Thursday, December 15, 2011

Aesthetic Community in Detroit

Tyree Guyton, The Heidelberg Project, 1986-present. (Image of a Polka Dot Dancer by Geronimo Patton, courtesy of the Heidelberg Project).
In a recent contribution to the Huffington Post, author and community organizer Yusef Bunchy Shakur and co-author Jenny Lee write: "Detroit is modeling life after capitalism." One of the ways this is happening is through the work of artists who are helping to envision what that life might look like. These artists are constructing what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls an "aesthetic community."

The aesthetic community of Detroit is more than simply a collection of artists and other creative types working in the same location. It's a community of sense, as Ranciere expresses it, which operates on three levels.

The three senses of aesthetic community
The first level of aesthetic community is a certain combination of sense data -- materials, forms, spaces, etc. -- that constitute the work. In particular in Detroit, this often consists of using recycled castoff materials, adopting makeshift techniques for fashioning them into artistic expressions, and doing so in locations that have been abandoned or otherwise marked by neglect. The notion of aesthetic community at this level comprises what Ranciere terms a "regime of conjunction," that is, a bringing together of disparate elements into a meaningful whole.

The second level opens up a tension between this regime of conjunction and what Ranciere terms the "regime of disjunction." The latter can be understood as the way the work points to that which is absent, specifically in the case of Detroit the sense of community dislocated as a result of the ravages of capitalism, the lack that registers the social, economic, and political deracination whose residue is emphatically apparent in the postindustrial wasteland of Detroit.

This aspect of aesthetic community is not the same as what another French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, terms the "inoperative community," the longing for the original idea of community that was lost or broken in the transition to modernity, the dialectic of what sociologists term Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. That's about Romantic nostalgia, the province essentially of so-called "ruin porn." Instead, it's what enables the third level of aesthetic community to come into play.

The third level of aesthetic community intertwines the "being together" of the first level with the "being apart" of the second level to produce a new sense of community, in the present and in its potentiality. It's a recognition of what is, coupled with a prospect of what may be to come. It's a sensibility, according Ranciere, which aesthetics shares with politics.

Some aspects of aesthetic community in Detroit
New York Taxis cruising the Heidelberg Project. (Image by Ted Drake, Creative Commons CC-BY-ND 2.0 License.)
The Heidelberg Project
Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project has been extensively written about. Its significance as an expression of aesthetic community has been less remarked upon. As is well known, Guyton's project reclaims a largely abandoned two-block area in a neighborhood on the city's east side. Its primary materials are castoffs the artist typically retrieves from around the city. One of the elements, the polka dot, festoons buildings and the street, conjoining elements of a broken urban environment into an aesthetic whole. Other aspects point to the second level of Ranciere's concept, for example, the flat cutout images of New York taxis spread around the project, serving the needs of a public that isn't there but could be if the environment were different.

Over the 25 years of its existence, the Heidelberg Project has moved from being simply an art environment to a community activity and education space. Kids shoot hoops at the basketball net set up in the center of the street. A regular schedule of events is maintained, bringing people together under a  multicultural umbrella. The 2011 Summer Solstice celebration featured demonstrations of Brazilian capoeria, music, dancing, and food. A gathering later in the summer featured a spoken-word performance event and concert of funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The Heidelberg Project also has a library and recently began an endeavor to promote local ecological and social sustainability.

The City of Detroit government has had an ambivalent relationship with the Heidelberg Project over the last 25 years, including bulldozing over sections of it on two occasions, only to see it rebuilt and expanded each time.These police actions and their ultimate futility point to a political aspect of the Heidelberg Project. Again, Ranciere provides insight into the discussion.

For Ranciere, "the essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space." Its essence, he writes in "Ten Theses on Politics," is to make manifest the disjuncture between the state as a site of power and politics as a field of action -- a field Ranciere calls "democracy," the space created of, by, and for the rule of the people and their claim to legitimacy, regardless of station. And so it is that the politics of aesthetic community are on view on Heidelberg Street.

Presentation of creative proposals at the monthly meeting of Detroit Soup (image by Vanessa Miller, courtesy of Detroit Soup).
Detroit Soup
Another example is the Detroit Soup project founded by artist Kate Daughdrill and musician Jessica Hernandez. Detroit Soup is a monthly dinner-fundraiser for creative projects happening in Detroit. It takes place in a donated loft above a bakery in Mexicantown on the city's southwest side.  Attendees make a $5 contribution and share a meal made by volunteers. Artists and other individuals present creative projects, which are then voted on by the group. The proposal with the most votes gets the evening's proceeds. Grantees usually return at a later date to present the results of their completed projects. The funding amounts are small, but the process entirely grassroots.

During the course of the meeting, other activities take place. The most important is bringing various creative communities into contact with one another, a process of transforming aesthetic community as an idea into a democratic community in fact. What's more, similar fundraising initiatives have spread throughout the city, providing additional nodes in the social network and strengthening the mesh of interrelationships among cultural producers in the city.
Design 99, The Power House and Neighborhood Machine, 2008-present (image courtesy of Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope).
Design 99
A group that takes a somewhat different tack is Design 99, the collaborative team of architect Gina Reichert and artist Mitch Cope. Design 99 was originally founded in 2007 as a design studio in a storefront now occupied by the community art space Public Pool. In 2008, the team began developing The Power House, which takes a modest wood-frame former drug house, redeemed from bank foreclosure for $1900, as the site for re-envisioning what was once a working-class neighborhood that in recent years had been devastated by disinvestment. The designation "Power House" has two connotations: as an experiment in energy self-sufficiency through its use of sustainable solar and wind technology, and as a dream space of aesthetic community, specifically, as a model for democratic action in Ranciere's sense.

