Monday, December 3, 2012

Nancy Mitchnick, Painting Future Past

Nancy Mitchnick, That is One Mean Mother Fucking Shark, 2012, oil on canvas, 36" x 53.5" (All images courtesy of the artist).
A few years ago, Detroit-born painter Nancy Mitchnick began working on a series of canvases inspired by her hometown. Living at the time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mitchnick had left the Motor City long ago, relocating to New York in mid-1970s, then moving to California to teach at CalArts in the late 1980s, and ending up at Harvard, where she held the position of Arnheim Lecturer on the Visual Arts for more than a decade.  "The Detroit Project," as she called this series of paintings, prompted her to move back to the Motor City earlier this year to live and work.

One of the original members of the legendary Cass Corridor Group, Mitchnick settled in another of the region's noted bohemias, Hamtramck, a small ethnic enclave virtually surrounded by Detroit, which had been incorporated as a separate city in 1922 essentially as a tax haven for the Dodge Brothers Company, which for decades operated their main assembly plant nearby. The artist took a studio in the Russell Industrial Center, a mammoth seven-building complex designed by architect Albert Kahn in 1915 for the Murray Body Company, a supplier of stamped metal automotive components for manufacturers who lacked large-scale fabrication facilities, including Dodge, Hudson, Hupmobile, and Studebaker, and now home to artists studios and other creative enterprises.

Once Mitchnick arrived in the city and set up shop, however, she found that she was unable to develop the "Detroit Project" as the ideas simply wouldn't come. Instead, she began working on a series of "covers," i.e., works that reinterpret famous masterpieces that have influenced her development as artist and to which she returns in times when her creative batteries need recharging. Some 20 of these paintings were on view at the historic Scarab Club in Detroit this past fall in an exhibition titled "Time Travel."

In discussing the series, Mitchnick has confessed to not really knowing what to make of it. But it just so happens that at the time I was reading Alfred Gell's Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Clarendon: 1998), which offered some insight. A Reader in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Gell died of cancer in 1997 at age 51, and he only published three books in his lifetime. Considered one of the most gifted anthropologists of his generation, Gell completed the full draft of Art and Agency shortly before his untimely death. He sought in this posthumous work to posit a theory of art that was, as the postmodernists have it, de-centered, that is, specifically extricated from Western aesthetic ideology. And I have to admit that for me it was a game changer.

Instead of looking at art (a problematic word in this context) as a form of expression, Gell asserts it as a form of doing, a nexus of complex intentionalities, not always conscious, that mediates social agency (in social science, the capacity to act). Not unlike Bruno Latour's concept of the actant in actor-network theory, agency in Gell's view may be situated in any number of places, not just the artist's intention. For example, the demands of religious ritual exert agency over the creator of sacred objects. More prosaically, a patron exerts agency over a portraitist, who is bound to execute a likeness in fulfilling a commission. Even the contemporary artist is in a very real sense subject to the agency of an artworld he or she must negotiate socially, economically, intellectually, and aesthetically. Working off of the thought of American pragmatist philosopher and coiner of the term "semiotics" Charles Sanders Peirce, Gell understands art as constituting the "abduction of agency," the trace by which agency can be inferred similarly to the way we infer fire by the presence of smoke.

The art nexus has four elementary nodes:
  • First, is the index, which is the material thing that motivates abductive inferences, interpretation, and so on.
  • Second, is the artist (or other originator) responsible for the existence and characteristics of the index.
  • Third, is the recipient, those upon whom agency is exerted by the index or who exerts agency via the index.
  • Fourth, is the prototype, which is what is represented in the index and which may or may not entail resemblance.
It is this fourth node that is key to understanding what's going on in the "Time Travel" series and what interested me in the paintings Mitchnick executed as part of it.

In relation to the prototype, the artist (in this case Mitchnick) is actually the recipient of agency (in the form of the impetus of the sources she reworks), and the index (each individual painting) is its material embodiment. Every artist, of the trained variety at least, studies the canon of previous creations (AKA art historical masterworks) and identifies those that inspire and/or influence him or her. The various paintings in "Time Travel" are indexes of prototypes Mitchnick encountered either in person or through printed sources. That Is One Mean Mother Fucking Shark, 2012, is based on John Singelton Copley's 1778 oil painting Watson and the Shark (itself likely influenced among other sources by Peter Paul Rubens's Jonah Thrown into the Sea, 1618), a version of which is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art. It is a painting Mitchnick has viewed countless times going back to her childhood.
Detail: Las Meninas, for Olivia, 2011-2012, oil on canvas, 24" x 16".
The prototype also factors significantly, according to Gell, in understanding the ebbs and flows of an artist's oeuvre. Contrary to the teleological view of conventional art history, artists move back and forth in their development, taking some steps forward and some steps back, leaving behind indexes of the process that are dispersed in space and time. Those works that serve as prototypes for later works are identified by Gell as indexing "pretension," which can be "weak" in the case of precursors or "strong" in the case of preparatory studies and sketches. Those that refer to previous prototypes index "retention," which also can be "weak" in the case of recapitulations or "strong" in the case of copies. (The DIA's version of Watson and the Shark, the third version Copley did of the subject, fits in between the two poles of retention in that it isn't an exact copy of earlier iterations but neither is it a recapitulation in the same way as, say, Paul Cezanne's later views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a prototype Mitchnick explores in The Cezanne Quartet, 2012.)

Memory and Ruin, 2012, oil on canvas, 59" x 99".
In discussing the relationship of artwork to artist, Gell takes a phenomenological approach. From this perspective, the artwork is an index of the artist's subjective mental processes that both registers what has gone before and announces what is yet to come. The major piece in the "Time Travel" exhibit in this regard is Memory and Ruin, 2012, not just because it happens to be the largest in scale but because it recapitulates the moment in Mitchnick's experience that informs the entire series, what led up to it, and where it might go. Based on an example of the Illusionistic, or Architectural, Style of Roman wall painting reproduced in the book Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House (Oxford: 2005), it reproduces two of the works from the "Detroit Project" on either end. It also features portraits of the artist as a child on the left and her mother in her prime on the right, posed as caryatids in the manner of Classical art holding up the Detroit images.

