House of art

This coming friday we leave Popps Packing. It's been a month now that we have stayed in this artist in residence and it got us thinking about the significance of the house as an art project.

I shall begin to describe our experience in Popps, that is where it began for us. Faina and Graem, Detroit artists and partners, have bought this meatpacking facility around nine years ago. They transformed it into a lot of things: a home, a gallery, a studio, a workshop, a guest house, a garden, a community cultural centre. This setup enables them and the residents to integrate art into daily life. It would have been totally different to stay for a month in some rented room. More secluded, the experience more into ' thinking' then into 'doing'. For us it feels good that we can do something. Building this chicken coop for Popps is our way of saying thanks and also a way to burn excess energy and 'construction building emotions'. I don't think either of us would be able to only observe, talk and write for a month.

But Faina and Graem are not the only ones transforming their home into a place for art. We have seen numerous examples, in all different disciplines, of people feeling the need to host some kind of cultural function. Do they tend to a need of 'the public' for a communal space? Do they want to create more cultural connections within their neighborhood? Or do they just want to make the house 'look nicer' and tend to their own need of expressing themselves?

One example of personal expression is Hamtramck Disneyland. It was built by an older gentleman who at some point started to paint on objects and placed them in his backyard. It grew and grew into this crazy installation with all kinds of texts that he wrote on it. Reading them, it gave me the idea that this fellow was dealing with some kind of personal struggle and thus retreated to happy shapes and colors connected to childhood. However, that's just my interpretation, the creator has passed away now. Most important is, that it started as this personal initiative. But when the installation began growing into the ally, it became known and is now a public attraction.

Another often seen example in all different sizes and shapes, is a public cultural space of which the outside is decorated in relation to its function. One totally engulfing its environment like an advertisement gone berserk, is The African Bead Museum. Imagine Catharina Grosse doing one of her spray paint pieces on a Detroit house. That would be twice the same thing: demolishing the house with her gesture even more. Although the artist who created his Bead Museum also covered a house with his art, he did it in a totally different way. More like a renovation, lovingly covering all of it with his art, making it more that just a decoration. A long process instead of a swift gesture. Though visiting it a second time, we would like to recommend him to keep going! It's not enough yet to be truly conquering. 

He started out decorating his house with paintings and mirrors. Receiving no protest from anyone, he proceeded covering everything around the first house, including the remains of a burned down building. The first time we visited it at night. The enormous amount of mirrors reflected the city lights, the rest were dark mysterious shapes. It reminded me of ancient african rituals, but then combined with this urban thing; strange and attractive. During the day, the artist who created all this over the course of years, sells and shows african beads. So the outside might have a personal expressive nature, it does tell you something about what happens inside and the cultural function of the house.

Again, there are numerous examples, to many to write about now, but here is one more.
In Hamtramck there are some houses with special names. The idea of these 'special houses' came from artist couple Mitch and Gina who felt that what their neighborhood needed was to be able to come together. They commissioned artists from Detroit to come up with a plan to transform and old abandoned house into a public artwork in which a certain activity could take place. This is still a major work in process. So there is or will be things like a public art library, a music house and stage for theatre and music events, and the one that we visited: the squash house. Squash is explained here as both the plant and the sport. The house, once domestic property that partially went up in flames and was abandoned, is being rebuilt into an indoor squash hall (and other related sports) and a greenhouse where squash can be produced. This house is becoming a work of art, but in contrast to other examples, not with rich decorations. All shapes are both functional as sculptural. The results that we have seen so far holds a promise of being impressive when finished.

This thought: the house as a sculpture, is something to bring with us to the Netherlands. It intrigues us. It is a form of art which is not exclusive. You can walk by it, see it any time, use it, without having to pay a ticket or walk into this 'temple for art'. These house are a part of the street, in contrast to a white gallery space which could be located anywhere, these houses are extremely specific. Also they have a public function, which means they actively invite all people to come in. These art houses integrate in their environment instead of being a lonely and closed art planet somewhere, anywhere.


Lessons in bureaucracy

It took some effort to get behind the computer to write this week. For two reasons:
1: Time is passing fast it seems and there is always more to see and more interesting people to meet. We are still on bikes and this city is big!
2: In the time between other activities we are behind the computer already. But not writing or reading interesting stuff. Instead we are searching, calling and getting more and more frustrated.

Last week we wrote about the artist as an entrepreneur. And about how great it must be to have a large building here. We received some enthusiastic reactions from Dutch people. Not surprising, it does sound great. In the land of endless opportunity however, things are not always like they seem.

