comments. I agree that there's a kind of "carpetbagging" feeling afoot. People in NYC don't get west of the Hudson River much. Like Spaulding Gray use to say Manhattanites don't live in America, they live on a small island off the coast of America. I saw it first hand when I lived there. Certainly the folks who want recognition for times past have a point. But there is something different about the use of castoffs from the Cass Corridor. Specifically, it's a kind of bricolage that isn't just about preservation (moving the refuse of life into the refuge of art) but taking the next step. Once something has been completed deconstructed, then what do you do? At some point you have to begin cobbling things back together again. In this regard, the "homegrown" folks are leading the way. Scott, Clint, Mitch and Gina, and even Tyree. One thing I've always felt about a lot of Detroit artists is that they are indeed provincial. They just don't get out enough, both physically and intellectually. The key concept here is what Sydney Tarrow terms "rooted cosmopolitanism." IOW local action that reflects global thinking. I know people will be pissed off when I say this, but I just don't see enough of that big picture view coming from a lot of our homeys. The ruins thing is another kind of nostalgia, namely, the romantic residue of our collective suspicion about technology. Detroit is exhibit A in that regard. As Henry Ford said, "The city is doomed." "We will solve the problem by leaving the city." The ruins of Detroit are a reminder of the America that once was. Consuming that nostalgia covers up the processes of capital in the here and now. I'm going to post something from the US Social Forum on this blog, which I've put on my others. A conversation between Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein.

  9. There's another thing that's just simple logistics. NYC is the center of the artworld and the literary media. So when something comes to the attention of those folk on the other side of the Hudson River it suddenly becomes important. Same thing happens with things as banal as the weather. Doesn't make it right but it's a fact of power and its networks. This is actually coming from Europe, which NYC subsequently picks up on. There's been in Detroit as the ruin of modernity in Europe for years. It's worked its way up the East Coast intellectual food chain from there. Again, I saw that when I was living there 3 years ago. There's an underground history of Detroit in terms of labor and race but those ideas don't get much publicity, again because NYC is also the seat of global capitalism and those stories aren't money-friendly.

  10. I think Saul Steinberg put it best when he rendered his "View of the World from 9th Avenue."

  11. Yep. If it's any consolation it holds true even the city. Samantha Jones in Sex and the City saying, "I don't do borough." I know a lot of people in Manhattan like that.