12.20.2011

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!

12.12.2011

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.

12.05.2011

Diego Rivera’s murals rethought


On the occasion of the US Social Forum, taken place in Detroit in the summer 2010, political commentator Thomas Ponniah
 wrote a story on the famous Rivera mural’s. He introduced the beautiful works as follows: “The murals illustrate the dignity of the worker in relation to the history of technology - from its origins in agriculture to the factory floor of a Ford auto plant. The most intriguing aspect of the murals lies hidden within the outline of a gigantic stamping press on the South Wall: the press intimates a resemblance to the Aztec deity Coatlicue - the goddess of creation and destruction. Through the image Rivera suggests that in the 1930s the deity revealed herself, in all of her contradictions, as technology. The murals present us with the latter’s dual nature - factories and smokestacks, passenger planes and war planes, vaccines and poison gas - implying that technical progress always offers us the choice between self-immolation or an increase in human flourishing.”

After some alinea’s on the events taking place at the USSF [slogan: Another world is possible. Another USA is necessary] he sums up the social forum. Great workshops, many interesting meetings, no conrete outcomes. Than he gets to an interesting question: What would a contemporary Diego Rivera paint if invited by Ford? Not being sure of the answer himself he suggests self representation.

Self representation than would serve as a strategy to be an individual, to be more than a mere number in the 99 percent, to be existing, to be seen. That might also explain the popularity in the States for storytelling on the crisis. For example see the work of filmers Sílvia Leindecker and Michael Fox who made the documentary film Crossing the American Crises.

I don’t know why storytelling like this is so popular. Would it be because the culture of the USA is not all about cozily getting together and being a society, but more on individually pursuing your goals? Would it be because public space is merely non-existent, something you quickly pass through in order to get your destination? It struck me that many more people here than back home do walk their dogs with an iPod in their ears… Talking about the capsular society.

It might be precisely for that reason that the Occupy movement, and its’ predecessors in Wisconsin and Madison, touched an open vein in this country. Now people were getting together, they were talking, they were meeting eachother as individuals. Naturally a lot was and will be said on the Occupy Movement, but one thing cannot be forgotten: people met.

Here in Detroit – where the word Occupy has a bizarre idea to it – two events happening tomorrow might be illustrative to that idea. On the occasion of December 6th “Occupy Our Homes" two events take place in Detroit. Two families struggling to keep on living in their homes, threatened to be foreclosed, will hopefully receive mass attention. And than?

Perhaps in this country with its’ cynicism towards all things political it might just be that storyteling is a way to get a political message through. I suppose we all do remember the sixties slogan that ‘all is political’. Back than a certain narrative, and a certain political vision, accompanied the storytelling – what that vision would be today, or tomorrow, still seems unclear. So to end this post: I’d suggest Riviera to paint the dignity of the worker in relation to the networks of globalized finance. From its’ origins in ancient times to this era of hypercapitalism. Orisha God Coatlicue will give way to Ogun, cleaning the roads. That picture should be symbolizing the before mentioned battle between self-immolation or an increase in human flourishing.

12.04.2011

Flames Favorite Music & Things




Aarrgghh. Treasures in this town are so easy to find. Yesterday was the special Noel shopping day and night in what people here lik to call Mid Town, an upcoming part in town that had to do away with its’ old name of Cass Corridor because that reminds too many of the not so beautiful last twenty years. The organizing body for the Noel Day
Midtown Detroit’s University Cultural Center put quite some energy in having the market succeed.

And it did. The streets were busting with people. Not so common here, as you’d imagined by now. When I spoke to someone waiting at the take away Chinese later on that eve, he just said: “Wow, to see people on the street. That made me think of years gone by. And you don’t know half how happy it made me seeing our pavements all used for what they are intended for: walking people.” So I suppose the day was a success.


But as you all know that in days of success you happen to have those very special moments. The uber success. While following one of the Detroit’s marching bands performing on the street I passed yet another second hand store on Hancock Street. Now there’s plenty more of second hand shops, be it for clothing, for house materials, or for records. This one looked liked it was for clothing, but they did have some records in there as well. So, logically, I stepped in. Then it turned out they didn’t have a few records, they had a dollar dungeon filled with the best sorted jazz and soul collection I’d seen here.

