Review Detroit, USA: Material, Site, Narrative

by Greg Ruffing, 09-12-12

photo credit: Erin Toale

…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Meanwhile, many of the representational issues surrounding the Detroit, USA exhibition are somewhat well-known territory by now: thru whatever chain of events, Detroit has come to occupy a very specific symbol in the current American narrative — that is to say, at a time of prolonged Recession-related financial hardship and uncertainty nationwide, Detroit has reluctantly become a modern poster child for economic malaise.

To be sure, there is something colossal about the historical narrative unfolding in Detroit, one which bears certain lessons and/or cautionary tales for other cities/states/nations: a result of decades of deindustrialization, suburban sprawl, white flight, housing discrimination, drugs and violence, political corruption, and more. What was once the 4th largest city (population nearly 2 million) in the U.S. at the height of its industrial prowess, Detroit has shrunk to a current population estimated around only 700,000, leaving in its wake nearly 90,000 vacant lots and 32,000 abandoned homes across the city.

However, even the imagery conjured up by those numbers falls short in its representational abilities, instead highlighting a certain discrepancy between how Detroit is portrayed by the media vs. outsiders vs. visitors vs. residents — a dynamic that frankly plays out in economically marginalized areas all across the Rust Belt. As a former resident of Cleveland I can definitely identify with many Detroiters’ sensitivity on this topic, as I’m sure people from Pittsburgh or Youngstown or Buffalo could as well — Detroit, however, being the most slippery of slopes, at least some of which has to do with the overwrought and blatantly dismissive term “ruin porn”, which goes some distance towards summing up the gaggles of outside photographers (many of them amateurs or non-artists emboldened by technological advances in digital photography) from far-off places who have flocked to Detroit to capture and disseminate images of its decay. Much of that imagery more or less achieves nothing, only confirming our preconceived assumptions about the condition of Detroit, or, at its very worst, embodies what Susan Sontag called “the predatory side of photography.”

Pushing against that context though is where artists (and an exhibition like Detroit, USA) can transform the topic and its discussion. In embarking on a further investigation and a more localized, committed investment in the subject over a long period of time, these works reveal the deeper narrative of Detroit — numerous stories that challenge the perception of Detroit as a dying urban wasteland. Stories of diligent and civically-engaged residents who have chosen to stay in the city and build a greater future there; residents who seize the city’s current conditions as an opportunity to redefine their sense of community and to realize and experiment in alternative ways of living: re-imagining public spaces, farming the land, creating dynamic art, and more.

The Detroit, USA exhibition reinforces and emboldens those localized voices by focusing on works by Detroit artists and designers, in combination with ephemera from the city’s archive collections and field work done by select SAIC students. Taken as a whole, the exhibition presents a variety of artistic perspectives as they intersect with Detroit’s social and cultural fabric, natural environment, and built infrastructure — prompting insightful explorations of the city. Further, the show collectively builds a compelling narrative about the joint efforts of nearby artists in responding to and working from the current conditions of Detroit, where the urban environment serves as subject, canvas, studio, and more.

For example, artist Catie Newell, founder of Alibi Studio in Detroit, creates site-specific projects (presented here through photographic documentation framed in a bold array of sliced metal) that investigate textures and materials; In Weatherizing, she experiments with material in a way that ultimately conflates interior and exterior space, particularly aided by how her arrangements transfer light.

from the Weatherizing project
© Catie Newell

Scott Hocking, a Detroit native and long-time resident, similarly utilizes found materials while focused on dual notions of site and relics. His work is no doubt influenced by abandonment and ruin — but only as a source and not as an end point. His mixture of straight photography with site-specific installations and sculptures explores deep inside the city’s crumpled buildings, illuminated in vivid detail by an almost serialized approach to his photography. Further, there is also a tangible sense of mythology in his physical sculptural arrangements, asking questions about forgotten places and their specific histories.

© Scott Hocking

Elsewhere, Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch transplant to Detroit in 2006, brings a photographic approach relying heavily (though not exclusively) on portraiture to center on the inhabitants of Detroit, revealing a sense of place thru the faces and experiences of its residents.

Ika and her son Malik, 2010
from the series Your Town Tomorrow
© Corine Vermeulen

Vermeulen’s photographs add to the vision of Detroit as a city in transition, with an eye towards what the city’s future could be — or, as her series title Your Town Tomorrow implies, even the future of other cities, especially those dealing with similar post-industrial realities. Its that final point which makes an earnest and thorough understanding of Detroit so imperative: if the city represents some visualized historical concept, surely there are aspects that future historians will not include if viewed thru the prism of rose-colored, jingoistic nostalgia. At times it seems the U.S. psyche has developed an peculiarly selective memory about its own national narrative, and perhaps a notion of Detroit as profound illustration of the potential dangers in American-style capitalism may prove a bitter pill to swallow. For indeed, the importance of Detroit’s overall story of Detroit could prove to be heavily about the future — and again, as Vermeulen’s Your Town Tomorrow insinuates, on the one hand the common perception of Detroit today encapsulates our collective fears about the future. However, on the other hand, that title could just as easily come to refer to a decidedly positive and transformative future, perhaps a yet-to-be-seen renaissance of economy, community, and way of life.

Detroit, USA: Material, Site, Narrative
ongoing thru 5 January 2013
artists’ reception Friday 14 September, 4:30-7:00pm
Sullivan Galleries
33 S. State St., 7th floor, Chicago