Thursday, September 30, 2010

David Byrne Does Detroit

David Byrne at the Future of Music Conference in 2006. (Photo: Fred von Lohman, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
Former Talking Heads frontman (and current Cindy Sherman boyfriend) David Byrne was in Detroit last week working on a film being directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Byrne's blog entry describing his experiences in the D "Don't Forget the Motor City" is well worth checking out. In contrast to some of the recent reporting on the city's arts scene, Byrne really did his homework. He gives some excellent history, makes some pretty astute comments on contemporary politics and culture, and posts some really nice pictures, many of which he took. My favorite shot is the one of pheasants grazing on an empty lot near downtown. Another striking image is a Google Maps download showing a piece of the city grid with the infrastructure pretty much intact but with the cleared sites where buildings once stood mostly reverted to open field.

One thing that helps give Byrne's post the detail that others have lacked is something anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls "thick description," a field research technique that stresses not only observable activity but context as well. Byrne was here for the better part of a week and spent a good bit of time tooling around the city using what's become a major mode of transportation here, a bike. (An avid cycling advocate, Byrne's recent book Bicycle Diaries is just out in paperback.) He took in the city in slo-mo working from a street-level view. He was one of some 3200 people who took part in Tour De Troit last Saturday.

One of Byrne's projects for Sorrentino's film was an installation of his piece Playing the Building, which in this case used the old Michigan Theater to capture atmospheric and architectural vibrations and convert them into ambient music by hooking up sound feeds from various parts of the structure into a keyboard apparatus. While it bears obvious reference to the work of avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage as channeled through Brian Eno, Playing the Building has a site-specific aspect and musical genealogy that is strictly Byrne. Click here to download a free podcast from iTunes of Byrne's TED Talk on the influence of architecture on music.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Detroit Art Continues to Fascinate Folks East of the Hudson River

Tyree Guyton is one of the artists getting mondo play from New York journalists "touching base" in the D. Above: "Dotty Wotty" house in Detroit MI. Part of the Heidelberg Project. (Photo credit: Paul Hitz, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5.)
It seems The New York Times can't get enough these days of Detroit's make-lemonade-out-of-lemons art community and its DIY lifestyle. Linda Yablonsky's "Remix" column in the Sept. 26 Times Style Magazine Fall 2010 Travel issue profiles several artists and venues around the town-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-the-Motor-City. It doesn't offer much that's different from the Aug. 3 post to the paper's Art & Design blog by Melena Ryzik or the Jul. 9 Sunday Magazine "Consumed" column by Rob Walker. The only new information consists of taking note of projects currently underway by Mike Kelly and Matthew Barney, artists for whom the city is a blank canvas upon which to inscribe their signatures. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that what they're up to isn't interesting.) A cynic might suspect the culmination of a well-orchestrated PR campaign, though one might just as easily recognize journalistic laziness at work. It's great to see deserving talent from the D getting recognized, however. So we shouldn't kvetch so much as hope that as time moves on, others will get to play, too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

10 Years of Contemporary Art @ OUAG

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" at Oakland University Art Gallery, installation view, featuring work by from left to right: Harmut Austen, Sharon Que, Dennis Michael Jones, Peter Williams, Eric Mesko, and Kristin Beaver. (All photos courtesy OUAG.)
Ten Years of Contemporary Art," installation view, featuring from left to right, work by Denise Whitebread Fanning, Hasan Elahi, Michael E. Smith (floor), and Ed Fraga.
"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" participants, from left to right: Robert Schefman, Rob Kangas, Harmut Austen, Dennis Michael Jones, Senghor Reid, OUAG Director Dick Goody, Renata Palubinskas, Kristin Beaver, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, and Sharon Que. (Not all participants in attendance.) Background painting: Renata Palubinskas.

For a full decade, artist/curator Dick Goody has maintained one of Detroit's most significant venues for contemporary art, all the more remarkable for its location well off the beaten path in the wilds of North Oakland County. In relative isolation (its nearest neighbor Paint Creek Center for the Arts is four-and-a-half miles to the east) and with scant resources, Goody has carried on a dialog with contemporary art that is truly singular, even when compared to institutions in the tricounty area with far greater means at their disposal. In recognition of this achievement, Oakland University Art Gallery has mounted a celebratory exhibition "Ten Years of Contemporary Art," which runs until October 17.

