Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse": Mitch Cope at Popps Packing

Mitch Cope, Scrap-a-House, 2014. Archival ink jet print. (All images by Mitch Cope; courtesy of the artist.)
Artist and curator Mitch Cope is perhaps best known as one half, along with architect Gina Reichert of Design 99, a collaborative project situated at the intersection of art and design, whose work in the Detroit neighborhood known as Bangaltown has garnered international attention. Working with materials gathered as part of Design 99's neighborhood interventions, Cope has mounted a show of his own at Popps Packing that reflects upon the work he has been doing with Reichert over the past few years. And where the many projects of Design 99 focus on the ameliorative potential of design, i.e., the way in which it can be employed to solve a variety of problems, here Copes focuses more on the expressive aspects of art.

The exhibition consists of seven large-scale black-and-white photographs originally shot on 35mm negatives and digitally transferred.There are also two installation pieces, one of which included a video done under the auspices of Design 99.The photographs document the stockpiles of refuse that litter the neighborhood in which Cope and Reichert work and the installations use some of that material in their construction. The photographs assiduously document every bit of refuse appearing within the frame in the manner of an archeologist taking inventory of every shard of material culture uncovered at a dig site. (Example: Eddy's Pile, 2014: "1 shopping cart with vacuum parts, various Jeep car parts, 1 kid's push car, 3 black sofas, 1 cushy chair, 1 stool, 1 dresser, 2 baby mattresses, 1 playpen, assorted garbage, boys and girls clothing, various plastic bins, paperwork, miscellaneous VHS tapes, several yogurt cups, 1 TV.") The installations works are equally precise in their documenting of their components.
Steve's Pile, 2014. Archival ink jet print.
A conspicuous aspect of the photographs are the apparitions that appear above the junk in each. They evoke the spirits of long lost civilizations or perhaps the more recent traces of paranormal ectoplasm etched into Victorian-era photographs. In essence, they're avatars of the extinguished collective memories of the wasted lives that have been cast into the abyss, along with their dis-possessions, as part of capital's insatiable need for profit that for the better part of five decades has wreaked devastation on Detroit. One particularly haunting image is Ottoman, 2014, a lone piece of furniture sitting in the middle of the street at night with a faint ghost image in the background. The image is gritty with white spots scattered across the surface dropping out photographic detail, reminding me of the photographs Yosuke Yamahata took the day after the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, which registered the lingering presence of nuclear radiation in their reticulated emulsion. (Yamahata later died of cancer, likely from radiation poisoning.) Here the fallout is economic not military but palpable nonetheless.

The installations seemingly focus more directly on the physical artifact. Scrap-a-House Totem, 2014, set five interlocking shopping carts on end, reaching up to the ceiling, atop of which sat a charred recliner and a rocker held in place with a ratchet strap. The installation of a wing back chair set on linoleum flooring and truck tire for Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011, was actually constructed so as to provide a perch from which to view a 20-minute video documenting the retrieval of castoff mattresses from around the neighborhood and their installation on a dead pine tree spike in an exercise of repurposing the refuse of life into the refuge of art. 

In both instances, the reference to the totem is formal, a description of the stacking procedure. And yet at the same time it gestures toward a mythopoetic understanding of the totem that, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (who also gave us the useful concept of bricolage*) suggests, might serve to help make comprehensible the disconnect between the natural and the social worlds.  In this case, what one might see as the disconnect is the failed promise of the profit motive, the so-called invisible hand, and its ruinous effects as witnessed on the ground in Banglatown and elsewhere in Detroit.

Design 99, Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011. (5-minute excerpt of a 20-minute video.)

* The practice of bricolage by the avant-garde in the form of Cubist collage and the Dadaist readymade predates by several decades Levi-Strauss's use of the term in his 1962 book The Savage Mind. But Levi-Strauss's use of it in contrast to the concept of  the Engineer, in describing the difference between traditional practice and modern scientific thought, brought it into the lexicon of cultural studies where it has been retroactively applied.