Memory and Ruin adds original details to the prototype, which none of the other paintings in the series does. (The typical conceit of the other works is to focus on a particular detail of the prototype and riff off that but not to really add anything new to it.) The work indexes the future past of the stalled series begun in anticipation of ending a self-imposed exile, precursors to the work that will be done when the "Detroit Project" is taken up again (which as of this writing the artist has begun to do). It also indexes the artist's personal history along with her creative one. All of them together constitute what phenomenologists term a "sedimentation," the physical record of experience evidenced through layers of space and time. Each of the sedimentary strata also indexes the various sorts of prototypes exerting agency over the artist's production. (As an aside, all artworks are essentially existential ruins, vestiges of the artist's agency in the moment of creation, which at the instant the brush touches the canvas begins to fade into memory.)

While "Time Travel" is in some respects a detour from the artist's trajectory, a retention that melds weak and strong prototypes in anticipation of the next chapter in the development of an oeuvre, it offers insight not only into Mitchnick's specific practice but artmaking in general. It is a most interesting case to consider, and it will be even more interesting to see what comes next.
Detail of the artist's mother from Memory and Ruin.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Civil Society

I Heart ART Mesh Hats
Image: I Heart ART Mesh Hats by dawnfx

University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Kelly LeRoux (who got her PhD at Wayne State University here in the D) and co-author Anna Bernadska recently published a study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, that shows a positive correlation between participation in the arts and engagement with civil society. They analyzed more than 2700 respondents to the 2002 General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and generally considered one of the primary sources of data on American social trends. Their analysis found that people who have direct or indirect involvement with the arts are more likely to also have direct participation in three dimensions of civil society: engagement in civic activities, social tolerance, and other-regarding (i.e., altruistic) behavior. These results hold true even when factoring in demographic variables for age, race, and education.

Most studies on the social impact of the arts address economics and related externalities such as improved educational outcomes and general community well being. (See, for example, the work of Ann Markusen of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota summarized in my blog post here.) The study by LeRoux and Bernadska is different in that it empiricially investigates ties between the arts and citizenship. Instead of seeking a market rationale for arts patronage, the authors stress the benefits for civic virtue. The study is also noteworthy because rather than looking at the direct impact of community and other arts projects, such as mural painting, theatrical productions, and the like, it takes an audience-studies approach more typically associated with media and communications analysis.

It's important to note that the authors demonstrate correlation not causation. In statistics, correlation establishes the dependence of certain variables on one another, which is useful in predictive modeling. But the relationship, either positive (the more of one variable, the more of the other) or negative (the more of one variable, the less of the other), doesn't necessarily mean that the one is specifically the cause of the other. There may be other factors at work (called intervening variables) not measured in the analysis. While that may be the case, the study is still useful in suggesting additional ways in which the arts benefit society.

Not the least of these is the development of the critical function, which is fundamental to the advancement of discourse and building consensus on matters of common concern within the public sphere, which civil society theorists see as key to a viable, participatory democracy. Indeed, German social scientist and political philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his important study, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT: 1991 [1962]), cites the development of the field of literary criticism and aesthetics over the roughly 150-year period in Europe starting in the late 17th century as laying the groundwork for citizens to think independently and thus reflect upon their role in society and ultimately act as political agents. More recently, French philospher Jacques Ranciere in books such as The Future of the Image (Verso: 2009), Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (Continuum: 2010), and The Emancipated Spectator (Verso: 2011), has established the link between aesthetic practice and political action.

This also explains why anti-democratic forces in American society have worked so hard, starting with the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s, to eliminate public funding for the arts. It turns out, that Big Bird really is potentially subversive.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Occupy the White House

Lego® White House (ages 12+ $49.95, click here to buy).
A couple of days after the November 6 election, my New School pal Sam Binkley posted this comment on his Facebook page:
As I see it, the occupy movement deserves a lot of credit. Nobody was talking about economic inequality before fall '11, but after all the media coverage of the various occupy groups, that theme became a fixture of the liberal and democratic narrative right up to the election, and remained a staple of Obama and other campaigns. Did I hallucinate that or did it happen?
He didn't elaborate on this sentiment, which he could have easily done from his perspective as a cultural sociologist, and perhaps he did in another context and I just didn't know about it. But I believe he's right. So I'd like to take a detour from my normal blogging beat to explain.

New Social Movement theory as laid out by Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato in their authoritative text Civil Society and Political Theory (MIT: 1994) can be seen to have four distinct phases of political action, which I call the four "I's." (Cohen and Arato use slightly different language but I feel that the alliteration has value as a mnemonic device.)

The first is identity, coming out as it were to declare one's right to openly exist in the public sphere. The individuals who physically showed up in the place originally known as Liberty Plaza Park in Lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011, in the opening episode of the Occupy movement, to protest growing social and economic inequality in the United States, embraced such a political identity. That public intellectuals such as Naomi Klein and Slavoj Zizek and celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, and Deepak Chopra, among others, put in appearances with the Occupy crowd further raised the profile.

The identity position of Occupy soon spread to other parts of the country and then around the world, leading to the second phase, namely, inclusion. In this phase, identity (in social theory lingo, subjectivity) establishes a collective aspect. More and more individuals recognize the identity/subjectivity as applicable to themselves and embrace it. This was neatly summed up by the slogan, "We are the 99 percent," which had numerous iterations in various media, from handmade banners and buttons to formal organizational designations.

The critical mass of inclusive identity led to the third phase, influence. While the mainstream media ignored the phenomenon in the early days, the Occupy movement soon became too large to ignore. The meme of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent changed the national conversation just as Binkley asserts. In social movement theory, the ability to redirect public discourse toward your point of view is called "reframing," and it's a primary objective of consciousness-raising efforts of many varieties.

The final phase, institutionalization, is the most difficult to achieve. Cohen and Arato refer to it as "the politics of reform" in which the state accommodates the mandate of the movement within the official political process. Civil rights legislation is one of the more readily identifiable examples. The 2012 presidential election, I would argue in concurrence with Binkely, was another. Certainly in recent memory there has been no clearer icon of the 1 percent than Mitt Romney, a self-satisfied scion of the ruling class, apparent prep school bully and vulture capitalist, who made a quarter of billion dollars pillaging takeover targets of any value and then stashing who knows how much of it in offshore accounts to avoid taxes. He basically admitted as much himself with his infamous "47 percent" comment even if he low-balled the number by a tad under half.