Not long after renovations began, neighborhood residents began to gather around, some taking part in the work and others simply watching and discussing the proceedings. Growing awareness of the project locally and internationally enabled the team to acquire additional properties in the neighborhood, and in 2009, Reichert and Cope founded Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to managing a growing number of projects in the area. These include five houses currently undergoing rennovations, several community gardens, back alley garbage pickup, and neighborhood watch programs. Future plans call for the development of formalized artist's residencies, urban planning workshops, and facilities for various forms of cultural production.
Clearing a Path to the Future: Garbage Totem no. 1, 2011, by Design 99 envisions back alley clean-up as art.

Projects are also being undertaken in other parts of the city, one such being Talking Fence in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood on the city's northwest side, funded by Community + Public Art Detroit (CPAD), a program administered by College for Creative Studies (CCS). The 150-foot long structure runs around a residential street corner culminating in an archway that opens to a spiral seating area. The project plan is inspired by the "three sisters" method of agriculture used by Native Americans in which squash, beans, and maize are planted alongside one another. (The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen to nourish the other two plants, and the squash spreads on the ground to suppress weed growth and serve as "living mulch.") Talking Fence creates a space for collecting and telling stories, providing a venue for neighborhood elders to pass down local history to the younger generation. The construction was undertaken as a youth education project in collaboration with a teacher and students at a nearby high school. The project plan factored community participation as essential to its realization. This expression of aesthetic community is an example of the art of the common, that is, art that exists in its own space between the "certified" public sphere (what Ranciere understands as the dominion of the state) and the officially occluded private sphere. It constitutes an opening for community expression at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.
Wiley McDowell and Design 99, Talking Fence, 2009 (image courtesy of Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope).
Edible Hut
One of the newest projects in the city is the Edible Hut by Mira Burack and Kate Daughdrill, funded by a $40,000 CPAD grant. Edible Hut combines elements of an outdoor sculpture, a neighborhood shelter, and a garden. It is being built by a team of artists, architects, community members, youth from the neighborhood, and teachers and students from the Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered K-8 learning community, and CCS. The structure is to be constructed in the Osborn neighborhood in northeast Detroit. Like Talking Fence, Edible Hut is intended to create a space of identity and inclusion, things Ranciere has identified as political aspects of aesthetic community. Moreover, it is a place for physical and spiritual sustenance beyond the pale of market exchange.
Mira Burack and Kate Daughdrill, Model for Edible Hut, 2011 (image courtesy of the artists).
Envisioning a life after capital
Shakur and Lee's HuffPost Detroit blog entry is an open letter to the Occupy movement. "Detroit has moved beyond protest," they write. It has done so, they go on to say:
Because we have survived the most thorough divestment of capital that any major U.S. city has ever seen; because we have survived "white flight" and "middle class flight," state-takeovers, corruption and the dismantling of our public institutions; because the people who remained in Detroit are resilient and ingenious, Detroiters have redefined what "revolution" looks like.
This revolution is still in progress and certainly far from being won; it's a revolution that is both aesthetic and political. Its spirit is embedded in the city's motto adopted in the wake of the Great Fire of 1805, as if prefiguring Ranciere by some two centuries, "Speribus meliora; resurget cinerabus" -- "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cutting Up: Art in the Age of Electronic Reproduction

In his recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’sAddiction to Its Own Past, British-born writer Simon Reynolds laments what he believes is the lack of creative originality in contemporary popular music. He compares what he perceives as the debilitated state of today’s sounds to the toxic instruments of financial piracy that nearly collapsed the global economy: "music," he writes, "has been depleted by derivativeness and indebtedness."

And yet one might note the irony that Reynolds himself initially emerged as a champion of English punk, a musical form that leapfrogged back over the stylistic excesses of glam, disco, and arena rock to mine the lode of romantic primitivism that fueled skiffle and the thrashier proponents of beat, in particular groups like Them, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds. What’s more, the subsequent style Reynolds lionized, rave, is even more obviously built upon a preexisting foundation, pilfering tracks from a variety of sources, which are sampled, looped, and mashed-up into collages of sound.

That this is pretty much the way that popular music, and indeed much of art, both high and low, has long been made is obvious to Kembrew McLeod and Rudolf Kuenzli, who have put together the collection of essays, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University, 2011). As befits its subject, the book brings together a broad range of contributors, from highfalutin academics to cutting-edge (no pun intended) street-level remixers, who reflect on a plethora of creative practices in all manner of media and genres.

An idea underlying the book is that the process of exchanging, altering, and assimilating information is and always has been central to humankind’s conscious being in the world. Natural scientist Richard Dawkins terms the basic unit of information exchange the meme, which is to culture what the gene is to biology. 

The means by which memes develop, proliferate, and mutate is what’s known in the social sciences as diffusion. It’s a phenomenon that is as necessary to evolution and interaction from a cultural perspective as genes are from a physiological one. As poet Joshua Clover states in his contribution to the book titled "Ambiguity and Theft": "culture is always already collage" (original emphasis). It’s only with the rise of the new robust intellectual property regime that this activity has come to be viewed as disreputable from certain quarters (i.e., power, especially of the Euroamerican white hetero male “ownership” class, AKA the one percent).