(We have been discussing of what would be the effect of more people buying property here that are not from Detroit. Yes it's very cheap compared to the Netherlands. Most of the property is sold in auction. Think of Berlin for example or NDSM. It was all built up and started up by locals, artists and other creative people, who had no money but a lot of energy. Now prices have gone up with the growing demand, and spaces have become unaffordable, especially for the local community. Fast increase of the value of land could be devastating for the community that already lives here. On the other hand, what artists can do here, could be a boost and a contribution to the community. But we are going to write about that later)

If you are struggling with more urgent, daily problems, talking about 'gentrification' can come across as trying to be a smart ass. What concerns most people that we meet casually is how they are being fucked by 'the system'. We got a little taste of that this week. We are frustrated because we want to drive a car. It seemed so simple: buy a cheap car, insure it, get it registered in your name and drive away! I don't want to discuss all the ins and outs now, but I can tell you that this is NOT POSSIBLE. At least not in Michigan which has the most outrageous insurance rates (think of 10 x dutch rates) and most complex regulation of all states for foreign drivers. All those happy roadtrippers must have been smart enough to not start their trip in Michigan. We have spend this week sitting in offices hearing only 'I'm sorry sugar, but that won't be possible'. To be honest, we are experiencing luxury problems. And on the other hand it has given us some insight in how this system works, how hard it must be when you actually live here and have to deal with this crazy bureaucratic system when you want something like a house, a car or hit a rough patch.

We heard more then once of people that had bought a house in Detroit. The city just continuously reclined their requests for water for years. So live without water or even plumbing and ask your neighbor to fill that jerrycan. That is how you get things done around here. I think it is good that we dived into the less nice department. Having thrown the phone around the room and saying not so nice words to insurance people this past week, (warning, cliché coming) it made me realize how privileged we are in the Netherlands. Yes paperwork is horrible in any country, it might even be the definition of paperwork, but consider this next story.

Yesterday, being very grumpy after another day wasted behind the computer, not seeing anything of the world outside, we decided to go to a bar and have a lot of drinks. Our new american friends decided to bring us to a somewhat strange party that was called ' FIX MY FACE'. Arriving at the bar it turned out to be a fundraiser for medical expenses. A local fashion model got badly injured when a part of a house collapsed on top of her. She survived (and was hosting the party in a neck-brace) but the damage done to her face made it impossible to start working as a model any time soon. So she lost her income and her medical expenses went through the roof. Asking around, most young people told us that they only got insured recently because of Obama-care and they had been really lucky nothing had happened to them. Otherwise their future would have been filled with medical bills they would not be able to pay for. It seemed so absurd that, if you have an accident, it takes selling vodka, tattoo vouchers and half-naked pictures of yourself in a bar, to pay to have teeth again. All this information, soaked in a pool of beer, was whirling around in our heads: insurance, uninsured people hitting insured people with cars, market driven prices, adding second drivers, paperwork, collapsing houses, government, liability, no-fault, credit cards...blurp blrufg.. pf..


Entrepreneurs and credits for America

Having been in Detroit a bit longer now, we cycle around with some confidence. No need to bring a map any longer, that's good. We meet artists at parties and on openings, open studio days etc. and we simply ask them 'Can we visit you in your studio sometime this week?' When visiting artists it seemed that the hypothesis or questions we brought with us were setting us on the wrong track.

Hypothesis 1: The empty realestate of Detroit has a lot of potential for the artist. The Detroit artist seases this change and uses old buildings for exhibiting art in some Pop-up format.

Hypothesis 2: With his/her first tries in exhibiting in old gritty buildings the artist notices that this is a lot different that exhibiting in a white cube. It brings other challenges with it.
Question 1: Do these challenges force the artist to develop his/her art in a different (more site-specific) way? Is the exhibition therefore more site-specific?

Question 2: Is there a direct relation between the challenging nature of old (industrial) buildings and a movement towards site-specific art?

I think you can read that these hypotheses and questions show what we wished to find here, but it might have been that we were thinking a little to deep. The first hypothesis however sort of got an answer to it.

Some days ago we visited a collage artist who bought the houses next to his to keep them from being squatted over and over again by prostitutes, junkies and other folk you'd rather not have living next to you. He now has space enough to house his family, host other artists and have a nice, spacious studio. Faina and Graem of Popps Packing bought their meatpacking factory ten years ago and transformed it into a functioning creative work/living space where on openingnights the whole artist communitiy seems to gather. Today we saw a large group of artist that started a studio building right next to the recycling centre, so they would have the first pick of all recycled materials (to build art cars and robots and other crazy shit of: MUD and recycling centre). Next week we're going to visit a yough artist of only 30 years old that has bought an intire factory on his own, lives there and rents out studiospaces to other artists. On top of that: this week we've been to the opening of a solo exhibition of an artist that has bought a huge factory with his friends, just for his graduation show! 