Besides the consistent high quality of the work he has shown, one of the things that makes Goody's approach noteworthy is the documentation he has provided for most if not all of the exhibitions. In a series of typically handsome catalogs, he has not only helped viewers, both casual and the more informed, gain entry into the work of each artist but created an archive that extends the conversation in space and time. (Catalogs can travel where an exhibition many times can't and they continue to exist long after the work has been taken down and the gallery walls spackled and painted over.) What's more, rather than be satisfied with simply illustrating the art photographically as so many catalogs do, the ones Goody has produced have taken the time to get inside the work as well as inside the mind of its creator, providing an extended critical essay he has either written or commissioned in the first case and an interview with the artist in the second.

This documentation isn't valuable just as an educational and a research tool (though it certainly is that); it's important for the artists involved from a career perspective. For most of them, an OUAG show and its accompanying catalog has constituted a kind of "summing up" of their development to that point. It's been a moment to reflect on one's practice and more importantly consider the next move. Indeed, many of the artists in the current show have gone on to significant recognition since showing at OUAG. These include taking part in a Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial (Peter Williams), the Venice Biennale (Hasan Elahi), and several Kresge Artists Fellowships (seven are represented in this show alone: Harmut Austen, Kristin Beaver, Susan Goethel Campbell, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, Senghor Reid, and Michael E. Smith).

The final thing worth mentioning is the nature of Goody's eye. The gamut of contemporary art practice, from traditional painting to mixed-media installation to digital imaging, has been surveyed over the years, a testament not only to the catholic quality of Goody's taste but his ability to separate his curatorial discrimination from his own artistic aesthetic. To be sure, not a single artist in this show does work that looks like Goody's ironic postmodern text-image mashup paintings.

As for the show itself, its conceit is to juxtapose an older work with a newer one by each artist. For the most part, the artists have extended their earlier concerns, in the case of painters like Peter Williams, Ed Fraga, Kristin Beaver, and James Stephens, for example, taking their painterly chops to new heights of accomplishment. Artists working with technology have similarly increased command of their tools, notably Rob Kangas's 2009 photomontage incorporating color-intensified digital imagery and high-tech substrate, and Chido Johnson, taking a cue from Christian Marclay, turning his sculpture Push Stick (2010) into a record of its performative use, mounting on its tip a CD with a video file burned into it. 

A radical exception to this tendency is Susan Campbell's new video documenting her project Weather2250, surveying Detroit's atmospheric conditions from a webcam mounted atop the Fisher Building, that although continuing her environmental investigations adopts the latest information technology instead of the traditional drawing and printmaking mediums for which she is so justifiably well regarded. Less obvious perhaps is Robert Schefman who in his newer painting directs his trompe l'oeil hand to more seemingly prosaic allegory.

Everything in this show is worth the trek out to Rochester to see and the installation showcases it all to great effect. Another Goody convention that works well here is the solicitation of artist's statements, in this case posted along with the work and providing useful information on the artists, especially those I haven't discussed. And in the same way that the Goody treatment often provides a summation and as such a platform for the artists being shown to move on to bigger and better things, "Ten Years of Contemporary Art" is an opportunity to take stock of the curator himself. My take on it is definitely thumbs up.  It'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" continues at Oakland University Art Gallery, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, until October 17. Call 248 370 3005 for information.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the footsteps of Scott Hocking

Get In My Car & Drive: Nowhere in Detroit (Episode 1) from Kristen Gallerneaux on Vimeo.

In response to my most recent post, which included a link to the video about Detroit released last week by Palladium Boots, I received a message from Kristen Gallerneaux, a folklorist/artist currently living in Oregon. She included a link to a video she shot last spring titled Get in My Car and Drive: Nowhere in Detroit (Episode 1) embedded above, featuring artist Scott Hocking. The 15-minute video opens with a brief segment of drive-by cityscape and then cuts to Hocking in his studio talking about the influences on his work. But most of the piece consists of following Hocking into and around the Packard Motor Car Plant to see his monumental installation, Garden of the Gods, 2009-10.