The capstone of the book is Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay from the November 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," a meditation on originality and it discontents composed entirely from cribbed sources. Even more radical takes are those of Jeff Chang, David Banash, and Eve Hemmungs Wirten, each of whom in their respective essays essentially argue for copyright violation as a necessary moral and political act in the face of current, and at this point largely successful, attempts by transnational capital to colonize the noosphere for private profit at the expense of everyone else. (A similar argument is made by Ken Wark in The Beach Beneath the Streets:The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the SituationistInternational in discussing the continued relevance of unrepentant nineteenth-century plagiarist Comte de Lautreamont for contemporary vanguard cultural politics.)

Cutting Across Media isn’t meant to be a definitive volume on the subject. There’s no contribution, for example, from Lawrence Lessig, Rosemary Coombe, or James Boyle, legal scholars who have become well known as benchmark thinkers in recent years for staking claims to the creative commons and arguing for the rights of cultural legacies broadly applied. (Although critical information studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan puts in an appearance in an interview conducted by Stay Free! publisher Carrie McLaren.) But it offers a good compendium of current ways of thinking about such issues as intellectual property ownership, creativity and its influences, and strategic practices, both contemporary and historical, for negotiating the contested terrain of creative production. And where many studies are predominantly theoretical or focused on a single medium, Cutting Across Media cuts across mediums to consider pop and classical music as well as visual arts and literature, using specific examples, including the culture-jamming pioneers Billboard LiberationFront and the redoubtable Negativland.

The objection to all of this, of course, is the claim that to allow unfettered access to the creative productions of others is to prevent them from realizing their right to the fruits of their labor. The functionalist reply is that in fact very few creators actually own the right to profit from their work, which instead is usually held by the distributors. A more visionary response sees creative production not as just a pure commodity but also as in some measure a gift that adds to common good known as culture, which has taken on a world-historical scope under the binary digit and its global distribution network. Cutting Across Media proposes that in place of a burdensome intellectual property regime, with its copyright limitations and infringement lawsuits, there shall be an association, in which the free expression of each is the condition for the free expression of all.

Note: This post originally appeared in PopMatters.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revealing Detroit Photographically

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, West, Snow, 2009-2010 (image courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery)
These days, Detroit is considered a pretty cool place to be artwise. Most recently, W magazine and the LA Times have run feature stories extolling the virtues of the erstwhile Motor City as a place where aesthetic entrepreneurs can set up shop with minimal capital investment. (Christian Landers' book Whiter Shades of Pale sardonically notes that Detroit is an especially agreeable place for artist-posers with modest trust funds.) While the grassroots efforts at creating aesthetic community are an important part of what's happening in the city, the average media representations are still those of abandonment and ruin.

Locals know the genre of photography that revels in Detroit's devastation as "ruin porn." These images, often taken by outsiders, present the idled factories and dissolute neighborhoods as monuments of melancholy, constituting a romantic dystopia of a failed civilization returning to the state of nature. Among the recent masters of the form is New York-based photographer Andrew Moore, whose book Detroit Disassembled (Diamani/Akron Art Museum, 2011) has been favorably reviewed, among other places, in the New York Times.

The cover image from Moore's book is one of the featured photographs in the current exhibition "Detroit Revealed: Photographs, 2000-2010" at the Detroit Institute of Arts, put together by DIA Associate Curator of the Graphic ArtsDepartment Nancy Watson Barr. The supersized super-detailed color print shows a view looking into a cavernous factory corridor, which is lit from above by a skylight supported by rusted trusswork and lined on either side by piles of industrial detritus, moldering brick walls and broken windows. Its sheer beauty recalls Walter Benjamin's famous observation in the Epilogue of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in witness to the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930, on the ability to enjoy destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order. It's also somewhat misleading in that the image was shot at the Ford Motor Company Rouge complex, which for the most part is still operational and has been retooled with high-tech facilities for producing the top-selling F-150 pickup.

An arguably more reliable set of images is the work of Detroit artist Scott Hocking, who embraces Detroit's decaying areas but does so with an eye toward a broader historical and philosophical view. Hocking's images, while aesthetically pleasing as photographs, are actually records of his walkabouts and projects among the city's industrial ruins and other neglected spaces. The photographs in the DIA exhibition document monumental works Hocking created in two of Detroit's legendary abandoned automobile plants.

Ziggurat documents a sculptural installation Hocking built in Fisher Body Plant 21, a building that had been abandoned for the more than 20 years. The installation was constructed over several months between winter 2007 and summer 2008. It consisted of some 6200 wooden flooring blocks retrieved from around the empty building and assembled into a massive pyramid inside the empty and gutted structure. The project reveals a Sisyphean aspect to Hocking's work in that he continued to labor at it in full knowledge that it would ultimately be destroyed either due to either human intervention or exposure to the elements.

The Garden of the Gods pushes the inevitability of entropy even further. It is sited in the old Packard Plant, a 3.5 million square foot facility, nearly half a mile in length and believed to be the largest abandoned industrial site in the United States, which has been abandoned for decades. On a section of collapsed roof in the building designed by Detroit's premier architect Albert Kahn, Hocking placed a series of old wooden TV consoles he found on a lower floor atop structural columns that had remained upright. Over a period of months, some of the columns toppled and more of the roof collapsed, events also documented photographically. Named after a sedimentary rock formation in southern Illinois, Garden of the Gods isn't a ritual of mourning but an acknowledgment of natural processes that have occurred throughout history.

The images of Dawoud Bey, Carlos Diaz and Corine Vermeulen constitute a kind of visual anthropology, surveying the faces and places of different populations that make up the city. Although Bey is the more well known, Diaz and Vermeulen, both local residents, are represented by equally compelling images. Diaz's 2010 series "Beyond Borders: Latino Immigrants and Southwest Detroit" comprises portraits as well as the homes and gardens of the city's Mexican Town community, examples of each which are in the show. Vermeulen's images are taken from her "Your Town Tomorrow" series depicting postindustrial Detroit and its denizens as harbingers of America's potential alternate future.