Artists seem to be entrepreneurs here, which makes sense giving the fact that there are not many functioning galleries and if you would want to show your work to the world, you'll have to put in some effort of your own. It's realtively very cheap to buy a building and responsabilities on the appearance of the building are way less severe as they are in the Netherlands. If I would be a Detroit artist, I would have a factory right now. The thought of being a houseowner feels absurd, yet tempting.

So +1 point for America in the direction of actually being the greatest country of the world.


First impressions

Arriving in a snow covered Detroit felt strange. The beauty of the snow, the white patches where no one has yet walked and you can be the one to make the first footsteps. Driving from the airport to Popps Packing, (the artist in residency were we are staying), we've seen vacant houses, as expected, but here in Hamtramck we've also seen al lot of busy shops with huge piles of fruit and vegetables. Shops with car parts, shops with telephone parts, shops where you can get fabulous hair and so on. On our first day we were told that here in Hamtramck, a small city inside of Detroit, there is a large Arab community, aswell as comunities from Poland and Yemen.

We make walks around the neighbourhood every day. Some area's seem more like forests than like a huge city that was once crowded with people. Big trees grow through houses and over the road. The smaller roads are not sprayed with salt like the main streets, so cars that pass through drive slow. Other walkers slip and slide along and we are greeted by them with a ' How are you doin'. It feels like a village.

Having fixed up some bikes covering greater distances is now a possiblity aswell. A picture that everyone must have seen is the big Detroit central station: one of the cities most famous ruins. Which turned out to be not a ruin anymore! Surrounded by high fences and some tourists, the station looked surprisingly new... Not one broken window, no graffiti... Doing some online investigation, it turned out the city of Detroit invested a huge amount of money to have the station fixed up. New exterior, electricity, gas and water, but no new use for this building. It seems strange to renovate a building that is not going the have a function in the near future other than being a touristic attraction. But then why fix it up when tourists are there to see decay?

When walking, the two big black dogs that live at Popp's Packing, come along. They enjoy the walks and to us they provide a sense of security. A person with bad intentions such as robbing us, would think twice to try and defy these tough looking animals. (And me and Jop also looking pretty tough ourselves, ofcourse.) These were some of my first thoughts. All these stories about Detroit being one big Hood, and friends warning us 'not to get stabbed' made us feel alert when walking. In real life walking (note: at daytime) here feels really relaxing. The sun shines on the snow, there are squirrels and trees, it's really quiet and peacefull.

At night though there are some places where I would rather not be at that time of day. A lot of dark corners, beggars and confused folk come out. I guess these are the spots where, as someone put it nicely: 'You just don't wanna be the stupid tourist wandering around at night, on your own, with a big camera around your neck...'

 Talking to some people that live here, they express to us that things are changing. Things are  'getting better.'  Some local artists were sad that the raves they held in the downtown skyscrapers were no longer possible because of new investers and activities. Must have been cool.

And here's a critical, alternative Detroit news website, quite interesting to read: Motorcity Muckraker

More stories coming soon. 


Message from Cecilia & Jop

“We are Cecilia Rebergen and Jop Vissers Vorstenbosch, two Utrecht based visual artists. The past year and a half we have studied the case of Detroit behind our computers. We have found it hard to grasp the complexity of the situation in Detroit through documentaries and articles; and believing that seeing with your own eyes is still the best way to unravel a place complexity, we booked a ticket.
Here in the Netherlands we are developing practices of the making and showing art in 'alternative spaces'. Both in our own way, we seek modes of producing site-specific works of art and discover alternatives for the arbitrariness of the white cube gallery.
In Detroit we hope to encounter new ways of dealing with this question and register all different methods and hierarchies existing in the Detroit exhibition culture.
The first month we are artists in residents at Popp's Packing located in Hamtramck, a neighbourhood north of Detroit’s centre. This will be our home base from which we'll start our experience. After this month, we have two left in which we will travel the Detroit area in a purpose-bought bus. In drawing, photographing, interviewing and writing we'll try to link our experiences to our artistic practice.

From the first of March 'till the end of May you can read weekly about our findings on this blog.


