2 August 2012

Author Mike Stubbs

A state of collapse

I've wanted to go to Detroit since listening to Motown, fawning over American cars, dancing to techno and most recently watching Roger Graefs documentary Requiem for Detroit on Channel 4. Graef's film is poetic and beautifullly crafted, melding history, art and people through archive and contemporary inteviews, projected onto the surfaces of the crumbling city buildings. All of this was true to my own discoveries during my trip to Detroit this week. I saw committed people rebuilding the city through guerilla gardening, squatting in heritage buildings, idiosycratic initiatives including a 90 year old speakeasy next to a community synagogue and weird public artworks.  

My phone is full of photos of oplulent palaces and vast discarded warehouses, teetering on their foundations with few windows - this forms of part of a photographic phenenema known as 'dereliction porn'. Detroit fulfills an image of the American Empire in a state of collapse. The home of Henry Ford who invented the production line, was a major contributor to the war effort and also commissioned Diego Rivera to paint two vast murals in the incredible Detroit Institute of Art (TIA) is in itself a curious take on man's place in nature.

A rich culture

My invitation to Detroit was extended by ArtServe Michigan, a department of the Kresge Foundation (Kresge founded Walmart).  Cezanne Charles (who formerly ran New Media Scotland) had put together a panel titled Curating Now which was hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Along with Rebeca Hart, Associate Curator of Art at DIA; Kitty Anderson, Curator at The Common Guild Glasgow; Bashak Seonva, Curator 53rd Turkish Pavillion, Venice; Alison Glass, Broad Museum, Lansing and Gunulan Nadarajan, Artistic Director, ISEA 2008, Singapore and recently appointed Dean of Art and Design, Michigan University, Ann Arbour.  

Our presentations and discussions were attended by the Kresge Fellows (ten mixed career artists who recieve a $25,000 stipend).  Although all our presentations varied in geographic and institutional contexts - we all shared a similar interests such as diversifying audiences, working with political contexts, taking risks, having meaningful relationships directly with artists and finding new forms of engagement.  

The curatorial discussion was of a high quality and particularly relevant as DIA is currently under threat with a bankrupt city looking to sell off parts of the collection. We covered themes of the relevance of the museum, preserving new media, strategies of engagement and class and incusion. However, the real discussion was about the future of the city and its people. An abandonded city centre, an afro-american population at 88% and the biggest single muslim suburb in the US.

We also shared trips to various other institutions and events: a brilliant junior patron scheme CSA at the Red Bull House of Art, Gunas new place of work, the Ford Museum (home of the presedential Limos  - including Kennedy's and the only remaining Dynaxion House by Buckminster Fuller)  which was also hosting an extensive Makers Fair, Eddison and Elenor Ford Museum, Cranbook Art Museum and Museum of Modern Art Detroit, partner in the Mike Kelley House which Laura Sillars (previously Head of Programme at FACT) worked on during her Clore Internship.

The richness of history and cultural offers feeds directly into a body of research I've been undertaking titled Time and Motion Study (more on this soon). As an avid petrol head and new media curator, the combination of colliding histories of mechanisation, modernsim, massive production, cars, art and design was incredible. The accumulated wealth is still tangible not only in the artwork collected and commissioned, but in the richness of public buildings and private dwelllings. The city of Ann Arbour is home to America's experimental film festival and Cranbrook Institute Museum is a fine testimony to the Arts and Crafts Movement (I was given the privilege of visiting the vaults there and discovered a superb Bridget Riley).

The future

Yet these palaces and galleries are of a different time, and today's Detroit is trying to find a future as it recovers from mass evacuation and unemployment following the financial crisis and collapse of the car industry.

We shared many conversations during the visit and it's a complex situation. One camp wanting to protect and prop up the failing infrastructure and buildings, and another calling for the bulldozers to move in. It's a post-industrial story we know well in Liverpool and Glasgow - but perhaps not on this scale - and one that marks the latter part of the 20th century's journey from utopianism, a land of milk and honey and dream cars to one of economic collapse and dystopia.