The exhibition, installed in the photography galleries in the museum's lower level, begs to be compared with one of the acknowledged masterpieces in the DIA collection, the Detroit Industry mural cycle by Diego Rivera on the main floor almost directly above. Like the mounting of "Detroit Revealed," the creation of Rivera's murals in 1932-33 took place at the height of an economic and political crisis, namely the Great Depression. Breathtaking in scale and awe-inspiring in its ambition, Detroit Industry depicts the productive might of the system, given the eponymous designation Fordism, that was to propel Detroit, and in the process America, to global prominence after the Second World War. By comparison, "Detroit Revealed" is substantially less grand, embodying a more fragmented and temperate vision of personal strategies for survival after the fall.

"Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010" continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts until April 8, 2012. A catalog with essays by exhibition curator Nancy Watson Barr, John Gallagher and Carlo McCormick is available. Visit or call 1-313-833-7900 for information.

Note: this post originally appeared in the inaugural section of HuffPost Detroit. The published piece contained a couple of minor proofreading errors and broken links. This version corrects those mistakes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kresge Arts in Detroit profile video

This past weekend, the new cohort of 2011 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellows had their inaugural weekend retreat, thus officially concluding my fellowship year. At the same time, I received the long version of my KAID profile video.  Stephen McGee and his crew Cory and Chris did a great job. Also thanks to the Kresge Foundation for footing the bill on this and other things, and for what has been a very memorable experience.

Above video: Vince Carducci, 2010 Kresge Artist Fellow produced and directed by Stephen McGee LLC.
© Kresge Arts in Detroit, College for Creative Studies

Monday, August 1, 2011

Beneath the Pavement, the Beach! -- Detroit from a Situationist Perspective

The current events blog Deliberately Considered recently published my review of the new book by McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (Verso, 2011). The book takes its title from the famous grafitto of the general strike of May 1968 in France: "Sous les paves, la plage!" (Under the pavement, the beach!) It updates the Situationist legacy for the present day, and it seeks to offer a more nuanced view of the movement and its key players. In particular, it looks beyond Guy Debord, his writing, and his films to consider the activities of those whose contributions to SI have often gone under-recognized. Among the cast of characters: Unitary Urbanist Constant, CoBrA co-founder Asger Jorn, French novelist Michelle Bernstein, and Dutch painter Jacqueline De Jong.

In reading Wark's book, I couldn't help but think about the practice of art in the city of Detroit. In the second chapter, titled "No More Temples in the Sun," Wark writes about the Letterist Ivan Chtcheglov, a Parisian poet and anarchist of Ukrainian descent who once conspired to blow up the Eiffel Tower. Chtcheglov is known today mainly for his treatise "Formulary for a New Urbanism" (1953) in which he mentions the concept of derive (drift) that will become a key idea in the Situationist approach to negotiating urban space. Rejecting the top-down rationalism that modernist architect Le Corbusier in particular sought to impose on the urban domain, Chtcheglov writes in the "Formulary": "All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends." Ghostly encounters, real and imagined, form part of the basis of what the Letterists, and subsequently the Situationists who literally and figuratively followed in their footsteps, would term psychogeography, the objective and subjective mapping of experiential space.

Getting back to the geological, i.e., the beach beneath the streets, requires deconstructing the process by which nature has come to be overwritten by culture and of which cities are a concrete manifestation. As Wark notes, this in part entails the recognition that:
The conceit of private property is that it is something fixed, eternal. Once it comes into existence it remains, passed in an unbroken chain of ownership from one title-holder to the next. Yet in the course of time whole cities really do disappear. We live among the ruins. We later cities know that cities are mortal. (29, emphasis added)
In the case of Detroit "the course of time" has progressed rather quickly, basically with the onset of post-Fordism in the early 1970s, though some commentaries rightly see the seeds as having been planted in the suburbanization of the region that began soon after the Second World War. This reversal of the conceit of private property provides basis for what I have called the art of the commons, art that is neither public nor private but that exists in a space in between. And many of the practices that comprise this work have something in common with what Wark tells us about the Situationists.

The first is psychogeography. In the "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography," Debord writes that it concerns the study of "specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals." One of the more well-recognized mappings of the ghost world of Detroit is the one undertaken by Tyree Guyton on the city's East Side in the form of the Heidelberg Project. Guyton objectively and subjectively marks out the territory of his experience over the years of the neighborhood where he grew up. The objective might be best represented in the form of the polka dot, which Guyton uses to delineate physical space and to unite the public sphere of the street with the private domain of homes long since abandoned. An example of the subjective is Soles of the Most High, a tree clad with scrap wood on its trunk and festooned with shoes hanging from its crown.
Polka dot dancer on Heidelberg Street. (Photo: Geronimo Patton, courtesy of the Heidelberg Project.)
Tyree Guyton, The Heidelberg Project, 1986-present, showing polka dots on the street and buildings with Soles of the Most High in the center  (Photo: Michelle Figurski, courtesy of the Heidelberg Project.)
"Shoe trees" have a number of interpretations, from simply banal evidence of practical jokers tossing footwear out of their owners' reach to more sinister explanations of gangland territory marking rituals to folklore legends of serial killers using them as trophy displays of their victims. In Guyton's case the tree takes its inspiration from the artist's grandfather, Sam Mackey, a descendent of slaves who helped start the Heidelberg Project in 1986 and who had told Guyton of lynching trees from his youth in the rural South where all that passersby could see were the soles of the victims' shoes dangling overhead. (For more on the visual representation of lynching in Guyton and other contemporary art, see chapter 6 of Dora Apel's Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob, Rutgers, 2004, which has a detail of Soles of the Most High on its cover.) Embedded within this apparition is the psychogeographical trace of the Exodus that took African Americans from sharecropping peonage in the Jim Crow South to "free" wage-labor in the factories of the Promised Land in the North, a redemption that turned out to be only too short-lived as the sense of terroir established in neighborhoods such as Heidelberg disintegrated under post-Fordist deindustrialization and urban disinvestment.

