Creative scrappers

In exactly two weeks we are scheduled to be on an airplane headed to The Netherlands. Back home. Like always, that is the exact moment when questions are finding some answers and our minds are calming down and start to process experiences. For quite some time, it was hard to find mental space to actually create something that was not mostly 'therapeutic'. (Spend some time in your own head) Maybe because all seems so similar to the things you know, yet are so different when you observe them up close. Now that we are accustomed with a lot of the new things and are staying in one place, there is space to process.

The weeks we have left, we are trying to visit as many openings and studios as possible. Because the question remains: what is the difference between artists from Detroit and The Netherlands? What could it be that makes Detroit a special place for art? We are far from done asking questions, however for now it seems that it can be attributed to a combination of elements.

One of those elements is the presence of an overwhelming amount of waste. That the U.S. is famous for its consumer culture and massive amounts of trash is not a cliché. That is a horrible fact. The giant waste mountains along the Mississippi were not something I would like to live next to, and our porch squirrel is wearing a tight belt of torn plastic bag.

There is also a positive side to it: The recycling of waste plays an important role in the production of art. Besides the normal bulk of consumer waste products (bottles, cans, plastic bags, etcetera), there are also lots of objects dumped and left behind on the streets. The accessibility of all these free and interesting shapes is visible in the art made in Detroit. Recycling is not only for the rough sculptor: a lot of high quality materials can be picked up of the streets. Our own chicken coop project is made almost entirely out of recycled products. An old heater from the neighbors basement, found wood, a broken TV satellite that we bought from the owner of the Polish bar, parts of a fence, electrical wire, three ironing boards and lots of old bicycle tires.

Yesterday we visited the studio of an art and design collective called ThingThing. They rent an impressive old factory hall in which they are experimenting with recycled plastic. After digging around in piles of waste plastic searching for the right type and color, after washing and shredding, it is given a new life as sculpture or design object. Most of the times you think of recycling plastic, is sound like someone is into readymades. The interesting thing of the methods of ThingThing is that they reduce the plastic to a raw material and then, using experimental, self made machines, process this raw material into strange objects. Hard to describe, so here are the things they make: www.thingthing.com

Another artist we visited, a printmaker, collected objects that had lost their meaning and use. Such as telephone poles, to present her prints around, with and on. In the Netherlands, these kind of objects are removed as soon as they have lost their function. In Detroit, they are left to rust or be picked up by an artist or scrapper.

The ultimate example of recycling that we loved and would definitely want to visit again is the City Museum of St. Louis. Starting out exhibiting decorative pieces of architecture from demolished buildings with a playground area, it grew and grew into a crazy cave system where you can crawl through. The materialization of hyperactive overexcitement. Guaranteed to turn any adult into a six year old. It is a very elaborate collection of recycled objects (planes, school busses, machinery, crates, bridges, trees, pools...) all welded together to create a maze going underground and through the air. It seemed that this 'museum' was not bound to any rules, any inspections regarding the safety of these installations. (Just as the city itself seemed to be bound to no rules concerning their radioactive waste mountains next to residential areas) While climbing over a rusty object suspended 15 meters in the air on one chain, it even got us slightly worried, imagine that there are hundreds of people crawling through these tunnels every day! In the Netherlands, the use of even slightly rusty recycled stuff for a public playground would never be allowed. The artists that worked on it had total freedom in a city that doesn't control or check these kinds of enterprises. It seems cool and dangerous at the same time.

Another example of recycling is found in downtown Detroit. The Michigan Theatre, formerly used as, not surprisingly, a theatre, has been recycled into a parking garage. Most of the inside was ripped out en replaced by a concrete structure. But the decorative ceilings, upper balconies and ticket booth remained. A reminder of the history of the building and a very epic environment to perform an act of daily life in. 'High-art parking'


Back in the D

After three weeks of driving around, exploring some more of the States, we came 'home' to Detroit. Strangely, it feels like a relief. All the experiences and people we met whilst driving from north to south and back up had filled our heads to a point where we just couldn't take in any more information. Our journey went from Detroit to Chicago, then all the way down to New Orleans, crossing St. Louis, Memphis, Natchez, Baton Rouge. Heading north we visited Nashville, Cincinnati and Toledo. Because we didn't take the interstate, only small roads, we've seen numerous small cities and villages. Comparing all of these places to Detroit, is seems that this city differs quite a lot from other American cities. This trip certainly wasn't recreational, more like a submersion into American culture.

Driving into any town on our way, we were confronted with an overwhelming amount of multinationals that were selling cheap crap. The actual city would lie in the middle of this desert of consumerism. For us scavengers it offered Internet (thank you Mac Donalds) and free restrooms and camping (thank you Wallmart). Entering Detroit, there are no streets filled with these multinationals. Apparently it is not profitable for them to be here.

The more southern we drove, it got warmer and warmer and that just makes life so much easier when your house is a car. We met a lot of so called 'Snowbirds'. These people are seasonal travelers who move in winter and summer to escape extreme weather. And this is where the Detroit - New Orleans connection first appeared to us. (A lot of snowbirds moved between Detroit and New Orleans) Both cities are a good place to be as an artist. Houses not to expensive, a lot of other creative people around, a liberal way of living, in some way free to do as you please. Cities with a spirit, but also with a lot of poverty, racism, violence, crime, pollution, disasters both man made and natural. A big difference is that New Orleans attracts a lot of tourism, the French Quarter at night is one big party town. That kind of thing would be hard to find in Detroit. New Orleans attracts quite some artists, however their artwork is not always welcome. One mural is a good example of a site specific artwork missing the point. A german artist was commissioned by a landowner to paint a mural on one of his properties in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. The artist depicted a handsome white man playing the blues in front of a half collapsed house. In his painting he suggested a kind of romance in poverty and ruined houses. The reaction from the people living there was, as to be expected, not a positive one. Some even tried to destroy the mural, so the owner built a large fence around it. For us this case pointed out that it is a delicate operation to make a site specific artwork in city with complicated issues such as racism, gentrification, poverty etcetera. 

During our three weeks outside Detroit, we searched for good site specific artwork. Partially because of the relation to our own art practice and interests. Moreover, in our opinion it is the only way to make a meaningful artwork make sense: make relations to this specific place visible. Especially when you are an artist in residence in a city like Detroit or New Orleans. In Chicago we saw numerous examples of perfectly placed artwork. On the roof of the Institute of Art, there stood a large sculpture made by Ursula von Rydingsvard. It's surface wet with morning dew, with a backdrop of skyscrapers in the mist. I was deeply impressed and can only hope to achieve something like that one day myself. On the other hand you could also state that it is rather easy to make something look like it could have been there for thousands of years, in an art temple designed to make artwork look impressive. Or in the park next to the museum, where other famous artists had placed gigantic site specific sculptures. In these kinds of environments you don't have to deal with social issues, they don't even exist. Thinking of it, in most of the exhibition spaces in the Netherlands, social issues also don't exist. 

Here in Detroit, these social issues are hard to ignore. It makes me feel weird because normally i'm not the artist to address specific social issues in my work. I stopped that after graduating. It became hard to keep a positive outlook on life when submerging myself in all that was going wrong with the world. Maybe that explains why we found all these angry, disappointed people while traveling. Scared of ISIS, scared of the Mexicans, scared of terrorists, scared of their neighbors, scared of other people having a gun. We asked them if the answer to their fear really was having more guns. As of now we are confused about if people are scared and own guns for a reason, or that they are scared because of the news and a government that needs war for its economy. This country has the potential to turn us formal artists into political activists. 


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.