According to her email, Gallerneaux's procedure was to allow the artist to take her on a "field trip" to a significant place that informs the work. She isn't so much trying to convey a particular point of view about her subject as to simply track him and thereby understand something about him. This process and the effect of it in the video reminded me of French anthropologist Bruno Latour's actor network theory, a research technique that seeks to map out relations that are both material and semiotic, that is, bound up at once in things as well as concepts. One of Latour's more controversial claims is the agency (the term social scientists use for the capacity to act) he gives to nonhumans, including inanimate objects. The word Latour has coined for this is "actant," the node in any network of relations that exerts force on another part of the mesh. Thus a ringing cellphone is as much an actant in my network of communications as my desire to place a call to my mother.

In this sense, Hocking is an actant in Gallerneaux's ethnographic network in the same way that the Packard ruin is an actant in Hocking's aesthetic one. There's more to it, of course. One needs to factor in the various apparatuses of technology, from the car and the road, and all of their accompanying networks, that took Gallerneaux and Hocking to the site, to the digital camera and its networks of production and distribution that enabled the scenes to be recorded, to the networks of communications and their various actants that enabled me to post and comment on the resulting digital file and for you to view it. There are also the social networks within which the material actants circulate and upon which they exert their own force.

When I mentioned this to Gallerneaux in an email, she responded that in fact at the time she began filming Hocking she had just finished reading Latour's essay, "On Technical Mediation," which was her introduction to the author's work. So Latour and Hocking are both actants in the network connecting Gallerneux and me. Their status in this relationship is both material and semiotic, in the case of Latour through written words and the ideas they convey and in the case of Hocking through his physical person as well the art he makes and responses they provoke.

While actor network theory (typically abbreviated ANT) is relatively new, the idea behind it isn't. In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno writes about the dual nature of artworks, that they are combinations of physical matter and animate spirit, material things that embody expressive concepts. The two aspects are dialectically connected as ANT recognizes is similarly true in the larger horizon of our experience.

Gallerneaux, who received an MFA from Wayne State before moving to Oregon to study folklore a couple of years back, also has footage of Stephen Schudlich and Alana Bartol she's currently editing. What's more, she is scheduled to shoot Kristin Beaver this spring. Some may remember Gallerneaux's exceptional MFA exhibition at the WSU Community Arts Building Gallery in which she presented a project called "Revenant Archive," an installation using research she conducted on the visual culture of the paranormal and its history. That work has been ongoing and a website is under development to document it. In the meantime, check out Scott Hocking, ANT style.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The window of opportunity in Detroit

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, West, Winter, 2009. (Photograph by Scott Hocking, courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)
I recently finished Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. (I try to read at least one work of fiction while on summer vacation each year and have a gnawing feeling that if I regularly read more of it I would be that much wiser.) The first half of the story is about the author's Brooklyn neighborhood, Boerum Hill, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the second half follows the main character twenty years later. The earlier part is set in the context of the neighborhood's impending gentrification, in the twilight moment after the collapse of New York City's municipal budget (a watershed in the legitimation crisis of welfare capitalism that helped usher in neoliberalism) and the subsequent rise of the yuppified Big Apple of the Reagan Era and after. One of the book's main themes is the pursuit of a "middle space," that condition of being in between, the free zone created by the vacuum left in the wake of the demise of one regime of order and before the onset of another. That notion strikes me as an appropriate description of the current cultural moment in Detroit.

In the past few months, there has been a good deal of publicity about Detroit as a kind of DIY utopia, using the city's cultural producers of various stripes as cases in point. (See, for example, articles here, here, here, and here. And from a little while longer back, here.) All of them share an impression of Detroit as a place where civil society has essentially broken down and into the breach of which intrepid self-reliant individuals have stepped. Thus the creators of Soup, a monthly fundraising dinner program, offer mini-grants to support creative projects in lieu of dysfunctional municipal arts councils, the urban agriculture movement reclaims abandoned property and provides sustenance for people in locations where major grocery-store chains fear to tread, and artists, going on the third generation now, repurpose castoff artifacts and environments from all precincts of the city for use in a plethora of creative projects, retrieving the refuse of life for renewed existence in the refuge of art. (Among the most consistently stunning of the last category are Scott Hocking's monumental vision quests, such as Garden of the Gods, 2009-10, shown above, which posit the artist as a Sisyphean laborer of the noble-existentialist type, working in desolate sites for weeks and even months to erect installations created with the full knowledge that they will likely be destroyed either by humans or nature starting almost immediately upon completion.)