A second Situationist concept is derive, typically rendered in English as "drift," the practice of meandering, unpredictable explorations of an environment in which its psychogeographic characteristics are exposed. The artist Scott Hocking has been exploring the nether regions of the erstwhile Motor City for more than a decade. In addition to sculptural installations that respond to the physical environment, the artist has recorded his perambulations in a series of documentary photographs organized under topics such as "bad" grafitti, abandoned boats and other vehicles, and present-day locations that were once sites of ancient burial mounds. As Debord notes in "Theory of Derive," isn't an entirely aimless pursuit, but one driven by an awareness of psychogeographical effects. One of Hocking's more noteworthy derives is Detroit Love (2007-present).

The project is a miscellany of picturesque images of scenes around the city, moments in place and time that reveal the artist's emotional connection with the environs. The images are often tinged with irony, capturing residues of the collective memory slipping away. Others show the persistence of the life force amidst the ruins. Among the former are Grand Army of the Republic, a head-on view of a Romanesque structure, built in 1899 originally for the Civil War veterans of the Union Army. Shortly before the last vet died in the early 1940s, the City of Detroit took over management of the building, using it as a social services and community center until closing it permanently in 1982. Another is Blue Bird Inn, which in the 1950s and '60s was a mainstay of Detroit's vibrant jazz scene, featuring local artists like Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and the Jones Brothers, Elvin, Thad, and Hank, all of whom would go on to become major figures of the post-bebop era in New York City. Among the latter are images of the city's wildlife now free to roam the depopulated zones being reclaimed by nature, the process whereby the beach beneath street has been revealed. Each image reflects on the environment in an archeological way not from the perspective of nostalgia. Each represents different aspects of the here and now, for better or worse.

Scott Hocking, Detroit Love, 2007-present: Above: Grand Army of the Republic. Below: Blue Bird Inn. Bottom: Pheasant (All photos: courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)

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

Above: Kristen Gallerneaux's recording of Scott Hocking's practice of derive.

A third concept is detournement, diversion or derailment, which is the practice of reusing existing cultural expressions in a way that gives them new meaning and effect. On a formalist aesthetic level, this can be seen as basically the practice of collage, which since the time of the Cubists has allowed pieces of the broken world to be incorporated into works of art. But from the Situationist point of view, it specifically refers to interventions into the materials, processes, and codes of the culture industry (or as the Situationists would have it, spectacle society) the ephemera of a throwaway civilization. As Debord and Letterist Gil J Wolman write in "A User's Guide to Detournement" (1956), "The cheapness of [the spectacle's] products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding," a statement itself detourned from the description by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto of the role of low-cost commodities in propagating the hegemony of capitalism around the globe.

George Rahme makes work using the remix aesthetic that Situationist detournement anticipated. In the present day, remix has penetrated popular culture primarily through the sampling, looping, and other sonic manipulations of club music, a creative form in which the artist is also proficient, having performed as a musician and DJ in the US and Europe. In his visual production, Rahme similarly assembles found and common materials into scenic mixed-media extravaganzas that look like the hallucinatory reveries of a schizoid Thomas Kincaid (or perhaps it's just an overdose of X).

Many of Rahme's works use cheap art reproductions retrieved from thrift shops and other secondhand sources as their foundation. These kitsch substrates are embellished with collaged elements and hand painting. The resulting pastorals can be read as allegories of postindustrial Detroit, a city that as Ground Zero of Fordist modernity was first made and then unmade by the commodity system.

George Rahme, The Pink of Condition, 2009, mixed media on wood, 48" x 84". (Image courtesy of the artist.)
George Rahme, 8,557, 2009, mixed media on paper, 13" x 10 1/2". (Image courtesy of the artist).
A popular genre much in the news these days is ruin porn, mostly photographic representations of Detroit's decrepit physical plant that meditate on the half-vacant city as a memento mori of capitalist over-accumulation. The ruin figures prominently in the art of the Romantic period dating back to the late 18th century. And the sublime awe of nature in the process of reclaiming the provinces of culture is a significant impulse within it as well as in the fetishizing of decay in ruin porn with which it is inextricably connected. Rahme seems to take aim directly at these postmodern Romantics with his lowbrow amalgamations of bad taste, using the detritus of consumer culture, and in particular so-called high art that has been run through the grinder of the spectacle's image processor and rendered banal, to expose its collective id.

The small collage 8,557 (2009) is a direct take off on Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (1818), one of the most famous images of German Romanticism. Rahme's version is constructed on top of a poster of the Alps that features the names of various mountain peaks and their elevations. The title happens to be the elevation of the Scheien Pass near Davos in Switzerland. Besides being a popular ski resort, it's also the site of the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum, one of the prime mechanisms through which what London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair terms the transnational capitalist class quite literally rules the world. Numeric indices are the blunt measuring stick by which capitalism rationalizes all things. And it was Fordism's failure to "make the numbers" that inevitably led to Detroit's decline in the face of globalization.