But before we get too celebratory about all of this, I ask you to also consider the following. In their important study, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (Pantheon: 1977), Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward observe that the institutionalization of social movement activism within the state apparatus and other establishment structures tends to effectively put people back in their place. The biggest gains tend to come in periods of disruption--the industrial labor movement in the 1930s is one example they give--only to be co-opted in their assimilation into the so-called mainstream, as in the subsequent evolution of the American union movement as a partner of management in the years since.

I have been convinced pretty much from the beginning that the first election of Barack Obama served a similar function in 2008, providing a cathartic release for the widespread disenchantment being felt among so many people with the dismantling of the American Dream under the Bush Administration. (This even though I admit to welling up with emotion when on election night as I watched the scenes being broadcast from Grant Park on TV as the President-Elect pronounced that "this [was my] victory.") And I further think that the 2008 election may very well have delayed the emergence of the Occupy movement by three years.

Whether the second Obama Administration turns out to be another Thermidorian Reaction remains to be seen. Although I did hear a rumor that the other day someone on K Street saw Grover Norquist blink. One can only hope.
Image: Vince Carducci

Addendum (November 30, 2012, 3:30pm): Paul Krugman's Op Ed piece in the Friday November 30, New York Times lends further support to the thesis.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Arcadian Visions of Ton Matton

One of my New School dissertation committee members, Ken Wark, brought this Vimeo piece to my attention and I found it relevant to share. Ton Matton is a Dutch architect and environmental designer who currently resides in the village of Wendorf in northeast Germany near the Baltic Sea. Matton's residence/studio is an abandoned schoolhouse, which he rehabilitated and named "Werkstatt Wendorf" (Workshop Wendorf). For the last decade, it's where he's conducted experiments in what he terms "autarkic" (self-sufficient) design.

One of his projects is Bosbus (2004), a mobile nature preserve Matton constructed from an old municipal bus for the Rotterdam Architectural Biennale. Another is Bird Suburb (no date), an installation of dozens of identical birdhouses set at regular spatial intervals around his rural home that birds have refused to occupy, evidence in Matton's view of the inhospitable, indeed unnatural, quality of the cookie-cutter approach to suburban subdivision development.
Ton Matton, Bosbus, 2004, exterior view (above); interior view (below).
Matton's work resonates with some of what's being done in Detroit, which I have identified as the "Postindustrial Arcadia." A big difference, though, is that Matton left the city in an attempt to regain the state of nature whereas in Detroit the city essentially left us. Nature, which of course has been there all there, just made itself more visible in the process.

There's another difference that seems important to me. As noted above, Matton's work is experimental, proposing ideas to change ways of thinking, which is all well and good. But they seem to be bracketed in way that the cultural production in Detroit I'm talking about isn't. The Detroit projects (the Heidelberg Project, The Power House, Ride-It-Sculpture Park, DFlux, etc.) are embedded in their local environments, making them more concrete as it were. In fact, they are each in their way transformative. It's the difference between utopian thinking of the conventional variety and the "real utopia" I've written about

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ann Markusen on Creative Placemaking

Prof. Ann Markusen, 'Creative Placemaking: Artists, Designers, and Arts Organizations as Shapers of Urban Space and Vitality' from GSA on Vimeo.

Ann Markusen, economist, professor, and director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota, is probably the main researcher of the idea of the "creative placemaking." (Click here to download a PDF of her paper on the subject prepared for the National Endowment for the Arts.) Markusen is more astute than Richard Florida in my opinion because she has really done the research in-depth as opposed to just gesturing toward it. I still have some issues with the idea as it relates to the whole gentrification thing, but it's worth checking out if only to understand the way things are being framed by high-level institutions such as ArtPlace. This lecture was presented a couple of years ago at the Glasgow School of Art, which is where 2009 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow Cedric Tai is currently doing his MFA.

Markusen's first foray into the impact of the creative industries on local economies is The Artistic Dividend (2003), written with David King and which uses data from the US Census to uncover the contribution artists make to regional development (download PDF). The perspective takes artists as entrepreneurs, essentially acting like small businesses not only selling their own wares but generating value-added economic activity through their consumption of services such as bookkeeping and computers, materials, and other things they need to do their work. The study focuses primarily on the Twin Cities area where Markusen herself lives and teaches.

Her next significant study, Crossover: How Artists Build Careers Across Commercial, Nonprofit, and Community Work (2006; PDF), was conducted for a partnership of private foundations, two in California and one in New York, and it looked at the socioeconomic networks artists negotiate in managing their careers, using empirical research gathered in LA and San Francisco. What she and her colleagues Sam Gillmore, Amanda Johnson, Titus Levi, and Andrea Martinez found is that artists (taken broadly to encompass visual artists, musicians, writers, performers, etc.) cross economic-sector boundaries regularly not only as part of putting together their livings but because of their desire to engage different communities. As sociologist Howard S. Becker noted in his 1982 study of the same title, there are many different art worlds (and even worlds outside of art) and artists often move between several without regard to aesthetic hierarchies.

Another study worth taking note of is Artists' Centers: Evolution and Impact on Careers, Neighborhoods, and Economies (2006; PDF), which is a predecessor of Markusen's work on creative placemaking. Where The Artistic Dividend studied individuals (in social science lingo "agents") and Crossover studied their interactions, Artists' Centers looks at the function of institutions (the structural yang of agency's yin) in fostering an environment in which the arts, and along with them development, can flourish. A group of researchers under the direction of Markusen and former student Amanda Johnson studied organizations and spaces across several artistic disciplines in smaller cities in Minnesota, British Columbia, and elsewhere to understand how they evolve and prosper, or fail as the case may be.

There are those who object, and with good reason, to Markusen's line of argument for essentially buying into the market logic that the traditional avant-garde was founded to reject. (She is an economist after all and so it makes sense that she sees things through that lens.) Studies of the dark side of the creative economy include Sharon Zukin's 1982 Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change and Richard Lloyd's Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City. In these analyses, the rewards of creative placemaking are seen in the end to accrue to forces beyond the control of either artists or the local communities they intended to engage. Negotiating between Scylla and Charybdis is essentially the dilemma of cultural producers currently at work in postindustrial environments such as Detroit.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Riding the wave of vibrancy in Banglatown

Ride It Sculpture Park, Tony Miorana from Power House Productions on Vimeo.

In the current issue of The Baffler, journalist Thomas Frank takes on the notion of "vibrancy," a term which has recently come to underpin cultural policy at the national level. As Frank reports, vibrancy is an attribute of so-called creative placemaking, the stimulating effect that culture ostensibly brings to the local environment, a kind of artsy aura that is taken to result in economic revitalization in the long run. The concept of vibrancy is being promoted in particular these days by ArtPlace, a collaboration of the National Endowment of the Arts, 10 major foundations, including the locally based Kresge Foundation, and six of the nation's largest banks. In Frank's analysis, vibrancy is shown to be the latest term of art, as it were, that substitutes an ephemeral quality of hipness for the erstwhile solidity of a once activist welfare state. It's the successor paradigm to the creative economy and other gambits of gentrification, shifting responsibility for the public domain onto private individuals, in this case artists and other creative types.

Much of Frank's critique is well taken. And yet, one wonders what other recourse there might be at this juncture? What, to coin a phrase, is to be done? In this age of compulsory diminished expectations, working with what's at hand, bricolage as an aesthetic approach and a way of life, seems like a viable solution if only by default. Hell, even The Baffler has a Kickstarter campaign underway.
Ride It Sculpture Park Site Plan, including Skate House, Banglatown, Detroit, 2011 (All images courtesy of Power House Productions unless otherwise noted.)
One acknowledged agent of vibrancy here in the Motor City is Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization created by 2011 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellows Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert of Design 99. Power House Productions recently received a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace to convert three vacant houses in their neighborhood into sites for art and community engagement. The piece of the overall project that seems to have the most immediate effect is Skate House, which is part of the Ride It Sculpture Park. When completed, Skate House will feature an indoor skateboarding track and residence for visiting skateboarders and artists.

The Ride It Sculpture Park is situated on four adjacent vacant commercial lots at the terminus of the Davison Freeway, the nation's first below-grade limited access urban highway, opened in 1942 to service nearby defense manufacturers during WWII when Detroit was known as the "Arsenal of Democracy." The project is a collaboration with skateboard enthusiasts and artists in the area as well as nationally. Design 99 and artist Jon Brumit are the principal park design team and video artists. Other collaborators include skateboard accessories providers Emerica and Independent Truck Company, media outlets Thrasher, Slap, and Juxtapoz, and a crew of volunteers. A fundraiser auction of artist's skateboard decks, including one designed by international artist Matthew Barney, netted more than $25,000 for the project. A Crowdrise campaign exceeded its goal.
Award-winning illustrator Leo Espinosa was one of the artists who contributed to the Good Wood Skateboard Art Exhibition and Auction to benefit the Ride It Sculpture Park. (Image courtesy of the artist and Good Wood Skateboard Art Exhibition.)
The neighborhood in which the park is located has come to be known as Banglatown, for its large population of Bangladeshi Muslims, who began arriving in the area about 30 years ago, mainly from Queens, New York, in search of better quality of life. On the face of it, it's not an area one would consider an obvious candidate for that much-vaunted vibrancy. While the neighborhood isn't nearly as abandoned as many in the city which have literally reverted to open field (see the Detroit Works Project Framework Zones Map), Banglatown's housing stock doesn't exactly pass muster as the stuff from which gentrification is typically made. Much of it dates from before the Great Depression when Detroit's booming auto industry brought masses of immigrants into the city who took up residence in quickly built, modest housing constructed of relatively inexpensive materials. Besides being flimsy, it isn't especially distinctive in terms of design. Indeed, Banglatown isn't nearly as picturesque as Bushwick.
"Hoodcat" at work clearing and landscaping the Ride It Sculpture Park site, 2012
But it's what's there and it's cheap. Brumit and his partner the artist Sarah Wagner (and their son Otto) are the owners of the New York Times celebrated $100 house. Other artists have acquired properties in the neighborhood at auction for the low four figures and below. The houses are generally in pretty bad shape. In fact, a couple of them acquired by Design 99 were in such a state as to be beyond repair and instead became material for site-specific art installations. To be sure, even completely discounting the considerable sweat equity that has gone into rebuilding the structures and factoring in only materials, the restoration efforts will likely never pay out in terms of the resulting market value.

Although not officially completed, the first phase of Ride It Sculpture Park is substantially in place and functional. The concrete construction features several ramparts, quarter and half pipes, spines, and banks. There's a built-in barbeque pit off to one side. The facility is already being used by skateboarders and BMX riders, many of whom have come from far beyond the neighborhood, having heard of the park through skateboarding community social networking on Facebook and Twitter. The national organization Boards for Bros has given away skateboards to kids who couldn't afford to buy their own, and more seasoned riders have helped neophytes get on board so to speak.
"Big Red" rampart feature under construction.
Board meets barbeque at Ride It Sculpture Park.
How long projects like this will continue to be possible is an open question. Recently a small group of investors in nearby Macomb County, a primarily working class suburban region and Tea Party stronghold northeast of the city, purchased every available tax-foreclosed property (a total of 645 parcels, including 403 residential) for a lump sum of $4.7 million. The inventory in Detroit exceeds that by many multiples. (By one estimate the total hit for tax-foreclosed properties in Detroit would come to more than a quarter of a billion dollars.) But news outlets such as NPR have reported stories of foreign investors from places like London and Dubai buying up large lots of Detroit real estate in speculation.

At street level, whether Ride It Sculpture Park constitutes vibrancy or not doesn't seem particularly important, much less whether it should trouble us if it does. For now, the collaborators of the project have mended a hole in the social fabric of their local community, and skateboarders in Banglatown are busy perfecting their flips and grinds.
Riding into the sunset.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Companion MOCAD Exhibitions Debate the Future

Installation view of  "Vertical Urban Factory," 2012, showing the Ford Model T assembly line in 1913. (All photos by Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.)
While most art institutions have wound down for the summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has been busy cranking things up. The companion exhibitions now on view, "Vertical Urban Factory" and "Post-Industrial Complex," are arguably the most timely and thought-provoking in recent memory. Running through it all is the simple yet profound question: "Who owns the future?" This question not only applies to Detroit, although arguably this is the place where its implications are most starkly presented, but to the United States and indeed to the rest of the world. The exhibitions capture a dialectic of opposing forces at work in the city as it looks to reboot for the twenty-first century.

