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.