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.


  1. well, that chopper sculpture has alot of finely machined details. my only question is: where is the fricken fuel tank to make that bitch run like a stabbed rat for more than 50 miles.


    btw: another timely critique. thanks again for adding to the list of handy pocket-pool trend labels. "postindustrail arcadia" is useful and makes me smile.

  2. The gas tank is behind the seat, doubling as the rear tire mud flap. It's a pretty decent size, though not as big as the stock Harley model.

  3. "Who OWNS the future?"
    seems to be that ownership is what got us into this mess that populated Harrison Twp. To be neither spit out nor swallowed by dominant culture is a survival game -- or choose a side and die on the battlefield for what you believe.

    -- LtD

  4. Ownership as in "Ownership Society," certainly. "Societal ownership" may be an alternative, though that's yet to be demonstrated in modern experience. Negotiating between sides has its own risks.

  5. religion and art - forms the past. society drives for the next. physics is now! blog that or did your wheels fall off? ha ha "&publisher"...

  6. Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer,