Saturday, April 21, 2012

Washed in Dirt: Steve Hughes's Stupor

Quite often when I read mainstream American social science, especially of the "quantoid" variety, I'm reminded as to how much I appreciate literature. While acknowledging the importance of objective data collection and analysis in distinguishing social facts from all-too-fallible everyday perceptions, I also can't help thinking that deeper, perhaps more significant meaning goes missing in the process. This occurred to me again recently as I perused the latest issue of the zine called Stupor, which for more than 15 years has surveyed the inner terrains of the shell-shocked victims of the class war known as neoliberalism.

Stupor was started in New Orleans in the spring of 1995 by writer and construction-business sole proprietor Steve Hughes and his friend Bill Rohde. It was originally supposed to be a vehicle for authors to publish experimental, confessional material. Not not longer after, Hughes relocated to Hamtramck, Michigan, a mostly Eastern European enclave almost completely surrounded by the city of Detroit and once home to the now-demolished Dodge Main Plant, a massive automotive manufacturing facility that competed with Henry Ford's River Rouge Complex as a paragon of vertically integrated mass production.

With the move, came the conversion of Stupor into Hughes's solo project. Instead of publishing stories written by others, he began writing all of the stories himself, using anecdotes he collected from people he met or conversations he overheard in working-class bars, construction worksites, and elsewhere he came upon people talking.

As is typical of the genre, the early issues of Stupor are crude cut-and-paste affairs, produced in small quantities using one-color quick-printers and extremely low budgets. (According to the "History" section of the zine's website, the first four issues of 1000 each were all published for the cost of two cases of beer.) With experience and the capabilities afforded by newer improvements in desktop publishing technology, the production values have been raised somewhat, but not to the level where one would call them slick. More recent issues have been done in collaboration with visual artists who interact with the author to create thematic mashups of image and text, form and content. The narrow, vertical format (the common letter-size sheet folded in half lengthwise) is intended to make the publication suitable for display on top of the toilet tank.

By the same token, the subject matter revels in all manners of abjection, chronicling the usually humiliating misadventures of those some might label a clueless pack of losers, but who I interpret as merely hapless unfortunates trying to cobble together some semblance of a life in an age of severely diminished expectations. (And there's arguably no more iconic place for these hardscrabble social bricoleurs to do it in than among the ruins of the modernist utopia that is latter-day Detroit. One of my favorite Stupor lines that perfectly encapsulates the situation: "How can I jump, when I'm already falling?") Rendered in the first person, each story is identified only by the gender and hometown of the putative narrator.

The newest issue carries the theme "Washed in Dirt" and it was done in collaboration with international art star Matthew Barney, who Hughes had met when the artist was in Detroit two years ago to work on a performance piece titled KHU, the second of a seven-part performance cycle inspired by Norman Mailer's novel Ancient Evenings. (For my review of the event published in the Brooklyn Rail, click here.) With its consistently typeset font, neat, unbroken text columns, and color images throughout, the package seems a little un-Stuporish to me, a little too tidy and professional, especially given the theme. But the stories don't disappoint, especially "Male, Clinton Township," an episode about a young man "spiraling into a pit of impurity" with his Bible-study partner. The centerpiece drawing by Barney, part of the KHU performance documentation, depicts the effluence of the City of Detroit sewage system at the intersection of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, spreading out at the foot of the ecologically challenged Zug Island, to form a shitty brown triangle of eddying water current that also reads as a thatch of pubic hair, is another nice element.

Many statistics can be and have been compiled to represent the ebb and tide of various flows -- of capital, of population, jobs, home occupancy rates, etc. -- on Detroit, patterns of what these days free-marketers call "creative destruction." Stupor limns what it feels like to be left floundering in the wake of that process.

Click here to listen to an interview with Steve Hughes on the "Washed in Dirt" issue of Stupor done in collaboration with Matthew Barney, which originally aired on public radio.


  1. what may look like floundering can also be seen as vitality. living with stunning contradictions and never giving up is love.

    -- LtD

  2. Yes, Perhaps the last sentence should be modified. Dogged persistence in the face of calamity. I'm reminded of the Lou Reed song from the "New York" album: "It takes a busload of faith to get by."

