Friday, August 20, 2010

Good vibes for the D from Vice

The Beehive Project collaborative art installation in progress @ Movement 2010. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Miller.

Vice Magazine has an August blog entry, titled "Uneven Terrain: Long Live Detroit," that follows up on their article last of September calling the mainstream media to task for its indulgence in the ruin porn photojournalist genre for which the Motor City serves as America's top model. The current piece, which is mostly a photo essay and still in a lot of respects misses the boat, at least get the DIY aspect of cultural and other forms of production in Detroit right. As they say, things are happening in the city these days because there’s usually no one around to stop anyone with an idea from gettin’ ‘er done, especially with a little help from their friends. A ViceTV documentary video is scheduled to come out in the near future, which one hopes will open up the lens a bit more and capture more of what’s truly going on.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Portraits of global labor

Jane Duggan, Blacksmiths, Northern Pakistan, 1993.
Frank Hammer, Metal Worker, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2006.
I often feel a twinge of ambivalence when looking at so-called political art in a gallery or museum setting. Perhaps it's a hangover from my formalist studio training as an undergrad (my main influence as a painter in the mid-1970s was James Adley, a student of Clyfford Styll's and now at 80 still a committed flat-surface absolutist), but I also like to think that it has as much if not more to do with a healthy skepticism toward the privilege too many artists of that stripe seem to enjoy in criticizing the contradictions of one social world from the safety of another, arguably no-less-conflicted one called the artworld. Work that investigates identity representation and construction drawn from those in the margins would appear to be on firmer footing, but then there's the whole question of whether one really needs to, as George Clinton says, "dance in my feet" before being able to "walk a mile in my shoes."

The show up at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery doesn't really resolve that question, but it does provide an opportunity to see images of global workers taken by two people who have danced in those feet all of their lives. And although they're billed in gallery handouts and press materials as "artists," a more appropriate term for them might be "cultural producers," agents who in this case use the visual medium not as a form of commodity exchange but as engaged communication.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor" features the work of two longtime labor activists, Jane Duggan, secretary-treasurer of the Detroit chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, and Frank Hammer, retired president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Mich. The images contained in the exhibition are drawn from their travels around the world. They were sometimes made in an official capacity, sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes simply out of personal interest.

Most of Duggan's images of Asian workers come from the period when she was living abroad -- years before Eat, Pray, Love -- due to visa restrictions imposed on her then husband, a Pakistani. One set of photos, depicting batik workers in a seaside shanty in Malaysia, documents age-old techniques of craft production before the rise of rationalized factory work in the export processing zones of globalization. Another series documents graduates of a training development class Duggan ran at the Detroit post office to help foster upward mobility. Some of the graduates have since died and the pictures Duggan took are the only visual representations of them in their working life.

Many of Hammer's photos were taken to document trips to several South American countries over the past decade as part of union programs to witness and express solidarity with international labor organizing efforts. Images from Cuba and El Salvador capture workers striving to emerge from under the shadow of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Photos from Porto Alegre, Brazil, document work and life in the year of the re-election of Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, himself a metal worker and unionist, as president. They should have special resonance for viewers here as Porto Alegre is where the first World Social Forum was held in 2001, the second US national iteration of which met this past June in the D. Photos shot in the US were taken literally from the front lines as Hammer participated in the labor actions they depict.

In her statement, Duggan writes: "Workers of all countries unite...and be seen." And to be sure, this is where these images have force.

In distinguishing between old and new social movements (for example, labor and civil rights vs. green and LGBT), social theorists and researchers, such as Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci, typically draw the line between mobilizing for economic well-being and political franchise on the one hand and less materialistic objectives such as acceptance of lifestyle and culture on the other. But, as Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, in their book Civil Society and Political Theory, note, ultimately to effect change requires some level of resource mobilization and in the end material reconstruction of social and political reality. (Their most compelling quote in this regard: "Laws are frozen politics," and certainly the whole issue of gay marriage as it's currently playing out is a case in point.)

What identity politics, especially as it exists in the rarified atmosphere of the artworld, and new social movement theory see as a goal, Cohen and Arato recognize as part of a longer process. First is indeed the recognition of identity, bringing heretofore under-acknowledged publics into view. Second is inclusion, building a sense of solidarity among those who once felt isolated from one another (what second-wave feminists called "consciousness-raising"). But third is influence, a critical mass that demands attention be paid. And finally is enacting reform, which in modern democratic societies is made concrete through legislation, government regulation, and case law.