One force is working from the top down and it's what might be termed the "Techno Utopia." The other works from the bottom up and can be called the "Postindustrial Arcadia." The former seeks to catch the wave of postmodern capitalism; the latter exists if not in outright opposition then at least in resistance to it. One reinforces the typical gentrification model, the use of the so-called creative economy to drive speculation and investment, basically the purview of what post-OWS is known as the 1 percent. The other operates within the cracks of the capitalist system to open up new ways of thinking and living for rest of us. Tied together, the shows explore the potential for realizing what sociologist Erik Olin Wright terms "the real utopia."

The summer exhibition ("Vertical Urban Factory" and "Post Industrial Complex" are a curatorial yin and yang and thus need to be discussed as a single case study) pick up a narrative that began five years ago with the "Shrinking Cities" project, exhibited at MOCAD in conjunction with Cranbrook Art Museum. In that exhibition and its surrounding research, Detroit was posited as an extreme example of the abandonment of the urban environment in the wake of the demise of the modern mass industrial system AKA Fordism. 

"Shrinking Cities" is not the first effort at documenting this phenomenon. In the late 1990s, a group of architects, urban planners, and theorists converged on the city to study the psychogeography of its dissolution and produce the book Stalking Detroit, published in 2001, which still stands as required reading. Before that, Camillo Jose Vergara published his documentary photographic essays New American Ghetto, 1995, and American Ruins, 1999. In 1989, a team of Cranbrook architecture students, James Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, Terrence Van Elslander, Jean-Claude Azar, and Michael Williams, working under the direction of then architect-in-residence Dan Hoffman, produced 9119 St. Cyril Street that disassembled an abandoned bungalow on the city's east side and reinstalled it in piles in the Willis Gallery. They also guest edited a 1991 issue of New Observations magazine under the title "Editing Detroit."

Taken together, this first move is what one might call the deconstructionist phase of conceptualizing the evolution (or devolution as the case may be) of Detroit. It examined patterns of demassification, the rise of spectacle, and other manifestations amenable to postmodern critique. Its recent fetishization is the genre known as "ruin porn." (Kind of a stupid term actually, but if looked at through the lens of the feminist media theory concept of scopophilia, it's serviceable enough.)

The second chapter was the exhibition two years ago co-curated by then MOCAD Director and Chief Curator Luis Croquer titled "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism," inspired by the work of visionary French architect Yona Friedman. Taking its cue from Friedman's 1958 manifesto, Mobile Architecture, a user-centric model of the built environment adaptable to the ever-changing needs of what would come to be known as postmodern society, an architecture that would tread lightly on the earth, going with the flows of an emerging global cultural economy, "Spatial Cities" was a thought experiment in different ways of approaching the built environment in Detroit and elsewhere in the shadow of the regime of post-Fordism. It was an iteration of aesthetic community, as understood in the work of Jacques Ranciere,  a conscious collective of ideas that acknowledges what is coupled with a vision of what could be.

The current MOCAD offering is a new phase, one that really gets down to brass tacks.

"Vertical Urban Factory," installation view.
Techno Utopia: Vertical Urban Factory
"Vertical Urban Factory" is an expansive investigation into the structure, ideology, and social effects of the modern capitalist political economy as seen through the evolution of the production system, which has increasingly come to dominate all aspects of everyday life. A team of designers and fabricators worked under the direction of curator and critic Nina Rappaport and graphic designer Sarah Gephart of MGMT. Design. The arrangement of wall texts, architectural models, and other objects is a fine example of museum installation as an art form and in particular the power of graphic design to visually organize and present complex information in a readily comprehensive way.

Entry into the exhibition starts with a display panel that explains the project's underlying strategy of focusing on the design, structure, and economics of multistory factories and their impact on the urban environment. As an expression of the modernist dictum form follows function, factories in the modern mass manufacturing system were initially conceived on one of two prototypes, integrated and layered. Integrated factories trace the progression of assembly work from start to finish either following gravity, working from the top floors down, or in defiance of it, working from the bottom floors up. Famous examples of the former include Henry Ford's Model T factory built in 1910 in Highland Park and of the latter the Fiat factory built in 1928 in Turin. Layered factories organize primarily batch work on each floor, the lofts of New York City and other urban areas being examples. Later in the century, work came to be organized horizontally in the sprawling production facilities of the suburban and exurban areas that contributed to the abandonment of inner cities such as Detroit.

On the wall across the way is a detailed timeline on the history of labor that comes right out of chapter 10 of Karl Marx's Capital, which discusses the working day. The wall panels trace the struggles between labor and management over the course of modern capitalism with notes on technical innovations and other landmark events inserted along the way. An introductory graphic compares the wages and hours of workers at the height of the Industrial Revolution in mid-nineteenth century England, the introduction of the high wage/high output model of Fordism in the early twentieth century, and Chinese workers today. Expressed in today's dollars, an English textile worker in 1842 made $81 a week whereas a Ford employee in 1914 effectively made $688 a week. (By contrast the current UAW-GM contract starts workers out at $600 for a 40-hour week.) Chinese workers today make about $209 a week. They also put in many more weekly work hours than their American counterparts. These statistics further give evidence for another chapter in Capital, namely chapter 16 on absolute and relative surplus value.

Working off David Ricardo's labor theory of value, which argues that the value of a good is proportionally related to the labor needed to produce or obtain it, Marx devised the concept of surplus value upon which capitalist exploitation of workers is based. Simplistically, workers in the capitalist system are compelled to contribute more of their labor power to producing commodities than is actually required due to the monopolization of the means of production by owners. Marx further distinguishes between absolute and relative surplus value, i.e., that which results from the expenditure of pure labor power and that which is leveraged by technological innovation. One of the great inventions of modernity in that regard is the moving assembly line, which as Terry Smith outlines in his brilliant analysis of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry mural cycle, 1932-33, is a gigantic infernal machine for harvesting surplus labor power, so much so that Ford was able to double his workers wages, substantially reduce the price of his product, and still become one of the richest men of the Industrial Age.