Owner Jim and employee Lerrol took their time for a little talk. They explained me the shop wasn’t the main income for Jim, however the parttime job has to provide for Lerrol. That the shop wasn’t that known in Detroit itself [whereas the record shops in Hamtramck are heralded all over the local media], but that they do attract visitors all the way down from Japan and Germany and England. The 45’s collection of Northern Soul is well worth that visit apparently. But what struck me most and really took the guys in for me was that they weren’t doing the selling for themselves; profits are all donated to an invisible group in town: the retarded. Once a year Jim told me, they even do organise an outdoor concert where local bands donate their time for a over enthusiastic audience. An audience which also climbs the stage to perform themselves. And so Jim said “We have had blind singers climbing the stage. We have had tough cases shining all over when singing on stage.” Now stories like these are exactly why Detroit is in my heart. It has nothing to do with the upcoming Cork nor Midtowns – it has to do with regular people taking care of eachother. Sharing life. Sharing stories. If only all could be so simple.

And that it is not that simple always is proven in the stories of the Detroit blogger
John Carlisle. His book 313 is by far the most insightful book on Detroit bottom up that I have read. No stories on government, no stories on companies, no none of that. John went out to meet some of the special characters living in this town, listening to their stories, and then writing them down in a tender way. It made me laugh a lot as well.

12.02.2011

Hipster


One of the words popping up when talkin about the changes in Detroit is hipster. Like mentioned in an earlier post it has something to do with gentrification, it has something to do with outsiders coming in, and it has a lot to do with economical perspectives hipsters apparently do have, whereas others don’t. After diving into the history of the word, it turned out Normain Mailer dubbed the term. Check his classic essay The White Negro here.

But the word has more contemporary connotations as shows this Guardian quote:
"It seemed to revolve around the desire to reproduce as rebellion these things that had formerly been part of the mainstream market," says Greif, citing the art-gallery porn by the likes of Richard Kern and the conspicuous consumption of meat while in the company of vegetarians as two examples. "There's this idea that they are the agents of change, the true revolutionaries, where the revolutionary change is to . . . make exclusive the pleasures that had potentially belonged to anyone in the past, to celebrate the upwards redistribution of wealth. Not all hipsters arrive in the big cities flush with cash, but they almost always possess some cultural capital, usually a university degree and refined upbringing. They can use this to prevent themselves from ending up on the bottom of the pile, even if their only means of upward mobility are snarky putdowns and a working knowledge of the Smiths.“ End of quote, since who listens to the Smiths these days?

Now the lines above point towards a definition but as it goes with words, another pops up just round the corner. So it seems. Since the possible definitions and explanations given at a conference, yes you read that right, a conference, on hipsterdom aren’t the most scientific proof. The conversations do however make you
smile.

So there is hate against hipsters, which seems to be the ultimately hipster thing. Since who has time to worry about words like these, except for me and the cafe latte soja milk sucking hipsters themselves? Or as somebody remarks in a rather silly video on that big web:"If you like the eighties so much, than just get back, and die of aids."

Now that indeed is not very friendly, so to something a little lightlier:
Naturally the name can also be transformed to a title dripping off with heavy drops of self irony. The blog Look at that Hipster even developed their own clothing. Shop here. I guess for me the most upsetting in the discussion on hipsters is the focus on the ever present and everlasting now. As if we don't live our live in a society that has been scarred by the past. So, lack of political, or for that matter historical, knowledge just pisses me off. It could be my prejudice but when i think of hipsters I do not think of kids knowing of bands performing befroe the Smiths...That might have been triggered by the first article I read that mentioned the word hipster, which was published by the loving title “Hipster: the death end to Western civilisation”. The first line of that article just sums it up: We've reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum.

“Supersonic D. Artists in Detroit now”


Was the title of an evening organised by the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art [FMCA] of the Detroit Arts Institute [DIA] last November. Now that the meme in the press of the United States on Detroit is changing from ‘that disaster city’ to ‘that city where all is possible’ it was to be expected that words like supersonic and even Mecca would show up one day or another. As far as I can see this was one of the most blatant examples: “What is it like to make art in Detroit now that the city has become an international mecca for artists, curators, and critics? Hear directly from native Detroiters and newcomers at the heart of this transformation as they discuss challenges and delights they have encountered.”

