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.