  3. One of the best reviews of this long-time 'zine I have read. More people should know Hughes' writing. He keeps trucking along, just like his characters- searching for some truth in the lives and city around him, and letting us, his readers, in on that revelation and universality of life's struggle.

    Thanks for highlighting this again here.

  4. Been wanting to write about Steve for a long time. He's a way cool guy and getting to know him is one of the major kicks of being co-Kresge fellows.

  5. for a second I was like WHOA, carducci is writing about someone other than scott hocking, corine vermuelen, or the design 99 people. then I realized this was all about steve hughes, another member of his beloved little insular cadre of 30-something white hipster artists clinging to the edge of hamtramck. can't wait to hear what you have to say about your colleague graem whyte, vince!

  6. Actually I wouldn't mind doing something on Graem. He's working on an interesting project titled Squash House. FYI, I'm writing about these folks because I see them as part of a specific scene that I am interested in right now. This is connected to the notion of what I have termed the art of the commons and how Mitch and Gina and others you term 30-something white hipster artists are working on things that have significance related to the intersection of politics and culture at a key moment in the evolution of postmodern capitalism. My blog reflects my research, which I am doing as part of a PhD dissertation project. I don't apologize for that. Clement Greenberg wrote about the Abstract Expressionist and didn't concern himself with other things happening around him that weren't relevant to that discussion. The same is true for Donald Kuspit and Neoexpressionism, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and Gerhard Richter, etc. It's the kind of thing critics do. If I were on staff at the Metro Times or the Freep or something, I might feel more impetus to spread the coverage around. That said, I have taken notes for the show at the historical museum on the Detroit Artists Market. I would also like to do something on the current show at N'namdi. That's primarily because I see them as important to developing this larger idea mentioned above. I do this on my own time as I am able. My suggestion for those who think other things should be covered is to start their own blog and do it. I would also suggest that if you want to have a conversation, come out of the closet and identify yourself. I am happy to have a dialog.

  7. "This blog was created to help bring art being made in the Motor City to a larger audience."

    I won't presume to tell you who you should write about, I was merely expressing shock at the idea that you might be "helping to bring art being made by" someone ELSE in the motor city for once "to a larger audience."

    Frankly, I'd like to know what you think about some of the art being made in this city that ISN'T part of the perfectly nice but kind of circle-jerky environment spawned by Design 99/Public Pool (Steve Hughes and Corine Smith both had shows at Design 99, which turned into Public Pool which featured Scott Hocking and hosted readings by Steve Hughes, and so on). What we're seeing from you here isn't so much criticism as sycophantic praise.

    Calling out an academic who purports to share the art of the Motor City with the world at large while focusing only on the work of a highly insular group of white people who actually represent a very small part of the art being made in the Motor City? That's also the kind of thing critics do.

    A lot has changed in the last 2-3 years in Detroit. There's a lot of incredible new work. Including art made by African American people. Maybe you're just too out of touch to know about it?

    I like it here "in the closet." Rid yourself of the anonymous option if you'd prefer to shut me up.

    1. Right to the point. Needs to be said

  8. Also, the Squash House has to be the dumbest fucking idea I've heard in a long time. Maybe there's still a chance for me to get Mr. Cope to help me build a polo field in Brightmoor?

  9. In case you hadn't noticed, I've written quite a bit about Tyree Guyton who isn't 30-something or white, though I can't vouch for whether he is a hipster artist. I'd also like to do something on Olayami Dabls. I have the anonymous option on because I believe you don't have to log in to use it. As far as how you interpret my mission statement, I am writing about art being made in Detroit and it is getting a bigger audience, whether you think I'm covering a broad enough range of it or not. Again, I would encourage you to start your own blog. Then you can cover all of those things you think I'm missing.

  10. Tyree Guyton! Well color me impressed. Wherever did you discover him? Now there's an artist from Detroit who needs MORE exposure. Also, you're right, he is BLACK!

    I have a black friend, too, Vince! I met him at D'Mongoes!

    Face it man, part of the reason Design 99 and its spawn are "getting a bigger audience" is because people like you and Nancy Barr and the New York Times are comfortable with them because they look just like you. Even better, they know how to speak your jerkoff art school language. I guess whatever praise-filled piece you're working on about them will be added to the heap of praised-filled Times articles and everything else.

    So much for art criticism.