The rub, however, is that relative surplus value is unsustainable over the long run and exploitation must revert to absolute surplus value to ensure continued capital accumulation. Mainstream economists (read: capitalist apologists) generally discredit the Marxist labor theory of value, and yet the evidence of the wage and work week graphs in "Vertical Urban Factory" suggests that a major contribution to corporate profits in recent decades has come from outsourcing production to substantially cheaper labor pools in China and other parts of the world.
"Vertical Urban Factory," installation view showing "Future Factory" display.
The rest of the exhibition comprises a visual ethnography of historical and current production zones in the United States, Europe, and emerging economies primarily in East Asia. Ultimately, the project embraces the Techno Utopia, optimistically arguing that architects, engineers, and urban designers can help to "integrate industry with everyday life, creating self-sufficient and sustainable cities." This will be accomplished primarily through creative economy solutions that are greener, more flexible, convergent, and connected. Unfortunately, broad application of many of these ideas, however admirable, depends on  capital investment for which there is little incentive in the existing environment of so-called strategic dynamism.

What is to be done in the meantime is where "Post Industrial Complex" comes in.

Postindustrial Arcadia: Post Industrial Complex
Assembled by MOCAD Curator of Public Engagement Jon Brumit and Curator of Education Katie McGowan, "Post Industrial Complex," according to the curators, surveys "human-scale production at the heart of Detroit." Many of the projects are examples of what the curators term "neo-cottage industries" that constitute a counterpoint to the story of large-scale production being told in "Vertical Urban Factory." The selection of inventors, artisans, hobbyists, and other creative types is intended to resist metanarratives, though, of course, as a critical perspective, that's a kind of metanarrative in and of itself. What holds the group together is a reliance on individual initiative in the face of an apparent lack of resources and institutional support.
Aisling Arrington and Jill Bersche, Human Powered Pothole Fixer-Upper, 2012.
Among the quintessential projects is the Human Powered Pothole Fixer-Upper, 2012, a couple of bicycles by Aisling Arrington and Jill Bersche that have been outfitted with makeshift devices for fixing potholes -- which proliferate on the poorly maintained streets of Detroit -- on the fly. (Full disclosure: Arrington and Bersche are students at College for Creative Studies where I am Dean of Undergraduate Studies.) In a city where public services are seriously dysfunctional on a good day, it's a DIY solution to provide for the common good literally at street level. The apparatuses are simple machines, bent chrome-plated bars fashioned to hold paint cans that mix concrete as riders pedal, ready for application as needed.
Anthony Reale, Strait Power, 2011.
Of ostensibly broader application is CCS adjunct faculty Anthony Reale's Strait Power, 2011, a marine hydroelectric generator turbine whose design is based on the anatomy of the basking shark, which spends 18 hours a day with its mouth open sifting for food and using the flow of water through its body to aid in swimming. Tests of the prototype conducted at University of Michigan's marine hydrodynamics lab suggest a 40 percent power improvement over a conventional single-blade turbine. One version of the Strait Power turbine is collapsible into backpack form for individual use to power small electric devices. A residential version supplies the power necessary to serve the power needs of a household. Tying multiple residential turbines together could be rapidly deployed for use in emergency situations.

Most of the remaining projects are of the amateur or handicraft variety. (Not a bad thing, BTW.) Fred Ellison creates mosiacs in the spare time he has from family obligations and a day job. Phenomenal Woman -- Evelyn Pickard makes jewelry with a meliorative spiritual intent in the face of tough times. Four Colors Productions uses the efficiencies of on-demand printing to create books that propagate the Ojibwe language, the region's native tongue. Angela Keil has been at work for a decade on a macrame sweater that has grown from a simple vest to a floor-length coat complete with hood. Perhaps the most well known of the group is Dozer, whose 1200 cc V-twin powered rolling steel sculptures have appeared in the Discovery Channel's "Great Biker Build Off." In all cases, personal labor is a form of expression and its result objects of cultural production as valid as any with institutional imprimatur.

The question of who owns the future is far from decided, but it's a vital question for us all to think about. The summer offering at MOCAD is a good place to start parsing out the terms of the debate.
"Post Industrial Complex," 2012, installation view.

"Vertical Urban Factory" and "Post Industrial Complex" are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave at Garfield, until July 29, 2012. Call 313-832-6622 or go to for information.

Note: Thanks to my dissertation committee at the New School for Social Research where the question "Who owns the future?" was first posed in relation to the field of contemporary cultural production in Detroit, and also my fall 2011 MFA Graduate Seminar II class at College for Creative Studies where the dialectic of the Techno Utopia and Postindustrial Arcadia was first worked out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Clinton Snider: Painter Among the Ruins of Modernity

Clinton Snider, The Fall, 2009, oil on board, 12 x 12". (All images courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)
The ruin has had a prominent place in Western culture going back to at least the Renaissance. As Brian Dillon notes in his Cabinet essay "Fragments from a History of the Ruin," in Quattrocento Italy the ruin functioned as an indexical sign of classical culture, a trace of the Elysium that was lost with the fall of Rome and left to lie in pieces during the long night of the Dark Ages, legible only to those who had access to the redoubts of preserved knowledge. Early Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome, for example (see these works by Ercole de Roberti, 1470, and Giovanni Bellini, 1480/90), often depict the Great Doctor of the Church reading amidst a landscape of ruins, fasting, meditating, and otherwise preparing himself for the task of translating the Bible into Latin.

For the Romantics, the ruin was a symbol of artistic creation, a marker of irrepressible natural genius pushing through the strictures of academic form. Western civilization's vestige of the  Noble Savage, the artist was seen to possess intuitive knowledge that wells up solely from within. Through what Raymond Williams terms "the green language" -- reveries on the natural in words, images, and sounds -- Romantics sought to reverse the disenchantment of the world that came at the hands of industrial modernity, and in Romantic paintings, such as those of Caspar David Friedrich, the ruin serves as a harbinger of what is to become of its edifices.