The most recent iteration of Detroit as the new frontier is the documentary hosted by Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame), Palladium Boots Exploration #7: Detroit Lives. (I've posted a link rather than embedding the video because it doesn't seem to have a "play" button written into the code and it starts up automatically, and I'm not sufficiently geek enough to figure out to prevent that from happening.) The video portends to offer a more well-balanced view of the city than has been portrayed in the conventional post-apocalyptic nightmares of much of the mainstream media. It does an OK job of it, looking at some of the younger cultural producers working in the cheap studio space the city currently offers. But there's still a lot of the typical spelunking through the postindustrial ruins in romantic wonder of it all, mainly as a way to showcase the sturdy yet fashionable Baggy Canvas boot ($70) Knoxville wears throughout, the featured footwear style provided by Palladium Boots, sponsor of this and other "explorations."

One of the things noted in the documentary, and something I've heard especially from younger artists around town, is the desire to moderate the bottom-up growth that seems to be happening in order to "keep it real," that is, prevent the corporate shills from taking over and thereby spoiling all the fun. People who study gentrification may find that sentiment, however admirable and heartfelt, somewhat naive. The main interviewee in the Palladium piece, Toby Barlow, is the co-president and chief creative director of the Detroit office of one of the world's largest advertising agencies, a high capitalist enterprise even if it does allow its employees to wear hip streetwear to the office. The Palladium piece itself is viral marketing, using product placement and brand sponsorship to hawk "authentic" urban fashion.

But I don't want to be too much of a buzzkill. So I say, let's enjoy this middle space while we can. I'm sure Jonathan Lethem takes advantage of all the swank dining options, cool boutiques, and other action on Smith Street, which have replaced the abandoned storefronts and trash of the Brooklyn neighborhood whose lost time his fiction eulogizes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Decoding Detroit

Tyree Guyton, Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, 1986. (Photo credit: Hanneorla, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license:  CC by-SA-3.0)
A sociological journal I subscribe to, Contexts, ran a brief article on Rosa Parks in its Winter 2010 issue. The story was illustrated by a photo downloaded from Flickr that identified Tyree Guyton's Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, (1986, image above) simply as a piece of "found art." I sent a letter to the editor correcting the identification and offering a bit of explication on the work and its significance. The journal published my letter in the Summer 2010 issue. As it is only available to subscribers, I'm reproducing the letter below. This is the text is the original letter, which the journal edited slightly for length.
On p. 10 of the Winter 2010 issue of Contexts, a photo credit is given to "j/k_lolz" for the image of a street sign bearing the name of Rosa Parks. That photographer may have indeed captured the image reproduced, but the object depicted is actually a work of art in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The piece in question is Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment by Tyree Guyton (1986).
It isn't simply "found art" as the Flickr photographer noted but an object manipulated by the artist to make a point. The central artifact, a street sign, has been painted with an additional image, a bus that refers, of course, to Parks's role in the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott. But it has another layer of meaning for anyone familiar with Guyton's work and with Detroit history. "Rosa Parks Boulevard" (the sign's original site) is the name currently given to the former 12th Street, where the infamous July 1967 Detroit civil disturbances began. It was an attempt by municipal officials to make amends by rebranding the neighborhood, as if a simple name change could correct the years of police abuse and other deprivations that led to the conflagration. The city of Detroit is even more devastated now than it was then, so the battered sign serves as a grim reminder of promises unfulfilled. Indeed, Guyton's larger enterprise, the Heidelberg Project, an urban street installation of abandoned houses painted with bright colors and festooned with a panoply of castoffs, continues to draw attention to the virtual annihilation of the once vibrant Motor City brought on by disinvestment, racism, and other social calamities. (Go to
I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's observation at the end of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In reference to Fascism he writes: "Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." The social effects of that destruction and its implications for the rest of America with the decline of the working class--epitomized above all by the unionized auto workers who gave Detroit one of the highest standards of living in the nation for blue-collar families--serve as the backdrop for the film Gran Torino, also featured in the same issue of Contexts and erroneously reported as being set in a Detroit suburb when it takes place primarily in the city itself.