A fourth concept is that of the gift. Working off the research on gift economies of early social scientists such as Franz Boas and Marcel Mauss, and as subsequently interpreted by the renegade Surrealist Georges Bataille, the Situationists envisioned "a new type of human relationship." This would entail neither the cold calculations of bourgeois exchange nor the asymmetrical obligations of aristocratic bequest, but would instead be based on the egalitarian reciprocity of gifts freely given and received. (See chapter 8, "Exchange and Gift," in The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem for an outline of the Situationist conception of the gift.)

The gift is central to the practice of art in the face of the money economy argues Lewis Hyde in his now famous book of the same name. The gift economy informs many aspects of relational aesthetics, for example in the work of Rikrit Taravanija, who creates installations that are the setting for sharing meals and other types of social interaction. Detroit Soup similarly features monthly sharing of meals as a collaborative situation for building an aesthetic community. Dinners are prepared by volunteers who share their current projects and thoughts with attendees who contribute $5 toward the evening. Others then present ideas which are voted upon and the selected proposals are given the entire proceeds to fund execution. Additional events along the model of Detroit Soup are now proliferating around the city.
Voting booths at Detroit Soup. (Photo: Louis Aguilar via iPhone.)
Above: Vanessa Miller and Amy Kaherl discussing Detroit Soup at University of Michigan.

The final concept proceeds directly from the gift and that is the notion of potlatch. A gift-giving festival and economic system practiced among indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest prior to the arrival of European colonizers, potlatch was taken initially by the Letterists, who named one of their official journals after it, and subsequently by the Situationists as a way out of what they perceived to be the increasingly reified relationships of capitalist commodity culture. The concept of potlatch figures prominently in Bataille's book The Accursed Share, first published in France in 1949, where it constitutes a rejection of classical Western economic theories based on notions of rational choice. For Bataille, the excess accumulation of any system is destined to be released in luxurious waste, of which the arts were a form however admittedly noble. And for the Situationists, "release" meant first and foremost escape from the tick, tick, ticking of time ruled by the punchclock of capitalist production, which is divided between labor and leisure (the inverse and obverse of alienation within the commodity-spectacle system), starting with the dissolution of art as a separate activity into the practice of everyday life. (See, for example, "Theses on Cultural Revolution" by Debord published in Internationale Situationiste #1, June, 1958.)

In contemporary art, a degraded variety of potlatch takes the form of what Peter Schjeldahl terms "festivalism," art that exists only in exhibitions and thus ostensibly resists commoditization. (Happily, however, "documentation" is there to step up to the plate and pay the bills.) Another well-known festival of luxurious waste is Burning Man, a week-long event that began in the mid-1980s in San Francisco and now takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, culminating in the immolation of a large wooden effigy built for that purpose. In Detroit, a more Goth (and in my opinion more interesting) festival is Theatre Bizarre, a delirious extravaganza that takes place on a Saturday near Halloween in a decaying residential neighborhood near the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in the northern part of the city.

Begun by artists John Dunivant and Ken Poirier a decade ago, Theatre Bizarre is part carney side show, part burlesque theater, and part performance art. Dozens of volunteers come from all over the country in the weeks before to construct the midway, stages, and other attractions. The evening's revelry features some several hundred performers and other workers with attendance of approximately 2500-3000. In 2010, the City of Detroit shut down the project citing numerous code violations. In a New York Times article on the event, Dunivant stated, "We couldn't have gotten away with this anywhere else in the world but Detroit."

Above: Theatre Bizarre highlights.

How long an environment amenable to an art of the commons will last remains to be seen. Forces of what the Situationists termed "recuperation" are already at work. I, for one, hope that it turns out to be more than the passage of few people through a rather brief moment in time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Grace Lee Boggs on the Next American Revolution

Above: Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige discuss The Next American Revolution at the Brecht Forum in NYC

Grace Lee Boggs has been part of pretty much every progressive movement of the modern age. At 95, she shows little sign of slowing down. In her new book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, she lays out how we can make real that other world the slogans tells us is possible. My review of it is posted on the current events blog Deliberately Considered. (Click here to read it.) The book is required reading for anyone interested in the future of Detroit in the age of late capital and especially for cultural producers (some of whom go by the appellation "artists") who want to engage the public sphere.

Other useful links:
Grace Lee Boggs and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster discussing the financial meltdown of 2008 on Demcracy Now! (September 17, 2009)

Grace Lee Boggs on Bill Moyers Journal (June 15, 2007)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Memoriam: Keith Aoki

Keith Aoki, panel from "Pictures within Pictures," Ohio North University Law Review 36, 2010

Through a Facebook post by fellow Kresge Fellow Glida Snowden, I learned of the untimely passing of Keith Aoki on April 26 at age 55. At the time of his death, Aoki was Professor of Law at University of California-Davis. But those in the Detroit art community of a certain vintage (i.e., kinda old like me) will remember him as a talented young multi-media artist. Aoki was part of what I call the "Lost Generation" of Detroit art, a cadre of conceptual, performance, and video artists who worked in the city between the so-called first and second generations of the Cass Corridor art movement. The Lost Generation also includes Jim Hart, Diane Spodarek, Joe Banish, Lynn Farnsworth, and Jim Pallas, among others. One of Aoki's paintings from his days in Detroit is part of the James Duffy bequest to the WSU art and art history department, and it was on view during a show of the collection there a couple of years back.