A preliminary last note

Q: So, now that you are leaving tomorrow, was the residency worth your time?
A: My time, yes. Maybe you remember I arrived with two notions in my mind to dive in deeper here. One being the idea of ‘hope’, as expressed by many political thinkers around the globe as a possible answer to the political hegemony of the neoliberal right. That idea of hope is than opposing the vast presence of Fukuyama’s idea of the End of Ideology. With most governments in the West paying tribute to the notion no other arrangement for society is possible anymore than the economic neo liberal one we live in, hope in itself is becoming an oppositional idea. One scholar who wrote nicely about these matters is Stephen Duncombe, check here.

Q: Nice, but what about the second notion?
A: Let me finish on the first one, please, as I wasn’t finished formulating. I think my time here showed me many people in this time are trying to find a way for themselves to be living, to make a living without falling in the traps of that neoliberal economic trend. It is not that a new formula for living together came out yet, but people are trying rather than merely consuming. As I wrote somewhere: the American Dream turned into the American Nightmare here in Detroit and people don’t buy into that shitty story anymore. That could be a first step to working out a new Dream, one in which solidarity, localities and an end to consumerism are main features. Surely, if you look at Detroit and the changes it undergoes nothing is yet stable for future – some here even think Detroit did not yet hit rock bottom - but the sparks one sees are promising.

Q: Big words my friends…
A: Perhaps, but being the political thinker I am, these are little sparks of hope I will take home and keep on lingering about. Now to get your second notion. That one was inspired by a great book by a Canadian journalist, Doug Saunders, who wrote a book by the name of ‘Arrival City’, in which he investigates the way cities are changed by newcomers coming into town. As you probbly know most migrants move into neighbourhoods where they know people already. Saunders arguments that these migrant communities are the motor for cities, are the bastions for change in the towns they arrive. At a meeting in February last year he even convinced the audience, including me, the Arab Spring started by those newcomers in Cairo. They have been living in some parts of ton and have been making their way up in economical and political spheres. Untill they found out there is this glass ceiling. In order to break that glass the complete system of privileges and ingrown corruption had to be changed. Hence their wish for a complete overthrow of the Mubarak regime.

Q: Again you are using some big words here..
A: Yes, I agree, but the story also reveals to me, that personal stories, when combined, do make for big narratives. And having spend just two months in this town all I actually did do was collecting personal stories, some from today, some from the past, some for the future. So in order to find a common denominator for my experiences here I came up with two notions that were in the back of my mind already.

Q: Does that mean you were really working with a plan here?
A: To say that would be a lie. I struggled with the idea of being in town where so much is happening at the same time and actually being unable to contribute to one of those changes, that for a moment I wondered about the idea of residencies in general. But whilst looking back now there are plenty of new ideas that came into my mind. One of the most predominant being the idea of representation of towns. The ruin porn Detroit is associated with is a great example. The mediatised image of Detroit is – for many outsiders – just that: decay. But one can find completely other images here. So I took to some theories on photograpy, finding Susan Sontag’s ‘On photography’ a great treat again. Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ was a great introduction to the way the USA is represented in pictures, whereas jacob Holdt’s work also gave some socio-political input. I guess I will be using some of the pictures I took in Detroit – not completely ruin porn free, see here as nails to hang some stories on.

Q: So photograpy came in, any other things you would like to share here?
A: Well, having been a curator for many public debates on urban planning and having been sent out by Expodium to dive deeper into the urban dillema’s of Detroit I tried to dig up some stories on urban planning in the USA and most notably on that part of the American phenomenon people call suburbanization. But a lot of reading on that matter is awaiting me. I do know however that the notion of the capsular society will play a big role in whatever I come up with. Raging from gated communities via the American lovestory with their cars to the way people plug their headphones in when walking their dog. It seemed to me public sphere in the USA is smaller than I expected and that the car and the life style connnected with cars has a lot to do wit hit.

Q: Well, again those are big ideas, didn’t you do think or do some ‘normal’ stuff?
A: Hell I did. For the first time in my life I saw a roller derby, I dove into the classic soul and rock sounds of Detroit, and I to be honest I also semi-wasted some of my time on seeing some American movies I had never seen before. On topics I had never considered to be my topics for this residency, but here they seemed relevant. So I saw some movies on the Civil War, on slavetrade and the slavery system. And surely did I do some drinking and eating with new found friends here.

Q: Ah, that was a word I was waiting for – friends.
A: I know, you are as sentinemtal a bastard as I am. So I will affirm you, yes, friends. As Detroit gets under your skin, so do people, no? And I met some real nice people here, friends that were interested in me being me, rather in me the resident. I hope they will remain people I am in contact with, for friend stuff and for commenting on the stories I put out afterwards on this residency here.