In bringing the workers of the world back into view, Duggan and Hammer make the case that so-called old social movements still have relevance (and in this age of globalization and in the wake of the recent economic meltdown perhaps now more than ever). Don't go to this show expecting to see perfectly cut mats, archival printing, and museum-quality framing. This isn't the savvy production of artworld posers; it's the real deal, pure and simple.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor," featuring photographs by Jane Duggan and Frank Hammer, is on view until Oct. 9 at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery, 33 East Adams, in Grand Circus Park near downtown Detroit. An evening of readings by workers is scheduled for Sept. 18, from 7 - 9 pm. Call 313 963 7575 for information.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

DAM Box Show 2 final curtain call this Friday

Above: Video by Gary Schwarz

Final bidding on the auctioning of artist's boxes at the Detrtoit Artists Market closes Friday, Aug. 20

This year's show consists of old movie film storage boxes donated by the Wayne State library and there are some pretty nice ones to be had, as usual. This year's group contains nearly 200 entries, and it's quite amazing how people take up the competitive gauntlet and oftentimes push themselves into new areas.

The DAM Box Show, and its predecessors the original box shows at the Willis Gallery, the various Detroit Focus iterations, and even DAM in previous incarnations, have always been as much about the creative community supporting one another (in other words, taking part in the art of the commons) as anything else. And in that regard they've always made a lot more sense to me than the many calls artists get to support any number of other causes with their work. Noble as they may be, in the latter case, so often well-heeled collectors who could pay more get to walk off with bargains and the self-satisfaction of their "enlightened" philanthropy, and that just irritates me and a lot of other artists I know.

Anyway, enough with the kvetching. Check out DMA and put down a few bids.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grace Lee Boggs & Immanuel Wallerstein @ USSF

in conversation with Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein from Mark Dworkin on Vimeo.

I've posted this elsewhere, but given the comments on the "Soup" post below, I thought it would be helpful to have it here. One of the the highlights of the 2010 US Social Forum held in Detroit this past June was a conversation between Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein. For those of you who don't know (and shame on you if you don't), Grace is a longtime Detroit activist and philosopher. She's a leader in the urban farming movement, local self-reliance, and postindustrial utopian vision. Wallerstein is a sociologist who originated something called world-system theory, which studies the development of capitalism from its origins in early European colonialism into the present.

World-system theory has been extended backward in time to look at all forms of world-systems, including Ancient Mesopotamia and China. One of its present-day concerns is the question of whether capitalism as we know it and ecological sustainability are ultimately compatible. (Verdict so far: They aren't.) This bears on our conversation about art in Detroit because it helps explain how we got here and what options we might have for moving forward. My whole idea of the art of the commons is in part premised on my understanding of world-system theory and the place of Detroit in that story.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Post-Apocalyptic Utopian Future is Already Here

THE ECO-COMMUNE from Richard Hardy on Vimeo.

The online journal Artkrush has an article in its current issue that really cracks me up. It concerns a short video by a recent graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture in England, Richard Hardy. The video imagines what London would be like after an apocalyptic catastrophe as nature begins to reclaim the devastated precincts of civilization and humans slowly reemerge to pick up the pieces. Here in what Harper's terms the "arcadia" that is postindustrial Detroit, we don't have to imagine what it will be like. It's here right now. Note to Richard Hardy: As the late-great interplanetary explorer Sun Ra proclaimed, "It's after the end of the world. Don't you know that yet?"

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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Brenda Goodman review

Image above: Loss (2009) by Brenda Goodman is one of the paintings included the 20-year survey of her work on view until Aug. 15 at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. (Image courtesy of John Davis Gallery.)

A very thoughtful review of Brenda Goodman's show in New York has been posted at Art Critical. The show surveys 20 years of Goodman's work and makes the case that a retrospective is in order. Year in and year out, Goodman has delivered the goods at a high level of seriousness. That she has maintained that intensity for 40-some years is a testament to her commitment to making art, which extends from her early days in Detroit's Cass Corridor to her longtime studio above the madding crowds on the Bowery and now to the more peaceful precincts of the Catskills where her most recent work was created.