I have special memories of Aoki's performance piece "Wings over Nudetown," a send-up of Cass Corridor hagiography which was part of a series of exhibitions put on at the DIA during the time John Hallmark Neff was curator of contemporary art. A comic strip documentation of it was published in The Detroit Artists Monthly, a magazine put out at the time primarily by Spodarek. (Click here to see a PDF of the comic posted by Jim Pallas on his website.)

After graduating with his BFA from Wayne, Aoki moved to New York where he received an MA in art at Hunter College. Besides being a damn fine draftsman, Aoki was a really smart guy. And at some point his interest turned to the law, and so he got a JD from Harvard and embarked on an academic career. But he often combined the two disciplines, legal scholarship and art, using his considerable drawing talents to illustrate his academic work. In this sense, he was also a pioneer of the new pedagogy that uses pop culture for didactic purposes.

Aoki went on to become a significant scholar in cultural studies and intellectual property law. Perhaps his most well-known work, though, is the graphic-novel format treatise on the creative commons Bound by Law, co-authored by another important copyright law scholar James Boyle. He also had his graphic work published in The Nation. But my favorite Aoki effort in this vein is actually the legal legwork he did for the underground rock band Negitivland (who among other things are generally credited with coining the term "culture jamming") for their 1997 CD DisPepsi, a satire of consumer culture consisting of cola-commercial sound collages, a classic work of cultural production in the creative commons.

Click here to read James Boyle's appreciation of Aoki. And click here to download the entire text and images of "Pictures within Pictures" from the Social Science Research Network.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Belaboring the representation of history in Maine

Judy Taylor, History of Maine Labor, 2008, oil on canvas. (Photo: James Imbrogno, courtesy Imbrogno Photography and the artist.)
My dissertation advisor at the New School Jeff Goldfarb runs a current events blog called Deliberately Considered. A well-known and highly regarded political sociologist, Jeff's idea is to use the blog form to expand rational debate in what Yochai Benkler calls "the networked public sphere" rather than engage in simple punditry. (Click here to read my review of Jeff's last book The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times.)

Today's Deliberately Considered features my post on the recent controversy in Maine over a mural depicting episodes from that state's labor history. For those of you who don't know, the mural, which was completed in 2008 under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission and installed in the lobby of the State of Maine Department of Labor building was removed and put into storage in an undisclosed location (perhaps for "extraordinary rendition"?) by newly elected governor Paul LePage, a Tea Party-backed Republican. One wonders whether Rick Snyder is now contemplating a nice beige wallpaper for the Rivera Court.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

John Ganis: Deliberately Considered

I posted a review of John Ganis's recent show of photographs at Swords Into Plowshares Gallery depicting the aftermath of the oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and western Michigan on the current events blog Deliberately Considered. (Click here to read it.) The show was pretty amazing in its cognitive dissonance between form and content, the allure of the refined aesthetic beauty of the images as photographs, on the one hand, and the revulsion of the recognition as to what they're about, on the other. The show contained dozens of incredible images, but this one directly below was my favorite. Check out the straw hat gaily festooned with flowers on the figure on the right. Also the stretch of shade canopies extending along the shoreline. Could have been any day at the beach, except for the hazmat suits and rubber galoshes. Plus a few other images from the exhibition. (All images courtesy of the artist.)

John Ganis, Clean Up Workers, Gulf Shores Park, Alabama, 2010, digital archival print.
BP Spill Booms, Louisiana, 2010, digital archival print.

BP Spill, National Sea Shore, Florida, 2010, digital archival print.
Grand Isle State Park, Louisiana, 2010, digital archival print.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Last chance to see: "Figuration" & Lynne Avadenka @ Lemberg Gallery

Ed Fraga, She Bore His Child, Then She Bore Witness, 2010, oil on canvas stretched over birch panel. (Photo: Tim Thayer. This and all other images courtesy of the artists and Lemberg Gallery.)
A pair of pretty nice shows are closing this Saturday, February 26, at Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale. The first, "Figuration," is a group show of gallery regulars, which as title says explores various musings on the human form. It's mostly of a postmodern bent, with irony and ennui generally ruling the day. Cranbrook fiber department artist-in-residence Mark Newport continues his deconstruction of masculinity with a series hand-knitted costumes for an anti-superhero action figure named Inaction Man. A couple of recent Cranbrook grads similarly mix up lowbrow culture references with artworld savoir faire. G. Bradley Rhodes presents two intricately constructed collages that draw on the lexicon of retro and vernacular illustration while Heather Blackwell paints portraits of "beat" young hipsters in the now venerable tradition of "bad" painting.

A note of sincerity is sounded by my fellow Kresge Fellow Ed Fraga whose 2010 painting She Bore His Child, Then She Bore Witness is the star of the show. The painting, imbued with enigma as Fraga's work always is, conjures up a scene of psychological abjection. (The trauma, as Julia Kristeva notes in Powers of Horror, associated with "the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be," in other words, birth and the separation from the mother in the expulsion from the sanctuary of the womb). On the left a narrow ladder leads up from the ground to a hut about to be engulfed in flames. Issuing from the doorway is what appears to be a dialog balloon whose text is obliterated, an image of repressed memories or, following Kristeva, the inability to articulate a distinct identity. On the right a female body is shown truncated at the waist, genitalia clearly rendered with the legs dissipating from modeled flesh to roughly sketched in contour. In the place where the abdomen should be, a boy's head is grafted. It's an uncanny and compelling image.

G. Bradley Rhodes, The Research Assistant, 2010, acrylic and graphite on paper collaged on canvas.
Heather Blackwell, Molly, 2010, oil on canvas.