Q: You don’t ask the questions, I do. So what are your plans for the follow up of this residency?
A: Well, first of all my girlfriend, who came over to visit me here, and me will spend some days in New York. Than we cross the big pond where it is still holiday season. That offers some time for additional reflections on my time here. Than – as I mentioned – I hope to do something with pictures, something with the found ‘scientific’ ideas on what happened here, and combining all that with personal impressions. In the meantime some institutions here and back home are already thinking of some follow up to things I helped put into motion, as a movie series followed with open discussions.

Maybe even the idea of reframing public space as I tried to do with putting some Loesje posters could be one of the things in future. And there’s plenty more, but you’ll read about it on this blog in due time.

Q: Ah, becasue it is continueing?
A: Oh, yes. See you here again, but for now: Happy Holidays!


On this artist in residency

My landlord, kind Bridget, stepped in today asking me ‘whether all is allright?’ for me being so silent in the appartment above hers. On my confirming answer ‘yes, quietly sitting here, trying to read all there is to be read’ she said ‘OK, just checking’. But there is a little more to it, of course. The way the residency here is shaping out for me, I do wonder what is the result from this residency for Detroit. I suppose the answer is simple: Not a lot for Detroit.

As you are aware of the enormous pile of publications on this town and the various methods to observing, participating, changing this town I need not extent on that. But being me, not a producing artist, rather a thinker and connector, I thrive in circumstances where I am able to make a differerence. Here in Detroit, I don’t have the feeling a residency of this kind, two months without being introduced properly at beforehand, enables me to make that difference. Confronted with the wide array of people active already here nobody needs yet another artist in residence reflecting on Detroit and the turning of the American dream into the American nightmare. But still I am here and doing just that.

So yes I did dive in the enormous amount of stories here. From bloggers writing about Detroit’s history, to books about the new 21st century Detroit, to the mountain of slightly neglected African American contributions in shaping this town and country, to books about city planning, to the great reservoir of music connected to Detroit, to the experiences of other residential artists. And let me assure you, there is a lot of great findings there.

But still, I wonder on the added value of artist in residency programs in this town. For a number of reasons: 1. So much happens here already, what could an outsider possibly add? 2. Living in a town, Utrecht, which is almost an antidote to Detroit, my pack of artistic experiences doesn’t fit the short timed situation I am in right now. 3. Exploiting Detroit is a real danger awaiting all residents just ‘round the corner – and if there is one thing I don’t want to do in life, it is exploiting other people’s dire circumstances. 4. As long as no Detroiters comment on Utrecht, why would Utrechters comment on Detroit? 5. Lacking the artists’ need to express myself being convinced the world needs my view, I’d rather pull back in the reflective mood I apparently am in.

Let me tell you a anecdote. In Utrecht we have a neighbourhood called Overvecht. It is a neighbourhood known for not being the best neighbourhood in town. It turned out to be a playground for artists. Some doing their own work, some pulling out the so called community art card. And without willing to play into the hands of those critizing the funded art world, who were always lacking at the art openings in that neighbourhood: exactly, the regular habitants of the neighbourhood. A municipal survey conducted in 2008 found out the incredible number of 217 art project were in process in that single neighbourhood. But did it make any difference for the actual residents? Wouldn’t they benefit more from some investments in the livelihood of their flats and streets?

So what is my actual contribution to Detroit? I can tell some stories on life in the Netherlands, on my experiences in life in general, those at the Balkans in particular, but I suppose that is it. I chose the vehicle of movies to do so – showing some European movies at a local art centre with an introduction by me. An introduction that doesn’t necessarily touch on Detroit, but actually might. The evenings are nice, the food and thoughts provided for by me well appreciated, the crowds not enormous. And, logically, the crowds are those of the insiders already. For the bigger part people I have met during this artist in residency already. Flyering at universities, in some bars and shops, don’t attract the people that are not already in these circles already.
So to public space than. In the Netherlands we know the phenomenon of Loesje. I thought one of my small contributions to this town should be putting out some of that posters here. Just making people smile on their way in town. Not an enormous contribution in the light of eternity, no. But a small contribution indeed.

At the same time I think a lot on the presentation back home. I produced enough material, stories, thoughts, images, I collected a lot of books, music, images I could fill the Expodium art space on all walls with three layers. Now that will be nice for me. That will be nice for Expodium. That will be nice for the visiting crowd. But will the people of Detroit benefit? Perhaps only if the presentation brings some unexpected angles to it. So for the moment I am more than occupied in musing on those angles.