After the welcoming words by Becky Hart, curator at the DIA, and Allan Nachman, director of the board of FMCA, four artists working in, or coming from Detroit were given the floor for short presentations of their work. Afterwards a discussion and Q&A would follow, one in which the ‘renaissance’ and the ‘celebration of what is happening’ were to be the central topics. The four artists however had not planned at only playing out that card. To Marie Hermann, Richard Lewis, Veronika Scott and John Egner, Detroit was many things, but not yet a haven for artists. Hermann recalled her reasons for moving here: 1. Cheapness, 2. Thereby offering the possibility to spend many hours of real work in her studio, 3. Space in town and 4. the extremely helpful surroundings. Lewis was a bit more blunt. He had moved from Detroit to New York to return to Detroit in 2002. Because, as he mentioned, he is “out of sync with the art world and never feels out of place in Detroit.” Scott on the other hand is a Detroiter of the newest generation and did live to up the moment, calling her Detroit pride something that helped her in making the first steps in her career. Egner who while presenting his works in a beautifully orchestrated amateuristic way remarked “he just did want to talk about himself” had trouble believing in the latest renaissance, as “artists did save many neighbourhood, but I don’t know if they are able to save Detroit.” The most painful remark of the evening was by him as well. When asked why then all the artists were coming over to Detroit, he answered: “it’s the hopelesness artists thrive on.”

For some information on the artists see links below:
Marie Hermann

Richard Lewis

Veronika Scott

John Egner

11.17.2011

One more on baseball, well, starting from baseball


Having written that post on the Detroit Tigers and their claim to fame this season one cannot write about the other side to that story. For in this town all stories do have a flipside. For every story on succes there are stories on loss and pain. Newcomers in town, ‘transplants’ in the local language, are heralded by most and scoffed at by others. Investments in town are welcomed by business peeps and are laughed at by those who like Detroit as it is: a breeding ground for urban experiments. What both groups share is a certain neglect for what was here before. As an European from a museum-alized city [in the sense that we cherish our medieval city centre so much] it is surprising at the least to see that neglect in mainstream media. Because when reading on baseball in town it took some time to find mentions on the Negro Leaugue stadium in Hamtramck.

For the Europeans: As playing in the Major League baseball clubs was forbidden during the de facto apartheid years in US history African Americans organized their own baseball competition. That period started to end with Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League baseball in 1947. Many claim this moment to be one of the contributing moments to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement.

As most countries the United States doesn’t have a culture of raising monuments for the ashaming aspects of their history. But when a baseball park as Roesink Stadium in Hamtramck does still exist, the European culture of maintaining its’ past would surely have propelled that stadium into being a musuem before a long time. Here in Detroit that discussion is just starting. Local historian and baseball fan Gary Gillette dove into the history and local authorities received him to hear the story.

“What would be the benefit?”, was one of the questions during the session with local government in 2010. Like having a historical piece in itself couldn’t be a benefit. But well, as one of the few Negro League stadiums remaining, it surely will atract tourists and “that preserving the stadium would generate national media interest, propelling Hamtramck into the national spotlight.”

Now with such recommendations one supposes it would be a matter of time for the stadium to be on lists for historical preservation, for a small renovation on the stands, and bam to be launched into that national attention. But now, one and a half year later the stadium is a neglected as it was last decades. Serving as a symbol of both neglect for African American history and of the poor economical situation of this city and its’ surroundings. Just this week the mayor delivered a speech Detroit had to be cutting yet another 10 percent on personnel budgets. National media report on the ‘Great Recession’ the US of A is in and Time Magazine ran a coverstory on “Can you still move up in America?” and one doesn’t have to be a great mind to guess what’s the answer.

With foreign commentators writing about Obama finally understanding that building bridges in the divided political landscape that is Washington will not benefit him, but that focusing on and charging at the ‘fat cats’ who got richer and richer over the last decades might do that, the picture emerges: This country is coming to a point understanding the American Dream is destroying more than it builds up.

To some there’s nothing new in that. But to many it seems a new thought. An idea that opens new roads, with directions towards unknown places called equality or sharing. Directions towards a new American dream? Now, that would be something revolutionairy indeed.