The Project Room features four new works by fellow Kresge Fellow Lynne Avadenka inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. Each contains a particular passage, "One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever." Each piece incorporates a variety of graphic arts techniques from brush calligraphy to letterpress typefonts and dingbats to the electric typewriter, the latter of which is used to create snaking lines of run-together letters that delineate relationships of figure and ground. The works use traditional woodblock printing to map out larger areas of space, with the grain of the matrix recorded in fine detail. Individual sheets are collaged onto cloth-covered boards, which are fashioned together into screens that are unfolded to stand on their own. The horizontal format is inspired by Japanese landscape screens and according to the artist play on the notion that the objects reveal as they conceal.

One might be tempted to interpret the work as somehow engaging in a kind of eco-consciousness, but I think Avadenka is gesturing toward something more profound. Her work has always been on some level about art's role in sustaining a relationship to loss, of acknowledging that while our individual existence is contingent and fleeting, the cosmos is more enduring and yet also more mysterious. This idea can be seen as well in language, which preexists our entry into the world and continues on presumably long after we have left it. What's more, one of the lessons of semiotics is that signification is a continual process of deferral, of the sign substituting for the thing to which it refers, revealing and concealing, setting up an endless chain of possible and occluded meanings that has no clear-cut beginning or end. This deferral is further evidenced in Avadenka's new art by her disinclination to designate which view of the screen is the front and which is the back. Signifier and signified are continually at play in this work as it always is in the best art.

Lynne Avadenka, Comes And Goes III, 2010 (one side), relief printing, lithograph, typewriting on mixed media. (Avadenka  photos: R.H. Hemsleigh.)
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III (the other side).
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes VI, 2010 (one side), relief and letterpress printing, typewriting on mixed media.
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes VI (the other side).

"Figuration" and Lynne Avadenka, Project Room, are on view at Lemberg Gallery until Saturday, February 26. Call 248 591 6623 for information.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Michael Hall on Art & Design

Received these two videos from Mike Hall of his conversations with John Sauve, whose program Art & Design runs on public access TV. Hall, for those of you who don't know, was sculptor-in-residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art prior to Heather McGill. He's also an authority on folk and regional art, among other things, and along with his spouse Pat Glascock he has an amazing collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. (Click here to read my 2004 Metro Times article on the S &Ps and here to read my review of Hall's 2004 retrospective at the Scarab Club.) In these two videos Hall talks about his personal background and his artwork. I hope that John will have Mike on again to talk about his other interests. These videos are important documentation of the thought process of one of the smartest guys in the Detroit or any other artworld.

Michael Hall from john w sauve on Vimeo.

Michael Hall from john w sauve on Vimeo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

James Adley at 80

James Adley, Violet Gate, 2007. Acrylic on paper (Image courtesy of the artist.)

On Friday, February 18, the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center is presenting an exhibition of recent work by former Michigan State University art professor James Adley. The show includes works on canvas and paper completed over the past four years. My colleague at College for Creative Studies, Foundations Department Chair Robert Schefman, and I curated the show. While it takes up the entire Robinson Gallery, it represents just a taste of Adley's work from this period and the merest sliver of his substantial oeuvre, a small fraction of which has ever been seen outside his studio. (Full disclosure: Schefman and I are both MSU BFAs, and Adley was the main professor under which I did my undergrad work. Schefman studied sculpture and though we were there at around the same time I didn't know him then.)

Large, gestural abstractions, Adley's paintings are the kind you don't see too much of anymore, and the kind you never saw a lot of in Detroit, produced locally at least. (The exceptions are Aris Koutroulis, whose constructions of raw canvas held together with pigment always seemed a little contrived, and Ellen Phelan, whose brief encounter with splashy large-scale, shaped canvases in the mid-1980s is still the best work she's ever done to my eye -- lucky the Kresge Foundation, which owns some.) There's a direct line from Adley to the heroic age of postwar American abstraction, aesthetically and biographically. A student of Clyfford Still's, Adley needs about 180 square feet of painting field to really get cooking and happily this show includes a couple of paintings on that scale. In particular is Red Passage (2007), an arc of pigment over a field of rose-stained canvas that starts as an inky blot on the left and skitters across the picture plane, transmuting into shades of red along the way.

The show is filled out with several series of smaller canvases and works on paper where the artist explores gestural motifs that isolate elements, which in earlier work used to get submerged in encrustations of paint applied with trowels, squeegees, push brooms, rakes, and whatever else the artist had lying around the studio that could be pressed into service as a mark-making implement. As a counterpoint, the BBAC show includes a painting from 1973 where the picture plane is filled with alternating vertical bands of white and blue upon which a pattern reminiscent of musical notation unfurls.
James Adley, 2010.

It was only in laying out the show at the BBAC that it hit me why that older painting seemed so familiar. The chair of the art department at MSU had it in his office when I went there as a junior, beret in hand, to beg for money after I lost my entire term's materials budget in a drug deal gone sour. As it turns out, I ended up getting double the allotment I had stupidly lost, though I can't say I recommend it as a way to finance your art.

Adley has been in failing health over the last couple of years and it's likely that this may be the last new work we see from him. But like a lot of late work by great artists (I'm thinking in particular of Beethhoven's String Quartets, William S. Burroughs's triology Cities of the Red Night, Place of the Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, and Picasso's final paintings), Adley's new work isn't a summation or recapitulation but the record of another step in an ongoing journey to open new doors of perception, tempered perhaps with the knowledge that time is running out.

"James Adley at 80: Recent Paintings, Works on Paper" opens at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center Friday, February 18, from 6 - 8 pm. The exhibition runs until March 18. Call 248 644 0866 for information.