"Mitchell Cope: Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse" is on view until Saturday March 27, 2014, at Popp's Packing, 12138 St. Aubin, Hamtramck.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Creative Class Rises Again

When first published in 2002, The Rise of the Creative Class quickly established its author Richard Florida as an urban policy and business management guru. The Rise of the Creative Class heralded the emergence of a new class of worker who promised to lead the economy, and along with it the rest of society, to unprecedented levels of prosperity. The creative class, according to Florida, included scientists, engineers, artists, designers, media producers, and others whose primary function is "to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content." They are abetted in this endeavor by a whole host of high-level information workers—doctors, lawyers, accountants, educators, and the like—who draw upon complex bodies of knowledge to solve difficult problems that require high degrees of autonomy. To mark a decade of influence, the book was re-released in 2012 in a substantially updated version, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, now out in paperback.

Based on statistical modeling of US Census information, demographic surveys, and economic data, Florida's theory holds that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of creative class workers tend to outperform other areas not so well endowed. Specifically, Florida's research zeros in on what he terms the "three T's" of economic development: technology, talent, and tolerance. The last indicator is based on the presence of so-called bohemians—musicians, writers, designers, and other arty types—and gays in a community. Together the three T's comprise the "creativity index" that measures a region's economic potential as a result of its supply of "creative capital."

The creative class thesis soon became the rationale behind a number of urban redevelopment projects, particularly in the Midwest where cities that were once paragons of America's productive might have struggled to find a place in the postindustrial economy. Municipal officials, corporate CEOs, foundation staff, and other policy wonks embraced the concept, citing Florida in their efforts to promote arts and culture districts and otherwise jump start their local creative economies. One such example was former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's 2003 Cool Cities initiative aimed at providing grants and other resources to the Rust Belt cities of Flint, Saginaw, and Detroit in hopes of bringing them back from near extinction.

As much as the book had its adherents among policymakers, it equally had its detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives decried the valorization of bohemian and "alternative" lifestyles while liberals denounced the apparent glossing over of the thorny issues of rising inequality and race. More academic readers questioned Florida's argument for its lack of precision it defining the composition of the creative class meaningfully and for his research methodology. Florida spends a good part of The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited responding to his critics.

Florida asserts that for the most part experience has borne him out. The regions he predicted to do well generally have done so even factoring in the financial upheavals of 2008. He further finds applicability of the creative class thesis in the global context as well. He leaves out any direct discussion of the critique by economist Ann Markusen whose competing concept of "creative placemaking" is more modest in its claims and seems to be more solidly grounded empirically. (Click here to download Markusen's white paper on creative placemaking written in collaboration with Ann Gadwa for the National Endowment for the Arts.) Although it should be acknowledged that the significance of place does factor highly in Florida's analysis but in a broader context. One area he does pay more attention to is inequality, adding a new section at the end devoted to the topic. However, even there he notes that he originally wanted a chapter on inequality in the earlier edition of the book but was dissuaded from it by his publisher who told him that the manuscript was already too long.

Florida has leveraged the creative class concept into big league consulting and punditry. His clients include Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, BMW, and Philips. He is in demand around the world as a speaker and is now a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine where he co-founded and edits The Atlantic Cities website. This is America, after all, where turning nothing into money is a time-honored tradition, so he can't be faulted for cashing in. Still, there is cause to circumspect about it all.

Florida's theory is actually a pretty grand thesis. And I'm convinced that most of those who claim to have adopted it, actually haven't read it or at least have misunderstood it. A big problem is that they don't seem to recognize what Florida freely acknowledges about statistical research, namely that correlation does not imply causation. In this case the presence of the creative class (a fuzzy concept to be sure) in a metropolitan area is associated with economic growth but may not in fact be the root cause of it. There may be what statisticians term intervening variables at work. Many proponents seem to have just picked up the "creative" buzzwords and run with them, often to perdition. By the same token, the critics likely haven't read Florida either; they're really criticizing the use the other people who haven't read him have made of his work.

In a nutshell, Florida is one-upping Karl Marx, casting the creative class as the rightful inheritors of the fruits of the Earth. The creative class is distinct from the service class, who occupy low level McJobs with virtually no upside potential, and the working class, whose prospects have been and continue to be in decline. Like Marx's proletariat, the creative class is currently a class in itself—a class having a common relation to the means of production—in need of evolving the collective consciousness of a class for itself—a class organized in pursuit of its own interests.