Sociologist Georg Simmel presents a similar idea in his 1911 essay "The Ruin":
According to its cosmic order, the hierarchy of nature and spirit usually shows nature as the substructure, so to speak, the raw material, or semi-finished product; the spirit, as the definitely formative and crowning element. The ruin reverses this order.
For Simmel, the ruin is a symbol of the dissolution of moral codes and social structures, of estrangement and alienation, key aspects of the modern urban condition under capitalism. It's a theme that carries through much of his writing, in the famous 1903 essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" and in what many consider to be his masterwork, The Philosophy of Money (1907). But for Simmel, the ruin does not simply signal decay; it is a kind of collaboration between humankind and nature: "Nature has transformed the work of art [Simmel is referring to architecture] into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art."

The ruin holds a different fascination for postmoderns. This attraction goes beyond the proclivity for pastiche and quotation, as Svetlana Boym notes. It is neither the evocation of a Renaissance sensibility of a lost cultural utopia or a Romantic fantasy of a timeless natural arcadia. According to Boym, what she terms "ruinophilia" reflects an awareness of "the vagaries of progressive vision as such." It constitutes a multivalent perspective on place and time and of what may have been, is now, or might yet be possible. A contemporary, if arguably rather unsophisticated, expression of ruinophilia is the photographic genre known as "ruin porn," of which Detroit is America's top model. A much more thoughtful expression is the art of Clinton Snider, whose work from the last three years is on view at Susanne Hilberry Gallery.
Clinton Snider, Ten Thousand Things, 2011, oil on board, 32 x 54".
For more than a decade, Snider, sometimes in collaboration with fellow artist Scott Hocking, has surveyed the wreckage of the failed modernist utopia known as Detroit. (Their installation piece Relics, first shown in 2001, consists of some 400 boxes stacked up along the wall to form grids that catalog all manner industrial and domestic castoffs. For my review of a 2005 exhibition of it, click here.) Snider often paints on recycled substrates, adding an allegorical element to the physical forms. Many of these constructions violate the conventional quadrilateral pictorial field, fragmenting the image and metonymically referencing the broken worlds being depicted. The 2005 Yellow House, for example, is painted on uneven lengths of reclaimed wood slats nailed together to form the picture plane. It depicts an abandoned bungalow surrounded by barren trees, weeds, and cracked pavement, the image conveying a narrative of ruination that the recycled wood registers.
Installation view of Clinton Snider's exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 2012.
With only a few exceptions, the new work accepts the framing constraints of the right angle, though it acknowledges material form in other, more subtle ways, not the least of which is the proliferation of small scale in the expansive white cube of Hilberry's ultra-modern exhibition space. Snider's subject continues to be living in the erstwhile Motor City in the aftermath of neoliberalism's scorched earth blitz, with the addition of new elements of fantasy.

A number of the works directly reference ruination. Black Top Forest, 2009, depicts tree stumps emerging from cracked asphalt, devastation doubled in the sense that a patch of pavement long abandoned is further devoided of the trees that subsequently grew there. Studebaker Razed, 2010, shows the rubble of the original manufacturing facility of the E-M-F Company, an automotive start-up from the turn of the twentieth century, when Detroit was the Silicon Valley of industrial production. The company was later absorbed by the Studebaker Corporation (which in turn was acquired by Packard) and the building later served as a parts warehouse for Chrysler and other companies before being completely destroyed by fire in 2005. The classical and Romantic ideas of the ruin are conflated in The Fall, 2009, which presents an example of modernist architecture in the process of being overtaken by nature.

Romantic studies have recently evolved an area known as ecocriticism to investigate the relationship primarily of literature to the environment. Inspired initially by the example of the nineteenth-century English Lake Poets and taking its cue from Raymond Williams, ecocriticism is also known as Green Romanticism. By contrast, Snider might be recognized as a proponent of the decidedly postmodern genre I term Brown Romanticism, which embraces the toxic world in all its ugly beauty.
Clinton Snider, Stalker, 2012, oil on board, 32 x 46".
A number of the new paintings look past the ruin to the life, however damaged, that persists amidst the devastation. Several of these show animals or solitary figures in otherwise desolate landscapes. One of the more hopeful, Heavenly Garden, 2008, shows urban farmers tending the land, making real a utopian vision of a postindustrial arcadia. (Detroit is one of the acknowledged centers of urban agriculture in the United States.)

A relatively new painting that points to an interesting, more allegorical direction is The Hay Wain, 2011. Here Snider riffs on the Romantic legacy he works both with and against. The Hay Wain refers of course to John Constable's 1821 masterwork of the same title that is a hallmark of Green Romanticism and a staple of the art history survey course. Constable's painting depicts a bucolic scene in the English countryside: in the middle of the canvas a couple of farmers guide a horse-drawn wagon across a stream next to which is a quaint peasant's cottage, a canopy of trees in the middle ground opens up onto a verdant pasture with cumulonimbus clouds dominating the sky in the background. Constable's pastoral was consciously created to stand in stark contrast to the gritty factories and their drudgery in the teeming dirty old towns of the Industrial Revolution, in full swing in England at the time.

Snider's rendition is of a subdivision development, the mass-produced knockoff version of the Romantic country idyll. Upon a bale of hay sits a fairy tale McMansion, with the clouds actually a plume of smoke emitting from the structure's chimney. It's a parable of the NIMBY utopia, an acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever getting back to a pristine nature at this stage of the game, what with climate change and all, and yet tinged with more than a little regret that things haven't worked out quite as planned in the great postwar escape into the country and into the past.

Ultimately, Snider's art is one of ambivalence. But it's an aesthetic perspective that commands attention in these times, as we are left to make our way through the ruins of modernity.
Clinton Snider, The Hay Wain, 2011, oil on canvas, 39 x 32".

The exhibition of Clinton Snider's new paintings runs through June 30, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, north of 8 Mile, in Ferndale. Visit or call 248-541-4700 for information.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Patti Smith: Photographer In Search of Lost Time

Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud's Utensils, Charleville, 2005, gelatin silver print. (Courtesy of the artist and Robert Miller Gallery, New York. Image credit: © Patti Smith.)
During the media preview for the show of her photographs that opened June 1 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, musician, author, and artist Patti Smith responded to a question about her most enduring memory of the 14 or so years she lived in suburban St. Clair Shores, just northeast of Detroit. She told of taking her two children, son Jackson and daughter Jesse, at the time 10 and 5 respectively, for a morning walk on a crisp autumn day. The sun was shining up ahead, the sky was clear, the birds chirping. The two children walked ahead holding hands, perfectly silhouetted by the light. She remembers thinking to herself, "This is a perfect moment and soon it will be gone." That statement is an apt description of the sentiment underlying the relationship of photography to human existence and it's a pretty good guidepost to some of the key ideas in "Patti Smith: Camera Solo."

The show is the first traveling museum exhibition of her photography and it comprises an intimate self-portrait of the artist and her influences and interests in a career that has spanned over 40 years, from her early days as a starving artist in New York City to her emergence as a significant figure in the punk music scene in the mid-1970s to her current position as a doyenne of indy culture. In addition to some 60 black-and-white images, the majority taken with a vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera, the exhibition contains a number of personal artifacts that often appear in the photographs.

The show is installed in groupings that articulate several themes. A large segment of the exhibition is devoted to artists and their creative surroundings. There's a photograph of the chair in which Roberto Bolano sat when he wrote and another of Herman Hesse's typewriter. There's an image of a jar of brushes from the studio of Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant. A large section is devoted to the poet Arthur Rimbaud, including several images shot at the museum dedicated to him in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France. One image that gives pause is a view of the River Ouse taken from the bridge under which Virginia Woolf's body was retrieved three weeks after she had drowned herself in March 1941. In a display case next to the photograph is a rounded rock Smith collected from the river similar to the ones Woolf had filled her pockets with in order to prevent herself from floating, thereby ensuring the success of her second attempt at suicide. There is of course a section devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, about whose deep relationship with Smith is chronicled in the best-selling awarding-winning memoir Just Kids. In the DIA installation, it constitutes the bridge between the external world of artistic influences and the internal realm of personal emotion, which takes form in pictures of Smith's family and their associations.

In his seminal, if under-appreciated 1927 essay on the subject, "Photography," Siegfried Kracauer compares the medium with what he terms the "memory-image," a comparison that resonates in considering this show. "Compared to photography," Kracauer writes, "memory's records are full of gaps." He further notes: "Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only so far as it has significance." Which is to say that a photograph captures and records what is present at the place and time that is within view of the camera's mechanical apparatus while the memory-image is highly selective based on the subjective import accorded the scene by the individual perceiver. The photograph fixes what consciousness sometimes lets slip away. So had a camera been present at the episode Smith recounted at the media conference at the DIA on the morning of Thursday, May 31, 2012, that perfect moment now gone would still be available for us to see.

And yet the photograph is only a specter of the reality it presents, a ghost image of the once seen, a trace of a fugitive moment that, however perfect, is gone in the instant it is captured, a condition that becomes ever more pronounced as the distance from the point of origin increases. An old photograph, Kracauer observes:
has been emptied of the life whose physical presence overlay its merely spatial configuration. In inverse proportion to photographs, memory-images enlarge themselves into monograms of remembered life. The photograph is the sediment that has settled from the monogram, and from year to year its semiotic value decreases. The truth content of the original is left behind in its history; the photograph captures only the residuum that history has discharged.
The chasm between the dead physical gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something that Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation, the actual things that inspired some of the images, in a sense come into play. At one point in her guided tour of the gallery, Smith pointed to objects around the room -- her father's cracked teacup, her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith's cherished 1964 Mosrite "Ventures"-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe -- and pronounced each "priceless" in its turn. And indeed each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

In writing the essay on photography, Kracrauer was influenced by Marcel Proust, who meditated on the vicissitudes of memory for a better part of his illness-plagued abbreviated life. Proust's notion of involuntary memory (that cathartic release triggered unintentionally by a chance encounter, the episode of the madeleine from In Search of Lost Time being the most famous example) at first blush stands in contrast to the apparent superficiality of the photographic image. But upon further consideration, the photograph, through the capturing of certain details, has the potential to open up what Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street terms the "optical unconscious," a more broadly available memory-image, a cultural, i.e., a collective one, that not only conveys meaning for the creator but for others as well. And for both Kracauer and Benjamin (who were contemporaries and friends) this provides photography entry into the realm of art.

One of the details in "Camera Solo" comes from thinking about the juxtaposition of artifacts in the gallery and the images Smith took of artifacts of artists and other figures she admires, many of whom were dead long before she became an artist herself. In particular are the images taken around the Musee Rimbaud, shrine of perhaps the most significant influence on Smith's creative development. Arguably, the most important image in this regard is that of Rimbaud's eating utensils, shot in 2005, more than a century after he last used them. These prosaic items, tools used to sustain life, are transformed in the photograph into sacred objects, fetishized in a way they likely never were when the poet sat down to use them in an evening's repast. The mediated condition of the fork and spoon (which are probably still set at table in a room in a small French town "over there") provides a phenomenological distance that allows them to enter into a cultural discourse that the physical artifacts, as personal mementos, cannot. The distinction is one of intentionality, which separates works of art from mere things.

There's a lot more that could be said about this exhibition. One line of discussion might investigate how the show is a essentially visual memoir of Smith's travels, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. Another might be how the Romantic notion of authenticity plays throughout. In that regard, the choice of Polaroid serves an essential function. Unlike traditional film, the latent image of the Polaroid develops in daylight before our very eyes. The elusive reality lost at the instant of tripping the shutter is miraculously brought back to life, albeit virtually, almost immediately authenticating the moment one has sought to preserve. (Digital does the same thing of course, but the subsequent image is easily susceptible to alteration in a way Polaroid prints are not.) The fact that the more recent images are being shot on expired film provides another, if unintentional, authentic effect. The dropped-out sections of deteriorated emulsion and other imperfections foreground the mediated aspect of the image, acknowledging the photographs as artifacts in their own right. (The actual prints in the show are images of the original images, printed on gelatin silver paper for archival purposes. But that's another discussion altogether.)

While that perfect moment in St. Clair Shores is gone about 20 years now, "Patti Smith: Camera Solo" is here and now at the DIA. Catch a glimpse of it before it slips away.

Patti Smith: Camera Solo" is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue in Detroit until September 2. Go to or call 313-833-7900 for information.