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.