To help them accomplish that mission, Florida sets forth a "Creative Compact," a new and improved New Deal akin yet ostensibly superior to the social compact of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s that led to the last golden age of broadly experienced prosperity. Florida's compact calls for the "creatification" of everyone in order to unleash their greatest potential. This is achieved essentially by doing a lot of the things the old New Deal and its subsequent iterations portended to do, such as broadening access to educational opportunity, promoting diversity, strengthening the social safety net, reviving cities, etc., only more so.

The Creative Class, Revisited cites a lot of social science literature as part of its argument (Weber and Durkheim in addition to Marx, Mark Granovetter, Daniel Bell, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and others), but there's a big sociological question being left on the table, specifically the question of agency. Sociologically, agency is the capacity to act, individually or collectively, in accordance with one's will. It is typically juxtaposed to structure, the social patterns and institutions (i.e., customs, ideologies, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) that constrain that capacity. In Marx, structure is the capitalist system, which ties the capacity to act to one's position in relation to the means of production. Both capitalist and worker are constrained in different ways with different potential outcomes by the relentless drive for profit.

At several points in The Creative Class, Revisited, Florida references Fordism, the economic and social system of standardized industrial production, named for Henry Ford, that engendered broadly shared prosperity for a good part of the twentieth century. Fordism, in Florida's telling, was "dumb growth," growth that presumed more and more material output as de facto the best marker of prosperity. Fordism was a key driver of productivity in the Organizational Age, the age of large hierarchical bureaucracies and the conformist identities that were necessary to keep the system going. But that system neglected to account for such externalities as sustainability and personal self-actualization. For Florida, the death knell of the Fordist/Organizational Age was the Great Recession of 2008.

The creative economy by contrast is supposedly smart growth; what we lack is the proper metric by which to assess it. The Creativity Index is Florida's attempt to develop such a metric, which in addition to productivity takes into consideration happiness and well-being. (How it does that is unclear. Is having a high presence of bohemians and gays in one's community necessarily correlative to increased happiness and well-being?) But other than general references to globalization and the role of information within it, the structure under which the creative economy operates is left unstated.

In truth there have been a number of attempts to define the current structure going back several decades. Among the earliest is Michel Aglietta's theory of capitalist regulation, first published in France in 1976. Regulation theory is part of a broader analysis of contemporary capitalism gathered under the rubrics post-Fordism and neoliberalism. Prominent researchers include Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey, the Italian autonomists, and others too numerous to mention here. This structure indeed contrasts to the Fordist/Organizational regime in many of the ways Florida describes but it maintains relationships of power he doesn't examine.

The creative class is crucial to the post-Fordist system, but its agency within that structure is something many researchers would question. McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto, for example, similarly casts what Florida terms creatives (Wark calls them hackers) as a class in itself but counterposes it to a "vectoralist" class, a reconstituted capitalist elite so named for their control over the nodes and networks of information and thus capital flows. One of the vectoralist's primary tools for separating hacker-creatives from the fruits of their labor is the regime of intellectual property that induces producers to sign away their copyrights, patents, and trademarks for a fraction of their true value.

Then there's the case of the prosumer, the mash-up of producer and consumer roles under Web 2.0 whereby users of social media such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the like entertain themselves and their friends by creating and sharing content for free while being sold to advertisers for a profit that accrues to vectoralists like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey, and their venture capitalist partners.

Finally, there's what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello term "the new spirit of capitalism," an economic and ideological order under which we get to work for little or no pay in return for the privilege of self-expression in the manner of the Romantic artist starving in the garret. (For an excellent critique of the business mantra "Do what you love; love what you do," see the essay "In the Name of Love" by Miya Tokumitsu in Jacobin.)

And all of this is as much potentially subject to outsourcing to lower-cost production zones in lesser-developed parts of the world as Fordist manufacturing jobs have been, as many members of the creative class have discovered as of late, much to their chagrin.

To his credit, Florida takes note of the precarious nature of creative class work. He calls for more security and greater equity at several points in the book and the Creative Compact is his blueprint for getting there. He expresses hope for the potential of a broadly shared prosperity with the concluding statement that "every single human is creative." Even the notion of the creative class as a class in need of developing a collective consciousness as a class for itself hints at the specter that haunts The Creative Class, Revisited, the specter of the commonwealth that continues to elude us.